As if those odds weren’t daunting enough, potential first-time selections must compete in an online voting process that naturally favors the league’s most famous players. Want to earn a starting spot in the West? Be prepared to go ballot-for-ballot with LeBron James (41 million Twitter followers), Kevin Durant (17 million) and Stephen Curry (13 million).
The good news: the fans (50 percent), media (25 percent) and players (25 percent) only vote for the five all-star starters — two backcourt and three frontcourt players — from each conference. NBA assistant coaches then select seven reserves from each conference. But even that second voting wave has its limitations, as it has often run a year late in recognizing worthy candidates. Curry, for example, enjoyed a breakout 2012-13 season but didn’t earn his first all-star nod until 2014.
With that context in mind, let’s examine which five players have the best chance to make their all-star debuts this February in Charlotte.
Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
Michael Malone clearly has no interest in waiting to see how the all-star voting process, which opens on Christmas Day, treats Nikola Jokic. The Denver Nuggets coach is already campaigning on behalf of his do-everything center for an even more prestigious award. “He’s a most valuable player candidate,” Malone told reporters after Jokic pulverized the Dallas Mavericks for 32 points, 16 rebounds and four assists in a Tuesday win.
The Serbian center is best known for his exquisite touch passing — which has led some enthusiastic observers to dub him “Magic Jokic” — but his true value lies in the wide variety of ways he can leave his mark. Take the Dallas game. Jokic danced around DeAndre Jordan and outworked the former all-NBA center on the glass. He pounded Jordan’s undersized backup, Dwight Powell, in the post. He stepped back to drain two threes, forcing the Mavericks to extend their defense. He bamboozled defenders with his patented pump fakes and slow-rolling drives, tossing in running floaters with both hands. He corralled a rebound and whipped a one-handed pass that caught Dallas napping and led to a dunk on the other end. And he drew extra attention and made the right reads time after time.
Nights like that are becoming routine for Jokic, who ranks in the top 10 in the NBA in player efficiency rating, win shares and real plus-minus while leading Denver in points, rebounds, assists and steals. Despite multiple injuries to his fellow starters, Jokic has led the Nuggets to the West’s best record through Tuesday, and he’s started to flirt with some interesting historical comparisons. If he maintains his current pace, Jokic would become the first 7-footer to average seven or more assists for a season since Wilt Chamberlain in 1968.
Barring injury, Jokic is a lock to make his first all-star appearance this season. He will likely need to do so as a reserve selection, though, because unseating A-listers such as James, Durant and Anthony Davis to claim a West starting spot will be incredibly difficult.
Mike Conley, Grizzlies
If the NBA ever commissioned a trophy for the “snub of the year,” Mike Conley would be the perfect model. The 31-year-old point guard has been a worthy all-star candidate on three or four occasions, but he has been passed over for teammates including Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and drowned in the West’s deep pool of point guards, with Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Damian Lillard among them.
Nevertheless, this could be the year! The Memphis Grizzlies have rebounded nicely from 2017-18′s ugly tank job, thanks largely to Conley’s stewardship. He is averaging 20.4 points and 6.5 assists per game and deftly controlling the Grizzlies’ style of play. Memphis has rejected the trend to play a faster style — ranking 30th in pace — and Conley’s ability to milk possessions and run the pick and roll deliberately has kept his offense afloat.
Conley’s case is aided by the fact that he has paid his dues, and the candidate field is setting up nicely for him to receive a “career achievement” selection from the West coaches. Paul is having a down year in Houston. Jimmy Butler was traded out of the conference. Rising stars Luka Doncic, De’Aaron Fox and Jamal Murray aren’t yet household names, Devin Booker will likely get passed over because of Phoenix’s abysmal record, and Donovan Mitchell has yet to fully recapture his sensational 2018 postseason form.
Even if Curry, Harden, Westbrook, Lillard and Klay Thompson are all selected, there’s still room to squeeze Conley onto the West’s 12-man roster.
Khris Middleton, Bucks
At first glance, it seems like there should be a bunch of open spots in the East. Two 2018 starters headed West over the summer (LeBron James and DeMar DeRozan), two 2018 reserves have battled long-term injuries (Kevin Love and Kristaps Porzingis), and two 2018 injury replacements have been only so-so this year (Andre Drummond and Goran Dragic). But the road isn’t quite as clear as it seems: Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Blake Griffin are all strong candidates to make the East team this year after opening the 2017-18 season in the West.
Although he is bound to be overlooked in the fan vote, the Milwaukee Bucks' Khris Middleton deserves serious consideration from the coaches. The 27-year-old forward embodies his team’s strong start: He has refined his shot selection by cutting down on tough twos in favor of threes, he has been a valuable two-way contributor on a team that performs well on both ends, and he has found the right calibration as a secondary scorer alongside superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. Middleton, who is averaging 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game, can be counted on to not do too much or too little.
The Bucks’ breakthrough season under Coach Mike Budenholzer has been one of the East’s top stories this season, and they have played well enough to deserve two all-star slots. There’s a healthy debate to be had as to whether Middleton or Eric Bledsoe has been Milwaukee’s second-best player, but there’s no question that Middleton has an easier path to a selection. Bledsoe, who is still shaking off a rough showing in the 2018 playoffs, is stuck competing with fellow point guards Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Kemba Walker, Ben Simmons and John Wall. Middleton, meanwhile, has a strong case as the East’s third-best all-around wing, behind Leonard and Butler.
If Joe Johnson can make seven All-Star Games in the East, Middleton should be able to make at least one.
Ben Simmons, 76ers
When the Philadelphia 76ers swung for the fences by trading for Butler, it was reasonable to wonder whether Simmons’s role would be compromised. So far, that hasn’t really been the case. Simmons’s 2018-19 numbers (15.9 points, 9.0 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game) are nearly identical to his 2017-18 numbers; Denver’s Jokic and Oklahoma City’s Westbrook are the only two players who can match him this season in points, rebounds and assists.
But it will be fascinating to watch what impact, if any, Butler’s arrival has on Simmons’s all-star chances. Simmons was one of 2018’s top snubs, even though he drew 669,000 fan votes — more than eventual all-star selections Victor Oladipo, John Wall, Kyle Lowry and Bradley Beal. Can the Sixers' rabid fans somehow find a way to get Joel Embiid, Butler and Simmons into the starting lineup together? If not, will the East coaches run out of roster spots and be forced to pick between Butler or Simmons, rather than both?
Simmons’s case is aided by the fact that his up-tempo, highlight-friendly style is tailor-made for the All-Star Game, full of brilliant passes and ferocious dunks. If he isn’t selected as a starter by the fans, he might need to fend off Boston’s Jayson Tatum to claim one of the final reserve spots in a rematch of the 2018 rookie of the year race.
Serge Ibaka, Raptors
There are a bunch of guys who deserve a name-check for the fifth and final spot on this list: Tatum, Bledsoe, Doncic, Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Rudy Gobert and Fox, to name a few.
As of this moment, however, the Toronto Raptors' Serge Ibaka has the inside track. For starters, the Raptors have narrowly edged out the Bucks as the East’s most impressive team, and Ibaka’s resurgence has been a major driver of that success. After a 2018 postseason in which he played like his best days were behind him, the 29-year-old big man has flourished, averaging a career-high 16.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Shifting more of his minutes from power forward to center has been key to his offensive success: Ibaka is attempting far more shots in the basket area than he did last season, and he is finishing at a substantially better rate.
Toronto will land Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry on the East all-star team, barring injury. Getting three representatives from one team is no easy task, but Ibaka’s case is bolstered by the fact that he has played safety for a top-10 defense. He also enjoys better name recognition than the rest of the East’s relatively thin frontcourt crop thanks to his extensive postseason track record in Oklahoma City.