Five takeaways from Tuesday’s announcement of All-Star Reserves, as voted by NBA coaches in the Eastern and Western conferences for the 2021 All-Star Game set for Sunday, March 7 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta:
1. Finally, it’s Dame Time: Damian Lillard got bumped from the All-Star starting lineup for the Western Conference by a technicality: Because Dallas’ Luka Doncic outpolled the Portland point guard in fan balloting, it didn’t matter that Lillard fared better than Doncic with the players and the media panel who combined for the other 50% of the vote. The tiebreaker was the fans’ choice, even though Doncic himself wasn’t so sure about the outcome (“Maybe Lillard deserved it more than me,” the Mavericks star said).
The coaches cleaned that up. Beyond Lillard’s overall production — 29.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 7.9 apg, 62.0 true shooting percentage — there was no way those West bench bosses could ignore Lillard’s four consecutive games starting on Valentine’s Day of at least 30 points, 10 assists and five 3-pointers. He also ranks second in the NBA in clutch points (82), shooting 61.5% and leading Portland to a 12-4 mark in such situations (when the score is within five points in the final five minutes).
— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) February 24, 2021
2. Winning matters. Mostly. Whether trying to deliver a lesson to their players or simply to grab at a handy crutch in cutting down the field of reserve candidates, coaches historically have favored players from winning teams on their ballots. Well, the picks were less pedantic this time around.
Out West, only one of the All-Star Reserves comes from a team with a losing record as of the announcement Tuesday night: Zion Williamson of the 13-17 Pelicans. But in the East, sub-.500 records by the Knicks, Bulls and Magic didn’t stop Julius Randle, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic from earning the coaches’ votes.
All three are having terrific seasons individually, playing well enough that their respective teams would be several games further down in the standings without them. Factoring in Doncic and Washington’s Bradley Beal, that means six of the 24 All-Star selections come from losing teams.
Which seems OK on three fronts: First, 16 of the league’s 30 teams went into Tuesday’s slate of games with sub-.500 records. Then there’s Boston, which at 15-15 landed both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on the East bench. Imagine walling off more than half the talent pool from All-Star consideration.
Second, this is primarily an entertainment event, unlike other NBA competition. Arbitrarily applying a W-L filter to an All-Star Game is as silly as, say, determining home park advantage in the World Series.
And third, as noted last week in the starters takeaways piece, coaches should want productive players to stick around and do the heavy lifting of improving their teams. What, they should just congregate on a few winners in desirable markets as a way not just to chase rings but earn All-Star attention?
3. You’ve got next, commish. It was fine that the coaches voted Lakers big man Anthony Davis to his eighth All-Star berth. That’s a resume thing for a future Hall of Famer. But it’s also fine that Davis almost certainly will require an injury replacement, due to the tendonosis in his right Achilles. Davis already has missed four straight and six of the past eight games, and the prognosis has been for him to be out through the All-Star break. No reason for him to rush back for the exhibition.
That puts NBA commissioner Adam Silver on the clock to name a replacement on the West squad. Who gets the nod? Silver doesn’t have to go with another big because the West, with Davis, has seven frontcourt players to five guards (the East is six and six). So two logical candidates would be Phoenix’s Devin Booker and Utah’s Mike Conley.
Booker ranked higher than his Suns teammate Chris Paul in the All-Star balloting. He finished fifth with the fans, fourth with the players and T-fifth with the media, compared to Paul’s seventh, seventh and T-fifth. He leads Phoenix in scoring (24.7 ppg) while shooting 50.1 percent. It’s curious that Booker – in the five seasons he’s been an elite scorer – has never been tabbed by the coaches to be an All-Star reserve. He made it in 2020 in replacement of Lillard.
Devin Booker is the most disrespected player in our league!!! Simple as that.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) February 24, 2021
Conley, in his 14th season, might be the sentimental favorite, given his unofficial status as “best active player never to be an All-Star.” He is at the controls of the NBA’s most successful team with numbers, at 33, at or better than his career averages. But with Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell already among West All-Star Reserves, Conley would represent a third Jazz representative. That’s a lot, especially without a starter.
4. Enough talent for a third team. Almost, anyway. “Snubbed” is a lousy way to describe players who didn’t quite make the cut of the top 24. So we’ll go with “uninvited” and still round up a pretty impressive group, any of whom would look perfectly joining the All-Stars in Atlanta in a couple weeks.
Besides Booker and Conley, backcourt choices for the Outside-Looking-In squad would include: Atlanta’s Trae Young, San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan and Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton. The frontcourt: Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis, Detroit’s Jerami Grant, Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris, Charlotte’s Gordon Hayward, New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram, and Miami’s Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler. On the bubble for this mythical roster, it says here, would be Denver’s Jamal Murray and Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
5. Some notable firsts and All-Star leftovers. Four of the 14 players named as reserves will be making their first appearances in an All-Star Game: Brown, LaVine, Randle and Williamson. Several other players might have made strong bids to reach this status — Portland’s C.J. McCollum, Memphis’ Ja Morant, Houston’s Christian Wood — for the first time if not for significant injuries.
Washington’s Russell Westbrook most likely will have his personal streak of six consecutive All-Star appearances snapped. Westbrook, a nine-time All-Star, and Derrick Rose, a three-timer, are the only active NBA Most Valuable Player winners to not make this year’s All-Star Game.
Thursday, March 4 at 8:00 PM ET on TNT pic.twitter.com/Gjqhd01MdL
— NBA (@NBA) February 24, 2021
Remember how the Lakers drafted Randle, D’Angelo Russell and Ingram as lottery picks in consecutive Drafts from 2014 through 2016? All three were deemed expendable for one reason or another, with Russell’s immaturity getting him traded in 2017 and Randle and Ingram moving on as Los Angeles reconfigured around LeBron James. Well, with Randle’s selection this year, all three became All-Stars for teams other than L.A.
And finally, time marches on: Williamson becomes the first NBA All-Star born in the 2000s, 20 months after becoming the league’s first No. 1 draft pick born in this millennium. The first NBA All-Star born in the 1990s? Kyrie Irving, who was a month shy of his 21st birthday when he played in the 2013 All-Star Game in Houston.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.