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Why voting for NBA All-Star Game starters was not an easy task in this unprecedented season

Add to this most unusual and unpredictable NBA season another bizarre wrinkle: An NBA All-Star Game, one the players themselves are loath to play, that also feels in a few key cases particularly tricky to properly assess as we choose those headed to Atlanta.

For media members who were offered a vote for All-Star Game starters — including me — 10 names just weren’t enough to feel like every worthy player ended on your ballot. The process felt like a preview of the NBA Awards voting at the end of the season, when the excruciating process of properly separating the game’s stars from All-NBA First Team to second and third — plus MVP, DPOY, ROY and other awards — often feels like a no-win situation. 

This time around, my All-Star Game ballot, which allowed for two backcourt and three frontcourt players per conference, looked like this:

Eastern Conference: Bradley Beal, Trae Young, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid

Western Conference: Steph Curry, Luka Doncic, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Kawhi Leonard.

That makes my ballot exactly the same as actual NBA starters, minus one player and one tie-breaker: I had Young over Kyrie Irving, and I had Doncic ahead of Damian Lillard, the two of whom tied in the tri-tiered media/player/fan voting. Lillard, who fared better in the media and player voting, lost the tiebreaker because Doncic secured more fan votes.

I get the pull for those who felt Lillard deserved the starting nod over Doncic. And, again, leaving some of these players off these lists feels wrong. There are too many deserving stars in today’s NBA to fit on a 1-10 ranking system. 

And yes, Lillard’s Portland team continues to shine largely because of his individual stardom, and Doncic’s Mavs have underachieved. But this isn’t an MVP award, and the distinction matters. It’s about individual stardom — singular excellence — and for me, Luka has just barely nudged ahead of Dame.

Lillard’s 29.8/4.4/7.7 is a predictably great season. But Doncic has, despite his team’s struggles, put up a LeBron-like 29.1/8.6/9.4 this season. And just watching him play — the eye-test of greatness, even when compared with unbelievable players like Damian Lillard — to me makes it clear no All-Star Game is complete without Doncic front and center.

Then there’s the Kyrie Irving selection. For me, it’s this simple: I think Trae Young is a better player than Kyrie Irving. If you can be partial to a certain star, the opposite can be true, too. I find Irving as distracting a teammate as he is a dangerous one, as much hype as he is heroics.

Yes, he’s massively talented. Yes, he’s awesome. Yes, he’s an All-Star. But so are a lot of players, Young included.

There’s also this uncomfortable caveat to voting, one you can’t and should not bring to bear on MVP voting but that plays a role in an All-Star Game: Some hybrid of star power and likability — with bits of what you want a star to be thrown in for good measure. A celebration of the game (ASG) is slightly different than a cold-eyed evaluation of a player’s individual greatness (MVP, All-NBA teams). And here, Kyrie falls short.

He’s been less than a reliable teammate. Sure, he can call NBA media members pawns as much as he wants but, in a close case, not sure that does him favors when some of those members get to vote for the All-Star Game. Did I leave him off my ballot because of that comment? No. Did that comment remind me of his role as a teammate and the lackluster way he’s used his power as a star? That he forced his way out of a championship Cleveland team, was less than a great leader in Boston, and continued that form early in Brooklyn? It did, and it gave me pause.

Plus, it’s the All-Star Game, not the “Some-Times-A-Star-When-I-Feel-Like-Playing” Game.

And while Irving’s 27.7/4.7/5.6 and 42.7 percent 3-point shooting and 52.9 percent from the field speaks to another great season, I think Young has been the better player. It’s not just his 26.5/3.8/9.3, it’s the fact his effort to try and pull the Hawks into the playoffs or its play-in series does not come aided with the help of Kevin Durant and James Harden.

Speaking of which, I had Harden higher on my list of Eastern Conference guards. He’d have gotten the nod ahead of Irving if there was more space. Zach LaVine got a long look, too. 

The others are no-brainers. LeBron, Embiid and Jokic have real MVP cases so far this season. Beal and Steph are playing lustrous basketball. Giannis and Kawhi forces of nature for their respective teams.

All of this leaves us, the players’ understandable frustration with the game itself notwithstanding, with exactly what the All-Star Game is about: A fine-eyed focus — slights and all — on hoops, the association, and a crop of players worthy of celebration and debate.




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