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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

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Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Kobe Bryant Moves Past Shaquille O'Neal on the All-Time Scoring List

Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 28 points in a game-high 44 minutes on Monday night as his L.A. Lakers lost 95-90 to the Philadelphia 76ers. Along the way, Bryant moved past his former teammate Shaquille O'Neal into seventh place on the career ABA/NBA scoring list with 28,601 points, five more than O'Neal scored. Bryant has played 79 fewer games than O'Neal did and has averaged nearly two more ppg during his career (25.4 ppg to 23.7 ppg). Just like a year ago when Bryant joined the exclusive 25,000 point, 5000 rebound, 5000 assist club, most media accounts describing Bryant's accomplishment will disregard ABA statistics and simply state that Bryant moved into fifth place on the NBA's career scoring list; this kind of revisionist history ignores the ABA points scored by Julius Erving and Moses Malone. Erving was the first "midsize" player in pro basketball history to score more than 30,000 points, at the time of his retirement he ranked third on the all-time list behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain and he still ranks fifth on the all-time list behind Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Chamberlain. Malone narrowly missed joining the 30,000 point club and he currently ranks sixth on the all-time list. ABA Numbers Should Also Count and the achievements of active players like Bryant should be used to shine a much needed light on the achievements of retired players, much like Drew Brees' record-setting 2011 season reminded fans just how great Dan Marino was to set a single season passing yardage mark that stood for nearly 30 years--longer than Jim Brown's career rushing yardage record lasted.

Bryant moving past O'Neal on the all-time scoring list reemphasizes the important point that Shaq Achieved So Much--and Could Have Achieved So Much More; Bryant has always seem determined to achieve as much as possible before Father Time forcibly removes him from the court, as I noted while Placing Kobe Bryant's Career in Historical Context nearly two years ago. Even before Bryant added two more championships to his resume I explained why Choosing Kobe Over Shaq Looks Smarter Every Day; since the Lakers made that fateful decision they have captured three Western Conference titles and two NBA championships, while O'Neal--despite teaming up with, in succession, Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash, LeBron James and Boston's "Big Three"--managed to win just one NBA championship sans Bryant. The individual numbers are even more slanted in Bryant's favor: since Bryant and O'Neal last played together in 2004, Bryant has scored 16,386 points in 567 regular season games (28.9 ppg) while O'Neal scored just 6682 points in 398 games (16.8 ppg) before retiring prior to this season.

However, the way that Bryant surpassed O'Neal provides a telling glimpse into the current state of the Lakers: Bryant poured in 24 points on 8-14 field goal shooting in the first half against the 76ers but despite his sensational play the Lakers were only up 50-46. Bryant cooled off dramatically in the second half--shooting just 2-12 from the field--and, predictably, the Lakers fell apart. The relevant story here is not that Bryant should shoot less frequently--contrary to the bleatings of Mike Wilbon and Jon Barry--but rather that the sad reality is that the Lakers need for Bryant to score 30-40 points while shooting an excellent percentage just to have a chance to win any road game or to beat a good team even at home; the Lakers barely had a lead when Bryant was on pace to have an insanely productive and efficient game and they simply had no answers once Bryant proved incapable of sustaining that amazing pace.

Opposing defenses routinely throw multiple defenders at Bryant and dare anyone else to beat them; Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol have their moments but neither player has the mentality or skill set to consistently dominate a game: Gasol seems to be trying to reinvent himself as a jump shooter, while Bynum only gives effort in spurts and looks clueless when help defenders aggressively attack his dribble. At times, both Lakers big men complain that they don't get enough shot attempts but if you actually watch the Lakers play then you know that Bynum and Gasol do not work hard enough to establish post position early in the shot clock (on the occasions that they do so, Bryant willingly gives them the ball). The problem with establishing post position too late in the shot clock is that the opposing team can simply trap and force a kickout pass, leaving no time for Bynum or Gasol to repost and receive another pass; this often results in Bryant shooting long jumpers with the shot clock about to expire, which then sometimes leads to Bryant deciding he would be better off shooting earlier in the shot clock when he has more options as opposed to waiting and then having to bail out his passive big men.

The Lakers are horribly weak at point guard and small forward and their bench is completely ineffective. Bryant has averaged a least 40 ppg for a calendar month four different times, a number surpassed only by Wilt Chamberlain (11), but--even though Bryant's legs seem healthier and bouncier than they have in years and his injured wrist seems to be healing--it is not realistic to think that a 33 year old shooting guard who has played nearly 50,000 minutes (regular season and playoffs combined) can sustain that kind of work load for a prolonged period. When Michael Jordan came back to play for the Washington Wizards he had a lot of games in which he scored a ton of points in the first half before fading badly in the second half, much like Bryant did against the 76ers; Bryant is not on his last legs like "Ground Jordan" was but the Lakers are going to spoil whatever juice Bryant does have left if they don't figure out a way to acquire Dwight Howard to take some of the burden off of Bryant and try to win a championship using the 1995 Houston template: a star center paired with a star guard surrounded by scrappy role players and three point shooters (the Lakers don't have those three point shooters right now but if they can pull off the Howard deal they should be able to find one or two guys who can hit wide open jumpers to make teams pay for doubling Bryant or Howard).

Bryant understands that the end is near, both for his career and for the Lakers' hopes of winning a championship; Bryant has always made it clear that his prime motivation is winning championship rings but at this point it sounds like Bryant would be happy to win just one more ring to add to the five he has already won. After the loss to the 76ers, Bryant acknowledged the significance of moving up the career scoring list but explained what is really important to him: "I just want number six, man. I'm not asking too much. Just get me a sixth one."

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:40 AM

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Monday, February 06, 2012

Which Players Should Be Selected as All-Star Reserves?

The starters for the 2012 NBA All-Star Game were officially announced last Thursday and the fans, as usual, did a solid job of picking worthy candidates. Now it is up to the league's coaches to fill out the All-Star rosters for each conference by selecting seven players: two forwards, two guards, one center and two wild cards (coaches are not allowed to vote for players from their own teams). Several pundits have weighed in with their choices, including TNT's expanded Thursday night crew and ESPN's Mark Stein. In the West, Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge are consensus choices by Mark Stein, Shaquille O'Neal, Kenny Smith, Chris Webber, Charles Barkley and Ernie Johnson. It is obvious that both of those players are locks to make the team. Everyone except for Shaquille O'Neal tapped Russell Westbrook and everyone except for O'Neal and Smith chose Marc Gasol but no other player was picked by more than three of those six commentators. In the East, everyone picked Josh Smith and everyone picked Chris Bosh (O'Neal left Bosh off of his initial list but during last Thursday's TNT telecast he asked for a do-over and replaced Deron Williams with Bosh). Everyone except for Stein picked Joe Johnson. Roy Hibbert received the nod from everyone except for Barkley. Only Smith and Stein omitted Andre Iguodala. Several East players received consideration from only one or two commentators, indicating just how wide open the race is for those seven Eastern Conference All-Star roster spots.

Here are my choices for the reserve All-Star roster spots in each conference, with brief comments about each selection:

Western Conference

(F) Kevin Love: Love ranks first in the NBA in mpg (39.4), second in rpg (13.6) and fourth in ppg (25.0). With Dirk Nowitzki at least temporarily falling off of the map, Love is arguably the best power forward in the league right now.

(F) LaMarcus Aldridge: He should have made the All-Star team last year and he is posting career-high numbers across the board so far this season.

(G) Russell Westbrook: For some strange reason it has become fashionable to criticize Westbrook and nitpick his game but after a slow start this season he is back to performing at an All-NBA level.

(G) Steve Nash: His numbers this season are actually comparable to the numbers he posted in his first MVP campaign (2004-05) so it is funny to watch the shift in public opinion as Nash goes from being somewhat overrated at that time (Shaquille O'Neal deserved to win that MVP award) to being somewhat underrated now (only Stein and Webber picked Nash).

(C) Marc Gasol: The center position has become the NBA's vast wasteland. Years ago Shaquille O'Neal called himself the LCL (Last Center Left) and that is not far from the truth; Dwight Howard is the only current NBA center who would have been a perennial All-Star back in the day. That said, Marc Gasol has long since silenced any snide remarks about the supposedly lopsided trade involving him and his brother Pau; Marc is doing a solid job in the paint for the Memphis Grizzlies, picking up the frontcourt slack for the injured Zack Randolph.

(WC) Tony Parker: Parker is leading the San Antonio Spurs with 18.1 ppg and also averaging a career-high 7.7 apg. The Western Conference standings are bunched together and subject to change but at the moment Parker has carried the Spurs to the third spot despite the absence of Manu Ginobili and the decline of Tim Duncan.

(WC) Danilo Gallinari: Denver's deep and balanced attack prevents any one player on the roster from posting gaudy numbers but so far this season Gallinari is the leading scorer, third leading rebounder and third leading playmaker for a Nuggets team that has not missed a beat since getting rid of the disgruntled Carmelo Anthony last season.

It feels strange leaving Dirk Nowitzki off of the list in the wake of his marvelous performance during Dallas' 2011 championship run but Nowitzki's play so far this season has been embarrassingly bad for a player of his caliber; he has looked out of shape and disinterested and if the reserves are chosen purely based on merit then his string of 10 straight All-Star selections will end. Denver's Nene and Ty Lawson are also contenders for the wild card spot that I gave to Gallinari. Houston's Kyle Lowry has performed well but I am skeptical about making someone a first time All-Star based on 20 or so games played for a team that is right around .500; I know that Westbrook, Nash and Parker are legit All-Star caliber guards but I don't know if Lowry can maintain his current level of play.

Eastern Conference

(F) Chris Bosh: Now that Dwyane Wade is back in the lineup, the Miami Heat have reverted back to their old ways--mysteriously relegating Bosh to role player status as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade monopolize the ball--but Bosh shined in Wade's absence and is having an excellent season overall (19.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg, .508 FG%).

(F) Luol Deng: Deng is the second best player on the East's best team, providing consistent play at both ends of the court for the Chicago Bulls.

(G) Rajon Rondo: The Boston Celtics' Big Three are, as Mike Tyson might put it, "fading into Bolivion" (though Ray Allen is still shooting very well and Paul Pierce has recently shown signs of life) and Rondo has emerged as the team's best, most consistent player.

(G) Joe Johnson: Johnson is the leading scorer and second leading playmaker for the surprising Atlanta Hawks.

(C) Roy Hibbert: Al Horford is injured, Joakim Noah is not playing up to his usual standards and it is not yet clear if Greg Monroe is just a "looter in a riot" (Kenny Smith's picturesque way of describing a player who stacks up good numbers on a bad team) so Hibbert receives the nod at backup All-Star center almost by default; Hibbert is an improving young player who is having a solid season but, as mentioned above, the center position is just a giant wasteland now (other than Dwight Howard).

(WC) Deron Williams: The New Jersey Nets are horrible but Williams is still one of the most productive point guards in the NBA.

(WC) Andre Iguodala: Like the Nuggets, the Philadelphia 76ers have a deep team but no designated superstar. Iguodala has posted better individual numbers in previous seasons but his all-around play has been very valuable for Philadelphia this season as the 76ers raced to an early lead in the Atlantic Division.

Josh Smith, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen deserve consideration but I can't quite take the enigmatic Smith over the forwards who I selected nor can I justify putting more than one Celtic on the All-Star team when the Celtics are barely above .500; maybe the Celtics will rally and perhaps Allen and Pierce will then play their way on to the All-NBA Third Team by the end of the season but right now I would not pick either one, though I suspect that the coaches may give one or both of them the benefit of the doubt.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:00 PM

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Sunday, February 05, 2012

Should Fans Select the All-Star Starters?

Every year around this time, the NBA All-Star starters are announced and someone--often it is Charles Barkley--delivers a rant about how terrible it is that the fans choose the All-Star starters. The All-Star voting process is obviously subjective even during a normal season--balloting begins shortly after the season starts and long before a significant sample of games have been played--and that process is even more subjective during this season because of the truncated yet overstuffed 2011-12 NBA schedule. Many fans no doubt vote for their favorite players as opposed to objectively choosing the two best forwards, two best guards and the best center in each conference but even granting the inherent limitations and fallibility of this process the actual results were hardly terrible: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade will start for the East, while Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Andrew Bynum, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul will start for the West. One could quibble that Chris Bosh and Kevin Love should have been chosen over Anthony and Griffin respectively but starting in an All-Star Game is a subjective honor (unlike, for instance, the distinction between making the All-NBA First Team and the All-NBA Second Team or the All-NBA Third Team) and when we look back at a player's career we do not consider how many times he started in an All-Star Game but merely how many times he was selected overall; as long as the fans choose five players who are worthy of being ranked among the top 12 players in each conference there is not a problem, because the league's coaches will fill out the roster by selecting the other seven All-Stars.

It is interesting to look back at the history of fan All-Star voting, specifically in terms of the players who have most often been the leading vote getters since the fans began selecting the All-Star starters in 1975. A total of 10 players have been the leading All-Star vote getter at least twice:

Michael Jordan: 9 (1987-93, 1997-98)
Julius Erving: 4 (1978, 1981-83)
Vince Carter: 4 (2000-2002, 2004)
George Gervin: 2 (1979-80)
Magic Johnson: 2 (1985-86)
Grant Hill: 2 (1995-96)
Kobe Bryant: 2 (2003, 2011)
Yao Ming: 2 (2005-2006)
LeBron James: 2 (2007, 2010)
Dwight Howard: 2 (2009, 2012)

Looking at that list, it is clear that the fans really have not done that badly at all. Being the leading vote getter is not just merely a product of popularity nor does it necessarily mean that the fans considered that player to be the best player in the league at the time; one must also consider the competition (or lack thereof) in a given season at a particular position: Dwight Howard won the overall 2012 vote in a landslide because the Eastern Conference is almost totally devoid of legit All-Star caliber centers. The same is true to an even greater extent regarding Andrew Bynum in the Western Conference; Bynum has performed solidly--and actually stayed healthy--so far this season but his numbers (and, more importantly, his impact on the game) do not measure up to standards set by the great players who have been All-Star starters back when the NBA actually had several legit back to the basket centers roaming the paint.

Most of the leading vote getters listed above were truly elite players during the years they received the most votes. Jordan's credentials do not even need to be mentioned. Erving won the 1981 regular season MVP and he made the All-NBA First Team each of the four seasons that he topped the fan voting. Carter's popularity as an exciting dunker clearly helped him in the balloting but he also made the All-NBA Third Team in 2000 and the All-NBA Second Team in 2001. Carter likely would have made the All-NBA Team again in 2002 if injuries had not limited him drastically in the second half of the season (i.e., after the All-Star balloting had taken place); it was more than a bit of a stretch for Carter to be the top vote getter in 2004 but he still deserved a spot on the squad. The high scoring George Gervin was undoubtedly a fan favorite but there was also a lot of substance to his game: he made the All-NBA First Team in both 1979 and 1980 and during that era he was a perennial MVP contender, finishing second in MVP voting in both 1978 and 1979 and ranking third in MVP voting in 1980. Like Jordan, Magic Johnson's credentials do not need to be explained to even a casual fan. Grant Hill's popularity undoubtedly helped him gain votes in 1995 as a rookie but he also proved to be an excellent player that season, setting the stage for his All-NBA Second Team selection in 1996. Kobe Bryant was an All-NBA First Team member and top five MVP candidate both of the years that he led the fan voting. Yao Ming is widely regarded as a beneficiary of the Chinese vote via the internet but by 2005 the West was largely devoid of legit All-Star caliber centers (Shaquille O'Neal had just been traded from the L.A. Lakers to the Miami Heat and the remaining top West bigs were really power forwards, not true centers); in 2006, Yao was one of the league's few 20 ppg-10 rpg performers and he made the All-NBA Third Team. Both LeBron James and Dwight Howard have been fixtures on the All-NBA First Team for several years.

The All-Star selection process is not perfect--no system designed by humans is perfect--but it works pretty well: fans are provided the opportunity to vote for the All-Star starters not with the expectation that they will provide definitive rankings of the top five players in each conference but rather with the expectation that they will select the five top players in each conference that they most want to see perform in the All-Star Game; it is then up to the coaches to fill out the rosters with the remaining top seven players in each conference.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:22 AM

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