NBA All-Star reserves predictions: Jalen Brunson earns deserving first nod, Clippers send two to Indy



Thursday gave us our 10 starters for the 2024 NBA All-Star Game, and most of them were fairly easy picks. Tipping off the high-profile exhibition will be LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum, Tyrese Haliburton and Damian Lillard. All 10 have made All-Star Games before, and James, now in his 21st NBA season, has now been selected an NBA-record 20 times.

But in most cases, the starters are somewhat predictable. After all, these are the most famous and accomplished players in the league. This group includes eight of the 10 players with the lowest MVP odds, James, who is perhaps the greatest player of all time, and Lillard, the surprise of the group, but an eight-time All-Star on a high-profile team nonetheless. We largely knew what to expect there.

But the reserves? Those are a bit harder to parse. We have 14 spots to work with across the two conferences, so seven apiece. At least two of them must be guards and at least three must be front-court players. Generally, this is where first-time All-Stars get their starts. The choices won’t be quite as high-profile, but in the end, few remember who actually started an All-Star Game, but simply who made it. So here are our picks for the last 14 spots left to be determined:

Eastern Conference guards

We technically only have two “guard” slots here, so one of these players will technically be a wildcard choice. However, we have three locks to make the team in some fashion, so we’ll cover all three of them in this space. Frankly, on merit, any of them really would have been more deserving starters than Lillard. The second-, third- and fourth-best guards in the Eastern Conference this season have been, in some order, Donovan Mitchell, Jalen Brunson and Tyrese Maxey, so all three will earn roster spots here.

Mitchell would have been my pick to start alongside Haliburton. His season-long numbers have been stellar as always, but the work he’s done without Darius Garland and Evan Mobley really sets him apart. Cleveland took an eight-game winning streak into Milwaukee on Wednesday before the Bucks snapped it, and that streak represented a complete reinvention of how the Cavaliers play. This version of the Cavaliers plays faster, shoots far more 3’s and defends well above its weight class. Mitchell makes all of this possible. He is Cleveland’s only high-level shot-creator at the moment, and the Cavaliers have put 121.9 points per 100 possessions across their past nine games. That would be good for the No. 1 ranking, and therefore the title of most efficient offense in NBA history, across the full season. He’s long gotten credit for his scoring, but he’s once again proving just how well he can conduct an entire offense. His 7.3 assists per game in this stretch don’t do him justice. All of these 3-pointers Cleveland is taking are flowing out of his drive-and-kick game and the gravity he generates.

Maxey isn’t quite Mitchell’s equal as an all-around generator of offense, but his growth in that respect is more important than his uptick in scoring. His speed and shooting were well-known coming into the season, but his role in Embiid’s historic season cannot be understated. The James Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll was deadly, but it relied heavily on one trick: Harden’s incredible pocket passing. Maxey is getting better there by the day, but his speed offers that two-man game so much more variety. They can run dribble hand-offs from anywhere on the floor. Maxey can weaponize his speed to drag defenses away from Embiid in ways Harden just couldn’t anymore, and the Sixers are quietly slaughtering opponents in the minutes Maxey plays without Embiid. He’s an incredible sidekick, but he’s handling his superstar responsibilities better than the 76ers could have hoped.

Brunson has been doing that in New York for two years now, but he’s scaled up this year. His usage is up to a career-high 29.3%, but his efficiency has largely held firm as his shot-creating responsibilities have increased. He’s traded a couple of floaters per game for some extra 3’s, a change that shot-selection zealot Tom Thibodeau certainly approves of, but he remains as unstoppable as ever once he’s drawn you into the mid-paint. He lacks Maxey’s speed, but he’ll pivot and shake and duck and otherwise footwork even the best defenders to death. Brunson missed out on All-Star last season while teammate Julius Randle made the cut. Let’s flip them this year. Randle is in the running (we’ll get to him!), but Brunson has to be the first Knick to make the cut. There’s no real argument against these three. They’re all making the cut unless something goes horribly wrong.

Eastern Conference front court

With apologies to Jarrett Allen’s late surge (he’s been better lately than he was when he made the 2022 All-Star Game, but this is a full-season honor), we have six players to consider here. Our candidates for the three front-court spots and our one remaining wildcard slot are Bam Adebayo, Scottie Barnes, Paolo Banchero, Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porzingis and Randle. A month ago, this looked a whole lot easier. Randle had a miserable start to the season. Brown struggled out of the gate as well after signing his record-setting contract. Banchero was leading the feel-good story of the NBA season, and Barnes looked like a new player after shooting 39% from 3-point range through the end of January. Of course, we’re not picking based a month ago. Randle and Brown have come on like freight trains. The Magic have cooled off. Barnes is below 30% from deep in January.

Let’s start with our one relatively easy lock. That’s Adebayo. His defense speaks for itself, but his offense is what pushes him over the top here. After scaling back as a playmaker over the past few years with Kyle Lowry in place, Adebayo is right back at it as one of the NBA’s best dribble-handoff partners for Miami’s shooters. Duncan Robinson is having a resurgence as his dance partner, and Tyler Herro benefits greatly from his presence as well. He’s pairing that playmaking with a career-high 21.4 points per game, and the Heat have needed it with Jimmy Butler missing time. Butler is more valuable when it counts, but Adebayo has carried the regular-season load.

So who are our last two choices? In an extremely close race, we’re going with Banchero and Randle. Yes, Banchero’s counting stats are a bit lower than some of the other candidates. He hasn’t been quite as efficient either, and the Magic aren’t winning at the rate they were earlier in the season. But think of the degree of difficulty here. This is an offense that ranks 27th in 3-point attempts and 30th in 3-point percentage. Nobody averages five assists per game. Former starting point guard Markelle Fultz has barely played. Franz Wagner just missed two weeks. Yes, the Magic win their games on defense… but you have to score occasionally as well! Banchero is doing so under impossibly difficult circumstances. They’d be a certified lottery team without his scoring, defense be damned.

Randle exists in that comfortable middle-ground between having very little help (Barnes) and having a ton of it (Brown and Porzingis). Brunson’s rise hasn’t led to any meaningful decline in opportunity or efficiency out of his No. 2. The decline of Randle’s 3-point shooting is concerning, but he’s making his mid-range shots and has picked up extra playmaking duties with Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett gone. More importantly, he’s allowed the Knicks to maintain their bully-ball identity without their biggest bully in Mitchell Robinson. The Knicks still lead the NBA in rebounding rate since Robinson’s injury, and while there’s some scheme baked into that figure, it really helps that Randle can still beat up basically any big man he sees. He’s more essential to the way the Knicks play than either of Boston’s candidates and he’s doing more to lift a competitive team than Barnes.

Eastern Conference wildcard

Remember, we’ve spent one wildcard spot already on an extra guard. We therefore have only a single slot remaining for five reasonable candidates. We have our three remaining front-court options (Barnes, Brown and Porzingis) along with another Celtic (Derrick White) and our last guard (Trae Young).

Let’s start by knocking Young out of the running. The numbers are preposterous. He’s generating 54.3 points of offense per game between his own scoring (26.9 per game) and his assists (10.8 per game leading to 27.4 points). But you won’t find many teams dealing with the malaise Atlanta has seemingly played through all season. Young isn’t generating elite team offense anymore, and the Hawks aren’t falling off when he rests in the same way that they used to. He’s quite possibly the worst defensive player in the NBA. His efficiency has climbed out of the gutter it was in early in the season, but it’s still not exactly good. Individually, these flaws can be overcome. Together? They just sort of scream, “good stats, bad team.”

Barnes misses out as well. He’s on a bad team… but that bad team is playing better with him on the bench. If he was still putting up the elite jump-shooting numbers he posted from earlier in the season, he might be able to sneak it, but the regression lately suggests he might not have grown quite as much as we’d hoped (though he’s still improved meaningfully). He’s a good playmaker, but for now, he’s still a ways off of great. It’s worth wondering what he’d look like in an offense with more space, but for now, Barnes just barely misses the cut.

That leaves us with three Celtics to consider. Brown is the best of the three. Porzingis is the most important—when their offense bogs down in high-leverage moments as it has for several years now, throwing him the ball almost always generates a good shot. White does the most different things, and he does them the game dictates they are needed. He’s checked every box this season. Improved shooting and playmaking. His standard A+ defense. He never fouls or gives the ball away. He even rebounds extremely well for his size.

Porzingis is our first cut here. He’s just missed too many games, and he plays fewer minutes than White and Brown when he does suit up. What you’re ultimately deciding between our two remaining Celtics is this: do seven points every night outweigh everything else White does for Boston? That’s not as simple a question as it sounds. White gets easier shots because he plays with Brown (though the reverse is also true to a lesser extent). He gets to devote energy to defense and cutting and timely rebounding because so many of Boston’s possessions rely on Brown creating something out of nothing.

In the end, I lean Brown by the slimmest of margins. The extra things he does get lost in White’s remarkable versatility, but Brown is playing some of the best defense of his career as well. He’s trimmed his turnover rate slightly and is barely beating his career-high in assists. If he were using the excellence of his supporting cast to slack on the small stuff, this would be White’s spot, but Brown has had a wonderful all-around season in addition to his scoring, so he earns the final spot here.

Western Conference guards

The Western Conference guard pool is incredibly deep, and before we even consider the front-court players, there’s a real chance that we need to devote both of our wild-card spots to guards. Four immediately stand out, and you’d be hard-pressed to draw meaningful statistical distinctions between them. The two guards that eked their way into these slots are the ones that happen to play for contenders.

Devin Booker missed some time early in the season. He’s been a revelation at point guard since he’s returned, and the Suns are lighting the NBA on fire since they got Bradley Beal back. When the Suns have their three stars together on the court at the same time, they’re scoring an unfathomable 135.7 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s not a typo. 

Here’s an attempt to contextualize that number: the Thunder, who have the No. 4 ranked offense in the NBA, make 67.3% of their shots in the restricted area. That’s good for 1.346 points per possession… so the three-star Suns are more efficient than an Oklahoma City layup. But take Booker off of the floor and suddenly the Beal-Kevin Durant groups stumble down to 108.8 points per 100 possessions, worse than any offense in the NBA, except the Grizzlies and Blazers this season. That’s how important Booker has been. The scoring is where it’s always been. The playmaking has taken him to a new level.

Our second choice here is Anthony Edwards, whose on-off splits aren’t quite as breathtaking, but whose presence is still essential to Minnesota offensively. The Timberwolves can’t buy a bucket when he rests, which helps explain how he gets in here over players with slightly better scoring numbers. His job is harder. The Timberwolves are a defense-first roster that asks him to do more on offense, but he’s no defensive slouch either. EPM ranks him as a top-20 guard defender in the NBA, and that doesn’t account for how much better he gets when he dials it up late in games. The gap in defensive efficiency in second halves between the No. 1 Timberwolves (106 points/100) and No. 2 76ers (110) is as big as the gap between No. 2 and the No. 11 Rockets. A big part of that is Edwards. Late in games he’s one of the league’s best perimeter stoppers. The best player on the No. 1 seed in the West is a clear choice here.

Western Conference front court

We’ve got two stone-cold locks here and they both play in the same city. Kawhi Leonard isn’t posting quite the same volume numbers he used to, but he’s nearly shooting a career-high on both 2-pointers (55.5%) and 3-pointers (44.3%), coming just 0.2% short of his 2-point high this season. Perhaps more important for a Clippers team that has all of the scoring it needs, he remains the defensive boogeyman to opposing ball-handlers league-wide. He ranks seventh in the NBA in deflections per game (3.0) and eighth in the NBA in total defensive loose balls recovered (23). He’s the best player on the team that has arguably been the best in the league over the past two months. He’s in.

Our other pick doesn’t quite have the team success behind him that Leonard does, but there’s no denying Anthony Davis. The numbers are undeniable. He ranks ninth in the NBA in total deflections (117), third in contested shots (505), fourth in blocks (102), fourth in rebounds (524), 20th in steals (51) and 11th in points (1,073). We use total numbers rather than averages to illustrate a point: this is the most available Davis has ever been, and he’s dominating on both sides of the ball.

Our third pick isn’t quite as clear cut as the first two, but he’s not far off either. Paul George is averaging nearly identical volume numbers to Leonard. His defense has been nearly as good. He’s been only slightly less efficient, and was better in the earlier portion of the season before the rest of the team figured itself out. His job is a bit easier than Leonard’s, and Harden has only made it easier. But how many elite two-way wings are there in basketball? George is on that very short list, and we know he can scale up as needed.

Western Conference wildcard

I want to vomit. By estimation, there are three more obviously deserving guards and two more obviously deserving front-court players before we even get into the typical bubble-caliber players. So with apologies to players like Alperen Sengun, Domantas Sabonis and Kyrie Irving, we’ve got to whittle this down just a little bit. We’ll start with our three snubs before landing on the final two picks.

If Lauri Markkanen was doing his modern-Dirk thing all year, he’d probably make the cut. He’s making a real run at 50-40-90 right now and would be just the fourth forward ever to join that club, but it took Utah two months to figure out its identity, and that 7-16 start still counts. If the Jazz are a consistent playoff-caliber team over the next few years, Markkanen will make it back to the All-Star Game in the future. The field is just too crowded right now.

Speaking of the Jazz, we’re leaving their former big man out as well. Rudy Gobert is the presumptive Defensive Player of the Year. He’s playing on a championship contender whose identity revolves largely around its defense. But this isn’t Utah. The Timberwolves still play great defense when he rests (thank you Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and yes, even Karl-Anthony Towns). He’s traded a few too many dunks for uglier hooks and lower-percentage looks and it’s hurt him offensively. Gobert is having an All-Star-caliber season in a conference with too many All-Stars, so he’s out.

And then there’s James Harden. You could make a compelling case that he, not George, is the second-most important Clipper. He’s unlocked the entire offense and turned Ivica Zubac into a pick-and-roll monster. Saying he’s sacrificed to fit in there would be an understatement. He currently ranks 95th in the NBA in field goal attempts. He’s taking catch-and-shoot 3’s! He hasn’t torpedoed the defense! We’re splitting hairs here, but like Markkanen, we’ve got a bit of “the entire season counts” syndrome going on here. Harden told us he’d need 10 games to get going, and that was largely true. He was unimpressive in his first 11 Clipper games, but was off to the races from there. He might finish the season having had one of the 12 best seasons in the West, but that early stretch represents too great a portion of the overall season to date to sneak him in now.

The first of our two final choices is Stephen Curry. His scoring is down 2.7 points compared to last season. He’s shooting the second-lowest 3-point percentage of his career in a healthy season, his lowest 2-point field goal percentage since his 2011 sophomore season, and averaging his fewest assists ever. Curry, once the on-off splits king of basketball, has watched the Warriors play five points per 100 possessions better with him on the bench. Only here’s the thing… this is Stephen Curry we’re talking about. This might be the worst season of his career, but the worst season of Stephen Curry’s career is better than the best season almost anyone else will ever see. He still leads the NBA in 3-pointers made per game by a mile. He’s averaging nine more points per game than any of his teammates. It’s not his fault the Warriors have crumbled around him. If anything, he’s the only reason they aren’t the worst team in the NBA.

De’Aaron Fox knows what it’s like to play for that kind of team, but if he keeps playing at his current level, he never will again. He’s lost a fair bit of efficiency inside of the arc, but traded it for the 3-point shooting he’s always lacked. The result has been a complete inability for opposing defenders to guard him. How are you supposed to stay between the NBA’s fastest guard and the basket if you can’t go under screens anymore? He’ll never be an elite defender, but he’s become a very active one. Only Gilgeous-Alexander is deflecting more shots per game, for instance, and that has translated to an impressive 1.6 steals per night. For all of the talk of Sacramento underperforming, that’s mostly a function of seed. The Kings are 21-15 in games Fox plays, a 48-win pace over the full season. That’s exactly how many games they won last season, but they were a No. 3 seed instead of No. 7 because the conference is deeper. If there was any question about his All-Star leap last season, they should be erased. Fox is here to stay.





Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top