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
And I can’t get into the in-depth reasoning behind every single choice and omission, or else this column would get too long.
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)
I realize they are in the Western Conference. The West is that good; the East is that bad. The East should have to reserve two of its All-Star roster spots for Western Conference players.
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
SportVU data is friendlier to Drummond, grading him about average in terms of opponent shooting percentage at the basket when Drummond is nearby.
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.
The Cavs have allowed 99.3 points per 100 possessions when Irving sits, and a very bad 106.3 when he plays, per NBA.com. Opposing point guards have lit up the Cavs with a PER of 18 when Irving is on the floor, per 82games.com.
• 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.
Phoenix has scored 108.9 points per 100 possessions when Dragic plays and just 99 when he sits, per NBA.com. That’s roughly the difference between Miami’s no. 2 offense and a bottom-10 outfit, and the split has remained very large since Eric Bledsoe’s injury.
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.
They’ve struggled badly in the reverse situation.
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
You’ll hear that San Antonio’s offense has actually been better when Parker sits, but there’s a lot of noise around that number, the margin is very small, and the Spurs have scored at a top-five rate with Parker on the floor.
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.
Portland has managed very well in the reverse situation, a feather in Aldridge’s cap, not that he needs another one.
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.
Mike Malone gradually dialing back the Kings’ aggression on the pick-and-roll, allowing Cousins to hang back at the elbow area instead of lunging out hard on ball handlers, has been helpful and plays to Boogie’s strengths.
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.
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. Matinee Games
Wait, so this is what life is like for people in California? You can watch entire basketball games before dinner and then spend time with your loved ones?
I need some of this in my life. Between the Hawks-Nets game in London and the deluge of Martin Luther King Jr. Day afternoon games, I’m loving the unusual chance to watch NBA day games.
Television ratings are surely better on weeknights than during weekdays, and introducing matinee games would complicate the NBA’s already complex schedule. But why can’t we have more of these games, at least on Sundays, when only the Raptors and Knicks occasionally give us an early-afternoon tip?
2. Lou Williams’s Vanishing Foul Shots
Williams has always derived a lot of his value by using funky tricks and body contortions to earn free throws. But that skill has largely vanished in Atlanta, and the evaporation began last season, before Williams tore his ACL. Williams is a poor defender and a below-average shooter from the floor. Without the free throws, he’s not much of an asset. Let’s hope the league’s ultimate 2-for-1 aficionado (or perhaps no. 2, behind Chris Paul) rediscovers his guile.
3. The “Wedgie”
Steve Albert, the Suns’ play-by-play guy, has been using this term to describe those instances when the ball gets stuck between the rim and the backboard. I like it. J.J. Redick has told me he and his buddies referred to this occurrence as a “crotch shot.” Interesting. I feel like we need a universally recognized term for this, and though I like “wedgie,” I think we can do better.
4. The Jamal Crawford Lean-In
Oh man, do I hate this Crawfordian attempt at fooling the officials into thinking some innocent defender has “fouled” Crawford:
Why are plays like this, which have aided in Crawford’s record number of four-point plays, regarded as clever aggression, while flops are repulsive?
5. Orlando’s Vintage Duds
Why aren’t these pinstriped bad boys Orlando’s regular uniforms? Why did the Magic ever change? I’m glad they’re back, but the team should keep them around.
6. The Jose Calderon Pop-Out
A classic little Calderon trick, one designed to play upon the general tendencies of NBA offenses and net Calderon an open 3-pointer:
A gazillion NBA possessions start this way, with the two big men (DeJuan Blair and Shawn Marion here) stationed at the elbows and a point guard (Calderon) entering the ball to one of them:
Most point guards in this situation cut in one of two ways: along the baseline and out the other side, or to the nearby corner to set a screen for the offensive player there. Calderon begins the latter cut, stunting toward Vince Carter in the right corner, and his defender (Kendall Marshall) is convinced the action is going to unfold in that typical manner. But Calderon stops on a dime, wrong-foots Marshall badly, and pops out behind what amounts to a screen from Marion for an easy 3-pointer. Great stuff, and a deke you’ll see Calderon break out once or twice a game.
7. The Shooting Guard Position in Milwaukee
What a mess. Gary Neal yelled at Larry Sanders and hasn’t played outside of garbage time since. O.J. Mayo has been in Larry Drew’s doghouse almost since jump street, and there are nights when he barely registers; he has scored zero points in two of his last three games. Drew has been starting Luke Ridnour as the team’s nominal shooting guard, and you’re never going to guess how playing an undersize and poor defender at the 2-guard spot has affected Milwaukee’s defense.
The Bucks have invested $24 million in Mayo, so they can’t really afford for him to become a long-term sunk cost. But if he’s a sunk cost for this season, then I say the Bucks should get full-time funky with jumbo lineups featuring two of the Giannis Antetokounmpo–Caron Butler–Khris Middleton trio at the wing spots — and as much of Antetokounmpo as possible. Either that or rehabilitate Mayo, who is still shooting a useful 37 percent from deep despite conditioning issues, the expected “blah” defense, and other warts.
8. Nene’s Disappearing Free Throw Accuracy
Nene hit better than 70 percent of his foul shots in four of five seasons prior to this one, but he’s strangely down to 61 percent this season — and sinking fast. He’s just 26-of-53 in his last eight games. It’s too early for any deep anxiety; this may be just a blip on the radar. But it’s not unprecedented for a decent free throw shooter to experience a down season and never recover. Andre Iguodala has been dealing with this for three seasons running, and Al Horford hadn’t jumped back to his career norms this season after falling off a cliff from the line last season. Weird.
9. “A Little Too Frenchy”
The Spurs announcers, as maddeningly homer-rific a crew as exists in the NBA today, will occasionally describe a Parker layup as “too Frenchy” if it spins off the glass and misses. No. Just … no.
10. “SMOTHERED CHICKEN”
Quinn Buckner talks over the action a little too much for my taste as the Pacers’ TV analyst, but he’s a fun listen, and never more so than when he goes into hysterics screaming “SMOTHERED CHICKEN!” after an emphatic Indiana rejection. Here’s the most recent instance, on a cruel Ian Mahinmi stuff:
You can’t help but smile at Buckner’s sheer delight, and at the way his play-by-play partner, Chris Denari, knowingly prods Buckner toward the catchphrase like a drug dealer pointing out a pile of cocaine on the floor. Seriously: I thought Buckner was going to fall off his chair cackling like a maniac during this sequence. It is delightful, and Buckner breaks it out sparingly, for only the very best rejections, so that it will never get stale. I’ve heard varying explanations for the phrase’s origin, but I’ve yet to nail it down. I’ll ask Buckner the next time I run into the Pacers.