NEW YORK — On Thursday, the NBA will announce the reserves for the All-Star Game, for both the Eastern and Western Conference.
In Salt Lake City, that will mean tense moments as the Utah Jazz wait to find out if star forward Lauri Markkanen makes the cut. He certainly has a case. He’s been terrific this season, and even more so over the past six weeks.
Because of Markkanen, the Jazz head into February with a shot at a postseason berth. Because of Markkanen, the Jazz have a bright future, when you combine his presence with the asset pool they have for the future. Because of Markkanen, the Jazz are fun to watch nearly every night as he’s one of the very best multi-faceted forwards in basketball.
But will that equal him being named to the All-Star team? We take a look at that and make a case for and against his inclusion.
The case for Markkanen: Another level
I asked Jazz head coach Will Hardy this question following Monday night’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets.
“I’m extremely biased, but to me, Lauri is an NBA All-Star,” Hardy said. “The scoring, the efficiency, the versatility. Everything he does for our team should speak for itself. He was a little bit injured at the beginning of the year. But a big part of our turnaround is how well he’s been playing. So to me, he’s definitely an All-Star.”
Hardy makes a great point. The Jazz have been a significantly different team with Markkanen healthy and on the floor. They are 17-8 in their last 25 games, and they have gone from being one of the three worst teams in the Western Conference to being currently a Play-In Tournament team. In the big picture, that movement might not seem like much but the Jazz at one point this season were one of the seven worst teams in the league. Now, they have become a team that’s generally competitive nightly.
It’s why he’s a better player than last season. And it’s why, unlike last season, Markkanen should garner some true All-NBA interest, because he’s played at that level. The raw numbers are slightly down from last season. For instance, Markkanen averaged 25.6 points per game a season ago, and compared to 23.7 points per night this season.
But, as Hardy pointed out, the efficiency has gotten better. Markkanen is shooting 40 percent from 3-point range, which would be the first time in his career that he’s accomplished that, and he’s doing it on a career-high eight attempts per night. For more than half a season last year, Markkanen had Mike Conley as his point guard and having Conley helped Markkanen’s All-Star candidacy last year. With Conley in Minnesota, Markkanen hasn’t had that security blanket this season. Markkanen is the only All-Star candidate this season who isn’t playing with an elite-level playmaker, or isn’t an elite-level playmaker in his own right.
Markkanen has figured out how to move without the ball to get open. He’s figured out how to make shots when he’s contested. He’s improved his functional strength, which has allowed him to play bully ball in the paint. He’s become better in transition. His biggest improvement has come on the defensive end. With Markkanen’s two-way versatility, Hardy has been able to play Markkanen at all three frontcourt spots, on both ends of the floor, allowing the Jazz to create nightly matchup issues for their opponents. Markkanen is never going to be a great defender, but he’s found a way to be an impactful one. By doing that, it has allowed Markkanen to effect winning as the best player on an NBA team rather than being just a guy putting up great numbers.
That, more than anything, is what defines Markkanen and allows him to be different from last season when he was putting up great numbers. This season, he’s putting up great numbers and driving winning. It’s allowed him to reach another level, an All-NBA level, which is notable considering the Jazz roster features so many moving parts.
The case against Markkanen: Stiff competition
While Markkanen has reached another level this season, look at the competition he’s up against. Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant migrated to the Western Conference from the Eastern Conference. That takes a spot. Secondly, Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard has been healthy and terrific this season. Durant has been named a starter, along with LeBron James. Leonard is a lock.
A thorough breakdown of the team reveals a real squeeze for spots among qualified candidates.
The starting five looks like this: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luka Dončić, James, Durant and Nikola Jokić.
There are 12 spots on the roster, which includes two wildcards.
Here are the guys who have played well enough that they are locks, or it’s very difficult to imagine them not being on the roster: Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards, the Suns’ Devin Booker and out of Anthony Davis, De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, it’s not hard to imagine at least two of those three, if not all three, making the team.
So, let’s assume these six make the cut. That leaves Markkanen in a pool that more than likely includes these names for one spot: Markkanen, Paul George, Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Rudy Gobert. You can probably even make an argument for one or two not listed here, but after several looks, this seems like the general pool. And if this is the pool, you probably want to reward the team that’s been the best in the Western Conference all season. So that means either KAT or Gobert should probably get first dibs on the final spot. If you want to reward the team that’s been the best in the Western Conference for the last month, that means the Los Angeles Clippers, which means George probably is in line for a nod.
What likely happens
The irony in all of this is that the Western Conference has been so talented and deep this season that an All-Star starter from last season can improve as a player, and maybe dramatically improve as a player, and be left off the team a year later. But that’s what may happen here. My guess is Markkanen misses the cut and maybe gets a nod as a replacement if someone, for whatever reason, can’t play.
But that shouldn’t impugn how good Markkanen has been this season. He’s been a franchise-level player and his talents have made the Jazz competitive when it looked as if the Jazz were headed for a non-competitive season. The fact that Markkanen has been more of a star this season than he was last year when he first established himself as a star is something that the Jazz should be happy about. They have a cornerstone, and are on the search for another to go with him.
Even if it doesn’t end in a berth in this year’s All-Star game, that’s a significant win for the Utah Jazz.
(Photo of Lauri Markkanen: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)