Each year, it seems as if the question of “Who should be selected for the All-Star game?” gets tougher and tougher. 2021 is no exception, as the league has become absolutely loaded with talent, and unfortunately, some incredibly talented players won’t make the cut. Without further ado, here are my selections for the All-Star Reserves in each conference:
Backcourt Reserve: James Harden
This one is a no-brainer, and I actually think Harden should have started over Kyrie. Since joining Brooklyn, Harden has changed his playing style, becoming more of a distributor for a lethal Nets offense. He’s averaging 11.4 assists with his new team, and has been more efficient as a scorer. As a result, he’s in the 97th percentile in eFG%, per Cleaning the Glass. Easy decision.
Backcourt Reserve: Jaylen Brown
Another obvious choice, Brown is averaging 25.6/5.5/3.7 in a career year. He is drastically improved his handle and playmaking, with his assist % doubling since last year. He’s become an elite finisher at the rim and outside shooter, and has been a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing start for the Celtics.
Frontcourt Reserve: Jayson Tatum
Brown’s teammate Tatum hasn’t lit the world on fire like he did to end last year’s regular season. However, that’s still an incredibly high bar, and has still been playing at an All-Star level. Averaging almost 26 points and 7 rebounds, he has continued his trend of being a highly positive-impact player for the Celtics. Boston’s net rating is 7 points better with Tatum on the floor compared to off. It should also be noted he has done most of this while still battling lingering issues from COVID.
Frontcourt Reserve: Khris Middleton
One of the most underrated players in the NBA, Khris Middleton came about as close as one could get to a 50/40/90 season last year and is once again right there in 2021. Averaging 20.5/6.0/5.7 on 50-43-89.5 shooting splits, Middleton has more than earned a spot in this year’s game. He’s also improved significantly as a playmaker, averaging a career high in assists and assist to usage ratio, which essentially measures how often a player got an assist given how much they had the ball.
Frontcourt Reserve: Jimmy Butler
Jimmy Butler might be considered a bit of a hot take, but let’s think about this for a moment. He’s averaging almost 20-7-7 coming off a year where he led the Heat to the finals, I don’t think anyone would dispute that Butler is an All-Star caliber player. But the two arguments used against him this year are games missed and the Heat’s record.
Jimmy Butler has missed 12 games this year, which some might see as an issue, but Kevin Durant (13 games missed) and Kyrie Irving (12 games missed) were named starters, so it’s unfair to hold that standard to some players but not others.
The Heat are 3-9 in games Butler missed, but are 10-8 with him. If 10-8 doesn’t sound impressive, remember that 10-8 is on pace to be the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference. I completely understand giving a nod to Bam Adebayo here, who has been one of the only regular contributors for Miami this year. He remains an elite defensive presence and has improved his mid-range shot and finishing ability. With that, I can’t ignore Butler’s positive impact when he comes into the game. Take into account not only the Heat’s record without him, but the fact that Miami’s net rating is far better with Butler on the court (+10.7, 89th percentile) compared to Bam’s (+2.4). Advantage: Jimmy.
Wildcard: Zach Lavine
Lavine should be an All-Star. This is coming from someone who wasn’t in love with how Zach played in his Bulls career. His best skill was always scoring, but prior to this season, he was an atrocious defender and subpar playmaker, and didn’t look at all capable of being a top player on a winning team.
However, that is changing this year. We know he’s an elite scorer, we’ve discussed this in a previous piece. He’s averaging almost 29 points a game on a scorching 64.1 TS%, and is in the 97th percentile in points per shot attempt. However, in the past he was simply viewed as a good scorer on a bad team who doesn’t do much else.
Defensively, he’s taken a step forward. Take it from Head Coach Billy Donovan himself:
“When Jerami Grant started to get going, he came over to me and said, ‘can I take him?’ And I said, ‘absolutely, have at it.’ And, you know what, he did a really good job. Some of his points late were probably more in our coverages because I was a little bit worried. We had a cushion there of five, six points, I didn’t want to start trapping him and having Plumlee spray the ball all over the place and potentially give up 3’s and offensive rebounds. And Zach fought like crazy, and he battled.”
Those efforts were shown in a few clips below:
1. Wanted to highlight a couple of examples of Zach's improved defensive effort and awareness.
— Salim (@JordanDynasty) February 18, 2021
He’s also improved as a playmaker, averaging a career high in assists, and some of that can be attributed to genuinely improved passing ability, but it also has to do with better shot selection. Now, that in itself is a product of multiple factors, namely an entirely different offensive scheme under Donovan than previous head coach Jim Boylen. Last year, the Bulls were 28th in offense, and this year have jumped to 16th. That still may only be league average, but going from one of the worst to very competent is a huge deal, and the improved spacing and movement has resulted in more efficient looks for Lavine and his teammates.
Lavine is no longer just an empty numbers scorer. He’s an All-Star.
Wildcard: Ben Simmons
Ben Simmons doesn’t shoot well, in fact he barely shoots at all. Yes, it’s a problem, and yes, he gets a ton of hate about it. But his lack of a jumper shouldn’t overshadow the fact he’s elite in every other area of the game.
For someone who can’t shoot, Simmons is doing his best to maximize his ability in other areas to compensate for it. He’s still an elite finisher at the rim. Shooting 66% at the rim, which is in the 95th percentile, Simmons attracts a lot of attention going downhill. With defenses collapsing on him, Simmons now has options on the perimeter to kick out for open threes, and the numbers speak for themselves:
Philadelphia’s 3-Point % with Simmons ON the court: 40.0%
Philadelphia’s 3-Point % with Simmons OFF the court: 29.9%
While Ben isn’t a shooter, there’s an argument to be made that no other NBA player has had a greater impact on their team’s shooting efficiency than Simmons this season. The 76ers shoot 8.3% better on all attempts when Simmons is on the floor, which is a better improvement than 99% of all players. He’s a stud.
He’s also improved in the post this season. Last year, he averaged 0.88 points per post up, which was in the 39th percentile. This season, it’s skyrocketed to 1.10 points per post up, which is all the way up to the 85th percentile.
What about the fit next to Joel Embiid? There’s a narrative that has existed for years now that the pair don’t fit together, particular in the half-court. That is patently false. With Simmons and Embiid having career years, Philadelphia’s halfcourt offense is in the 96th percentile when the duo is on the court together.
And we haven’t even mentioned his defense, which is among the league’s best due to his strength and versatility. He’d probably be the Defensive Player of the Year if it wasn’t for Rudy Gobert having another amazing season.
The numbers and video don’t lie. Ben Simmons is clearly one of the 12 best players in the East.
There were many tough decisions this year, and Trae Young, Bam Adebayo, and Nikola Vucevic have been outstanding and worthy of votes. It’s a shame that at least one of these three most likely will not be selected for the All-Star game. Other players like Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, Julius Randle, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Jerami Grant, and Gordon Hayward all received a close look, but ultimately came up short. But with how talented the league is now, there is absolutely no shame in that.
Backcourt Reserve: Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard should have been a starter. He’s averaging 30 points per game and 8 assists, and without his two best teammates: CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic for most of the season, Dame has managed to lead Portland to an 18-11 record and a 5 seed in the West. The dude’s an MVP candidate. Next!
Backcourt Reserve: Mike Conley
I’ve already laid out my case for Mike Conley in an entirely separate article recently, so I won’t beat a dead horse. Conley is playing his best basketball and has arguably been the best player on the team with the best record in the league.
The per game numbers aren’t sexy and he isn’t a flashy player, which leaves him fighting an uphill battle every season to get his name called for the All-Star game. His on/off splits and advanced metrics are stellar, and it’s clear watching the games how much more comfortable he is with the rest of the team compared to last season.
For a much more detailed case for Conley, check out my article explaining why he’s more than deserving.
Frontcourt Reserve: Paul George
Another fairly easy choice, Paul George is not only the 50/40/90 conversation, he’s in the 50/50/90 conversation. He’s averaging 24.4 points per game, with shooting splits of 51.4/47.1/89.4, has been an outstanding creator for others this season, and is still a defensive monster on the wing. The Clippers are contenders, and PG13 has a lot to do with it, so let’s book a ticket to Atlanta for his 7th All-Star game.
Frontcourt Reserve: Anthony Davis
All of the frontcourt reserve choices were pretty easy for me, and although he’ll miss the game, Davis should and will get the honor of being selected. Averaging 22.5 points and 8.4 rebounds, AD continues to be an elite inside player, averaging 1.04 points per possession on post-ups. What’s most impressive is that this season could be considered a down year for him, even if you take out the injuries. He hasn’t lived up to what he was in the bubble, but that’s almost an unfair expectation, and even this year’s form of Anthony Davis is more than worthy of an All-Star selection.
Frontcourt Reserve: Rudy Gobert
Rudy Gobert should be an MVP candidate. He doesn’t dribble or shoot, so it’s not sexy, but everything he does is crucial to the Jazz’s success. On offense, his rolling ability off screens causes the defense to collapse in on him, and he’s become a very good passer in these situations, usually going to the opposite corner or wing. If the defense decides to tag him early, then a skip pass leads to an open three from one of the many Jazz shooters. Defensively, everything goes through him. He the favorite to once again win the DPOY award, and he should be in the conversation of All-Time great rim protectors. This wasn’t a tough decision, lock him in for Atlanta.
Wildcard: Chris Paul
Don’t look now, but the Suns are 19-10, and are 8-2 in their last ten. Much like everywhere else Paul has played, he has drastically improved the team, he’s their best player, and has them primed to make the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. There are other guys that might have slightly better numbers, but nobody can ignore CP3’s impact on winning.
Wildcard: Zion Williamson
Is it possible that Zion has become underrated? With social media now obsessed with Lamelo Ball, Zion is no longer the flavor of the month. But he’s only gotten better since last season. He’s averaging 25 points per game on almost 62% from the floor. He’s an absolute force in the paint, even against bigger players:
A very underrated aspect of his game is that he is being used as a Pick and Roll ball handler much more often under Stan Van Gundy. And he’s really good at it. This season, in 56 PnR possessions, he is in the 94th percentile in efficiency. With his size and mobility, he can exploit so many mismatches, and if teams decide to play under the screen, you’re giving Zion a runway to barrel his way to the rim, which isn’t a pleasant experience for any defender in his way.
He still has some issues to iron out defensively, but his impact is noticeable the second he walks on the court, and he is a more than deserving All Star.
Injury Replacement: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Since Anthony Davis won’t make the game, someone will have to replace him. Donovan Mitchell and DeMar DeRozan make compelling cases, but I’m going with Shai.
Mitchell is the leading scorer on the team with the best record in the NBA, but he hasn’t been all that efficient and has struggled to create for others at the same level as Shai. The Jazz are actually worse with Mitchell on the court this season, and that is not to suggest that the Jazz are better off without Mitchell, but it shows his limited abilities aside from scoring.
DeRozan is a very interesting case. He is having a tremendous season, enjoying a career-high in assists (6.9) and has drastically increased his volume and percentage of three-pointers. He’s limited his turnovers, but there’s still an odd trend that has followed him almost his whole career.
Regardless of which team he is on, no matter the stats he puts up, his team is worse with him on the court than off it. In a single season, it’s excusable because there are a variety of factors and context that contribute to that number. However, when it happens in 11 out of your 12 seasons, there’s absolutely something there. Ironically in a season some could argue is DeRozan’s best offensively, the Spurs net rating is over 10 points worse with DeMar on the floor, the worst mark of his career. In a loaded Western Conference, that trend is enough to keep him out.
So with the toughest cuts out of the way, let’s talk about Shai. He’s averaging a robust 22.6/5.3/6.5, and is leading the Thunder, who were projected to be one of the worst teams in the league, to a 12-18 record. That isn’t good in a vacuum, but when you take a look at the Thunder roster, what Shai is doing is incredible.
He isn’t an incredibly flashy player, but he’s very good at what he does, leading OKC’s offense to be almost 10 points better when he is on the court. He’s an excellent isolation scorer, averaging 1.08 points per Iso, which is in the 89th percentile.
This was a very tough decision, but between Mitchell, DeRozan, and Shai, I’ll take the guy who had the best combination of numbers and winning impact.
The West was loaded this season, much like the East, and it’s a shame that a number of players won’t hear their name called Tuesday night. CJ McCollum would’ve probably made it if not for his injury. Other players like Devin Booker, Ja Morant, Brandon Ingram, and De’Aaron Fox all deserved consideration.
The number of tough decisions and level of talent demonstrate just how great of a spot the league is in. There are 35 players averaging over 20 points per game, and 14 players averaging at least 25. There are many players that are incredibly talented that will miss out on All-Star Weekend. And that’s great for the sport.