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NBA All-Star 2021: Here Are Your Bulletproof NBA All-Star Reserves

When it comes to All-Star starters, the fans speak, with little argument. However, the reserve spots are a different animal, and within control of the league’s brightest minds. To properly validate those that have excelled this season, there should be accountability on getting this part right. Here are the (my) picks.

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Photo by NBA.com (Anne M. Peterson)

Open-mindedness is an important quality to an enriched life. But this isn’t life, this is selecting the NBA All-Star reserves, where there’s a bunch of right answers and some ignorant ones. I personally am very much insistent on the notion that the appropriate All-Star roster (in any sport) should be comprised of the players who have excelled in that specific season. I’m accepting of the fact that the fans are going to vote in the ten players they want to see play in the game. That type of engagement is necessary. Even though there always tends to be a couple of outliers sprinkled in (often due to nostalgia) the process, for the most part, works.

What can be annoying, for lack of a better term, is when coaches botch these reserve guys. Understanding that there will always be qualms with the selections, I guess I just might be one of those purists that values “performance” over “hey, that guy is fun!” I promise, I’m an optimist.

So the NBA All-Star starters were already announced back on February 18th. The reserves are set to be announced later this evening. Before we dive into my reserve picks, it’s key to quickly outline how this part of the selection process actually functions. Here is a snippet from The Sporting News, that explains how the reserve voting method works:

  • The fan vote accounts for 50 percent of the total vote to determine the starters for the NBA All-Star Game. Current players and media members split the other 50 percent. Each ballot consists of two guards and three frontcourt players from each conference. Reserves are chosen by NBA head coaches, and league commissioner Adam Silver chooses injury replacements if necessary.
  • All-Star captains will then draft their teams from the eligible pool of players (starters in the first round, reserves in the second round). Captains will be selected based on which players earn the most fan votes in each conference. They are not required to draft based on conference affiliation or position.

Along with countless others, I have to laugh at the whole “positional structure” of the process, given the league has rapidly developed its on-court product to be one that’s primarily positionless.

Earning the most votes in each conference were LeBron James and Kevin Durant (try your best to digest that shocking outcome), who’ll serve as the team captains. The full starter results panned out like this:

Eastern Conference
F Kevin Durant, Nets
F Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
F Joel Embiid, Sixers
G Kyrie Irving, Nets
G Bradley Beal, Wizards

Western Conference
F LeBron James, Lakers
F Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
F Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
G Luka Doncic, Mavericks
G Stephen Curry, Warriors

I actually have zero issues with these starters. The fans and media members nailed it. The only move I think the league could make here, for sake of flexibility, would be to allow the forward and guard spots to be interchangeable, but keeping the 2-3 format. Instead of mandating three frontcourt and two guard spots, they could implement the reverse, having three guard spots and two frontcourt spots. I do realize that the “frontcourt” label covers both forwards and centers. But, referring back to positionless basketball, especially with today’s rampant use of small-ball lineups, I think it’s reasonable to have three guards occupy starter spots. With this, I might have considered swapping out Kawhi for Damian Lillard, giving the West a three-guard starting lineup.

Let’s get to the fun stuff and stamping these reserve spots, starting with the Eastern Conference. And yes, behind the scenes, I will indeed follow the position structure outlined above.

James Harden, Nets

Yes, there are already two Brooklyn Nets in the starting lineup, but it’s impossible to leave out Harden, who currently leads the entire league in assists (11.4 per game). You could make the argument pretty easily to substitute him into the starting lineup for Kyrie. I’m fine with that. The bottom line is that the Nets are currently second in the East, on a six-game win streak, with much of that resting on the shoulders of Harden, where Kyrie, and particularly Durant, have floated in and out of the lineup. Harden is a lock for a reserve spot, so let’s move on.

Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum, Celtics

On the surface, this might appear to be a two-player selection but notice the “or” here. Let me be very firm in stating that only ONE of these two guys should be chosen. I know that coaches will likely name both of them. That bothers me. I acknowledge that both players have had remarkable seasons so far, but with so much emphasis often placed on team success, the Celtics just don’t cut it. They’ve flopped, especially with high expectations placed on them to be a top seed in the East. For me, with Boston being only a .500 team (15-15), the team’s lack of success should translate (read: penalize) into only one of these players being a representative on the All-Star team I think there are a couple of more deserving players that have lifted their own respective teams to exceed expectations.

When it comes down to which of these two guys should make it, it’s practically a coin toss. Here are some primal numbers between the two to illustrate this razor-thin competition:

PLAYERMINSPTSREBASTSTLTS%VORP
Brown33.725.55.53.91.159.3%1.5
Tatum35.526.07.14.61.356.0%1.5
TS% = True Shooting Percentage
VORP = Value Over Replacement Player

I mean, this is extremely close. Brown has played in three more games and is widely considered the “better” defender by a very slim margin. The scoring and steals are dead even, while Tatum rebounds and passes the ball with slightly more effectiveness. But then Brown shoots the ball better. Tatum is younger, while Brown has taken the bigger leap from last season. I guess it would come down to what you value more. A few more rebounds and assists or an equal level of scoring with better efficiency? Quite literally, a toss-up. I’ll give the slight nod to Brown here, as I think he’s played slightly better in a 2020-21 vacuum. And he has a MUCH better beard. As a bearded guy, that shit’s important to me.

The bottom line though, is that only one of these dudes can go. Sorry.

Julius Randle, Knicks

Remember when I mentioned those guys that have lifted their team beyond expectations? Well, Julius Randle is the absolute poster child for that profile. The guy is having an absolute monster season. Look at revitalized Orange Julius versus his career marks:

PERIODMINSPTSREBAST3PM/G3PT%
2020-2136.823.211.05.51.841.0%
Career29.716.69.23.00.631.7%
3PM/G = 3-point Field Goals Made Per Game

To point out that he’s posting career highs would be a hell of an understatement, and in particular, the gaudy and unexpected assist totals. I mean, where did this play-making come from? He’s always been a solid and willing post player, but logic tells us that he’s improved his vision when passing out of the post. This improved skill alone has enhanced his playmaking ability and overall, has made the Knicks a better offensive team.

Whatever the motivation has been, Randle has been a man possessed. He got serious about his body transformation a couple of years ago and has maintained that focus while flourishing in The Garden.

Inside Look At The Story Behind Lakers' Julius Randle's Body Transformation  | Lakers Nation
Randle’s insane transformation. | Photo by Amoila Cesar 

The only hole in his game right now that one could contest would be the copious amounts of turnovers (currently 9th in the league). But what star player that leads his team in Usage Rate (27.6%), especially with offensive fouls being considered turnovers, wouldn’t suffer from a high turnover total? None, really. Even his defense has been “better.” While the Knicks didn’t get better overnight, they are leading the league in allowing only 103.5 points per game. He’ll never be a defensive anchor, but he’s at least not diminishing the overall cause.

And just look at the team results, considered a significant factor in All-Star placement. The New York Knicks actually do not suck! Right now, they’re sitting in the 7th spot in the Eastern Conference, which means… PLAYOFFS. For the Knicks to be even sniffing the postseason flowers is an accomplishment. The last time this disgruntled franchise made the playoffs was in 2013! Pundits often talk about how “basketball is better” when the Knicks are good. While I don’t subscribe directly to that theory, it’s clear that Randle’s leadership and production have made this team at least relevant again. It’s been a minute.

So what else does a guy have to do to make this team? Ricky O’Donnell over at SBNation wrote an incredible tell-all piece on Randle last week, explaining his transformation and why he’s an All-Star in 2021. Do the right thing coaches and put Randle on the damn team.

Zach LaVine, Bulls

Zach LaVine has become one of my absolute favorite players in the league to watch. His athleticism and above-the-rim highlights alone are worth marveling over. But he’s always been criticized for his inconsistent shooting and efficiency, especially given his increasing shot volume over the years. But not this season. His enhanced shooting is what has him at a whole ‘nother level. Check out his 2020-21 shooting numbers versus his career numbers:

PERIODPPGFG%2PT%3PT%FT%TS%
2020-2128.651.8%57.6%43.4%86.4%64.8%
Career18.545.4%49.3%38.3%82.4%56.5%

His overall numbers are pretty insane. Here is the list of players in the entire league averaging at least 25 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists:

PLAYERPTSREBAST
Stephen Curry, GSW29.95.46.2
Luka Doncic, DAL29.18.69.4
Giannis Antetokounmpo, MIL28.411.95.9
Nikola Jokic, DEN26.611.18.5
LeBron James, LAL25.88.28.1
Zach LaVine, CHI28.65.45.1

Five of those guys were selected as All-Star starters, the other is LaVine. So yeah, him being a reserve choice should be a no-brainer. Granted, the Bulls haven’t exactly been those of the Jordan Era, but they’ve improved recently (14-16 and currently tied for 8th in the East). I shudder to think of how far down the conference standings this team would be if LaVine were removed from the roster.

Domantas Sabonis, Pacers

Sabonis is far from a lock and seems to be the biggest “on the fence” guy when assessing the buzz around the league. Yes, the Pacers’ record should be much better, given their depth, but like a lot of the league, injuries have been challenging for this team. However, Sabonis has been the model of consistency and the biggest reason Indiana is over .500 and in the thick of the playoff race. His dominant level of play has elevated his team and is the biggest reason I feel he deserves the spot over one of the two Celtics mentioned above.

An All-Star last year, Sabonis’ numbers are almost identical in most areas and even improved slightly in others.

SEASONPTSREBASTSTLBLKeFG%
2020-2121.511.65.71.00.756.0%
2019-2018.512.45.00.80.555.0%
Was selected as an All-Star in 2019-20 season

His rebounds are down a fraction but his assists, steals, and blocks are all up, as well as his three-point shooting (and with more attempts). Like Randle earlier in this article, his playmaking is really what makes the significance this season and I feel he is more deserving than some of the other forefront court players in the East.

Ben Simmons, 76ers

Statistically, Simmons hasn’t been one of those players that have taken a giant leap forward this season. In fact, his numbers, as well-rounded as they have been, are slightly down across the board from his previous two seasons, in which he was also selected as an All-Star. But hell, they’re certainly close enough. Despite the minuscule dips, some (The Ringer) feel he’s actually having the best season of his career. The biggest difference this season is that his defense has reached yet another level of excellence and he’s much notoriety within the Defensive Player of the Year conversations. The way he can defend all five positions is practically unmatched throughout the entire league. The buzz is real. And just ask him directly who the best defender in the NBA is.

He’s also one of the most creative playmakers in The Association. That can’t go unacknowledged. As well, alongside Joel Embiid, he’s led the Sixers to the best record in Eastern Conference and that accomplishment is one that should be rewarded with two All-Star selections. Simmons should land one of the two wild-card spots on the team.

Fred VanVleet, Raptors

This second wild-card spot and final selection are where things get tight. Personally, I think “Steady Freddie“ as Raptors announcer Matt Devlin refers to him, has done enough to earn the final spot as a guard (20.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 3.3 3PTM per game). The Raps have made a serious push recently (beating the Bucks twice and the Sixers, amid a four-game win streak) to get back into contention in the East, after starting the season 2-8. Without being able to travel back to Canada, the Raps have essentially been playing a 72-game road trip.

VanVleet’s consistency is one of the biggest reasons for the turnaround. His durability is underrated, having played in every game so far this season, and his numbers are up almost across the board. Key members, including his backcourt teammate Kyle Lowry, have been in and out of the lineup, yet his production never seems to waver. His increased scoring load and his pesky defense have picked Toronto up. He’s proving that freshly-inked contract to be worth every penny. I feel that he and the resurgent Raptors need to be represented in this game.

Eastern Conference Snubs

The game can’t include everyone. There are some guys that just narrowly miss the cut. Here’s paying homage to several other great seasons being had right now.

  • Unfortunately, one of Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown misses out. As outlined above, they’re both deserving, but a team with a .500 record doesn’t deserve two spots, encroaching on one of the other deserving guys. Flip a coin here. Given their remarkable numbers, it’ll feel like robbery, but hey, there’s written and unwritten rules with this stuff.
  • Bam Adebayo is having an incredible season and had taken on more of a scoring role with Jimmy Butler out, but alas, the Heat have only shown signs of life recently and their record isn’t quite good enough (yet).
  • Speaking of Jimmy Butler, a similar narrative applies to him. He’s been great when he’s played, but he’s missed too many games.
  • Jeremi Grant is one of the best stories in the entire league this season. His leap has been incredible and likely summed up by this tweet. But the Pistons are B.A.D. and his credentials don’t overtake any of the other guys.
  • It feels wrong to discount Trae Young, given he’s one of the top scorers in the league, but there has to be an odd man out. His Hawks have been disappointing overall. That’s not all on him, but his spotty defense hasn’t helped matters and I think the other guys are more deserving.
  • Khris Middleton has enjoyed another very nice season and his assist totals have gone up, yet again. Maybe if the Bucks’ record was a little better?

Over in the Western Conference, things are a little bit more straightforward and not as complex. There are a couple of tough calls when it gets to the wild-card spots, but that’s a circumstance of picking these squads. Let’s do so.

Damian Lillard, Blazers

This selection shouldn’t be questioned by a single human on planet earth. Not one with functioning eyeballs anyway. Given the way he’s played in the last two weeks, if All-Star voting was spread out or delayed by a week with time to acquire more votes, he might be a starter. He should be, really. Dame has become the best closer in the game and while Steph Curry is rightfully considered the best “pure shooter” in the league, Lillard might be the best long-range “shot-maker” in the league, especially in the fourth quarter. That notion should make sense to true hoops fans. And with major injuries to their starters for most of the season, he’s carried the Blazers (18-12) to the middle of the West standings. It’s been almost surreal to watch him work. Go check out the first edition of The Intermission‘s NBA Power Rankings to see a few clips of his fourth-quarter heroics in recent games. It’s worth your time.

Rudy Gobert, Jazz

Donovan Mitchell, Jazz

We have to get these Jazz guys in here right? Utah (25-6) has absolutely torched everyone this season, in large part to the elite play from both of these guys. There’s been a Mike Conley movement recently to get him into the game and while I think he’s deserving, there a couple of guys (a bit later) that I feel should get the spot over him. The Jazz are fantastic, but I’m not buying into the third wheel narrative at the moment.

There’s a high likelihood that when the regular season dust settles, Rudy Gobert will be named Defensive Player of the Year for the third time in four seasons. He’s just that good defensively and at protecting the rim. He once again leads the league in Defensive Rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions), is 1st in Total Rebounds, and 2nd in Total Blocked Shots. He’s a stalwart. His offensive numbers are basically duplicates of last season, which are plenty productive, but defense is where Gobert earns his $205 million dollar paycheck. And he’ll also earn a second straight All-Star appearance.

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert's relationship on thin ice due to  coronavirus situation, report says - CBSSports.com
Rudy and Donovan have had their ups and downs, but are entirely in sync this season. | Photo by USATSI

Donovan Mitchell has also elevated his offensively-dynamic game while leading the Jazz to a .806% win percentage. An All-Star selection last season as well, Mitchell’s numbers have seen a slight uptick from 2019-20 (with more effective and higher volume three-point shooting). With Utah having such a solid/deep supporting cast, it’s not as if Mitchell was “required” to increase his offensive output, but he’s taken his game to that level anyway. He deserves another spot on this team.

Paul George, Clippers

Paul George is doing those Paul George Things again. After missing out on last year‘s game (having gone to the previous four), George is back. His numbers this season have remained static (and still very impressive) compared to those of his past All-Star seasons and he’s still widely revered as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. The one “bump” that’s worth mentioning is the vastly improved shooting numbers (47% from three!), which after only 22 games played, appear to be an anomaly and will likely regress back to typical ratios:

PERIODPPGFG%2PT%3PT%eFG%TS%
2020-2124.451.1%54.6%47.1%62.1%66.1%
Career20.143.6%47.2%38.5%51.5%56.8%
eFG% = Effective Field Goal Percentage (adjusts for the fact that a 3-point field goal is worth one more point than a 2-point field goal).

His partnership with Kawhi in year two has culminated in the Clippers having one of the best records in the league, with little signs of slowing down. PG’s case for an All-Star reserve berth this season is a pretty air-tight one.

Anthony Davis, Lakers

This is a challenging one for me, because of Davis’s all-around eliteness. But there’s no denying that his numbers are down across-the-board this season. Dealing with injuries, he’s never looked quite “right,” based on the eye test. He’s even admitted so himself. The overall shooting and efficiency is there, but the overall production has been down:

PERIODPTSREBASTSTLBLK
2020-2122.58.43.01.31.8
First Lakers season26.19.33.21.52.3
Career23.910.32.31.42.4

Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have to do as much, being with LeBron and a more talented Lakers roster than he ever had in New Orleans? Maybe. But look at his first Lakers season. Numbers are up. All of this said, the Lakers still have one of the top records in the league and are pursuing their second championship, where Davis still has a huge impact on both sides of the ball. Picking him here has more to do with conforming to what I know the coaches will inevitably do. I’d rather see a guy like DeMar DeRozan, whose offensive and playmaking prowess has the Spurs in unexpected territory. Now with his injury, things will be interesting for the Lakers. You remove Davis from the everyday lineup and they lose games like last night, to the Wizards at home. I guess the pick isn’t all that complicated.

Devin Booker, Suns

The Suns, with an incredible 20-10 start (and 9-1 in their last ten), must have a representative in this game. Apologies to Chris Paul, who’s demonstrated fantastic leadership in his first year with the team, but Booker is the guy. His numbers dipped the slightest bit from last season (where he was also named to the team), but they’re still absolutely worthy. Already considered one of the game’s best pure shooters, Booker’s percentages have actually gone up this season. I wasn’t sure that was even possible, yet here he is.

And let us all remember when he dropped 70 points (SEVENTY!) against the Celtics back in 2017. What an absolute clinic that was. In 2021, Booker is an All-Star.

Zion Williamson, Pelicans

I know, I know, the Pelicans have been extremely disappointing. And while that’s something I haven’t completely ignored, I’m using the “fun” factor for Zion. People want to see his enigmatic frame, running around looking like he’s got kidney stones, in this game. I personally don’t like to sacrifice “deserving” for “fun,” but this is an exception where Zion is actually both. After an effective, but a limited rookie season, his numbers are improved across the board. He’s certainly avoided the sophomore wall.

SEASONGPPTSREBASTSTLBLKSHOOTING
Year 22925.16.83.11.00.762/35/71%
Year 12422.56.32.10.70.458/43/64%

Like Charles Barkley recently said, the guy needs to rebound the ball better. With his strength and explosiveness (which he uses primarily on offense), 6.8 rebounds per game are bewilderingly low. He needs improvement in that area, but it isn’t a big enough factor to cancel his first All-Star appearance, which I think the coaches should grant him. #FreeZion

Western Conference Snubs

Like the East, some guys are going to miss out. It sucks, but these aren’t football rosters. Here are a few names from the snubbed category:

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is probably at the top of my snubbed list as the next man in. He’s had a great season and kept the Thunder somewhat respectable. His progression from rookie season to his third year has been fun to watch. He’s at 22.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and is even making the three-ball at a better and higher rate. Ugh, and he’s Canadian, which hurts more.
  • As mentioned above, I really feel like DeMar DeRozan is deserving, especially with where he has the Spurs in the conference and the number of bodies that team has been down. And that team is VERY young. He’s showing true leadership over there. Also, RIP to his Dad, whom he recently lost.
  • An All-Star last season, Brandon Ingram is putting up another solid year and is clearly going to be in the conversation for years to come. If only his team was better.
  • The Grizzlies are an enigma, but Ja Morant is the one constant. He’s played unbelievable lately and it’s a matter of when, not if, he gets the All-Star nod.
  • Mike Conley has held the “odd man out” moniker for several seasons now, including this season. He’s been a major force behind the Utah Jazz’s remarkable start, but it’s hard to place him over the Gobert/Mitchell combination. Though, he might actually go down as the best player to never make an All-Star team.
  • Christian Wood‘s feel-good, come-up story alone is worth rewarding, but his numbers also back it up after his move from Detroit to Houston (22.0 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.5 blocks). Unfortunately, he’s only played in 17 games.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Pam Hallihan

    February 24, 2021 at 8:54 am

    Awesome read 👏

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