Kyrie Irving is officially a 2019 All-Star, one of five Eastern Conference players announced as a starter during Thursday’s televised reveal. This was not unexpected as Irving lingered right behind Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo during all the early returns on fan balloting and his starting position never seemed in doubt.
Here’s the more intriguing question in the aftermath: Should one of Irving’s teammates join him in Charlotte, and who exactly should that be?
If Boston’s 2018-19 season had gone as planned, this would be a no-brainer. Many of us spent the preseason wondering if Boston might send a small handful of guys to All-Star weekend, particularly in a LeBron-less East. But Irving has been one of the few constants on a team that’s rode a performance seesaw and sits an unexpected fifth in the East at 30-18 overall.
Gordon Hayward has struggled to find his own consistency coming back from a horrific ankle injury and Al Horford needed a brief shutdown to combat a sore knee that contributed to him underperforming a bit early in the season.
COUNTDOWN TO CELTICS-WARRIORS
For a while it seemed fair to suggest that Boston might only deserve a single All-Star but, in a top-heavy East, it’s not exactly easy to identify 12 surefire stars. When Indiana guard Victor Oladipo suffered a season-ending quad injury on Wednesday night, it only further muddied the All-Star reserve picture.
Next Thursday night, All-Star reserves will be unveiled. Unlike starters which are voted on by fans, media, and players, the backups are selected by the vote of conference head coaches.
The shortage of must-have candidates could potentially open the door for the Celtics to earn a second star, whether by coaches' vote or, further out, injury replacement. Here’s the case for Boston’s top three candidates:
A season that opened with concern about whether Morris might eventually be the odd man out for a talent-laden team that planned to shuffle him to a reserve role, has seen the 29-year-old forward post the best stats of his nine-year career while re-elevating to a key starting position.
For much of the season, Morris has flirted with the elusive 50/40/90 club — or shooting percentages of 50 percent overall, 40 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, and 90 percent at the free-throw line. Only seven players in league history have accomplished the feat, including Larry Bird. Morris currently sits at 48.1/42.5/87.3, making it a long shot for him to make a true charge at joining that list but, then again, nothing about Morris’ season has quite made sense.
Morris has embraced a more efficient shot profile that’s seen him crank down the midrange attempts in favor a more efficient 3-point shot. Morris, a career 36.5 percent 3-point shooter, has been so good from distance that coach Brad Stevens is on board with the idea of Morris talking his own way into the 3-Point Shootout at All-Star Weekend.
Given the way Morris embraced a rather uncertain role, worked hard to improve his game, and impacted Boston’s winning ways, it’d be a feel-good story for him to earn an All-Star nod at this stage of his career. If Boston was higher in the seedings, it might be an easier sell.
Maybe the biggest thing conspiring against Jayson Tatum’s candidacy is how good he was during Boston’s playoff run last season. While Tatum has seen a modest bump over his rookie stat line, he’s being held to a bit of a higher standard after being so impactful as Boston nearly surged to the Finals in his first year.
Tatum is averaging 16.3 points and 6.2 rebounds rebounds per game but the most notable part of his stat line is probably how his shooting percentages have dipped, particularly with his 3-point percentage falling from 43.4 percent last year to 37.8 percent this year. He’s had a propensity for maddening long 2s instead of aggressively attacking the basket and using his length to his advantage.
Through it all, Tatum's net rating (plus-8.6) is second best among starters and not far behind Irving’s plus-9.6. While we tend to focus on what Tatum is not doing, he’s been solid. What’s more, he’s started a team-high 48 games this season and Irving (42) is the only one that’s not trailing him by double digits so there’s something to be said for that sort of dependability on a team that’s dealt with a handful of minor maladies.
Ultimately, the bar was set so high that Tatum was going to struggle to reach the sort of level that might have been necessary to make him a slam dunk choice here. He’s shown occasional flashes of the All-Star-in-the-making but that only makes the quieter nights stand out a bit more.
All of which likely leaves the 20-year-old waiting another year for true All-Star consideration, though his fan voting numbers reflect a young player with a very obvious fan base.
Maybe the most outside-the-box of Boston’s All-Star candidates but Smart would be this writer’s choice based on impact alone.
Consider this: The Celtics are 20-8 since Smart elevated to the starting lineup on Nov. 26 and, in that two-month span, the Celtics own the NBA’s best rating at plus-9.5.
Smart — and Morris, too, it should be noted — have quite clearly given the Celtics starters the energy jolt they so desperately needed. Not coincidentally, Irving has played some of his best basketball this season since Smart joined him in the starting backcourt.
Smart is having a fascinating season. Most players tend to ease off the gas pedal the season after they sign their first big contract. Smart, who penned a four-year, $52 million extension in August, instead has had one of the most efficient seasons of his career while losing none of his defensive intensity.
Smart is shooting a career-best 36.6 percent beyond the 3-point arc, long since brushing aside the suggestion that this was just another small-sample hot streak. He’s also ratcheted down his attempts, taking 3.2 less shots per game overall this season and putting a premium on playmaking, a boon for a starting group that seemed to be struggling to figure out how to feed all its mouths at the start of the season.
In typical Smart fashion, he’s been a defensive menace, setting the tone for a Boston defense that ranks fourth in the NBA allowing 104.8 points per 100 possessions.
Listen, Smart’s base stat line doesn’t scream All-Star in sitting at 7.9 points, 4 assists, and 2.8 rebounds per game. That’s a real hard sell. He’s prone to the occasional quiet offensive night, though his defensive intensity rarely wanes.
If the East coaches truly want to reward the players that most impact a team’s winning, then they ought to consider Smart. There will be players with better stat lines who don’t have nearly the impact Smart does on the game.
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