It's that time of year again.
The NBA season is two months old, which means we are just weeks away from the 2019 All-Star teams being announced for the showcase event in Charlotte.
Ben Simmons was the most contentious name when it came to All-Star voting last season. Despite a trailblazing rookie of the year campaign, Simmons was overlooked for All-Star selection, much to the chagrin of Philadelphia 76ers and Australian basketball fans alike.
Simmons is going to become Australia’s first NBA All-Star, but will that happen this season? Here are some important questions that will decide his All-Star fate.
A reminder on how the voting process works
While the NBA has done away with the Eastern Conference versus Western Conference arrangement for the actual All-Star game, conference affiliations still determine the pool of players who participate.
Each conference elects 12 All-Stars. Five players from each conference (two guards and three frontcourt players) will be selected during the initial voting process – chosen by a combination of votes from fans (50 percent of the vote), current players (25 percent) and basketball media (25 percent). These players will be the “starters” for February’s All-Star game.
NBA head coaches will then select seven reserves from each conference, made up of two guards, three front court players and two wildcard players across any position.
Simmons is officially listed as a point guard, and a maximum of six guards can be selected from the Eastern Conference.
How has Simmons looked in year two so far?
Statistically, Simmons’ output is almost identical to his rookie season. His per game averages – 15.7 points, 9.0 rebounds and 7.7 assists – are more or less the same as last year. On a per minute basis, his rebounds are slightly up while assists are slightly down. The difference is negligible.
These measures are, of course, all relative to other guards in the Eastern Conference. As of Monday, here is where Simmons ranked among all East guards: sixteenth in points (15.9), first in rebounds (9.1), third in assists (7.9), tenth in steals (1.5) and fourth in blocks (0.8).
There are a series of more advanced analytics that, depending on your leaning, can be used to credit or discredit Simmons’ All-Star candidacy. Most impressive is the fact that he ranks third in Win Shares across all guards in the conference. Playing alongside Joel Embiid no doubt boosts this metric, but in the same way Kyle Lowry - who leads East guards in win shares - deserves credit while playing alongside Kawhi Leonard in Toronto, this measure is a tick in the plus column for Simmons.
Interestingly, Simmons’ usage percentage (20.7%) ranks 26th among eligible Eastern Conference guards. This is slightly down from last season and, conceptually, it is abnormal to see a reigning Rookie of the Year utilise less possessions in year two. The Sixers are not your typical young team.
The fact Simmons has maintained his statistical output in the face of a Jimmy Butler trade, Joel Embiid upping his personal offence and the Markelle Fultz experiment is impressive. It also speaks to what I have observed seeing the Sixers up close all season. On a per possession basis, Simmons is one of the most effective guards in the conference, although his opportunities have varied on a near-weekly basis.
With Brett Brown and the Sixers devoting time to tinkering with line-ups, there have been stretches where Simmons (and Embiid for that matter) have been forced into suboptimal playing situations. Such experimentation can be used to explain Simmons’ reduced usage, and in correlation, the fact that his counting statistics have remained stagnant.
Defensively, Simmons is improved over year one, but remains a spotty contributor. His on-ball defence can, in certain moments, be truly elite. That is a clear positive on the defensive end. Issues remain when defending away from the basketball. Much of this comes from a lack of engagement and attention to detail. The constant fouling of three-point shooters characterised his game in November, and this has been replaced with a panache for ball watching. Defence is often overlooked in the All-Star process and Simmons’ performance at this end shouldn’t move the needle in either direction.
The debate remains very similar to last season, with the only significant difference being the removal of Simmons’ rookie moniker.
Statistically, he is a very similar player to last season. Which, anecdotally, firmly places Simmons in the All-Star discussion. Historically speaking, his statistical output is that of an All-Star. In the three-point era (post 1979), there have been 18 occurrences of a player averaging 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in a single season. On 16 occasions, the player was a selected All-Star, with exceptions being Fat Lever in 1987 and Simmons last season.
As witnessed when Simmons was a rookie, impressive numbers alone won’t be enough to get him to Charlotte in February.
Could Simmons start the game?
The short answer? Likely not. It would require a seismic shift in thinking from the media and his fellow players to make this happen, and let's not lean on that possibility too heavily.
Simmons could easily place within the top two on the fan vote. The combined power of a ravenous Sixers fan base and Australian national pride will stuff the virtual ballot box. Simmons finished third in the fan vote last season, placing behind Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan, who is now playing with San Antonio in the Western Conference.
Despite a groundswell of fan support as a rookie, Simmons was largely overlooked by the two other voting sectors. He ranked sixth in the player vote and did not receive a single vote from the media. While DeRozan leaving the conference opens up an opportunity, the competition around the conference has stiffened.
Kemba Walker and Lowry are two players who, like Simmons, were largely overlooked by players and media last year. Both have enjoyed impressive seasons to date and I would expect them to leapfrog Simmons in the voting process. Walker and Lowry are deserving All-Star selections and, more importantly, they are veteran players with an attractive All-Star narrative.
Take Walker for instance. A strong argument exists that he deserves to start as one of the best two guards in the conference. He has been outstanding through the season’s first two months. In addition to his on-court prowess, the Hornets guard also benefits from a charming narrative.
With the All-Star game taking place in Charlotte this season, he will unofficially be the local guardian of the weekend. Just like Anthony Davis in 2017 and DeMar DeRozan in 2016, Walker is a home-grown superstar. It may sound silly, but this is something that could be used as a differentiator in the voting process. Subconscious or otherwise, these biases are real within the NBA industry.
There is also the valid question of how highly fellow players rank Simmons. Kevin Durant, in a recent interview on The Bill Simmons Podcast, questioned whether Simmons was a top-20 player at this point in his career. This is an entirely fair question to ask, as the Australian hasn’t consistently performed at this level as an NBA sophomore. For the purposes of this exercise, however, it doesn’t matter whether the opinions are reasonable or not. It only matters how the players feel.
Simmons still has to earn his stripes in the NBA. His reputation hasn’t taken a quantum leap forward in year two. This makes him starting the All-Star game highly unlikely.
Will the 76ers receive three selections? If not, then who misses out?
Joel Embiid is a lock to make his second consecutive All-Star appearance. He played like an MVP candidate through Philadelphia’s first 25 games and is on track to start on All-Star Sunday.
As for Butler, he has been an All-Star in each of the past four seasons. If it ever came down to a choice between Simmons and Butler, then the Melbournian could be victim to an identical circumstance as last season. Butler has the reputation as an established All-Star and, in a brief Sixers career, has already provided two moments that will stick in the minds of those selecting All-Star teams.
Game winners in Charlotte and Brooklyn provide flashy moments that support his perception as a closer. For all his dominance, Simmons lacks the singular moments that catch the attention of those who don’t watch the Sixers on a daily basis.
One final note on Butler: his positional distinction for voting purposes will prove fascinating. He was classified as a guard in the voting process last year and was listed as a shooting guard on opening night in Minnesota. However, starting alongside Simmons and J.J. Redick in Philadelphia, Butler is acknowledged as a “guard-forward” on the Sixers official roster. While irrelevant for real life basketball, it could legitimately alter the All-Star race. Simmons stans should be hoping the NBA recognises Butler as a forward.
It also bears noting that the Sixers are a combined 1-5 against Toronto, Boston, Indiana and Milwaukee so far this season. Philadelphia will face off against Boston and Toronto over the coming month and have the chance to improve this record. The fate of Simmons and Butler’s All-Star candidacy might rest on doing so, as it will be hard to justify one quarter of the selections coming from a team that struggles against the Eastern Conference elite.
For what it’s worth, over the past decade, five franchises have received three or more All-Stars in one year:
Golden State Warriors (2016 - 2018): Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant
Cleveland Cavaliers (2017): LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love
Atlanta Hawks (2015): Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague
Miami Heat (2012 - 2014): LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade
Boston Celtics (2008 – 2011): Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce
Sorting through the glut of guards
As we touched on earlier, Walker and Lowry are locks to make the team, ditto for Kyrie Irving in Boston.
In my eyes, there are seven names deserving preliminary consideration for the additional backcourt selections: Zach Lavine, Bradley Beal, John Wall, Victor Oladipo, Eric Bledsoe, Butler (if he is judged to be a guard) and Simmons.
Depending on personal preference, a competent statistical argument can be made for each. We will avoid opening Pandora’s box and sidestep the statistical deep dive today. Instead, let’s attempt to anecdotally separate the names and use historical precedent as a guide.
For the same reasons listed above, don’t expect the Bucks to receive three All-Stars. Milwaukee is much improved this season, but they aren't a historically great team. Antetokounmpo is a lock and my personal leaning would favour Middleton as the one deserving a maiden All-Star appearance. That would all but remove Bledsoe from the equation. Although, this will ultimately come down to a judgment call from NBA coaches. Bledsoe could easily get the nod, especially if Middleton continues to swoon over the next month.
Chicago are floundering with a record of 7-23, likely eliminating Lavine from contention. Former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy has long proclaimed that All-Stars shouldn’t come from teams below .500. The league doesn’t deploy the rigidity that Van Gundy would like, but winning, and at least being around the playoff race, does matter.
Given Washington’s struggles, it is impossible to support an argument that both Wall and Beal should be rewarded. One selection between the pair, maybe? But definitely not two.
Oladipo is an interesting case. Indiana is currently third in the Eastern Conference and sit just two games behind the Toronto Raptors. They are firmly in the mix for a top four playoff seed and this will almost certainly be rewarded with an All-Star selection if maintained.
Despite missing 11 games, Oladipo has performed like an All-NBA candidate when on the court. He is unquestionably the Pacers' best player. If you were to ask me today, who the fourth Eastern Conference All-Star guard would be, I would have my money on Oladipo. If he maintains good health over the next month, there will be zero debate and Oladipo will be in Charlotte.
There are valid arguments for Simmons having a stronger “total value add” than Oladipo in pure quantitative terms – given the Australian has only missed one game – but All-Star teams aren’t selected in a vacuum: the impact of industry trends cannot be discounted. If the roles were reversed and Simmons was playing as a lone superstar, he would receive the boost that I’m projecting onto Oladipo. This has nothing to do with snubs or conspiracies, rather the nature of NBA basketball.
Down to a wildcard
My way too early predictions for the first 10 All-Star spots from the Eastern Conference are:
Guard starters: Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker
Forward starters: Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid
Guard reserves: Kyle Lowry and Victor Oladipo
Forward reserves: Khris Middleton, Nikola Vucevic and Blake Griffin
As for the two-wildcard selections, here are my personal contenders:
Guards on the fringe: Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Bradley Beal and Eric Bledsoe
Forwards on the fringe: Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Domantas Sabonis, Andre Drummond and Al Horford
Differentiating for the final two spots is impossibly difficult. If forced to pick, at the moment I would lean to Beal and Butler getting the nod over Simmons. It is incredibly tight and personal preference will drive the selection. Ultimately, this is a nebulous argument in the present, given there is still one full month of basketball to play out before the vote closes.
What’s the takeaway?
Simmons must up his game over the next month, if he dreams of becoming Australia’s first All-Star in 2019.
He has performed like a fringe All-Star over the first two months of the season. Continuing at this current pace may be enough to get him in, although it likely won’t. There are too many veteran names, with comparable resumes to Simmons, that could vault past him.
The positive takeaway is that Simmons’ best basketball is good enough. If he can replicate the form showed during the second half of last season, then he will likely be rewarded. It’s just a question of whether Simmons can consistently reach those heights in time.
All-Star voting will commence on Christmas Day, one hour before the Milwaukee Bucks take on the New York Knicks, and conclude on 21 January 2019. Starters will be announced on 24 January, while the coaches’ reserves will be announced on 31 January. Fans can vote at http://NBA.com/vote, using the NBA app, by searching "NBA Vote + Player Name" on Google, or using Google Assistant.