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The Long Two: Picking Western Conference NBA All-Stars

The NBA All-Star Game is fast approaching. Which players from the West deserve a spot on this year’s roster, and which ones just miss the cut?

The NBA All-Star Game is less than a month away, which means it’s time to determine which players deserve to participate in this year’s contest. Last week, we cast a (hypothetical) ballot for the Eastern Conference, and today we’ll sort through the candidates in the West. (You can also find the guidelines and criteria for this exercise in Part I.) The Long Two will return to its normal format next week!

The Long Two picks for Western Conference NBA All-Stars

Starters

G: Stephen Curry, Chris Paul

F: Nikola Jokic, LeBron James, Rudy Gobert

Reserves

G: Donovan Mitchell, Ja Morant

F: Draymond Green, Karl-Anthony Towns, Luka Dončić

Wild Card: Mike Conley, Dejounte Murray

Despite a prolonged shooting slump, Curry remains the clear best guard in the NBA and was in no danger of falling out of the starting lineup. Mitchell, Morant and Paul have almost equally strong cases to join him, and any of the three would be deserving selections.

Even at age 36, Paul has been a slightly positive defender for the league’s second-ranked defense while captaining a top-three offense with steady mid-range scoring and surgical pick-and-roll playmaking. Mitchell is having the most efficient season of his career as a high-usage creator for the NBA’s best offense, while Morant has become a devastating pick-and-roll weapon who can get to the rim and set up teammates with ease. Paul may no longer be quite the complete offensive force the other two are, but he’s the best passer and defender of the three, and Phoenix is outscoring opponents by over 10 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor than with him off — easily the widest margin of the three.

An even larger difference exists for Conley, who has quietly been an integral part of Utah’s league-leading offense. The Jazz are a juggernaut with him on the court and a net neutral without him, and while he undoubtedly benefits from playing alongside Mitchell and Gobert, Conley also makes life easier on them by piercing and stretching defenses off the dribble, threading passes to open teammates and playing solid on-ball defense for a team with few capable perimeter defenders. (The Jazz have decidedly positive point differentials when he plays without Gobert, Mitchell or both.) Relatively low usage and assist rates keep him from contending for a starting spot, but Conley has been so efficient and important as to separate himself from the other wild card candidates. It’s unusual for a fourth-place team to have three All-Stars, but Utah is heavily driven by the talent and fit of its three best players.

The third Jazzman, Gobert, has always been a tough star to evaluate because of his combination of singular defensive impact, minimal on-ball creation and unconventional value as a screener and lob threat; he’s a role player in style, yet he might be one of the five or six most valuable regular-season players in the league. Utah’s defense collapsed when he entered the health and safety protocols, and he catalyzes the team’s offense with constant, purposeful screens. As with Conley, the Jazz outscore opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions with Gobert on the floor but have a slightly negative differential without him. That monster two-way impact gives him a slight edge over the more versatile Green, whose own absence has underscored his importance to the Warriors on both ends.

Green joins Towns — who’s quietly in the midst of another ridiculously productive offensive season — as a reserve frontcourt lock. A healthy Kawhi Leonard or a better season from Anthony Davis or Paul George might have nudged Dončić, putting up one of the most underwhelming 25/9/9 lines in NBA history, off the ballot; instead, he gets the third slot by default. Dončić’s defense has regressed this season and his scoring efficiency has plummeted, yet Davis and George have been similarly disappointing in fewer games and the latter could miss the majority of the season. Dončić is the best player of the three, a passing wizard carrying one of the heaviest offensive workloads in the league, and part of Dallas’ struggles with him on the floor is teammates simply missing open shots he creates.

Mikal Bridges, Desmond Bane, Kristaps Porzingis, DeAndre Ayton and Andrew Wiggins are all having wonderful seasons and will likely appear on some official ballots; but all are relatively low-usage play finishers who don’t carry the responsibility of creating for others or working against defenses fixated upon them. Brandon Ingram has practically carried the Pelicans offense as both a scorer and playmaker and will garner attention for a splendid last two months. But a rough first month of the season, subpar efficiency and still-underwhelming defense weigh down his full-season impact just enough to keep him out.

That makes Booker and Murray the two strongest options for the final roster slot, and I still oscillate on which one should get in. Murray is a woefully inefficient scorer who doesn’t stretch defenses with his jump shot, but has blossomed into an excellent playmaker in a more empowered role and might be the best defensive guard in basketball. Booker is the more complete offensive player — a throwback guard who can score in any way from anywhere — but doesn’t offer nearly the defense or playmaking Murray does. Neither player could do what the other does for their respective teams, and both would miss the cut in a normal, healthier season.

For now, Murray’s all-around game — even with that glaring hole in it — wins out over Booker’s mildly efficient volume scoring, so-so playmaking and unremarkable defense. Booker’s true shooting percentage has hovered around league-average, and both his and the Suns’ efficiency plummets when Paul leaves the floor. Murray, meanwhile, is an elite defender and high-level passer who does slightly more heavy lifting on both ends of the floor. It’s possible that one player separates from the other between now and mid-February, but right now, it’s Murray by the thinnest of margins.

Stats current through January 22 (the last day of fan voting). All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass, NBA.com, PBP Stats and Basketball-Reference. 

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