Ranking the NBA's Most Deserving Players Who Should Be All-Star Starters

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 18, 2021

Ranking the NBA's Most Deserving Players Who Should Be All-Star Starters

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    There's still a ton of the 2020-21 NBA season to be played, but it seems on course to produce one of the closest MVP races in recent history.

    That's not exactly the case for the All-Star starter selection process, though.

    While there's no shortage of worthwhile candidates, the cream has largely risen to the top. There are a few debates here and there, but by and large, it seems relatively certain which players will be included when the All-Star starters are announced Thursday night during TNT's NBA Tip-Off.

    There is, however, some separation among even this elite tier. That's why we're here to name the 10 All-Star starters on our ballot and rank them from least to most deserving.

    While this is a subjective exercise, we'll lean on everything from traditional stats to advanced analytics to set the order. We'll also use the trusty eye test to help make the close calls.

10. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    If you're going to be the least of anything, the least-deserving All-Star starter might be the best-case scenario. Especially when it means you took the spot ahead of both James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

    Not everyone will land with Jaylen Brown here—my colleagues went with Harden—but let's dig into the decision.

    For starters, Brown has been "Holy expletive" great for the Celtics, whose recent woes have nothing to do with him and everything to do with the loss of Gordon Hayward, choppy play from Kemba Walker and an underwhelming supporting cast. This is the Brown worth holding out of the old Kawhi Leonard trade talks.

    Brown took the slow-burn route to stardom, though that might have had less to do with any lack of skills than it did his position on Boston's former pecking order. Now that he's in a position of prominence (sharing marquee honors with Jayson Tatum), he's unleashing an avalanche of two-way brilliance. His entire stat sheet is essentially at an all-time high, notably his 26.0 points per game on a 60.3 true shooting percentage.

    Why is that enough to slot him ahead of Harden (the league's leader in assists and minutes) and Irving (averaging 28.3 points on an astronomic 53.4/44.2/91.8 shooting slash)? Two reasons. Harden and Irving have only worsened Brooklyn's 26th-ranked defense. Plus, Harden had an ugly exit from Houston, and Irving has missed 10 of the Nets' 30 games due in part to a seven-game sabbatical in early January.

9. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Remember what we were saying about this being mostly straightforward? Here's the enormous exception.

    Luka Doncic or Damian Lillard? Damian Lillard or Luka Doncic? If anyone has a coin we can borrow, it'd be much appreciated.

    Leaving Doncic out feels foolish for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is his overstuffed stat line that shows per-game contributions of 29.1 points, 9.4 assists and 8.6 rebounds. He's one of the brightest stars in the league, and despite being just 21 years young, he already has an All-Star start under his belt.

    But how can we leave off Lillard?

    His own production includes 29.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, plus the ridiculous pairing of 4.0 threes and a 38.0 percent perimeter success rate. Portland's roster has been decimated by injury, the team doesn't play a lick of defense, and Lillard still has the Blazers sitting fourth in the Western Conference standings thanks to a monstrous plus-22.4 net rating in clutch situations (colloquially known as Dame Time).

    Doncic, on the other hand, gets the Dallas Mavericks off the ground. Their struggles (13-15, 10th in the West) are not at all reflective of his play. But when you're nitpicking to separate one elite from another, the gap in team performance is hard to overlook.

8. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Some will hold the Washington Wizards' record against Bradley Beal. We'll be the first to admit it hasn't been pretty in D.C. as the team has sputtered to an 8-17 start and owns the fifth-worst net rating in basketball (minus-5.5).

    But one—raises hand—could argue Washington's ineptitude almost strengthens Beal's case. Remember, we're not talking MVP votes here. This is about handing out an All-Star start, and Beal's offensive wizardry (pardon the semi-intentional pun) is worthy of that honor.

    He might be the only player mentioned on the opposition's defensive game plan. If Russell Westbrook or—Google searches Wizards roster—Rui Hachimura wants to go into tunnel-vision attack mode, teams will more than welcome it. That lets them throw the kitchen sink (plus the range, refrigerator, air fryer and dishwasher) at Beal, which should torpedo his efficiency.

    Instead, the league's leading scorer (by a country mile) is delivering the second-best true shooting percentage of his career (59.3) and posting his lowest turnover percentage in four seasons (10.1). Washington's offense actually manages a functional 111.5 points per 100 possessions when he's on the hardwood. It's just that when he sits, everything grinds to a halt (98.4 offensive rating).

    He has scored 39-plus points four times this season; the Wizards are winless in those games. He deserves the mental boost provided by a well-earned All-Star start.

7. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Giannis Antetokounmpo might have finally met an opponent he can't dominate: his own shadow.

    The two-time MVP is struggling to get more than a cursory mention in MVP talks despite being the Association's only player averaging 28 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. Tack on nightly contributions of a steal and a block, and you're looking at a stat line this league has never seen.

    And yet, the dominance doesn't feel quite as strong as it's been the past two seasons, does it?

    That's because the numbers say it isn't. Shift over to per-36-minutes production and these are the fewest points, boards and dimes he's provided over this stretch. His 28.4 player efficiency rating, 7.2 box plus/minus and 0.226 win shares per 48 minutes are also at three-year lows.

    That doesn't diminish the absurdity of the stats, all of which are elite. But it does explain how the reigning two-time MVP is no longer driving that discussion, although Milwaukee owning a sub-.600 winning percentage after topping .700 the past two seasons might be the clearer explanation.

    Either way, Antetokounmpo is awesome. Not top-five-in-this-ranking awesome, but still locked-in-All-Star-starter awesome.

6. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Allow us to introduce post-Achilles-injury Kevin Durant. You might remember him by his old name, pre-Achilles-injury Kevin Durant.

    Look, we don't want to discount his grueling climb back to the court, but if not for the rest his recovery still requires, it'd be all too easy to forget he ever went down during the 2019 Finals.

    The four-time scoring champion looks like himself. His 29.0 points per game outpace his career average. Same goes for his 7.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.4 blocks per contest. His 43.4 three-point percentage marks a new personal best. His 52.4 field-goal percentage is the second-highest of his career.

    Incredibly, he's managing all this while navigating a season that keeps starting and stopping. He's been held out for rest, two stints in the safety protocols and, most recently, a hamstring strain.

    He has only played 19 of his team's 30 games, which prevents him from ranking any higher. What's more important to the Brooklyn Nets—and the NBA at large—is that he's back to being Kevin Durant. Not 75 or 90 percent of Kevin Durant. Not still-super-skilled-but-not-as-athletic Kevin Durant. Just Kevin Durant, shredder of nets and snatcher of defenders' souls.

5. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Leave it to Kawhi Leonard to be painting a two-way masterpiece and still feel as if he's flying under-the-radar.

    Maybe it's that there are even sillier stats higher up this ladder. Perhaps the occasional absences are to blame. Maybe it's because his production is consistently elite but usually lands south of mind-boggling.

    Whatever the reason, the response to his season doesn't feel quite as exuberant as the box scores say it should.

    The All-Galaxy defender is doubling as one of the most unstoppable offensive forces in basketball. He's one of only seven players averaging 25 points, five assists and five rebounds. He's a few triples and a handful of free throws shy of forming the famed 50/40/90 shooting line. He makes the Clippers a full 15 points better per 100 possessions than when they play without him.

    "He's just a savant," Kevin Durant recently told reporters. "... He's a great player. He's a Hall of Fame player."

    Leonard's numbers might not be quite as ridiculous as some still to come here. But if you go looking for the holes in his game, be prepared to come up empty.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Stephen Curry is in the MVP discussion while on a barely-above-.500 Golden State Warriors team on which his best teammates not named Draymond Green are Andrew Wiggins and...Kevon Looney? Eric Paschall? James Wiseman? Kent Bazemore?

    The point is the Chef is cooking up five-star dishes with, well, let's be kind and say less-than-five-star ingredients.

    If team success was removed from the equation, there wouldn't be much separating this version from the one named unanimous MVP in 2015-16. That player averaged 30.1 points on 66.9 percent true shooting. Curry is currently averaging 30.1 points on—wait for it—66.9 percent true shooting.

    "It's literally like a video game," Warriors forward Juan Toscano-Anderson said of Curry's long-range shooting, per Mark Medina of USA Today. "We're all on the bench chuckling and laughing like, 'Man, he's unreal.'"

    Watch Curry in action and you'll question how many times you're allowed to tweet, "LOL, Steph." His shooting range stretches to all corners of whatever arena he's playing in, and his handles can send any helpless defender into a viral video (sorry, Cedi Osman).

    The lack of team success hurts Curry's credentials a pinch, but his volume and efficiency are more than enough to land him inside the top five.

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    At some point, age has to catch up to 36-year-old LeBron James, doesn't it? That's what 29 teams are probably hoping will happen, at least.

    But shouldn't some signs of decline be evident by now? Scan the stat sheet, folks. You won't find a trace.

    "He does everything better than he did five or six years ago, which was supposed to be his prime," Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers said, per Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times.

    If you just felt your seat move, that was the collective shudder of the basketball world that exists beyond Laker Nation.

    Whether this is actually the best version of James yet is moot. What's really worth noting is the fact he's somehow growing his game—as a four-time MVP, a four-time champion and a record-setting 16-time All-NBA honoree. He has never averaged more three-pointers (2.5) and only twice splashed them at a higher clip (37.8 percent).

    He may not be the most spectacular statistical force in the game, but he's the biggest driving force behind the 22-7 defending champions. When he's selected to his 17th All-Star Game (all of them starts), it will be anything but a lifetime-achievement choice. He's easily earned his spot.

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Joel Embiid is about to be selected as an All-Star starter for the fourth time in as many seasons. As this ridiculous run would suggest, holes in his game were few and far between entering the 2020-21 campaign.

    Whatever weaknesses existed, though, have all been eradicated as the big fella delivers an Oscar-worthy performance in the modern NBA's reboot of Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon.

    Embiid had sometimes been more trigger-happy from three than his mediocre-or-worse connection rates have said he should be. Well, he's splashing like a long-lost member of the Curry family with 40 percent accuracy from the perimeter. His mid-range jumper was formerly the weapon opponents hoped he'd use. Now, he's canning 56.3 percent of those shots, the highest such rate among players with 40-plus attempts.

    These additions haven't been attached to any subtractions, either. He's still a nightmare matchup in the post (78th percentile) and the interior anchor of the Association's seventh-ranked defense.

    Philadelphia's rise to the top of the Eastern Conference is directly tied to his own ascension. The 18-10 Sixers are 17-5 when he plays and a gargantuan 16.5 points better per 100 possessions with him than without.

    If he hadn't played five fewer games and 259 fewer minutes than the top player on this list, he might be holding down the No. 1 spot.

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The advanced statistics have spoken and reached an almost unanimous consensus: Nikola Jokic has been the most outstanding player this season.

    Feel free to quibble on what that means for his MVP chances, but the numbers say there's no more deserving All-Star starter in the player pool.

    The analytical leaderboards are basically the back of his basketball card. He's the high man in—takes deep breath—player efficiency rating, win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, offensive win shares, box plus/minus, offensive box plus/minus and value over replacement player.

    Sounds silly, right? It only gets more absurd as you dig deeper into the stat sheets.

    He has basically become the hyper-efficient version of MVP and triple-double machine Russell Westbrook—as a 6'11", 284-pound center, no less. Jokic is going for 27.1 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.6 assists per night (numbers only Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson has previously tallied) and pairing the production with a 57.0/39.2/86.6 shooting slash.

    And, important for an All-Star discussion, Jokic looks just as compelling on the court as he does in the box score. Between his preternatural passing, advanced post work and ever-expanding shooting range, he's become appointment viewing and will wear that same label at the world's greatest pickup game.

                  

    All stats current through games played on Feb. 16 and used courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.