Each week during the 2021-22 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
[ Last week’s Fact or Fiction: Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and the whims of lottery luck ]
We are witnessing the changing of the NBA guard
It was not all that long ago that All-Star announcements were met annually with debates about the degree to which an ascendant Damian Lillard was snubbed. By 2017, the 26-year-old Portland Trail Blazers star had not been voted into the game for three years running, because the greatest generation of primary ball-handling guards the game has ever seen had a stranglehold on the position in the Western Conference.
Five years later, we are left to wonder if Lillard — still the biggest name in the NBA’s trade rumor mill this past offseason — would even be an All-Star if he were healthy, because a new crop of guards has arisen.
Lillard has been plagued by an abdominal injury, which surely played a role in his career-worst effective field-goal percentage and ultimately required surgery that could cost him the rest of his age 31 season. He will be back, but when he gets there, he will be battling for All-Star appearances with a new generation.
Stephen Curry still secured a start in the West, and Chris Paul will land one of the two guard positions left on the bench, but gone is the spot once reserved for Russell Westbrook. You could make a case James Harden does not even deserve to be an East reserve, which was unthinkable mere months ago, much less a few years earlier, when Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Kemba Walker and even John Wall were All-Star staples.
Ja Morant is here to stay now. The 22-year-old Memphis Grizzlies point guard was the unanimous choice among fans, media and players to be the West’s second starting guard alongside Curry, and rightfully so, since he is a bona fide MVP candidate (+1600 betting odds to win, per BetMGM) for the conference’s No. 3 seed years before anyone saw it coming.
This season has not yet met Luka Doncic‘s standards, which at age 22 are astronomically high, but he is still a lock for a reserve nod after starting each of the past two years. Devin Booker will be a three-time All-Star guard at age 25. That leaves fellow 25-year-olds Donovan Mitchell and Dejounte Murray — the only two other guards in the West to receive starter votes from the media — battling for the final wild-card spot.
In the East, 23-year-old Trae Young will make his second All-Star start in three seasons. A resurgent DeMar DeRozan earned the other starting guard position, but Zach LaVine, Fred VanVleet, Darius Garland and LaMelo Ball all received legitimate votes from the media. It will be up to the league’s coaches and Harden’s hamstrings to decide whether he still warrants a reserve role for his least productive season in a decade.
Meanwhile, Walker and Wall are afterthoughts on lottery-bound teams. Irving is another story. Thirteen guards finished higher than Lowry in the East voting. Terry Rozier received more love from current players.
To say there has been a changing of the NBA guard is an understatement. Morant, Doncic, Young, Booker and Mitchell are now the staples. As many as five guards have a serious case to be first-time All-Stars, and 20-year-old Minnesota Timberwolves sophomore Anthony Edwards will be banging on that door next year.
The NBA’s greatest generation of guards is giving way to a new one in the blink of a pandemic.
Do fans deserve 50% of the All-Star vote?
Much is made of the media’s influence on All-NBA selections, which can cost rising stars tens of millions of dollars, but if All-Star Game voting is any indication, who else are you going to entrust with the process?
Fans made Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins the biggest surprise All-Star starter in recent memory. Fandom is irrational and biased by nature. The fault lies more with the NBA, which gave them as much influence as both media and players combined. If this were about who the fans wanted to see more, that would be fine, but it is not. A single tweet from a K-Pop star wields enormous power over the process.
Wiggins may not be the Sanjaya of the NBA, but he also might not even be the third-most important player on his own team, let alone the third frontcourt All-Star entry in the West. We can argue whether or not he deserves the conference’s final roster spot, but Wiggins only appeared as a starter on four of the media’s 98 ballots for a reason. Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green and Karl-Anthony Towns were all more deserving.
Players were worse at the process. More than half who voted did not believe Curry or Joel Embiid deserved to be a starter. Almost 300 different players received a starting vote. Most we can excuse for voting for themselves, even if that is inherently ridiculous, but there are plenty you have never heard of who received multiple votes from their peers. Ben Simmons was one of six players who have not played a single minute this season and still got a vote. He earned two, actually. Irving, who has played seven games, garnered 25.
The only media vote among 98 cast for 10 starters you could quibble with is the one New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram received in the West frontcourt. I would take that 0.1% variance for error over the 594,823 fans who voted for Derrick Rose or the 3.1% of players who voted for Carmelo Anthony.
If any entity has earned 50% of the All-Star vote, it is the media. Fans and players may disagree, but you need look no further than this year’s ballots to determine once again their opinions on this are less reliable.
The ballots do not make sense, either
Voters are also forced to select three frontcourt and two backcourt players for each starting five in a year when DeRozan — who technically has not played a single possession at guard all year — was the No. 1 choice among fans, media and players for the Eastern Conference frontcourt. Make it make sense.
The panel cannot add Doncic, Booker or Paul alongside Curry and Morant, because the NBA needs a third frontcourt player next to LeBron James and Nikola Jokic, both of whom can play point guard and center?
This is an exhibition game. Scrap the positions. Anyone watching just wants the best players on the court.
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