We’re halfway through the season, so it’s time to pick this little corner of the Internet’s official All-Star teams. Some rules I made up:
• I ignore the fan vote completely. That’s not a shot at the fans, who deserve to craft a no-defense exhibition as they wish. I just enjoy starting from scratch.
• 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, with some wiggle room on positions that won’t be necessary this season.
• Performance in this season trumps everything else. This game takes place every year, and so we should reward the guys who have been the very best — and most important to their teams — in this particular season. Career track record can be a useful tiebreaker in coin-flip cases, but the focus will be on the past 40-plus games. And given those priorities, it matters in very close calls if a player has missed something like eight or 10 of those games — a significant percentage.
To the rosters!
G Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
G Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers
FC LeBron James, Miami Heat
FC Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
FC Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks
G Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
G Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics
FC Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics
FC David West, Indiana Pacers
FC Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets
WC Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
WC Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
Some analysis of the thornier choices:
• You’ll notice Kevin Garnett is not here. He is absolutely a worthy choice — a wonderful player who can still hit mid-range jumpers, fire whip-smart interior passes, post up when Boston needs it, set monster (illegal) screens, and play some of the best team defense in the world. Boston’s defense just folds when he hits the bench.
I love the guy, even if I’m uncomfortable with his pathological cruelty to rivals. He is my Twitter avatar, and I’ve learned more about the modern NBA from watching Kevin Garnett play defense than from almost any other player.
But he’s logging just 29.8 minutes per game, his rebounding and individual defense have slipped just slightly, and he’s not a “throw me the damn ball” offensive force on a night-to-night basis anymore. His Player Efficiency Rating of 18.4, while still excellent, would be his lowest since 1996-97.
It’s lower than that of David West, one of the three guys (along with Paul George and Al Horford) in consideration for what was essentially the final spot on this fake roster. West is playing nearly four more minutes per game than Garnett, and lacking a Rajon Rondo–style ball dominator, he often works as the centerpiece of a Pacers offense that would cease to function without him. He has been one of the league’s most efficient and high-volume crunch-time shooters, and he’s putting up the best passing numbers of his career — better passing numbers than KG — as a distributor in Indiana’s pick-and-roll system. The Pacers lack a dynamic penetrating point guard, which leaves West to slip screens into the foul line area, catch an entry pass, read the defense, and kick to an open shooter.
West isn’t on KG’s level as a defender or rebounder, but he’s perfectly fine at both, and he’s just as valuable in Indiana as the locker-room sage/inspirational leader as KG is in Boston.
• If Boston deserves a second All-Star, Pierce is a fine choice. He continues to evolve as his individual explosiveness declines. He’s working off screens more now as a catch-and-shoot player who doesn’t need much space to fire off a 3-pointer — a shot Pierce has taken, and hit, more often as he’s aged. He’s also a useful secondary distributor in high pick-and-rolls (including a killer combination with Rondo), when he catches after jetting off a Garnett screen at the elbow, and in a developing two-man game with Jason Terry.
Best of all, Pierce has become a brainy defender in all senses — a borderline All-Defense talent who keeps his feet and always knows where to be in Boston’s scheme.
• Two things on Holiday getting the starting nod over Irving and Rondo:
1. It’s very hard to argue Rondo has been better than Holiday this season. The only pieces of evidence are these: Rondo is shooting 48.7 percent, compared to 45.8 percent for Holiday, and he’s dishing two more assists per game.
Beyond that, it’s all Holiday. The shooting percentage gap vanishes when you consider Holiday is hitting 37 percent from deep — an above-average number — on three attempts per game, grabbing a much larger scoring role in Philadelphia’s offense,1 and getting to the line more than Rondo. That last thing is damning for Rondo as Boston desperately seeks more assertiveness from him; it’s hard to find a heavy-minutes point guard who gets to the line significantly less often than Holiday, but Rondo is one such player.
Boston’s offense, at a team level, is about as dysfunctional as Philly’s. Boston ranks 20th in points per 100 possessions, at 100.2 for the season, per NBA.com. Philly is 24th at 99.7.
Holiday has also been especially good in the clutch, shooting 20-of-45 in the last five minutes of close games as Philly’s only reliable creator. He single-handedly destroyed Toronto on Friday at the end of regulation and in overtime to cement his case.
2. Rondo’s defense has slipped into Kobe Bryant/Kyle Lowry aimless freelancing territory, while Holiday continues to soundly hound guys at both guard positions. Rondo is still a worthy All-Star, obviously. He combines Andre Miller’s professorial understanding of spacing, angles, and timing with turbo speed and creative finishing — when he actually chooses to finish. But Holiday has been better this season.
Irving has probably been better than both of them, but he’s missed 11 of Cleveland’s 42 games and is still a subpar defender. He’s getting better on that end, and had he played more this season, he’d probably deserve to start.
• The “center” position is an interesting three-man race between Lopez, Chandler, and Noah, and all are deserving. Lopez is the most polished offensive player of three, capable of hurting teams from the post, on the pick-and-pop, and flashing into the lane via cross screens. He gets to the line a ton and sits a stunning fifth overall in PER. He’s also improved as a defender and rebounder. The Nets rank 20th in points allowed per 100 possessions, but they’re about average when Lopez plays and league-worst when he sits, per NBA.com.2
Lopez smartly uses his length around the rim to contest shots even when his feet can’t quite keep up with the shooter heading toward the basket. Brooklyn opponents are shooting 63 percent from the restricted area when he sits and just 57.5 percent when he plays, according to NBA.com.
But let’s not overstate things. Lopez is far from a “stopper” on the Chandler/Noah level, and he still hasn’t proven he can protect the glass adequately without a rebound-chomper like Reggie Evans or Kris Humphries next to him. The Nets have rebounded 81 percent of opponent misses when Lopez and Evans play together, but just 62.2 percent when Lopez plays without Evans, according to NBA.com. The former mark would rank first overall, while the lower number would rank dead last.
Noah might be the best defender in the league, he’s a better passer than Chandler, and he soaks up more possessions on offense. But he’s slipped of late under an unsustainable minutes burden, shooting less accurately and getting to the stripe less often after a red-hot first month.
So I’ll go with Chandler as the best available combination of offense and defense. He doesn’t finish as many possessions as the other two, but his Dwight Howard–style ability (and we’re talking 2010-11 Howard) to suck in defenders as an ultra-athletic pick-and-roll dunker has enabled New York to spread the floor around him and launch an ungodly number of 3s. Chandler is shooting an insane 67 percent and getting to the line a very nice five times per 36 minutes. His ability to both rove and protect the rim on defense has enabled Mike Woodson to go offense-first in using Carmelo Anthony at power forward.
Toughest omissions: Paul George (coming on strong after a tough start), Al Horford, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, Greg Monroe, Josh Smith, Thaddeus Young.
G Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
G Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
FC Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
FC Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
FC Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
G Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
G James Harden, Houston Rockets
FC Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
FC LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers
FC David Lee, Golden State Warriors
WC Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
WC Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs
Let’s work backward. There are nine players who have to be here: the five starters, plus Gasol, Harden, Parker, and Westbrook.3
I realize Duncan averages only 30.2 minutes per game, the same kind of low number that hurt Garnett’s case, but he has been so off-the-charts spectacular in those minutes, it almost doesn’t matter. He has shot just as well as KG from the field, only he’s done so more often and getting to the line more, dishing more assists, rebounding better, blocking more shots, and generally working as more of a hub on offense. It all adds up to a PER of 25, the sixth-highest mark in the league, a full six points higher than KG’s number. Here’s the difference: Duncan’s minutes hurt his MVP candidacy; KG’s minutes hurt his All-Star case.
There are legitimate quibbles with the starting spots belonging to Bryant and Griffin, but their replacements would come from the nine must-have All-Stars. Bryant’s shooting has come back to earth after a scorching first 20 games or so, and his defense in transition and away from the ball has been horrific. Westbrook is still a bit jumpy and unreliable on defense (and prone to his own brand of lazy transition D), but he’s been better defensively than Bryant this season, and has crept within a tenth of a point of Kobe in PER. Harden’s recent turnover-happy slump leaves Westbrook with a stronger starting case, but I’ll stick with Bryant, given the extreme drama and roster upheaval surrounding him all season.
Griffin/Gasol is a toss-up. Gasol is a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate and perhaps the best passing big man in the league. Griffin gets better defensively every day, and Vinny Del Negro is comfortable now shifting him to center. He’s right up there with Gasol as a passer, and more willing to take a possession-by-possession centerpiece role on offense.
In any case: Those guaranteed nine leave us just three spots for the remaining six top candidates:
4. Serge Ibaka
5. Zach Randolph
6. Dwight Howard
There is a perception that Howard has been awful this season and missed a lot of games, but neither is true. He’s played in 38 of the Lakers’ 41 games, leads the league in rebounding, and has shot 58 percent from the floor. And though his defense has slipped, he still factors into the calculus of every little guy driving into the lane, and his adjusted plus/minus numbers are strong.4
He’s the Western Conference version of Lopez in terms of on-court/off-court splits. The Lakers play league-worst defense when he sits and league-average defense when he’s on the floor, per NBA.com. Their defensive rebounding also falls off a couple of percentage points when Howard hits the bench.
And yet: His half-court defense has been hit-or-miss; he has played a big part in the Lakers’ abysmal transition defense; he’s using fewer possessions and attempting fewer shots per minute than at any time in the last half decade; his scoring numbers get a semi-artificial boost from free throws that teams are happy to give him; and his PER has fallen from its customary home in the mid-20s to a relatively ho-hum 20.3.
A guy who was the second-best player in the league two seasons ago is a borderline All-Star now. He has a case, but not an airtight one, and given his piss-poor free throw shooting and unreliable D, I’m crossing him off.
Ibaka has improved on both ends, but the jump has been higher on offense, where he gets to work as a third cog around two stars who bend defenses away from him. He has a fairly low usage rate for an All-Star candidate, and though he’s more solid on defense this season, he can still struggle with positioning against shooting power forwards — and against pump fakes. In a crowded field, he’s a painful final cut.
Curry’s in. A point guard who can shoot 45 percent from 3 on a ton of attempts is a franchise changer, and Curry has worked his tail off to fit within Mark Jackson’s revamped defensive scheme.
That leaves Lee, Randolph, and Aldridge for two spots. All three rank as average or worse defenders, and Lee is probably at the bottom, even though he’s worked harder on that end — and on the boards — this season. He’s always going to be undersized and slow, with a short wingspan that limits his ability to protect the rim and contest shots in the post; opponents have shot a robust 48 percent against him in post-ups this season, per Synergy Sports, and the Warriors often have to send him help.
The Blazers don’t have to send Aldridge help, and his head-to-head assignments are just 20-of-70 against him in the post, per Synergy. Aldridge’s defense has probably regressed or plateaued since his breakout 2010-11 season, but he’s still pretty quick, comfortable defending the pick-and-roll in several different ways, and tall/long enough to be a factor down low even when his effort and positioning wane.
Aldridge’s jumper-happy start to the season hurt his efficiency, but he has found a bit more balance in his shot selection during the last month or so as he and Terry Stotts develop their player-coach chemistry. Aldridge can be a Randolph-style post bulwark when he wants to be, and he’s shooting only two percentage points worse than Z-Bo for the season. He’s a better/longer defender in space, though not in Randolph’s league on the glass.
Basically: This is an impossible choice. But since I have to make one, I’ll reward Lee for his 52 percent shooting — easily the best among three offense-first players — and ability to work as an efficient cog in just about every way the Warriors’ offensive system could ask. Aldridge gets the nod over Randolph for working as the clear no. 1 guy on his team, even if Damian Lillard has seized that mantle in crunch time. But if you want Randolph, that’s absolutely fine.
Other tough omissions: Andrei Kirilenko, Nicolas Batum, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Ryan Anderson
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. Amar’e Stoudemire’s Start to the Season
It’s early, and Stoudemire has shown blips of his old effectiveness as a scorer, especially in New York’s jolly good win over Detroit in London and its tough loss to Brooklyn Monday. But he’s looking so creaky on defense and the glass that it’s uncomfortable to watch. If this is the real Amar’e now, it’s going to be hard for New York to play him heavy minutes against stacked first-line offenses.
2. The “Carlton Banks” Fan Cam in Philly
Every arena experience blends with every other, and the Sixers have a “Gangnam Style” dance cam you could see anywhere. But they also have the “Carlton Cam,” which encourages fans to dance in the famous spastic-yet-rhythmic style the grinning Alfonso Ribeiro made into a sensation as Carlton Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. (IMDb tells me Ribeiro was never nominated for an Emmy during the Fresh Prince run. This is a crime against art.) It should go without saying that Tom Jones’s “It’s Not Unusual” is blaring in the background, and that there is always a fan or two who will absolutely nail this dance.
3. Steve Nash, Looking Old
It’s early, and the process-obsessed Nash is recovering from a broken leg while trying to find his fit within an evolving offense and ever-changing rotation. But he suddenly looks his age. Nash is attempting fewer shots per 36 minutes than LARRY SANDERS!, hitting a middling (for him) 39 percent from deep, and struggling more than usual to turn the corner on pick-and-rolls. Trapping defenses are keeping Nash out of the lane, and all those floaters he’s mastered just look more difficult this season; there have even been a few air balls, and some mid-range shots have come from a foot or two farther out than we’re used to seeing.
The Lakers need more, and Nash’s track record suggests he’ll have more to give eventually. Let’s hope so.
4. Oklahoma City’s Alternate Jerseys
I don’t know what these are supposed to be.
5. The Kings’ Use of the “Power-Up” Sound Effect From Super Mario Bros.
When a Sacramento player hits a free throw during a home game, the arena folks play the sound you heard as a kid when little Mario snagged a mushroom or gained Flower Power. Man, Nintendo was great.
6. Al-Farouq Aminu’s Jump Shot
If it could speak, Aminu’s jumper would say, “WHEEE!!!! I have no idea where I’m going, but I’m way high in the air right now!” It is a basketball prayer, every time. It has been nice to see Aminu work his way back into Monty Williams’s rotation as a rebounder and plus defender, but, man, is he hard to watch on offense.
7. Robin Lopez’s Baby Steps
Lopez recorded 43 assists combined in his first four seasons, which included three (!) seasons of single-digit assist totals. Lopez has already dished 35 assists this season, and while that’s still below average even for a big-man finisher, it’s a small sign Lopez still has little bits of refinement to add to his game. Lopez is now capable at least a few times per game of catching the ball in the paint on a pick-and-roll, and either kicking the ball to a shooter or dropping a short-distance bounce pass to his big-man partner around the baseline. One assist per game isn’t much, but it’s something, and it will help sustain Lopez’s usefulness.
8. The Ed Davis Quick Seal
Davis isn’t especially strong or rangy with his shot, but he is quick, and he uses that asset — plus an improved post game — to help the Raps’ half-court game flow. When Jose Calderon and Amir Johnson run a high pick-and-roll with Johnson cutting down the left side of the lane, watch Davis dart into position on the opposite block, seal his man deep, and call for the ball on a quick-hitting post-up. That action occupies a would-be help defender who now has to guard Davis instead of shifting to Johnson, and Davis himself can hit a nifty little lefty jump hook out of the post — a shot he can release before a defender reaches the peak of his jump.
9. The JaVale Precognition of the Denver Bench
When JaVale McGee does something beyond his skill set on offense — a foul line turnaround jumper, a dribble drive from 20 feet out — rewind and watch the Denver bench during the play. You’ll invariably see at least one player or coach put his head in his hands or hide his face under a towel, even as McGee just begins what they know will be a fatally bad move. It won’t surprise me if George Karl whips out a flask at one point this season.
10. Isaiah Thomas’s Hesitation Dribble
This is how a tiny person can hit a nutty 74.4 percent of his shots at the rim, as Thomas has done so far this season. I think there are still a few opposing big men standing frozen at the dotted line in Sleep Train Arena, even though their teams have flown to other cities.