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Friday, February 10, 2012

All-Star Reserves Headlined by Championship-Winning Veterans and Five Newcomers

The 2012 NBA All-Star Game will include an interesting mixture of the old and the new. On Thursday the league announced the seven All-Star reserve players for each conference. Finals MVPs Dirk Nowitzki (2011) and Paul Pierce (2008) are All-Stars for the 11th and 10th times respectively and Steve Nash is just the fourth player to earn All-Star recognition at age 38 or older, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and Karl Malone. At the other end of the age/experience spectrum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Luol Deng, Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert and Andre Iguodala each will be making their first trips to the midseason extravaganza.

The NBA head coaches select the All-Star reserves, voting only for players in their own conference and not being permitted to choose players from their own teams. The coaches ultimately selected 12 of the 14 players who I picked, differing only by giving Paul Pierce the nod over his teammate Rajon Rondo and taking Dirk Nowitzki instead of Danilo Gallinari (for what it's worth, my choices mirrored those of the coaches more so than the selections made by any of TNT's analysts). Even in a normal season, the All-Stars are chosen based on less than half a season's worth of work and in this lockout-shortened season the sample size is even smaller both in absolute and relative terms (i.e., the fans selected the All-Star starters based on fewer than 20 games played out of a 66 game schedule, while the coaches picked the reserves based on approximately 25 games played).

Chris Bosh is well deserving of his seventh All-Star selection; he has made the All-Star team more often than any other East reserve except for Pierce and more often than every East starter except for his Miami teammates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade (eight times each). Pau Gasol--who is posting the lowest scoring average of his career--is routinely called the "most skilled" power forward in the NBA, yet Bosh is every bit as skilled as Gasol and he has earned All-Star nods both as the number one option in Toronto and as part of an All-Star trio in Miami. At least one "stat guru" has already lost his mind complaining about Luol Deng's selection but the Chicago Bulls have the best record in the East (22-6), including an 18-3 mark when Deng starts. Deng's individual numbers are not gaudy but he contributes significantly at both ends of the court. Roy Hibbert was the obvious choice for backup center among the slim pickings at that position. Joe Johnson has quietly earned his sixth All-Star selection, one more than celebrated guards such as Pete Maravich or Reggie Miller achieved during their careers. Andre Iguodala is not having the best statistical season of his career but his all-around contributions have played a vitally important role in Philadelphia's success. Paul Pierce started the season slowly but he has played very well during Boston's recent surge; I would have taken Rajon Rondo but Pierce is not a terrible choice: based on his track record and how he is playing now he could very well be an All-NBA player once again by the end of the season. We know that Deron Williams is not one of Kenny Smith's proverbial "looters in a riot" because we have seen Williams put up big numbers for playoff teams in Utah; that said, the struggles of Williams' New Jersey Nets and Carmelo Anthony's New York Knicks show that the grass is not always greener on the other side for star players who talk their way out of town.

There would have had to be an investigation if LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love did not make the All-Star team. Marc Gasol has played very well and has shown that his success is not dependent on playing alongside Zach Randolph; despite all of the talk about how skilled Marc's brother is, not enough people recognize that Marc may be the "most skilled" center in the league: Dwight Howard is clearly the best and most dominant center--by far--but Marc Gasol can shoot, post up, pass, rebound and defend. Steve Nash has much less talent around him than he did in previous years but his individual numbers are comparable to the ones he posted during his MVP seasons; he did not really deserve either of those MVPs--Shaquille O'Neal should have won in 2005 and Kobe Bryant should have won in 2006--but Nash does deserve to be a 2012 All-Star and his productivity at an advanced age is truly remarkable. Tony Parker has been the best player on a San Antonio Spurs team that has surprised most people (I picked them to finish third in the West). Russell Westbrook, despite all of the nitpicking about various aspects of his game, is one of the top 10 players in the league. Dirk Nowitzki nabbed the spot that I would have given to Danilo Gallinari. I am not sure about the timing of the voting so I don't know if Gallinari's injury--and likely unavailability for the All-Star Game--hurt his cause. I have mixed feelings about the Nowitzki selection; it is obvious that based on the first 20 or so games of the season Nowitzki should not have been chosen but it is also obvious that last June he outplayed Miami's All-Star trio when the stakes were the highest and it is a safe bet that by the end of the season Nowitzki will once again merit inclusion on the All-NBA team. Guys like Danilo Gallinari and Rudy Gay clearly are not better players than Dirk Nowitzki and if you really look at the numbers they have only marginally outperformed Nowitzki thus far so I can understand why the coaches gave Nowitzki the benefit of the doubt; this is a tough break for some West forwards who have yet to make the team but it should inspire those guys to play even better the rest of the way and then carry that momentum into the playoffs and next season so that the voters--fans and/or coaches--simply cannot leave them off of the team next time.

Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett--former champions and regular season MVPs who have earned 13 and 14 All-Star selections respectively--both failed to make the cut and neither is likely to be chosen even if it becomes necessary to replace players due to injury. They are both still solid contributors on good teams--Duncan's San Antonio Spurs currently have the second best record in the West, while Garnett's Boston Celtics have bounced back from a slow start to currently rank seventh in the East--but neither is performing at an All-Star level this season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:09 AM

7 comments

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7 Comments:

At Friday, February 10, 2012 6:08:00 PM, Anonymous Forest said...

The view that Pau Gasol is the most skilled power forward in the league, although perpetuated by stat-gurus or talking-head "experts," was started by coaches and former coaches/players (Doug Collins, Steve Kerr, Jerry West, etc...), real learned men of the game who understand the nuances of basketball. It isn't unreasonable -- as you've brought up a few times recently -- to say that Gasol is certainly the most skilled power forward. It's true that Chris Bosh is comparable in skill-set to Gasol, but Gasol has a more polished post-game, with a wider array of post moves, and he is more adept at using his off-hand than Chris Bosh is. I think Gasol's passing ability/court-awareness is a little better than Bosh's, as evidenced by his effectiveness and potency in the triangle offense. Both Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant have spoken highly about Gasol's basketball IQ and how quickly he was able to pick up the triangle offense and its nuances, which really should be considered a skill in and of itself because of how difficult and complex the triangle can be. We'll never know how Chris Bosh would have done in the triangle, but even if he were able to pick up the offense as quickly as Gasol, he would have had a tall task in at least duplicating the success the Lakers had (3 NBA Finals, 2 NBA Championships) with Gasol. Gasol's versatility allows him to better play both the 4 and 5 positions and he is also a more effective defender than Bosh simply because of his height and length advantage. As you've mentioned in your articles comparing Lebron James and Dwyane Wade, size and length are a key factor in determining the better player. Gasol was the main defender on Dwight Howard in the 2009 Finals and his length proved to be effective against Howard; I think it's safe to say that Bosh wouldn't have had the same success in defending Howard.

I also don't think it's fair to use All-Star selections as a solid basis in comparing the two. Gasol has played entirely in the Western Conference which has always been stacked with first-rate power forwards while Bosh has always been in the Eastern Conference where there has been less competition at his position. This isn't to say that Bosh wouldn't still have more All-Star selections than Gasol if they had switched conferences, but only that their selections as All-Stars is a bit slanted.

All things said, there isn't some huge gulf between the two players and one isn't clearly more skilled than the other. I just don't believe it's as unreasonable as you make it out to be every time you've brought up that you don't understand why Gasol is being touted as the most-skilled power forward in the league. He has certainly accomplished and shown enough to at least justify him being considered as the most-skilled power forward.

I understand that there are a lot of people overrating Gasol and this has led you to have to put Gasol's value in proper context every time you have written about him. But the result is that you're constantly having to downgrade his contributions and it's to the point where it seems like each time you bring up Gasol, there's a negative connotation about it. This is an unfortunate thing because I know you don't feel that way about Gasol and have a keen respect for his talent and can appreciate his accomplishments but it isn't always coming through in your writing.

 
At Saturday, February 11, 2012 6:41:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Forest:

I just feel like the "Pau Gasol is the most skilled big man in the league" line is too often either a throwaway remark casually made by people who have not thought things through carefully or a knee-jerk response during a telecast after Gasol makes a nice pass or a tough shot. Gasol is obviously a very skilled player and I have often praised him in detail but at no point in time has he been the most skilled big man in the NBA. That is why, prior to joining the Lakers and teaming up with Kobe Bryant, Gasol was annually passed over in MVP voting and All-NBA voting--and that is why he made the All-Star team just once during his tenure in Memphis. If he had truly been the most skilled big man in the game wouldn't the coaches have picked him more than once? Tim Duncan was the most skilled big man in the NBA for most of the 2000s. Dirk Nowitzki is a more skilled big man than Pau Gasol. When Kevin Garnett was annually producing 20-10-5 he was a more skilled big man than Pau Gasol. I'm not saying that Chris Bosh is more skilled than Gasol but his skill level is certainly close to--if not equal to--Gasol's.

The big change for Gasol since he joined the Lakers is he went from being the best player on his team--and thus having to constantly deal with double teams--to being the second (or at times even third) option. That is why Gasol's field goal percentage and offensive rebounding rate went up at a stage of his career when it is unusual for a player to improve his effectiveness in those categories. However, for about the past calendar year or so Gasol seems to have lost a lot of fire/intensity. I'm not sure what is wrong with him now but I certainly understand why the Lakers tried to trade him after his terrible playoff performance and I am sure that they will deal him now if possible.

If anyone considers the totality of what I have written about Pau Gasol then it is clear that I consider him to be a skilled, valuable player but I do not consider him to be an "elite" player (All-NBA First or Second Team caliber, though I did give Gasol the nod as an All-NBA Second Teamer in 2009). I cannot concern myself about the possibility that someone only reads one article that I wrote or that someone misinterprets something I said and thus gets the wrong impression of my evaluation of Gasol. The fact is that there has been a lot of hype about Gasol that neither matches his production nor even matches the way that MVP, All-NBA and All-Star voting has gone; where are all the people who praise Gasol when it comes time to actually vote for those honors? Apparently, when they actually compare Gasol directly to other players they figure out that he is not, in fact, the league's most skilled big man.

 
At Saturday, February 11, 2012 6:45:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Forest:

Jeff Van Gundy has consistently been one of the most objective commentators and last season he repeatedly made a very perceptive comment about both Gasol and Bynum: they trot instead of running. Van Gundy said that horses may trot but that winners run. The lack of effort by Gasol and Bynum had a lot to do with the Lakers' poor transition defense last season and it also explains why Gasol and Bynum don't get the ball in the post more frequently; the NBA has a 24 second shot clock and if you don't run the court to get in the post to fight for position then there will not be enough time to feed the post, kick the ball out and repost. I can't stand it when some people just glance at a box score, look at field goal attempts and have a knee jerk reaction because Bryant shot more often than Gasol or Bynum; it is essential to actually watch games with understanding and to consider what the opposing defense did and how Bryant, Gasol and Bynum tried to attack the defense. Gasol is a skilled post player but often he is soft and tentative, allowing smaller players to push him around or knock the ball away. Bynum tries to be aggressive when he gets the ball in the paint but he lacks balance at times (as Hubie Brown astutely pointed out during Friday's Lakers-Knicks game), is not an explosive athlete and struggles to score when he cannot simply overpower his defender; if Bynum cannot just take one dribble and dunk he is in trouble because it is easy to knock him off balance and disturb his shot. Bynum also reacts very poorly when the opposing team sends a second, smaller defender to attack him after the first dribble: Bynum has no counter moves and does not pass well out of the post. So, when Bryant and Gasol run a screen/roll that leads to a trap and Bynum can receive a lob pass at the rim Bynum naturally shoots a high percentage; Bynum also shoots a high percentage when he gets inside position to offensive rebound because the defense is tilted toward Bryant--but Bynum does not shoot a high percentage (and at times struggles to even get off a shot) if the Lakers simply try to feed him the ball in the post, particularly when Bryant is not in the game to attract defensive attention.

I am more concerned with pointing out these kind of nuances--vital aspects of the game that are not being explained very much except for a few choice soundbites from guys like Jeff Van Gundy and Hubie Brown--than I am with making sure that people don't think that I am being too hard on Pau Gasol.

 
At Wednesday, February 15, 2012 4:01:00 PM, Anonymous Karl Hyppolite said...

What's your take on Jeremy Lin? I have been checking the site the past few days hoping you would have a blog up on his meteoric rise.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2012 12:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Karl:

Lin's rise is an exciting and heartwarming story but the sample size of games is just too small to draw any broad conclusions. I guess if I worked for ESPN I would be forced to throw something against the wall and hope that it sticks but I prefer to wait until we have seen a meaningful sample size of games. From what I have seen so far, I would say that Lin has legit point guard skills in terms of passing, quickness and court vision. His shooting touch outside of the paint is questionable and it also remains to be seen if he has the mental and physical durability to play at a high level for major minutes over the course of an entire season.

What we do know for sure is that the Knicks desperately needed any kind of legit point guard to emerge to run D'Antoni's offense and Lin has thus far more than filled that void.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2012 12:16:00 PM, Anonymous Karl Hyppolite said...

Yes, it's far too early to draw conclusions from this now 7 game sample. It makes me wonder how he fell so far under the radar and curious if there is a bit too much emphasis placed on verticals and extreme athleticism.

Lin probably won't maintain these numbers and become an all-star PG but he's shown that being smart in your movements (reminds me of Nash in how he isn't a speedster who manages to get into the lane) and having a high IQ can allow you to have some success in the NBA.

 
At Thursday, February 16, 2012 9:01:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Sample size indeed. Amazed by Jeremy Lin's production? Well Michael Adams averaged 26.5 ppg and 10.5 apg for the Nuggets in 1991 despite shooting like 40% from the field. Yeah it was a Paul Westhead offense (MJ's old running mate Orlando Woolridge averaged 25 ppg) and the team only won 20 games. But still...

 

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