Hollinger: My 2024 NBA All-Star reserves, featuring Derrick White (and no Stephen Curry)


Here’s the thing about the NBA All-Star Game: We want to have the best players in basketball playing in it, but the effort ends up somewhat sabotaged by the fact that we split the team into conferences.

In theory, this shouldn’t be too big a problem, especially if the conferences are relatively equal in strength. In practice, it’s been a massive issue for going on three decades now because of two equally pernicious problems: First, the fact that the West has just been flat-out better nearly every year, and second, the way the West has been better has been almost entirely through top-heavy, star-driven teams.

This year’s Los Angeles Lakers (24-25) are a perfect example. Normally, teams of such vanilla averageness don’t have two automatic All-Star selections (LeBron James, already voted in as a starter, and Anthony Davis, who surely will join him when reserves are announced Thursday). Entering Wednesday, L.A. had a worse record than the Orlando Magic, who even in the East have virtually no chance of getting anyone named to the All-Star team.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if the Lakers have two All-Stars and still might miss the playoffs, the rest of the team must not be very good. Indeed, it is not. I don’t want to turn this into a Lakers column, but suffice to say roster spots No. 3 through No. 15 on this team are as weak as nearly any team’s in the league.

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They’re the most glaring example, but multiply this general Lakers-Magic situation times the majority of the rosters in both conferences. Then, pile on top of the fact that the West teams have been better to begin with, and you end up with an odd situation where the bar for “All-Star” requires a Mondo Duplantis pole vault to clear in the West and a P.J. Tucker vertical jump in the East.

I’ll note that every year when this happens there are calls to add more players to the All-Star team, like there inevitably will be this year when somebody like De’Aaron Fox or Lauri Markkanen who has clearly played at an All-Star level gets shafted. The problem, however, is that adding worthy players on the West side also adds more fake All-Stars to the East. We’re already scraping the barrel in that conference to the point that people can say things like, “Derrick White should be an All-Star!” and not only not get laughed out of the building, but possibly even have a point.

All this is a preamble to explaining why your richly deserving hometown player might not make my picks for the seven All-Star reserve spots (if you root for a club in the West) or why some guys you don’t really think of as having All-Star seasons might nonetheless crack my top seven (if you’re parsing my selections in the East). The real problem is that two-thirds of the league’s top 24 players are in the West, but we can’t choose the teams that way.

Before we start, a few guidelines for how I think about this:

• It’s not a reward for winning: Some coaches like to say, “The All-Star Game should be a reward for winning.” Here’s the thing: It’s not. Maybe you think it should be, but too bad. It’s a showcase for the league’s best players. That’s it.

Unfortunately, some coaches got high on their own supply a few years ago and decided nobody on a sub-.500 team should make it, but if you magically cleared the threshold at 24-23 when they voted, then step right up. (It will be interesting to see if they still apply this logic to Stephen Curry this year.)

If you want to have a Reward for Winning Game in the summer and invite Brandon Ingram and Jarrett Allen, go nuts. That isn’t what this is. Furthermore, virtually every hilarious-in-retrospect All-Star selection has had the “reward for winning” justification high on the list of causative factors.

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• It’s not a first-half MVP ballot: If you’re deciding All-Star spots by excluding awesome players who missed a dozen games, that’s a great way to look silly when the season ends. Twice in the last three years Eastern coaches left Jimmy Butler off the team because of this and took Julius Randle instead.

I emphasize this because, if Player X is better than Player Y, I don’t really care that much if Player X only played 33 games and Player Y played 45. I would care a lot more if I were filling out a ballot for “first-half MVP” or “first-half all-league,” but that’s not what this is.

Yes, at a certain threshold, absences add up enough to matter, and games and minutes are fair tiebreakers in cases where the players are genuinely of the same quality. But in general, I think coaches in recent years have been far too willing to punish players for missing what ended up being a trivial number of games compared to their rivals for the same spots.

• The big picture matters: The current season has to be the most important factor, obviously, but underneath that for me is still the greater question of, “Is Player X seriously better than Player Y right now?” This will come into play in particular as we parse out some close battles for the final few spots on each roster.

With all that said, let’s get to my picks for the seven reserves in each conference. (Stats are through Monday’s games):

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Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards looks to make a play against the Hornets. (Brad Rempel / USA Today)

Western Conference

Reminder: James, Phoenix’s Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dallas’ Luka Dončić and Denver’s Nikola Jokić were voted in as starters.

Backcourt reserves (2): Devin Booker, Suns; Anthony Edwards, Timberwolves

Any remaining drama over Booker’s inclusion likely disappeared when he scored 152 points in a three-game span last week; he now ranks 10th in the league in PER, boosts a 61.7 percent true shooting mark and after an early injury is up to 38 games played. He passes the, “Really, how good is he though?” smell test with flying colors too and is basically a lock at this point.

Some folks would lose their mind if Edwards didn’t make the team. The Timberwolves have won more with Eastern Conference-style ensemble-cast goodness than being dragged along by superstardom, however, and this is a tough call in a crowded West backcourt. Edwards as an offensive player is still a bit too volume-scoring-driven to separate himself from the others at this level; relative to Donovan Mitchell (below), he’s at the same true shooting and usage rate but with more turnovers and fewer assists, plus his competition is massively better in the West.

But I have to give him the nod here due to his superior defense. Of the other legitimately contending West guards, the only other players who rivals him is Paul George (more on him below), and the Wolves’ defense has been the big story in their rise to the West’s upper tier.

In the bigger picture, Edwards’ selection feels defensible too; I have a much easier time picturing him being the best player in a late-round playoff series than some of his competition.

Obvious frontcourt reserves (2): Kawhi Leonard, Clippers; Anthony Davis, Lakers
 
I thought both these players had legitimate arguments to be starters. Davis, not James, has been the Lakers’ best player this season, especially at the defensive end, where his awesome presence has been about the only thing keeping an otherwise extremely meh group above league average.

Leonard, meanwhile, was outvoted by Durant despite playing more games(!) for a team that is more successful and arguably outplaying him on the court too. We’re getting into razor-thin margins here, but Leonard ranks just ahead of Durant in both PER and BPM and has arguably been a more consistent defender. Even at 32 and post-knee injuries, you can make a case that he’s the second-best player in the Western Conference in a one-game scenario.

Each has a good-sized advantage on any other potential candidate at this spot, and it would be utterly shocking if the coaches failed to vote in these two.

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Gnashing teeth frontcourt reserve (1): Paul George, Clippers
 
George could technically also make it as a backcourt player, but I’ve slotted him in here because A) I think his case is slightly stronger than the other frontcourt candidates, and B) I also think he’s a stronger candidate than all the remaining guards; thus, slotting him here sets up the other frontcourt players to fight it out for the two wild-card spots with the remaining guards.

Why George and not any of a litany of other frontcourt players? Markkanen, Domantas Sabonis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, Chet Holmgren, Alperen Şengün, Zion Williamson and, yes, Victor Wembanyama all have a case. I feel kind of terrible excluding them when any would be an easy choice if he played in the East. (If you don’t believe me, read further.)

Here’s the thing: George is a basketball chameleon. He fits anywhere, on any team, in any role.

He can be the lead go-to guy, as he was at the start the season when the James Harden-less Clippers were limping along, Leonard was still playing his way into the season and George was basically towing the offense toward respectability.

He also can be a secondary player, as he has been since Harden arrived, where he’s instantly snapped into a sniper role and is knocking down 41.2 percent from 3.

Meanwhile, George can guard one through four, shut down perimeter scorers and be a disruptive pest; even at 33, he’s third in the NBA in total steals. He’s one of the only stars in the league who could seamlessly fit on all 30 rosters with virtually no stylistic adjustments required.

It doesn’t always make for gaudy individual stats, but the advanced numbers adore him. If you’re making a list of “Best Players in the West” irrespective of team environment, he has to be the next guy on the list.

Wild cards (2): De’Aaron Fox, Kings; Jamal Murray, Nuggets
 
Here’s how tough the back end of the West roster is to crack: Towns had a 62-point game last week, Gobert might win Defensive Player of the Year, and they play for a team that’s been in first place nearly all season. Yet both are struggling to even make the “honorable mention” list in this crowd.

Between Curry, Fox, Murray, Harden and all the frontcourt players I mentioned above, how does one possibly choose?

Ask me on a different day, and I might give you two different answers. I went with Markkanen on my podcast a little over a week ago, but since then, the Jazz have lost their mojo, and I’ve looked a bit more sideways at his shot creation compared to some of his peers; he’s an awesome player and a defensible pick, but I have a bit more belief in the guards in the highest-stakes games.

The argument for Sabonis is similar to that for Markkanen in that he’s having a statistically better season than last year, when he waltzed right on to the West roster.

The counterargument is, so is everybody else — have you seen what NBA offenses are doing this year? While Sabonis is averaging more points, rebounds and assists and is shooting a higher percentage, his PER and offensive BPM are lower, because once you compare it to the advancing tide of league averages, he actually lost a little bit of ground.

That’s a minor piece, though; the bigger issue for him (and Markkanen) is that this year’s West roster is just a much tougher nut to crack.

Meanwhile, among the guards I mentioned above, the stats give us virtually nothing — the players’ numbers are similar enough that one big game by one or bad game by another can temporarily move him from last to first (or the reverse) within the group. Any difference is all but indecipherable from noise.

In the bigger picture, then, with the margins this close, I can’t help but come back to this play.

Fox has been a revelation on defense this season, and this stand against Curry at the end of the Warriors-Kings game last week was emblematic of it. This wasn’t some random one-off; it’s shown up on tape time and again through the first half of the season. Curry, meanwhile, has dropped off substantially on this end and become a hugely popular target for opponents. I can make a lot of different arguments here, but taking Curry over Fox right now feels weird (*dodges lightning bolt*) based on what I’ve seen the last several weeks. It’s OK to think the 35-year-old version of Curry is still awesome but also think he’s not quite as awesome as he was two years ago; virtually every data point is screaming that from the hilltops.

That leaves one spot for me, and I’m going with … Murray. I guess. Again, this is impossible. How the hell do you leave Stephen Curry off the freaking All-Star team? But on the other hand, how do you leave any of these guys off? Can we please just pretend a couple of them play for the Wizards and put them on the East team?

If forced to choose, I trust Murray more in the biggest spots and at both ends of the court more than the competition here, and I don’t think it’s realistic to punish him for missing a couple weeks early in the season with a hamstring injury. Deepest apologies to Curry, Markkanen, Sabonis and all the rest.

Curry would be my first choice for an injury replacement, followed by Markkanen and then Sabonis.

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Eastern Conference

Reminder: Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard and Indiana’s Tyrese Haliburton were voted in as starters.
 
Backcourt reserves (2): Donovan Mitchell, Cavs; Jalen Brunson, Knicks

I thought my media colleagues blew it when they voted for Brunson by an almost two-to-one margin over Mitchell as the second East starter in the backcourt; while I think both players have been better than Lillard this year, Mitchell is the one who has more consistently hit a higher level as a scorer and a playmaker under a huge shot-creation burden while the Cavs have played without multiple starters. Mitchell also grades out as a better defender by most advanced metrics and has a greater long-term track record of performing at this level.

That’s not to throw shade at Brunson, who has steadily improved every year in the league and is now a legitimate go-to option for a team that’s tracking toward 50 wins. Despite my preference for Mitchell, Brunson was a defensible choice as a starter as well, and he too was likely more deserving than Lillard.

Also, keep both of these guys in mind the next time your hear a scout sneer at the sight of a small guard. It’s harder for the 6-2 and under crowd, but in the span of half decade, Mitchell, Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Kemba Walker, Brunson and Tyrese Maxey (if each makes it this year) will have made All-Star teams despite neither being a top-five pick nor standing over 6-2; Lowry and VanVleet, of course, also won championships.

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Raptors forward Scottie Barnes collides with Celtics big man Kristaps Porziņģis during a game earlier in January. (John E. Sokolowski / USA Today)

Obvious frontcourt reserves (1): Kristaps Porziņģis, Celtics

Aside from the three Captain Obvious picks to start, there is only one frontcourt player left in the East who has clearly played at an All-Star level.

Porziņģis has been revelation in Boston, continuing the solid play that marked his largely unnoticed 2022-23 season in Washington but doing it for a much better all-around squad. His ability to destroy mismatches on post-ups fundamentally changes the Celtics’ capability set, plus he can still rain 3s when the Celtics go to their drive-and-kick, rinse-and-repeat cycle. Believe it or not, it is Porziņģis — not Tatum — who leads the Celtics in both PER and BPM this season.

Sort of obvious frontcourt reserve (1): Jimmy Butler, Heat

The five starters and three reserves I listed above are the only Eastern Conference players who rank in the NBA’s top 20 in either PER or BPM. However, the obvious next player on the list in the East hierarchy is Butler, who has A) been the best player in the conference in the postseason each of the last three seasons and, B) even in a down year for both him and the Heat’s offense (bleccch!), still ranks in the top 25 in the NBA in both PER and BPM.

Butler misses games every year and has missed 15 already this season, but history has shown us how silly it is to punish him for December absences to put Random Randomvich on the team instead of one of the league’s best players.

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Scraping the barrel frontcourt reserve (1): Scottie Barnes, Toronto

The Reward for Winning Crowd is going to push hard for Jaylen Brown or Julius Randle here, or maybe Jarrett Allen. None of those guys have been good enough this season, though; each has seen his play drop off a bit from last season, when they were already pretty fringy All-Stars.

Meanwhile, Barnes is having a season that would arguably be the best of Brown’s career and approach Randle’s. Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby might get mentions here, except they both played on Barnes’ team for half a season and pretty clearly weren’t the best players.

That takes the competition down to lower-usage bigs such as Bam Adebayo and Allen; Both these guys have been really good defensively, but I don’t think either occupies enough of an offensive role (or plays at a high enough level) to warrant an All-Star nod. Adebayo, in particular, has devolved into a contested 2 barf-a-thon that has resulted in just 56.4 percent true shooting. While Miami’s other offensive shortcomings play into this, it’s not exactly a gold star next to his candidacy.
 
Obvious wild-card pick (1): Tyrese Maxey, 76ers

Maxey is clearly the next-best player left on the list. While he’s cooled off a bit from his hot start and still needs to supply more verve at the defensive end, he’s proven to be a worthy complement to Embiid. Of particular note, as well, has been his ability to ramp up when Embiid is out of the lineup. While Maxey’s overall usage rate of 27.0 isn’t particularly notable for an All-Star candidate in the backcourt, he’s shown himself capable of soaking up as much offensive responsibility as the Sixers need.

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Wow, I still need one more player wild-card pick (1): Derrick White, Celtics

I went back and forth on this one a few times between White and Trae Young. Living in Atlanta, I see a lot of Young, and I don’t think his case can be immediately dismissed just because of Atlanta’s record. It’s pretty easy to make an argument that Young is a better player: He was the best player on a team that went to the conference finals, a level that is utterly inconceivable for White. While Young isn’t having his best offensive season, he’s also upped his effort on defense from, “Is he awake right now?” to “Occasional pest.” He has a case.

White, meanwhile, is a role player, a guard with 19.5 usage rate and a 16.8 PER. We’re seriously putting this guy in the All-Star Game? If we’re going to do that, wouldn’t we be better off putting in a role-playing big like Adebayo (even if it feels weird to have two Heat players when they’re scoring 63 points a game or whatever over the last month) or Allen (who was great when Evan Mobley was out, certainly better than when he made the East squad two years ago)?

Here’s where I go back to White, though: He’s been able to impact winning at a very high level. He can’t be the best player on a good team, but his skill set was able to make an already-excellent team significantly better in a way somebody like Young or Randle can’t, and I think Celtics fans would tell you he’s been better than Brown.

White is a clear All-Defense candidate who also takes nothing off the table offensively, shooting 39.6 percent from 3 on high volume and handing out three dimes for every turnover. If you’re ever going to put this type of player on an All-Star team, wouldn’t this year — with no notably strong candidate for him to deprive, while playing a significant role on the league’s best team — be the season?

Finally, if an injury replacement is needed for Embiid, given the events of Tuesday night in Golden State, I would go with Allen over Adebayo. Young, however, would be my pick to replace any non-center.

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Overall, I kind of want to retch at my options here and wish I could just put Curry, Markkanen and Sabonis on the East roster instead of the last three names I ticked off,  but this is the choice the East’s coaches face. Let’s see if they vote the same way.

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(Top photos of De’Aaron Fox, Derrick White and Kawhi Leonard: Mark J. Rebilas, Paul Rutherford / USA Today)





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