The N.B.A. Elite Are Now From Everywhere

Want more basketball in your inbox? Sign up for Marc Stein’s weekly N.B.A. newsletter here.

It was at the 2018 All-Star Game in Los Angeles that I asked Steve Nash, one of the foremost imports in N.B.A. history, if the league would ever be ready — really ready — for a Rest of the World vs. United States format for its annual midseason showcase.

“We’re getting there,” Nash said then.

Nash suggested that perhaps 2022 would be “the time to try it,” as a 30th anniversary tribute to the original Dream Team that wowed the world at the Barcelona Olympics.

That forecast is looking smarter every day.

Understandably somewhat lost last week amid the very sad news of the former N.B.A. commissioner David Stern’s death was the bulletin from the league office detailing the first batch of returns from fan balloting for next month’s All-Star Game in Chicago.

The leading vote-getter in the Eastern Conference: Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo from Greece.

The leading vote-getter in the West: Dallas’s Luka Doncic of Slovenia.

Fan voting will always generate outrage for one reason or another. Boston’s little-used Tacko Fall, who placed sixth among East frontcourt candidates, and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Alex Caruso, who landed at No. 8 among West guards, were the primary causes for complaints from the opening round of polling. Yet you scarcely heard a quibble about the fact that LeBron James trailed both Giannis and Luka even though he has joined Anthony Davis in powering the Lakers to a 29-7 start.

Antetokounmpo is the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player Award winner and is playing at an even higher level this season. Doncic has yet to appear in an N.B.A. playoff game, but he has established himself as a consensus top-10 player by averaging a ridiculous 29.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 8.9 assists in his sophomore season — leading the upstart Mavericks to a surprising 23-13 record in the process.

Unlike Nash’s era, when the N.B.A. certainly featured numerous successful international players but only a few who were considered truly elite, there are several at that level besides Giannis and Luka.

  • The Cameroonian duo of Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Toronto’s Pascal Siakam have their own gaudy stat lines that make them All-Star locks.

  • Denver’s Nikola Jokic (Serbia), despite some slippage in his numbers from last season, remains the unquestioned fulcrum for the team with the second-best record in the West.

  • Utah’s Rudy Gobert (France) is not assured of making his All-Star breakthrough next month because a defense-first reputation like his historically doesn’t help much in All-Star campaigning. But Gobert has made such an all-around impact for the Jazz that you can find his name on Basketball Reference’s M.V.P. tracker at a solid No. 10.

  • Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns, who was born in New Jersey but represents the Dominican Republic internationally, played in the past two All-Star Games and would be a cinch for a third appearance if not for a recent knee injury — and the Timberwolves’ slump to a 14-21 record from a 10-8 start.

Throw in top All-Star contenders such as Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons (Australia) and Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania) — as well as All-Stars of recent vintage such as Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic (Montenegro), Philadelphia’s Al Horford (Dominican Republic), Toronto’s Marc Gasol (Spain), Miami’s Goran Dragic (Slovenia) and Dallas’s Kristaps Porzingis (Latvia) — and the point becomes clear.

There may not quite be 12 internationals playing at an indisputable All-Star level as we speak, but it’s increasingly fair to ask, as Nash predicted, if we’re all that far away.

Porzingis, after all, is working his way back to an All-Star standard after a lengthy injury layoff. Two of Nash’s young fellow Canadians — Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Denver’s Jamal Murray — have also flashed All-Star potential. Recent top-five lottery picks include Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton (Bahamas) and the Knicks’ R.J. Barrett (Canada).

The way things are going, as we dribble into a new decade, it looks as though mathematical fairness is the only deterrent to N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver’s trying out a United States/World format.

There were 108 foreign-born players on opening-night rosters this season, meaning there were more than 300 American-born players. It simply wouldn’t be equitable for two groups of such disparate size to battle for 12 All-Star spots each.

But I also don’t believe that the league is married to its two-year-old system in which the two leading vote-getters, as captains, pick their respective squads without regard to conference. For all the anticipation and chatter that the made-for-television selection show generates, momentum from the first game played using this format in L.A. in 2018, after years of waning interest, did not carry over to the 2019 edition in Charlotte.

Don’t forget that Silver, when he initially proposed the introduction of an in-season tournament starting with the 2020-21 season, was looking at the final four of that competition as a potential replacement for the All-Star Game entirely. The league ultimately backed off that proposal when teams and the players’ union voiced resistance to an in-season tournament that would fall any later on the league’s calendar than December, but Silver’s original thinking suggests that the N.B.A. remains concerned about how flat All-Star Games tend to feel.

At the M.I.T. Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston in March, remember, Silver himself said the 2019 All-Star Game “didn’t work” and admitted that the most recent changes were akin to putting “an earring on a pig.”

Maybe the starry imports who have succeeded Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker and all the international stars from the last decade will never get their chance to engage the Americans in an All-Star duel. Maybe restricting that format to the Rising Stars Game featuring first- and second-year players, as the N.B.A. has done for the past five seasons, is the right call.

Yet the mere fact that the debate only gets stronger may be as fitting a tribute as we can muster for Stern — since taking the N.B.A. global before any other North American sport, and to a much greater degree, is such a huge slice of his legacy.

This newsletter is OUR newsletter. So please weigh in with what you’d like to see here. To get your hoops-loving friends and family involved, please forward this email to them so they can jump in the conversation. If you’re not a subscriber, you can sign up here.

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)

Q: Where would you rank David Stern as a commissioner compared to those in other sports like Pete Rozelle in the N.F.L., Bowie Kuhn or Fay Vincent in baseball, etc.? — Bob Purcell (San Diego)

Stein: I covered a smattering of all the major North American men’s team sports in my youth, but I have been covering the N.B.A. almost exclusively since February 1994. So it’s not really fair for me to answer this one.

I would naturally put Stern ahead of all his competitors because I know so much more about his work. Most of my older peers always say that mythical top spot has to go to either Stern or Rozelle. But as our own Harvey Araton sagely noted when I asked him, Stern’s edge may well be that on his watch the N.B.A. achieved relevance on social, cultural and international fronts that the N.F.L. — for all its advantages in TV prominence and in-stadium attendance — can’t match.

What I can say with greater confidence is that I will always wish Stern, upon ceding his office to Adam Silver in February 2014, would have spent a few years trying to bring order to a sport he loved almost as much as I do: tennis.

Tennis has always suffered greatly from the lack of a commissioner who could exert authority over the sport’s many (too many, really) competing factions. But Stern’s focus, for pretty much his entire adult life, was the N.B.A. and growing/enhancing/protecting his league. So I am forced to concede that it probably would have been hard for him to muster anywhere near the same passion for another sport in a working capacity.

Q: I have to agree with the recent comment here that the Raptors are mostly ignored by the American sports media. Maybe you are an exception, but why aren’t more people writing about the Chris Boucher story alone? — Kent Goodwin (Stowe, Vt.)

Stein: I think we’ve reached the point in this discussion where nothing I say is going to persuade the skeptics. But I think I will be vindicated when Coach of the Year Award voting results are released in June.

The Raptors awoke on Tuesday on a 54-win pace. If they maintain that level for the rest of the regular season, given the ridiculous string of injuries they’ve faced along the way, Nick Nurse will have a real shot at winning the C.O.Y. prize — and thus prove how closely the Raptors are being monitored south of the border in the post-Kawhi Leonard era.

It was suggested to me last week by a trusted insider that the Raptors just might surprise us again before the Feb. 6 trade deadline and emerge as buyers to fortify themselves for another playoff run. The widespread assumption coming into the season held that Toronto would trade the veteran likes of Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka to prepare for a reset in the summer of 2021 built around the free-agency pursuit of Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. (I predicted as much myself.)

The safe bet remains that Masai Ujiri, Toronto’s president of basketball operations, will avoid any deals that affect the Raptors’ cap space in 2021. But the Raptors will be a huge source of curiosity over the next month — thanks in part to the unexpected contributions from the likes of Boucher, Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, Oshae Brissett and O.G. Anunoby — whether or not they’re generating reams of coverage.

Q: How convenient for you. Now you get to expand your hate for Houston beyond basketball. — @venramamurthy from Twitter

Stein: This tweet came in response to my social media cheering for the Buffalo Bills as a proud former Western New Yorker — which lasted until the Bills unraveled in Saturday’s A.F.C. wild-card loss to the Houston Texans to extend their drought without a playoff win to 1995.

The supposition from Venkat is that rooting against the Texans was a natural for me because I “hate” his Rockets.

We’re still not past this stuff in 2020, friends?

My only issues with Houston, here in the real world, are the traffic, how hard it is to get to Cafe Adel for some wonderful Bosnian food in that traffic when staying downtown and the oppressive weather from June to September (my quarrel with every city in Texas — including the one I live in).

Happy New Year!

In 20 years as the team owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban has accrued more than $2.6 million in publicly announced fines from the N.B.A., according to this ledger maintained by the longtime Mavericks historian Patricia Bender. Not all fines issued by the league office are made public.

The N.B.A.’s two Florida teams sport quite the contrast with their records in overtime games so far this season: Miami is 6-0, and Orlando is 0-0.

The Pacers finished three games under .500 last season after losing Victor Oladipo to a ruptured quadriceps muscle in his right leg and were swept by Boston in a first-round playoff series. After acquiring Malcolm Brogdon in an off-season sign-and-trade with Milwaukee, Indiana is on a 51-win pace this season without Oladipo but still doesn’t know when he will return.

The potential downside of the Los Angeles Clippers’ well-chronicled “load management” strategy with Kawhi Leonard is that they may have to settle for a playoff seed that forces them to play the Lakers sooner than the conference finals. Thanks to an underwhelming 3-2 mark since their impressive Christmas Day defeat of the Lakers, Kawhi and Co. awoke on Tuesday as the West’s No. 4 team — which has the Clippers on course for a second-round playoff encounter with their Staples Center cotenants.

The Lakers’ 20 blocked shots in a home win on Sunday over Detroit were a rarity. According to Basketball Reference, no N.B.A. team had recorded at least 20 blocked shots in a game since it happened twice in 2001: Toronto with 23 against Atlanta in March 2001 and the Raptors with 20 against Golden State in November 2001.

Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@marcsteinnba). Send any other feedback to [email protected].