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2023 NBA All-Star Game: James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Edwards headline list of deserving snubs

You can set your watch to it: Every year, a number of excellent NBA players with legitimate cases for making the All-Star Game end up spending that mid-February weekend at home. (Or, more likely, Turks and Caicos or wherever.)

It’s an unavoidable inevitability when each conference gets only 12 spots and there are way more than 24 very good players. (Don’t believe me? Go make a top-25 list and post it on the internet. The disagreements will find you!) If we’re being honest, though, most sports fans wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s only one thing better than getting to revel in your favorite player getting richly deserved recognition — getting to fly off the handle with righteous indignation about said fave receiving insufficient praise and accolades. Who says I can’t defend Mike Conley’s honor by screaming at bloggers and assistant coaches? This is America, dammit!

It isn’t getting any easier to pick your 10 starters and 14 reserves, either, in a league overflowing with talent in a damn-the-torpedoes era that has produced an eye-popping 56 dudes averaging at least 20 points per game. Extend that beyond the bucket-getters to those who contribute elite value through their playmaking, rebounding and defense, and you’ve got a ton of players who have legitimate cases for an All-Star nod … including, as it happens, the 24 players who were actually selected.

That makes it hard to say that anybody’s a huge “snub,” if we’re being honest. But that doesn’t mean that a few players who didn’t make the final cut aren’t within their rights to gripe and grouse a bit. Like, for example:

EAST

Jalen Brunson, Knicks

The former Villanova standout has been everything Leon Rose and Co. could’ve hoped for when they swiped him from Dallas this summer, averaging 22.8 points, 6.2 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game on 47/39/85 shooting splits while serving as precisely the kind of calming playmaking presence the Knicks have lacked at the point for most of the last quarter-century. He has joined All-Star reserve Julius Randle as the bellwethers of a Knicks squad that ranks a surprising sixth in points scored per possession, providing consistent dribble penetration, pristine footwork and a devastating in-between game for an offense that was in dire need of more shot creation. He’s been one of the league’s premier isolation scorers and crunch-time weapons — fourth in the NBA in points scored in the final five minutes of games when the margin’s within five points, shooting 47% with a 12-to-3 assist-to-turnover ratio — but he was also arguably only the second-most-deserving candidate on a barely-above-.500 seventh seed. (Randle’s got the clear edge in advanced statistical résumé, outpacing Brunson in PER, VORP, win shares, box plus-minus, EPM and real plus-minus, among other metrics.) That, combined with tremendous cases elsewhere among Eastern backcourt and wild-card candidates, was enough to prevent him from becoming the first Knick guard to earn an All-Star nod since Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell in 2001.

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler plays against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Missed games may have cost Heat forward Jimmy Butler an All-Star spot. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Jimmy Butler, Heat

The six-time All-Star is scoring more than he has since Minnesota, shooting a career-high 55.6% on 2-point shots and leading the league in steals while ranking sixth in deflections as the primary perimeter disrupter on the NBA’s fourth-ranked defense. His bruising driving game generates 8.2 free throws a night — every one of which is important for a Heat offense that ranks an underwhelming 22nd in half-court scoring efficiency — and his ability to consistently generate and convert good looks without coughing the ball up (he’s turning it over on a microscopic 8.8% of his offensive possessions) continues to make him one of the league’s most valuable per-minute players. The advanced numbers scream for Butler’s inclusion; he’s in the top 15 in win shares per 48 minutes, box plus-minus, player efficiency rating, estimated plus-minus, value over replacement player and several other metrics. In the end, missing 15 games due to various injuries wound up costing him in a deep Eastern Conference pool; there’s no doubt, though, that Butler’s an All-NBA-caliber player, and a version of the Heat that’s got him (and reserve frontcourt selection Bam Adebayo) healthy is one nobody in the East is all that interested in seeing come playoff time.

James Harden, 76ers

Like Butler, this likely came down to missed games. Thanks to a sprained tendon in his foot earlier in the season, Harden has played in 34 of the Sixers’ 50 contests — fewer than reserve selections Jrue Holiday, DeMar DeRozan, Tyrese Haliburton and Jaylen Brown. You could make a pretty compelling case, though, that Harden’s been as good as, if not better than, all of them when he’s been on the court. The former MVP is averaging 21.4 points, 11 assists and 6.4 rebounds per game — the only other dude in the league averaging 20-10-5 is Nikola Jokic — while shooting 46% from midrange and 39% from long distance, both career highs. He has orchestrated beautifully in the two-man game with reserve selection Joel Embiid; only the Grizzlies’ pairing of Ja Morant and Steven Adams has combined in the pick-and-roll more frequently this season than Harden and Embiid, according to Second Spectrum tracking data, and the Sixers are scoring a scorching 121.1 points per 100 possessions with them both on the floor — a mark that would lead the league over the full season. Perhaps even more importantly, Harden has kept Philly afloat and is outscoring bench units when Embiid’s on the bench — typically the danger zone for Doc Rivers’ squad. Plenty of advanced stats peg Harden as one of the 24 best players in the sport this season; it just wasn’t enough to overcome the absence (and, perhaps, his continually spotty individual defense) in the eyes of the East’s coaches this year.

Pascal Siakam, Raptors

Siakam’s individual case is awfully strong: a career-high 24.9 points, eight rebounds and 6.2 assists per game while defending 1 through 5 in Nick Nurse’s helter-skelter scheme and playing a league-high 37.7 minutes per game. Before recent upticks in form for Fred VanVleet and Scottie Barnes, Siakam essentially carried the Toronto offense by himself; for the season, the Raptors have scored like a top-five unit with the 28-year-old point forward on the floor, and like a bottom-five group when he sits. You could argue that he’s been better (particularly as a playmaker) this season than he was in 2019-20, the breakthrough campaign that saw him make his first All-Star and All-NBA teams. What you can’t argue, though, is that his team is worse; it’s tough to get an All-Star nod on a 23-30 team, even if your play might merit one.

Trae Young, Hawks

Atlanta’s social media team stated the starting point for Young’s case succinctly enough:

Young is one of six players in the top 15 in scoring and assists this season, joining Jokic, Morant, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, and LeBron James — all five of whom will represent their teams in Salt Lake City, while Young misses out on what would’ve been his third selection. The almost perfectly average Hawks score 10.2 more points per 100 possessions with Young at the controls than when he sits; like Siakam, he’s effectively been the difference between an elite offense and a bottom-tier attack, but unlike Siakam, he leads a .500 team that’s in play-in position.

As overwhelming as his offensive production is, though, coaches might’ve docked Young for the inefficiency of his scoring (just 48% on 2-pointers and a career-low 32.2% on threes). Or for his ongoing reluctance to operate as an off-ball threat, even with a live-wire creator like Dejounte Murray in the fold. Or for his well-established worst-in-the-league-caliber defense — a big reason why the Hawks continue to float around the bottom third of the league in points allowed per possession. (They might also not have dug the thing where he’s reportedly clashing with his head coach, again. Coaches tend to notice that sort of thing.)

Darius Garland, Cavaliers

Last year, when he earned his first All-Star berth, Garland averaged 21.7 points on .576 true shooting, 8.6 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 35.7 minutes per game. This season, Garland is averaging … 21.8 points on .582 true shooting, 8.1 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 35.6 minutes per game. Cleveland actually has a better point differential when Garland’s running the show while Donovan Mitchell sits than vice versa, too, and he’s been dependable in crunch time, with 19 assists against nine turnovers when the score’s within 5 points in the final five minutes, according to NBA Advanced Stats. You wonder, if the Cavs were in second and the Bucks in fifth, instead of the other way around, if Garland might’ve beaten out Holiday for a reserve backcourt slot; as it is, though, Garland might find himself on the outside looking in primarily because he made space for an incoming All-Star backcourt mate. Tough times.

WEST

De’Aaron Fox, Kings

When I wrote about the prospective cases for a bunch of would-be first-time All-Stars a few weeks back, I noted the similarities between the positions of Fox and Brunson, as the “ball-handling complement to a big man with eye-popping numbers and a superior advanced statistical profile.” Sure enough: Randle and Domantas Sabonis made the cut, and their point guards didn’t.

As tough as Brunson’s omission is, the lack of Fox seems even more glaring, considering the instrumental role he’s played in helping to spark the meme-rich offensive explosion and attendant organizational overhaul in Sacramento. The sixth-year guard out of Kentucky has played the best ball of his career this season, averaging 24.3 points, 6.1 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game on career-best shooting inside the arc and his best long-distance accuracy in five years. He’s among the league leaders in points scored per game off drives and points produced per possession in isolation and has also been the league’s best crunch-time scorer: Nobody has scored more points in “clutch” situations than Fox, who has shot a whopping 48-for-80 from the field (60%) in the final five minutes of games when the score’s within 5 points, and 23-for-38 (60.5%) when it’s a one-possession game in the final three minutes. The Kings are in third in the West because they have the NBA’s No. 3 offense, and you can argue that Fox has been just as responsible for that as Sabonis. You don’t want to root for injuries for anyone; here’s hoping, though, that if commissioner Adam Silver does have to name an injury replacement, his first call goes to California’s capital.

Anthony Davis, Lakers

In terms of pure all-around production when on the court, Davis has been a top-10 player this season: second in the NBA in win shares per-48, third in PER and FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR, eighth in EPM, etc. He’s scoring and rebounding more than he has in five years and shooting a career-high 58.3% from the floor. With him on the floor, the Lakers, who rank 21st in defensive efficiency for the full season, have allowed only 111.3 points-per-100, which would rank fourth. He has finally embraced playing center and, in the process, has played arguably the best ball of his career … when he’s been on the court. He’s missed nearly as many games (24) as he’s played (28) this season, thanks largely to a stress injury in his foot that kept him sidelined for about five weeks; that, in the eyes of the coaches, was enough time on the shelf to look elsewhere in rounding out the Western roster.

Devin Booker, Suns

Like Davis in the frontcourt, Booker’s All-Star case fell by the wayside when he landed on the injured list for an extended period. He was playing at an MVP level early in the season, opening eyes with a pair of 50-point performances and averaging a career-high 27.1 points on 48/37/85 shooting splits to go with 5.6 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game as he paced Phoenix to an 18-12 record and within 1 1/2 games of first place in the West. But then came the hamstring tightness and groin strain that have kept him out for most of the last month and a half — the biggest reason (along with a raft of other injuries) that the Suns slid down below .500 before righting the ship over the past couple of weeks. Being limited to 29 games wasn’t enough to keep Zion Williamson out of the West’s starting five; evidently, though, in a crowded Western backcourt field, it was enough to keep Booker from making his fourth straight All-Star appearance.

Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

Make it three straight “simply not enough games, my guy” snubs. I’m not sure how many players have been better than Leonard since he re-entered the lineup full time (well, you know: Clippers full-time) in early December, and I’m not sure any have been better than the two-time Finals MVP over the last three weeks; he’s averaging 29.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.2 assists and two steals per game on 56/47/92 shooting splits over his last 11 appearances, propelling the once-scuffling Clips into fourth place in the West. But when you’ve missed as many games as you’ve started (26) and the competition is as fierce as it is in the West, even a world-renowned monster like Full-Force Kawhi can get left by the wayside.

Anthony Edwards, Timberwolves

Heading into the season, the main question surrounding Minnesota was how its two multiple-time All-Star centers, incumbent Karl-Anthony Towns and newcomer Rudy Gobert, would coalesce in the NBA’s biggest frontcourt chemistry experiment. But after a chaotic first half that’s seen Towns sidelined by a calf strain since the end of November and Gobert struggle to get acclimated to his new environment — or, perhaps more accurately, his new environment struggling to get acclimated to him — the big story in the Twin Cities has been Edwards’ ascent. The top pick in the 2021 NBA Draft hasn’t missed a game, leads the league in minutes and has taken over as a bona fide No. 1 option in Towns’ absence, averaging 26.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game on 47/39/78 shooting splits over his last 33 games. After a disappointing 5-8 start, Minnesota has the West’s fourth-best record and fifth-best net rating; that the Wolves enter Thursday’s play sixth in the West, just a game out of fourth, owes primarily to Edwards’ ability to carry them. If there’s a silver lining to the gray cloud of the disappointing news that he didn’t make the All-Star Game, maybe it’s this: The bet here is that, starting next year, he won’t miss another for a while.

Aaron Gordon, Nuggets

Gordon’s chances of making the final cut depended largely on coaches deciding to reward his durability, availability and consistency — only five missed games, nearly 1,400 minutes, excellent defense across multiple positions, high-efficiency/low-usage offense — over players who might’ve shined brighter in less floor time. Those chances effectively ended when the name Jaren Jackson Jr. got called. On the merits, I get the argument for Jackson; I think Jackson has been the best defensive player in the league this season — irrespective of how some Reddit Zapruder enthusiasts see things — and he’s been, by some metrics, one of the 10 or 15 highest-impact players in the NBA on a per-possession basis. It is a bummer, though, for a player like Gordon to fall short after completely buying into his role and playing it perfectly to help elevate a team with a chance to win a championship. He was basically designed in a lab to play with Jokic: fantastic at moving away from the ball, cutting into open space and finishing at a high percentage; willing and able to defend the thornier frontcourt matchups so Jokic doesn’t have to; aggressive when it’s time to fly in from the weak side to provide the rim protection that the two-time MVP doesn’t or hit the glass to secure a possession. I thought Gordon might have a chance to make it as, effectively, a “star-in-his-role All-Star.” Would’ve been pretty cool to see him back in the Dunk Contest, too. Dang it.

C.J. McCollum, Pelicans

He always seemed like a long shot, just due to the overwhelming excellence of the top tier of the West and the fact that he is, on paper, the No. 3 option on his own team. But when both Brandon Ingram and Williamson went down for extended stretches and New Orleans just kept holding onto its position in the West’s top four, thanks in large part to the veteran playmaker getting hot from long distance, it seemed like McCollum might have a shot. A nine-game losing streak that drops you down to 10th place, though, has a way of changing things quickly. Oh, well. If McCollum gets bummed about continuing to be in the running for the title of best player never to make an All-Star team, at least he can always open up his bank’s mobile app. That’d be enough to turn anyone’s frown upside down.