Today, we continue our running Basketball Insiders series, searching through each of the divisions in the NBA to find potential first-time All-Stars. We move to the Northwest Division today, featuring the Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves.
With the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge to San Antonio in the Southwest Division, the Northwest now contains only four players who have made an All-Star game in their career: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard and Kevin Garnett.
Barring further health issues, Durant and Westbrook are sure things to make the team once again. Garnett is on the other end of the spectrum at 39 years old, certainly past his prime – but he made the All-Star game 15 separate times, so we won’t feel too sorry for him.
Lillard is the most intriguing former selection. Aldridge’s move could affect his candidacy in either direction: Lillard will be the clear alpha dog in Portland now, and as such will have a chance for gaudier accumulation stats with the ball in his hands even more often. But by the same token, it’s hard to imagine his efficiency on the floor, which had reached a career high last season, continuing to grow as his burden does the same. This is especially so given the big drop-off in his overall teammate quality from last season to this one.
For my money, I believe Lillard will be left off the team this year. His defense has reached a point where even casual observers can see the damaging effect it has on his team, and such elements have begun to trickle into voters’ consciousness as well. Portland will not be a good team, and might in fact be awful – this could damage his candidacy to a point as well. If he has another season like last where he shoots under 35 percent from deep, I think the multitude of other elite point guards in the West will knock him out of his spot.
Now, on to a few potential first-timers from the Northwest Division.
Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder:
If you’re like me, you read this name and thought, “He’s already made an All-Star team.” Wrong. Ibaka has made the All-Defensive First Team three times and has been in the running for Defensive Player of the Year more than once, but has never cracked the midseason skills competition.
His resume suggests he deserves it. Ibaka is consistently among the league’s most impactful defenders, one of very few elite rim protectors (fourth overall last year in Seth Partnow’s rim protection metric at Nylon Calculus) who also has the speed and chops to chase stretch bigs on the perimeter with effectiveness. He’s a wildly underrated weapon on the other end of the floor as well, a true stretch big who’s shot roughly 38 percent from deep over the last two seasons, including over 200 attempts last year. Durant and Westbrook rightly get much of the credit for OKC’s potency offensively, but Ibaka’s ability to draw a seven-footer out to the perimeter (and punish those who sag off him) is huge for the Thunder’s spacing.
His candidacy for one of the West’s 12 slots this year will continue to be tough sledding. Incumbents Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin, Aldridge, Tim Duncan and DeMarcus Cousins all have a bigger pedigree, something that’s been a large factor historically. Duncan might be the only one on this list with a real chance of sliding out, and even he is always a candidate for a legacy nod from the coaches. And with guys like Durant occupying potential “frontcourt” spots, it’s an uphill climb for Ibaka. But with an injury here or there or perhaps an elevated level of play, look for him to be atop the list of big men to make their first appearance if the opportunity is there.
Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves:
Wiggins burst on the scene as Rookie of the Year for a pretty terrible Wolves team last year, quickly developing some significant name recognition. It’s this more than his play that could see him get a nod – counting stats are also typically a big emphasis, and Wiggins could be in line for a hefty boost here in his sophomore season.
Like Ibaka, his chances at making the roster might depend on a couple backcourt players falling out – but in Wiggins’ case, it seems a bit more plausible, if still unlikely. Lillard could drop out, as noted above, and Klay Thompson is also far from a lock despite an appearance last year. Perhaps most important, though, will be Kobe Bryant: if the Mamba yet again draws a massive fan vote and refuses to give up his spot to a more deserving guy, that could make the difference. Like his elder teammate Garnett, though, if this ended up being the case we won’t shed any tears for Wiggins, who promises to be a mainstay on All-Star teams for years to come down the line.
Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz:
It’s cheating a bit, but these three make the list together because differentiating their various candidacies is actually somewhat difficult. They’re the clear three best players on a potentially ascendant team in Utah, and each could have their own dark horse case if things broke the right way.
Hayward is almost certainly the team’s most important player, in part because Favors and Gobert serve as injury insurance for each other while the drop-off from Hayward to the next wing in the rotation is much larger. Hayward is the engine that drives Utah’s offense, the only thing that got them to roughly league average on this end last season despite a dearth of spacing. He’s hugely respected around the league, and seems perhaps most likely of the three to get a selection from the coaches – he also could probably classify as either a frontcourt or backcourt player, a helpful bit of flexibility.
Gobert is quickly developing the largest public love affair, and while it remains highly unlikely in a Utah market, he’s the only Jazzman with even a token chance of getting enough fan votes. He’d have to up his production another level for this to be even a semi-realistic discussion, but if he starts blocking three shots a game for the first few months of the season, anything seems possible. He could also be a candidate for a nod from the coaches if there’s an injury or two in the frontcourt among the more well-known candidates. From an entertainment standpoint, there are few candidates more worthy.
Favors, meanwhile, has a case as the best player of the three in a vacuum. He was 14th in the NBA for PER last season, quietly improving across the board and becoming one of the best two-way big men in the league. He’s a monster anytime he gets the ball with momentum toward the hoop, and combined with Gobert to form the most imposing interior defensive frontcourt in the league. He also expanded his range and accuracy as a shooter. If he threatens Hayward as Utah’s top scorer without a drop-off on the other end, he may have the best case.
Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves:
Rubio seems far away in public perception, but might actually be one of the best first-time candidates if he can stay healthy for a full year. The Wolves were far and away at their best last season when he hit he court, and a few leaps from teammates could see him average some pretty gaudy assist numbers while remaining one of the position’s better defenders.
With Lillard a real threat to drop out, Rubio could be a guy at the same position to fill the slot. He’ll have some serious competition, including guys like Mike Conley and perhaps a healthy Jrue Holiday, but the right standout stats could do the trick, especially if the Wolves impress more than expected.
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