Nuggets Journal: Explaining my 2024 NBA All-Star Game starter ballot

NEW YORK — About 36 hours after I submitted my ballot for All-Star starters last week, I was walking across that obnoxious for-display-only basketball court in the middle of the Indianapolis airport terminal, resisting the urge to challenge TSA officers to a pickup run.

The entire premise of planting a life-sized court in a busy public space but banning it from use is silly (even if it’s impossible to ignore as a marketing stunt for this year’s All-Star Game in Indy). But if I were to pull a basketball out of my suitcase and Euro step around some fellow travelers, I have a feeling security would treat it as a deathly serious offense.

What better metaphor for the tradition of NBA All-Star selection?

The weekend of festivities is always fun, and the roster is a handy bookmark to look back on, if you want to know who was exceptional halfway through any given season. But it doesn’t come close to being the bonafide, canonizing list of top players that the All-NBA team is. With end-of-season awards, legacies (and exorbitant sums of money) are on the line. This All-Star stuff is supposed to be fun and games. There’s a reason fans are allowed to spam vote.

Yet the response to the selections (and omissions) is always rabid nonetheless. It wouldn’t be the NBA without fierce communal debate over the fun and games. With that in mind, as one of the media members chosen to vote for All-Star starters, I’ve done my due diligence in my rookie season on the Nuggets beat. I waited until the deadline day before submitting my ballot to account for all available data, and I tried to be as careful as possible in considering the rationales for various candidates — including the obvious ones. Fierce communal debate is welcomed.

A few hours after I encountered that giant airport advertisement, Joel Embiid joined the 70-point club in a Philadelphia win over the Spurs. If he makes it to the new 65-game minimum for awards eligibility, he seems destined to repeat as league MVP, even with Nikola Jokic’s through-the-roof efficiency this month helping him hang around. Embiid is one of the best sheer scoring centers of all time (36 PPG this season), and his regular-season pedigree is unquestioned, regardless of how justified playoff scrutiny is.

The Eastern Conference frontcourt would be incomplete without him and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the only player in the league putting up both more points per game (31.3) and a higher field goal percentage (60.5%) than Jokic. Antetokounmpo remains a bowling ball downhill, one of the best transition players in the game (5.4 PPG on fast breaks) and the focal point of a top-three offense.

Jayson Tatum was also an easy pick. He has adapted gracefully to his decreased usage to make room for new talent in Boston’s starting lineup while continuing to rise to defensive challenges and sustaining his role as the Celtics’ clutch shot-taker. My ballot here was chalk: the three best players on the three best teams in the East.

The Western Conference guard selections were as easy as that East frontcourt. Luka Doncic and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had the two highest usage rates in the West at the time of ballot submission. They are the top two scorers in the West. Gilgeous-Alexander is the toughest guard in the league to stay in front of, even with his massive volume of drives. Doncic solves every look defenses show him on pick-and-rolls, and his step-back won’t be guardable now or for the next decade. These two are both on a trajectory toward future MVP crowns.

Jokic felt to me like the only frontcourt inclusion as obvious as them. We have touched on him enough already. LeBron James and Kevin Durant ended up winning the vote for the remaining spots. I voted for Durant, who refuses to fade out of his reputation as the most effortless shot-creator in the NBA. He’s 52.9/45.5/87.3% on a Suns team that has depended on him to stay in the playoff mix with injuries and a flawed supporting cast.

I was torn between two players for my last starting spot. James wasn’t one of them. No disrespect at all to what he’s continuing to accomplish as the oldest player in the NBA. But he would have been my second pick from his team. Lakers center Anthony Davis has played the fourth-most minutes in the league, making a run at first-team All-Defensive honors for the first time since 2020. He’s also a two-way rebounding machine who’s third in paint points per game.

Davis was the most difficult omission on my ballot. The statistical case for him is valid. So why leave him off? Only because Kawhi Leonard’s consistent availability and return to vintage form have been one of the most impactful developments league-wide in the first half of this season, dramatically lifting the Clippers’ ceiling to championship heights.

He was fourth in both player and media voting but more overlooked by fans (sixth behind both Lakers candidates and Alperen Sengun). Among 124 players averaging 45 or more touches per game, Leonard is third in points per touch with .448. He’s at a career-high in true shooting percentage (62.9%) and 3-point shooting (44.3%) while attempting his most 3s per game since 2019-20, when he was only 37.8%. He has been especially hot since the Clippers started to turn their season around at the beginning of December with a nine-game win streak (not a coincidence).

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Leonard is essentially in the same stratosphere as Durant this season as a shot-creator and efficient finisher at all levels, but his raw scoring is lower because the other stars surrounding him have stayed healthy. And while most of the argument for him depends on offensive stats, it doesn’t hurt that he’s third in the league at 1.7 steals. What Leonard has done for the Clippers deserved a shout-out, even if he wasn’t going to make the starting five.

My only other toss-up was the second Eastern Conference guard spot. Tyrese Haliburton was the consensus pick. The league leader in assists will undoubtedly put on a show for his hometown crowd at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. The Pacers, by the way, are 20-13 when he plays and 5-7 without him.

Like most voters, I was stuck between about five players here. Ultimately, though, I was choosing between New York’s Jalen Brunson and Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey, who were having almost identical seasons statistically in different roles. Brunson’s shooting numbers are a bit more efficient, but Maxey’s hands have been two of the safest in the NBA. He averages 1.6 turnovers to Brunson’s 2.4 … Damian Lillard’s 2.4, Donovan Mitchell’s 2.7, and Trae Young’s 4.3. That Maxey is so reliable while playing more minutes per game than anyone in the NBA — at 23 years old! — is a pretty stunning testament to the leap he has taken and the trust he has earned in a new role as Philly’s second option. Lillard won the overall vote. Maxey won the players’ vote, and mine.

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