It’s been a long time since you could argue the NBA All-Star Game starters are the five best players in each conference.
The league lets fans have a say in picking the starters. That’s fun and relatively harmless. But it means the process becomes as much an Internet exercise in ballot-box stuffing as a reflection of accomplishment. That became apparent two years ago when journeyman center Zaza Pachulia was in the running to start because he then played for the super-team Golden State Warriors.
Now, the league has a weighted system where fan votes count 50 percent, active players’ votes count 25 percent and a panel of media members counts another 25 percent.
The starters will be announced Thursday night on TNT’s pre-game show. The top vote-getter in each conference will be named a captain, and those two captains will participate in a draft Feb. 7 to distribute the All-Stars into two pick-up type teams. The All-Star Game is Feb. 17 in Charlotte’s Spectrum Center.
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This is the second time the All-Star Weekend is in Charlotte; the first was in 1991 at the old Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road. The Hornets have a viable candidate to start - point guard Kemba Walker - for the first time since the NBA returned as the Bobcats in 2004.
Will Walker be a starter? Doubtful. Is he deserving? Absolutely. My opinion doesn’t count in this decision, but here are my picks for who should start for each conference:
The NBA now names two backcourt starters (i.e. point and/or shooting guards) and three frontcourt players (forwards and centers). The requirement that one of the starters be a center was eliminated a while back, partially because there is often little differentiation between a power forward and a center.
My picks in the East
Backcourt: Boston Celtics’ Kyrie Irving and Walker. Frontcourt: Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, Toronto Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard. Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid.
Reasoning: I think Antetokounmpo and Irving are no-brainers and probably Leonard, too. Leonard’s ability to affect the game on both offense and defense transferred so seamlessly from San Antonio to Toronto. Embiid sits out a lot of games (wise on the 76ers’ part in keeping him healthy for the playoffs), but he is such a physical force.
The hardest call in the East involves the second guard position. Anyone who believes the Washington Wizards’ Bradley Beal or Toronto’s Kyle Lowry is more deserving, I can accept that as a reasonable argument. I think Walker has been responsible for the Hornets’ fortunes as much as any guard in the East. So starting him when the All-Star Game visits Charlotte would feel appropriate.
All that becomes moot if the fans’ sentimental vote for Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade carries the day for what would be Wade’s 12th All-Star appearance in his final NBA season.
My picks in the West
Backcourt: Houston Rockets’ James Harden, Warriors’ Stephen Curry. Frontcourt: New Orleans Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, Warriors’ Kevin Durant and Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic.
Reasoning: I know it sounds blasphemous for the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James or the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook not to be starters, but James has missed a lot of games to injury and I think Curry has been a smidgen better than Westbrook. The coaches will vote James and Westbrook into the game as reserves.
The harder omission from the starters was actually Thunder forward Paul George, who has been as impactful on defense as offense this season. Fans don’t see a lot of Jokic, but he makes the Nuggets contenders in the West because he’s so skilled: Along with being essentially a 20-10 guy in points and rebounds, he’s averaging 7.7 assists, best in the NBA among non-guards.
After the five starters from each conference are named Thursday, along with the captain from each conference, the head coaches from each conference will pick seven reserves. Those reserves -- which should certainly include Walker if he’s not named a starter -- will be announced Jan. 31 on TNT.
This is the second season the NBA is doing a draft-assembles-rosters format, rather than the previous conference-versus-conference format. The difference this season is that draft will be televised live on TNT Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. (just hours after the NBA’s trade deadline).
Last season, the league just announced the results of that draft, apparently concerned some All-Stars would feel hurt if it became public they were the last players chosen. Really? That sensitive? This should be great television.
In addition to the All-Star Game players, participants for the All-Star Saturday night competitions, also at Spectrum Center, will be announced Feb. 5.
Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell