LeBron, Giannis, Harden project as starters


What’s wiser?

1. Having an All-Star Game in the middle of a pandemic?

2. Giving me a say over who starts?

Good news! You don’t have to choose. The NBA, in its enduring wisdom, decided to do both. People are saying both decisions came straight from the commissioner’s desk. Heavy is the crown.

The conditions under which the NBA’s top players have auditioned for the chance to play in this auspicious game, which they seem very excited to attend, have been strange. The All-Star Game usually happens about 50 games into the season, but this season hasn’t even reached its halfway point. The Memphis Grizzlies, due to COVID-19-related postponements, have played just 24 games, while the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers have each played 30 games.

On the bright side, we’ve seen some excellent basketball. Of players who’ve logged at least 100 minutes, seven are averaging shooting splits of 50% from the field, 40% from three and 90% from the free-throw line — more than we’ve seen in the last decade combined. None did it last season. 

In the interest of transparency (and content), I’m making my vote public. Here goes.

Western Conference

Yahoo Sports NBA writer Seerat Sohi selects her Western Conference starters: Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Nikola Jokic.

Yahoo Sports NBA writer Seerat Sohi selects her Western Conference starters: Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Nikola Jokic.

A few weeks ago, I watched Curry with my dad for the first time. At the sight of two improbable long balls in a row, he expressed that mix of joy, shock and disbelief the rest of us became familiar with years ago. “So lucky!”

My mom quickly corrected the record. “No, he’s just like that.”

Curry’s stats in 2015-16, when he won unanimous MVP: 34.2 mpg, 30.1 ppg, 50.4 FG%, 45.4 3P%, 90.8 FT%, 66.9 TS%, 5.4 rpg, 6.7 apg, 3.3 TO, 2.1 spg.

Curry’s stats this season: 34 mpg, 30 ppg, 49.2 FG%, 42.5 3P%, 93.5 FT%, 66.9 TS%, 5.3 rpg, 6 apg, 3.2 TO, 1.2 spg.

There’s a theory that Curry could make great teams better but couldn’t make a bad team good — that he raised roofs, not ceilings. But Curry, it turns out, is “like that” regardless of the situation. It’s a minor miracle he’s only dishing one less assist on a team that scores 100.5 points per possession when he sits. Only the Process-era Sixers have been worse in the last five seasons, but Curry has these Warriors in the playoffs. He’s been even better in February, averaging 36 ppg and making nearly half his threes.

Stephen Curry smiles wide during a game.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry celebrates after scoring against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

I imagine Lillard doesn’t love being called “Steph-lite,” but it’s uncanny how he’s always right behind him. Curry shoots 11.8 threes per game; Lillard shoots 10.8. Curry scores 30 points per game; Lillard scores 29.8.

But the other, better nickname gets to the heart of Lillard’s greatness. Dame Time’s been on schedule this season, with Lillard leading the West in clutch points, the factor that gave him a slight edge over Luka Doncic.

In mid-January, Portland forward Jusuf Nurkic broke his wrist. The next game, CJ McCollum — who was having an All-Star-worthy season himself — hurt his foot. Both have been out since, and Lillard has kicked it up a gear, averaging 31.4 points and eight dimes, while the Blazers have gone 10-6.

Lillard is getting off in iso and leads the NBA in pullup threes. Portland hasn’t missed the playoffs since his rookie year, thanks to Lillard’s incalculable ability to just find a way.

Damian Lillard with the ball in his hands to shoot over Tobias Harris with Joel Embiid coming in to help defend.

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, left, hits a shot over Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris, center, as center Joel Embiid, right, closes in during the second half of their game on Feb. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

The moment that crystallizes Jokic’s command of the game came early in the season against the Houston Rockets. Jokic held the ball at the elbow, where he leads the NBA in touches, and didn’t see Paul Millsap open under the rim, which evidently annoyed him.

This wasn’t a case of frustration leaking below the surface — an unravelling team betraying a hint that the seams are coming apart. Millsap’s annoyance illustrates Jokic’s greatness. On most teams, cuts are made to be ignored, eventually atrophying an offense. One too many unrewarded line-drive runs, and role players decide it’s not worth the exhaustion. Even willing passers often lack the mix of cognition, guts and quickness required to thread the needle to players who are only open for a split second. Cuts, for most teams, are a happy accident. But Joker’s teammates have the idea that every opening will get rewarded.

Jokic’s unselfishness and flair have created a Pavlovian positive feedback loop. The more Jokic throws quarterback passes in transition, the harder Will Barton runs down the floor. The more he hits backdoor cutters, the shiftier Jamal Murray is on dribble handoffs.

The Nuggets outscore opponents by 7.5 points per 100 possessions when Jokic is on the court, and they’re outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions when he sits. If you want to know how this disparity is possible on a team as good as the Nuggets, look no further than Tuesday night’s loss against the Boston Celtics, despite Jokic piling up points.

Nikola Jokic dunks with two hands.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic slams a dunk against the Boston Celtics on Feb. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Of course, James is starting. With him, the question is never if but how. Here’s a rundown of the few things that have changed to allow him to maintain his perch at the top.

James is getting to the free-throw line less, but he’s taking a career-high 6.7 threes per game. A third of his points come from beyond the arc. He’s also dominating on the ball less, with Dennis Schroder running point and Marc Gasol (almost) matching James’ passing savvy. As ever with James, this all feels less like a sign of an atrophy and more like a warning. He’s coasting and dominating at the same time, as only he can. The Lakers are second in the West, while the real season awaits.

LeBron James with the ball in his hands in a shooting motion above his head as Nikola Jokic holds up a hand to defend in front.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, right, shoots over Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic during their game on Feb. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

With the razzle-dazzle and utility of a roll of toilet paper, Leonard has led the Clippers to a 21-9 record. Leonard and Paul George are playing more like a duo than ever, but almost all the advanced and counting stats have Leonard ranked just a little higher than George.

That makes sense, because Leonard is basically Paul George if you hit the upgrade button. He’s just a little stingier and stronger on defense, a little harder to defend, a little more reliable. That said, Leonard is a representative of the two, part of a duo that makes me wish we had a way to award the lesser half of two-pronged attacks, the Malcolm Brogdon to every Domantas Sabonis, the Jayson Tatum to every Jaylen Brown.

Kawhi Leonard points with one arm as he holds the ball with his other hand during a game.

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard gestures during a game against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Eastern Conference

Yahoo Sports NBA writer Seerat Sohi selects her Eastern Conference starters: Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bradley Beal and James Harden.

Yahoo Sports NBA writer Seerat Sohi selects her Eastern Conference starters: Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bradley Beal and James Harden.

If you want to know how much Embiid scares opponents, look no further than Seth Curry’s blistering 1.43 points per possession on handoffs, by far the highest figure in the NBA for regulars. Teams would much rather give a dead-eye shooter space than let Embiid roll to the rim unbumped.

Embiid leads all remotely possible All-Stars in true shooting percent despite being third in usage, a Harden-esque combination of quality and quantity. He generates 1.335 points per shot attempt, a career high by far, according to Cleaning The Glass.

How? Embiid leads the NBA in post ups, but it’s not like he’s barreling to the rim free-willy, and he’s actually taking one less three per game. Over half of Embiid’s shots are from midrange, where he shoots a blistering 54%. So much for Moreyball.

Joel Embiid with the ball in his hand drives into Deandre Ayton.

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid drives on Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton during their game on Feb. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt York)

The only thing that has stopped him from being the world’s best player is availability. Even this season, he’s missed time due to COVID-19 protocols and a hamstring strain, but here’s what we’ve gotten from him in the meantime: the same silky jumper and unguardable first step, buoyed by the gravity of two of the NBA’s best scorers.

Durant is scoring 29 points per game on 18.9 shots per game and 43.4% from beyond the arc. He’s only a few percentage points at the free-throw line away from the Nets being the only team in NBA history to employ three players shooting 50/40/90 splits (no two teammates have even done it before).

Kevin Durant gets his hand on the ball as Nicolas Batum stretches toward the ball.

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant reaches for the ball as Los Angeles Clippers forward Nicolas Batum defends during their game on Feb. 2, 2021. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Nominally, very little separates Antetokounmpo’s last two seasons and this one. But this is what happens when you win back-to-back MVPs and come up short in the postseason: People start reading the fine print. Antetokounmpo will be cursed by the same narrowed focus that followed LeBron (rightly) until he won a championship: The things he can’t do will outweigh the things he can.

While his lack of offensive development away from the rim — where he’s actually been better than ever — remains concerning, let’s not lose sight of the big picture: Antetokounmpo is one of the NBA’s biggest two-way forces, and the sole reason Milwaukee is in the playoff hunt.

Giannis Antetokounmpo with the ball in both of his hands as OG Anunoby defends.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo tries to drive on Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby during their game on Feb. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Watching Beal navigate the court on offense is like watching a pirate calmly wade through the driftwood of a shipwreck in search of dubloons. He is composed under pressure, getting to his spots, finding open players. In the absence of space, he’s a tough shot-maker who has been relegated into taking either tough shots or inefficient ones. Beal leads the NBA in scoring and usage, and Washington’s entire offense hinges on the fact that he is one of the best midrange shooters in the game.

I hesitate to punish Beal for playing on a decrepit team, because we know how good he can be next to reliable teammates, and he’s being a reasonably good sport despite obvious frustrations with the quality of his teammates. Honestly, it’s a wonder he hasn’t spontaneously combusted yet. Which brings us to …

Bradley Beal dribbles with one hand as he leans into a drive.

Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal dribbles against the Houston Rockets on Feb. 15, 2021. (Will Newton/Getty Images)

Yes, Harden flouted COVID-19 rules and put his team’s season on pause. Yes, he entered training camp late and overweight. Yes, he publicly offended his new teammates, pressing hard for a trade.

In the aftermath, what’s revelatory to me is how little any of that mattered.

Harden got what he wanted — a chance to contend for a championship in Brooklyn — and he’s been as advertised and more. Since arriving in Brooklyn, he’s averaged 50/40/90 splits, led the team in usage, created 28.6 points from assists on top of the 24.3 ppg he’s scored and led the Nets in time of possession, anchoring the NBA’s best half-court offense.

I won’t argue with you if you think he shouldn’t get to start this season because of what happened off the court, but on the court, the ends justify the means: Harden is the most impactful offensive player on the NBA’s best offense. Everything else is noise.

James Harden with the ball in front of his after he fires off a pass.

Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden passes the ball during a game against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 15, 2021. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

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