For the first time in my living memory, the Celtics have constructed a lineup that reasonably includes three All-Stars. Unreasonably, it could have four, while realistically, it will yield two.
And two is the right number (audible gasp). Hear me out.
Jayson Tatum—third in Eastern Conference frontcourt fan voting and with a two million vote lead over Jimmy Butler—is a mortal lock. Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis (“Brozingis,” if you’re feeling cute) sit at number five and six in fan voting respectively, netting them solid odds.
As for the guards, both Derrick White and Jrue Holiday cracked the top ten in the second fan vote returns but seem unlikely to make the weekend given the rock-solid top six in front of them. To get even one of the two in would mean bumping Tyrese Maxey, Donovan Mitchell, or Jalen Brunson, which just plainly isn’t going to happen.
That leaves Tatum and Brown as your likely representatives from Boston, and Porzingis if the coaches feel like Boston deserves more substantial representation in Indianapolis, this year’s host for the All-Star festivities. There’s always a chance that the very nature of voters—head coaches who tend to value different qualities than fans—admits Derrick White to the party rather than Porzingis, but only time will tell.
Would I be happy with three Celtics making the team? Of course, but I’d argue that two is the perfect number for everyone, considering what the All-Star Game is actually supposed to be. This is going to be a long journey to make this make sense, but I promise I’m going to land the plane. Just hang with me.
All of that above jargon is just explanatory notes without any real fire beneath them. The number of Celtics selected to the All-Star Game means basically nothing—save for a potential contract bonus for Brown and Holiday—and the weekend itself has historically been a terrible snapshot of the season, usually rewarding empty stats and leaving out players who have been a big part of the season’s conversation.
But saying that “the All-Star Game doesn’t matter” is shallow and pointless, since if nothing mattered I should want as many little meaningless awards as possible. It also does matter, and the narratives and stats that drive selection go well beyond emptiness. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a ton of ridiculousness baked into the process.
Last year, Brunson was left out of All-Star weekend despite being the most important player on a pretty exciting Knicks team. Instead, his teammate Julius Randle made the team and was granted All-NBA honors at the end of the year, again over Brunson by virtue of his position being weaker.
I’m not important enough to have an All-NBA vote nor am I an NBA head coach and thus cannot vote on All-Star reserves. However, Brunson was unequivocally the Knicks’ best and most essential player last year, yet his Basketball Reference page will show nothing under the “awards” tab for the 2022-2023 season, which will come as absurd to anyone who watched basketball last year.
All-Star snubs are rarely as cut and dry as the Brunson-Randle situation, though there are almost always guys that feel criminally unrepresented each year. For the Celtics, their season has been defined by a borderline-unkillable death lineup, with Tatum and Brown leading the way statistically.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find a Celtics fan who’d say that the team would be where it is right now without the contributions of the entire lineup and beyond, particularly in the case of White, who has transcended everything I could have ever hoped for him and become the X, Y, and Z factor for the best team in the NBA.
But statistics are what carry the day for All-Star Weekend. Randle benefited from extremely high usage and thus impressive statistical production last year, and got a medal and a dozen roses for it. Trae Young—perennially in the “can his team win if he’s the best player” conversation and on a radically underperforming Atlanta Hawks team—is second in Eastern Conference guard voting and is a near lock to make the All-Star Team.
If you go by narrative over stats, White is more of an All-Star than Young, though I’ll stop short of actually advocating for this to happen since the whole All-Star conception needs to be fan-interactive to be any fun. The vast majority of NBA fans don’t have the time or interest to fire up a replay Hawks-Spurs on League Pass while eating their steel-cut oatmeal, and so they look at stats to fill the gap. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
“Stats versus vibes” is an eternally interesting discussion in sports, as I equally often see a stat that makes me go, “wow, I never thought about that guy like that,” as I see one that makes me question if whoever contrived it even watches said sports. They’re how we can evaluate players and teams without actually watching every game, and check our own emotional impulses against cold, mathematical reality. But they can also be used to lie, and generate bad-faith arguments out of thin air.
To me, this conversation is actually the most interesting in the NFL when talking about who the best wide receivers are, as so many underperforming receivers suffer from abysmal play-calling or brain-fried quarterbacks unable to throw them the ball. By my count, there are like 30 receivers in the league with the talent to be “Top-5,” but at the end of the day, we need to use actual production as the great equalizer.
Applying this to the NBA All-Star conversation, we find a Celtics team that has dominated NBA discourse for the first half of the season, squarely the title favorites if everyone stays healthy. A team like that surely deserves some sort of special recognition in the form of greater-than-usual All-Star representation, right?
I’m not so sure, as while I stand by saying that the whole All-Star contraption is usually a bad snapshot of the season in February, I also know that it’s supposed to be a lot more than that. The Celtics would probably have four All-Stars if we were trying to capture narratives, but what we really want to do is celebrate the season.
For better or for worse, we need a sampling of players from all over the place, and stats let us do that. Three or four Celtics doesn’t leave any room for the Hawks fans to have any fun, or for Kings fans to revel in the continued greatness of De’Aaron Fox. We’ll have plenty of bad-natured lists and mean-spirited awards at the end of the season. Just ask last year’s MVP race between Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, which lit some fireworks on network TV after some analysts accused the discussion of being politically and socially problematic.
If the whole weekend was replaced with a simple list of the 13 best and most impactful players in each conference—a bit like a midseason All-NBA list—then it could be a real snapshot, but that’s stupid and also lame. To craft a representative list, we’re going to have to include some good-stats-bad-team guys, which will bump out the rest of the Celtics. But the bumped-Celtics can still go to Indy, and it will still be a lot of fun.
There’s something noticeably physical and real about everyone going to one place and hanging out for a weekend. All-NBA lists have major contractual consequences, resulting in things like Jaylen Brown’s recent supermax extension and ESPN’s Zach Lowe giving up his ballot because he felt uncomfortable with that much responsibility.
In short, the All-NBA teams are like a Zoom call to lay out priorities for the next fiscal year. It’s definitely important, but nobody really wants to be there and you’re pretty sure Greg is playing Tetris on his other monitor. It’s a chore, with business in the front and party left on the side of the road. They’re merely sent out by NBA public relations and everyone reacts on social media. Cool.
But the All-Star Game is still fun and in-person, like you and your friends getting together to hoop at the local YMCA or for your yearly fantasy football draft. It’s a celebration of the league, and should be representative of all its many corners. Yes, that will mean relying on stats as the great equalizer since nobody—not even NBA head coaches—can watch enough games to know if a guy is a true gamer or a hidden detriment.
To me, two All-Stars in Tatum and Brown serves exactly the purpose the All-Star system should support. They will be the Celtics’ representatives to the league’s yearly get-together, and the whole NBA world can see the village of awesomeness that got them there while still leaving room for the rest of the league to enjoy themselves.
None of this is supposed to be upsetting, so let’s not get upset. The goal is a championship, and All-Star weekend can celebrate all the work the Celtics have done so far. No one’s legacy will be made or broken by it, as Brunson—the snub example from earlier—has rebounded and will almost certainly get honored this time around. You just have to use production to celebrate fairly, otherwise local biases and YouTube highlight reels will dominate the conversation.
We have to make sure we are protecting the fun, as the deterioration of the Slam Dunk Contest has already muted some of the celebratory atmosphere. Two All-Stars from the best teams seems plenty aggrandizing, and I, for one, will feel perfectly aggrandized if that’s all the Celtics get.