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Backcourt Reserve: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Though his free-throw rate dipped to the second-lowest level of his career, and though he shot just 29.8 percent from three-point range, Russell Westbrook finished better at the rim and added more treys to his shot profile in 2017-18. The result was an effective field-goal percentage of 47.7, right in line with the 47.6 percent he produced during his MVP season.

Westbrook may be the most athletic man to ever play the point, but his rocket-fueled burst and elastic bounce will diminish eventually. With his 30th birthday in November, the cliff’s edge is approaching. But this is a bet Westbrook won’t fall off this season.


Backcourt Reserve: Chris Paul, Houston Rockets

The Rockets may not be quite as dominant as they were in winning 65 games a year ago, but they’ll certainly be good enough to warrant two All-Stars. Injury is a bigger concern for the 33-year-old Paul than almost anyone else on this All-Star roster, but as long as he’s moderately healthy, he’ll produce stats worthy of a spot.

Paul averaged 18.6 points per game and posted the second-highest effective field-goal percentage of his career last season. As was the case for Westbrook, slippage is coming for Paul. There just haven’t been any signs of it yet.


Frontcourt Reserve: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

The vibes are concerning in Minnesota, but KAT’s lack of an extension offer and the uncertainty surrounding Jimmy Butler’s future with the team will have a hard time keeping the most offensively skilled big man in the game from putting up more monstrous numbers.

Towns has never missed a game while averaging 21.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and one made triple in his first three NBA seasons. In the entire history of the league, he’s the only guy in that club.

Entering his age-23 season, Towns may just be getting started.


Frontcourt Reserve: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

Green’s 2017-18 counting stats (11.0 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.3 assists) were right in line with what he produced the year before, but he failed to make his trademark defensive impact during the regular season, prompting concerns he might have lost a step. That was until he, like so many other Warriors, flipped the switch in the playoffs.

Undersized and not in possession of eye-popping athleticism, Green’s prime may not extend much longer. The problem is, we won’t necessarily know if he’s slipped until the postseason—when he’ll either summon his switch-everything, be-everywhere, dominate-without-scoring form…or try to and fail for the first time.

The Warriors are going to win a zillion games without a sweat, and Green, even at half-speed, will have lots to do with it.

This will be his fourth consecutive honor.


Frontcourt Reserve: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

It’s time. Blog-boy favorite Nikola Jokic has done enough to earn notice from a broader base of voting peers.

Jokic added more long-range volume to his game last year, which caused his effective field-goal percentage to dip from 60.5 in 2016-17 to 55.4. That’s still comfortably above the league average, and in light of the added volume and elite passing Jokic offered, it was more than good enough to solidify him as a genuine offensive cornerstone.

No other center playing today comes close to Jokic as a facilitator, and his step forward as a shooter (39.6 percent on 3.7 deep tries per game) means he can’t be ignored off the ball ever again.

We could see Jokic average something like 20 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists while positioning the Nuggets for a playoff spot in his age-23 season.


Wild Card: Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

Yep, a fourth Warrior.

If that seems unlikely, it shouldn’t. We’ve had a quartet in each of the last two seasons.

Thompson matched or exceeded career highs in rebounds, assists, field-goal percentage and three-point percentage last season, all while continuing to play some of the best wing defense in the league. As the Warriors move to a smaller starting unit that features either Jordan Bell or Kevon Looney at the 5, we could see Thompson enjoy even more space and clean looks.

Will he exceed last year’s 44 percent conversion rate from distance? Maybe not. But the worst Thompson has ever shot from downtown is 40.1 percent. There’s not a lot of downside risk here.


Wild Card: Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

Mitchell is the first and only newbie on the West roster. He’s here because he averaged 20.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists as a rookie while assuming lead-dog status for an excellent Jazz team. Guys who seize the reins like that—especially the ones who develop new moves and expand their games during the season—generally don’t fall victim to the sophomore slump.

If you’re looking for a sleeper in the scoring title race, this is the guy. Mitchell figures to improve dramatically, adding wrinkles to his game just like he did a year ago. And the continued lack of a second go-to scoring option in Utah means everything will flow through him again.

If you thought last year was Mitchell’s breakout, just hang tight. He’ll show everyone what a real leap looks like in 2018-19.


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