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Eric Walden: Mike Conley deserves to be an All-Star — which doesn’t mean he was robbed

With only 12 spots per conference and the Utah Jazz guard among a litany of deserving but not definitive candidates, his exclusion is disappointing but not some egregious miscarriage of justice.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (10)j as the Utah Jazz host the Minnesota Timberwolves, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020.

Have you seen the video of Julius Randle hearing his mom’s voice?

The Knicks forward was in the middle of a game against the Warriors on Tuesday — not too long after being informed that he’d been selected as an All-Star Game reserve — when, during a timeout, his mother appeared on the Madison Square Garden jumbotron.

“Hi Julius! Surprise!” Carolyn Kyles began, causing Randle to stop in his tracks as he heard her voice boom throughout the arena, then to stare up at the screen, mesmerized, a dazed smile creeping across his face. “I just wanted to say that I love you so much, and I’m so proud of the son and the teammate that you are. Continue to grind and work hard, putting forth great effort for your team. Just continue to work hard, and great things are gonna happen for you. Love you!”

Man, why is it so dusty in here all of a sudden?

Such a cool, emotional heart-warming moment. You’ve gotta feel good for the guy, not only because his mom, who he clearly adores, surprised him with a mid-game shout-out, but because of the nature of his accomplishment. He’s a former lottery pick who got renounced by the Lakers after four seasons — renounced! — because they deemed him not good enough to justify the salary he would warrant in free agency, and they wanted to import a more sure-fire superstar. And now, in his seventh season in the NBA, he’s a first-time All-Star.

Cool story, and good for him.

Which brings us to Mike Conley.

His own experience with the All-Star Game this year has elicited a number of dust-in-the-eyes moments from Utah Jazz fans (and “Grit ‘n’ Grind” Memphis Grizzlies fans, too) these past few days.

Conley has been vocal on numerous occasions about his desire to make the All-Star Game for the first time in his 14-year career. He wasn’t playing it cool. He wasn’t being all “If it happens, it happens.” He certainly wasn’t following the lead of LeBron and Giannis and others in questioning why the game is even taking place at all this season.

No, he wanted in. And he figured, between the combination of a resurgent performance that stood out in many advanced metrics, and the Jazz having the NBA’s best record by a bit now, that he had a good chance of getting in.

So it was a gut-punch when he wasn’t among the reserves selected from the Western Conference on Tuesday. And it was proverbial insult to injury when he was passed over again on Wednesday, this time as a replacement selection for the out-of-commission Anthony Davis.

He’s continued to grind and work hard and put forth great effort for his team. And yet, that one particular great thing he’s been hoping for did not happen.

Following that night’s 25-point blowout of the Lakers, Conley let out the disappointment he’d been holding in.

“It’s unfortunate, but that’s kind of how my career has been,” he said. “… Man, it was tough. I really, really thought this was the year. I joked with the guys on the team that I blamed them, that we should have started the year 31-0 — maybe that would have gave me a better chance. I don’t know what else to do.”

Damn.

You can’t help but feel for him. He’s been an excellent player throughout his career. He’s regarded as one of the most solid citizens in the entirety of the NBA. And unlike many of the players selected for this year’s All-Star Game, he actually wants to be there.

All of which makes it so hard to acknowledge that definitive statements about him being snubbed or robbed or screwed are a bit misguided.

There are only 12 All-Star spots per conference, six of which are initially mandated to go to frontcourt players. There were just four guaranteed backcourt spots (plus two wild cards), and this year, Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, and Luka Doncic were no-brainer absolutes among the guards.

After that, it was a bit of an eye-of-the-beholder thing, wasn’t it? There was, and is, legitimate debate about the respective merits of the likes of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Zion Williamson, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, DeMar DeRozan … even Conley’s Jazz backcourt partner, Donovan Mitchell, wasn’t a universally acclaimed selection.

It’s always been a numbers game, and a difficult one at that. And it’s a shame if Conley’s more modest numbers kept him out. He posited, post-Lakers blowout, that maybe he was a bit of a victim of the Jazz’s own success, that perhaps if they hadn’t won so many games by so many points, he could have played deeper into many fourth quarters and improved upon the 16.3 points and 5.7 assists per game averages (through Wednesday) that apparently weren’t enough.

He may be right. The thing is, while Conley has a case, so too do all those other guys. We can and do debate which stats mean more, who has greater impact, who a team could less afford to live without, and it’s all subjective. Some people argue that with Conley nearing the end of his playing days, sentiment for his career achievements and never having made it before should have served as a tie-breaker. Others have been excoriated for suggesting that anything other than on-court play through the first 30-plus games of this season should be a consideration.

Sentiment or not, loyalty or not, disappointment or not, it’s not as black-and-white a choice as it’s been portrayed.

Yes, Mike Conley deserves to be an All-Star this year. But that doesn’t mean he was robbed.

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