By all accounts, Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker’s All-Star chances took a hit this month when the NBA officially placed the 6’8” 250-pound Luka Doncic in the guard category, while leaving the league’s assist leader (some dude named LeBron James) in the frontcourt.
Still, Booker deserves All-Star consideration. He is averaging career highs in shooting and has one of the best assist rates in the entire league. He now has five straight 32+ point games, the longest in the Suns storied franchise history, and his scoring means wins.
The Suns are a whopping 12-5 this year when Booker scores 25+ points in a game vs. 2-14 when he scores less and 0-3 when he is out with injury.
Booker is having the best year of his career and the Suns are winning more than they have before because there’s a competent team around him, but Booker is still no better than the 5th best guard in the West this year even considering the attrition of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson due to injury and the fading light of Chris Paul and DeMar DeRozan.
The Starters — Doncic and Harden
Doncic and James Harden will almost certainly be named the starting guards for the Western Conference in the 2020 All-Star game. I mean, it’s not even really worth debating anymore. Once you place Doncic among the guards, and considering the injuries to perennial All-Stars Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, there are no two better guards in the entire league this season than Harden and Doncic.
Check out the initial results from fan voting, which counts for one-third of the final vote for starters in the All-Star game. The other two thirds comes from media who are part of the PBWA (the Professional Basketball Writers Association, which does not include me) and from the players.
There’s a bit of bias and idiocy in all three voting areas, to be sure. From the fans, you see guys like Alex Caruso and Tacko Fall get lots of votes despite not starting any games this year just because they’re a good story.
From the players, we always get a few joke votes. And from media, we get biased voting from local media for the players of the team they cover year round.
And all that voting is just to name the 10 starters in the All-Star game.
Devin Booker finished eighth among guards in this composite voting last year, and four of those guards are no longer in the serious running this season. But with the addition of Doncic to the guard ranks, that puts four guards still above Booker.
These are the ranks A YEAR AGO:
Booker is liked better by media (6th last year) and players (6th last year) than he is by fans (10th last year, 9th this year so far), who base a lot of their votes on media darlings and playoff teams.
All that voting is dropped after the starters are picked, leaving the final 14 reserves exclusively to the NBA coaches.
The reserves (seven from each Conference) are voted on exclusively by NBA head coaches, who may or may not ask for input from their staff when making selections. All 30 NBA coaches are given a ballot with the ability to select three frontcourt players, two guards and two wild card picks for their Conference. Coaches cannot vote for their own players.
Coaches can use any criteria they want, but historically their picks are more about the players for whom they have to game-plan the most, and have little to do with advanced statistical data analysis. As a tie breaker, it makes sense that a coach would pick a player from a winning team over a losing team.
A year ago, the coaches named Damian Lillard (his second in a row), Russell Westbrook (his eighth in a row when eligible/healthy) and Klay Thompson (fifth in a row) as the reserve guards. One of them was technically one of the two ‘wildcard’ picks.
Lillard is better than ever this year, though his team is much worse at this point, and Westbrook is worse this year, though his counting stats are still very good and his team is much better. But this year there’s no Klay, so the coaches will be forced to pick at least one new player for the West reserves.
Here are the leading candidates for All-Star guards in the West (stats through 1/2/2020):
Booker is the best shooter of all of them, but either has a worse pedigree or worse team record than everyone but McCollum.
Booker’s best hope is to make it as the third reserve guard (fifth guard overall) in the West behind Lillard and Westbrook. His primary competition for that third reserve spot is Donovan Mitchell (worse shooter but better team). I can’t see CJ being picked over both Mitchell and Booker.
I suppose it’s possible that Westbrook, Lillard, Mitchell AND Booker are all named to the West reserves, giving both Wild Cards* to guards. That would be a real snub to Rudy Gobert, a darling of advanced stats and probably more deserving of an All-Star spot on his own team than Mitchell. But Rudy is but not really built for an All-Star game with his limited offensive repertoire and the defense-abhorrant nature of the game.
*By the time you get to Wild Card spots, you’ve already got six frontcourt players off the table, which likely includes LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic.
Silver doing Suns fans a favor
If a player chooses not to participate for any reason, the NBA Commissioner Adam Silver names a replacement player. Silver can name anyone he wants as a replacement, though the expectation is that the replacement will come from among other highly considered players who fit the same description as the player who begged out (ie. a guard for a guard).
This is where Devin Booker could also slip into the All-Star game. If not picked among the initial reserves, he’d be one of the best available replacement guards if one of them drops out by All-Star Sunday.
One or two players bow out every year, even for “load management” reasons, because they will always have the accolade of having been named an All-Star without the stress or injury concern of actually playing in the game.
It’s been a while
The Suns have not had an All-Star since Steve Nash in 2012. That was eight years ago.
Booker has a good chance to make the team, but would solidify his standing as the 5th best (3rd reserve) if he can increase his scoring average while the Suns go on a winning tear in the next two-and-a-half weeks (reserves will be named on or around January 20). Getting closer to Mitchell’s record and clearly leading the Suns to wins could lead to a recency bias in his favor.
Short of being named outright to the team, he’s got to hope for some injury/load-management attrition like his good buddy D’Angelo Russell benefitted from a year ago in the East.
My guess is that all of Doncic, Booker and Mitchell are wearing All-Star jerseys in the Sunday game. And that Suns fans will be tuning in for that bittersweet event in record numbers. Wouldn’t it be so cool to see Luka feeding both Booker and Mitchell for multiple scores on the way to a big West win? Or better yet, to see Booker hitting the game winner over Luka or Mitchell?