Miami Heat, NBA All-Star Game

The NBA needs to scrap positions for All-Star voting

The NBA mostly nailed All-Star selections, but Jimmy Butler got robbed of a starting spot due to positional designations that have no place in today’s game.

By and large, it’s tough to take issue with the 2020 NBA All-Star Game selections.

Sure, Devin Booker should have made it over Russell Westbrook, and yes, Bradley Beal is “a little pissed off” about missing the All-Star squad as well. But using Jared Greenberg’s one-in, one-out rule, good luck finding more than a few deserving snubs.

If anyone should be upset, it’s Miami Heat swingman Jimmy Butler. While the coaches named him an All-Star reserve Thursday, he missed out on a starting spot largely because of obsolete positional designations that have no place in today’s game.

On the All-Star ballot for starters, voters must choose two backcourt players and three frontcourt players in each conference. For the reserves, coaches must choose another two backcourt players, three frontcourt players and two “wild cards” — either backcourt or frontcourt players — to round out the All-Star squads.

In an increasingly positionless league, those designations make less and less sense.

Butler has started 41 games for the 32-15 Heat, averaging 20.2 points on 44.1 percent shooting, 6.9 rebounds and a career-high 6.4 assists in 34.8 minutes per game. He checks every box — namely individual production and team success — that often arise in All-Star selection conversations.

But because he was listed as a frontcourt player rather than a backcourt player, he got buried behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, Pascal Siakam and Joel Embiid.

“I just think it’s ridiculous that we’re still in these antiquated positions,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters last week. “So who’s to say what position Jimmy is? Does it matter? I put him No. 2 on my [lineup] card. So I go Kendrick Nunn, Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, I go Bam [Adebayo] and then Meyers [Leonard]. But you could flip any one of those guys around. And in many ways he’s our point guard. So should he be in the All-Star Game as a point guard? I don’t know.”

According to Cleaning the Glass, Butler has logged 44 percent of his minutes at shooting guard this season, 42 percent of his minutes at small forward and 14 percent of his minutes at power forward. But as Spoelstra noted, he’s spent much of the season as the Heat’s primary on-ball creator, which is typically a guard’s responsibility.

“These are such antiquated labels that I feel like we’ve moved on from that years ago when we started talking about positionless [players],” Spoelstra added. “But either way, regardless of how you want to label it or discuss it, Jimmy Butler should be a starter in this All-Star Game. It’s a joke that he’s not. Hopefully, this will change things in the future.”

Back in 2017, Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said he was scrapping the traditional positional designations of point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center for a more simplified system.

“I don’t have the five positions anymore,” he said, per Kareem Copeland of the Associated Press. “It may be as simple as three positions now, where you’re either a ball-handler, a wing or a big.”

Three years later, even that system may be stretched to its breaking point.

Ben Simmons, a 6-foot-10 forward, has been the Philadelphia 76ers’ primary ball-handler for the last three years. Luka Doncic, a 6-foot-7 wing, is filling the same role with the Dallas Mavericks. Both were listed as guards on the All-Star ballot. Prior to Russell Westbrook’s arrival in Houston, James Harden was the Rockets’ de facto point guard despite being a 6-foot-5 traditional 2-guard.

In an era where a 7-foot center (Nikola Jokic) is averaging 6.6 assists per game and another 7-footer (Karl-Anthony Towns) is launching 8.2 triples per game, positional designations matter less than ever before.

Back in 2012, the NBA adjusted the All-Star ballot by changing from two guards, two forwards and a center to the current system. Players such as Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett — who were listed as forwards despite often playing in center-esque roles — spurred the change.

“It makes sense,” Stu Jackson, the-then NBA vice president of basketball operations, told NBA.com (via Adi Joseph of USA Today Sports). “It made sense to our Competition Committee. Having a center is the only specific position that was singled out on the ballot. It just seemed a little outdated and didn’t represent the way our game has evolved. By the same token, it also affords the same opportunity, if you have two good centers in a given year, pick ’em both. They both can be selected. Which is impossible right now.”

It’s time for the NBA to further extend that logic.

While centers bemoaned their position’s removal from the All-Star ballot — and neither All-Star squad featured a traditional starting center in 2014, per Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck — the position is in the midst of a renaissance. Embiid, Jokic, Rudy Gobert and Towns, among others, will be in All-Star consideration every year they stay healthy for the next half-decade (if not longer). Centers aren’t going the way of the dodo during All-Star Weekend just because the NBA dropped their position from the ballot.

The All-Star Game should feature the players having the best seasons in each conference, positions be damned. While Trae Young is a deserving All-Star — he’s averaging an eye-popping 29.4 points and 9.2 assists per game after an absurd 39-point, 18-assist night against the Sixers on Thursday — it’s difficult to argue that the leader of a 13-win team should start over the leader of a 32-win team who’s posting similarly impressive numbers.

While Butler likely isn’t losing too much sleep over his starting snub, Spoelstra is right: In this increasingly positionless era, the NBA should scrap positions altogether on the All-Star ballot and let voters choose the best players in each conference regardless of which roles they fill.

Next: Hey Marcus Morris, here are my favorite basketball ‘female tendencies’

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com or Basketball-Reference. All salary information via Early Bird Rights.

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