Andy Larsen: Here is my official ballot — however surprising — for the NBA All-Star starters in Salt Lake City

Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen scores against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

This year, I have the honor of being one of 100 selected NBA media members who vote on the All-Star starters — and this game is in Salt Lake City!

Truthfully, this is one of the least impactful votes we have as media: Our collective vote counts for just 25% of the final totals, while fan vote is 50% and player vote is 25% as well. For the most part, the fan vote will rule.

Nevertheless, I want to take my vote seriously, and select the most deserving All-Star starters. What does “most deserving” mean? There are a few possibilities: who is the biggest star, or who is the best player. To me, I’m choosing “most deserving” based on perhaps a more quantifiable debate: Who has had the best first half of the 2022-23 season?

This criteria has led me to make some decisions that are going to be controversial. To be honest, they surprised even me. In general, it seems that they favor younger, up-and-coming players over the old guard of familiar stars. But if those younger players are outperforming their older counterparts ... shouldn’t they get the accolades instead?

Let’s dig in.

Eastern Conference backcourt

There’s no real doubt who the best guard in the Eastern Conference has been this season: Donovan Mitchell.

He’s taken the leap that Jazz fans hoped for for five seasons, from an average-efficiency scoring guard into the all-capable leader of his team. He’s taking far fewer of the iffy paint floaters that caused him some problems in Utah, and has raised his 3-point shooting percentage to career highs. His defense reached its highest-ever levels, though it’s tailed off some as of late.

Beyond that, I think it’s a three-way contest between Jaylen Brown, Kyrie Irving, and Tyrese Haliburton for the second spot. Brown is scoring 26 points per game for the league’s best team, while Irving is still one of the league’s most fearsome guard scorers, including his 48-point performance against the Jazz on Friday night.

I think the right answer is Haliburton, though. He’s the most efficient scorer of the three, including a 40% mark from downtown (Brown’s had a rough shooting season from deep). Haliburton also leads the league in assists. He’s probably played the best defense of the three — Brown’s had an up-and-down season in terms of his effort on that end. And while I don’t think this is more a reflection of the lineups he plays with, the Celtics have been slightly better with Brown off the floor this season.

Selections: Donovan Mitchell, Tyrese Haliburton.

Eastern Conference frontcourt

This is four of the NBA’s best players for three spots: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. All four are among the league’s best scorers, while also bringing it on the defensive end.

In the end, I selected Tatum first: He leads the NBA’s best team and has played the most minutes of any of the four. Despite the Celtics’ depth, they’re monumentally better when Tatum is on the floor. Then came Durant: He’s played the second-most minutes, is shooting a ridiculous 59% from midrange, and is the most efficient scorer of the four.

Embiid vs. Antetokounmpo is interesting: They’ve both played nearly exactly 1,180 minutes this season. Embiid’s outscoring Antetokounmpo, while the Greek Freak has a small edge in rebounding and passing. Both are terrific defenders, albeit in different ways.

In the end, my edge was again in scoring efficiency: Giannis’ shooting percentages are hovering around league average this year, being just less able to make shots in the midrange than in seasons past. Some of this is definitely due to his Bucks’ supporting cast — Khris Middleton’s injury isn’t helping. But Antetokounmpo has just missed more shots than usual this season, and those empty possessions have contributed to the Bucks’ 23rd-ranked offense. It hurts to shortchange one of my favorite NBA players, but I think the others are more deserving.

Selections: Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid.

Western Conference backcourt

One of these spots is obvious: Luka Doncic. No big deal, he’s just scoring 34 points per game to lead the league on career best efficiency while also adding nine assists and rebounds per game while carrying Dallas to the league’s fifth-best offense.

Steph Curry would be the other obvious choice for spot No. 2, but his shoulder injury means he’s played in only 31 games. That’s pushed Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Devin Booker, and Ja Morant into contention.

In the end, I went with SGA, for multiple reasons. Essentially, the triumvirate of having scored more points per game, having done so on a higher efficiency, and played more games than his competition carried him to the spot. Morant plays for the best team, but has significantly more help. Meanwhile, Gilgeous-Alexander has carried the Oklahoma City Thunder to the same record as the Phoenix Suns this season — I don’t think many expected that.

To be honest, even despite the missed games, Curry almost won on the back of his ridiculous November and overall efficiency. But in an NBA where load management is more common than ever, I think it’s important to reward the players who have played in more games.

Selections: Luka Doncic, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Western Conference frontcourt

Welp, here’s where my most controversial selection appears.

Nikola Jokic is probably once again the front-runner for MVP, as he’s carried the Nuggets to the league’s second-best record, just one game behind the Celtics. He’s hugely responsible for the Nuggets’ No. 1 offense, and is averaging a triple-double while making 63% of his shots. Just insane.

Beyond that, there are three realistic candidates for the other two spots: LeBron James, Lauri Markkanen, and Domantas Sabonis. I’m not the only one who thinks this is a real race, by the way: ESPN’s Zach Lowe discussed the battle on his Lowe Post podcast this week.

(On a per-game basis, Zion Williamson and Anthony Davis absolutely deserve to be mentioned ... but Williamson has played in only 29 games, while Davis has played in only 25. In my opinion, if you miss half of the season we’re voting on, you would have to be twice as valuable as the players who played more — and neither Williamson or Davis hit that lofty standard.)

And here’s where it gets awkward: I think LeBron James is the odd man out.

Yes, LeBron is a top-2 player of all time. This season, he will surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the game’s leading scorer. He’s averaging nearly 30 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 7 assists per game. And, to be sure, no matter my vote, James will be an All-Star starter and even captain for the West.

However, he’s played the least of the three candidates, having missed six more games than Sabonis and eight more games than Markkanen. And he’s been, by far, the least efficient of the candidates. Both Sabonis and Markkanen have true-shooting percentages of 67%, while LeBron’s is 58%.

Basketball Reference statistics comparing LeBron James, Lauri Markkanen, and Domantas Sabonis.

To be sure, LeBron’s taken far more shots than the other two, and that extra scoring is valuable. But when Markkanen and Sabonis are that efficient, it means that LeBron taking six more shots per game to score four more points than Markkanen simply isn’t that valuable of a skill. In particular, LeBron’s 29% shooting from deep legitimately hurts his team.

Check out that bottom right corner of the screenshot above. Markkanen’s scoring 142 points more than league average with his shots, Sabonis 110 points more than league average — James is just at 8 points more than league average. He’s scoring a lot, but he’s a volume shooter.

LeBron’s the worst rebounder of the three, but the best playmaker. Does that playmaking outweigh the fact the deficit in rebounding and scoring efficiency? I argue that it does not. After all, the Kings have the league’s third best offense, the Jazz have the league’s fourth best ... and the Lakers are all the way down in 20th. LeBron’s playmaking hasn’t been enough to make the Lakers a quality offense.

Lakers fans know that LeBron’s teammates are truly awful, and he has to absolutely carry that team on his back to even that level of below-average. But is LeBron carrying the Lakers from league-worst to 20th offensively more valuable than Markkanen carrying the Jazz from a league-average bunch to No. 4? I don’t think it is. (Let alone the fact that James, thanks to meddling from his agency Klutch, is in large part responsible for his team’s inability to get better role players around him.)

And ignore the names for a second: Would we normally reward the best player on the Western Conference’s 13th seed with an All-Star starter berth? I submit that we would not. By even his supporters’ admission, James coasted through the first month or so of the season.

Sabonis has carried the Kings to the Western Conference’s third seed. Markkanen has carried a team projected to get 24 wins out of 82 to 24 wins out of 49 (and the West’s eight seed). Meanwhile, LeBron has carried the Lakers to the point where they have to surpass two more teams to get in the play-in tournament — partially because he missed 13 of those games.

Who is the best player of the three? Obviously, it’s LeBron. Who has had the best first half of the 2022-23 season? I think it’s Markkanen and Sabonis. It’s really close, though.

Selections: Nikola Jokic, Lauri Markkanen, Domantas Sabonis.