NBA roundtable: All-Star starters surprises, snubs and reaction
NBA All-Star Weekend is always a time of debate, and this year’s event in Salt Lake City on Feb. 17-19 will be no exception.
With only 24 roster spots in the event and 10 starters, there will be an array of stars on the court, but some talented and well-respected players are bound to miss out altogether.
The usual All-Stars are indisputable, with LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic leading the way year after year and several rising stars racking up fan votes. But this year’s selections also came with some stunning surprises.
Zion Williamson was voted a starter for the first time in his career despite playing in just 29 games so far this season, but he might not play because he is currently nursing a hamstring injury. Williamson was given the starting spot over Anthony Davis, who was projected by many to be the last starter in the Western Conference because he has higher averages in points and rebounds and fewer turnovers per game than Williamson, but Davis has played in three fewer games so far.
Meanwhile, Joel Embiid was not voted a starter in the Eastern Conference. Kevin Durant, Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum nabbed all of the starting frontcourt spots, leaving the Philadelphia 76ers star center potentially coming off the bench.
Our experts break down the biggest surprises and snubs from this year’s All-Star starters, and with the announcement of the new draft format, what big changes we’d like to see next.
1. Who is the biggest surprise?
Tim Bontemps: There were only two spots that were up for any sort of real debate: the third Western Conference forward, behind Jokic and James, and the second Eastern Conference guard, behind Donovan Mitchell. With Williamson having missed the past three weeks because of a hamstring injury, I was a little surprised he wound up with the nod as the third forward. But there also wasn’t a clear-cut option for the spot, with both Kings big man Domantas Sabonis (whom I voted for) and Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (another injury absence) both meriting consideration.
Kendra Andrews: Williamson was the biggest surprise to me. This isn’t to say that Williamson isn’t an incredible talent — because he is. However, his availability has been shaky. And with so many other frontcourt players shining in the West, he was the biggest surprise to get the starting job.
Andrew Lopez: On the court, Williamson has deserved to be an All-Star, averaging 26 points and seven rebounds a game. But with 29 games played and a hamstring injury that could keep him out until the All-Star Game, it was a surprising to see him get the starting nod.
Marc Spears: I was respectfully surprised that Williamson was named a Western Conference starter after missing 20 games and 12 straight overall to injury. No question, the New Orleans Pelicans forward has the statistics, talent and popularity to be an All-Star. However, the Pelicans said on Tuesday that there won’t be an update on Williamson’s right hamstring injury in two weeks. If Williamson can’t play, Pelicans veteran guard CJ McCollum is certainly deserving of replacing his teammate as a first-time All-Star if the former is not available.
Andre Snellings: I’ll switch it up and say Kyrie Irving. Irving has played well, but James Harden has played just as well on a 76ers team with a better record that doesn’t have an All Star starter. And, if it’s about Irving having five more games played than Harden, I’d have considered Tyrese Haliburton instead, who has a higher Real Plus Minus (RPM) impact score, leads the NBA in assists per game, has an undermanned and unexpected Pacers squad in the postseason hunt and has played four more games than Irving.
2. Who is the biggest snub?
Bontemps: It’s hard to say anyone is a big snub when some of the starters won’t be playing in the game anyway, but I’ll say Embiid, simply because there were four All-Star starters for three spots in the East frontcourt. It turns out Embiid drew the short straw.
Andrews: Four players were deserving to be starting in the frontcourt for the East, and it’s hard to argue with the three who were chosen. That said, Embiid was the biggest snub. Again, I don’t know who I would swap out for him, but he is well deserving of being a starter.
Lopez: Remember the first rule of naming a snub — you have to take someone off. By résumé, the biggest snub is Embiid. He leads the East in scoring and his 59-point, 11-rebound, 8-assist, 7-block game on Nov. 13 against the Utah Jazz stands as one of the best single-game performances we’ve seen in some time. But it’s hard to argue against Durant, Antetokounmpo or Tatum.
Spears: The biggest snub was Embiid, who lacked the needed fan vote. The early NBA Most Valuable Player candidate is averaging 33.4 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists. The big question, however, is who should Embiid replace? Durant, Antetokounmpo and Tatum were listed as the East frontcourt starters. If an injured Durant isn’t healthy enough to play in the All-Star Game, however, expect Embiid to replace him as a starter.
Snellings: Embiid is by far the biggest snub, because at this point in the season he’d be top two in my vote for an Eastern Conference MVP. Embiid’s box score stats speak for themselves, but his on-court impact is even larger. He currently ranks fifth in the NBA (second in the Eastern Conference) in RPM, and I just wrote an article breaking down how everything the 76ers do runs through/plays off Embiid. I would have Embiid ahead of any player on the team outside of possibly Tatum, but if choosing specifically I’d have him on ahead of Durant.
3. What do you think about the draft happening right before the All-Star Game starts?
Bontemps: This is what everyone has been waiting to see. Watching Durant and James dance around the Harden situation last year in a taped draft was fantastic — how much better could it be in a live situation? That said, given this was approved and jointly announced by both the NBA and NBPA, I will be curious to see how the live draft format is conducted.
Andrews: This should be a fun change to the All-Star Weekend format. Having it happen in real time will make people care more and up the excitement factor. I’d love to see this happen with all of the players in the same room together to give it some real pickup basketball vibes.
Lopez: The All-Star draft itself was already becoming the best part of the weekend, so why not take it up another notch? The playground feel of picking teams right before a game adds an extra flair to the game. One small request — can James keep his clipboard from last year’s draft? He might need it to hide his face in laughter once again.
Spears: This is a phenomenal idea and change that will bring more viewership to the game and much earlier. This is now the world’s best pickup game. Seeing stars pick teammates in real time and their reaction will be classic. Also, seeing in real time who is picked with the final two selections could bring some interesting emotion as well. It does put a lot of pressure on the stars picking. Hopefully, they will have fun with it. But it is possible it could be uncomfortable to choose in front of the world, too.
Snellings: I love the playground feel, but speaking as the resident sports betting analyst, this also amps up the energy around potential All-Star Game bets as well. Sportsbooks won’t have the large amount of lead-up time to come up with odds, so this ups the uncertainty for those betting on the game and could lead to bigger wins if you guess right. This also adds potential for big runs of real-time bets coming in during/after the draft, if one team looks a lot better than the other. Either way, it adds to the excitement and interest in the game, because there have been times when both have waned.
4. The NBA has never shied away from making sweeping changes to its All-Star Weekend. What big change would you like to see next?
Bontemps: It’s time to get rid of positional requirements. If you want to have the backcourts and frontcourts in each conference, fine. But at least for the seven reserves, it should just be a matter of coaches picking the seven players they think are most deserving for the game. This year, there were four deserving frontcourt players in the East to start — why not allow them all to start? And there is no reason for a maximum of only six guards (two starters, two reserves, two wild cards) who can be selected to the team. Also: Let’s expand the rosters to 15 players. That’s what teams are allowed to have for regular-season games now; let’s make it that way for the All-Star Game, too.
Andrews: The slam dunk contest has become more underwhelming, so they should move the 3-point contest into the final event slot for All-Star Saturday. Over the past few years, the 3-point contest has become the most exciting portion of the night, so until the NBA can figure out a way to make the dunk contest more enticing, the shootout should close the day.
Lopez: How about expanding the rosters? Why does the game still award just 12 spots? Rosters are growing, and the All-Star Game should follow suit. Pushing the game to 30 total spots — 15 for each conference — helps get more players All-Star attention (and thus more bonus money) while also being able to use and rest more players during the game itself.
Spears: Participating in the slam dunk contest could be more enticing for star players by offering a major pool of money for not only the winner but participants similar to what Major League Baseball does for its Home Run Derby. Juan Soto netted $1 million of a $2.5 million prize pool by winning the 2022 Home Run Derby. If the NBA did something similar for a small group of participants, I’m sure more young stars would be coerced into being a part of it.
Snellings: I want to fix the dunk contest. I grew up on not just the best young dunkers, but the best players in the NBA also vying for the prestige of winning the contest. Having the star power mixed with innovative, exciting dunks is the ultimate goal to me. So, I’d second Spears’ idea about a large pool of money but maybe get sponsors to tie it to a large campaign. Maybe this leads to a season-long series of commercials, like the old Dan or Dave ads, which build the hype and the prize pool so that all eyes are on the dunk contest again, and maybe it entices the biggest names back instead of just the younger talents.
5. It has been six years since the NBA changed All-Star starter voting to include media and players. Is it time for another change, and if so, what would you recommend?
Bontemps: I think the current system works well. By giving fans half the vote, it still makes it an exhibition game for the fans driven by the fans, in terms of starters. And having the media and players each getting a say in the vote helps balance out any outlier fan choices. There isn’t a better way to do it, in my opinion, than how it is now.
Andrews: There doesn’t need to be an immediate change in how All-Star votes are collected. All of those involved in voting — the fans, coaches, players and media — are the only ones who, in my head, make sense to have a hand in making the decisions. If anything, I don’t know if media members are necessary in the voting. I view All-Star Weekend as a fan-driven event, and it makes sense to have coaches and players reward their peers. Save the media votes for the end-of-season awards.
Lopez: Currently, the NBA counts fan votes for 50% and media, and player voting is 25% each. All-Star Weekend is an event for the fans, so they should have a say in the voting process. The media and player voting help balance out the process. If someone wanted to switch it to 33% for everyone, I wouldn’t be opposed to it, but I do think the process as it is now works just fine.
Spears: I don’t really like the bonus voting days. I would like that to be removed. That plays an odd role in what the final tally can be. Other than that, I have no problem and think it is smart to have fans involved at a percentage.
Snellings: I don’t think there’s a need for a big change but wouldn’t be opposed to tweaking. I like the mitigation of the fan vote with the players and/or media, to lower the likelihood of situations in which a superstar gets voted onto the team even after being injured the whole season. I agree with Andrew in that, if all three entities are going to be involved in the voting, I might split it one-third each. But I’m also in accord with Kendra in that I don’t necessarily need the media to be part of the voting process, so a 50/50 fan/players split would work for me as well.