With All-Star fan voting now open, the only mystery bigger than who’ll make the All-Star team is how the league actually acknowledges the selections.
But, that’s for later. In the meantime, the candidates are starting to crystalize and make themselves known. Others are cancelling themselves out; Russell Westbrook, for example, could become the highest-paid non-All Star ($41 million) in league history.
With the season barely more than a month old, this is a premature look at the possible starters and reserves. Keep in mind that, because of games missed, it’s unfair to give Kyrie Irving and Ja Morant, for instance, much consideration right this very minute. By the middle of next month, provided they stay on the floor, that will change.
Each team will have two backcourt players and three front court players, plus a pair of wild cards among the reserves. These are the players currently holding pole position.
LeBron James, Lakers. No suspense, no debate, no fuss here. LeBron in his 17th season remains among the very best, if he’s not the best. Some of the greats earned ceremonial All-Star spots as they aged. There will be none of that, at least for now, with LeBron.
Nikola Jokic, Nuggets. He’s still a triple-double threat and a certifiable problem for most teams. But for some reason, the Nuggets are off to a perplexing start. No worries, there’s plenty of time to change that; in the meantime, “The Joker” will be their lone All-Star rep.
Kawhi Leonard, Clippers. Not only is Kawhi off to a terrific start (25.9 points, 50.5% shooting), it appears the previous and controversial trend of “load management” is a thing of the past. Maybe the embarrassing way the Clippers exited the playoffs last season changed that approach.
Damian Lillard, Blazers. In the past, he always took exception to slights, whether real or imagined. Some folks gave Dame a hard time about it, but he’s a prideful player who demands respect. Well, he’s getting it here.
Luka Doncic, Mavericks. This hasn’t quite shaped up to be the Kia MVP campaign that Luka worshippers had hoped for (that 28.4% shooting from deep is problematic), yet it appears he’s in for another solid season, nearly averaging a triple-double.
Paul George, Clippers. Notice how the snickers have subsided since the bubble, when George didn’t exactly endear himself. Anyway, not only is he off to a strong start (almost 50-50-90), he evidently has put all the misery well behind him. While we wait to see what the playoffs bring, he deserves to be saluted now.
Stephen Curry, Warriors. You say he should start over Dame or Luka? Fine. It’s a close call either way, and there is no wrong or right answer. Anyway, the Warriors are simply thrilled that, after a virtual absence in 2019-20, Steph is still Steph.
Anthony Davis, Lakers. Imagine AD making second team in any scenario? It just shows how deep and strong the West front-line candidates are this season. Davis is probably still too busy staring at his championship ring to notice or care, anyway.
Zion Williamson, Pelicans. It’s his time and turn to make a star run, and this is made possible by the Pelicans’ decision to stop spoon-feeding him minutes. Now that he’s unleashed, Zion is a solid candidate to be an All-Star, even over his teammate, Brandon Ingram.
Rudy Gobert, Jazz. His offense remains a work in progress and his hands aren’t the softest, but Gobert obviously didn’t just earn a massive contract extension because of his post-up moves.
Donovan Mitchell, Jazz (wild card). His development into a star has gone hitch-free, especially now that his confidence and consistency with his shooting range (39.5% from deep on eight shots per game) is soaring. Mitchell represents all that’s right with basketball.
Devin Booker, Suns (wc). He should give an assist to Chris Paul for freeing him from constant playmaking responsibilities and allowing him to roam. That said, Booker’s spot on this All-Star team seems the most tenuous.
Still in play: De’Aaron Fox, Kings; Brandon Ingram, Pelicans; CJ McCollum, Blazers; Ja Morant, Grizzlies.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks. He was the leader of Team Giannis last year and the unquestioned best player in the East, although now, there’s company and competition for that throne. Anyway, the two-time MVP remains a virtual lock to start. Move on, nothing else to see here.
Kevin Durant, Nets. The journey from a torn Achilles was once a limp, now a sprint, as Durant is acing all the tests and looking very much like the Durant of old. He’s back among the scoring leaders (currently No. 2) and demanding to be double teamed. The only issue now is whether he can stay healthy and how many votes will he collect to possibly win his second MVP award.
Joel Embiid, Sixers. After a distressing end to last season, Embiid did some self-inspection and returned a better player. That, and new coach Doc Rivers built a system designed for Embiid to flourish and position himself for the MVP consideration. Embiid is often the best player in any games at both ends, and the Sixers are better off for that. The All-Star starter appointment seems like an afterthought at this stage.
Bradley Beal, Wizards. His ego was bruised last year when he wasn’t given any All-NBA consideration, and while the Wizards are still trapped near the basement of the East, it’s not because of Beal, who leads the league in scoring. He’ll rep Washington now, but will he wear that Wizards logo the next time he gets voted into the game?
Jaylen Brown, Celtics. James Harden truthers will strongly disagree with this, and over the next month, maybe they’ll be right. But unlike Harden, Brown has done his work exclusively in the East — which should count for something — and he’s arguably having just as good a season by playing both ends. It’s also a salute to a player who has elevated himself among the very best in short time.
Jayson Tatum, Celtics. Durant’s migration to the East effectively bumps Tatum from being in the starting five. That said, he’s definitely worthy and should make the East lineup anyway.
Domantas Sabonis, Pacers. The Son Of Arvydas is not only rounding into a reliable post player — opponents still haven’t figured how to stop him from going left — but the Pacers are making him their go-to resource.
Julius Randle, Knicks. Good luck trying to find a handful of East forwards with a better first month than Randle (23-11-6), who has done the unthinkable and helped elevate the Knicks into the ranks of the middle-of-the-packers.
James Harden, Nets. There’ll be no argument made for anyone who insists the league leader in assists deserves to start for the East. Harden has shaken off a sloppy exit from the Rockets and now seeks to find peace and a place in the Nets’ Big Three blueprint.
Trae Young, Hawks. He went through a tough shooting spell for about a week, then collected himself and recovered. While Young brings the excitement, it’s astonishing how often he’s also getting the respect of the whistles and getting to the free throw line (roughly 10 per game, virtual tie with Embiid for league most).
Zach LaVine, Bulls (wc). Criticism of his play might have carried some weight in the past, but not this season, where LaVine is more consistent and steadier than ever. He’s dangerous at the 3-point line and the rim. He could still be in 50-40-90 territory by the All-Star break.
Bam Adebayo, Heat (wc). In a season that otherwise is underwhelming for the defending East champs, Adebayo is looking more like he belongs in the top tier of NBA frontcourt players. Most encouraging is that he finally sees himself as a first option for Miami.
Still in play: Khris Middleton, Bucks; Ben Simmons, Sixers; Malcolm Brogdon, Pacers; Kyrie Irving, Nets; Collin Sexton, Cavaliers; Gordon Hayward, Hornets.