2021 All-Star

5 takeaways from first fan returns of NBA All-Star Voting 2021

Taking a look at the storylines after early returns were released, including potential surprises.

Trae Young (sixth) and Bradley Beal (first) are currently in the Top 10 among East guards in All-Star voting.

Five takeaways from the first fan returns of NBA All-Star Voting 2021 presented by AT&T:

1. Team LeBron, meet Team KD. All Kevin Durant had to do to see his name atop the All-Star vote totals was switch from the Western Conference to the Eastern (most importantly to get out of LeBron James’ neck of the woods). Then he had to come back from a scary, potentially career-ending Achilles tendon injury that wiped out his 2019-20 season. Next Durant had to play so well for his new team, the Brooklyn Nets, that he isn’t merely an easy choice as an All-Star but he’s a serious early candidate for Kia NBA MVP, even with the big-name help (James Harden, Kyrie Irving) on board in Brooklyn.

Oh, and then he had to take a snapshot of Thursday’s tallies. Because with two weeks remaining and millions of votes still to be cast, this king-of-the-hill stuff is extremely fluid.

Durant ranked first overall with 2,302,705 votes to James’ 2,288,676. That put the two Frontcourt candidates atop the East and West totals, respectively (please, no nit-picking about LeBron’s playmaking, ballhandling role with the Lakers).

Here’s why the above matters, in this particular world: If Durant somehow were to maintain his No. 1 status overall, he would unseat James, who has been the overall vote leader for five consecutive seasons and seven years overall dating back to 2007. Durant has been an All-Star 10 times, but he never has garnered the most votes.

In the backcourt, Golden State’s Steph Curry tops all West guards with 2,113,178 and Dallas’ Luka Doncic was next with 1,395,719. The top East guard, Bradley Beal of the Wizards, slotted in next with 1,273,817 votes.

Things will change, certainly, and players will move up or down in the Top 10 finishers as ballots are counted. But – if there is indeed an All-Star Game next month and the recent format continues – we may see Team LeBron picking second to Team KD or Kevin or whatever.

2. Beal better be a starter. That’s not an ultimatum to any fan, player or media member filling out a ballot between now and the cutoff date. It’s a sense of the reality that intrudes when the seven reserve spots on each All-Star roster is fleshed out by the conference coaches. Coaches traditionally put more weight on the W-L record of a player’s team, with many using .500 as the lowest acceptable winning percentage.

Bradley Beal joined elite company with his 17th straight game of 25-plus points.

Makes sense, from their point of view – they labor all season to remind their guys that winning matters most and that the best rewards are the team rewards. Whereas All-Star recognition is almost entirely an individual accolade (never mind how sincere the “my team made this possible” rhetoric sounds at times).

So considering Washington’s 5-13 record as of Thursday morning, it’s quite possible that Beal – in spite of his remarkable league-leading and career-best 34.8 ppg average – could be snubbed again. Last year, the Wizards guard averaged 29.1 points before the break but Washington was 16-31 when the All-Star reserves were announced, and he wasn’t invited to Chicago as a member of the East team. Curiously, in the two seasons Beal did get selected, Washington was 26-21 when the 14 backups were announced in 2018 but 22-29 when he made it anyway in 2019.

3. No tears yet, but tiers, yes. It’s hard to know how vote totals will swing from week to week to final results, simply because game attendance is limited or non-existent this season. Historically, and especially in the paper ballot days, the teams who played at home the most in a given week could expect to see bumps for their All-Star candidates. Going electronic, spreading the balloting among fans, players and media members and, finally, soliciting voting during the pandemic shutdown makes such bumps unpredictable.

What we did see, though, in the first week’s returns is some stratification.

Frankly, in the Frontcourt returns, Durant and James are prohibitive favorites to lock up starting spots. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (1,752,185) and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid (1,584,028) have sizable early leads as a two-man second tier in the East.

Boston’s Jayson Tatum is alone on tier three, with 48% fewer votes (822,151) than Embiid. Yet Tatum also had 150% more votes than No. 5 man Jimmy Butler of the Heat.

Among the East’s guards, Beal and Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving (1,093,611) and James Harden (1,014,763) are a solid first tier. Then it’s Boston’s Jaylen Brown (590,195), Chicago’s Zach LaVine (486,547) and Atlanta’s Trae Young (368,126) on the next level.

James is unchallenged among West Frontcourt players, with three rivals running close for the other two starting spots: Denver’s Nikola Jokic (1,477,975), the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard (1,285,777) and the Lakers’ Anthony Davis (1,192,881). The step down to tier three is a big one, with Clippers wing Paul George (549,280) and New Orleans’ Zion Williamson (411,668) well ahead of any other challengers.

There are essentially three players chasing two starting backcourt spots out West. Doncic has two-thirds as many votes as Curry, and Portland’s Damian Lillard (998,853) has 72% of Doncic’s total. But No. 4 Ja Morant is way back at 257,743, joined on a third tier of candidates by Utah’s Donovan Mitchell (236,850) and in a stretch Phoenix’s Devin Booker (173,755). Booker’s teammate Chris Paul was in seventh place at 128,127.

Tiers are an artificial construct but there’s a high probability 20 or 21 of the final All-Stars will come from the first three tiers in each conference.

4. Fan favorites still move the needle. In 1992, it didn’t matter to voters that Lakers legend Magic Johnson had retired abruptly in November 1991 upon learning he carried the HIV virus. They kept punching ballots for him anyway, earning Johnson a starting spot for the West. Seizing on the moment, the NBA allowed him to play in the 42nd All-Star Game in Orlando, never mind that Johnson didn’t play another game that season. He wound up scoring 25 points, making the game’s last shot in a West blowout of the East and earning MVP honors.

Well, nobody is anticipating anything near the drama of that this year. But it’s worth noting – at least through the first returns – that Golden State’s Klay Thompson got nearly 100,000 votes to start in the Western Conference backcourt. The Warriors’ sharpshooter is expected to be out all season following surgery in November to repair his right Achilles tendon.

Thompson isn’t the only star feeling the embrace of fan loyalty – or at least widespread name recognition. Detroit’s Derrick Rose (183,899) ranked eighth among East guards despite modest stats (14.2 ppg, 4.2 apg) coming off the bench for a last-place team.

Portland’s Carmelo Anthony (179,310) is a shell of his 10-time All-Star self but lots of folks want to see his 11th selection, in spite of career worst scoring (12.1 ppg) and shooting (37.2 field goal percentage).

They call this the fans’ game, right? Who are any of us to quibble with the favorites so many folks want selected.

5. Teammates can siphon votes. Taking the first returns as a snapshot, there would be no team among the NBA’s 30 with more than one All-Star starter. That might change, and certainly there’s no rule against that. It especially doesn’t hold in an era when Super Teams sometimes roam the Earth. James and Davis started for the West last year. Curry and Durant did it from 2017-2019, James and Irving in 2017, Durant and Russell Westbrook in 2016, and Curry and Thompson in 2015. In 2013, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were 60% of the East’s All-Star starting lineup.

But most of those guys have been All-NBA players, perhaps even future Hall of Famers. When divvying up a half season’s worth of credit on an All-Star ballot, names do slip through the cracks.

Among those missing from the Top 10 in the first fan returns: Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, Utah’s Rudy Gobert and Indiana’s Malcolm Brogdon, far behind teammates Antetokounmpo, Mitchell and Domantas Sabonis. Sixers guard Ben Simmons (117,993) eked into 10th place among East guards but had less than 8% of his buddy Embiid’s vote total.

A couple of players worthy of more consideration than their vote totals so far: Orlando big man Nikola Vucevic and Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox. Meanwhile, the Toronto Raptors had no one in the Top 10 just 20 months removed from their 2019 championship.

Fred Van Vleet’s 54-point outburst against the Magic Tuesday might get his name clicked a few more times by next week’s returns.

Fan balloting accounts for 50% of the vote in selecting All-Star starters. Current players and a media panel account for 25% each.

* * *

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.