The day after All-Star reserves were revealed, the Phoenix Suns played the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Suns’ Devin Booker was not selected by coaches to play in the All-Star game, while the Thunder’s Chris Paul was awarded his 10th selection (but first in four years).
So I got to ask two of the 30 coaches what criteria they used to pick the players.
“What is the criteria? We don’t have one,” Suns coach Monty Williams replied.
“A lot of it’s really really hard,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “There’s so many players that are worthy, it speaks to the depth and the talent in the league.”
At the most basic level, there are a few some rules.
- The coaches have to select 7 bench players for their conference, from among the roughly 220 remaining in each conference after the five starters were selected
- Players are divided into ‘front court’ and ‘back court’ by the league office, not the coaches (i.e. the NBA decided Luka Doncic is a back court player due to his ball handling, while league passing leader LeBron James would remain a front court player)
- Each coach’s seven players has to include three front court players and two back court players, plus an additional two wild cards who could be at any position.
- The players have to be on the active roster
- And, finally, a coach cannot vote for his own guys
Beyond that, there are no rules. Theoretically, the coaches could all conspire to put Alex Caruso in the All-Star game as a back court reserve. Or the whole Lakers lineup.
So Monty Williams could not vote for Devin Booker (who failed to get in), and the Thunder’s Billy Donovan could not vote for Chris Paul (who did get in, after a four-year absence).
I asked each coach what they used as criteria to make a selection.
“Vote for the best players,” Monty Williams said pointedly, echoing what Devin Booker had said earlier in the day. “I voted for what I felt like were the best players who deserve to play. I think it’s an important process. I sat down with people and talked to them. I didn’t do it on my own. I wanted to be fair.
“Maybe I’m an idiot for doing it that way, but I felt like that was the right way to do it. And I hope that everybody does it that way.”
Clearly, Monty Williams was sending a message with his words, after his own guard Devin Booker was not voted in. Both Williams and Booker said ‘vote for the best players’ as their defense for why Booker should have gotten in.
But Booker’s Suns were 7-8 games under .500, somewhere around 10th or 11th in the West, at the time of the vote and word is that some coaches pick the players who have their team in playoff position — if not this year, then most years (like Damian Lillard).
The Thunder’s Billy Donovan explained his own take on the selection process.
“You’re always looking at how a player impacts a team.” Donovan said. “How is a team doing? How has the player played? Has he been healthy, how much has he been there and able to play?”
Donovan hinted that team success was important to him, while Williams focused more on the individual player’s accomplishments.
Both are right. In a perfect world, the most talented players have their team in playoff position year in and year out.
Donovan now has an All-Star or two for every year he’s coached the Thunder, including Russell Westbrook the last few years and now Chris Paul. They have made the playoffs nearly every year, and even when the Thunder struggled in that first year without Kevin Durant I’m sure Donovan still believed Westbrook worthy of an All-Star selection because of his track record of playoff success.
But then Donovan made a clear admission that every coach must deal with at this time of year.
“It’s hard because, as a coach I can speak very well on our guys, being with them, this being our 50th game,” Donovan said. “A lot of times the coach just sees guys once or twice and you don’t really see him again, so it can be challenging.
“There’s so many gifted, talented players in the West that there’s maybe a lot of guys who are maybe not on that team that are certainly more than capable of being on it.”
It should be noted that Donovan was speaking to reporters in Phoenix and was very aware that Booker was on the cusp of possibly being voted in.
But using Donovan’s criteria and his words, it implied to me that he did not necessarily vote for Booker for the All-Star game even when he couldn’t vote for his own Chris Paul or even Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. I wonder who Donovan DID pick for his last wild card after Lillard, Westbrook and Donovan Mitchell?
Williams was asked by the Thunder journalist if he thought Booker was a long shot due to the losing record.
“I didn’t think it was a long shot at all,” Williams said quickly. “I was really disappointed that he did not make it. His numbers historically, who else has done that? What is the criteria? We don’t have one.
“If it’s the numbers, look at what he has done.
“If it is team improvement, look at what he has done.
“If it is winning games, look at what he has done.
“If it is playing the right way, look at what he has done.
“If it is winning games and hitting big shots, look at what Devin has done.
“He doesn’t duck a matchup. He guards his guy every night. When I try to take him off of the best player, he does not do that. Night in and night out, when I look at teams’ best two-guard, they don’t guard Devin. I was disappointed because we have a guy that plays the right way, he is efficient, shooting 50% from the field at his position. I can go on and on about our guys. I was disappointed. He was not a long shot.”
I like Monty Williams.
And I, too, am disappointed in the voting process. Sounds like Booker is going to make the game via injury replacement or hit the playoffs AND still have his team in playoff position the next year before coaches like Billy Donovan vote for him.
Booker’s only hope this year is if a guard backs out of the game (injury/rest) and the Commissioner names a replacement. And we can only hope it’s Booker that Adam Silver names.