It feels weird writing about basketball right now.
It feels weird writing about it without addressing the elephant in the room: the passing of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant Sunday in a helicopter crash.
It feels a bit weird that games have and are still going on. It feels weird that this column is going to be published without a real tribute or payment of respect to Kobe.
The truth is that it’s not time yet. The Lakers organization is feeling the same way, evident by Tuesday’s postponment of Clippers-Lakers, one of the biggest games left in the regular season.
The time will come, don’t worry. For now, here’s part two of the 2020 NBA All-Star Ballot:
Western Conference Reserves:
G Damian Lillard
The Trail Blazers stink, and it’s not Damian Lillard’s fault whatsoever. He’s averaging 27.9 points, 7.6 assists and 4.1 rebounds a game on a team that’s playing Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony heavy minutes every night. CJ McCollum’s slow start to the year didn’t help the Blazers in the beginning of the season, nor did brutal performance from Anthony Tolliver and Kent Bazmore (They’re both now gone, if that doesn’t say enough). The Blazers have been so bad that they have just a 0.8 net rating when someone with the seventh-highest PER in the league is their starting point guard. When Lillard is on the bench, Portland’s net rating is a ghastly -9.3.
Yet, Portland is somehow just three games back of the playoffs and is currently tenth in the West, despite their roster being totally ravaged by injuries and this year turning quickly into a throwaway one. As the past three games in which he’s scored 61, 47 and 50 show, Lillard is just trying his best.
G Ja Morant
Ja Morant is the runaway Rookie of the Year so far, unless Zion Williamson somehow ups the already impressive showings he’s had and wills the Pelicans into the playoffs. It would take a 2016-17 Isaiah Thomas-like run for Zion to enter the conversation. He’s capable of it, but it seems more likely that next season will be the one in which Zion takes over in.
Because of Morant’s preemptive award and since the Grizzlies are literally the eighth seed in the West right now, he gets a spot. He’s totally deserving.
Others have taken huge steps forward on this Grizzlies roster (Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke), but Morant right now is the best player on a playoff team as a rookie. The list of guys who have done that is small.
It’s not just that. The developmental steps Morant has taken not even one full season into his career have been staggering. We’re seeing him takeover games for the Grizzlies when needed, and has been not only a facilitator but a creator of offense for them. He’s a force driving to the rim; no one can control the athleticism and explosiveness. Defenders won’t want to get in front of that. He’s also shooting really well from three, and that’s not a small sample size overrating Morant at all. The rookie is taking 2.3 a game and is sinking 40.5 percent of them. No one saw that coming from him this year.
Because of the Grizzlies’ success and his stunning development, Morant is absolutely worthy of a spot.
G Chris Paul
There are multiple players who are reasons why Oklahoma City is somehow 28-20 and the seventh seed in the West, so narrowing it to one to represent all was difficult.
Chris Paul is the choice because he’s the most impactful veteran on this team. Danillo Gallonari has been excellent and has earned himself some trade interest from other teams, but Paul is the commander and leader of this offense.
The Thunder aren’t in the position they are now without CP3. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has point guard capabilities, but that’s a heavy load to shelve on a second year player. CP3’s presence allows SGA to focus on scoring only.
OKC has adults on the court. Turns out, a solid veteran team can actually mean a good team as well.
F Brandon Ingram
If we stick to Most Improved Player’s typical definition, then Ingram is the runaway winner of the award. It’s earned him an All-Star spot, too.
The Pelicans were horrible early but then got better as their health improved. They’re *just* good enough to send someone to Chicago this year.
If anything, Ingram is the reason they’re just good enough. He’s turned into an efficient scorer who’s hitting almost 40 percent of his threes and has been their No.1 scoring option. That’s a massive step forward from where he was just a year ago. It seems as if all the development we’ve wanted to see from him since he got in the league has came all during this season. Turns out, all that was needed was a chance of scenery.
F Paul George
Twenty six games played makes justifying Paul George over Donovan Mitchell or Devin Booker tough, but a couple things really stick out about the short season George has had.
LA is 19-7 when he plays and it makes sense. PG is averaging 23.5 points a game, the third-highest mark of his career after last season’s average of 28 (His second highest season average was 23.7, by the way), and it looks like it too.
Despite last year’s numbers, this season has felt different from George. On nights when he plays and Kawhi Leonard doesn’t (which have been few and far between), George has looked and played like a true No.1 option offensively, a ceiling that seemed questionable for him in previous years. Occasionally, George has made himself look like the best player on a championship team.
Despite a low field goal percentage, George is taking 9.2 threes a game and sinking 39.5 percent of them. He’s also averaging six rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.5 steals a game when he’s out there.
His impact is massive… when he plays.
C Rudy Gobert
One key member of the Jazz had to make it despite their early season struggles, and to be nice yet also pay respect toward a good season, it’s Gobert.
His defense has somehow gone up a level this year. The Jazz are -5 in net rating when he’s off the court, and their defensive rating falls to 107.5 from 103.5. Opponents are shooting 48.7 percent against him within six feet of the rim – imagine making not even half your layups.
Gobert’s not a high-volume offensive center, evident in his 15.7 points per game. But the center is grabbing almost as many rebounds as he is scoring points, pulling down 14.5 a game.
Utah’s defense is seventh in defensive rating, and Gobert is the anchor of it all.
C Karl-Anthony Towns
The Timberwolves are very bad and their roster situation and outlook might be even worse.
But Karl-Anthony Towns is balling. He’s averaging 28.9 points, 11.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists while taking 8.8 threes, making 41.2 percent of them (Those stats are all per 36 minutes, by the way).
Also, he’s 7’1.
There were rumors about KAT expanding his game over the offseason – that he was going to shoot more and work on becoming more of a point forward rather than just a big guy. He’s done both. The assist numbers would be unparalleled if not for Nikola Jokic. He’s upped his three point attempts by 3.6 a game, which is something that should’ve happened a long time ago given how deadly he is from that range.
It seems hypocritical to put KAT on an All-Star team when Trae Young won’t be. They’re having roughly the same impact, and are carrying bad teams. The Hawks are way worse without Young than the Wolves are without KAT, as KAT’s net off the floor is -4.9, while Young’s is -13.9.
The difference here is expectations and hype. The Hawks were thought to maybe contend for a playoff spot thanks to what looked like a good draft and Young’s projected step forward. They’re not even close to that and have no shot now.
Expectations were not nearly that high for Minnesota. There was no shot of them making the playoffs due to the West’s insane competition. They’ve defied those to an extent – they hung around early in the season and have recently fell off. That run had Wolves fan excited for a little while. The Hawks fans are just disappointed.
Snubs: Donavan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic
Eastern Conference Reserves:
G/F Jaylen Brown
How was Jaylen Brown listed as a guard on the NBA’s official ballot but Jimmy Butler a forward?
Brown would not have been a starter at guard or forward regardless, but Butler would have been at guard easily.
Anyways, the nonsense shouldn’t distract from Brown’s honors. He’s having a massive season thanks to an uptick in offensive production and continued defensive excellence.
Brown was a question mark offensively coming out of Cal. The jump-shot wasn’t there, and he lacked aggressiveness.
He’s gotten better every season he’s been in the league, and this year is likely the top of the mountain. He’s shooting 49.1 percent, the highest of his career. He’s recovered well from a dip in three point shooting last season, hitting 38.6 percent on his 5.3 attempts a game in 2019-20, up from 34.4 percent.
It’s simple, but Brown is averaging 20 a game. That’s a seven point surge from last year, and is certainly not bad for a guy whose game on that end was always questioned.
G Ben Simmons
This spot was the hardest decision out of any of the 24 All-Star spots chosen.
Those who were in consideration for the starting spot, which went to Malcolm Brogdon, then got shifted to competition for this spot.
Spencer Dinwiddie was the runner-up and was even the selection for quite a bit of time. His numbers don’t really pop – 21.2 points a game is a big jump for him, but it makes sense considering the expanded role he’s taken on thanks to Kyrie Irving’s injuries.
What Dinwiddie has done with that expanded role was what garnered him serious consideration, not the numbers. With the eye test, the Nets just play better when things run through Dinwiddie rather than Irving. The ball moves. He’s not a pain to play with. The Nets just seem more like a basketball team.
But the Nets still aren’t very good, which gives Simmons the edge. Despite his incredibly frustrating resistance to shoot jump-shots and threes, there’s no denying the impact Simmons has for the Sixers defensively. He’s the perimeter compliment to Joel Embiid’s rim protection. He can switch onto anyone. He can even play some center when Embiid’s not on the floor.
As written last week, the Sixers win with defense, not offense. It’s a perfect metaphor for Simmons’ skill set and style of play, and the fact that they’re successful with it earns him this spot.
G Bradley Beal
Written about here, Beal has carried the Wizards to being watchable, something that didn’t seem possible before the season. Beal deserves a spot because he’s beating expectations, not falling short of them.
G/F Jimmy Butler
The Heat were a sneaky Finals contender before the season. They’ve erased “sneaky” from that title.
Butler is one of the big reasons why. Ever since the departure of Dwayne Wade from his prime, Miami has lacked a true crunch-time scorer. Despite not being among the league’s truly elite players, the firepower surrounding him has made Butler serviceable as the best player on a potential Finals team.
Miami’s good with him, but they’re probably just a frisky sixth seed without him. With his scoring, they should be taken seriously.
F/C Bam Adebayo
It’s the supporting cast that really has Miami where they’re at right now, and Adebayo might be the most important aspect of it.
The potential with him was there in flashes last season. He played in every game, but mostly came off the bench. The per-36 numbers mirror this breakout season: 13.7 points, 3.5 assist and 11.2 rebounds in 2018-19 (per 36) vs. 16 points, 4.8 assists and 10.4 rebounds per game in 2019-20.
Adebayo has the chance to be a revolution, even more so than someone like Nikola Jokic or Domantas Sabonis. Unlike those two, he’s extremely switchable defensively – the guy does not move like a center. A hope would be for him to convert that into a three point shot; his low free throw percentages make that a stretch, however.
He’s also way more switchable than either of them defensively.
Adebayo has been incredible. His rim protection and offensive versatility ranks him among the most valuable and fun skill sets in the league.
F Jayson Tatum
Coming into the year, Jayson Tatum was going to have to step up. He was the makeup for the loss of starpower from Kyrie Irving to Kemba Walker.
As mentioned above, Jaylen Brown can actually take a bit more credit for making up for the loss. It’s his offense that’s filled in the gap a bit more than Tatum’s.
Still, Tatum’s numbers have shot up. He’s averaging 21.5 points a game this year, by far a career high. Him and Brown are finally hitting the ceiling we once saw for them.
Tatum’s improved dramatically on the defensive end as well – it was not a strength of his out of college or in his rookie year.
The duo of Brown and Tatum draws cautious parallels to George and Leonard in LA. One is far superior offensively in terms of shot creation and volume, but both are capable off-ball scorers and are lockdown defenders. That would make for one hell of a Finals matchup.
F/C Domantas Sabonis
If Malcolm Brogdon is the No. 1 reason why Indiana is a legitimate playoff team before the return of Victor Oladipo (happening tonight!), then Domantas Sabonis is the close second.
Sabonis’ numbers would be stupid if Nikola Jokic didn’t exist. The fourth-year power forward is excelling as a playmaker this season, upping his assist total from 2.9 a game in 2018-19 to 4.6 this year. A starting position for Sabonis has allowed Indiana to run a Denver-like offense at times, where everything goes through Sabonis and relies on him to create shots for everyone else.
Combine that ability with his 12.8 boards a game and 18.1 points, and Sabonis is an easy All-Star. This team could be scary if Oladipo comes back close to 100 percent. Watch out.
Snubs: Spencer Dinwiddie, Devonte Graham, Trae Young, Kyle Lowry