Most Egregious Snubs from 2020 NBA All-Star Starters

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 24, 2020

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 3: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets and Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during the game on December 3, 2019 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)
Bart Young/Getty Images

Ready to get mad about what the NBA's 2020 All-Star voters got wrong? 

Yeah, we're not, either. The Eastern and Western Conference starter pools were released Thursday night, and if we're being honest, there isn't much over which to quibble:

However!

Splitting hairs is part of the All-Star-selection experience. Snubs are easier to identify and more bountiful in the reserves section, but at least a couple of starter selections are always worth questioning. Some even warrant total disembowelment. 

Rest assured, we can not, should not, will not force the issue. Players will only earn entry into the Hall of the Jilted if they have a stronger case than one of the incumbents. If we run into an either-or situation, it will be treated as such rather than spun into a grave injustice.

All-Star aesthetics are not taken into account. Snubs (and excluded equals) are based on all-around impact, not how their styles translate to playground rules. Basically, this is a fancy way of saying that, for our purposes, defense counts. 

Let's pick some nits.

       

Eastern Conference Backcourt

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 20:  Al Horford #42 and Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers celebrate late in the game against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on January 20, 2020 in New York City.The Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Brooklyn Nets 1
Elsa/Getty Images

Filling the second backcourt spot next to Kemba Walker is easily the hardest decision between either conference. People are going to see Ben Simmons in lieu of Trae Young as overthinking it.

Maybe that's true. I waffled and yo-yo'd and flip-flopped. I initially chose Bradley Beal while recording the Hardwood Knocks podcast. Young was tempting. So was Kyle Lowry. And even Malcolm Brogdon.

Beal's defense—and, to a lesser extent, plunging efficiency amid a higher-usage role—convinced me to walk him back. Further review revealed that his struggles and on-off splits are more than a case of "plays a ton of minutes next to Isaiah Thomas."

Simmons is not meant to be the cute rebuttal. His absence of a jump shot has become a punchline. I've made jokes. And then more jokes. Wade through them and you'll find he's become a borderline top-15 player despite his limitations. 

His jumper shouldn't scare anyone away from accepting as much. Young is genuinely in contention for the league's worst defender, and he still earned the starting nod. Simmons is far from a complete liability on offense.

Occupying the same space as Joel Embiid is beyond awkward, and the Philadelphia 76ers offense has been wonky when their best players share the floor. They churn out about an average offensive rating with both Simmons and Embiid in tow and are even worse—like, in the 27th percentile—when their starters play together.

Lineups featuring Simmons without Embiid are slightly more of an offensive threat—and, contrary to years past, comfortably in the green. It says a lot about Simmons' finishing ability that he's in the 91st percentile of efficiency at the rim even though defenses know where he has to go. He is quietly shooting a career-high 58 percent on two-pointers.

Oddball dynamics between a team's top two players are not ideal. But Simmons' limitations have been exacerbated by the Sixers' roster assembly. They built a team that is a perfect complement to neither him nor Embiid.

Al Horford has only increased the cumulative awkwardness. That's not Simmons' fault. In recent weeks, with Embiid recovering from left hand surgery, we've seen what he can do when given more space and extra opportunities as a screener.

Once more: Lauding what Simmons can be independent of Philly's two other stars isn't ideal. The visceral discomfort doesn't work in his favor, and it shouldn't. But there is smoke obscuring his value. Even if you cannot see entirely past it, he'll get by on his passing alone.

Simmons is, bar none, one of the league's most impactful playmakers. He does a great job leading his teammates to the right spots and has perfected lob entries into Embiid. He finds players in tight spaces...who are also inside those tight spaces. 

The precision with which he fires lengthy and impossibly angled passes is probably underappreciated. One-handed missiles are routine.

I mean:

And, like:

And also:

Baking in Simmons' defense renders this an open-and-shut case (for me). The All-Star Game isn't about preventing buckets and breaking up plays, but it matters in an everyday setting. It should count for more than a footnote when we're supposedly trying to single out the best of the best.

Very few players in league history have his positional range. Simmons is in passing lanes before opposing players know they're passing lanes. He's a solid secondary rim protector, and there is no escaping his hands:

Like, at all:

Young is having a remarkable season. His blend of efficiency and shot selection is the stuff of Stephen Curry. He is not the wrong answer. Simmons just feels more right.

Honorable Mention: Bradley Beal

             

Eastern Conference Frontcourt

Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Giannis Antetokounmpo's frontcourt spot is irrevocable. Embiid and Pascal Siakam don't enjoy that security.

Jimmy Butler should be in for one of them. It doesn't matter which. I lean more toward Embiid, who made my first round of All-Star starter picks, if only because he's played the fewest minutes and made the fewest appearances—and because Siakam's offensive slump is being a touch overblown.

Notching the third-lowest effective field-goal percentage of his career doesn't look great for Butler. His 26.3 percent clip on three-pointers is an obstacle, but it is definitely not an insurmountable one. 

He has supplemented his dipping efficiency with more playmaking and parades to the foul line. His 6.5 dimes per game are a career high, and he's hovering around the top 20 in potential assists. Among everyone who has logged at least 500 minutes so far, no one has a higher free-throw-attempt rate.

Butler is not getting enough credit for keeping the Heat afloat on defense. They've slipped to 14th in points allowed per 100 possessions after a hot (lucky?) start—they're 21st since Dec. 1 and relative pushovers around the rim—but they're appreciably above average with Butler in the lineup.

That is, quite frankly, amazing. Justise Winslow has made just one appearance since Dec. 4, and Miami wasn't playing the two together all that much in the first place. Butler spends a boatload of time inside lineups that include three net-negative defenders.

Playing with Bam Adebayo (and his ludicrously quick feet) is barely a luxury under those circumstances. That Butler can still be the perimeter anchor of a quality defense without obscene amounts of help is a pretty damn big deal.

Going with Embiid (or Siakam) isn't wrong. How could it be? They are, in a vacuum, both All-Stars. But availability is a skill, too. Butler's body of work is more extensive and no less impressive. His absence from the starter pool is the biggest snub of them all.

Honorable Mention: Khris Middleton

             

Western Conference Backcourt

No Snubs to Report

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 24:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets passes the ball defended by Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks in the first half at Toyota Center on November 24, 2019 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Tim Warner/Getty Images

In the words of Alicia Keys, "no one, no one, no oooone can get in the way of" Luka Doncic and James Harden. Their starter cases are Teflon.

Both stars are offensive systems unto themselves—masters of the step-back three and authors of extremely ridiculous passes. No two players have more difficult roles. Trae Young comes pretty close, but his burden is born from bad-team necessity. Harden and Doncic are lifelines for potential title contenders, their from-scratch burdens less of a default than a proven formula for success. 

Cross-era comparisons are iffy given the NBA's many stylistic pivots, but their efficiency amid what should be an overextension is absurd. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only other player in league history to notch a usage rate of at least 37 while posting a true shooting percentage above 59.

Making a definitive argument for an alternative selection would unnecessarily devalue what Doncic and Harden are doing. Damian Lillard's season is their closest rival. He alone has the outline of a case to supersede Doncic.

Lillard is averaging 27.2 points and 7.4 assists per 36 minutes, both career highs. His true shooting percentage is also a personal best and, like Harden, comfortably north of 60. He plays alongside a better No. 2 scorer than Doncic has (CJ McCollum), but his role is hardly easier. He ranks second in points racked up on unassisted threes, and his shot quality is only negligibly better than Doncic's, according to PBP Stats

It would be easier—or rather, possible—to roll with Lillard as a bona fide snub if the Portland Trail Blazers were winning. They're not.

Their sub-.500 malaise is not his fault; they are 11.7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, a higher net rating swing than that from any of this year's 10 starters. He is the difference between the Blazers being outright terrible and kind of good. That's more than admirable when viewed against the injuries that have ripped through the roster.

Still, in addition to a heavier workload and better per-possession output, Doncic has afforded the Dallas Mavericks a one-player-away path to title contention. Wins and losses aren't everything in All-Star discourse. (Cut to Trae Young sighing with relief.) In this case, though, they matter.

Honorable Mention: Damian Lillard

             

Western Conference Frontcourt

Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets*

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 3: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets and Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers look on on December 3, 2019 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading a
Bart Young/Getty Images

Asterisks are for the either-or instances.

LeBron James' selection is inarguable. The other two are comparably strong but less of a given. 

Kawhi Leonard has missed 11 games and is a human roller coaster from three. Anthony Davis has sat out seven games, and the Los Angeles Lakers are getting outscored by 3.5 points per 100 possessions and struggling on offense whenever he plays without LeBron.

This doesn't give Nikola Jokic a foolproof case over either of them. He too has his warts. It took him nearly 20 games to recapture All-Star form, a sluggish start that has to matter when dealing with a half-season sample.

But Jokic has been engulfed in flames ever since. He's averaging 22.8 points and 6.6 assists with a 63.3 true shooting percentage, including a 40.4 percent clip from three, over his past 25 games. The Nuggets defense has slipped during that time but has been 4.3 points per 100 possessions better for the season with him, and opponents' shot frequency at the rim drops by 3.9 percent when he's on the court (91st percentile).

Choosing Jokic over Leonard would still be tough, even with a noticeable discrepancy in games and total minutes played. Both are the engines for their respective offenses, and Leonard's cruise-control defense is still All-NBA-caliber.

Davis' nomination is more debatable, albeit not remotely close to wrong.

On-off splits are all kinds of noisy, but the Lakers' point differential has essentially gone unchanged with and without him. This speaks more to the MVP credentials of age-35 LeBron, but that's also the point:

Role context carries weight, and it would be inaccurate to say Davis means just as much to the Lakers as Jokic does to the Nuggets. He's at his best when working within the flow of the offense as opposed to dictating it. Jokic, by comparison, is the systemic heartbeat of a contender.

Reverse their roles (and supporting cast) on offense and Davis would be the one who struggles to have a similar impact. That's not a knock against him. He's a top-seven player and a deserving All-Star starter. This is a debate best left to the MVP-ladder discourse. 

And yet, had Jokic received the nod over Davis, it would hardly have been the wrong call.

Honorable Mention: Rudy Gobert (Highest net rating swing in the NBA among players who've logged at least 150 minutes. Just saying.)

        

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball InsidersEarly Bird Rights and Spotrac.

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.


Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss the Raptors current winning season, last year’s Championship, superstar Pascal Siakam, Kawhi Leonard’s departure, being an underdog, and learning from Kyle Lowry.

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