Injuries and jumbled standings make it hard to settle on NBA all-stars

Jayson Tatum, Nikola Jokic and Stephen Curry should be locks as All-Star Game starters. (AP and Getty Images)

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The 2022-23 NBA season was supposed to be the year of the comeback, with more than a dozen All-Star Game candidates returning to the court after missing out on last year’s festivities in Cleveland. Instead, many of those A-listers — Kevin Durant, Zion Williamson, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Brandon Ingram, to name a few — have found themselves limited by injuries again.

That rash of health issues has contributed to an unusual amount of parity, though the murky standings should help some aspiring first-time selections make the cut for the Feb. 19 showcase in Salt Lake City. Before the full rosters are revealed, the fans, the players and media members must vote on the 10 starters, a group that will probably require injury replacements after it is announced Thursday. After all, Durant ranked second among all East players in the latest fan returns despite a recent knee sprain, and Davis and Williamson were in a dogfight for a starting spot even though both have been out for weeks.

Voters had their hands full this year wading through the missing stars and jumbled standings, but it’s officially decision time. Here are The Washington Post’s picks for the starters, which weigh availability, individual statistics and contributions to team success. The Post’s selections for the all-star reserves will be made Jan. 30.

Shannon Sharpe involved in verbal confrontation with Grizzlies players

Eastern Conference frontcourt

Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks) and Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers)

Tatum, Antetokounmpo, Embiid and Durant are the leading scorers for the East’s top four seeds entering Monday, so narrowing that quartet down to three selections qualifies as the ballot’s toughest call. Tatum and Embiid have been neck-and-neck for the third and final spot in the fan vote, but Durant’s uncertain status sets up a potential compromise where he becomes the odd man out.

What’s clear is that Tatum (31.2 points per game, 8.5 rebounds per game, 4.3 assists per game) must be in; he has enjoyed excellent health while the other three have missed significant time. Tatum has responded well to his 2022 Finals struggles, leading the East’s most efficient offense and establishing Boston as this year’s championship favorite. The 24-year-old forward has posted career highs in scoring, rebounding and Player Efficiency Rating in his sixth season, and he has gotten to the free throw line more often thanks to intelligent tweaks to his shot selection.

Antetokounmpo (31 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 5.3 apg) will be a worthy captain if his lead in the fan vote holds up after the players and media weigh in. The two-time MVP is averaging more than 30 points per game for the first time in his career, and he remains a rock for a tough-minded defense that ranks third leaguewide. The other candidates in this category have more help than Antetokounmpo, whose noticeable slip in scoring efficiency can be partially explained by his heavy burden and his relatively weak supporting cast without an injured Khris Middleton.

The final spot is pretty much a coin flip; Embiid (33.6 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 4.2 apg) and Durant (29.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 5.3 apg) have played spectacularly when healthy and missed similar amounts of time. Embiid received the nod because he has followed up his 2022 scoring title with an even more dominant campaign, and it didn’t hurt that Philadelphia has climbed back into the playoff mix with an 18-4 surge since Dec. 9. The Nets have wavered without Durant, and it will be a shame if he can’t suit up for a fourth straight All-Star Game because of injury.

What happens when Stephen Curry shows up in your town? Enchantment.

Eastern Conference backcourt

Jaylen Brown (Celtics) and Donovan Mitchell (Cleveland Cavaliers)

The fans did pretty well with their ballots, but they whiffed by making Nets guard Kyrie Irving (26.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 5 apg) the leading vote-getter among East guards. While Irving has had his moments, including a 48-point explosion against the Utah Jazz on Friday, he missed eight games in November because of his refusal to disavow antisemitism. The subsequent controversy, like his anti-vaccination stance last year, threatened Brooklyn’s season. Irving’s willingness to re-engage with the Nets and focus on basketball over the past two months is a welcome development, but there are more reliable and productive alternatives.

Don’t let Brown (26.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 3.3 apg) get lost in Tatum’s shadow. Like Tatum, he’s averaging career highs in points and rebounds for a Boston juggernaut, mixing attack-minded offense with physical perimeter defense. Brown and Irving are secondary options with similar scoring averages, but Brown has had much better availability and is a higher-impact defender. Throw in Boston’s league-leading record, and this spot belongs to him.

The fifth selection should be Mitchell (28.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 4.8 apg), who has hit the ground running in Cleveland since arriving from Utah in an offseason blockbuster. The 26-year-old guard has stepped in as a trustworthy No. 1 option for the rock-solid Cavaliers, making headlines this month for pouring in a franchise-record 71 points against the Chicago Bulls. A more consistent scorer and better three-point shooter than Irving these days, Mitchell also has been far more available than 76ers guard James Harden. Trae Young, a perennial candidate given his gaudy individual numbers, wasn’t a factor because of his subpar shooting and the Atlanta Hawks’ regression on offense.

For Ja Morant, an all-time poster dunk to go with his all-time block

Western Conference frontcourt

Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers) and Domantas Sabonis (Sacramento Kings)

Simply put, Jokic (25.1 ppg, 11 rpg, 9.9 apg) has had the best season of any player to date. The Serbian center is nearly averaging a triple-double for the West’s No. 1 seed, and his brilliant orchestration has continued despite major changes around him. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. have returned from injury. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown arrived during the offseason. Jokic has found ways to meld all of their strengths while giving himself a realistic chance to become the first player to win three consecutive MVP awards since Larry Bird.

If Williamson, Leonard and George were healthy, there might be an argument to leave James (29.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 6.9 apg) out of the West’s starting lineup because of his declining efficiency and the Lakers’ poor record. As is, James is snub-proof. The NBA’s leading vote-getter is bearing down on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record, and he has found ways to adjust his approach to compensate for Davis’s absence and his own diminished energy late in games. Remarkably, the only other player who can match James’s season averages in points, rebounds and assists is Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, who is 15 years his junior.

On this ballot, Davis and Williamson were nixed as starting candidates because they have each played fewer than 30 games. The best of the rest was Sabonis (18.8 ppg, 12.6 rpg, 7.3 apg), an all-around offensive force who has helped drive Sacramento’s stunning rise to the West’s No. 3 seed after more than a decade of ineptitude. Though Sabonis is a weak defender, his finishing ability, passing skills and high-energy style have been crucial to the Kings’ second-ranked attack. Voters should look past reputation and fame to reward one of this season’s most consistent producers. Honorable mention goes to Utah’s Lauri Markkanen, another breakout performer.

Does Rui Hachimura want the Wizards to trade him? ‘No comment.’

Western Conference backcourt

Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies) and Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors)

The fan vote favored Curry and Doncic over Morant, which was defensible. All three were worthier starters than Sabonis, though voters can only select two because of the ballot’s positional designations.

The Warriors are the defending champions, Curry is the defending Finals MVP, and Memphis missed its chance for a statement win against Golden State on Christmas. What’s more, Curry (29.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 6.3 apg) has returned successfully from a shoulder injury that kept him out for about three weeks and is not that far off another 50/40/90 shooting season. Meanwhile, Doncic (33.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 8.7 apg) is on track to be the only player in NBA history to post 33/8/8 averages.

Still, Morant (27.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 7.9 apg) can’t be snubbed on this ballot — he has turned in the best night-to-night campaign of his career thanks to improved health. His magnetic personality has helped Memphis form one of the league’s best young cultures, and he boasts a substantive offensive game that sometimes gets overlooked because of his never-ending reel of mesmerizing highlights. Importantly, Dallas and Golden State have struggled to keep their heads above water in the standings, while Morant has had Memphis cruising along as the West’s No. 2 seed.

Doncic’s eye-popping statistics require context. He’s posting a career-high 38 percent usage rate and playing 37.5 minutes per game, an unhealthy combination for any modern superstar who hopes to lead his team on a deep postseason run. Dallas lacks the supporting pieces necessary to make his life easier, but there’s more to winning basketball than sheer accumulation. By contrast, Curry has fostered a better balance and a healthier overall culture in Golden State, and he has shown no signs of slippage with his 35th birthday approaching.

For Doncic to take the next step, he must gain better control of his emotions, exert more consistent effort on defense and establish warm, mutually beneficial relationships with his most talented teammates. Otherwise, Dallas will continue to struggle to build a sustainable core around him.