Everyone’s voice is heard when it comes to assembling the NBA’s All-Star teams — it’s like a local town hall meeting of esteemed basketball minds.
First, representing a swath of concerned townspeople, NBA fans make their personal convictions known by voting for their favorite players. Then, corporate interests or basketball media chime in with an opinion of its own. But in the end, elected officials — or, the league’s head coaches — take a majority of the responsibility in making a final decision.
Eventually, 24 players, 12 from each conference, are deemed to be that year’s all-stars. A combination of voting from fans (50 percent), the media (25 percent) and coaches (25 percent) identifies each team’s starting five, but the all-star reserves — two guards, three forwards and two wild-cards from each conference — are selected solely by the coaches.
This somewhat flawed formula does typically fetch representative rosters; on Thursday, this year’s starters were announced to the public.
That Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns is absent from this list isn’t worth a fit, he was never deserving of or expected to win a starting spot. But his striking lack of fan-votes — he wasn’t even able to crack the top 10 among his position group — does provoke a more thoughtful question: is Towns’ performance so far this season worthy of a second consecutive all-star nod?
Deciding whether Towns should be an all-star isn’t as simple as evaluating his statistics, he has to have been one of the 12 best players in the Western Conference so far this season. And given that he wasn’t chosen to start, his candidacy now hinges on those three reserve ‘forward’ and two wild-card slots.
Unfortunately for Towns, the Western Conference is stacked. And as the NBA’s policies so sturdily dictate, the West and the East are to be equally represented.
Seven reserves from each conference are scheduled to be announced on Jan. 31. Those spots will be filled by a plethora of stellar candidates, so, we have to figure out where Towns stacks up.
By my evaluation, the frontcourt participants are deeper and more deserving than most of their backcourt counterparts. But off the bat, Damian Lillard has earned a spot — he’s my first reserve guard. For now, we’ll leave that remaining guard spot open and focus on the forwards to decide Towns’ fate.
A glance at his peers illuminates two names that definitely merit selection over Towns: Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic.
Davis, the New Orleans Pelicans’ dominant center, is having a season worthy of MVP consideration. His defensive prowess is often overshadowed by the bright lights of his offense abilities — at 25 years old, Davis is averaging more than 29 points, 13 rebounds and four assists while leading the league in win shares produced per 48 minutes (WS/48).
Jokic, meanwhile, is the focal point of the league’s most surprising team: the 31-14, second-seeded Denver Nuggets. The Serbian seven-footer has already made his case as one of the best passing big men of all time: his 7.6 assists per game — to go along with just about 20 points and 10 rebound — are the most any player his height has compiled since Wilt Chamberlain in the late 1960s.
If Davis and Jokic get in before Towns, the Wolves’ big man can still be selected as the final reserve forward. Here’s a thorough comparison of the nominees at his ‘position.’
As it relates to counting stats, Towns is having a very good year.
His 22.2 points, 12.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.9 blocks are superbly impressive. Compared to the other names on this list (well, I suppose Luka Doncic and Tobias Harris have a case) Towns has the best box-score profile, especially because of his efficient three-level scoring.
But that’s about where his edge will end. When gauging each player’s advanced statistics, Towns generally comes in second behind Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. Gobert leads the NBA by ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus and his 0.263 win shares produced per 48 minutes highlight a highly effective player on a very competitive team.
Holistically, Towns and Gobert’s stand out over their peers — these two deserve to hash it out on their own. And while it may seem at first glance that Towns’ superior scoring chops make him a natural selection, Gobert is a star in a very different sense.
In contrast to Towns’ offensive dominance, Gobert makes his mark on the defensive end where his stature and agility are a nightmare to attack. But he’s also made strides as an offensive threat — he’s averaging nearly 15 points per game on staggering efficiency (67 percent true-shooting). In many ways, Gobert is Towns’ functional antithesis; while “KAT” is the league’s most versatile offensive big, “The Stifle Tower” is handily its best rim-protector.
A preference for one over the other could be a philosophical proclamation: though good offense tends to trump stout containment, the center is a team’s most important defensive player. It’s difficult to be elite without a two-way big man, and Gobert is facilitating success on both sides of the floor.
To me, Towns and Gobert’s performances this season are a virtual wash, so their candidacy should depend on durability and success. And while both players have yet to miss a game in 2018-19, the Jazz (27-22 – plus-2.9 net rating) are looking down on the Wolves (24-24 – 0 net rating) in the standings.
Thus, Gobert nabs that spot in my mind.
And that would leave Towns eyeing a wild-card selection, but he’d have to compete with players at every position. Since I’ve already expressed a belief that the Wolves’ center is more deserving than any other forward, let’s dig into some standout guards.
As badly as I would like for Mike Conley to make an All-Star team at some point in his career — the 12-year veteran has yet to make one — his performance this season isn’t objectively worthy. Nor is that of DeAaron Fox or Donovan Mitchell, two young guards having impressive campaigns. While Klay Thompson could make it on namesake alone, he hasn’t been as consistent as he was in seasons past. And as staggering as Derrick Rose’s resurgence has been, there are too many other options being afforded a greater opportunity.
That leaves Russell Westbrook (Thunder), Jrue Holiday (Pelicans) and DeMar DeRozan (Spurs) competing with Towns for two remaining spots. If Towns’ season hasn’t been superior to Gobert’s, then I believe he’s been better than all of these guards.
The Wolves’ cornerstone star is my first wild card selection. If it wasn’t for a 13-game start to this season when Jimmy Butler’s presence seemed to drag Towns’ performance, he just might be more of a shoo-in.
Since Butler was traded on Nov. 11, Towns has averaged 23.4 points, 12.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.8 blocks on greater than 60 percent true-shooting. Over the same stretch of time, the Wolves are 19-15 — they’ve put forth the league’s 10th best offensive rating, 11th best defensive rating and 11th best net rating.
Thirty-four games (19-15) is almost half of a season; to those who have followed Towns’ career, that vastly improved defensive metric definitely stands out.
When Towns was a rookie, the Wolves allowed opponents to score nearly 109 points per-100 possessions when he was on the floor. Throughout the center’s sophomore campaign, that figure grew to 111.4. And in 2017-18, it was once again sub-par at 108.4 — though it finally made a reasonable improvement. But this season, since the middle of November, despite a league-wide jump in offensive efficiency, the Wolves have held opponents to 105.5 points per-100 possessions when Towns is in a game. For whatever it’s worth, that mark is better than the Miami Heat who, as a team, rank sixth in defensive efficiency.
It’s a seismic development for the future of this franchise if the Wolves can now flaunt a competent defense with Towns as its rim protector. Certainly, there’s still a ways to go, but Towns is no longer an unabashed hindrance on one side of the ball. Coupled with his offensive brilliance, that player is an all-star in almost any scenario.
Should he be awarded a spot on the team — which is in no way a foregone conclusion — it will be the 23-year-old’s second consecutive appearance. If things continue to break Towns’ way, that streak could extend for a very long time.
And for my own sanity, I’ll quickly round out the rest of my roster.
- After much deliberation, I ultimately chose Westbrook over Holiday as the conference’s final reserve guard. DeRozan also received consideration.
- Then, I selected Holiday, the Pelicans’ point guard, for the second wild-card spot over San Antonio Spurs’ duo DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. Doncic also received consideration.
- It was sort of difficult to be comfortable choosing Holiday because the Pelicans’ performance probably doesn’t ‘warrant’ two all-stars (Davis and Holiday) if the sixth-seeded Spurs are left without one. But ultimately, I didn’t want such superficial barriers to sway my decision — I only wanted team success to be a last-ditch tie-breaker. Despite DeRozan’s impressive season; despite Doncic’s statistics and heroics, I think Holiday has been better and more important to his team. And though Aldridge has certainly come on of late, his extended slow start to the season leaves him a peg below his peers.
There you have it: Towns and the rest of these Western Conference players who have my vote.