Before the world's greatest pickup basketball game descends on the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, the NBA will first announce both the captains and starters for the 2019 All-Star Game.
Even though the Association altered its selection process last season to allow the captains—the top vote-getters in each conference—to draft their squads, the starting pool still pulls five players from the East and five from the West. Fans account for 50 percent of the vote, while media and players split the other half.
The official unveiling of captains and starters will take place Thursday during the TNT NBA Tip-Off pregame show at 7 p.m. ET. But who wants to wait that long?
Based on fan voting releases and production, we can predict the five representatives from each conference.
Barring a late voting surge, these two spots should be locked in place.
During the last release of All-Star voting returns, both LeBron James (3,770,807) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (3,626,909) had leads of more than 400,000 votes. It's hard to imagine those leads disintegrating now, even if James hasn't suited up since Christmas due to a groin strain.
James remains the best player on the planet and plays for the league's marquee franchise, the Los Angeles Lakers. While some might dock him for the injury absences (he's missed 14 of his club's 48 contests), his play when healthy justifies his spot.
The 14-time All-Star is ahead of his career averages in points (27.3, up from 27.2), rebounds (8.3, 7.4) and field-goal percentage (51.8, 50.4).
Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, is the brightest star on the team with the best record (34-12) and highest net efficiency rating (plus-9.7). The Milwaukee Bucks have been 7.7 points better per 100 possessions with him than without, per NBA.com, and he paces them in points (26.5), rebounds (12.6) and assists (5.9). He's also second in blocks (1.4) and steals (1.3).
Given the age gap between them—James is 34, Antetokounmpo is 24—it would be fascinating to see whether that impacts their selections in the draft. While they technically share the same peers, they were also drafted 10 years apart and have likely built different bonds along the way.
FC: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Captain)
FC: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
FC: Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
BC: Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
BC: Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
Even though there are only five players selected in a 15-team conference, most of these decisions shouldn't be up for much debate.
Kawhi Leonard missed all but nine games last year, and yet he already appears back in MVP-candidate form. He's never averaged this many points (27.6) or rebounds (7.9), and his Raptors trail only the Bucks in winning percentage (.720).
Joel Embiid's Sixers land sixth overall with a .653 winning percentage, and the 7-footer has as much to do with that success as anyone. He simultaneously serves as their top scorer and defensive anchor, posting team-best marks in points (27.2), rebounds (13.3) and blocks (2.0).
Kyrie Irving's Celtics fall one spot below, winning games at a 62.5 percent clip. While the club has perhaps fallen a bit below expectations, it would be tough to pin that on the scoring point guard.
He's averaging team-best marks with 23.5 points, 6.9 assists and 1.7 steals, and he's a hot free-throw streak away from posting a 50/40/90 shooting slash line.
The final guard spot is perhaps the only contested race, as Kemba Walker, Ben Simmons and Bradley Beal all belong in the conversation.
So, why does Walker get the nod? Well, it helps that the game will be played in his adopted home of Buzz City, but he's played like an All-Star starter.
His shooting has cooled a bit since the calendar changed—the burden he's forced to carry for the Hornets is backbreaking—but he's still supplying nightly contributions of 25.0 points, 5.7 assists and 4.2 rebounds.
FC: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Captain)
FC: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
FC: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
BC: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
BC: James Harden, Houston Rockets
Assuming James takes the captaincy, that will trim down the potential arguments here.
If you treat Anthony Davis as a lock—he's the season leader with a 31.0 player efficiency rating, so why wouldn't you?—that means we have four deserving frontcourt players vying for two spots: James, Nikola Jokic, Kevin Durant and Paul George. But, again, we're writing James' name as captain in non-erasable ink, so really it's three players for one spot.
Durant is the best scorer of the bunch at 28.0 points per game, and a couple fiery nights from distance would give him the coveted 50/40/90 slash. George paces the trio with a 6.81 real plus-minus that ranks second in the entire league, per ESPN.com.
What makes Jokic the pick, then? He's doing things we haven't seen from a player his size in decades. Not to mention he'll probably be the only All-Star representative of the Nuggets, who've been the second-best team in the West.
"Jokic does whatever the Nuggets need, whether it's operate as a post scorer, space the floor, or run point," Kevin O'Connor wrote for The Ringer. "The only other player 6'10" or taller to ever average more than 19 points and seven assists is Wilt Chamberlain."
The two backcourt battles might be uncontested, which sounds almost impossible when neither spot belongs to Russell Westbrook, who has somehow numbed us to the 20-point triple-double.
But James Harden has been this season's most dominant offensive force, and it's not even close. In addition to leading the league with 36.3 points per game—an average only previously produced by Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor—Harden comfortably has the NBA's best real plus-minus mark (8.08) despite posting a negative number on the defensive end (minus-0.17), per ESPN.
As for Curry, he's almost as potent on offense now as he was during his unanimous MVP campaign of 2015-16. He averaged 30.1 points with a 66.9 true shooting percentage and 6.7 assists then; now, those numbers are 29.3, 66.2 and 5.6, respectively. Case closed, in other words.
Unless otherwise noted, advanced statistics via Basketball Reference.