Will the Phoenix Suns have two All-Stars for the first time since the Seven Seconds or Less heyday?
“We’ll see, man, I think we find out [Tuesday],” Suns guard Devin Booker said on FSAZ after he scored 34 points on 17 shots in a blowout win over 5th-seeded Portland and Damian Lillard. The Phoenix Suns are now 20-10 — their best record after 30 games since those same heydays.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said in response to a question about Devin Booker’s All-Star consideration. “End of story.”
“Obviously it’s something I worked very hard for,” Booker said. “But more importantly, I think our back court should be in, me and Chris [Paul]. That’s what I’m looking forward to seeing. But we don’t make those decisions.”
In 2020, Devin Booker became the first All-Star for the Phoenix Suns since Steve Nash made the team in 2012. This year with 10-time All-Star Chris Paul still in his prime, the Suns might have two All-Stars for the first time since Nash and Amare made it in 2010.
What happened last year
A year ago, tired of an eight-year All-Star drought, Suns fans poured over mountains of data to prove that Devin Booker deserved to make the All-Star game despite his team being in the midst of their 10th consecutive playoff-less season and sixth consecutive losing season.
A combination of media, fans and players choose the starting lineups in each conference. Then the league’s 30 head coaches are asked to vote for the All-Star reserves — another three front court players, two more guards and two additional players regardless of position (wildcards). This was where we hoped the NBA coaches would give Booker some love.
Alas, they did not. When it came to the coaches’ choices last year, Booker was left off the team.
*the ‘Vote Rank’ column is the composite of fan/media/player voting that was used to name the All-Star starters. The top two vote-getting West guards — Luka Doncic and James Harden a year ago, and now Luka and Stephen Curry this year — are named starters by the NBA. Those votes are then discarded, not counted in the coaches’ vote. But they do heavily inform us of the pool of players from which they would choose.
You can see by this cross-section of numbers that Booker was statistically better than Donovan Mitchell a year ago. As far as voting was concerned, he and Mitchell tied in the overall fan/media/players voting, with Mitchell getting most of the fan vote while Booker got more media/player votes.
Of the never-been-an-All-Star trio in contention last year, the coaches chose Mitchell because he’d been on stage in the NBA playoffs for two years straight while the other two, Booker and Morant, had not.
Then the coaches rounded out the team with a pair of All-Star veteran guards with winning records: Chris Paul was named for the 10th time, and Russell Westbrook was named for the 9th time. Both had been in the playoffs nearly every season of their careers with well-heeled reputations.
Clearly, Booker was bypassed because he wasn’t a winner. The Suns, 20-27, were respectable but not in the playoff picture at the time of coaches’ voting. And they had not even sniffed the playoffs at any point in his entire career.
This year: here we go again
That’s what we are dealing with again in 2021. The coaches will be selecting their reserves. Voting has been open for the past couple of days and the results will be revealed on Tuesday.
Two more guards
The coaches will use a little app to select the All-Star reserves. First, they have to pick two more guards to the team from among these options.
*Stephen Curry and Luka Doncic are already starters, so they cannot be selected again
**’Vote Rank’ is the composite finish for each player after fan, media and player votes were cast
Here are the most likely candidates for the additional West guard spots.
Sure, they CAN pick any guard they want (as long as he’s not on their current team), but there’s no reasonable way all 30 coaches will collectively select someone playing worse than these options.
Damian Lillard is a lock. He nearly won the starting spot and his team is solidly in playoff contention once again thanks almost entirely to Dame Time being at his very best once again. There’s no argument to leave him off, and the coaches certainly won’t. They’ve been losing hair over stopping Dame in the West playoffs for the last five years and he was FIRE in the Bubble and into the playoffs once again a few months ago.
Donovan Mitchell is likely the other lock as guard. Not only is Donovan now an easy incumbent vote after making it last year, but he exploded in the Bubble playoffs with 36 points per game. They easily could have made the West finals too, but the ball didn’t bounce right in the final seconds of their final game. And if that isn’t enough, he’s the lead player on the league’s best team this season, having the best individual season of his career to date.
That’s the two guard positions gone, in my opinion, leaving Booker and Paul hoping to get the wildcard spots.
Before we dive into the wildcard pool, let’s try to suss out the coaches’ selections for the three additional bigs.
The three starters for the West frontcourt are LeBron James, Nikola Jokic and Kawhi Leonard. Very closely behind them in the fan/media/player voting were Anthony Davis and Paul George. Those five were universally liked across all three voting groups. So let’s call them locks.
That’s two Lakers, two Clippers and a Nugg.
That leaves ONE more front court player for the coaches to choose. Fans, media and players were quite different on who they liked as the 6th best big man in the West.
- PLAYERS felt the next best big men were last year’s first-time All-Stars Brandon Ingram and Rudy Gobert
- FANS gave the next-most votes to Zion Williamson and Andrew Wiggins (lol)
- MEDIA gave the next-most votes to Rudy Gobert and... Christian Wood
Keep in mind that these votes were for the starting spots in the West, not votes for the full team.
If you feel that more than one of those big men should be named All-Stars, then that eats into the wildcard spots, which reduces the chances of both Paul and Booker making the team.
In my opinion, Rudy Gobert gets that last reserve spot in the front court. The league’s best team, the Jazz, should get two players in the game (Mitchell being the other) if the Lakers and Clippers are getting two of theirs.
This leaves the rest of the eligible players fighting for two wildcard spots.
The wildcards can be players of any position, bigs or smalls, wides or talls. After the coaches have selected their additional three bigs (forwards, centers) and additional two guards, they get two more selections.
Here’s how the next-best vote getters pan out
A pair of Suns from a 20-10 team ranked 4th in the West, a pair of Pelicans from a 13-17 team ranked 11th in the West and out of the playoff picture, and a pair of young guards toiling on okay-to-bad teams.
There’s a clear line of demarcation here. We need to remember that coaches are NOT like us, voting from home based entirely on what we’ve seen on TV. And they are not stat nerds either. They play all 29 other teams every year, and they make their selections based on who keeps them up at night. Which means, for most of them, who can’t be stopped in the playoffs. That’s why Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook made it over Booker a year ago.
If the coaches want to reward players on teams with winning records, like they did a year ago in picking Mitchell, Paul and Westbrook behind Lillard, then the obvious choices are to pick Booker and Paul and leave it at that. Chris Paul stands out like a star among potential stars in this list, and the much-deserving Booker has finally got himself a winning team.
Sure that’s two Suns, but the Suns ARE the league’s 4th best team right now. And, both were All-Stars last year (though only Paul was picked by the coaches). Add in that Booker dominated the Bubble for the 8-0 Suns and still profiles as their biggest threat to scheme against, and that Paul has done for the Suns what he did for the Thunder a year ago, and maybe this isn’t such a difficult decision after all.
By my math, the Jazz, Clippers and Lakers — the only teams in the NBA with a better record than the Suns — will each have two players in the game. Let’s add the Suns to that two-player list.
But then there’s Zion Williamson. Do the coaches revere him the way fans and media do? Or are they still in wait-and-see mode like they were with Booker for years? Zion hasn’t proven anything yet, on any kind of big stage, and hasn’t proven he can carry a team to a tough victory. Early season wins don’t really count.
But he IS a beast. And just look at those eye-popping numbers. For sure, coaches do worry about Zion and I’m sure they see him as a future face of the league.
I think the two wildcards come down to Paul, Booker and Zion.
Shai and Ja are going down like Booker went down in previous seasons, victims of their team record and recency bias. And Brandon Ingram just doesn’t have the star power to force his way ahead of any of Booker, Paul or Zion.
Knocking each other out?
There’s a worry about Booker and Paul cannibalizing each other’s votes among coaches. If half the coaches go Book/Zion and the other half go CP/Zion, then Zion is definitely the winner here. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing — does Booker owe his success to Chris Paul, therefore making Chris Paul the true All-Star here? Or does the aging Paul need to step aside for the young padowan to take his place among the All-Star gods?
In my opinion, this is a lazy argument. Both players have earned the right to make the All-Star game, so they should both be recognized for it. None of the Lakers, Clippers or Jazz had to choose between their two stars here. There’s no Thanos standing by to snap his fingers. Hell, the Nets won’t even have to sacrifice any of their THREE stars. Why should the Suns, with the 4th best record in the entire NBA, have to?
I hope the coaches decide that BOTH Booker and Paul deserve it, knowing that in a few days there’s a 100% chance Adam Silver will need to replace the injured Anthony Davis and he’s got a marketing darling just waiting for his name to be called.
Now this is where it gets interesting.
Anthony Davis — a lock for reserve front court in the West — will miss 2-4 weeks with an achilles strain. No way he forces his way back for the All-Star game unless he’s 100% healthy. So, just like most years, there will be another player named by the NBA as an injury replacement for Davis.
Whoever doesn’t get the nod by the coaches this week might just make the team anyway as an injury replacement next month.
The simple answer is this: CP and Book are named as wildcards, then Zion is named to replace Anthony Davis.
And everyone will say what a great vote it was.