For the fifth year in a row, the powers that be at the NBA’s league office asked me if I wanted to be one of the media members who votes on which players should start in the NBA All-Star Game. I accepted the ballot; here’s how I used it.
(Before we get started, a quick refresher: You vote for three frontcourt players and two guards in each conference. Fan voting makes up 50% of the final result, with player and media ballots accounting for 25% each.)
All stats and records entering Thursday’s games.
G Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder
We bookend with two players in line to finish in the top three in MVP voting.
Jokić is fourth in the NBA in rebounds and assists, and less than a point per game away from the top 10 in scoring. He’s the most efficient point producer on the planet, combining shooting accuracy and usage at a level matched only by fellow leviathan Joel Embiid while also creating nearly 34 points per game for teammates via his table- and screen-setting. He remains the prime mover for a defending champion Nuggets team that’s tied for first place in the Western Conference due largely to how much it dominates when he’s on the floor; he either leads or sits in the top five of virtually every alphabet-soup-ass advanced metric that our basketball-watching world’s finest nerds have conceived.
One of the teams vying with Jokić’s Nuggets for the top spot out West: The Thunder, whose rise to the NBA’s second-best net rating has been fueled by Gilgeous-Alexander building on last season’s All-NBA First Team honors with an even more jaw-dropping encore. The 25-year-old is on pace to become just the fifth guard ever to average more than 30 points, five rebounds and five assists per game with a true shooting percentage (which factors in 2-point, 3-point and free-throw accuracy) north of .600 … and only the third to do it while also leading the league in steals, joining Michael Jordan (who did it twice, in the 1987-88 and ’89-’90 seasons) and Stephen Curry (2015-16). A modest proposal: When that’s the company you’re keeping, you start the All-Star Game.
Joining SGA in the West backcourt: Dončić, sitting second in the NBA in scoring and third in assists while also pulling in 8.5 rebounds per game.
Dallas scores 119.4 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with Dončić on the floor, thanks in part to him shooting 37.3% from deep (a career high) on more than 10 attempts per game (ditto) with his sharper-than-ever stepback profiling as one of the most formidable offensive weapons in the sport. The advanced stats love Luka — he’s in or around the top five in estimated plus-minus, value over replacement player, box plus-minus, player efficiency rating, The BBall Index’s LEBRON and a host of other metrics — and for good reason: His play stands as the primary reason the Mavericks have been able to weather injuries to No. 2 option Kyrie Irving, prized rookie center Dereck Lively II and multiple other key contributors to stay in the hunt for a top-six spot in a crowded West.
While those three selections felt like no-brainers, the two frontcourt spots next to Jokić were a bit trickier, with a number of all-time greats plus plenty of new blood all richly deserving of consideration. I wound up whittling a longer list down to four names for two slots … and I was honestly kind of surprised where I ended up.
Kevin Durant’s been customarily incendiary, averaging 29.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game, shooting 55.5% from 2-point range on one of the toughest shot diets in the sport and drilling a career-high 45.5% of his triples. He’s been the steadiest leading light in an injury-laden first half in Phoenix, suiting up more often than Devin Booker or Bradley Beal and averaging 37.1 minutes per game, third-most in the NBA — absurd for a 35-year-old with an injury docket as thick as KD’s.
Perhaps even more absurd: LeBron James, at age 39, averaging 25-7-7 on .612 true shooting and profiling, by multiple metrics, as one of the 10 best players in the league in his 21st season. A Lakers squad scuffling around .500 has outscored opponents by 2.2 points per 100 possessions with LeBron on the court, and been outscored by 4.4 points per 100 with him off it — the largest on-court/off-court split on the team. LeBron and KD were first and third, respectively, in the third round of fan voting; they very well might both get the starting nods. That would be perfectly reasonable. I mean, they’re LeBron and KD, you know?
To the extent that the Lakers have stayed afloat in the Western Conference playoff picture, though, it’s been due to a defense that sits just outside the top 10 in half-court efficiency — and that all starts with Davis.
That L.A. has managed to stay just above league-average in points allowed per possession despite opponents shooting 38.4% against them from deep for the season — including a scorching, and unsustainably unlucky, 40% in Davis’ minutes — speaks to how effectively AD can short-circuit an opposing offense, how many mistakes he can erase behind the Lakers’ often-leaky point-of-attack defenders and how much of a menace he is patrolling the back line. AD averages nearly 6.5 blocks, steals and deflections per game — he’s second in the NBA in “stocks” — and is holding opponents to 52.6% shooting at the rim, the ninth-stingiest mark among 136 players to contest at least 100 up-close shots, according to Second Spectrum. (He’s been a beast in space, too: Opponents are shooting just 30.8% against him in isolation, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game charting, an 84th percentile mark league-wide.)
Davis is doing all of that on defense while also averaging 25 points per game on 58% shooting inside the arc, grabbing 12 rebounds and dishing nearly four assists a night, and serving as one of the game’s most dominant scoring threats on the block, on the offensive glass and in the paint. That kind of all-around excellence has made him a top-eight player in the league, according to a slew of all-in-one metrics … and that, combined with a nearly 200-minute edge over fellow Laker LeBron, made him a deserving selection to start for the West in my eyes.
There’s no significant playing time gap among James, Leonard and Durant, and they’ve all got glittering statistical résumés, advanced and otherwise. So I just went with the dude I thought has played the best … and that’s Leonard, whose return to health and stellar two-way play have helped propel the Clippers on their hellacious run toward the top of the Western Conference standings.
The arrival of James Harden to serve as the Clips’ primary playmaker has both eased Kawhi’s overall shot-creation burden and spiked his efficiency. He’s shooting 55.5% inside the arc, including a career-best 79% inside the restricted area, and a scorching 44.3% from long distance; among 98 players getting at least 50 touches per game, Leonard ranks third in points per touch, trailing only MVP frontrunner Embiid and Utah ace Lauri Markkanen.
Leonard has been the most devastating one-on-one scorer in the NBA this season. Including plays where he passes out rather than shooting, his isolations have produced 1.245 points per possession, according to Synergy, the best mark in the league among players who’ve finished at least 75 such plays. And he’s been nearly as good damn near everywhere else: in transition, shooting out of the pick-and-roll, spotting up away from the action, running dribble handoffs, cutting off the ball, you name it.
He’s averaging 25 points per game on .653 true shooting since the Clippers shook up their starting lineup, while also defending at a level above what James, Durant and, frankly, most other players have managed. Kawhi ranks third in the NBA in steals and seventh in deflections; he’s guarding everybody from Stephen Curry to Victor Wembanyama, and doing it with terrifying effectiveness.
I think Kawhi has been a top-five player in the entire league over the past two months — the lead dog and difference-maker on a team that once again looks like the championship contender of Steve Ballmer’s dreams — and, to me, that consistent elevation into the most rarefied air trumps even the excellent cases of his all-time peers. He gets the start.
FC Joel Embiid, 76ers
If you’d like a fairly concise argument for why I voted for Embiid — well, as concise as I get, anyway — check out why I chose him as my midseason MVP in last week’s Half Season Awards. If you’d like an even more concise one, please watch this video of him SCORING SEVENTY FRIGGIN’ POINTS AGAINST THE SPURS:
The Bucks’ two-time MVP doesn’t need much of an introduction, either. Antetokounmpo trails only Embiid and Dončić in scoring, averaging 31.3 points per game on 60.5% shooting to go with 6.2 dimes — all career highs.
After years of all of us grousing at how often he’d take his time to line one up, he’s curbed his appetite for jumpers — just 1.8 3-point attempts per game, his fewest since 2015, with long midrangers accounting for just 9% of his shot diet — choosing instead to redouble his efforts as the league’s premier battering ram. Giannis is taking 83% of his field-goal attempts inside the free-throw line, and scoring a whopping 21 points per game in the paint — tops in the league, a career high, and the most of any NBA player since Year 1 of the Threepeat Shaq, nearly a quarter-century ago. And for as much trouble as Milwaukee had on defense under since-ousted head coach Adrian Griffin, the Bucks have prevented points at a league-average clip with the former Defensive Player of the Year on the court (and like a near-top-five unit when he’s been split from reserve big Bobby Portis). Whatever static the Bucks and new bench boss Doc Rivers need to smooth out to fortify their chances of title contention, those chances, as they have for years, start with Giannis; he should start here, too.
We round out the frontcourt with Tatum, continuing to put up sterling numbers — 27 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game on .599 true shooting, a career-best 57% on drives to the basket — as one of the smoothest, most complete wings the game has to offer. It sometimes feels like the gravest sin the Celtics’ superstar has committed is not being several inches taller and 50 pounds heavier, like the Jaegers that have dominated the top of the MVP ballot for the last half-decade. His redemption lies in being the best player on the NBA’s best team — the odds-on favorite to win this year’s title, thanks in large part to the extremely high floor established by Tatum’s pristine two-way play.
Those three were easy entries on my Eastern ballot; Haliburton was the fourth instant addition. Whether or not you bought my argument for him as this season’s Most Improved Player last week, the facts of the case for the Pacers point guard to start in Indianapolis feel irrefutable.
He has been arguably the best offensive player in the NBA this season, leading an Indiana attack that paces the league (sorry) in offensive efficiency. His 360-degree court vision, ambidextrous lasers and table-setting panache combine to supercharge the Pacers’ attack: He’s creating 41.8 points per 100 possessions through assists, which is not only the most in the league this season, but would be the most in PBP Stats’ database, which goes back to 2000. His shooting plays an integral role, too; the only other players combining long-distance volume and accuracy like Haliburton are Paul George, C.J. McCollum and Tyler Herro.
Haliburton marries style with substance like few other players in the league, playing with an effusive joy that made the Pacers the darlings of the inaugural in-season tournament and has kept Indiana in the hunt for a postseason berth. He wears superstardom well … if not, necessarily, everything else.
That left one backcourt spot for a half-dozen options. Trae Young, once again, has produced incredible numbers — 26.9 points per game (10th in the NBA), 10.8 assists and 27.4 assist points created per game (second in both categories only to Haliburton) per game — but, once again, has done so for a Hawks team that has underwhelmed, that is under .500, that is 26th in points allowed per possession, thanks in part to the perpetual struggle to build something solid on that end around him, and that has been outscored by three points per 100 in his minutes. Derrick White has been everything Boston could have asked for: arguably the best backcourt defender in the NBA, a dynamic pick-and-roll scorer, knockdown spot-up shooter and off-ball cutter, a player whose constant contributions to winning leap off the page in an advanced statistical profile that ranks among the league’s best. When it came down to it, though, I couldn’t elevate a guard who’s been the fourth option on his excellent team into a starting spot over competitors who’ve had to shoulder more significant burdens.
Tyrese Maxey has vaulted into the No. 2 spot in Philadelphia, taking the reins from James Harden and scarcely missing a beat, posting career highs in scoring and playmaking for a near-top-five offense and actually slashing his turnover rate despite dramatic increases in usage rate, touches per game and time of possession. Damian Lillard’s adjustment to life as a co-pilot hasn’t been quite as smooth. (There’s been a lot of that going around at Fiserv Forum.) But he’s still averaging 25.3 points and 6.8 assists per game, still pairing high usage and shooting efficiency at an elite level and still the primary playmaker for a top-five offense.
Ultimately, though, I wound up choosing between Donovan Mitchell and Jalen Brunson — the lead guards of teams that clashed in last spring’s first round and, as they currently sit just percentage points apart in the race for fourth in the East, might well be on a collision course again.
In addition to top-notch scoring and playmaking for the NBA’s No. 9 offense, Brunson has been an absolute tank for New York, missing just two games and ranking 10th in the NBA in total minutes. Thanks to an early season right hamstring strain and a bout with illness before Christmas, Mitchell has played nine fewer games and 332 fewer minutes. That’s a big gap — a combination of quantity and quality that would absolutely justify a nod in Brunson’s direction.
But Mitchell deserves his fair share of credit, too, for the gigantic role he’s played in keeping Cleveland not only afloat, but just ahead of New York in that home-court chase, despite the Cavaliers playing without two of their four best players for the last six weeks — a hurdle Brunson hasn’t had to leap for a Knicks team that, with the exception of Mitchell Robinson’s ankle injury, has largely remained healthy.
Since Darius Garland joined Evan Mobley on the shelf, Mitchell has averaged just under 28 points and eight assists per game on .591 true shooting while carrying the league’s seventh-highest usage rate. So many Cavs have been feasting during this East-leading 13-4 run since Dec. 15 — Jarrett Allen making two-thirds of his shots in the paint, Sam Merrill and Dean Wade drilling better than 40% of their triples, Isaac Okoro shooting 42% from the corners, et al. — as Cleveland has looked to make up for its missing starters with a more free-flowing offensive style predicated on pushing the pace and launching more 3-pointers. At the heart of that is Mitchell, who demands a defense’s total attention off the dribble and has become one of the league’s best at leveraging those eyeballs into open looks: Cleveland has scored nearly 122 points per 100 with him on the court in this stretch, and just under 105 points per 100 with him off it, according to NBA Advanced Stats.
Combine that with the role he’s played in Cleveland’s No. 2-ranked defense — he’s second in the NBA in steals and sixth in deflections, disruptions that help kickstart what’s been a top-three transition attack — and Mitchell has profiled as a top-10 player by advanced metrics like EPM, BPM, LEBRON and DARKO, while also edging Brunson in PER and VORP. (In fairness, Brunson gets the duke in both total win shares and win shares per 48 minutes.)
It’s a coin-flip, but that, plus the degree-of-difficulty component to pushing Cleveland into home-court position amid the injuries, was enough to give Mitchell my last spot. And if the balky hamstring that’s cost Haliburton seven games in the last two weeks (and counting) winds up requiring an injury replacement, Brunson would be my first call.
Whew. OK. Now that I’ve explained my reasoning for the part of the exercise that does matter, let’s turn attention to the portion that is irrelevant: who I’d pick as reserves to round out each roster.
While fans, players and media members vote on starting lineups, NBA coaches alone decide the composition of each conference’s bench mob; what I think is wholly immaterial to the proceedings. Which, if I’m being honest: Kind of invigorating!
Here are the seven players from each conference — three frontcourt players, two guards, and two “wild cards,” which can come from either group — that I’d pick to complete the 2024 NBA All-Star Game rosters:
FC LeBron James, Lakers
FC Kevin Durant, Suns
FC Paul George, Clippers
G Devin Booker, Suns
WC Stephen Curry, Warriors
WC De’Aaron Fox, Kings
LeBron and KD, my last two cuts from the starting frontcourt, take seats on the bench.
There are a ton of worthy candidates for the final slot up front. Rudy Gobert, about whom I just waxed rhapsodic as the Defensive Player of the First Half, merits consideration for his work in transforming the Timberwolves into the league’s best defense and, accordingly, a team vying for the No. 1 seed in the West. Lauri Markkanen has been a force of nature in Salt Lake City, averaging just under 24 points and nine rebounds per game on pristine 49/39/88 shooting splits as the organizing principle of a Jazz team that has bounced back from a 7-16 start to put itself squarely in the play-in mix.
Domantas Sabonis is putting up just under 20-13-8 on 60% shooting, continuing to ply his trade as the balletic and bruising offensive hub of a Kings team that’s just a game out of fifth in the West. Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram have played key roles in pushing the Pelicans past their post-in-season-tournament doldrums and to within hailing distance of home-court. Youngsters like Alperen Şengün, Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama have all sparkled. (I recently covered their cases.)
In the end, though, I settled on George, who’s been providing a lot of everything — high-usage and high-efficiency scoring, complementary playmaking with a career-low turnover rate, high-volume and high-accuracy perimeter shooting, excellent on- and off-ball defense — for a Clippers team that’s been as good as it gets for the past couple of months. As much as Kawhi’s mastery and Harden’s maestro act, what’s driven L.A.’s rise up the standings is George’s malleability — his capacity to shine whether playing a primary role or getting in where he fits in while the other stars go off; his comfort running pick-and-roll or running off pindowns and flares on the weak side; his ability to stress and distort defenses whether he’s cooking with the ball or just moving without it. That’s what makes these Clips sing, and what makes him an All-Star pick for me.
Slotting in George pushes the aforementioned deserving big dudes down into wild-card contention … which is unfortunate for them, because holy crap, are there a ton of great guards here, too.
Edwards has been the best player on the team that’s led the Western Conference for much of the first half, posting career highs virtually across the board (25.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.2 assists on .582 true shooting) while continuing to grow as an on-ball Doberman who helps elevate Minnesota to the ranks of the league’s best defense. He’s a bona fide No. 1 option and a burgeoning two-way superstar; he’s in. Believe that.
For my money, Booker’s been the best of the group of Western star guards who’ve missed time. He’s turned in top-flight work in his maiden voyage as a full-time point guard, averaging a career-best 7.5 assists per game while remaining a steady caretaker, turning the ball over on just 11% of Phoenix’s offensive possessions. He’s managed that playmaking level-up while still scoring more than 27 points per game on 49/39/88 shooting splits and serving as the bellwether of the NBA’s No. 8 offense. The Suns have scored nearly 125 points per 100 with Booker on the floor and just under 112 points per 100 with him off it; he has kept that offense elite without Durant, without Beal and, when necessary, without either of them. That’s worth an All-Star nod to me.
That leaves us with a handful of players scraping for the wild-card spots … and, with all due respect to the other contenders, the idea of leaving Curry off the team to make space for them felt unseemly.
The Warriors have gone through both small-scale misery and large-scale tragedy this season, but through it all, Steph has, for the most part, remained Steph: nearly 27 points and five assists per game, 40.1% from 3-point range on an audacious-yet-still-somehow-not-enough 11.3 attempts per game, a top-10 offensive player and virtual guarantor of a top-10-caliber offense irrespective of Draymond Green’s absences, Chris Paul’s injuries, Andrew Wiggins’ disappearance or any of the myriad other issues that have befallen the Warriors on the court this season. Other players have roughly commensurate, and perhaps arguably superior, statistical cases. But none of them is Steph. If that rationale strikes you as insufficient … well, the good news is: This doesn’t matter, because I am not a coach of a Western Conference team. (Yet.)
Down to my last spot. The reward-the-best-team argument would lean Gobert. The advanced statistical argument points toward Markkanen (whose play during Utah’s recent 15-7 run has skyrocketed him into top-15ish territory in a bunch of alphabet-soup stats) or Sabonis (who’s sixth in win shares and seventh in VORP). If I’m being honest, though, I think that Fox — 27.4 points, 5.6 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game, a career-best 39% from 3 on by far the highest volume of his career, a minuscule 9.6% turnover rate — has been better, on a better team, than Markkanen, and been a bigger driver of success on said better team than Sabonis. When Fox has played without Sabonis this season, the Kings have outscored opponents by 3.2 points per 100; when Sabonis has flown solo, Sacramento has been outscored by twice that amount. Fox is in. Sorry, Domas.
Apologies to: Sabonis, Gobert, Markkanen, Şengün, Zion, BI, Chet, Wemby, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jamal Murray, C.J. McCollum (I tried, Jennifer), Desmond Bane, Jalen Williams, Fred VanVleet
FC Bam Adebayo, Heat
FC Jaylen Brown, Celtics
FC Julius Randle, Knicks
G Jalen Brunson, Knicks
G Tyrese Maxey, 76ers
WC Damian Lillard, Bucks
WC Scottie Barnes, Raptors
Brunson and Maxey go into the East backcourt right away. (For more on their excellent seasons, check out my recent breakdown of their first-time All-Star cases.)
On a per-minute and per-possession basis, both Jimmy Butler and Kristaps Porziņģis have pretty strong cases. In sum, though, neither has cracked 1,000 minutes, and with as many other options as we’ve got who’ve been excellent in more floor time, I looked elsewhere. Like, for example, elsewhere in their own locker rooms.
Brown is the No. 2 option on the best team in the NBA. He’s shrugged off a sluggish start, averaging better than 24 points per game on .603 true shooting over his last 25 games. He’s a monster shot creator and maker in the midrange, using his strength, quickness and athleticism to create space from defenders off the dribble and underrated touch to knock down nearly 50% of his tries in the in-between game. He injects welcome chaos for the Celtics on the break; according to Synergy, only SGA has finished more possessions in transition than Brown, who’s producing 1.22 points per trip on those plays, shooting 57%. His advanced statistical profile lags behind some of the other options, but as a high-volume producer and two-way stalwart for what’s been an elite team on both ends in his minutes, he gets the nod.
Adebayo just keeps getting better. While the customary suite of injuries and absences have the Heat once again flirting with play-in territory, Bam has done yeoman’s work to keep them afloat. Miami’s just outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency by dint of his all-encompassing skill at neutralizing threats inside and out; the Heat have defended like the second-best unit in the league in Bam’s minutes and like a near-bottom-five outfit with him on the bench. He erases would-be penetrators in isolation, makes drivers think twice about attempting shots around the rim, guards 1 through 5 to a degree few other players in the league are capable of approximating — and he does it all while averaging 21.4 points, 10.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, all career highs, and shooting 50% from the floor. Sounds like an All-Star to me.
So does Randle, although, like Brown, the advanced numbers don’t necessarily love his candidacy. I’ve written about this before: The evident valleys in Randle’s game — the lapses in defensive effort, the sometimes unsightly pell-mell drives into traffic that turn into turnovers, the forced jab-step jumpers that clang loudly awry — sometimes lead fans to overlook his towering, and more frequent, peaks.
After a dismal first six games, Randle has averaged 25-9-5 on 50% shooting for nearly three months. He’s pressuring the rim more and finishing there at a near-career-high rate. He’s attacking with more frequency and effectiveness in the pick-and-roll, making him a driving force behind New York’s top-10 offense. He’s too often a passive participant on the other end of the court, but his size and defensive rebounding help; the Knicks have defended at a league-average rate in Randle’s minutes, and when you factor in what he’s providing in shot creation and finishing, that’ll do.
Randle’s also been something close to a constant, suiting up for all 44 of the Knicks games and playing some 600 more minutes than the likes of Butler and Porziņģis. In the context of a postseason series, you’d opt for the higher upside of those players — the way they vault a team’s ceiling and chances of championship contention. In this half-season sample, though, the near-certainty of Randle’s production for a Knicks team that now ranks sixth in the NBA in net rating — and boasts the NBA’s best record since adding O.G. Anunoby — is awfully nice to bank on and merits recognition.
That leaves me with a whole bunch of players for two wild-card spots. One went to Lillard, who — in what’s been a “down” half season while trying to adjust to new teammates, a new system, a new pecking order and a new (lower) level of usage — has still been a top-15-or-so player by multiple advanced metrics and has served as arguably the main reason that Milwaukee’s been the NBA’s best in the clutch. May all of our struggles look like 25 and 7 on .600 true shooting for a team with a .705 winning percentage.
For the last one, with apologies to some excellent dudes on winning teams, I felt compelled to reward Barnes for the significant growth he’s shown in bouncing back from his sophomore stagnation.
Yes, Barnes toils for a Raptors team that’s plummeting toward the bottom of the Eastern standings, thanks to finally becoming OK with its decay. But he’s also the reason (or one of them, anyway) Masai Ujiri and Co. finally felt emboldened to choose that path — their best and most believable argument that a brighter future lay ahead, because of how good he already looks in the present.
His growth as a pick-and-roll playmaker and a much more reliable jump shooter — 49% on long midrange looks, 36.7% from 3-point range on nearly twice as many attempts (5.5) as last season (2.9) — has opened up his offensive game, giving defenses enough to worry about from outside that they give him a bit more space to bust them up on the interior, where he’s shooting 70% at the rim. He’s an all-around menace on the defensive end, averaging 5.5 steals, blocks and deflections per 36 minutes of floor time while routinely defending elite offensive players of all shapes and sizes; Barnes leads the NBA in The BBall Index’s defensive positional versatility metric. He’s in the lineup every night — only Coby White, DeMar DeRozan and Randle have played more minutes — and he slots in right alongside Tatum and Mitchell on the value over replacement player leaderboard.
Moving players like Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, and in the process bidding farewell to the best era in franchise history, is hard. It gets a little bit easier, though, when you know you’ve got someone like Barnes to build around: a two-way difference-maker, an ascendant young talent, and a deserving All-Star.
Apologies to: Butler, Porziņģis, Young, White, Siakam, Jarrett Allen, Paolo Banchero