We are, somehow, halfway through the NBA season. I feel like it was maybe two weeks ago we were all watching Indiana and Orlando tip things off, with Andrew Nicholson, now long forgotten, blowing up overeager NBA Twitter with a storm of jumpers.
But we’re here, and that means it’s time for All-Star picks. A reminder of the ground rules:
• I proceed as if the fan vote never happened. That is not because I don’t like the system, or think the fans did a bad job. It’s just more fun to start from scratch.
• Performance in this season trumps everything else. Not everyone goes about the process this way. The All-Star Game is a highlight reel showcase for fans, and the voters can plausibly argue for bigger names and historical accomplishments over a relative no-name playing his butt off this season.
I just happen to think it’s more fun to reward the relative no-name, provided he deserves it over the career star. It introduces some variety into the All-Star rosters. And we do have some responsibility to take this seriously. When guys come up for Hall of Fame consideration, we toss around All-Star appearances as important criteria, without reflecting much on the process behind the honor.
• I follow the same rules as the fans in selecting starters, and the coaches in picking reserves. For starters: two guards and three frontcourt players, as designated by the official ballot. For reserves: two guards, three frontcourt players, and two wild cards.
• I generally agonize over this more than I should. I take everything into account: I watch a gazillion games, scour film, talk to talent evaluators all over the league, and consider every publicly available statistic I can find. This is a love-hate thing for me, especially when we get down to the end of the rosters. Research all you want, but picking the last two spots is basically an educated coin flip.1
Without further ado:
G Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
G John Wall, Washington Wizards
FC LeBron James, Miami Heat
FC Paul George, Indiana Pacers
FC Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers
G Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
G Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic
FC Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
FC Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
FC Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
WC Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
WC Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies/Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns2 (but really Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers)
Some analysis of the thornier choices:
• Wade is the best guard in the Eastern Conference, but he has missed 25 percent of the Heat’s season — for very smart reasons. But that’s enough to knock him out of my starting lineup.
• The two omissions likely to draw the most shouting: Andre Drummond and Lance Stephenson. Drummond is a fascinating case. He’s shooting 60 percent, he might be the very best rebounder in the league, and he scares the crap out of opposing ball handlers in the lane — when he’s in the right place.
He barely gets the ball, for reasons that have to do both with his limitations and Detroit’s structurally flawed roster. Drummond has used only 16 percent of Detroit’s possessions via a shot, drawn foul, or turnover. That is a very low number for a starter playing heavy minutes with such a fearsome skill set. Only 15 players have ever made an All-Star team with a usage rate of 17 percent or lower, and most of them were historically elite defensive bigs in their primes: Ben Wallace, Dikembe Mutombo, and Dennis Rodman account for 11 of the 25 All-Star appearances on that list.
Drummond projects as a great defender, and some talent evaluators I respect think he is already at that level. There are even some advanced statistical systems that rank Drummond as a very good defender.
I’m just not there yet. Detroit has allowed 107.6 points per 100 possessions with Drummond on the floor, and just 99.4 when he sits, per NBA.com. Drummond suffers in this regard for having played a huge portion of his minutes with both Josh Smith and Greg Monroe — an ultra-big look that has flopped badly — but Detroit’s defense has been very bad even when Maurice Cheeks has separated Monroe and Drummond, per NBA.com. He’s a very good shot-blocker, but opponents have shot a higher percentage in the restricted area when Drummond is on the floor than when he’s on the bench, per NBA.com.3
It’s just very hard to make a case that Drummond is a major plus defender, and that matches the eye test. He has all the limitations we’d expect for a 20-year-old — shaky footwork against the pick-and-roll, a tendency to reach instead of sliding with his feet, high pump-fake gullibility, and a habit of jumping out on little guys attempting midrange shots on the pick-and-roll when one of Drummond’s teammates already has the shot covered. The stark limitations of Drummond’s teammates and Cheeks’s schemes hurt Drummond’s cause, but the evidence remains all over the place.
On offense, it’s hard for Drummond to get touches playing alongside three ball-dominant players in Brandon Jennings, Smith, and Monroe. (Pity poor Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who barely touches the ball more than I do watching from my couch.) Drummond is a devastating pick-and-roll player, and Detroit should probably feature that action more, though the lack of shooting that allows defenses to clog the paint against Detroit’s starters would make the play a bit less effective than it is with Detroit’s spacier bench units.
Drummond bears some responsibility for the low usage rate. He’s one of the worst foul shooters in the league, and his post game is still in its early stages — though he has shown a nice touch around the hoop.
Again: He’s freaking 20. When I was 20, I was playing Wiffle ball, video games, and hearts in my college dorm. He’s going to be a perennial All-Star, but he’s not quite there now.
• Stephenson is this season’s All-Star case du jour, thanks to his highlight play, quirky online campaign, and presence as a key cog on perhaps the league’s best team. He’s a better version of Jamal Crawford last season — a crowd-pleaser who gains All-Star momentum, even though it’s hard to make a case for him when you really dig in.
Stephenson has been very good, and as I wrote in this early-season rave about his improvement as a passer and defender, he’s going to get paid this summer. He’s shooting 50 percent, he’s reliable from 3-point range, and he’s a long-armed bull on defense who has cleaned up most of his bad habits on that end — bad habits he’ll cop to if you ask him, by the way.
There are entire quarters when he’s the fifth option within Indiana’s killer starting lineup, only getting to fly when he captains bench-heavy units that have largely been very successful. He has used up just 19 percent of Indy’s possessions while on the floor, a low number for a well-rounded perimeter ball handler, and his Player Efficiency Rating is just a hair over the league’s average. He’s solid defensively, but Indiana’s real star is its team defense, and George and Hibbert should get the bulk of the credit for that.
It’s hard to look at the heavier burdens Afflalo, Wall, and Millsap carry — and their superior individual numbers — and pick Stephenson over them. He wouldn’t be a crazy choice, especially given that he’s a better defender than the Afflalo-Wall-Irving group of guards, but he misses the cut here.
• The pick of Irving is the equivalent of a shoulder shrug, and he gets the very last spot here by default (the two sweetest words in the English language!). His shooting has stabilized after an icy start, and a point guard who can shoot like this should be the foundation of a very good offense. His PER is up to 20 — All-Star level. Some of his defensive metrics have improved, but others remain horrible,4 and the eye test is generally bad. Cleveland’s offense has been a disaster regardless of whether Irving plays, and he gets no clutch-performance bonus this season. If you want to swap someone else onto this roster, Irving is the guy to go.
• Toronto fans are clamoring for DeMar DeRozan to make the team, and while he does have a case, Lowry has been the team’s best player — and probably the best all-around point guard in the Eastern Conference this season. He’s taken flight offensively since the Rudy Gay deal, and he’s found a way to reconcile his havoc-creating gambles on defense with Dwane Casey’s larger scheme. Wall is right there with him, a deserving All-Star who props up a Wizards offense that basically dies when he sits.
• Noah and Millsap just roll along as effective two-way players, and Noah is a prototype for Drummond’s future All-Star candidacy — a low-usage guy who makes All-Star by playing nearly flawless interior defense. Millsap has kept the Hawks afloat against a tough schedule since Al Horford’s season-ending injury with one of the league’s most diverse offensive games — one that now includes a proficient, high-volume 3-point shot. Noah has used only 18 percent of Chicago’s possessions, but he’s much more involved than Drummond as a high-post passer, and his defense near the basket is cleaner and more valuable than Stephenson’s work away from the hoop. He’s a great, great player, averaging a ridiculous 15 boards and 5.5 assists per game over his last 11 games.
• Afflalo’s defense has been overrated most of his career, but he’s been super efficient carrying an Orlando offense bereft of long-range shooting and legit scoring options. He’s worked hard to make himself an effective post player, and it has paid off hugely this season. He’s shooting 51 percent on post-up plays, per Synergy Sports, and among 79 players with at least 50 post-ups to their name, Afflalo ranks ninth in points per possession. He ranks even higher if you broaden the data search to include shots Orlando attempts after Afflalo kicks the ball out of the post, per Synergy. No. 1 on that list, by the way? LeBron James. Yup. LeBron didn’t just remake himself into an effective post player; he might be the very best post player in the league. This is bananas.
Toughest omissions: DeRozan, Greg Monroe, Thaddeus Young, Drummond, Luol Deng, Kemba Walker, Al Jefferson, Michael Carter-Williams, Stephenson, Jeff Teague, Joe Johnson, Anderson Varejao.
G James Harden, Houston Rockets
G Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
FC Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
FC Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves
FC LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers
G Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs
G Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
FC Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
FC Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
FC Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets
WC Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
WC DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
Some remarks on an absolutely torturous process:
• We are operating here on the assumption that Chris Paul doesn’t play due to injury. If he ends up being available, I’ll have to revise the roster, likely by cutting either Cousins or Parker. Paul is the best guard in the world.
• I am heartbroken for Conley and Dragic. Dragic has been outstanding all season carrying an overachieving team, especially on offense,5 and he has kept the Suns afloat since Eric Bledsoe’s meniscus tear. He has a higher PER than Parker, mostly because of his superior 3-point shooting, and he’s a bigger, rangier defender than either Parker or Lillard.
Conley has been a rock in assuming a larger role than ever before and steadying the Grizz during Marc Gasol’s absence. Memphis ranked 14th in points per possession while Gasol recovered from a knee injury. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a freaking miracle for this team, and Conley deserves most of the credit. He’s pulled the tough trick of becoming efficient despite assuming a heavier burden, and the Grizz have thrived when Conley takes the floor without Zach Randolph, the team’s other offensive hub, per NBA.com.6 He has a higher PER than Parker, Dragic, or Lillard going into Monday’s action, and though his defense hasn’t quite been as airtight this season, he is the best of this group on that end by a considerable margin — a tireless two-way worker.
The numbers are so close as to be almost irrelevant for the purposes of distinguishing between three great point guards. Parker has come on after a slow start (by his standards), and he has been the single constant running a sophisticated offense that continues to blitz the league amid slumps, injuries, and rotation tinkering.7
Lillard is still a minus defender, but he isn’t as egregiously bad as he was last season, and he has developed into a foundational offensive player. He’s a so-so distributor, in part because Nicolas Batum is so good as a secondary passer, and he has struggled to finish at the basket, but, holy hell, this guy’s combination of ballhandling and 3-point shooting has Curry-level lethality.
Lillard is on pace for one of the greatest 3-point shooting seasons ever, perhaps the second-best, behind only the prolonged hot streak that doubled as Curry’s 2012-13 season. Lillard is on pace for 600 3-point attempts, and he’s shooting 44 percent. Only seven players have ever hit even 40 percent from deep while jacking at least 550 attempts, and each accomplished that double just once in his career.
Lillard’s defense counts against him, as does the fact that Portland’s offense has scored at below-average rates when Lillard plays without Aldridge.8 But Portland’s poor backup bigs have a lot to do with that, and Lillard has been the league’s best clutch player so far this season. He’s a ridiculous 12-of-21 from the floor in the last three minutes when the scoring margin is three or fewer points, and he has more last-second game-tying and winning shots than anyone. He belongs. Dragic, by comparison, is just 1-of-8 in those situations, and Phoenix has been bad in close games.
We’re splitting hairs with these four guards, but we have to split them somehow, and the process is painful.
• Davis and Cousins are interesting candidates, especially in relation to Drummond’s All-Star case. All three are big men manning the middle for awful defenses, a black mark that could disqualify all of them. But Cousins and Davis offer more diverse portfolios. Both play far larger roles in their teams’ decent-to-very-good offenses. Davis is shooting 53 percent and using a ton of possessions in very different ways, even though he’s still learning the nuances of each of them — pick-and-roll cuts to the rim, shallower rolls where he catches near the foul line and works off the bounce, post-ups, and more. He’s the league’s premier transition big man, he’s a very good foul shooter, and he’s fifth in the entire stinking association in PER.
There is evidence to suggest he’s a positive amid a larger defensive train wreck. Opponents have hit only 45 percent of close shots when Davis is near the ball and the basket, per those data-tracking cameras, an above-average mark. He blocks a higher percentage of opponents’ shots than any player in the league; his arms should count as an extra player. The Pelicans’ rebounding falls apart without Davis on the floor, per NBA.com. Basically: There is scattered evidence suggesting that the Pellies’ awful defense has more to do with Monty Williams’s aggressive schemes, and the limitations of the Brow’s teammates, than with the Brow.
• Cousins is a trickier case. The Kings are a hair better defensively when Cousins plays, but they’re a catastrophe either way. He has worked hard to minimize the litany of bad habits detailed here, though they each pop up now and then during every game. The Kings force a ton of turnovers when Cousins plays, in part because of his soft and active hands, and he’s a bear on the block.9 A lot of talent evaluators with access say Boogie has morphed into a plus on defense this season, and one publicly available advanced plus/minus system agrees.
I’m not sold. Cousins still goes through bouts of lurching laziness, and his endless whining is a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Sacramento’s transition defense. Teams shoot better in the restricted area when Cousins is on the floor, and they’ve hit 54 percent of their close shots when Cousins is near the rim, per SportVU — a poor number. He’s still a below-average defender overall.
But “below average” counts as an improvement, and the dude has become an unstoppable load on offense, soaking up a ton of possessions with proficient play. In fact, Cousins has used a league-high 33.4 percent of Sacto’s possessions while on the floor, putting him on pace for one of the 40 highest-usage seasons in league history, and suggesting that both he and the Kings might benefit from Cousins sharing just a little bit more.
Still, he’s been ultra-efficient by playing to his interior strengths and cutting his hoggy midrange shots. He’s a damn artist on the pick-and-roll, one of the few bigs alive capable of catching the ball 20 feet from the hoop, on the move, and dribbling or passing into a great look for the Kings. He’s sixth in PER. That’s tough to ignore, even with the defensive limitations and curious numbers showing that Cousins hasn’t been able to carry a functional offense this season without Isaiah Thomas also on the court. Conley and Dragic are more likable and consistent, but Cousins has earned this spot.
• I’ve seen some All-Star lists omit Nowitzki. Hi, welcome to reality. He’s eighth in PER, and he’s not far from another 50-40-90 season at age 35. Madness.
• I’ll have more on this at some point soon, but Griffin has been fantastic, and the idea that he’s a one-dimensional offensive player is the most irritating NBA fan myth going — blindingly dumb, and several years out of date.
• Durant is the MVP at the halfway point. I didn’t expect that to be the case, and LeBron remains the league’s best overall player when properly motivated. But Durant is the MVP right now.
Toughest omissions: Serge Ibaka, Conley, Dragic, Ty Lawson, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Isaiah Thomas, Nikola Pekovic, David Lee, Andrew Bogut, Zach Randolph, Chandler Parsons, Monta Ellis.