The NBA’s night of enraged snubbery has passed, and we are just two weeks away from All-Star Weekend/Armageddon in New Orleans. Seriously: One of the annual Carnival-season parades takes place on All-Star Saturday, and I’m told by several longtime New Orleans residents that it’s the funkiest (though far from the largest) of the Carnival events. And this is all taking place in a city famous for its debauchery. We may not get out alive.
Some scattered thoughts on All-Star rosters as they take firmer shape:
1. The word “snub” is reaching “hate” levels of overuse, to the point of meaninglessness. Here’s what a snub really is: In my mid-twenties, I returned home a couple of days before Christmas and went to do all my holiday shopping in a single trip to the local mall. Awkward social encounters with past acquaintances were inevitable. I was like Jason Bourne — head on a swivel, scanning the full 180-degree panorama of panicked shoppers hundreds of feet in front of me. If I spotted a high school person with whom I didn’t want to engage in some painful and mandatory social interation, I’d duck into whatever store I happened to be standing beside at that moment. That’s a snub.
And by the way: I’ve had a few people in that murky space between friend and non-friend pull such blatant snubbery on me, including an acquintance from college who made eye contact with me on a train platform and bolted. And I respect that. Train time is sacred, and the conversation would have been bad. Solid snubbing.
There are no “snubs” in the Western Conference, no place for outrage. There are only 12 spots, and somewhere around 17 or 18 players with well-rounded All-Star cases. The top guys who didn’t make it — Mike Conley, Goran Dragic, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins — aren’t “no-brainers” who got jobbed. Look at the 12 players who made the team! You can’t magically expand the roster to 13 or 14 guys just so everyone can get a cookie. Choosing 12 in this conference is hard, agonizing work, and ultimately comes down to the splitting of microscopic hairs.
I made my All-Star picks 10 days ago, so you can read them there. I set the fan vote aside and assumed (perhaps liberally) that Chris Paul would miss the game because of injury, so neither Kobe Bryant nor Paul made my team. And yet, both Dragic and Conley still missed the cut. Remember: The rules dictate fans and coaches combined choose four guards, six “frontcourt” players, and two wild cards of any position. Traditional positions like “shooting guard” and “small forward” don’t appear on the ballot, so there is no argument that, say, Chandler Parsons should be on the team because the West needs another small forward behind Kevin Durant. And given the raft of qualified big men, it’s reasonable to select a roster with four guards and eight “frontcourt” guys. That’s the composition of my personal All-Star team, and it may well be the composition of the actual roster even if both Bryant and Paul miss the game.
That would open up two spots, but removing those two guards would not require the insertion of even a single additional guard. The West would still have the required four guards in Stephen Curry, James Harden, Tony Parker, and Damian Lillard. And if two spots do open up, Davis is a very strong bet to snag one of them. He is fifth overall in Player Efficiency Rating, and though he’s predictably struggled at times to pick up the nuances of Monty Williams’s system on defense — Davis is freaking 20 years old — he’s still a net positive on that end.
That would leave one spot. Parker and Lillard are probably the shakiest choices left on the remaining roster. Lillard made my team, but in the 10 days that have passed since then, he has slumped across the board and suffered his worst stretch of 3-point shooting this season. His PER has dropped nearly 1.5 points in that span, and he’s down to 46th overall in that category — well behind both Dragic (15th after a sensational performance last night in Indiana) and Conley (23rd).
Lillard is the worst defender among those three, and it’s not really close. He’s regressed a bit on that end lately, and the Blazers in several recent games have had to move him off opposing point guards much earlier, and for much longer, than usual. (Nicolas Batum typically defends the point guard in this scenario.) The Lillard/Mo Williams combo is becoming unplayable defensively, and it’s only a matter of time before Terry Stotts puts Dorell Wright back in the rotation to add a bit more size. Lillard’s case over Conley and Dragic now hinges upon his central role in Portland’s league-best offense, and his ridiculous clutch shooting. Lillard is 12-of-22 (and 7-of-12 from deep) in the last three minutes of close games (margin of three or fewer points), with a pile of game-winning, game-tying, and just super-important late-game buckets. But I think we’ve reached the point where the clutch shooting isn’t enough to compensate for the overall superiority of both Conley and Dragic.
Lillard is in regardless, and Parker is a fine choice whose numbers would look even better if Gregg Popovich played him more. That leaves us with three top candidates for the last remaining injury-replacement spot, assuming Davis gets one: Conley, Cousins, and Dragic. You could toss in Ty Lawson, Serge Ibaka, and Nikola Pekovic if you’d like, and Ibaka especially has made a strong late push.
This is an impossible choice, but if the league really wants another guard, I’m going with Conley by the tiniest of margins over Dragic. He’s a better overall defender, peskier and a bit cleaner, and he carried the Grizzlies’ offense to a stunning level of competence in Marc Gasol’s absence. If you’d like to go with Dragic, that’s fine. The numbers are basically identical, Dragic has been the centerpiece of the league’s best story, and he’s kept the Suns humming since Eric Bledsoe’s injury. He’s not quite at Conley’s level as a point guard defender, but he’s big enough to defend some shooting guards in the right matchup.
You could pick Cousins, too. I picked him on my team, but my hunch is the league will reward a guard if both Paul and Bryant miss the game. Cousins has a very complicated All-Star case; I wrote about it at length in my original All-Star piece, and he barely got my last roster spot.
But I repeat: Stop describing any of these guys as having been snubbed. Also: Players don’t get “snubbed” from the unwatchable rookie-sophomore game. They get spared from having to play in it.
2. You want a real snub? Travel east to the league’s weaker conference, and take a gander at Kyle Lowry. His omission is one of the worst I can recall, and it’s safe to assume the league’s coaching fraternity is punishing Lowry for his well-chronicled run-ins with just about every coach he’s come across in Memphis, Houston, and even Toronto. Lowry is second among all Eastern Conference guards in PER, and considering the tiny gap between Lowry and the top guy (Dwyane Wade), and Wade’s 13 missed games, you could easily argue Lowry has been the best guard in the conference. John Wall, a deserving All-Star, is right there, but he’s really the only other guy in the discussion.
Not in the discussion: Joe Johnson, ranked a robust 141st in PER, right behind Alec Burks, Miles Plumlee, Jeremy Lamb, and Mario Chalmers. That stat underrates Johnson. He’s a versatile player capable of scoring in a number of useful ways and defending multiple positions, and he’s finding his role within a Nets roster stocked with ball-dominant stars. He plays for a high-profile team for whom he’s made several high-profile clutch buckets, including game-winning buzzer-beaters in Phoenix and Oklahoma City. He is a very nice person.
Alas, he has no real All-Star case, especially in relation to Lowry and Arron Afflalo. His entire platform rests upon those few key buckets and the notion that he “carried” the Nets back to relevancy in January. That is simply not true. Johnson did score at least 25 points in five of six games during a stretch that began on January 6, but he hasn’t scored more than 13 points in a game since, and he preceded that hot streak with five consecutive single-digit scoring games.
Those five very good games were a part of the Nets’ renaissance. But to claim they were the driving force behind it is simplistic. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have found their stride in that span, Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko have returned to health, and the turnaround coincides almost exactly with Jason Kidd’s move to weirdo hybrid small lineups.
Basketball is about more than a few big shots and reputation, and Johnson is actually only 5-of-14 in the last three minutes of close games. He is not an All-Star.
3. DeMar DeRozan over Lowry is probably the wrong choice, but it’s at least semi-defensible in a weak field. DeRozan is still a poor shooter — 43 percent overall, 30 percent from deep — but he has made big strides as a defender and a passer, and he’s getting to the line a ton in a career season. He soaks up a huge load of possessions for a team that needs a fulcrum in a post–Rudy Gay world. I took Afflalo over DeRozan for my team, and I still would today, but I’m not throwing a fit about it. Johnson is the guy who doesn’t belong.
4. It’s funny, by the way, how three of Bryan Colangelo’s key decisions in Toronto don’t look so bad now. DeRozan’s contract extension took widespread criticism, including here, and it’s still a bit too long and pricey for my taste. But if he keeps improving, he’ll live up to it, and Toronto could easily find a home for him via trade. Colangelo got Lowry for a pick that became Steven Adams, though of course a pick that juicy has larger value that just Adams; Houston used it as the key piece in the James Harden deal. Amir Johnson’s contract looks downright good now.
None of this erases the Andrea Bargnani stain, the Gay trade, or the insane Landry Fields contract. But the record is mixed, not one of total failure, and the record of almost every GM regresses to “mixed” over time.
5. I’m shocked by how many fans, presumably Oklahoma City guys, have asked about the omission of Russell Westbrook. Umm … he has played 25 games this season, he’s out until the All-Star break, and by that time, he’ll have played in about 40 percent of available games. There are 12 spots in the Western Conference. He’s not a real candidate. Nor is DeAndre Jordan, by the way, no matter what Doc Rivers says. And while I love Kawhi Leonard and appreciate his place in San Antonio’s teamwide success, Charles Barkley is nuts to claim Leonard deserves an All-Star spot this season. The field is just too crowded.
6. I addressed the cases of Lance Stephenson and Andre Drummond in my original piece, so I won’t reenter those debates here. The fact that something like 60 percent of respondents to TNT’s poll last night listed Stephenson as the most egregious snub over three other candidates, including Lowry, is interesting and probably reflective of how little attention anyone pays to the Raptors.
7. Jeff Teague got some mentions last night as a snub. No. He’s had a nice season, but his play has dropped off after a hot start.
8. The sneaky interesting alleged snub is Al Jefferson, on fire lately, with 10 consecutive 20-plus scoring games to prop up a Charlotte offense that misses Kemba Walker’s shot creation. When you look at the actual Eastern Conference All-Star roster, there’s no real reason to keep Jefferson out. He suffers a bit from a bunch of things — that nobody really watches a 20-27 Charlotte team; that he missed nine early-season games with ankle issues; and the correct perception that he’s a bad defender. Even Big Al has rather amusingly copped to that, and Charlotte’s defense has declined continuously after a stingy start against an easy schedule. The Bobcats are 24th in points allowed per possession in January, and their core lineups with Jefferson in the middle have mostly struggled despite a system designed to better hide his limitations. (We’ll see if the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist changes this.) Jefferson certainly merits inclusion over Johnson and perhaps DeRozan, though he shares that status with Afflalo, Lowry, and a couple of others.
9. Marco Belinelli spilled the beans and revealed he’s going to be one of the six guys invited to participate in the 3-point shootout, my favorite All-Star event. Below is my ideal field for this season’s shootout. Keep in mind, I weigh performance this season more heavily than anything else, so Ray Allen, the greatest 3-point shooter ever, suffers for having hit just 34 percent from deep this season.
The lucky six:
1. Kyle Korver
2. Jose Calderon
3. Kevin Durant
4. Stephen Curry
5. Channing Frye
6. Wesley Matthews
I like a mixed bag in my 3-point shootout — role players and stars, big guys and small guys. Korver, Durant, and Curry are obvious choices. Korver is the current king of the deep shot, carrying a massive ongoing streak of games with at least one triple. Durant is shooting flames out of his hands. Curry is shooting “just” 39.9 percent from deep, low by his standards, but no one takes higher degree of difficulty in-game 3s or creates as loud an in-arena buzz just by being in the general vicinity of 3-point range.
As for the other choices: Calderon is an all-time great shooter jacking more 3s than ever before, and he’s never appeared in the contest. Frye is our must-have big guy with Ryan Anderson injured, Kevin Love (the champ two years ago) shooting a “blah” 37 percent from deep, and Matt Bonner barely playing. Dirk Nowitzki would be a fine choice, but he’s 35 with aching knees, and he’s participated several times before — and won once. Frye is shooting 41.5 percent on a ton of attempts, and his return to peak form after a scary enlarged heart diagnosis is one of the best stories of this season. Phoenix needs All-Star representation, especially if Dragic doesn’t make the real game, and its other long-range gunner, Gerald Green, is a better fit for the dunk contest.
Matthews is seventh overall in 3-point attempts and has been scorching basically the entire season. His transformation into an elite high-volume 3-point shooter has been remarkable, and the Blazers, the league’s most prolific 3-point shooting team, deserve representation in the contest. Lillard is a fine choice, too, but he’s going to be in the real All-Star game and the rookie-sophomore mockery.
Other tough omissions: Terrence Ross (dunk contest candidate), Lillard, Belinelli, Spencer Hawes, Love, Martell Webster, Lowry, Parsons, J.J. Redick, Paul George, Patty Mills, Kyrie Irving (the defending champ), Jameer Nelson, Mirza Teletovic, Afflalo, and Klay Thompson. The Warriors are pushing hard behind the scenes to get both Thompson and Curry into the contest, and teammates have participated before — including two Miami players in both 2011 and 2012, and two Celtics in 2011.
10. Skill set competitions I’d watch: a special corner 3 shootout for the league’s corner specialists; any one-on-one competition; and a big-man skills competition.
In any case, it’s two weeks until All-Star Weekend, with two potential selections still up in the air. Let the debates rage on.