Who deserves the honor of being a 2023 All-Star Game reserve?
The NBA announced the 10 players who’d been voted in as starters for the 2023 All-Star Game last Thursday. Six of the players on my official media ballot made the final cut: LeBron James, Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic in the West, and Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell in the East.
In the East, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kyrie Irving — winners of both the fan and player votes — bumped my picks (Joel Embiid and Tyrese Haliburton) out of the East’s starting five. In the West, fan vote leader Stephen Curry took the second guard spot while my pick, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, finished fourth, and Zion Williamson — third in player voting, fourth among both fans and media members — landed the third frontcourt slot, while my pick, Kings center Domantas Sabonis, finished sixth. (Cold world.)
These divergences aren’t exactly stunning. Antetokounmpo, Irving, Curry and Zion are four of the most popular, exhilarating, productive and brilliant players in the NBA — precisely the sort of performers fans want to see in the annual All-Star exhibition. Had the powers that be at the league office tasked me with filling out a full 12-man ballot for each conference, Giannis and Steph would have absolutely been on it. Williamson might not have been, due to the injuries that have kept him off the court for most of the last six weeks, but he was inarguably brilliant before landing on the shelf. Kyrie … well, he’s starting, so the other stuff, at this point, is irrelevant.
And that, really, is the fun part of the All-Star page turning from starters to reserves: now, all of my choices are wholly irrelevant. (Even more so than usual, I mean.) Fans, players and media members vote on starting lineups, but NBA coaches alone choose which players wind up comprising each conference’s reserve corps; my thinking, hemming, hawing and scribbling don’t matter at all in this process.
That said: I did the thinking/hemming/hawing/scribbling, so I guess we might as well run it. I mean, it’s not like we’re running out of space on the internet or anything. (Probably.)
Here are the seven players from each conference — three frontcourt players, two guards, and two “wild cards,” which can come from either group — that I’d pick to complete the 2023 NBA All-Star Game rosters:
FC Domantas Sabonis, Kings
FC Lauri Markkanen, Jazz
FC Anthony Davis, Lakers
G Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder
G Ja Morant, Grizzlies
WC Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
WC Devin Booker, Suns*
(* may miss game due to injury)
I already broke down my arguments for Sabonis and Gilgeous-Alexander in last week’s starters column. Which is great, because, you know, less writing.
I’ve also considered Markkanen’s case at some length: in the official ballot piece, in my prefatory look at potential first-time All-Stars and in my Second-Quarter Awards column. I still think all of the stuff I wrote in those places! He’s been sensational in a breakout campaign as the No. 1 option on the NBA’s No. 4 offense; he was my final cut in the starting frontcourt, and he gets a reserve spot here to represent the host city Jazz.
Morant was right there with Steph on the outskirts of my starting backcourt. The fourth-year lightning bolt sits just outside the top 10 in scoring at 27.3 points per game and fifth in assists, dishing out 8.2 a night. He’s the conductor of Memphis’ top-10 offense, the engine that keeps the second-place Grizzlies charging to within arm’s reach of the West’s top spot, and the showstopping creator of highlight after highlight to turn a franchise that used to be known for plodding post play into one of the NBA’s most thrilling spectacles. He’s an easy call to join SGA.
Lillard was probably a lock to take a wild card spot already … and then he went and dropped the most efficient 60-point game in NBA history on Utah’s heads.
Dame’s averaging 30.4 points per game (sixth in the league) on .640 true shooting — both career highs — while adding 7.3 assists as Portland’s playmaking heartbeat. The more things change in Oregon, the more they stay the same; the Blazers rise and fall on the strength of their offense, which produces points at a league-best clip (121.1 points per 100 possessions) with Lillard on the court and at a bottom-three rate (111.1 points-per-100) with him off it. He ranks in or around the top 10 in a slew of advanced statistical metrics and is far and away the main reason why Portland’s even hanging around the play-in mix — a game out of 10th, two games out of fifth — in the crowded West. It was reasonable to wonder how Dame might look in his age-33 season after losing the 2021-22 campaign to the most significant injury he’d suffered as a pro. The answer, as it turns out: Like Damian Lillard. Which is to say: Like an All-Star.
The last frontcourt slot promised to be a tricky balance of quantity vs. quality — players who’d been excellent when on the floor but had their playing time limited by injuries pitted against players who hadn’t quite reached those heights but had been more durable and available while still being very good. But then Zion made the starting lineup despite missing 23 games, which — with all due respect to ace star-in-his-role Aaron Gordon and the perfectly cromulent Paul George — kind of made it feel silly to make “he hasn’t even played 1,000 minutes” an impenetrable barrier for this discussion.
Removing that criterion brought three names into focus for the final frontcourt spot: Anthony Davis, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kawhi Leonard. Tempest-in-a-teapot conspiracy theorizing aside, I think Jackson has been the best defensive player in the league — the primary reason that a Grizzlies team that struggled to get stops early in the season now ranks first in points allowed per possession outside of garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass. After a fits-and-starts return from missing all of last season due to an ACL tear that called into question whether we’d ever see the Clippers as they were meant to be seen, Leonard has looked like every ounce of his old self of late, 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 to vault the Clips into fourth place in the West. But neither JJJ nor Kawhi have been better all around this season than Davis, whose embrace of the center position unlocked arguably the best run of form we’ve ever seen from him before suffering a stress injury in his right foot.
AD has scored more, and more efficiently, than any of the other candidates while also being an absolute demon on the defensive end; the Lakers, who rank 21st in defensive efficiency for the full season, have allowed only 111.3 points-per-100 with Davis patrolling the paint, which would rank fourth. He’s second in the NBA in win shares per 48 minutes, tied for third in player efficiency rating, eighth in estimated plus-minus, and 18th in value over replacement player despite missing more than a month. He’s been the best of the low-minute bunch, and better than Gordon and George on a per-possession basis by a large enough margin that — if we’re not really sweating the minutes load that much — then he’s in.
That leaves one “wild card” spot. If we’re operating under a framework in which we can reward players who were working at an MVP-conversation level prior to going on the shelf, then I think it’s only fair to give the nod to Booker, who forcefully entered that conversation with a 51-point annihilation of the Bulls, followed shortly thereafter by a 58-point heater in a comeback win over the Pelicans.
Before Booker suffered the hamstring tightness and groin strain that have sidelined him for most of the last month and a half, Phoenix was 18-12, just a game and a half out of first place in the West, with a top-five offense, a league-average defense and the NBA’s No. 6 net rating. The Suns got there, despite Jae Crowder opting out, Cam Johnson getting hurt and Chris Paul race-walking with Father Time, because Booker had effectively carried them that far: The 26-year-old was 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 before he got hurt. Consider this a tip of the cap to what he accomplished before he went down … even if it’s unclear whether he’ll be all the way back and healthy enough to participate in the festivities in Salt Lake City.
If Booker can’t go, I think the final wild-card spot would probably come down to De’Aaron Fox and Anthony Edwards. I covered Fox’s case in the potential first-time All-Stars piece, and would not bat an eye at all if he made it in recognition of his work in helping propel the long-moribund Kings on their meteoric rise to third place in the West. In the consequences-free sandbox of this safe space, though … I think I’ll go with Ant, who’s been an absolute rock for a Minnesota team that has desperately needed a stabilizing agent amid the challenge of integrating Rudy Gobert and the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns.
Since Towns strained his calf in late November, Edwards has averaged 26.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game on 47/40/78 shooting. (The shooting, in particular, is becoming terrifying: Out of 156 players to attempt at least 100 catch-and-shoot threes this season, Edward ranks ninth in accuracy, drilling 45.5%.) He’s scored and distributed the ball more efficiently without a significant uptick in turnovers while shouldering the largest offensive burden of his career. He has continued his growth as a physically imposing on-ball defender while showing flashes of development off the ball, too. He hasn’t missed a game, he leads the league in total minutes, and he seems to be growing in leaps and bounds before our eyes; he’s got more 30-plus point games (15) than under-20 outings (14) this season, and he doesn’t turn 22 until August.
The Wolves have needed something superhuman to keep their hoped-for ascent this season from going completely off the rails. Ant has provided it and has kept Minnesota squarely in the West’s mushy middle — in eighth place, a half-game out of fifth, just three games behind third-place Sacramento — pretty much through sheer force of will. He gets my last spot, and Fox is my first call if Zion or anyone else needs an injury replacement.
Apologies to: Fox, Gordon, JJJ, Kawhi, PG, CJ McCollum, Draymond Green, Jerami Grant.
FC Joel Embiid, 76ers
FC Pascal Siakam, Raptors
FC Bam Adebayo, Heat
G Tyrese Haliburton, Pacers*
G Jaylen Brown, Celtics
WC Julius Randle, Knicks
WC James Harden, 76ers
Check out last week’s column for the Embiid and Haliburton cases. Brown was my last cut in the starting backcourt as the No. 2 option on the NBA’s best team; he gets the other reserve guard spot next to Haliburton.
No other Eastern forward or center had a prayer of scratching out a starting spot with Durant, Tatum, Embiid and Antetokounmpo all at the front of the line. But there have still been plenty of deserving candidates just past that top tier.
Siakam’s been the main thing holding the wildly up-and-down Raptors together — an ostensible point-center averaging a career-high 25 points, eight rebounds and 6.3 assists while defending players all over the positional spectrum and leading the NBA in minutes per game. His ability to blow past bigger defenders in isolation, bull-rush smaller ones in the post and pirouette his way into clean looks allows him to consistently pull the magic trick of creating something out of nothing amid clogged spacing with precious few shooters around him; he is, frequently, the only bankable shot creation option on Toronto’s underwhelming offense. It remains to be seen how seriously a 23-29 Raptors team with plenty of questions to answer looks at shopping Siakam; if he really is on the market, though, he could be the kind of player who commands a king’s ransom, and maybe swings the title odds. He’s been that good — good enough to earn his second All-Star berth.
I put Adebayo in a frontcourt spot and Randle in a wild-card slot, but you could put them in either order, really; all that matters is that you put them there.
After years of Heat fans and observers begging for him to be more aggressive, and with early season injuries throughout Miami’s rotation effectively forcing his hand, Adebayo has answered the call. He’s looking for his own offense more frequently and finding it more effectively: a career-high 21.4 points on 54% shooting, with more total points in the paint than any player in the league besides Giannis. He’s paired that with his customarily elite defense, though he’s coming by it a bit differently — more drop coverage in the pick-and-roll, not quite as much switching (although still more than only a handful of other defenders in the league) — as the interior anchor for a Miami team that ranks fourth in defensive efficiency and prevents points at a league-best level with Bam menacing drivers and shooters all over the half-court.
The advanced numbers scream for Jimmy Butler to be in the mix here, but Bam — who’s played 10 more games and about 400 more minutes — gets the nod for helping Miami stay afloat while Butler and others missed time, allowing the Heat to stay in position to make their current climb up to sixth and within hailing distance of fourth in the jumbled middle of the East.
That the Knicks are right there with Miami — just a half-game behind the Heat in seventh, and only three games back of a Cavs team that actually did make the Donovan Mitchell trade — is something of a surprise. That they’ve arrived there thanks in large part to Randle shaking off a pretty disastrous 2021-22 season, though, is the real shocker.
The arrival of Jalen Brunson helped shift Randle’s game a bit — a little less shot creation, a little more finishing, a much higher volume of catch-and-shoot threes — and the results have been brilliant. He’s scoring more (and more efficiently), grabbing a higher share of available rebounds, getting to the free-throw line more, turning the ball over less, and all in all just playing better than he did during the 2020-21 campaign that saw him earn All-Star, All-NBA and Most Improved Player honors. He’s been particularly dynamic since the start of December, averaging better than 27-12-4 on .581 true shooting to help New York establish itself as a team with a legitimate chance of returning to the postseason.
I wouldn’t argue too loudly if you viewed Brunson’s elite work in isolation and in crunch time — 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 — as a determining factor in which Knick to send to Salt Lake City. Randle’s superior advanced statistical résumé, though — he outpaces Brunson in PER, VORP, win shares, box plus-minus, EPM and real plus-minus — gives him the slight edge for me.
I thought about plenty of names for the final wild-card spot — Butler, Brunson, Trae Young, Jrue Holiday, DeMar DeRozan — before settling on Harden. In going over my official ballot, I noted that the overall advanced statistical résumé pointed to The Beard as the second-best guard in the conference. My main concern? The 16 games he’d missed due to a sprained tendon in his foot. Circling back to the Western starters, though: If we’re putting in dudes who haven’t cracked 30 games or 1,000 minutes, then maybe I don’t need to be worried about that too much, and can just go with the guy who’s averaging 21.3 points, 11 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game on elite shooting as the devastating table-setter of an attack that now ranks ninth in the NBA in offensive efficiency.
Besides: The captains need somebody to pick last, right?
Apologies to: Butler, Brunson, Young, Holiday, DeRozan, Darius Garland, Kristaps Porzingis, Brook Lopez, Myles Turner, Nic Claxton.