The NBA has gone through seismic shifts over the past decade. The proliferation of three-pointers is perhaps the biggest sea change, but the move toward positionless basketball isn’t far behind.
Nikola Jokic, the reigning two-time MVP, is a point guard in the body of a center. Luka Doncic, one of the front-runners for this year’s MVP, might be a higher-scoring Magic Johnson. And Lord knows we’ve had enough positional debates about Ben Simmons over the years to last a lifetime.
However, the NBA hasn’t quite caught up to those changes yet. Both the All-Star Game and All-NBA teams still take positional designation into account, which becomes more absurd with every passing year.
Right now, Jayson Tatum, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid are among the top six favorites for this year’s MVP award, according to oddsmakers. All of them are frontcourt players. Because of how the NBA structures the All-Star ballot—each team starts two backcourt players and three frontcourt players—one of them won’t even start this year.
On Thursday, the NBA released the first round of results from the fan voting, which accounts for 50 percent of the vote to decide All-Star starters. Durant led all vote-getters in the East, white Giannis, Embiid and Tatum were second, third and fourth, respectively.
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Based on the fan vote alone, Tatum is currently the odd man out of the East’s starting frontcourt mix. But with less than 50,000 votes separating him and Embiid, there’s no guarantee that will hold. Players and a panel of media members will make up the other 50 percent of the vote, so they could push Embiid below Tatum, too.
While it would be objectively hilarious for Tatum to be screwed over by the structure of the All-Star ballot, the tables could easily turn on Embiid. Either way, there aren’t two guards in the East who’ve been better than all four of Tatum, Giannis, Durant and Embiid.
Fresh off becoming the first center to lead the NBA in scoring since Shaquille O’Neal, Embiid has been even better this season. He’s averaging a career-high 33.5 points on 53.2 percent shooting to go with 9.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. Embiid is also the main reason why the Sixers have the league’s fourth-ranked defense and have gotten back into the thick of the Eastern Conference race after a dismal 1-4 start.
Like Embiid, Antetokounmpo is also putting up career-best numbers. He’s third leaguewide with 32.7 points per game, tied for second with 12.1 rebounds per game and is averaging 5.4 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.9 blocks as well. His dismal three-point shooting (24.7 percent) and free-throw percentage (66.0 percent) might be knocks against him in the deep MVP field, but it’s impossible to argue that he hasn’t been one of the five best players in the East this season.
Tatum is likewise setting new career highs in points (30.8), rebounds (8.1) and made three-pointers (3.2) to go with 4.0 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.8 blocks per game. He has helped guide the Boston Celtics to the best record in the Eastern Conference at 26-12, and he’s eighth leaguewide and third in the East in Dunks and Threes’ EPM metric.
Durant is two spots ahead of Tatum in EPM with per-game averages of 29.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.8 triples, 1.5 blocks and 0.8 steals. He’s shooting a career-high 56.8 percent from the field and helped drag the Nets out of their early-season off-court drama (to put it kindly) to a 16-2 record over their past 18 games.
Mitchell, who’s scoring a career-high 29.0 points per game on 48.7 percent shooting for the fourth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers, deserves to be in the starting conversation as well. Beyond that, though, it’s hard to make an argument for any other Eastern Conference guard over any of Tatum, Giannis, KD or Embiid. Jaylen Brown, Darius Garland, Tyrese Haliburton, Kyrie Irving and Philadelphia’s own James Harden should all be in the mix for reserve spots, but none of them deserve a starting nod over the aforementioned quartet.
This won’t be the first time that positional designations result in questionable All-Star selections, either. Three years ago, Jimmy Butler was denied a starting nod because he was listed as a frontcourt player rather than a backcourt player.
“I just think it’s ridiculous that we’re still in these antiquated positions,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said at the time. “So who’s to say what position Jimmy is? Does it matter? I put him No. 2 on my [lineup] card. So I go Kendrick Nunn, Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, I go Bam [Adebayo] and then Meyers [Leonard]. But you could flip any one of those guys around. And in many ways he’s our point guard. So should he be in the All-Star Game as a point guard? I don’t know.
“These are such antiquated labels that I feel like we’ve moved on from that years ago when we started talking about positionless [players]. But either way, regardless of how you want to label it or discuss it, Jimmy Butler should be a starter in this All-Star Game. It’s a joke that he’s not. Hopefully this will change things in the future.”
Narrator: It did not. Yet, anyway.
To the NBA’s credit, it did make one change to the balloting back in 2012. The ballot used to be two guards, two forwards and one center from each conference, but the league pivoted to three frontcourt players instead.
“It makes sense,” Stu Jackson, then-NBA vice president of basketball operations, told NBA.com (h/t ESPN.com). “It made sense to our Competition Committee. Having a center is the only specific position that was singled out on the ballot. It just seemed a little outdated and didn’t represent the way our game has evolved. By the same token, it also affords the same opportunity, if you have two good centers in a given year, pick ‘em both. They both can be selected. Which is impossible right now.”
At the time, centers such as Roy Hibbert and Dwight Howard weren’t a fan of that change, as they felt as though that made it more difficult for centers to crack the All-Star starting lineup. One decade later, centers have finished as the top two MVP vote-getters in two consecutive years. As it turns out, centers aren’t dead after all!
While the elimination of centers on the All-Star ballot might have been an overcorrection, the league should be paying close attention to this year’s voting. Having Tatum or Embiid miss out on a starting spot in the East because of antiquated positional designations makes no sense given the current context of the league.
The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association are busy negotiating over a new collective bargaining agreement, which could expire as early as the end of this season. While they have far more important matters to hash out first—most notably, the league’s reported push for an “upper spending limit” (aka a hard cap)—revising All-Star (and All-NBA!) voting to go fully positionless would allow voters to reward the most deserving players each season.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM.