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Marc Stein: The NBA elite are now from everywhere

It was at the 2018 All-Star Game in Los Angeles that I asked Steve Nash, one of the foremost imports in NBA 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 former NBA 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’ 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 MVP and is playing at an even higher level this season. Doncic has yet to appear in an NBA 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 NBA 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 MVP 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’ 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 New York Knicks’ RJ 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 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 LA 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 NBA remains concerned about how flat All-Star Games tend to feel.

At the MIT 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 NBA 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 NBA global before any other North American sport, and to a much greater degree, is such a huge slice of his legacy.

Related Photos
<strong>Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) goes past Jalen Brunson (13) of Dallas during the Thunder's 106-101 win on Dec. 31. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]</strong>

Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) goes past Jalen Brunson (13) of Dallas during the Thunder's 106-101 win on Dec. 31. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-4b610d9c31d1688e8b7d17dc9e1be264.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) goes past Jalen Brunson (13) of Dallas during the Thunder's 106-101 win on Dec. 31. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] " title=" Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) goes past Jalen Brunson (13) of Dallas during the Thunder's 106-101 win on Dec. 31. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) goes past Jalen Brunson (13) of Dallas during the Thunder's 106-101 win on Dec. 31. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-71a7df67455e997f29f31a195c1832c5.jpg" alt="Photo - Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks at Golden State on Jan. 8. [AP Photo/Ben Margot] " title=" Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks at Golden State on Jan. 8. [AP Photo/Ben Margot] "><figcaption> Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks at Golden State on Jan. 8. [AP Photo/Ben Margot] </figcaption></figure>
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