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Will James Harden And Damian Lillard Make The 2021-2022 All-Star Team?

Will James Harden And Damian Lillard Make The 2021-2022 All-Star Team?

The start of the 2021-2022 season seems more topsy-turvy than any in recent memory. In the Eastern Conference, three perennial sub-.500 squads, the Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards, and Charlotte Hornets, have played excellent team ball and look poised to crash the playoff party. Out west, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Sacramento Kings have made significant strides and could find themselves in the postseason hunt as the season winds down.

Superstars James Harden and Damian Lillard have added to the chaos this season by struggling immensely throughout October and the beginning days of November.

Next, we’ll determine if James Harden and Damian Lillard’s early-season offensive limitations are the first glimpses of their plunge from the top or if they’re each merely suffering through an offensive blip.

Here’s a quick All-Star Game primer:

12 players earn a spot on the Eastern and Western Conference All-Star squad, so there are a total of 24 All-Stars chosen each year.

- Five players from each conference earn a starting spot, comprised of fan votes (50%), NBA players (25%), and media members (25%). Out of the five starters, two are guards, and three are frontcourt players.

- Seven reserve players are then selected by the 30 NBA coaches for each conference. Out of those seven players, two spots are held for guards, three for frontcourt players, and two places for players from any position.

- Only four guard spots are guaranteed, but that number can rise to six if the 30 head coaches believe two more guards deserve the final two roster spots available.

James Harden

Charles Barkley On James Harden- "He's The Best One-On-One Player I May Have Ever Seen."

2020-2021 Statistics: 24.6 PPG, 10.8 APG, 7.9 RPG, 46.6 FG%, 36.2 3P%, 24.5 PER, 6.8 BPM

2021-2022 Statistics: 18.6 PPG, 8.6 APG, 7.6 RPG, 39.8 FG%, 38.5 3P%, 20.0 PER, 2.7 BPM

2020-2021 Eastern Conference All-Star Guards:

Bradley Beal (starter)

Kyrie Irving (starter)

James Harden (reserve)

Jaylen Brown (reserve)

Zach LaVine (reserve)

Ben Simmons (reserve)

James Harden’s numbers this season are down across the board. At first glance, it’s easy to write off his poor shooting numbers as an early season outlier. He suffered a Grade 2 hamstring injury during last year’s playoffs and could not play 5-on-5 basketball as he recovered. Harden’s working himself into shape, and over the previous few Nets games, he’s looked like he’s regaining more of his strength.

Still, stare harder, and you’ll find James Harden’s struggles aren’t simply due to health or conditioning issues. The NBA’s recent rule change limiting foul calls on non-basketball moves has significantly altered “The Beard’s” offensive game. From 2015 through 2020 (six seasons), James Harden led the league in free-throw attempts, and free throw makes. Fast forward to this season, and the former Rocket sits in 12th place with 37 FTA’s, 25 fewer visits to the charity stripe than league leader Giannis Antetokounmpo (62 attempts).

James Harden is one of the slower point guards in the league. In the past, he made up for his lack of speed by using what the NBA now considers non-basketball moves. Over the years, when Harden found himself unable to get by his defender, he consistently fell back on two options. He either dribbled toward the lane, stopped somewhere around 10 to 14 feet from the basket, and hefted a mid-range jumper while hooking his off arm under the defender’s outstretched hand. Or he stood beyond the arc, took a hard dribble towards the lane, and launched a step-back three-pointer as he used his non-shooting hand to hook the defender. 9 times out of 10, those two moves worked, and the ref blew the whistle.

This season, when James Harden or any offensive player makes contact with the defender with his off-hand, it is no longer a foul. This rule change significantly hurts Harden’s offensive game. He’s still on the slow side, and without the threat of constantly drawing a shooting foul, defenders are inching closer to the “Beard.” When you’re dealing with giant defenders who have massive wingspans, a few inches are the difference between the ball seeing its way through the net or rimming out.

James Harden’s potential selection to the 2021-2022 All-Star team is not simply about his production, which is still impressive (he’s only 1.5 assists and 2.5 rebounds away from averaging a triple-double), although down from what we expect. We also have to consider Harden’s competition for one of the few All-Star guard spots.

Scan the All-Star guards from last season, and you’ll see three of the players who made the squad in the backcourt will almost certainly not be chosen this year. Kyrie Irving has yet to play because of vaccine issues. Similarly, Ben Simmons has seen no action because of mental health issues. Jaylen Brown has played exceptionally well for the Celtics, but he’s shifted mainly to the frontcourt, spending 73 percent of his playing time at the small forward or power forward positions, leaving him ineligible to play for the Eastern Conference as a guard.

Three former Eastern Conference All-Star guards are indeed out of the running this season, but in their place, a new crop of exceptional backcourt players have stepped up.

Notable 2020-2021 Non All-Star backcourt players:

Malcolm Brogdon’s 2021-2022 Statistics: 23.4 PPG, 7.0 APG, 7.0 RPG, 44.2 FG%, 28.6 3P%, 2-6 record

Trae Young’s 2021-2022 Statistics: 22.9 PPG, 9.4 APG, 3.0 RPG, 43.0 FG%, 27.0 3P%, 4-3 record

Tyler Herro’s 2021-2022 Statistics: 22.4 PPG, 4.4 APG, 6.0 RPG, 47.2 FG%, 40.8 3P%. 6-1 record

LaMelo Ball’s 2021-2022 Statistics: 20.1 PPG, 6.1 APG, 6.1 RPG, 43.0 FG%, 44.1 3P%, 5-3 record

Spencer Dinwiddie’s 2021-2022 Statistics: 18.8 PPG, 6.3 APG, 5.3 RPG, 42.4 FG%, 37.5 3P%, 5-2 record

Tyler Herro has put up impressive numbers for the Heat while playing solid defense. Unfortunately, he doesn’t start, and it’s exceedingly rare for a bench player to make the All-Star team. Herro can take solace in the fact that unless things go sideways in Miami, he’ll win the Sixth Man of the Year Award.

Malcolm Brogdon’s much improved, but in making the All-Star team, winning matters and his Pacers are 2-6 with little hope of making the playoffs.

Spencer Dinwiddie’s production has been noteworthy. His numbers are close to Harden’s, and they’re not just empty stats. The Wizards are winning and watching them play; they look like a legitimate playoff squad. Dinwiddie doesn’t have the same type of name recognition as James Harden, plus his rebound and assist numbers aren’t as good as “The Beard’s.”

LaMelo Ball has the best All-Star case out of this group of up-starts. He’s a dynamic offensive weapon, capable of taking over in the half-court when things bog down for the Hornets with his passing ability and shot-making skills from beyond the arc and in the lane.

Zach LaVine is averaging 25.6 points per game while playing inspired defense for the first time in his career for the 6-1 Chicago Bulls. Barring injury, he’s an All-Star lock. Bradley Beal’s giving the surprising 5-2 Washington Wizards 24.3 points per contest as he’s held his assignment to an astounding eight points less than their normal average. He’s an All-Star lock as well. Trae Young was snubbed last season for the All-Star Game. Still, when you combine his 2021 postseason performance (he helped drag the young Atlanta Hawks into the Eastern Conference Finals) with his 22.9 PPG and 9.4 APG this season, he also feels guaranteed to make his second All-Star appearance.

That leaves one to three spots available for the group of Harden, Brogdon, Herro, Ball, and Dinwiddie.

In the end, we predict five Eastern Conference guards will be selected to the All-Star Team:

Zach LaVine

Bradley Beal

Trae Young

LaMelo Ball

And James Harden, because yes, he’s having a down year, but he’s still producing at a high level for a playoff squad.

Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard

2020-2021 Statistics: 28.8 PPG, 7.5 APG, 4.2 RPG, 45.1 FG%, 39.1 3P%, 25.6 PER, 5.9 BPM

2021-2022 Statistics: 18.6 PPG, 8.6 APG, 4.0 RPG, 34.9 FG%, 23.1 3P%, 14.7 PER, -4.4 BPM

2020-2021 Western Conference All-Star Guards:

Stephen Curry (starter)

Luka Doncic (starter)

Damian Lillard (reserve)

Donovan Mitchell (reserve)

Chris Paul (reserve)

Devin Booker (reserve and injured, replaced by Mike Conley)

Damian Lillard’s scoring output and shooting percentages are down drastically from last season, and his advanced stats are ugly. Unlike James Harden, it’s more challenging to pinpoint where his problems lie. Lillard isn’t coming off an injury, and like every wily veteran in the NBA, he used every advantage possible to get a bucket, but he’s never had to resort to gimmicks to draw a foul.

The Trail Blazers have never come close to winning a title with Damian Lillard in the fold. After years of first-round exits, Portland management let long-time head coach Terry Stotts go over the summer, bringing in Chauncey Billups. Still, many folks around the league expected more. Many folks expected a significant roster shakeup and were disappointed when the Blazers GM Neil Olshey essentially brought back the same team from last season.

Damian Lillard has not indicated that he wants out. He’s said all the right things. According to Dame, his heart is in it, he’s simply slumping.

Maybe throughout the early stages of the season, Lillard’s been on a bad run, like a poker player getting busted on the river time and time again. This feels like more, though. He’s not merely missing his deep attempts. He’s clanking all his shots from everywhere on the court.

Damian Lillard’s shot chart through the first seven games of the season:

0-3 feet: 54.3%

3-10 feet: 25.0%

10-16 feet: 46.7%

16-3P line: 33.3%

Beyond 3P line: 23.1%

Damian Lillard’s All-Star competition is much stiffer than James Harden’s out east. Last year’s Western Conference All-Star guards have gone nowhere.

Stephen Curry’s Warriors are in second place in the Western Conference, and he leads the league in scoring, a combination that often leads to the MVP Award. Luka Doncic is third among Western Conference guards in scoring at 24.0 PPG while averaging 7.1 APG and 7.7 RPG for the 4-3 Dallas Mavericks. Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz are up to their old tricks, resting comfortably in first place out west, as he leads the way with 24.9 points per contest and an excellent 100 defensive rating. Devin Booker hasn’t averaged the numbers we’re accustomed to, but he’s still outperforming Lillard with 21.8 PPG, 5.3 APG, and 5.2 RPG for the Suns. Chris Paul’s averaging a double-double with 13.0 PPG and 11.8 APG, and he’s still an advanced stats god landing in the top 30 of NBA Math’s total points added stat with an impressive 11.39 mark.

We haven’t mentioned Ja Morant, who’s tied for second in the league in scoring, at 28.3 points per game while dishing out 7.7 APG and shooting 52.4 percent overall for the 4-3 Memphis Grizzlies.

Only four guard spots are guaranteed for the Western Conference All-Star squad (two starters and two reserves); the final two players selected can play any position.

Stephen Curry, Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, Donovan Mitchell, and Devin Booker are nearly guaranteed a spot in the Western Conference All-Star backcourt. Their numbers are impressive, but more importantly, they’ve all displayed the type of overall output that leads to team success.

Chris Paul’s case isn’t as straightforward. He’s only averaging 13.0 points per game, and it’s nearly unheard of to see a player selected for the All-Star Game while averaging south of 16 PPG. The 30 NBA coaches across the league could look at his advanced stats and court impact and make an exception, but the Suns have been struggling, and other frontcourt players have made a better All-Star case.

In the end, we predict Damian Lillard’s early-season struggles will be too much of a hurdle to get over, and he’ll miss out on his first All-Star game in four years. Alternately, Karl-Anthony Towns deserves the nod. He’s averaging 24.8 PPG on 50.0 percent shooting from deep while anchoring the Minnesota Timberwolves’ surprising 7th ranked defense.