We are less than three weeks from Christmas Day, which means we are also three weeks from the opening of voting for the 2018 NBA All-Star Game. It's always a tough choice, especially this early with so many good players off to hot starts. This year is no exception.
There is, of course, a world of time left before voting even opens, much less closes in January. A lot not only can happen, but will. Isaiah Thomas' ascension to All-Star and MVP candidate didn't really start in earnest until December 15. However, with the early start to the NBA season, we're already seven weeks into the season. We have enough to start putting a rough template together and figuring out what the debates are.
There's also the question of how you define it. It's an exhibition, which means fans want to see the big stars. The starters will wind up being those big-name players. But since we can't objectively argue entertainment value, and trying to predict what fans and the players will do with their shares of the vote is an exercise in futility, we can at last ask the question: Who deserves to be recognized for their play with an All-Star selection?
Somehow, someway, through the advance of human evolution, this soon-to-be-33-year-old "human" is averaging 28-8-8 while shooting a career high from the field (59 percent!) and from 3-point range (43 percent!) and averaging a career-high in blocks per game.
This is nuts.
No player has made 11 shots per game while shooting 43 percent from 3-point range. LeBron is doing it.
No player has made 11 shots per game while shooting fewer than 19 times per game. LeBron is doing it.
No player has ever averaged 28-8-8 with one block per game. LeBron is doing it.
His defensive rating is 12 points better in the last 10 games than it was in the first 10 games, the Cavaliers are unstoppable and James is putting together another season for the ages.
The Greek Freak is also doing stuff only legends have ever accomplished. He's become a transcendent force, even without a jump shot. He's an absolute monster, on both ends of the floor, and one of the most captivating players in the league this season. He is the very definition of an All-Star.
What's kind of stunning is that Irving hasn't been the best player on his own team (see below), is averaging below his production last season on a Cavs team with less freedom, the Celtics' team success has been built on the back of their defense ... and still, Irving is a no-brainer here. He's averaging the most points of any guard in the East, and no guard has produced to that level. He's one of the most clutch players in the league as well. Irving's game hasn't been what it's been made out to be this season ... but he's still very clearly an All-Star.
The best player on the best team. A clear Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Horford has the credentials as a four-time All-Star. This isn't some fluke spot, no matter how constantly questioned Horford is among the great players because of his contract, or low scoring output, or whatever. Horford may not have the profile or highlights of an All-Star, but he's an absolute lock this year.
Need To Be In
The Raptors are 15-7 with no publicity. Lowry is shooting 46-42-89 while averaging the fifth-most assists per 100 possessions in the league among players playing 30 minutes per game. There's no argument against him and no argument for the others over him.
No, he still can't shoot 3s. Yes, his assists are up. DeRozan's changed his game in subtle ways. The Raptors haven't reinvented themselves but they have subtly improved, and DeRozan has been a big part of that. His numbers compare in bizarre and favorable ways with Irving.
The Sixers are legitimately good, and Simmons has been a big part of that. Joel Embiid's impact is greater, but so are his playing limitations. Simmons is putting up historic numbers for a rookie, and has been a legit force in the league in his first season. I'm always hesitant to put rookies in, but in the East, with this performance, he earned it.
The more interesting question is whether you include him as a guard, or, to clear more space for worthy candidates, if you slide him to forward.
Embiid hasn't missed significant time yet, and as expected, his actual impact has been monstrous. With him on the floor, the Sixers destroy worlds. He's clearly made for the All-Star Game with the way he tries to tear the rim off with each dunk. He's only scratching the surface of what he's capable of, but he's already been one of the most impactful players in the East.
Porzingis has tailed off since a blistering start, but the Knicks are battling around .500 and he's been the biggest reason why. His comfort and control on the defensive end is miles improved, and he's shooting 41 percent from 3-point range. The Unicorn gets in.
The Tough Calls
The feel-good story of the year. Oladipo suffered next to Russell Westbrook last season and has flourished on his own after being the punchline of the Paul George trade. Oladipo has led the Pacers to a record most didn't think was possible while marking career bests in nearly every category. He's not a household name, but if you believe in rewarding efficiency and team success, Oladipo has to be on the list.
Beal goes between his normal "really good" Beal self and "supernova Beal burning everything down." His numbers are good, no doubt, at 47 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3-point range. They're not great, though. He's individually stepped up with John Wall on the shelf, but the Wizards have still struggled as a team. Beal has been excellent, but in what is a surprisingly crowded East backcourt, he's at least worthy of some debate before just handing him a spot.
What a great bounce-back season. It's not just that Drummond has played well, it's that he's so plugged in, for a guy who has vanished so often. He's bringing it every night. His passing has made huge strides, and he's finding cutters at will. He's been locked in on defense, and the Pistons are 4.1 points better with him on the floor than off. The more you start to dig into the numbers and with the eye test matching it, Drummond has to be in.
Harris hasn't scored in single digits once this season. Not once. He's been a metronome for them, and been great. But he's beaten out by his frontcourt partner, and the Pistons have a negative net rating with Harris on the floor. If it wasn't for Drummond's playmaking, I might honestly go Harris, he's having an incredible season.
Gordon is averaging 19-5 on 50-40-77 shooting splits. If the Magic hadn't cratered as hard as they did, he'd be a lock. He's been phenomenal, and made such a leap. There's time for him to force his way back into the conversation.
A 15-7 line on 47 percent from deep, he's been unconscious. You can argue he's been the Wizards' most consistent player, if not their best. His 19.2 PER is incredible given how he was evaluated two seasons ago.
Ruined by the team success issue. Walker's only shooting 36 percent from 3, but is averaging a career best in assists. The Hornets are a plus-7 in net rating with him on the floor, a minus-16.9 with him on the bench.
A double-double average at 19-11 on 37 percent from deep. His assists have dropped and the Cavaliers' relative struggles early this season knock him out, but Love's been terrific and remains under-appreciated.
Hurt, and honestly has struggled quite a bit this season. Hasn't bounced back defensively. The team is still miles better with him, but with the guard crunch, it gets tough with him missing so much time.
Here's what my full ballot (if such a thing existed) would look like.
NBA Eastern Conference All-Star picks
Grade-A, Stone-Cold Locks
Harden has been the NBA's best overall player so far, leading the league in points and assists for the best team (record-wise) in the West, so yeah, he gets in here. He's shooting 40 percent from 3-point range for the first time in his career, and the Rockets' offense is comfortably No. 2 behind Golden State. Also notable, Harden is playing the best defense we've seen since he was in Oklahoma City, and it shows with a career-best defensive rating.
Curry is not having an exceptional season, by his standards. He's shooting below 40 percent from 3, which for him is ice cold. His assists aren't at a high level, even compared to other All-Stars. He's not scoring a bazillion points. But this process can't just be about stats, and even if was, here's one: the Warriors, with all that talent, are 9.6 points better in net rating with him on the floor. That's four points better than any other member of the Big 4. He's the most important star on the league's best team, with apologies to Boston.
If Curry is the most important player for the best team (again, apologies to Boston), then Durant is the best overall player. He's flirting with a 50-40-90 shooting line again, he's the team's second-best defensive presence, and nearly as valuable as Draymond Green on that end. He's an unstoppable force and when all else fails, he can prevent games from slipping away when the Warriors' magic fails them.
Man, what a pair. You can argue about the statistical production vs. the eye test vs. the advanced metrics all day long, but these two have torn up the Western Conference. Cousins is only shooting 33 percent from deep, but Davis is at 36 percent. Davis isn't much of a playmaker, but Cousins' passing has been phenomenal. The Pelicans are 20th in defense, so there's some slippage there, but it's impossible to argue there have been better frontcourt guys than these two.
Must-Haves, For Now
This isn't an inspiring or exciting choice. But then, it's the Spurs, so why would it be? Aldridge's numbers are there. He's expanded his range. (He's technically shooting better from 3 than Curry.) He's anchoring one of the best defenses in the NBA, and leading the team in scoring, while the Spurs continue to confound with their ability to never lose, ever, no matter who's injured.
Aldridge's game is a terrible fit for the All-Star Game, and you do genuinely wonder if he was out if someone else would just plug in for the Spurs, but the reality is: the Spurs are good, Aldridge has been good, and that combination has to reward him with a spot.
Lillard is in a great position to finally get that spot he's wanted for so long, but the Blazers have to hold. He's only shooting 33 percent from deep. He's been Portland's best player; it falls apart with out him. If the Blazers' defense slides, it's going to get dicey for him again, though. Right now, he should be a near-lock, and not just for his offense. Lillard has given more on defense this season than ever before, and he deserves a share of credit for Portland being second in defensive rating.
One Big Mess Over Five Spots
The advanced metrics love Jokic, and before he went down with an ankle sprain, his team was three games over .500 and had been battling for third in the West. The best argument for Jokic is that he has made every single player on the Nuggets better, and that without him, all their plus-minus numbers go badly. He's also leading the Cousins-Towns-Aldridge battle for rebounds and assists per 100 possessions. He trails Cousins in both categories per game, which is why pace is such a big factor.
However, if he winds up missing a month with this sprained ankle, could that scuttle him? It's tough.
Green is not shooting great. He's barely averaging 10 points per game. He's not really necessary on his team with how stacked they are, even with how great his defense is. However, Green makes as many plays as anyone on the Warriors to help them win, he's the emotional engine and their best passer. That has to count for something. With the other bigs in the conversation, though, it gets difficult.
Thompson has just been en fuego. Yet ... he's just not necessary. He's the best spot-up third-weapon in the land ... and he's scoring 20 points per game ... but it's just difficult to point to how important he is to the Warriors. Maybe he doesn't need to be, maybe it's just "he's been really good the best team (with apologies to Boston)." It does feel weird for Golden State to have the third-best record in the NBA and have more All-Stars than the teams above them combined, right?
The Wolves. Sigh. OK, this is a really complicated deal. Minnesota is 15-11, fourth-best in the West. That seems like it demands a spot, maybe two. They have a better record than New Orleans, after all. However, the Wolves are 12th in net rating. (New Orleans is 16th) with a bottom-10 defense. That defense is largely attributable to Towns' horrific regression since his rookie season. Both are having efficient seasons, and the team is winning. It just never feels like the Wolves are as good as their record. Still, the production is what the production is. Figuring out their place in all this is difficult.
I have long been a defender of Russell Westbrook's game and how it impacts the team, so this pains me. But it's really difficult to give him a spot. Now, bear in mind, this is academic. He's getting a spot. That's happening, don't you worry. However, he's shooting just 40 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3. You can look at OKC's offensive weaknesses and point directly to his inability to adapt to how he needs to play with his star cohorts, which is why they don't even get a mention. He's been a part of the problem for OKC because he hasn't been better, not that he's been bad.
However ... he's averaging 23-8-9. That's 23-8-9 no matter how you slice it. It's likely that Westbrook turns it on like he did earlier this week and the Thunder right the ship and he sails through. But for right now, there are legit arguments to leave him off entirely.
Gordon is a shooter only averaging 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point range, but he's scoring 19 points per game and Houston's on/off numbers with him are bonkers.
Someone from the Utah Jazz
Utah's offensive surge is quite frankly baffling, but it's been going on. If it keeps up, rookie Donovan Mitchell or reserve Rodney Hood (leading the team in scoring) will have to get a nod.
In the end, this is what my ballot would be now:
NBA Eastern Conference All-Star picks
Either way, as always, these All-Star choices are going to be difficult.