If you enjoy spirited discourse about N.B.A. All-Star matters, this is your year.
There is the ongoing debate about the wisdom of holding even a scaled-down version of the event in Atlanta amid the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to disrupt the regular-season schedule. There is also the traditional wrangling over who should claim the 12 All-Star spots in each conference — as spirited and layered as ever in a season marked by game postponements, mostly empty arenas and more parity than usual in the standings.
Fan balloting ends Tuesday at midnight, Eastern time. All-Star starters will be revealed Thursday night on TNT, with the reserves, as selected by the league’s coaches, to be announced next Tuesday.
Here is our annual projection of the rosters featuring my unofficial reserve sections:
Frontcourt: Kevin Durant (Nets); Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks); Joel Embiid (Sixers)
Backcourt: Bradley Beal (Wizards); Kyrie Irving (Nets)
Durant, Antetokounmpo and Embiid have such sizable leads in fan voting (and rightly so) that we can proclaim them starters. Beal (2,528,719) was the leading vote-getter among guards, over Irving (2,104,130) and James Harden (1,829,504), as of last week’s balloting update, which was pleasing to see.
Beal missed out last season on All-Star and All-N.B.A. honors despite averaging 30.5 points per game. He is averaging 33.1 points per game this season while facing even more attention from defenses. A starting nod, if you can get past the Wizards’ 8-17 record, would be a nice makeup call for a player who has pledged his loyalty to a franchise that is floundering in its attempts to build around him.
Khris Middleton (Bucks); Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (Celtics); Bam Adebayo (Heat); James Harden (Nets)
The Bucks packaged an array of trade assets to acquire Jrue Holiday from New Orleans in hopes of persuading Antetokounmpo to sign a five-year, $228 million contract extension. Antetokounmpo did sign in the end — on the 31st of 37 days he was eligible to do so — but Holiday’s arrival appears to have sparked Middleton just as much. Lest anyone suggest Holiday had supplanted him as Milwaukee’s clear-cut second star, Middleton is shooting (and playmaking) better than ever.
Tatum and especially Brown have also ascended to new levels as two-way forces and, because of their promise, give the Celtics reason to avoid plunging into full-blown panic mode after a 5-10 skid dumped them to fourth in the East.
The Heat have two undeniable All-Stars, but their 11-16 record has me fearing Jimmy Butler could get passed over by voting coaches on a technicality: Butler missed 12 of Miami’s first 27 games. Adebayo, by complementing his defensive versatility with an improving jumper and a vastly improved free-throw stroke, should ensure that last season’s East champions have at least half the representation they should.
And, yes, Harden still counts as an All-Star automatic for me — disruptive as his behavior was in Houston during the season’s first six weeks in an ultimately successful bid to coerce the Rockets to trade him.
Gordon Hayward (Hornets); Julius Randle (Knicks)
The Hornets were mocked for giving Hayward a four-year, $120 million contract in free agency after his three injury-plagued seasons in Boston. Hayward has responded with some of the strongest across-the-board play in his career, alongside the exciting rookie LaMelo Ball, to establish the Hornets as an unexpected playoff contender.
Perhaps I let romance sway me on both picks here, but it’s true: I also went with the Knick! The Knicks’ competitiveness is an even bigger surprise than Charlotte or anything else we’ve seen in the East, and Randle, along with the first-year coach Tom Thibodeau, has been a cornerstone of that competence.
Even before Randle’s 44-point masterpiece Monday night in a victory over Atlanta, I couldn’t resist being swept up in his 23.1 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game while shooting a career-best 40.6 percent from 3-point range. Those benchmarks have been sustained by only one player for an entire season: Larry Bird.
Frontcourt: Nikola Vucevic (Magic); Domantas Sabonis (Pacers); Jerami Grant (Pistons); Tobias Harris (Sixers); Jimmy Butler (Heat)
Backcourt: Zach LaVine (Bulls); Trae Young (Hawks); Malcolm Brogdon (Pacers); Fred VanVleet (Raptors); Ben Simmons (Sixers)
LaVine, Vucevic, Young and Sabonis were especially tough to omit. Like Randle, LaVine is surely wondering what more he has to do when he is averaging 28.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game — and has Chicago in the playoff mix. Sportswriters love to dramatize the agony involved in these unofficial choices, but I don’t envy the coaches. In either conference.
Frontcourt: LeBron James (Lakers); Nikola Jokic (Nuggets); Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
Backcourt: Stephen Curry (Warriors); Luka Doncic (Mavericks)
James has played in each of the Lakers’ 28 games in an apparent bid to convince the Most Valuable Player Award voters who have bypassed him since 2012-13 that he is not coasting this season — even after the shortest off-season (72 days) in N.B.A. history. A slimmed-down Jokic is likewise a top M.V.P. candidate, with his gleaming stat line of 26.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game. Leonard, who held a narrow lead over Anthony Davis entering the final week of balloting, has been a two-way menace as usual.
Damian Lillard has a slightly stronger claim to the West’s second backcourt slot than Doncic, given the Trail Blazers’ superior record even after losing CJ McCollum, another All-Star contender, to injury. Both, though, are locks to get an All-Star invitation no matter what.
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers); Anthony Davis (Lakers); Paul George (Clippers); Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell (Jazz)
Lillard is here because we’re assuming that Doncic, who was voted in as a starter last season, will hold on to the West’s No. 2 backcourt post.
Davis appears likely to miss the All-Star Game, now that the Lakers intend to be conservative in treating the nagging discomfort in his right Achilles’ tendon and right calf, but he has anchored the league’s top-ranked defense ably in spite of the injuries. Even accounting for the dip in Davis’s scoring and rebounding from last season and the legitimately worrisome decline in his free-throw shooting we detailed last week, it wouldn’t surprise me if West coaches picked Davis as a reserve to foist a harder choice — selecting an injury replacement from the usual long list of the snubbed — upon the league office.
I’m keeping George among the locks because he is averaging 24.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game while shooting a robust 50.8 percent from the field and 47.8 percent from 3-point range. Where some doubt creeps in: George has been sidelined for the Clippers’ last six games by a foot injury and has missed almost a third of their schedule.
Did you notice how deep we went into this discussion without mentioning the league’s hottest team? The Utah Jazz are 8-0 in February, 19-1 in their last 20 games and 23-5 over all. They will probably have at least two All-Stars, and they have three strong candidates: Gobert, Mitchell and Mike Conley. Gobert is the strongest of the three because of his defensive excellence and how much he helps his teammates at both ends with his screening and rim-running. Mitchell has found a new gear, while hamstring trouble has kept Conley out for the past five games.
Mike Conley (Jazz); Chris Paul (Suns)
This basically comes down to: Should the Jazz have three All-Stars, like the Nets, or do the Suns deserve two because of their surge to a top-four seed in the competitive West?
Conley, 33, has never made it to the All-Star Game, and this might be his last good shot. Did I let that Hallmark story line (and Conley’s left-handedness) nudge me into a sappy call? Guilty.
In my defense: It’s also true that Conley is an advanced-statistics darling whose role in Utah’s success has been undeniably pivotal. And I do think the Jazz should have three All-Stars, in tribute to their standing as one of the few consistently dominant forces in a season marred by so much unpredictability and abnormality.
Going this route, though, leaves only one spot for two worthy Suns (Paul and Devin Booker) as well as New Orleans’s Zion Williamson, Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox and San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan. All five have a strong All-Star case. I went with Paul over Booker because he has made such a cultural difference in Phoenix in his ever-efficient quarterbacking at age 35.
Frontcourt: Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram (Pelicans); Christian Wood (Rockets)
Backcourt: De’Aaron Fox (Kings); DeMar DeRozan (Spurs); Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Thunder); Ja Morant (Grizzlies); Devin Booker (Suns)
As the proud curator of an All-Lefty Team every August, it was painful to snub Williamson, who I’ve unfairly punished for his team’s struggles, and Fox, who hasn’t received enough shine for living up to a new mega contract. The same holds for DeRozan, who has quietly led the retooling Spurs to the top of the Southwest Division and, at 31, can’t count on future All-Star invites the way the other two can.
You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)
Q: Why do most teams rely so much on switching defensively? There are very few big men who can really defend guards, so I don’t understand why it is the main strategy. But I also confess that I am a huge fan of Facundo Campazzo, and I know that switching does not suit him. — Emanuel Suhotliv (Buenos Aires)
Stein: Entering Tuesday’s play, N.B.A. teams were averaging 34.9 3-point attempts per game. Last season’s 34.1 per game is the record.
Teams are constantly searching for answers to improve their pick-and-roll defense and combat the growing 3-point threat. “Drop” schemes, in which a big man sinks toward the rim on pick-and-rolls, are becoming more frequent and, yes, defenders are switching assignments on pick-and-rolls more than ever. The idea is that switching enables a team to rely less on making extra rotations to open shooters and to defend the ball with two players instead of all five directly involved. Switching, when effective, reduces the scrambling teams have to do.
I am a Campazzo fan who couldn’t wait to see him make the leap to the N.B.A., just like you, but everyone knew he was going to face major challenges adjusting to the league’s size, speed and athleticism. He has been pretty open about the difficulties, too, after making the move relatively late in his career (Campazzo turns 30 on March 23) and standing just 5-foot-10.
I think it’s better to look at the situation this way: Denver wanted him in spite of the naysayers, and Nuggets Coach Mike Malone finds 12 minutes a game for him because he looks beyond the modest statistical production and likes Campazzo’s playmaking and tenacity so much. (I’m guessing by now you’ve seen the no-look pass from Campazzo against the Lakers on Sunday night that had me tweeting giddily.)
If you expected the Nuggets to entrust him with as much offensive responsibility as Campazzo carried with Argentina’s national team, you are sure to be disappointed. Denver (and especially Malone) seems to be encouraged by Campazzo’s progress, and his fans back home should be, too.
Q: I’d love to read more about the Tokyo Olympics and who will play for the United States if the Games go ahead. Have any players said they would be willing? — Brad (Adelaide, Australia)
Stein: N.B.A. players aren’t asked often about the Olympics these days because the fate of the Tokyo Games remains uncertain. Some of the league’s biggest names are likely to be unavailable because the N.B.A. playoffs are scheduled through July 22 and the Olympics are set to begin the next day. U.S.A. Basketball is nonetheless confident it can assemble a roster capable of winning a fourth successive gold medal — one certainly stronger than that at the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China.
The player pool U.S.A.B. has been assembling in recent weeks is expected to feature about 60 names, including on-the-rise players such as New Orleans’s Zion Williamson, Memphis’s Ja Morant and Atlanta’s Trae Young. U.S.A.B. has also petitioned the U.S. Olympic Committee, the International Olympic Committee and FIBA to scrap their usual rules and allow roster changes in July rather than mandating that rosters be pared to 12 players well before the Olympics begin.
The Americans understand, though, that they will generate zero sympathy from their competition around the world if they are limited to choosing players from N.B.A. teams that miss the playoffs or exit the postseason early. Even after slumping to a stunning seventh-place finish in China under San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, nothing has changed: U.S.A.B. has by far the world’s deepest talent pool.
A trip to the Olympics continues to be far more meaningful to America’s N.B.A. players than participating in the World Cup. Combine that with Popovich’s presence — which LeBron James has said will keep him interested in making his fourth trip to the Olympics even as he expects to make a long playoff run — and one surmises that the United States will be just fine.
I’m sure you’re aware that the basketball officials in Australia, where you are, have taken a similar approach, naming a preliminary Olympic roster of 24 players that included 10 current N.B.A. players. Australia knows it has to cast the widest possible net because it can’t count on being able to field its first-choice 12 in Tokyo given this season’s atypical N.B.A. calendar on top of the usual injury issues and concerns.
Q: Going back to the recent discussion about suggesting better names for the “baseball-style series” N.B.A. teams are playing this season, two games in a row against the same visiting team in baseball is a “set.” Three or more games is a series. — Terry Thomas
Stein: Admire the certitude with which you made your case, but I don’t think there are absolutes in baseball when it comes to “two-game set” and “three-game series.” Clarification from any baseball experts reading along is certainly welcome, but I’ve seen both terms used liberally.
Either way, while I still don’t love “baseball-style series,” that phrasing carries more clarity for N.B.A. fans than “baseball-style set.” So I’m afraid that the search for better alternatives continues. (Or it’s futile at this point.)
If the Los Angeles Lakers needed any additional incentive to be extra-cautious with the Achilles’ tendon injury that has been hampering Anthony Davis, they need only scan the data accrued by the noted injury tracker Jeff Stotts, who maintains InStreetClothes.com. There have been 31 full Achilles’ tendon tears in the N.B.A. since the 2005-6 season, according to Stotts. Ten of them (32 percent of cases) have occurred since the start of the 2018-19 season and have felled stars such as Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall. Medical experts around the league have struggled to pinpoint why Achilles’ tendon tears are on the rise.
A positive omen for the team that polarizes opinion like no other in the league: Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving have played in only six games together, but the Nets are 9-3 this season against teams with .500-or-better records. No other team in the East has a winning record in such games, offsetting the damage of the Nets’ 7-9 record against teams with losing records. The 9-3 mark is second only to Utah’s 10-3.
The Spurs have flourished for years on their rodeo road trip, which sends them away from San Antonio every February while a stock show and rodeo take over their arena. But not this season: After the Spurs got off to a 2-0 start on the seven-game trip, with wins over Atlanta and Charlotte, the league postponed their next four games because of a coronavirus outbreak within the team. Since the 2002-3 season, when San Antonio moved into the AT&T Center, it has posted a record of 95-55 (.633) in rodeo trip games.
Portland’s Carmelo Anthony, 36, is averaging 17.0 points per game and shooting 42.5 percent from 3-point range in 24.6 minutes per game in February. The Trail Blazers need the added offensive punch with CJ McCollum (fractured left foot) and Jusuf Nurkic (fractured right wrist) sidelined by long-term injuries.
Blake Griffin’s last dunk for the Detroit Pistons came on Dec. 12, 2019, according to Stathead — 432 days ago. Shocking as the statistic sounds, it must be pointed out that Griffin, who turns 32 on March 16, scarcely played in 2020, thanks to stubborn knee issues that have plagued him since a stellar 2018-19 season in which he averaged 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game. Griffin appeared in only five of Detroit’s final 41 games last season after his most recent dunk and has missed seven of the Pistons’ 27 games this season.
The team said this week that it would stop playing Griffin between now and the March 25 trade deadline in hopes of finding him a new team via trade or perhaps buying out his massive contract (which pays Griffin nearly $37 million this season and nearly $39 million next season) to make him a free agent.
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