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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Predicting 2021 NBA All-Star Reserves

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The NBA All-Star starters are set. Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Nikola Jokic will represent the West in Atlanta on March 7. For the East, it’ll be Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid.   

    Now comes the hard part: picking seven more players from each conference (two backcourt, three frontcourt and two wild cards) to fill out the reserves.

    Coaches will make these selections, and we’re going to approach this as if they’ll choose correctly. In that sense, this is as much a guess about who will make each roster as it is who should.

    The list of snubs this year seems longer than ever, but somebody’s got to make the tough decisions.

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    OK, sure, James Harden essentially quit on the Houston Rockets. We can’t deny that.

    Reasonable minds can disagree, but that’s not a disqualification for my money. And if you’re just looking at Harden’s production and impact this year, you can’t keep him off the East roster.

    The Beard is leading the league in assists per game and has quickly assuaged any concerns about his willingness to play a more team-oriented style. Instead of isolating up top while four teammates stand and watch him, which was the accepted style in Houston, Harden is moving the ball and functioning as a point guard for a Brooklyn Nets offense that might go down as the best in history.

    The Nets’ scoring success isn’t all because of Harden. His superstar teammates make life easier for him. But Brooklyn’s post-trade success has a lot to do with the 2017-18 MVP’s willingness to ditch his old ways.

    Harden has been very efficient for his entire career, but he’s currently on pace to post his highest true shooting percentage since he came off the bench for the Thunder in 2011-12. He’s even shooting over 40.0 percent from three since joining the Nets, which would mark the first time he’s ever cracked that barrier.

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Jaylen Brown was a fringe consideration for the 2020 All-Star roster, and all he’s done in the intervening year is get better…at everything. 

    His 26.0 points per game are a career high, and Brown has never scored more efficiently despite increasing his role in the offense. Usually, more volume means lower conversion rates. Not so for Brown.

    The 24-year-old was once a clear second fiddle to Jayson Tatum, but he is now conducting the symphony just as often as his more heralded teammate. Brown is the youngest in a group of 11 qualified players this season to have a true shooting percentage above 59 and a a usage rate above 30 percent. That’s the mark of a truly elite scoring threat. Real superstar stuff.

    Much was made of Brown’s unsustainably hot jump shooting to start the season, and he has leveled off a bit. But he’s still canning over half his shots from the field and making 40.9 percent of his triples. Throw in an assist rate that ranks in the 90th percentile among wings and above-average marks for his position in block, steal and rebound rates, and Brown’s profile is about as perfectly rounded as you’ll find.

    Once a straight-line driver and unsubtle finisher, Brown’s game is now defined as much by skill as athleticism. His handle is tighter, his change-of-pace game is harder to predict, and his vision is demonstrably improved. Those in-between shots have fallen at higher rates this season because Brown is just flat-out better in traffic than he’s ever been before.

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    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    The Miami Heat haven’t played like the team that reached the NBA Finals last year, but injury, fatigue and the toll of health and safety protocols are mostly at fault.

    Exempted from all blame: Bam Adebayo.

    The Heat’s multiskilled center has upped his usage and, due in part to the emergence of a reliable mid-range jumper, bumped his scoring efficiency up a notch. He’s shooting 57.3 percent from the field and 84.1 percent from the foul line, a major improvement from the 69.1 percent he hit from the stripe a year ago. Adebayo remains the hub of a pass-heavy Heat offense, and his 5.3 assists per game are a career high.

    The most promising development in Adebayo’s fourth season is his self-sufficiency. He’s been set up on only 62.6 percent of his two-point field goals, the lowest rate of his career. A quick first step (especially when faking dribble handoffs) and that mid-ranger have made Adebayo a much more dangerous independent scorer than he’s ever been. He’s also getting to the line 6.0 times per game, which is another career high.

    With perimeter switchability and solid rim protection to go with averages of 19.9 points, 9.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists, Adebayo checks all of the boxes for an All-Star.

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Jayson Tatum has offset a slight dip in his three-point accuracy (38.9 percent after hitting 40.3 last year) by upping his conversion rates almost everywhere else on the floor. Most importantly for a guy who used to get caught shoving off or avoiding contact inside, Tatum has developed as a finisher and is hitting a career-high 67.4 percent of his shots within three feet.

    An elite high-volume pull-up shooter, Tatum is also hitting 37.6 percent of his threes off the bounce. Among players who’ve attempted as many triples off the dribble as he has, only Stephen Curry and Zach LaVine have been more accurate.

    Tatum’s rise-and-fire threat means his 25.8 points per game are no surprise. His 4.7 assists per game, though? Those are unexpected. The new facilitating dimension in Tatum’s game is a result of two things: his naturally evolving feel and the fact that opposing defenders all over the floor have to shade his way. When opponents take that extra half-step toward him or risk a split-second glance away from their man, Tatum is now diming up teammates.

    The Boston Celtics are short on quality reserves and have gotten nothing close to what they need from Kemba Walker. It’s a good thing Tatum is in the midst of his best season yet.

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Khris Middleton has long been a model of efficient scoring, but this has been a banner year even by his lofty standards.

    After missing out on a 50-40-90 season by only three made field goals last year (Middleton was 471-of-947; he needed to go 474-of-947 to get there), the Milwaukee Bucks wing is leaving no doubt this time around. He’s shredding the nets with a 51.0/44.2/90.2 split while also blowing past his previous career best in assists by handing out 5.8 per game.

    Among the dozen players currently averaging at least 20 points, five assists and five rebounds per game, Middleton’s true shooting percentage ranks fifth.

    The Bucks aren’t as dominant this year as they’ve been over the last two seasons, when gaudy net ratings and winning percentages practically demanded they get at least a pair of All-Star nods. That shouldn’t impact Middleton’s worthiness. He’s a dynamite three-level scorer who can set up teammates and handles the toughest wing assignments on D.

    When Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum (to name just four examples) line up across from the Bucks, Middleton is the one who logs the most defensive possessions against them.

    An All-Star the last two seasons, Middleton is a no-brainer selection in 2021 as well.

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    One good way to win an argument is to raise the other side’s best point first. You know, take the steam out preemptively. So, here goes: The Philadelphia 76ers get smoked when Ben Simmons plays without Joel Embiid.

    If you don’t want Simmons on the East All-Star team, that glaring failure is where you start.

    But Philly also stinks when Embiid plays without Simmons, so all we know for sure is that the Sixers are great when their two best players are on the floor but get outscored whenever one or the other is on the bench.

    Simmons’ individual stats are strong. He’s averaging 15.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.8 blocks per game, five-category figures unmatched by any other player this season. Also unequaled (by any player with at least 500 minutes): Simmons’ league-leading plus-2.6 defensive box plus/minus.

    One last distinguishing stat combo: LeBron James, Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic are the only other players with at least 200 assists and 200 rebounds in 2020-21.

    Defense isn’t always a focus of the All-Star selection process, but we have to consider that aspect of the game when evaluating a player’s overall quality—particularly in an extreme case like this one. Simmons is on the short list of the league’s best and most versatile stoppers. He’s a problem for point guards on the perimeter and can bang with all but the heftiest interior forces.

    Sure, his lack of outside shooting is an issue. But Simmons is so valuable in every other area that he makes up for that one conspicuous shortcoming.

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Trae Young beat out a deserving list of candidates for this final spot but, man, this one was agonizing.

    In the end, Young’s main selling points were his massively positive on-off impact and his critical offensive responsibilities for the Atlanta Hawks.

    Oh, also his stupidly good individual numbers. Let’s hit those first.

    Young and Luka Doncic are the only players in the league averaging at least 25 points and nine assists, and Young’s sorcerous foul-drawing guile gives him the narrowest of edges over the Dallas Mavericks superstar in true shooting percentage. There are better individual scorers than Young, and there might even be a few players with keener and more creative passing skills. But it’s difficult to come up with anyone as effective in both the scoring and passing realms.

    As far as “offense unto himself” players go, Young is about as good as it gets.

    The Hawks are 14.5 points per 100 possessions better when Young is on the floor, a huge differential that surprisingly includes improved play on the defensive end, where Young’s presence shaves 2.5 points per 100 possessions off Atlanta’s defensive rating. Among players we’ve covered here, only Embiid and Kawhi Leonard boost their teams’ on-off net rating by a larger figure.

    The Hawks can hardly get the ball over half court without Young in the game, let alone score respectably. Young’s usage rate, which is the fifth-highest in the league, speaks to the load he carries every night. Some might argue Young could be a bigger help if he gave up the rock and leveraged his gravity by moving off the ball more, and if we’re being honest, “some” are probably right.

    But that’s just a way to make Young even better. He’s already good enough to secure this last All-Star berth in the East.

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Damian Lillard might be the easiest reserve pick on the board. All he’s done this year is rack up averages of 29.8 points, 7.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds with a 45.1/38.4/93.3 shooting split while leading the Portland Trail Blazers to six straight wins ahead of Thursday’s release of the West’s starters.

    Dame was no bystander in those victories. He hit four threes in the final 4:11 to bury the Oklahoma City Thunder on Feb. 16 and nailed the game-sealing and-1 layup to ice the New Orleans Pelicans the very next night. Late-game efforts like those have long been part of Lillard’s profile, but it seems like the clocks have hit Dame Time more often than usual this season.

    No surprise, Lillard’s clutch numbers are obscene. He leads the league with 82 points in close-and-late situations, hitting 63.2 percent of his shots overall and 58.8 percent from deep. That’s almost impossible to fathom when every defense knows who’s going to shoot it when the stakes are highest.

    The Blazers are 12-3 in games where the score is within five points in the final five minutes, and the biggest reason is Lillard’s unflappable closing confidence.

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Devin Booker is the better scorer, and De’Aaron Fox has taken a leap. But neither of those dynamic young guards had what it took to beat the Point God out for this last reserve backcourt position.

    Chris Paul is averaging 17.2 points, 8.2 assists and 4.7 rebounds while also owning the highest player efficiency rating (20.4), box plus/minus (3.9) and win share total (3.2) of the trio of guards in contention for this spot. He’s taken a step back defensively in his age-35 season, but all that really means is he’s no longer part of the conversation about the league’s absolute best backcourt defenders.

    His smarts, competitiveness, anticipation and strength give him significant edges over Fox and Booker on D.

    Of the players considered here, Fox performs the heaviest lifts every night. He has less help than Paul and Booker who, in addition to each other, have a supporting cast full of quality two-way players, capable wings and real depth. Assuming Anthony Davis isn’t healthy enough to play, it’ll be easy to slide Fox into one of the vacated reserve spots.

    Paul, though, is the most important player on a Phoenix Suns team that should finish among the West’s top four. And if you really want to strip away the stats (which clearly favor Paul), he’s also the guy you’d trust most to take over a game, make the right decisions and generally play the best “winning” basketball.

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    The Utah Jazz own the NBA’s top record and net rating, and they’ve absolutely crushed the opposition over the last calendar month, reeling off a 15-1 mark since Jan. 18.

    Rudy Gobert is the Jazz’s most irreplaceable contributor, and generally speaking, the best player on the best team is a complete lock for an All-Star berth. We don’t have to rely on oversimplifications like that, though. Gobert’s production would earn him a spot if the Jazz were playing .500 ball.

    The two-time Defensive Player of the Year is the key to everything Utah’s second-ranked defense does. 

    Jazz opponents attempt far fewer shots at the rim with Gobert in the game and, more telling, their field-goal percentage at that range drops by 4.7. Gobert’s presence even impacts short mid-rangers. If we parse that data more finely, limiting it to include close-range shots where Gobert is tagged as the primary defender, his influence only becomes more obvious.

    Opponents’ conversion rates inside six feet drops by 12.3 percent in those situations, an elite figure made all the more meaningful by the fact that Gobert is second in the league in total contests at that range.

    Add all of that up, and Gobert’s case for a third DPOY award is stronger than anyone’s.

    Offensively, the big man’s high-frequency, high-impact screening is vital to Utah’s movement-heavy attack. Among players who’ve logged at least 300 minutes this year, Gobert is the league leader with 18.9 screen assist points per game. Oh, and Utah also averages 1.37 points per possession when Gobert is the dive man in the pick-and-roll, which ranks in the 88th percentile leaguewide.

    If you want to dumb it all the way down, Gobert is averaging 13.9 points, 13.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks while shooting 63.8 percent overall. No one in league history has ever produced those four-category figures over a full season.

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Paul George has missed 10 games, and if you want to leave him off the All-Star team for that reason, well…that’s probably justifiable. But when available, PG’s play this season has been beyond All-Star caliber.

    Start with his three-point shooting, which can only be described as historic. He’s at 47.8 percent from deep on 7.9 attempts per game. That’s on pace to be the highest hit rate by any player in a season in which he averaged at least seven triples per game.

    That figure is bound to come down, but George isn’t a one-dimensional chucker. He’s made six previous All-Star Games because he’s among the league’s most complete two-way players. Although he isn’t challenging for the steals crown like he used to annually, you can forgive diminished defensive activity from a guy in his age-30 season with a usage rate in the 95th percentile among forwards.

    George is averaging 24.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and a career-high 5.5 assists per game, and the Los Angeles Clippers are 10.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor. His 66.2 true shooting percentage is fourth in the league among players who’ve attempted at least 300 shots, and the only season George has ever had with a higher PER or box plus/minus was 2018-19, when he finished third in MVP voting.

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Anthony Davis’ strained Achilles might keep him out of action during the All-Star Game, but that shouldn’t preclude him from making the team. Besides, if he doesn’t play, one of the half-dozen other genuinely deserving candidates will get a nod.

    That’s a win-win.

    AD might have been in the midst of a down year by his standards, but most players in the league would welcome averages of 22.5 points, 8.4 boards, 3.0 assists and 1.8 blocks. Though his three-point shooting hasn’t progressed since last season (29.3 percent after 33.0 percent a year ago), Davis has been more accurate from ever near the basket. His hit rates of 78.8 percent inside three feet, 58.8 percent from 3-10 feet and 49.4 percent from 10-16 feet are all career bests.

    The most complete two-way big in the game may have been hampered by injury and/or taken things a little bit easy following last year’s title run. But there’s no case for keeping him off the All-Star roster.

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    If you’re asking which Utah Jazz guard, Mike Conley or Donovan Mitchell, will make a bigger difference come playoff time, or who matters most in the team’s future, or even who’ll have the better second half of the season, the answer is Mitchell. By that logic, this spot should go to him.

    But this isn’t a question about the future. It’s about this season. And there’s no denying that Conley has made a greater positive impact than Mitchell and all but a handful of other guards in the league.

    Conley is averaging 16.5 points, 5.8 assists and 1.4 steals on a 45.0/41.0/81.5 shooting split. Over the last 20 years, a whopping 90 players have made the All-Star Game with scoring averages under 17 points per game. So don’t try to exclude Conley because he isn’t lighting up the scoreboard. This guy is playing All-Star ball, and he’s a major reason the Jazz are atop the league. The advanced numbers and on-off stats prove it.

    Conley is seventh in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR catch-all metric, slotting right between Stephen Curry at No. 6 and Luka Doncic at No. 8. He’s also seventh in ESPN’s real plus-minus, sandwiched between Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. It’s no accident Conley is keeping such elite company.

    The Jazz own the NBA’s best net rating, and Conley’s presence on the court coincides with a team-high plus-15.0 boost to that number. For what it’s worth, Utah is 6.5 points per 100 possessions worse when Mitchell plays.

    If you still aren’t convinced, how about an appeal to your heart?

    Conley is 33 and running out of chances to ditch the title of “best player to never make an All-Star team.” He’s done enough to end the drought.

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Zion Williamson might have made this list if he hadn’t gone on a stat-stuffing streak immediately after the New Orleans Pelicans committed to putting the ball in his hands on the perimeter more often, but his physical dominance during this recent run sealed the deal.

    On the year, Williamson is averaging 25.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists with a 65.9 true shooting percentage. If he manages to sustain his scoring average at that level of efficiency for the balance of the season, he’ll be just the seventh player to pull it off. (Note: Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic are on pace to join him, which would up the total in that player pool to nine.)

    Considering his production has spiked in a new role, Williamson might actually have a shot to challenge Stephen Curry’s 67.5 true shooting percentage from 2017-18, the highest ever recorded by a 25-point scorer.

    In 10 February games, he’s averaging 27.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists on an incomprehensible 72.9 true shooting percentage. 

    Williamson’s size, speed and strength make it impossible for defenders to stick with him when he attacks downhill with a live dribble. Though it once seemed the best use of his gifts was to feed him down low or utilize his gravity as a roll man, it turns out the optimal deployment method is the simplest one: Get him the ball outside the three-point arc in space and let him attack. Toss a screen from a guard in there once in a while if you really want to punish the defense.

    Williamson is still often lost on D and needs to rebound better. But he’s looked more and more like the unstoppable force he was supposed to be coming out of college.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played Wednesday, Feb. 17.

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