SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Jazz fans have found a villain in Shaquille O'Neal this season; they apparently have a champion in Charles Barkley.
It wasn't a major surprise that when the All-Star Game starters were announced Thursday there were no Jazz players on the list. The West is deep and has lots of star power. The best record in the league wasn't expected to be good enough to help a Jazz player break into the top spots.
The selections went about as expected: LeBron James (captain), Kawhi Leonard and Nikola Jokic in the front court with Steph Curry and Luka Doncic on the guard line. The All-Star Game for years has been a quasi-popularity contest, but outside of a few instances, the best players do usually end up starting the game. There is a reason James, Leonard, Curry etc. are so revered: They are really, really good.
The fans, players and media just about agreed on all five of those names — with the exception that the media and players gave a guard spot to Damian Lillard over Doncic. But for most, is was simply a coin toss.
That said, did a Jazz player have an argument to start? Barkley sure thought so.
"When you have the best record in basketball that says a lot. … Donovan Mitchell should be rewarded in my opinion," Barkley said.
Mitchell's stats don't quite stack up against the two guards who will start the game, or against Lillard's. Mitchell's averaging 24.2 points and 5.1 assists while shooting 43% from the floor.
Curry is averaging 30.0 points, 6.0 assists and connecting on over 42% of his threes, looking very much like the same player that won a unanimous MVP award a few seasons back; Doncic is averaging 29.1 points, 9.4 assists and 8.6 rebounds per game; and Lillard, meanwhile, has put up 29.8 points and 7.7 assists while generating some famed "Dame Time" moments.
Mitchell doesn't have the stats, but he does have the wins. Barkley thought that should carry the day.
"No disrespect to anybody, but this kid has been the best player on the best team in the NBA, and it's unfortunate he's not starting," Barkley said.
Mitchell finished fourth among Western Conference guards in fan voting and media voting, while being fifth in player voting. That's a sign that the respect is coming — that his game is getting recognized more and more by fans, his peers and those that follow the game. The same thing can't be said about Rudy Gobert, who is the key piece to Utah's hot start. Gobert finished 12th in fan voting among Western Conference front court players — that's some heavy disrespect.
Even without a starter, the Jazz should be well represented in Atlanta on March 7. Jazz coach Quin Snyder will be the coach of the team that's selected by James, and Mitchell and Gobert are seen as near locks to be All-Stars when reserves are announced on Tuesday. It wasn't a surprise they weren't starters — it would be an absolute shock if they aren't in the game.
The question is will any of their other teammates be joining them?
Mike Conley is averaging 16.5 points and 5.8 assists and was leading the league in plus/minus before missing the last six games with a tight right hamstring. He still has a league-best 17.7 net rating this season and could get the sentimental vote from coaches, too. He's widely seen as one of the best players ever to never reach an All-Star game.
Another dark horse possibility: Jordan Clarkson. He's averaging 18.2 points with career-best efficiency numbers. If coaches want to reward a sixth man, Clarkson will be the guy.
"If it happens, it happens but I'm chilling. I'm cool where I'm at," Clarkson said. "I'm trying to go get that six man and win us some games and impact when I get in there."
And one person does think Clarkson should get a nod: Charles Barkley. We told you Jazz fans have a new champion.
"He's been the best bench player in the NBA this season," Barkley said. "They have the best record in the NBA. Most people don't know that he has been fantastic this year. That's why I got him on my list."