Predicting Which Players Make the 2019 NBA All-Star Game

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 25, 2018

Predicting Which Players Make the 2019 NBA All-Star Game

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    Voting for the 2019 NBA All-Star Game is officially open—assuming, of course, you're reading this after 11 a.m. ET on Dec. 25. The winning starters, including team captains, will drop on Jan. 24, while the reserves get their big reveal on Jan. 31.

    Luckily, we don't have to wait that long to get the lowdown. The power of guesstimating allows us to peer into the future with what we know—OK fine: with what we hope—will be near-perfect accuracy.

    Forecasting the All-Star pool remains an imprecise science. Somewhat limiting the importance of conference affiliation has ascribed more merit to the process, but selections are still vulnerable to subjectivity.

    Fans, players and media members have the power to skew the starters' results, and coaches, who view the game differently from most armchair analysts, always seem to be good for a surprise reserve pick or three.

    Our stab at predicting this year's crew will attempt to account for that inexactness. This is not one person's opinion or a group consensus on who should make the cut. It seeks to choose who's most likely to get the All-Star nod based on the selection process. The assumption will be that fans, players and media get the starters right, but hairs will be split on the reserve front.

    Snubs are inevitable. Don't write off the jilted just yet. Players are being picked relative to their performance so far. Fringe candidates have another few weeks to finagle their way up the totem pole.

The Voting Process

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    As a refresher, here's the process by which All-Star picks and rosters will be made:

    • The five starters from each conference will be chosen by the fans, media and players.
    • Fans account for 50 percent of the vote. Current players and selected media members count for 25 percent apiece.
    • Starter ballots will include two backcourt players and three frontcourt players.
    • Head coaches will choose seven reserves from the East and seven reserves from the West.
    • The All-Star starter from each conference who receives the most fan votes will be named a team captain.
    • Like last year, these captains will build their teams from the crop of selected starters and reserves without regard for conference affiliation.

    This exercise will not predict the actual teams. That's best left for when the player pool is set in stone. We care only about the 12 players from each conference who will be in Charlotte for the Feb. 17 defense-optional exhibition.

East Captain: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 26.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.4 blocks, 58.3 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 28.2 player efficiency rating (PER), 194.69 total points added (TPA), 4.65 real plus-minus (RPM)

    Career All-Star Selections: 2

    That's Capitan Giannis Antetokounmpo, to you.

    This shouldn't be too much of a question. Antetokounmpo has everything going for him to start this process. His Milwaukee Bucks are really good, he's a media darling, and he trailed only LeBron James in the Eastern Conference fan vote last year. 

    With the King in Hollywood, Antetokounmpo's reign can begin in an official capacity. His only rivals are Kyrie Irving's brand and Kawhi Leonard, who should enjoy a nice fan-vote boon from a Toronto market that hopes he'll stick around beyond this season. (Related: Imagine Fun-Guy Kawhi having to draft his team on live television!)

    Antetokounmpo also has the benefit of, you know, deserving this seat at the big kid's table. 

    A busted jumper gives him one of the league's most predictable shot profiles. Defenses know where he's going. Almost two-thirds of his looks are coming within five feet of the basket. He's hitting 76.0 percent of those attempts anyway—second-best mark among almost 100 players taking at least four shots per game from that range.

    Milwaukee's five-out model under head coach Mike Budenholzer helps, but Antetokounmpo's gait is just as responsible. He needs roughly one dribble to go the length of the floor. Realer talk: He's shooting 65.3 percent on drives, which is first among 140 players who've tried at least 100 total attacks.

    If Antetokounmpo's efficient scoring doesn't sway you, everything else about his game should. He's averaging career highs in rebounds and assists, and his forever arms and endless energy are crucial to the Bucks' top-five defense.

East Backcourt Starter: Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

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    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 22.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.5 blocks, 48.4 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 24.4 PER142.56 TPA, 5.54 RPM 

    Career All-Star Selections: 5

    Gordon Hayward is back, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are a year older, Marcus Morris is shooting the lights out, and yet, somehow, Kyrie Irving has become more integral to the Boston Celtics' survival than he was last season.

    He's averaging fewer points per game, but that's no surprise. The Celtics have more weapons at their disposal, and his assist rate has climbed. The offense's utter dependence on him is the real shocker.

    Boston is scoring a team-high 14.7 points more per 100 possessions with Irving on the floor. Up-and-down play from Brown, Hayward, Al Horford and Terry Rozier hasn't helped. Nor has Horford's recent left knee injury or Brown's previous lower-back issue. 

    Still: Daaamn. 

    This trend shows little sign of turning anytime soon. Boston is first in offensive efficiency since November's three-game losing streak but continues to see its output per 100 possessions plummet by 16.4 points without Irving. That his own shooting percentages haven't taken a nosedive amid this stark reliance is a minor miracle—and a testament to his ability to hit tough shots. He belongs here.

East Backcourt Starter: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 14.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 9.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.5 blocks, 43.3 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 18.4 PER, 74.07 TPA, 5.10 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 4

    Parity abounds in the Eastern Conference's backcourt pool after Kyrie Irving.

    Kemba Walker would have an airtight case if not for his recent slump. Ben Simmons always looms, but he's looking a little less superhuman at the defensive end following Robert Covington's departure. Shows of affection for Eric Bledsoe or Josh Richardson are cool, too.

    Points-per-game suckups are going to hate Kyle Lowry getting the edge. They'll need to get over it. Lowry has conceded shots in the name of cohesion—not just to unburden Kawhi Leonard's integration, but to streamline elevated roles for Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam.

    Lowry doesn't need the scoring cachet to justify a starter's position. He has supplemented shot attempts with a bunch of drive-and-finds—he would lead the league in assists per game if not for Russell Westbrook—and remains a defensive bulldog. Toronto is giving up fewer than 104 points per 100 possessions whenever he plays without Leonard, a Defensive Player of the Year hopeful once more, according to Cleaning the Glass.

    Besides, Lowry can get off shots when the situation calls for it. He busted out of his own slump with consecutive 20-point outings during a Dec. 11 and 12 back-to-back against the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, and he's averaging more than 20 points per 36 minutes when Leonard is off the court.

    Again: Lowry's selection is not ironclad based on performance alone. The voting process helps. Raptors fans are going to have his back, and plenty of media members will gravitate toward a standout from the team with the league's best record.

East Frontcourt Starter: Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 26.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.6 blocks, 49.9 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 26.4 PER, 97.90 TPA, 3.30 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 2

    Kawhi Leonard is back—all the way back.

    He began the year looking mostly comfortable on the offensive end. It took some time for his long-range accuracy to come around, but oh baby, has it come around.

    Leonard is shooting 42.4 percent from deep, including 39.4 percent on pull-up treys, since the Raptors' Nov. 29 victory over the Golden State Warriors. His production during this stretch, which has seen Kyle Lowry miss time with a thigh injury, is absolutely bonkers: 30.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.9 steals on 53.4 percent shooting. His 26.8 points per game for the season are a new career high.

    Anyone wondering whether Leonard's defensive mobility would suffer in the slightest following his year-long battle with a right quad injury can rest easy. He's as active as ever. 

    The gaps he shoots are unreal. His reads on switches are quicker than De'Aaron Fox's first step. (I already want to take that back.) Leonard ranks in the top five of both deflections and defensive loose balls recovered per game, and Toronto is deconstructing rival offenses in the time he spends with Danny Green and Pascal Siakam, per Cleaning the Glass

    Expect both Leonard's MVP and Defensive Player of the Year traction to grow over the second half of the season. Welcome back, Kawhi.

East Frontcourt Starter: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 26.4 points, 13.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.8 blocks, 48.0 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 24.8 PER, 67.99 TPA, 2.51 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 1

    Joel Embiid's offensive performance is a special brand of domination, if only because it comes in the face of inherent limitations. Playing with Ben Simmons is both a gift and constrictive. Defenses still comfortably sag off him on the perimeter, and he tends to hang out around the basket, in Embiid's territory, when he doesn't have the ball. 

    Combine this with Embiid's own spotty three-point shooting, and the Sixers' big man should have a serious problem. He doesn't.

    Crimped spacing is no match for his combination of force and craft. Embiid deleverages his shaky jumper by attacking off the arc and skirting around defenders with a disarming Eurostep.

    Anthony Davis is the only center averaging more drives, on which Embiid is shooting a stout 57.1 percent. His fluidity and footwork in the post transcend the thicket of bodies found around him. His sub-45-percent clip on the block isn't earning him any superlatives. Nor has he cured his tunnel vision. But he's better at protecting the ball, and the mere threat of his scoring keeps defenses on tilt. 

    Philly struggles to keep its composure in Embiid's absence. Opponent shot frequency at the rim increases by almost six percent and the Sixers' net rating drops by 7.6 points per 100 possessions without him on the floor. 

    Jimmy Butler has added an extra layer of star power to Philly's machine. There will be—and already have been—nights when he's the go-to option down the stretch of close games. But the Sixers remain Embiid's team.

East Backcourt Reserves

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    Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 24.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.5 blocks, 42.6 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 21.9 PER, 91.80 TPA, 3.30 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 2

    Kemba Walker has cooled off after a blistering-hot start to the season, but he is in no imminent danger of forfeiting his All-Star streak. The East is parched for big-timers, his efficiency has yet to totally implode, and the degree of difficulty embedded into his role speaks for itself.

    The Hornets have managed to feign offensive respectability in drips and drabs when Walker catches a breather, but he remains the basis for everything they do. And although head coach James Borrego makes an effort to move him around off the ball, Charlotte's other initiators aren't cut from the mold necessary to maximize his displacement. 

    Partnering Walker with Tony Parker helps alleviate the former's from-scratch tonnage, but the Hornets cannot roll out that combination in heavy doses and expect to eschew defensive cracks. They are limited by their personnel. So, too, is Walker.

    Almost half of his shots are coming as pull-up jumpers, and he accounts for more than 45 percent of the looks they've attempted in clutch situations. Given the constant stress incumbent of Walker's role, it's a wonder his numbers have not incurred more of a free fall.

         

    Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 20.2 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.4 blocks, 43.4 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 19.4 PER, 58.86 TPA, 2.38 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 1

    Victor Oladipo would have a stronger starter's argument if a right knee injury hadn't cost him almost a month of basketball. 

    Indeed, his shooting slashes are down, owed mostly to more human finishing around the rim and off pull-up jumpers. And Indy, as shown during his absence, is gradually finding its offensive identity outside of him. But the Oladipo effect is present in almost every possession.

    Even the most disciplined defenses overreact to his drives. These routine collapses clear space on the perimeter in a hurry, opening the corners for kick-outs and cuts. Defenses are similarly distressed when he's coming around picks. Attention paid to Oladipo has given way to unimpeded rolls for screen-setters. 

    His imprint is equally impactful on the defensive end. He often floats within the half-court rather than matching up with the toughest assignment. He has the speed to recover on close-outs, which frees him to go for home-run turnovers and provide help wherever necessary. 

    Oladipo's numbers might be less alien compared to last season, but his importance to Indy is exactly the same.

East Frontcourt Reserves

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    Jimmy Butler, Philadelphia 76ers

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 19.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.7 blocks, 47.7 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 21.8 PER, 75.94 TPA, 3.77 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 4

    Jimmy Butler is offering effective cover to the Sixers. He is the vessel through which they survive minutes without Joel Embiid. Ben Simmons alone never really cut it.

    Philly is outscoring opponents by 6.2 points per 100 possessions when Butler and Simmons play without Embiid, according to Cleaning the Glass. That net rating falls all the way to minus-23.5 when Simmons is by himself.

    Butler has likewise provided another crunch-time safety valve. In 27 minutes of clutch action since joining the Sixers, he has totaled 17 points and three assists on 5-of-11 shooting (5-of-6 from the foul line) while notching a team-high plus-19. Philly is shallow, and that matters. Butler's ensuring that absence of depth will hurt as little as possible.

         

    Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 25.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks, 46.9 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 20.5 PER, 98.60 TPA, 2.54 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 5

    Blake Griffin is supposed to be done making All-Star games. His contract is an albatross. He isn't a stylistic mismatch anymore. He has missed at least 15 games in each of the past four seasons. He shouldn't be a team's lifeline. 

    On and on it goes. Or rather, on and on it went. Griffin is pushing back against the notion he's no longer a first-tier star. His numbers are not just glittery. They carry substance. They're necessary.

    Detroit cannot cobble together a functional offense without him and is hanging around the East's middle-rung playoff seeds almost solely because of him. He has gone from the byproduct of athleticism and strong point guard play to the offensive hub itself—a transition he began last season and has ostensibly completed now, as SI.com's Rob Mahoney wrote:

    "According to Synergy Sports, Griffin uses possessions as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll nearly three times as often as he rolls, turning the defining sequence of his career upside-down. Now, it's Griffin in control—dictating terms, sizing up coverages, parsing when to dish and when to attack.

    "It's not unusual to see the shot distribution of a big drift outward over time, particularly for those with so extensive an injury history as Griffin. Rarely, however, do those bigs end up handling the ball more in the process. This is a clever inversion on the part of Pistons coach Dwane Casey and a complete reinvention of Griffin's game at almost 30 years old, most clearly exemplified by the fact that Griffin—who only took threes with any real frequency for the first time last season—is now launching those shots off the dribble with regularity."

    Whether Griffin's capacity to ferry an entire system holds will ultimately determine the Pistons' fate. In the meantime, so long as he stays healthy, it has sealed his. He's an All-Star.

         

    Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic 

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 20.1 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.1 blocks, 52.1 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 25.7 PER, 118.21 TPA, 5.13 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 0

    Nikola Vucevic has never wanted for neat-o stat lines. He's the lone source of consistent production Orlando has enjoyed during the post-Dwight Howard era.

    That his numbers came on obscure teams made him easy to ignore. He's harder to overlook now. The Magic are throwing a wrench in the East's hierarchy of postseason hopefuls, and Vucevic has elevated just about every part of his game—including his defense.

    As of now, he is on pace to become the seventh player to eclipse 20 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and one steal per 36 minutes with a true shooting percentage north of 55. His prospective company: Kareem-Abdul Jabbar (twice), Giannis Antetokounmpo (in progress), Charles Barkley, Anthony Davis (in progress), Kevin Garnett and Nikola Jokic. 

East Wild Cards

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    Wild Card No. 1: Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 17.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks, 41.6 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 15.5 PER, 17.99 TPA, 1.86 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 0

    Controversy is unavoidable when filling out the East's wild-card spots. Their All-Star pool is the punch-line version of the West's playoff race: Roughly 10 to 12 players could make a credible case for the final two spots. Hooray for star-power deficits!

    Khris Middleton has earned his first-ever trip to the NBA's playground. Some of his counting stats are down, but he's also playing less. His per-36 splits are in lockstep with last season's numbers.

    December has been a gut punch for his efficiency, but he's mostly upheld his end of the bargain as Milwaukee's No. 2. His shot profile is prettier—noticeably light on the long-two attempts that had become habitual. The looks he does take from that range aren't falling at their usual clips, which has also butchered his efficiency, but this shift in selection is a process. The diminished volume is more important for now.

    Plus, Middleton still finds himself in special offensive company, as has become tradition. Only four other players are clearing 20 points, four assists and two three-point makes per 36 minutes while shooting 38 percent or better from beyond the arc: Stephen Curry, Paul George, James Harden and Damian Lillard.

         

    Wild Card No. 2: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 9.2 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.8 steals, 54.5 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 21.4 PER, 113.24 TPA, 1.84 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 0

    Ben Simmons' numbers haven't moved much from his rookie—or to Utahns, fake-rookie—year. That's enough for him to sneak in here.

    Harping on his limited offensive range is tired. He was never going to develop an outside game over one offseason. His limitations make his 70-plus percent success rate around the rim that much more impressive, because defenses know where he's going. 

    Deterring Simmons' scoring is easier than slowing down Giannis Antetokounmpo, but mostly because he's a born passer. He is a master of one-handed drop-offs and no-looks to the strong side. If anything about his sophomore season is even marginally disappointing, it would be the turnovers, or that it seems his defensive comfort and versatility were more tied to Robert Covington than initially thought.

    Biggest Snub: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

    Other Snubs (in decreasing order): Josh Richardson, Miami Heat; Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics; Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets.

Western Conference Captain: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 27.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks, 51.7 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 26.5 PER, 180.53 TPA, 5.44 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 14

    Apologies to Stephen Curry...and perhaps Kevin Durant.

    LeBron James would dominate the fan vote regardless of where he calls home. Putting him in the Los Angeles market, though, is unfair to the field. He should run away with the final tally.

    Beyond that, what else can we say? LeBron is LeBron. He's the NBA's best player. Defense is optional for him even outside the friendly confines of the All-Star game, and he makes thinly veiled comments and recruiting pitches at coldly calculated times. But he's LeBron. 

    Something relatively new to fawn over: His 28 points per game are his most since 2009-10, his first final year in Cleveland. This should be absurd, and it is, but it's also explainable. 

    James' three-point-attempt rate is the highest of his career. Some might attribute the uptick to attrition. He is, after all, getting to the rim less. We shouldn't care. The step-back three has become one of his trademarks, and pulling up from distance is now a high-value play for him.

    Among every player averaging more than two off-the-dribble long-range attempts per game, James' 38.4 percent clip ranks eighth, just ahead of James Harden. All these years later, he never ceases to amaze.

West Backcourt Starter: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 29.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 49.3 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 27.0 PER, 118.13 TPA, 5.39 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 5

    Stephen Curry's 2018-19 campaign is unfolding a lot like his 2015-16 assault on offensive convention. 

    Just so we're clear, this shouldn't be a thing. That season is almost universally panned as the greatest individual offensive effort in league history. It earned Curry the NBA's only unanimous MVP victory and forced us to reconsider everything we thought we knew about acceptable (read: feasible) shot selection and the relationship between volume and efficiency.

    That performance should be peerless. At minimum, with Curry playing out an age-30 season already shortened by a groin injury, he shouldn't be the one rivaling his 27-year-old self—not when playing beside Kevin Durant, another top-five player who, by design, caps his usage. 

    But the numbers don't lie.

    In some ways, Curry is outdoing himself. His true shooting percentage (67.0) is better than it was in 2015-16 (66.9). He has never shot the ball better from beyond the arc, inside floater range or at the free-throw line. He's canning 44.3 percent of his pull-up threes, his highest mark since at least 2013-14, which is as far as NBA.com's tracking data goes back.

    Much like he did in 2015-16, Curry is threatening to own the catch-all categories. He ranks second in offensive box plus-minus, second in ESPN's offensive real plus-minus and third in NBA Math's offensive points added, the latter of which is a cumulative stat that would be much higher if he hadn't already missed 11 games.

    Nothing will beat the 2015-16 version of Curry; that player was unprecedented, both statistically and anecdotally. But this year's Curry gives that one a run for his money—which, we should note, is patently terrifying. 

West Backcourt Starter: James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    Oscar Baldizon/Getty Images

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 32.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 8.4 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.4 blocks, 44.6 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 28.4 PER, 211.09 TPA, 7.23 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 6

    James Harden's workload is, if you can believe it, at an all-time high. His 37.4 usage rate is the sixth-largest in NBA history and, like his scoring average, a personal watermark.

    This is dimensions away from ideal. Harden is set to lead the league in points per game and usage while resetting his own personal highs for a second consecutive season. The whole point of having Chris Paul is to spare him from such drastic strain.

    Neither Harden nor Houston has a choice in the matter. Paul is dealing with another hamstring injury, and the Rockets' depth is feeling the squeeze following the departures of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, who has appeared in just four games for the Los Angeles Clippers this season while recovering from a left knee injury.

    Amazingly, and inexplicably, Harden is yet again up for carrying the team through the regular season.

    The Rockets' playoff stock is still suffering from onset struggles, but they're beginning to turn a corner. They're first in offensive efficiency since the start of November, and Harden has yet to take his foot off the gas after dropping 40 points in a Nov. 11 victory over the Pacers.

    Through the 21 games Houston has played during this span, Harden is averaging 34.1 points, 8.9 assists, 2.1 steals and 11.1 free-throw attempts. And he's shooting better than 41 percent on a preposterous number of step-back threes while slashing 45.6/38.5/87.6 overall.

    If this keeps up, and if the Rockets manage to play their way back into a top-three playoff spot (possible!), Harden will re-enter that realm of MVP favorites.

West Frontcourt Starter: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 29.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.1 blocks, 50.7 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 26.4 PER, 131.89 TPA, 4.65 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 9

    Dramatics aside, Kevin Durant is having himself a season.

    Injuries to Stephen Curry and Draymond Green have forced him to assume more of the table-setting responsibilities. He's responded with a career-best assist rate. No one on the team has dropped more dimes to Curry.

    Head coach Steve Kerr has belabored the Warriors' inconsistent ball movement this season, but they're still first in points scored per 100 possessions while playing through Durant, who isn't at all worried about the team's offensive aesthetics.

    "They're selling out to stop those threes," he said, per the Mercury News' Mark Medina. "So [if] we pass the ball too much, it's not going to be flying around against a good defensive team like that. I know we want to have that ball moving and get 30 assists and 300 passes. But sometimes, it's not going to be that way.”

    There will come a time when Durant's and Golden State's contrasting philosophies warrant a broader discussion. This isn't it. (July will be.) For now, Durant has a point. The Warriors have seldom been at full strength this season—remember DeMarcus Cousins?—and aren't getting everyone's best showings.

    Klay Thompson is knocking down under 34 percent of his three-point attempts and dribbling into enough long twos to make Mark Jackson blush. Green isn't shooting well, period—or sometimes at all.

    Durant's own three-point clip has dropped, but it's on the rise. And he's still hyper-efficient in general. He's leaning on mid-range jumpers more than he has since his sophomore season, according to Cleaning the Glass, but his true shooting percentage remains above 60. More importantly, when he takes a seat, Golden State's offensive rating is nosediving by 10.6 points per 100 possessions. Not even Curry's absence is having that large of an impact. 

West Frontcourt Starter: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 28.0 points, 12.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.7 steals, 2.8 blocks, 50.0 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 29.6 PER, 208.82 TPA, 7.00 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 5

    Anthony Davis is kind of a big deal.

    The hugest deal, really.

    Pretty much everyone is quick to use the Pelicans' performance without him as a measure of his value, because, well, it works. New Orleans is 14.3 points per 100 possessions worse when he's on the bench, second on the team to only Jrue Holiday. But Davis' kitchen-sink metrics paint the best picture of his standing relative to other superstars.

    Check out his ranks across these catch-alls, both cumulative and rolling:

    • PER: 1
    • Box Plus-Minus: 4
    • TPA:2
    • RPM: 3
    • RPM Wins: 2
    • Win Shares: 1
    • Win Shares per 48 minutes: 3

    Average those pole positions together, and Davis grades out as the second- or third-best player in the league. For context, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the MVP favorite, comes in between fifth or sixth.

    This is hardly an end-all practice. But it certainly says something.

West Backcourt Reserves

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 27.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks, 45.0 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 25.0 PER, 134.30 TPA, 4.33 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 3

    Damian Lillard is left to aim for reserve selections with so many backcourt megastars in the West. And it forever put him on the verge of getting snubbed entirely. (See: 2015-16 and 2016-17.)

    That won't happen this year. Lillard is too good. He's posting career highs in scoring and true shooting percentage without an uptick in usage. His finishing around the rim is a coin toss, but he's making smarter reads in traffic and sporting mortal-Stephen-Curry touch on his pull-up jumper.

    Even with Portland's peak-and-valley act alive and well, Lillard is more All-Star shoo-in than fringe candidate.

         

    Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 20.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 2.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 42.7 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 20.5 PER, 115.20 TPA, 3.08 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 7

    Russell Westbrook's case is less about his averaging a triple-double and more about his adaptive play. His usage rate has dropped to its lowest point since 2009-10, his sophomore season. He's still good for up to a half-dozen errant and ill-advised pull-up jumpers per game, but his overall approach is no longer this resistant, overbearing cloud.

    More than 26 percent of Westbrook's made baskets are coming off assists. That doesn't seem like much, but it's the third-largest share for his career, trailing only his 2008-09 rookie season and 46-game 2013-14.

    Ceding touches to Paul George and spending more time off the ball has not transformed Westbrook's efficiency. He is, however, shooting a career high around the rim. And his defensive engagement is, dare we say, fairly consistent. He's always good for busting up passing lanes, but he's taking fewer chances and making more of a concerted effort to contest shots.

West Frontcourt Reserves

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    Zach Beeker/Getty Images

    Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 26.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.7 blocks, 45.4 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 24.1 PER, 161.35 TPA, 7.21 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 7

    Paul George is playing his way onto the fringes of the MVP discussion. Russell Westbrook is surrendering shots to him for crying out loud. And the Thunder are firmly entrenched in the West's "Best Team That Isn't The Warriors" discussion.

    George is scoring more than ever and seeing extra time as a half-court initiator (h/t Westbrook's ankle and knee injuries) without making wholesale tweaks to his style. His offense is mostly plug-and-play, mixed with just the right amount of "Hey, I'm a superhero, too" attack mode.

    Feel free to pencil him in as one of the few Defensive Player of the Year frontrunners. Oklahoma City ranks second in points allowed per 100 possessions despite missing Andre Roberson, and George is melding Jimmy Butler's suffocating one-on-one approach with more in-tune team defense. 

         

    Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 18.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.7 blocks, 48.5 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 25.5 PER, 179.90 TPA, 6.93 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 0

    Finally, and emphatically, the "Nikola Jokic isn't a real star" slants are set to fade into where they've always belonged: nothingness.

    High-volume diehards will eternally revel in his nights with single-digit field-goal attempts. Which is to say, they no longer have anything to revel in. Jokic is averaging 15.8 shots per game since his 0-of-1 disasterpiece against the Memphis Grizzlies on Nov. 7. His three-point efficiency has tailed off, but he's making up for it with a few bonus drives and more aggressive stands around the rim. Denver's offensive heart and soul still rest within him.

    Jokic's defensive improvement is finally beyond early-season disclaimers. Aspects of his value remain contingent upon Paul Millsap, who is recovering from a broken toe. But Jokic is making smarter reads around the basket and rarely mirroring Bambi on ice when dragged onto the perimeter or moving within some of Denver's more attacking pick-and-roll coverages.

    If you're in the business of building an MVP list for the non-Giannis Antetokounmpo, non-Anthony Davis, non-LeBron James division, Jokic needs to be on it.

         

    Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 20.9 points, 11.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.7 blocks, 48.3 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 21.5 PER, 84.40 TPA, 1.40 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 1

    Karl-Anthony Towns is a new player following the Butler trade. His usage rate has jumped from 24.7 to 27.4, and he's less inclined to disappear for quarters or an entire game at a time. His outside clip has dipped, but he's so nimble on his feet, both in the post and from above the break, that he doesn't need to be more than a league-average shooter—even though he's way better than that.

    The Timberwolves need more out of Towns on the less glamorous end, and they're starting to get it. Having Robert Covington and Dario Saric has enabled them to switch, albeit not as much as they probably should, and Towns is inching closer to a happy medium with more quality team defenders around him. 

    "Not only have the Wolves defensive numbers seen a positive progression, the defensive work as a group is also showing up on the tape," Zone Coverage's Dane Moore wrote. "It's Covington and Towns at the head of the snake but the other pieces are breaking the status quo as well. Namely, Saric has been a positive cog in the second step of pick-and-roll defense: the tag."

    Already one of the best offensive bigs in league history, any iteration of Towns that includes passable defensive work ethic is an all-time problem and worth keeping tabs on in the top-10-player discussion.

Western Conference Wild Cards

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Wild Card No. 1: Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 16.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.4 blocks, 43.9 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 18.2 PER, 82.90 TPA, 4.97 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 3

    Marc Gasol's recent offensive cold streak puts him on the brink of All-Star elimination. He's not there yet.

    Memphis continues to hover around the top five in points allowed per 100 possessions, as well as the Western Conference's brutal postseason race. Kyle Anderson and Jaren Jackson Jr. have helped reduce Gasol's defensive strain, but his success is not owed to simplification. He's notching career highs in steal rate and defensive rebounding percentage, and he remains a whiz at using angles and positioning to mitigate his restrictive side-to-side mobility.

    The Grizzlies offense sniffs adequacy when Gasol's on the court. He spaces the floor not only with his willingness to fire up threes, but with his passing out of the post and on face-ups. Memphis' effective field-goal percentage tumbles by 2.5 points when he's off the court—a massive drop-off for a center, according to Cleaning the Glass.

         

    Wild Card No. 2: Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 20.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.5 blocks, 42.1 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 20.8 PER, 66.64 TPA, 4.48 RPM

    Career All-Star Selections: 0

    Another Grizzly!

    Admittedly, this is the spot that should engender the most concern. Mike Conley has missed time with a hamstring injury, and plucking two All-Stars from a potential non-playoff team isn't normally the prerogative of head coaches. 

    Rudy Gobert could just as easily be here. Klay Thompson is the pick if the Warriors are going to be rewarded for being the Warriors. DeMar DeRozan is for the points-per-game enthusiast. If yours truly wasn't a coward, and if the Pelicans seemed more likely to re-enter the playoff bubble than the Grizzlies, Jrue Holiday would inhabit this space. Somebody out there needs to muster the gut and gall to argue on behalf of Steven Adams.

    In the end, this just feels like the year Conley gets in. He's clearing 20 points per game for the second time ever, artfully balancing the role of possession manager and aggressor. His style lacks a smack-you-in-the-face flair, but it includes subtle panache—like off-balance threes and needlepoint defensive plays. 

    Legacy and merit are uniting to birth this pick. Conley has a great shot at being recognized for under-appreciated play of the past, and for everything he's still doing now.

    Biggest Snub: Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans

    Other Snubs (in decreasing order): Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz; Steve Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder; DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs; Clint Capela, Houston Rockets

          

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on Dec. 25. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.