2022 NBA All-Star debate: Who deserves to start in Cleveland?

The 2022 NBA All-Star Game is just a few weeks away, and on Thursday night the NBA will reveal the 10 players voted in as starters along with the two All-Star captains who will draft their teams for the eventual showdown in Cleveland on Feb. 20.

As of the last public reveal of the fan vote, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James had surpassed Golden State Warriors rival Stephen Curry as the leading vote-getter in the West, putting him in line to be a captain for the fifth consecutive year. Curry, meanwhile, is in a tight race with the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic and Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant to be a starter at guard. The race is even closer in the East, in which three players are separated by fewer than 200,000 votes for the second guard spot.

Before the starters are announced Thursday night, we asked our experts to break down those two races, plus three other big All-Star questions, including which player could join Morant as a first-time All-Star in 2022.

1. Which of the three leading vote-getters among West guards (Curry, Doncic, Morant) should NOT be an All-Star starter?

Kendra Andrews: Surprisingly, this came down to Curry and Doncic, but Doncic is the one who should not be an All-Star starter. Morant has been the most jaw-dropping player to watch, and the way he has led the Grizzlies to the third seed in the West — ahead of the Mavericks, Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets — makes him untouchable in this category. Both Curry and Doncic have had their shooting woes this season, but Curry is still the greatest shooter of all time and deserves to be a starter.

Jamal Collier: Doncic. Curry and Morant have been the best players on two of the top teams in the conference. The success of both the Warriors and Grizzlies has been relatively surprising compared to preseason expectations, all while Curry and Morant have authored some of the most thrilling moments and jaw-dropping on-court performances. Doncic and the Mavericks finally started clicking in January, but the other two guards had already staked their claim into the early MVP discussion.

Kirk Goldsberry: Doncic because his individual numbers haven’t been great — both his scoring and efficiency numbers have dipped since last season — and because he’s looking up at those other two guys in the Western standings. Curry is slumping but he’s still an MVP candidate who is a fan favorite, while Morant is both a human highlight film and the breakout star for Memphis. A Curry-Morant backcourt seems pretty electrifying to me.

Tim MacMahon: Doncic is the least deserving based on his relatively slow start, which was due in large part because he reported to camp out of shape. He has had recent performances that indicate he’s rounding into first-team All-NBA form — and he’s still a top-10 scorer and nightly triple-double threat — but Curry and Morant have been more impactful and spectacular.

Kevin Pelton: I actually went with Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul as my second starter. Morant and Doncic represent an extreme example of how much weight to put on the first half of this season — where Morant has blown up on the court — vs. acknowledging an established level of play. Of them, I’d lean to the Grizzlies’ guard. But Paul hits the sweet spot of consistent greatness, ranking ahead of them in value metrics because he has been healthy all season.

2. Which of the four leading vote-getters among East guards (DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, Trae Young and James Harden) should get the two starting spots?

Collier: DeRozan and Young, as long as we’re OK with ignoring that DeRozan is a frontcourt player for the Chicago Bulls. He’s having, perhaps, the best season of his career to help carry Chicago to its best start in a decade, which gives him the nod over LaVine, his teammate. Even though Atlanta’s record has been one of the league’s biggest disappointments in the first half, Young has carried the Hawks to an elite offense. Young is having the best season of his career and although Harden has been fantastic recently, he has taken a step back from his usual excellence.

MacMahon: How DeRozan is listed as a guard is another discussion, but he’s at the top of this list of candidates. I’ll go with Young as the second guard from the East. You could hold the Hawks’ record against him, but Atlanta’s run to the East finals last postseason should have put to rest the argument that Young isn’t a winner. He’s the only player in the league to rank top-five in scoring and assists, and is one of the game’s great showmen.

Goldsberry: I’m going with the veterans here for a few reasons. First, check this out: DeRozan and Harden were born 19 days apart in August 1989 in Los Angeles. They grew up together, and if they started in the backcourt together, it would be awesome. Second, you can justify this choice with their performances. Young has been impressive, but it hasn’t translated to winning in the ways the other three players have done. I’ll give DeRozan the nod over LaVine because he has been so special — those buzzer-beaters, hello! — in his first season in Chicago, and Harden deserves respect for combining scoring and assists in ways that have kept the Brooklyn Nets near the top of the East.

Andrews: DeRozan is a lock. He has been an absolute game-changer for the Bulls and has been the biggest key — not LaVine — to them having the second-best record in the East. Looking at the other candidates: Harden’s numbers haven’t been great, but he’s on the Nets. Young has played extremely well, but the Hawks aren’t winning as much. That being said, Young should get the other starting job in the East’s backcourt. He’s currently fifth in scoring and is coming off an Eastern Conference Player of the Week showing that highlighted how lethal he has been.

Pelton: Again, I’m going off the board. My first vote went to DeRozan, despite the fact he has barely played guard (76 minutes all season, per my analysis of lineup data from NBA Advanced Stats). But my other vote went to the Toronto Raptors’ Fred VanVleet, who is a distant seventh in the voting. Given proper credit for his defensive advantage over the other three players, he has been the best performer of the group.

3. Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid will likely nab starting ‘frontcourt’ spots. Is it time to bring ‘Center’ back to the ballot?

Pelton: Yes, although less because we don’t need to avoid a bad token starting center and more because of the opposite possibility — unwieldy All-Star lineups with multiple centers. If we’re looking to better reflect how the game is actually played, a breakdown more like PG/wing/post makes more sense than the current backcourt/frontcourt split, and it also limits controversy over where players such as DeRozan and the Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler should be considered (they’re both wings under this construction).

Andrews: No. We’re still in the era of positionless basketball in which it is nearly impossible to solely label certain players as centers, rather than forwards. Embiid and Jokic have certainly brought the prototypical NBA center back in fashion, but there are too few of them around the league for them to have their own category.

Goldsberry: Yes. Centers are a humongous part of the heritage of pro basketball, and the fact this league has gerrymandered the big man off this iconic ballot is an outrage. It’s time to change that and as both Jokic and Embiid have proved this season, the death of the center position has been greatly exaggerated. Size and strength still matter in hoops, but these guys have both resurrected the relevance of the position by being hyperskilled in ways old-school centers just couldn’t fathom. This isn’t charity, these fellas are both legit MVP candidates, too.

Collier: No. These two outliers shouldn’t set the rules. Positions aren’t getting any easier to define, so the more flexibility, the better. The goal should be to get the best and most exciting five players on the floor in each conference, so better to keep things malleable.

MacMahon: No. If anything, it’s time to remove the positions from the voting process altogether. Just pick the best players. My West ballot would include two centers among starters, with Utah’s Rudy Gobert joining Jokic in the frontcourt. But there shouldn’t be a quota on centers selected, which led to some East big men getting the nod over better players back in the day.

4. Which player (other than Morant) who has never been an All-Star is most deserving of a spot this year?

Goldsberry: There are three enticing candidates who are with the Cleveland Cavaliers. All-Star selections always skew toward high-profile stars in big-time markets, but Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen each deserve a look. Ultimately I’ll go with Garland, who leads this surprising team in minutes, points and assists. And when he’s been on the floor this season, the Cavs have been at their best; they have a net rating of 9.4 with Garland. Oh, and the game is in Cleveland!

Collier: VanVleet. The Raptors are in the mix for playoff positioning in the East with VanVleet leading the way as a two-way force. He’s putting up career-highs in points and assists while improving his shooting efficiency and volume, making him deserving of being elevated to an All-Star.

Pelton: VanVleet. I don’t think his All-Star case got enough consideration last season, when the Raptors were below .500 most of the first half. He has been even better this season, and I hope East coaches take notice because there’s a bit more urgency given VanVleet, who turns 28 next month, is older than the rising stars who fill out this category.

Andrews: Garland. This season has been a breakout season for the third-year player and he has been the biggest difference-maker for a Cleveland team stacked with young guns making a surprising run. After losing Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio for the year, Garland’s production and leadership only got better. He’s averaging a team-best 19.7 points per game and 8.2 assists, good for sixth in the NBA.

MacMahon: With all due respect to Garland, let’s go off the radar with San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray. He’s on pace to become the third player in NBA history to average at least 19 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and two steals per game. The other two? Magic Johnson in 1980-81 and Michael Jordan in 1988-89.

5. Who is your way-too-early pick for All-Star Game MVP?

Pelton: James. Returning to his native Northeast Ohio, I anticipate LeBron will be motivated to put on a show for fans and remind everyone how incredible a player he remains at age 37.

Andrews: There are a lot of different ways to go on this one, but I’m going with Curry. Curry has been itching to get out of his shooting slump, and if he hasn’t by then, participating in the light-hearted All-Star Game could be the perfect opportunity to do so. And once Curry gets going from deep, there’s not much that tops that.

MacMahon: I’m sure LeBron would love to put on a show in Cleveland, which is of course a home game of sorts for him. He’d also probably relish in reminding everybody he is still arguably the NBA’s best player, regardless of the Lakers’ mediocre record.

Collier: Morant. He’s easily the most likely to do something that makes you go “OH MY GOD.” I’ll take the walking highlight reel to show out on his first chance on an All-Star stage.

Goldsberry: James is frustrated with the Lakers right now, and he might just use this glitzy game in his hometown to remind his peers and the rest of the basketball world that he is one of the league’s greatest players. He has done it all in his career, but this is the first time he has the opportunity to play in an All-Star Game in Cleveland. I think he’ll put on a show.

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