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Damian Lillard and the Biggest Snubs from 2021 NBA All-Star Starters

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistFebruary 19, 2021

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) dribbles the ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

Anyone out there filled with a red-hot, eruptive, volcanic rage following the official 2021 NBA All-Star starter selections?

Nobody? That sounds about right. And we're not, either.

One look at the Eastern and Western Conference starter pools reveals scant grumbling points. Here's the West:

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Here are your 2021 West starters #NBAAllStar https://t.co/y6rPGjgwpe

And here's the East:

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Here are your 2021 East starters #NBAAllStar https://t.co/UAMd6nIcNS

And yet!

Picking nits is part and parcel of All-Star reactions. Snubs remain easier—and more bountiful—in the reserves section, but at least a couple of starter nods are always worth questioning. At the very least, the league has viable alternatives in most cases who warrant consideration, even if only as a "Good job, good effort!" mention.

Just like last year, we can not, should not, will not force the issue. Players gain entry into the Hall of the Jilted only if they have a stronger case than or a comparable argument to one of the incumbents. Either-or situations will be treated as the agonizing coin tosses that they are rather than unforgivable improprieties.

Snubs and excluded equals will be based on all-around performances, and nothing else. We don't care about how a particular player's style translates to the annual playground exhibition. These choices should also be interpreted as, "This guy could have earned a starting spot, too!" not, "Hey! This is the only right answer and all the actual selections are stupid!"

Let's split some hairs. 

      

Eastern Conference Backcourt

Super Honorable Mention: James Harden, Brooklyn Nets

Matt York/Associated Press

James Harden is most definitely an All-Star starter in a vacuum. He's averaging 24.5 points and a league-leading 11.3 assists on the second-highest effective field-goal percentage of his career. The Brooklyn Nets don't need him to be an offense unto himself, but he remains one anyway.

Still, his season has not unfolded in a vacuum. He has split time between both conferences, inherently dragging down his Eastern Conference sample size.

And like it or not, the circumstances under which he left the Houston Rockets are fair game. Even when viewing his season in its totality, regardless of conference, giving someone a starter's nod after he incited a weekslong tumult at his previous stop doesn't sit entirely right.

Mostly, though, it's the sample-size thing.

        

Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

Nick Wass/Associated Press

Someone needs to get bounced if Jaylen Brown is to be painted as a flat-out snub. I nominate Kyrie Irving.

Playing time is part of the All-Star calculus. The nature of Irving's time away from the Nets carries little weight. He missed seven games earlier in the season because, in his own words, he needed a "pause" and sat out three more because of injury. Never mind the context. That's not our place. 

But he is 55th in minutes played among all guards. Too many other talented options are playing great basketball on much larger sample sizes. Brown can't be given the unimpeded nod though—Irving's 28.3 points per game on unfathomable efficiency beg to differ.

Still, Brown has one of the strongest opposing cases. His career year is punctuated equally by his production—25.9 points, 3.6 assists, 54.8 percent shooting inside the arc, 40.9 percent clip from long distance—and functional expansion. 

Almost half of Brown's made shots are going unassisted, by far a career high. And he's knocking down nearly 51 percent of his pull-up jumpers inside the arc.

More impressive than anything, though, Brown has established himself as a viable secondary playmaker. The Boston Celtics have slightly elevated his pick-and-roll initiation, and his decision-making when attacking defenses in the half court has hit another gear. His assist rate on drives has gone from 6.4 last season to 11.3.

Whatever ground Brown gives up on offense to primary facilitators, he offsets with his defensive responsibilities. He is going to assume the tougher covers more often than Jayson Tatum, who does a lot of his damage off the ball. 

Building a case against Brown is the more difficult proposition. His candidacy only falls apart if you throw Irving's availability out the window (which, fair!) or you consider him more of a frontcourt option based on his defensive matchups (also fair!).

         

Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Trae Young is yet another backcourt alternative to Irving. His stark ball domination continues to rub people the wrong way, and he didn't have the glitziest start to the season. But the results speak for themselves: 26.5 points and 9.3 assists per game with a true shooting percentage of almost 60.

Whether it's fair to bump Young down a peg or two for his Houston-era Harden impression is debatable. The Hawks have been ravaged by injuries to most of their secondary ball-handlers—including Bogdan Bogdanovic (knee), Kris Dunn (knee), Rajon Rondo (back) and, until recently, Danilo Gallinari (ankle)—but Young shouldn't be taking fewer catch-and-shoot threes per game than he did last season.

Is this on him? Head coach Lloyd Pierce? A byproduct of surrounding issues, like De'Andre Hunter's recent right knee injury and Cam Reddish's relative struggles?

Whatever the cause, Young is compiling numbers for naught. The Hawks offense improves by 11.9 points per 100 possessions when he's in the lineup—one of the Association's nine-biggest swings. The threat of his parking-lot threes, push shots in the lane and passing wizardry all keep defenses on tilt in a way not quite achieved by Brown or Zach LaVine. 

Honorable Mention: Zach LaVine

      

Eastern Conference Frontcourt

No Potential Snubs to Report

Adam Hunger/Associated Press

Good luck quibbling over the East's frontcourt starters with a straight face.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the most inarguable by virtue of availability. He has appeared in 27 of the Milwaukee Bucks' 28 games, all the while putting up ridiculous numbers that would earn more serious MVP shine in other years: 28.2 points, 11.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game to go along with 63.8 percent shooting inside the arc.

Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid should be Teflon themselves. Durant is showing almost no signs that he missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles; he's averaging a bonkers 29.0 points and 5.3 assists per game while drilling 56.5 percent of his twos and a career-high 43.4 percent of his threes. The NBA doesn't have a purer scorer, and he is probably the Brooklyn Nets' most consistent defender around the basket. 

With all due respect to LeBron James and Nikola Jokic, Embiid might be the MVP if the season ended today. No player has been more dominant at both ends this year. Embiid's turnovers can still be an issue, but he is very much the Philadelphia 76ers' lifeline. His personal-best 29.7 points per game come on watermark efficiency from virtually every spot on the perimeter. 

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Embiid is shooting 39.7 percent from beyond the arc and 52 percent from mid-range—both career highs. The self-created jumper he's honed looks for real. He's splashing in 50 percent of his pull-up twos. Nearly 52 percent of his made baskets are going unassisted, another career high that speaks to the difficulty of his role. More than half of KD's buckets have come off assists. 

Missed games are the only cracks on the armor of Durant and Embiid. The former has 11 absences and counting under his belt; the latter is up to six.

Bam Adebayo and Tatum creep into this discussion if sticklers start harping on total minutes. That's not a strong enough gripe. Durant is the low man on the availability pyramid, and he's still within 200 minutes of Adebayo, who has logged the most time out of this quartet. 

Honorable Mention: Bam Adebayo

       

Western Conference Backcourt

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Luka Doncic's case is clear: He's averaging 29.1 points and 9.4 assists per game while dropping in 54.6 percent of his two-pointers. His 33.5 percent success rate from behind the rainbow won't drop jaws, but it is a career best and comes amid a high degree of difficulty.

More than 75 percent of Doncic's made triples go unassisted—top among everyone averaging at least 10 minutes per game in the West. And his overall accuracy has ticked up. He's swishing 38 percent of his treys since Jan. 13, a 19-game span that covers a majority of this season.

Kristaps Porzingis' limited availability (11 missed games) and spotty play only bolsters Doncic's credentials. The Dallas Mavericks remain a one-star operation, with an offense that goes from pumping in 117.4 points per 100 possessions (80th percentile) with him to 107.1 (20th percentile) when he sits. No one assists on a higher percentage of their team's buckets when in the lineup.

Doncic has also beefed up his defense amid the Mavericks' own struggles. Opponents are averaging 0.83 points per possession against him in isolation (64th percentile), and his block rate has tripled relative to last season.

Awarding him a starter's spot over Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard is still absurdly difficult. It sure as hell cannot come at the expense of Curry.

He's averaging 30.0 points and 6.0 assists per game on preternatural efficiency. His 58.5 percent clip on twos and 42.5 percent conversion rate on threes is coming against, perhaps, the most intense defensive attention in the Association. With him in tow, the Golden State Warriors' offensive rating skyrockets by 18.4 points per 100 possessions—the highest swing in the league.

You know who's No. 2 on that list? Lillard. He's putting up 29.8 points and 7.7 assists while torching twine on 38.4 percent of his threes. His 61.0 percent shooting around the rim, though not elite, is the second-best mark of his career.

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Doncic plays the tougher role between the two, if only because of the control he needs to have over the offense. Lillard spent part of the season beside a seemingly All-Star-bound CJ McCollum. But Lillard has now played more games without him than Doncic has appeared in sans Porzingis. His Trail Blazers have also needed to navigate the absence of Jusuf Nurkic (wrist). 

Contextualizing supporting casts may not solve anything. (Related: Would Gary Trent Jr. be the second-best shot creator on Dallas?) Lillard's crunch-time splits do. 

LeBron is the only player with as many shots made in the clutch. And Lillard's makes are coming at an unreal clip. He's 14-of-21 inside the arc (66.7 percent), 10-of-17 from deep (58.8 percent) and a perfect 24-of-24 at the free-throw line.

No one comes close to matching both Lillard's usage (36.7) and efficiency (84.4 true shooting percentage). The Blazers are 12-3 in these situations and have outscored opponents by 43 points across the 57 minutes he's logged. They wouldn't be afloat without their crunch-time success, and their crunch-time success wouldn't be a thing without Lillard's heroics. So while Doncic has his own case, this feels like a full-tilt snub.

Honorable Mention(s): Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell

             

Western Conference Frontcourt

No Potential Snubs to Report

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Zero qualms should be the standard for the Western Conference's frontcourt starters.

Arguments against LeBron and Jokic are nonexistent. They are posting video game lines, and their teams' performance falls off a cliff without them. Both rank within the top five of total minutes among frontcourt players.

Kawhi Leonard's standing would be similarly unassailable if he didn't miss seven games (and counting, thanks to a leg contusion). It's hard, if not impossible, to get worked up about his sample. Sporadic availability is the status quo for many players in a year marred by COVID-19 concerns and a shortened offseason, and he's racked up almost 800 minutes.

His numbers take care of the rest. He's averaging 26.7 points and 5.0 assists while converting 55.6 percent of his twos and 38.9 percent of his threes. His tendency to deemphasize volume at the rim persists, but that doesn't qualify as a concern when he's finding nylon on 48 percent of his mid-range jumpers and still generating more than six free-throw attempts per 36 minutes.

Leonard is also making the most of the opportunities he does manufacture at the rim. His 77.2 percent clip from point-blank range is a career high. And he combines superstar offense with superstar defense. The Los Angeles Clippers' net rating improves by 19 points per 100 possessions with him on the court—the third-highest swing in the league.

Anthony Davis would deserve his own space if he didn't taper off following a scorching-hot start. His outside efficiency has dipped, and he's getting to the foul line less while posting the lowest charity-stripe clip of his career (71.5 percent).

A dip in volume at the rim explains the relatively low number of free throws; it doesn't address the shooting performance. Davis has now also tallied fewer minutes than Leonard, making his case that much flimsier, even though he remains the lifeblood of the Los Angeles Lakers' NBA-best defense.

Ashley Landis/Associated Press

Rudy Gobert and Zion Williamson are more convincing alternatives. Gobert's defense around the basket is transformative. Opponents are shooting demonstratively worse at the rim and from floater range while he's on the court. Both his ability to contest shots and dissuade them by his mere existence are the heartbeat of the Utah Jazz defense.

Similar sentiments cannot be applied to his role on the offensive end. At the same time, so much of what the Jazz do is predicated on his screen-setting and roll gravity. He is the best two-way player on what is, right now, the league's top team. That matters.

Zion needs to make the reserves cut. He's averaging 25.0 points on a 65.9 true shooting percentage. Curry and Embiid are the only other players scoring as much on better efficiency.

Too many assume Zion's numbers come on gimme opportunities. They don't. He is a highlight reel in transition, on putbacks and going downhill, but he plays with more deliberateness than credited. More of his baskets are going unassisted compared to last year, and he has change-of-direction dexterity when putting the ball on the floor. Among 58 players who have finished at least 30 iso possessions, his 70.3 effective field-goal percentage ranks first.

This isn't quite enough to slot him with the starters. Leonard has more influence over his team's offense, and Zion's off-ball defense is a genuine problem for the New Orleans Pelicans. Still, he's en route to crashing this discussion, and he'll be here soon.

Honorable Mention(s): Anthony Davis, Paul George, Rudy Gobert, Zion Williamson

       

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering games on Feb. 18. Salary information via Basketball Insiders 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 Adam Fromal.