Five takeaways from Thursday’s announcement of All-Star Starters, based on the final fan returns of NBA All-Star Voting 2021 presented by AT&T as well as player and media balloting:
1. LeBron does it again. It’s been fairly clear since the polls opened three weeks ago that LeBron James was going to wind up being the Captain, again, of his All-Star squad. That honor goes to the top vote-getter in each conference — it has for the past four years, anyway, dating back to 2018 when the system of captains picking teams playground-style began — and James was the No. 1 guy after both the first and second week of returns. You’d have to go back 10 years to find someone in James’ conference finishing ahead of him in balloting. In 2011, both Dwight Howard (1,600,390) and Derrick Rose (1,514,723) surpassed James (1,360,680) that winter. Otherwise, he’s been King of that particular hill.
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We noted last week that the Lakers’ Kia NBA MVP candidate was headed toward his eighth crown in fan voting, good for second place behind Michael Jordan’s nine since fan voting began in 1975. We also need to note that, with his 17th All-Star selection, James is creeping closer to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record 19 selections over 20 seasons. Abdul-Jabbar went as a rookie in 1970 — for the 20th edition of the NBA showcase — and still was chosen in his final season in 1989. Given this will be the 70th All-Star Game, more than half have featured Kareem or LeBron.
Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant received the most fan votes among Eastern Conference players, so he’ll serve as captain of the other squad. Durant will be joined by Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid in the East frontcourt. James’ fellow starters in the West frontcourt, by ballot, are Denver’s Nikola Jokic and the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard.
2. Can’t take Curry for granted. Day-to-day, it can seem as if the Golden State guard does get taken for granted. Here he is, having a season that is thrusting him into MVP speculation, but many react as if it’s to be expected, post-injuries and regardless of teammates. Well, Curry’s game and fame weren’t lost on All-Star voters, who locked him in overwhelmingly as the No. 1 backcourt choice.
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Heck, the Warriors star got over 1 million votes last season for the game in Chicago, even though he was limited to just five games by a broken left hand. With that and 2016 (Kobe Bryant’s final season) as exceptions, Curry has been the top guard choice out West each year since 2014. Dallas’ Luka Doncic — who tied with Portland’s Damian Lillard — will start alongside Curry on the strength of a second-place finish in the fan vote, earning a spot for the second consecutive year.
3. No chip on Beal’s shoulder. For four seasons, Washington’s Bradley Beal had numbers that were All-Star worthy. Twice he was added to the East squad as a reserve by the vote of conference coaches, twice he was left off, including in 2020. This time, the fans — who never had voted Beal higher than ninth — delivered Beal a starting spot by making him the No. 1 choice in the East backcourt. (Fan balloting accounts for 50% of the vote in selecting All-Star starters. Current players and a media panel account for 25% each.)
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Beal’s NBA-best 32.8 scoring average screamed for inclusion, while Washington’s 8-17 record when the polls closed did not. Some players have used a perceived All-Star snub as fuel, but his coach said that wasn’t Beal’s style, even if he needed it this year.
“If you need a fan vote, a media vote, a coaches’ vote, a coach always telling you you’ve got to play harder or work on this, you’re going to be short-lived,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks told reporters Thursday. “Brad is self-motivated.” Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving beat out Nets teammate James Harden for the second guard spot in the East.
4. Ready for reserves? Here’s a West guess. “Snubs” is such a downer word, with some level of malice contained within. Any of us can disagree with the vote totals, but it’s hard to conceive some conspiracy to slight this guy or that guy. What we can do once the starters are selected is look at the players who finished fourth and beyond in the frontcourt, third and below in the back, and find the players most likely to be sent to Atlanta by the coaches.
In the West, the next five — three frontline players, two guards — seems easy enough: Portland’s Damian Lillard and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell in the backcourt, with the Clippers’ Paul George, New Orleans’ Zion Williamson and the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert up front. Gobert slots in nicely with Lakers big man Anthony Davis out with a strained calf for 2-3 weeks.
The coaches also get to pick two wild-card spots to flesh out All-Star rosters to 12 men. In the West, opting for Phoenix’s backcourt of Devin Booker and Chris Paul would round out the group.
5. The best of the rest out East. Who are the most deserving candidates in the Eastern Conference who missed out in the balloting for starters? Filling out a second team should be four-fifths simple, because Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis, Brooklyn’s James Harden and the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown all are thriving on teams that are winning. Coaches like that winning stuff, y’know. That’s make the other three East spots a bit trickier, but New York’s Julius Randle, Chicago’s Zach LaVine and Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic — despite laboring on teams south of .500 — have earned them through their play.
Here’s another way for the coaches who typically like to reward winning to frame this: As Sirius XM’s “NBA Today” co-host Justin Termine says, if the clubs and the league want All Star-worthy players to stick with their franchises and work toward improvement rather than bolting to glamour markets or super teams, don’t penalize top players who stay rather than go. Don’t short them on individual accolades while the team success is coming.
There are a few others worth considering as East reserves, including Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, whose offense isn’t gaudy, though his defense is; Atlanta’s Trae Young, Miami’s Jimmy Butler (lot of missed games, though), and Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, who quietly is having his best season yet.
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