Sky Sports coverage of the NBA continues on Friday night as Damian Lillard the Portland Trail Blazers visit LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, live from 3am on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Arena
By Huw Hopkins
After the starting fives of the All-Star Game were announced last week and the reserves were announced on Wednesday, it’s important to recognise those that are staying home on 7 March.
Just because a player doesn’t make the All-Star Game, it doesn’t make them not worthy.
Miss – Jerami Grant
Nobody knew Jerami Grant was capable of this. Sure, they knew he was a solid player on the Denver Nuggets last year, and he’d been a great role player on the Oklahoma City Thunder after cutting his teeth on the Philadelphia 76ers.
But Grant has signed with the Detroit Pistons on a three-year deal, and he has immediately become their go-to player.
He has doubled his scoring output from last season – being the only Piston to average more than 20 points per game this season. Now that Derrick Rose has been traded and Blake Griffin is on the block to be moved, the team is rudderless. Even before that was the case, they were a mess.
It has reached a point where Detroit will finish with a bottom two record in the NBA and for that reason we were always unlikely to see Grant make the All-Star Game, especially when you look at the list of other top forwards in the Eastern Conference on winning teams.
He would have had to get the nod ahead of Tobias Harris of the Philadelphia 76ers (who is the second best scorer on the best team in the conference), Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, Pascal Siakam, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Grant had his work cut out for him this year. But he should be an All-Star.
Hit – Julius Randle
It’s been a long time, Knicks fans. Or, at least, it feels like it. But it was only four years ago that Kristaps Porzingis represented New York at the All-Star Game.
The reason it feels like longer is the team went 29-53, one of the better seasons amid a series of missed playoff performances. That’s why this year feels special. Not only are the Knicks working toward securing their first playoff seed since 2012-13, they are being led by someone who is a legitimate star. While Porzingis had the potential to take on that role, injuries and an eventual trade meant that the rise fell flat.
Julius Randle is different. He has been a scorer for years, but now he has become a leader. His box score averages of 23 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists only scratch the surface of what he’s achieving, helping the team to an even win-loss record without much of a point guard before they traded for Derrick Rose in recent weeks.
RJ Barrett has been solid and the team is learning sound defensive principles for the first time under coach Tom Thibodeau. While Immanuel Quickley has shown promising signs this year, the offensive output of the rest of the roster has been inconsistent.
Randle being able to score from anywhere on the court fills a lot of holes. He is able to shoot 41 per cent from three but also averages more than 10 drives per game. The names that average more tend to be guards or perimeter players – only Randle and Zion Williamson are the true power forwards on that list.
He is hoisting this franchise onto his back. The fact that his team is one of the most popular in the league, with the most excitable fanbase, Randle’s spot on the All-Star team is richly deserved.
Miss – DeMar DeRozan
Not many people saw the San Antonio Spurs competing for a top-four spot in the NBA playoffs this season after struggling last year. And what makes it so difficult is you can’t pin it all on one player. That’s typical of a Gregg Popovich team that is built on fundamental basketball and team principles – only the Spurs and the Indiana Pacers have eight players averaging double figures in scoring.
That makes it difficult to pick an All-Star for the team. The lazy stat to check would be the points per game and put DeMar DeRozan in the conversation, as he has received some deserved talk around an All-Star selection this season. But he is also the key to this team’s success across the board.
DeRozan’s 19 points per game aren’t eye-popping but his seven assists and five rebounds showcase his all-around game, while he is also keeping his turnovers to an excellent 1.6. On top of that, he has a team-best offensive rating of +6.3 when he is on the court and Basketball Reference estimates he is responsible for 3.5 wins this season.
DeRozan’s three-point attempts per game are the third highest of his career and his percentage from distance is the second best. He still isn’t a knock-down shooting threat, but he makes people pay if he receives the ball in the corner.
Everything started clicking for him in the bubble when the pressure was off and he became a leader on a young squad with few expectations. This has carried over to 2020-21 and without LaMarcus Aldridge, he has become the true go-to voice outside of Patty Mills. This and his general production makes him one of the most important players on a team that is out-performing expectations.
If that’s not All-Star worthy, what is?
Miss – Domantas Sabonis
Much like DeMar DeRozan, Domantas Sabonis is probably a victim of system-based success with the Indiana Pacers to not have received enough All-Star nods from the NBA coaches. Being one of eight players in double-figures scoring will do that to you.
With 21 points to his name each game this year, Sabonis’ can-do-everything ability has become one of the most under-appreciated. He has three triple-doubles this year because coach Nate Bjorkgren has empowered him to view the floor from the top of the key and facilitate with the passing ability that his father- Arvydas Sabonis – became famous for.
His usage is at an all-time high and the chemistry he has built with Malcolm Brogdon has helped make the point guard a candidate for Most Improved Player of the Year. The Pacers are competing for a top-four spot in the Eastern Conference, more competitive than they have been in recent years.
Perhaps Sabonis needs another year of excellence to be considered a perennial All-Star. He might not have made the list this year, but having already broken through with a selection in 2020 it seems likely Sabonis will remain a contender for a roster spot in the East for many years to come.
Hit – Chris Paul
Maybe this is just a legacy nod, but the Phoenix Suns have missed the playoffs for six straight seasons. This year, they added nine-time All-NBA player Chris Paul to the roster and they are competing for a top-four spot in the loaded Western Conference.
Sure, a big reason for the team’s success is the continued development of future MVP candidate Devin Booker, and having a former number one draft pick not being suspended will help. As will the growth of young talent like Mikal Bridges and the coaching of Monty Williams.
But without the NBA’s best floor general for the past 15 years on the team, this group would not have won more than 65 per cent of its games.
Paul’s points per game are approaching the lowest of his career, but his VORP (the points per 100 team possessions that a player contributed above a replacement-level player) is 21st in the league, his BPM (the points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player) is 27th, and his win shares per 48 minutes is 20th.
The only point guards that sit above him on any of those lists are called Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard, and there is not a fellow Sun in sight.
So while he might be a 6ft, soon-to-be 36-year-old point guard – attributes that don’t have a great history in this league – we need to look beyond his averages of 16 points, 8 assists and 4 rebounds.
Paul’s invite to the All-Star Game is deserved for helping this Suns team rise to a level it probably wouldn’t have had he not been there this year.