The 2021 NBA All-Star Game And All of It’s Baggage

Every year there’s a bigger conversation surrounding the All-Star Game. Who’s been snubbed? Who will the captains pick first? Will they actually try? Will we get a national anthem performance even worse than Fergie’s in 2018?

All of those questions are still being asked, but like everything else in the times of the rona, this year’s All-Star game has some murkier, more unpleasant questions that are unfortunately much more important. Is it safe? Is it worth it? Do the players- more specifically the superstars- want it?

Let’s start with the lighter stuff.

The Snub Conversation

I’ll get to the actual snubs in a bit, but first I want to talk about the discourse around snubs.

Every single year the Inside Guys on TNT have the same conversation. Last year it was Bradley Beal, this year it looks like it’ll probably be Devin Booker. Someone didn’t make the team and Shaq and/or Chuck thinks it’s outrageous, and the coaches (who select the reserves) got it wrong. Bradley Beal averaged 30 ppg last year, and even though it was on an awful Wizards team we’ve seen him be an all-star on playoff teams; these aren’t empty calorie stats., he really is this good. So it’s fair enough to say he should’ve been an all-star.

The issue comes when Ernie Johnson, television’s greatest traffic conductor, asks “So who would you take off?”. And instead of giving an answer, Chuck and/or Shaq just keep barking “he should’ve made the team, he should’ve made the team, it doesn’t matter”.

After the All-Stars are announced you hear different versions of this conversation all over social media and all the talking head shows, and in most cases you get why they don’t answer the question: it’s a business decision. Amin El Hassan or even a former player like Kendrick Perkins doesn’t have the clout to single out an all-star caliber player and say “he shouldn’t be on the team”. More than any other sports league, the NBA and any piece of media that orbits it is built on the backs of its star players. You don’t want to make a habit of pissing them off. Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Inside the NBA as a whole are the only untouchables- having 2 of the 50 best basketball players of all time that are also the 2 most entertaining former players of all time will do that. They have the clout to call current players out and have (Joel Embiid in 2019, and of course JAVALE MCGEE to name a couple), so it’s disappointing every year hearing this loop of an argument.

So I’m going to be some fool on the internet- as Chuck would say- doing what 2 of the greatest big men of all time couldn’t do. You’re welcome.

The Eastern Conference Reserves

So this year the East All-Star Starters are: Legitimate activist & flatearther Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal (NBA twitter gets justice), achilles recovery poster-child Kevin Durant (Captain), Giannis Antetokounmpo- not to flex but I’ve memorized the spelling- and Joel Embiid, my very early MVP. Side note: I know 2 centers made it anyway, but there are so many good big men. Bring back the center spot. It got rough when DeAndre Jordan was making All-NBA teams but we got through it.

The reserves are: James Harden, Julius Randle, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Zach Lavine, Ben Simmons & Nikola Vucevic.

I’m not in any way a James Harden fan- he’s awful to watch, gets way too many cheap calls, and I think any superstar in NBA history could put up the numbers he’s put up over the last few years at his usage rate. He’s become historically overrated, but I’m not enough of a hater to say he shouldn’t be an all-star. I had him as a starter instead of Kyrie.

The wing duo in Boston have been fantastic this year, despite a disappointing start for the Celtics (I just watched Luka call game to drop them below .500 while writing this). I wouldn’t have been mad if Jaylen Brown made it last year and this year he’s been just as good as Tatum.

I was surprised to see Julius Randle’s name, but he would’ve had one of my votes. The Knicks’ unexpected competence is more than a meme, and Randle is making it happen with Reggie Bullock starting on the wing.

Ben Simmons has been better as of late, but I’m not on the “this is Ben Simmons’ best year as pro” bandwagon. He’s been just as dominant defensively as last year, but has regressed on the other end, albeit slightly. Whether that’s actually been good for Philly or not is another conversation, but regardless a slightly worse than last year Ben Simmons is still an All-Star.

Now the last two guys, were not on my list. Nikola Vucevic is averaging 24 & 11, and I’m mostly fine with his selection. His career year has a bit of empty calories on top of it, so I had Khris Middleton & Jimmy Butler ahead of him. It’s an individual distinction but winning matters. The Bucks haven’t been world-beaters, but Khris Middleton is a couple missed free throws from scoring 20 ppg on 50/40/90 splits. The Miami Heat aren’t much higher in the standings than the other team in Florida, but they’ve been ravaged by Covid absences. They’ve only recorded 2 of their 13 wins without him, and Butler is having his best year as a playmaker. You could argue- and I’d guess the coaches did- that he hasn’t played enough, but Butler’s played in just as many games as Durant.

Ok…let’s talk about Zach Lavine.

I’m a Bulls fan. So for Lavine to average 28 ppg and not make my ballot should say something. He’s a textbook “bad team, empty stats” guy to me, and I don’t think an NBA team can win much of anything let alone a championship if he’s your best player. He’s made a big leap in scoring efficiency, but he’s a ball stopper who makes what’s already a mediocre roster even worse. We’re pushing this narrative that he’s “actually trying” on defense this year, which I don’t think is true but if it is it helps my argument- he’s a sieve.

I would’ve had Bam Adebayo ahead of Vucevic (and definitely Lavine) too, but the Heat haven’t been good enough to have two All-Stars so I went with Butler. He’s a much improved shooter, and when Miami is finally able to put it all together his numbers will look even better.

Plenty of people will say Trae Young’s a snub too, but everything I just said about Zach Lavine is true of Trae Young, minus the efficiency part.

You could argue Domantas Sabonis belongs in Julius Randle’s spot- they’ve put up very similar numbers and the Pacers are 4th in the East. But the Pacers roster is much better than the Knicks, more is being asked of Randle, and there’s only 3 games between 4th and 7th where the Knicks are currently.

I’m apparently much higher on Tobias Harris than anyone else in the world. After the 76ers hired “the Tobias Harris Whisperer”- coined by Bomani Jones and how I’ll be referring to Doc Rivers from now on- much like Middleton he’s averaging 20 ppg on 50/40/89 shooting splits. But despite being on top of the East, the Sixers just haven’t been good enough to justify 3 All-Stars.

Gordon Hayward is another deserving name; he’s putting up numbers like he did in Utah and we’re actually talking about the Hornets making the playoffs.

One of Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet would’ve been worthy selections as the Raptors have clawed back to relevance after having the start to the season we expected them to have last year. The impact of playing in Tampa clearly should’ve gotten more attention.

I think more than anything the East being a trainwreck so far made voting particularly difficult- as of writing only 4 teams have winning records, and the 4-10 seeds are all within 3 games of .500. In the past you usually see a pretty clear hierarchy- the top seed has at least 2, often 3 All-Stars. 2-4 have at least one, often 2. 5-8 usually have one. This year there’s such a logjam of mediocrity in the middle and so many guys around 20 ppg on those teams that the voting was a bit of a crapshoot.

The Western Conference Reserves

The big brother conference had less of this problem- there’s still a bit of a logjam below the 3 seed, but every team set to make the playoffs has a winning record and every team in the play-in tournament is at least .500 except the Grizzlies who are 13-14, and played 2 weeks without Ja Morant.

The starters this year are: comeback player of the year runner-up Stephen Curry, Luka “ESPN stop giving him these awful nicknames” Doncic, TB12’s most famous client Lebron James (Captain), Kawhi “Load Management” Leonard (see how it’s done ESPN), and the reformed Pillsbury dough-boy, Nikola Jokic.

The reserves are: Paul George, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Chris Paul & Zion Williamson.

Paul George has cooled off just a bit after a great start to the season. He’s still almost shooting 50% from 3, and like his teammate Kawhi Leonard having his best season as a playmaker in the absence of a true point guard. He was always a lock

Damian Lillard is putting up 30 ppg (again) and dragging a short-handed Blazers team to the middle of the playoff pack (again). He was always a lock, and while I think Doncic was the right pick could’ve started.

Despite not taking the scoring leap many expected after having a historic first round series in the bubble, it’s pretty clear that’s not because Donovan Mitchell isn’t capable of it. By sacrificing a bit of what could’ve been a break-out MVP conversation year, he’s now the best player on the team with the best record in the NBA.

The Suns went undefeated in the bubble, but I don’t put much stock into an 8 game sample. Chris Paul has transformed Phoenix into not only a competent basketball team, but a basketball team 10 games above .500. 3 year in, that massive contract is looking well-deserved.

Rudy Gobert is the 2nd best player on the best team, and like I said before they always get 2 if not 3 All-Stars. That’s not to say it’s not deserved, as he’s looking primed to win another Defensive Player of the Year award.

Zion Williamson is the only iffy pick here because the Pelicans have been inconsistent at best, but he’s putting up 25 ppg on a ridiculous 61% shooting. He still looks a bit lost defensively at times, as do all the Pelicans every other game. Regardless, it’s the All-Star game- not having Zion Williamson would be a bit of a contradiction.

So with all 12 spots well deserved, this is when that snub conversation I talked about before comes into play. Devin Booker “the most disrespected player in the NBA” according to Lebron James, is this year’s star of the show (pun not intended, but welcome). The Suns have been good enough to have 2 All-Stars, and I’m surprised the Coaches went with CP3 over Booker as the one. I had him making the team over Zion, but he may get in anyway as an injury replacement for Anthony Davis (editing note: he has).

In a more shallow All-Star year, Mike Conley might’ve finally been able to make his first All-Star team as the 3rd All-Star the top seed often gets. Once again, his stats just aren’t sexy enough.

De’Aaron Fox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are in the same boat of being worthy players on teams that just haven’t been good enough. If the West stays this stacked and Fox stays in Sacramento he just might steal the Best Player to Never Make an All-Star team crown from Mike Conley in 15 years. I trust Sam Presti to put a winning team around SGA (they’re already much better than they probably should be this year), so I won’t say the same of him.

I really wanted to put Demar Derozan on my team, but just couldn’t justify it. He’s become criminally underrated after probably being a bit overrated at the end of his days with the Raptors, and the Spurs are somehow 5th in the West.

Brandon Ingram is having almost as good a year as Zion, but Zion is Zion and the Pelicans are arguably not good enough to have one all-star let alone 2.

The Rona of It All

Now for the complicated stuff.

Until a couple weeks ago there wasn’t going to be an All-Star Weekend. The players would get their break, the teams would be voted on and announced, but none of the events were on the schedule. Seemingly out of nowhere, the NBA and NBPA agreed to an All-Star weekend in principle, set to be held in Atlanta next month.

Despite the players association agreeing to the game, several of the actual participants have been critical of the decision. De’Aaron Fox was the first to make headlines speaking out before reserves were announced, but he was quickly echoed by All-Star starters like Lebron, Steph, Giannis & even the chatterbox himself, Kawhi Leonard. The recent development that players will be put in a mini-bubble, unable to leave their hotels except for All-Star events, is certainly not going to help things as last summer’s Disney Bubble was hated by every player not named Jimmy Butler. Atlanta’s Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has also publicly discouraged the event.

Adam Silver and the rest of the decision making brass must have anticipated some backlash, but probably not from the biggest names in their league. Perhaps in response, the league has since announced that a significant amount of the TV money would be donated to HBCUs and COVID-19 equity efforts. Or this was part of the plan from the beginning as the NBA continues to make good on the promises it made during the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests last year. Regardless of how you look at it, the altruistic element doesn’t change the fact that the NBA has fallen from the gold-standard of Covid safety in sports. The Bubble, as far as the pandemic is concerned at least, was a massive success. Not a single person tested positive once admitted into the Disney campus, and there was only a single breach of the rules 2 months into the process (shout out to Danuel House).

As I mentioned before everyone hated the bubble, and wellbeing issues undoubtedly affected performances in the playoffs. The unprecedented success was a one time thing that we’ll never see done again. So with the NBA bleeding money for the first time in 50 years, Silver didn’t have much choice but to rush the offseason and join the NFL in a haphazard “whatever happens happens” pandemic season. With a 72 game schedule, the league has managed to avoid any awful-optics situation like the Denver Broncos putting some dude off the street at quarterback, but teams have certainly been that depleted at various points. The Wizards and Grizzles’ records looked like typos compared to the rest of the standings as games had to be postponed left & right. Kevin Durant has only played in 19 games not because he’s coming off an achilles tear, but because he’s been constantly in and out of Covid protocol, even pulled from the middle of a game. Durant, understandably frustrated, called out the league for fumbling its handling of the pandemic, and plenty of players agreed. So Lebron James put it best: if the league can’t even reliably keep its players safe for a regular season game, it’s a “slap in the face” for them to pretend they can for an All-Star game.

Adam Silver has been the most pro-player sports commissioner in American History, but at the end of the day he works for the owners first and foremost and the owners are losing money. Barring a strike, the All-Star game will happen, and as a fan of the NBA I can only hope the All-Star bubble is as successful as its predecessor and the 24 best basketball players in the world don’t all leave Atlanta with the Rona. Silver has to hope he can recover from tarnishing his once perfect record with the players.

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