JR’s 2017 NBA All-Star Picks: No Durant, No Curry

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on January 8, 2017.

Basketball purists scoff at its insignificance. Fans vote to watch all their favorite players on court at the same time. Coaches decide who makes the bench, but cannot vote for their own players. Players know it is entertainment and put on a show. Ah, the NBA All-Star Game is coming back.

Started in 1951, the NBA All-Star Game, which features the best players from the respective conferences, turns 65 this year. The annual extravaganza is undeniably the biggest marketing platform for the NBA, arguably bigger than the NBA Finals. Every year, hundreds of thousands of fans from both the USA and around the world descend upon the chosen venue city, all hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite players. Maybe even hoping to snap a last minute ticket, never mind if it were high up in the rafters.

Players, who often take this short break to catch their breath from the rigours of the first half of the season, usually give the fans what they came for. Audacious dunks, crazy layups, wild shots and cheeky passes, are all part of the three-hour entertainment bonanza. Admittedly, it isn’t as competitive as it used to be, but no one is really complaining.

While coaches and fans have always had a say, this year the NBA has included two more crucial stakeholders to the voting process. Players and journalists will get ballots to vote for each conference’s starters. And while I work towards earning that vote as a journalist, I placed my vote as a fan. Here are my starters for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game.

Eastern Conference

The Eastern Conference was comparatively easier. Superstars have clearly emerged, leading their teams from the front to enviable records. Stars such as John Wall and Carmelo Anthony do not make the cut since their teams aren’t even in the top 8. Emerging stars such as Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid, who have been exceptional this season, have yet to earn more wins for their teams. Ageing stars such as Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose (injuries have added years to his body) have not done enough. And legit stars such as Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker have been left out because I have only two guard spots. With that intro, here is my starting five for the Eastern Conference:

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, forward: At 32, in his 14th season and fresh off his third championship where he led the Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit, James has not lost a step. He is still averaging 26 ppg/8 rpg/8 apg, while shooting over 50% from the field. In fact, he has been so consistent over the years that every season henceforth will be a record-breaking one for him. He’s already passed Bob Cousy on the All-Time Career assists list, passed Moses Malone on the All-Time Career scoring list, and became the only player to tally 27,000 points, 7,000 rebounds and 7,000 assists.

Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls, forward: Yes, we’re playing small ball. Nothing small about Jimmy Butler’s season though. The 27-year-old guard continues to find ways to get better in the quest to create his own legacy. He has clearly become an All-Star, breaking the ceiling of the role-player defensive specialist that was thrust upon him when he entered the league. This season, he is averaging a career-high 25 ppg while steadying the streaky Chicago Bulls, who are currently jostling with the Washington Wizards for eighth place in the East.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks, forward: Giannis is shy. Only off the court though. On court, the Greek Freak is tearing up the stat sheets like a 10-year veteran. He is averaging 24 ppg/9 rpg/6 apg, leading his team in nearly every statistical category, and along with Jabari Parker (also deserving of an All-Star spot) is primed to lead the Milwaukee Bucks past the first round for the first time since 2001. Giannis’s freakish athletic ability coupled with the mentorship of Jason Kidd, one of the greatest hybrid guards in NBA history, is assuring fans world over that the sport’s future (and Milwaukee’s) is in good hands.

DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors, guard: Every season, fans get to watch a fringe star elevate himself to be counted among the best players in the league. DeRozan elevated himself to be counted among the greats. Like it did for Butler, the Rio OIympics did more than just put a gold medal around DeRozan’s neck. It allowed both players (both Olympic rookies) get up close and personal with the league’s other biggest stars, taking home valuable lessons on what it takes to be counted as one of the greats. DeRozan, averaging 27 ppg while helping the Raptors sit pretty with the No. 2 seed in the East, is undoubtedly one of the 10 best players in the NBA right now.

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics, guard: It’s a well known cliche that good things come in small packages. We’re sure no one imagined the package would be this good. While Westbrook and Harden run amok stuffing stat sheets, Isaiah Thomas continues to raise the ceiling for players not at least six-feet tall. He is the NBA’s most prolific and reliable scorer in the fourth quarter, which is saying a lot in a league that features the likes of LeBron, Harden, Westbrook, Durant and Curry. Thomas’s 28 ppg is fifth in the league and his 9.3 ppg in the fourth quarter trails only Westbrook’s 9.8.

Toughest Omissions: Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving

Western Conference

The Western Conference is loaded this year. So loaded that you could fill both teams with players from the Western Conference and no one would bat an eyelid. Personally, my votes have always gone to those who deserve to be on the starting five, and not the most popular player. I also avoid putting more than two players from a team (I sincerely believe this should be a rule). So that naturally left me with omissions that I still cannot come to terms with. How do Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, two of the five best players in the league, not make my starting five? How does the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and Tim Duncan’s heir-apparent, Kawhi Leonard, who leads the Spurs towards yet another (possibly deep) playoffs, not get to start in this annual celebration of the best? And how does Chris Paul, one of the greatest point guards of all time, still putting up All-Star numbers, not make the cut? I present my case(s):

DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings, forward: This is probably my most controversial choice. How does one go from claiming “small ball” and avoiding All-Stars whose teams are not yet playoff-bound in the Eastern Conference, to selecting a big man who has difficulty switching on defense and has yet to push his team into the top 8 in the West? That is simple…without DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings would not even be in playoff consideration. Cousins is averaging a career high 28.5 ppg and added a potent three-point shot, which he is knocking down at 37.3% from the field. But what is even more remarkable is that, for someone who has a reputation of being a head case, Cousins continues to push himself to improve every single season despite the gross instability his organisation has saddled him with in terms of teammates and coaches. Simply put, Cousins is a phenomenal basketball player. And that is all that matters at the All-Star.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans, forward: This is the second player in a row to make the list when his team isn’t in the running for the playoffs. In any other season, I’d concede my lack of consistency. But it is hard to overlook the fact Anthony Davis redefining the forward/centre position. He is near unguardable, blowing past bigger defenders and bangs up against the smaller ones. And when his outside shot is falling, he just shoots over everyone. His evolution is astounding, even more so when you consider that this kid is just 23. There are already comparisons to Davis mirroring Kevin Garnett’s career, a once-in-a-generational star whose team failed to assemble the right pieces for success around him. Barring an untimely injury, look for Davis to finish his career as one of the greatest ever.

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors, forward: Another tough choice. When the team has Kevin Durant, one of the purest scorers in NBA history, and Stephen Curry, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, and Klay Thompson, who dropped 60 points in a game, how does one ignore them all and pick Draymond Green. This is because without Green the Warriors aren’t well…the Warriors. His numbers may not show it, but his intangible worth to the team cannot be emphasised enough. Draymond is the catalyst that allows all the stars, rookies and role players to come together to create the juggernaut that is the Warriors. He fuels the team much like Steve Nash did with the Phoenix Suns in his MVP seasons. Make no mistake, while individually Durant, Curry, and Thompson are great, it is Green who is the Warriors’ most important and indispensable player.

James Harden, Houston Rockets, guard: What a joy it is to watch a happy James Harden wreck all kinds of havoc on the Rockets’ opponents this season. Not only Rocket GM Daryl Morey get him Mike D’Anotni, the coach most suited for Harden’s style of play, he also stocked up on two prolific shooters in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to compliment Harden’s drive and kick style. Harden’s numbers are deliriously close to Westbrook’s in terms of dishing the ball and getting to the line. And much like everyone on this starting line up, he is the sole reason for his team’s success this season.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder, guard: The Harden and Westbrook picks could not have been easier. Together, they altered the perception of what an NBA player ought to accomplish in a single game. Westbrook is still on pace to average the first triple-double season (31 ppg/11 rpg/10 apg) since Oscar Robertson did it in the 1961-’62 season. And despite the added workload (due to losing Kevin Durant) and the manic pace he is playing at, he is showing no signs of slowing down. There is the criticism that he has the ball way too much in his hands, but like Harden, he is the engine of this team. Without Westbrook, there would be no Thunder. Pun intended.

Toughest Omissions: Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol

Is DeMar DeRozan Taking Over Toronto?

This article originally appeared on The Field at scroll.in on November 6, 2016

Micheal Jordan. DeMar DeRozan.

Odd, isn’t it? Something does not quite fit. What has DeRozan done to be mentioned in the same breath as His Airness?

Well, everything. So far.

MJ was the last player to begin a season scoring 30+ points in five straight games. The season he did it in? The 1986-‘87 season where Jordan finished with an average of 37.1 Points Per Game, the fifth highest scoring average for a single season in the history of the NBA.

DeRozan has opened his 2016-‘17 campaign by carving up five NBA defences, including the reigning champions Cleveland Cavaliers, for 40, 32, 33, 40 and 34 points, respectively. This, while shooting a wild 55% from the field (he shot 63% in the season opening game vs. the Detroit Pistons) and just one three-pointer. Yes, one.

“I don’t even know what to say,” said the eight-year veteran when informed that he had scored himself into the same conversation as arguably the greatest player ever. “I’m just trying to go out there and win. When you hear something like that, you cannot believe it”

Drafted ninth overall by the Toronto Raptors in the 2009 NBA Draft, DeMar DeRozan, a native of Los Angeles, caught the tail end of the Chris Bosh era during the 2009-‘10 season. Bosh, an All-Star who never quite became the franchise cornerstone the Raptors hoped he would, parted ways in a sign-and-trade with Miami Heat to join LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

While Bosh embraced his new role, reinvented himself and went on to win two championships in the next three seasons, DeRozan and the Raptors were in rebuild mode. It took them two more miserable seasons, muddled with an oversized roster of role players, to finally catch a break on the trade block.

Just as DeRozan was coming into his own, the Raptors landed him a running mate in Kyle Lowry for the 2012-‘13 season. The duo and the Raptors have not looked back since.

Best Raptor ever? Not just yet

Barring an injury, DeRozan will finish this season as the Raptors’ all time leading scorer and atop nearly every conceivable offensive category. It is hard to surpass the overall impact of Chris Bosh who contributed at both ends of the floor, or even Vince Carter who, in addition to his dynamic scoring, left this memory etched in everyone’s mind. The argument can be made, just not yet.

Not that it bothers DeRozan. “I’m just a student of the game,” he humbly reminded us. “I just try and put everything together, be a student of the game while working, always feeling like I’m new to the game, so I can soak up as much as possible. I try to release it once I get out there on the court.”

Kyle Lowry, his running mate in Toronto’s now starry backcourt, gushed, “He’s playing on another level right now. He’s saving possessions, he’s creating possessions. He’s creating offence.”

While Lowry and DeRozan both, had break out seasons in 2015-‘16, it was Lowry that inadvertently (but not undeservedly) became the face of the franchise. This, however, is Lowry’s last guaranteed year on a four-year $48 million deal that has an opt-out option after this season. Armed with tons of money from the television deal, there are more than enough NBA teams that would gladly take a 30-year old All-Star with no discernible history of injury, and who has at least four good years left in the tank.

Lowry is 30 and has most likely hit his peak as a player, which means this season until next summer is when his trade value will be at the highest. Nothing about Lowry’s personality indicates that he wants to leave Toronto, and LeBron “The King” James even endorsed the city’s passionate loyal fans. But we all thought the same, or better, of Kevin Durant, and see how that went.

DeRozan is just 27, and is just as good as, if not better than his running mate. More importantly, his loyalty was rewarded with a big payday this past off season: a five-year deal worth approximately $145 million that took a chunk off the Raptors’ books.

It is obvious the Raptors will have to find a way to pay Lowry immediately. But in the likely scenario they cannot, they have on their hands a 30-year-old two-time All-Star de-facto franchise player who has reached his max trade value. The decision to trade Lowry is a bit too obvious, and one they have to take soon to avoid a disaster.

In the meanwhile, let us enjoy this Raptors back court thrive, and DeRozan aim for greatness in the annals of NBA history.