In NBA season marked by uncertainty, selecting all-star reserves is a series of close calls

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The NBA, which is set to hold a scaled-down All-Star Game in Atlanta on March 7, announced its official all-star starting lineups this week. Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving and Bradley Beal will represent the East, while LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry and Luka Doncic were selected in the West. To fill out the rosters, the coaches must pick two backcourt players, three frontcourt players and two additional “wild card” players regardless of position for each conference.

Eastern Conference Reserves

Backcourt: Kyrie Irving (Nets) and Bradley Beal (Wizards)

Irving and Beal were officially selected as starters, but both were better cast as reserves. James Harden has played a more central role in Brooklyn’s attack than Irving since arriving by trade, while Jaylen Brown has demonstrated far better defensive commitment than Beal while playing for a Celtics team that is significantly better than the Wizards.

Even so, Irving and Beal are relatively easy selections. While Irving missed a seven-game stretch due to personal reasons, he has been an electric and ultraefficient scorer, averaging 27.7 points and 5.6 assists while nearly cracking the 50/40/90 shooting club.

Beal continues to league the league in both scoring and usage rate, as he valiantly attempts to drag Washington to respectability. As judged by ESPN’s Real Plus Minus, an advanced metric that measures a player’s impact, Beal has been a better offensive performer than Zach LaVine and Trae Young, two other talented scoring guards who lag on defense and play for East teams with losing records.

Frontcourt: Khris Middleton (Bucks), Jayson Tatum (Celtics) and Bam Adebayo (Heat)

A lot has changed for the uninspiring Bucks, but Middleton remains a no-brainer pick due to his rock-solid consistency and important role in Milwaukee’s third-ranked offense. The 29-year-old forward is averaging 20.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists and flirting with the 50/40/90 benchmark, and he should join teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo in Atlanta.

Ditto for Tatum, who is averaging a career-high 25.8 points, 7 rebounds and 4.8 assists despite feeling ill effects from a bout with covid-19. The Celtics have fallen short of expectations so far, but they hold a winning record entering Saturday and deserve to have two all-stars.

Adebayo is a trickier pick, as Miami remains well below .500 after a terrible early-season rash of injuries and protocol issues. The 23-year-old center has been a steadying presence after turning in a dominant run through the bubble, missing just two games this season while averaging 19.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 5.5 assists. Although Jimmy Butler remains the Heat’s best player, Adebayo has logged 300+ more minutes than his teammate, and he deserves the nod over Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic or New York’s Julius Randle because of his far superior defensive acumen.

Wild Cards: Ben Simmons (76ers) and Domantas Sabonis (Pacers)

Simmons’s relatively paltry scoring number and nonexistent outside shooting make him an easy target for critics, and Embiid’s sensational season has meant that they are no longer co-stars in Philadelphia. Still, Simmons contributes as a passing playmaker, a strong rebounder and an elite multi-positional defender. That package of skills should carry him past scoring forward Tobias Harris as the East-leading 76ers’ second representative.

Sabonis (21.5 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 5.7 APG) and Randle (23.2 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 5.5 APG) have virtually identical box score numbers and advanced statistics, turning the fight for the last roster spot into a fierce debate. Should Sabonis get the nod for Indiana’s better record or does Randle deserve credit for getting by with a weaker supporting cast? The pick here is Sabonis, who earned his first selection last year and is back playing more minutes and carrying a heavier burden this season.

Toughest Omissions: Jimmy Butler (Heat), Zach LaVine (Bulls) and Julius Randle (Knicks)

Western Conference Reserves

Backcourt: Luka Doncic (Mavericks) and Chris Paul (Suns)

The extended outcry in response to Doncic’s selection as a starter over Damian Lillard was justified, since Lillard has been more efficient and his Trail Blazers are well above the Mavericks in the standings. But even Lillard’s strongest advocates would acknowledge that Doncic is a worthy sixth man candidate for the West, given his eye-popping averages (29.1 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 9.4 APG). Without Doncic, who has enjoyed near-perfect health, the protocol-ravaged Mavericks might have the West’s worst record.

No matter what type of magic Paul conjures, he always seems to fly under the radar. After helping lead the Rockets to a franchise-best 65 wins in 2018 and turning the Thunder into the league’s biggest overachievers in 2020, Paul (17.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 8.2 APG) has transformed the Suns from a perennial loser into the West’s No. 5 seed entering Saturday. Don’t be fooled by the 35-year-old Paul’s age or subtle game, he remains one of the sport’s best leaders and most reliable closers.

Frontcourt: Rudy Gobert (Jazz), Anthony Davis (Lakers) and Paul George (Clippers)

Utah’s run to the top of the West standings makes Gobert an automatic pick. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year might very well win it again this season, as he is leading the NBA’s second-best defense with exceptional shot-blocking, rebounding and positioning.

Davis will be sidelined with injury through the break after getting off to a slow start (22.5 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 3 APG) by his lofty standards, but he was still the key cog in the league’s top defense and an efficient secondary scorer alongside LeBron James. The coaches should reward Davis with a selection, thereby allowing NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to name an injury replacement.

While George has missed a decent amount of time because of injuries and health protocols, the gap between him and the other frontcourt candidates remains massive because of his numbers (24.4 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 5.5 APG), his 50/47/90 shooting splits and his two-way contributions to one of the league’s best teams. With the Clippers ranking third in point differential and winning percentage, George should join Leonard in Atlanta.

Wildcards: Donovan Mitchell (Jazz) and Mike Conley (Jazz)

One of this year’s defining all-star questions: How many representatives do the Jazz deserve since they hold the league’s top record and point differential? The minimum answer should be two. Mitchell, 24, has done a masterful job of balancing his scoring ability with a commitment to the team concept, allowing Utah to unleash a devastating and balanced three-point attack that has overwhelmed opponents.

The case for Conley is tougher: he missed six games this month because of injury, and his box score stats (16.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 5.6 APG) don’t exactly scream “Big 3” star. Although some might argue his case on sentimental reasons because he’s never made an all-star team, Conley gets the nod here because of his central role on the league’s most consistent team. The Jazz don’t rank in the top five in both offense and defense without Conley’s dedication, intelligence, unselfishness and poise, which are reflected in his league-leading plus-minus.

Utah is the only team that has managed to sustain greatness this season, and it deserves to be one of two teams — along with Brooklyn — to land three all-stars. Apologies to Phoenix’s Devin Booker, who has ceded some authority since Paul’s arrival, and to De’Aaron Fox, who hasn’t been able to single-handedly stabilize the Kings, who possess the league’s worst defense and are riding a five-game losing streak entering Saturday.

Injury replacement: Zion Williamson (Pelicans)

This was an unusually shallow year for the West due to Harden’s trade to the Nets and injury issues for Karl-Anthony Towns, CJ McCollum, Klay Thompson, Ja Morant and Christian Wood.

Williamson (25 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 3.1 APG) was a little slow out of the gate, but he has come on strong and would be a fitting replacement for Davis, who preceded him as New Orleans’s franchise player. A paint monster who gets to the basket at will against most opponents, he’s shown more playmaking ability for his teammates over the past month. While his defensive mobility still leaves much to be desired, his best scoring performances have lived up to the hype that followed his one-and-done season at Duke. He’s missed only one game this season, and has usurped Brandon Ingram as the driving force of the Pelicans’ offense on most nights.

Toughest Omissions: Devin Booker (Suns), De’Aaron Fox (Kings) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Thunder)

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