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Friday, January 25, 2013

Veteran Duncan, Six First-Time All-Stars Headline Coaches' Selections

Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Zach Randolph, LaMarcus Aldridge and David Lee have been selected by the coaches as the seven Western Conference All-Star reserves, while Chris Bosh, Tyson Chandler, Joakim Noah, Paul George, Luol Deng, Jrue Holiday and Kyrie Irving are the seven Eastern Conference All-Star reserves. Last season, five first-time All-Stars made the cut alongside perennial All-Stars Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce and Steve Nash; this season, there are six first-time All-Stars: Harden, Chandler, Noah, George, Holiday and Irving, who is the sixth youngest player in All-Star history. After not being selected last season, Duncan is once again an All-Star, while Nowitzki is not an All-Star for the first time since 2001, Pierce is not an All-Star for the first time since 2007 and eight-time All-Star Nash is not an All-Star for the second time in the past three seasons. Bosh earned his eighth All-Star selection; media members have showered praise on Pau Gasol for the past several years but Bosh is at least as good of an all-around player as Gasol: Bosh is certainly more mobile than Gasol and Bosh is a better defender, the two players are roughly equal as rebounders (9.2 rpg career average for Gasol, 9.0 rpg career average for Bosh) and Bosh is a more productive scorer while Gasol is better passer (Bosh is obviously the superior player this season but the preceding comparison encompasses their entire careers). NBA coaches appreciate Bosh's value but media members and casual fans tend to underrate Bosh's skill set and his impact.

In 2012, the coaches chose 12 of the 14 players I picked, substituting Pierce for Rajon Rondo in the East (Rondo later joined the squad as the replacement for the injured Joe Johnson) and giving the nod to Nowitzki over Danilo Gallinari in the West. This time around, the coaches agreed with all 14 of my selections. Several of the TNT commentators objected to the omission of Stephen Curry; Curry is one of my favorite players to watch--as was his father Dell--and he is having an All-Star caliber season but he is not having a better season than any of the seven players selected as All-Star reserves. While Curry is averaging a career-high 20.9 ppg, he is also shooting a career-low .436 from the field; his three point shooting percentage (.451) is hovering right around his career average (.444), so that indicates that he is not finishing as effectively in the paint this season. There simply is not a logical way to justify putting Curry on the All-Star roster. Curry has not had a greater impact than Duncan, Randolph, Aldridge or his teammate David Lee, so Curry could not grab a wild card spot over one of those guys; focusing specifically on the guards, Westbrook is a better two way player than Curry and Parker is a bit more efficient as both a scorer and a playmaker. Perhaps one could make a case for Curry as a shooter/distributor over Harden as a driver/distributor but I give Harden a slight edge: Harden is less efficient than Curry but Harden is bigger, stronger and a more versatile defender (Curry is crafty with his hands, like his father, but he can be overpowered by bigger guards).

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:30 AM

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Kobe Bryant Leads Fan Voting for 2013 All-Star Game

Kobe Bryant finished first in the fan balloting for the 2013 NBA All-Star Game, earning a record 15th consecutive start; the 17 year veteran started in the 1998 All-Star Game and has been voted as a starter every year since 2000 (the All-Star Game was not held during the lockout shortened 1999 season). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the all-time leader with 19 All-Star Game selections (though he did not play in the 1973 contest), Julius Erving ranks second with 16 All-Star Game selections (five in the ABA plus 11 in the NBA) and Bryant is now tied with Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett for third place. This is the third time Bryant has led the All-Star voting (2003, 2011, 2013) and he now ranks fourth on the all-time list behind Michael Jordan (nine times), Erving (four times) and Vince Carter (four times). LeBron James, who finished a close second to Bryant, has led the voting twice (2007, 2010).

Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo will join James in the East's starting lineup, while Bryant's four running mates in the West will be Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. Fan voting is often criticized but overall the fans usually make good selections, as I explained last year in an article titled Should Fans Select the All-Star Starters?: "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."

The coaches' selections will be announced next Thursday; each coach will choose three frontcourt players, two guards and two wild cards from his own conference and each coach is not permitted to vote for any of his own players. Last season I chose 12 of the 14 players ultimately picked by the coaches; here are my 2013 All-Star reserve selections:

Western Conference

(F) Tim Duncan: "The Big Fundamental" is enjoying a revival after several years during which his per game numbers gradually declined; he ranks third in the league in blocked shots (2.8 bpg, Duncan's best average since 2002-03) and his scoring average (17.3 ppg) is the highest that it has been since 2009-10 (17.9 ppg). Duncan also has a solid 9.6 rpg average and he is shooting a career-high .821 from the free throw line.

(F) Zach Randolph: The 21st century Moses Malone is a deadly low post scorer and very adept rebounder despite having less hops than any other top notch frontcourt player (Malone also was not a great leaper, though he did have the ability to react quickly to the ball and make multiple jumps in succession until he secured a rebound). Randolph ranks second in the NBA in rebounding (11.6 rpg) and he is the second leading scorer (16.4 ppg) for a balanced Memphis offense.

(F) LaMarcus Aldridge: His field goal percentage is down (from a career-high .512 last season to .465) but he is leading Portland in scoring (20.6 ppg) and blocked shots (1.3 bpg) while ranking second in rebounding (8.6 rpg) as the young Trail Blazers are making a surprising bid to earn the eighth seed.

(G) Russell Westbrook: He is perhaps the NBA's most underrated and overly criticized great player, taking those two dubious honors from Kobe Bryant (who finished fourth in the 2006 MVP voting after dragging the Lakers to the playoffs despite starting alongside Kwame Brown and Smush Parker). Is Westbrook's shot selection questionable at times? Yes. Does he turn the ball over a lot? Yes. Here is an interesting top 10 list: Karl Malone, Moses Malone, John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Julius Erving, Artis Gilmore, Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe Bryant and Patrick Ewing. Like Westbrook, those players are/were brilliant and durable. They are also the all-time ABA/NBA career leaders for most turnovers (a stat that that has only been officially recorded by the NBA since 1977). By the end of his career, Westbrook may very well be on that list but his missed shots and turnovers are more than balanced by his other numbers: 22.7 ppg (seventh in the NBA), 8.3 apg (fifth in the NBA), 5.3 rpg (first among point guards) and 2.0 spg (third in the NBA). Westbrook just has to understand that he will never be more liked than Kevin Durant and he will never be fully appreciated by the critics, much like Scottie Pippen's experience playing alongside Michael Jordan; if Westbrook can accept that reality and just continue to play his game then he and Durant can become one of the great duos in pro basketball history. Here is some more perspective about turnovers: "stat gurus" sometimes cite "turnover percentage," an "advanced basketball statistic" that estimates how often a player commits turnovers. Here are the career leaders in that category: Michael Redd, Antawn Jamison, Kerry Kittles, Mike Mitchell, Harvey Grant, Peja Stojakovic, LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Person, Stew Johnson, Jeff Malone. All of those guys were/are good and some even had moments of greatness but I would take anyone on the first list over anyone on the second list--and I would take Russell Westbrook over point guards who commit fewer turnovers but also have much less impact at both ends of the court.

(G) Tony Parker: He is posting the second best numbers of his career in both scoring (19.7 ppg) and assists (7.3 apg). His .519 field goal percentage is the fourth best of his 12 season career. Parker is not a great defender or rebounder but he is very dynamic and efficient offensively.

(WC) James Harden: It is way too soon to portray Harden as an elite player or a "foundational player" (whatever that means) but he is having an All-Star caliber season, averaging 25.8 ppg (fifth in the NBA) and 1.9 spg (seventh in the NBA). Harden is also leading the league in turnovers by a wide margin--which is not the end of the world, as indicated in the above analysis of Westbrook's game, but also hints that the transition from sixth man to number one option has not been quite as smooth as many people are trying to suggest. Time will tell if Harden is a great player, a very good player or, as Kenny Smith would say, a "looter in a riot"--Smith's colorful way of describing a player who puts up gaudy numbers for mediocre or bad teams (Smith has not applied that tag to Harden but I need to at least see Harden lead Houston to the playoffs--and then play well in the playoffs--before I am convinced that he is different than guys like Stephon Marbury or Monta Ellis who put up gaudy scoring numbers for teams that never won anything significant). It is interesting that Kevin Martin has seamlessly filled Harden's sixth man role with the Thunder. Does that mean that Martin is also a "foundational player" and that he should receive All-Star consideration and/or that Martin should have received All-Star consideration in previous seasons when he was the number one option for mediocre (or bad) teams?

(WC) David Lee: He ranks second on the surprising Warriors in scoring (19.8 ppg), first in rebounding (10.8 rpg, seventh in the NBA) and third in assists (3.7 apg). How good are those numbers? If Lee bumps them just slightly to 20-10-4 he will be the first player to accomplish that feat since Kevin Garnett did it in 2006-07 (the last of nine straight seasons in which Garnett reached those numbers). Chris Webber (four times) is the only other player to put together a 20-10-4 season since 1994-95, when Charles Barkley did it for the seventh and final time.

I really like Stephen Curry's game but I cannot take him over Westbrook or Parker and I think that Lee has more impact as a scorer/rebounder/passer than Curry does as a shooter/playmaker. Jamal Crawford's name has been mentioned a lot--and he is clearly a candidate for the Sixth Man Award--but he is averaging 16.7 ppg while shooting .423 from the field: Crawford has zero impact in any aspect of the game other than scoring and he is simply not an efficient enough scorer to make the All-Star Game based on that skill alone. Marc Gasol is having a solid season--and he has clearly established himself as the best Gasol brother, astonishing many so-called experts--but his teammate Randolph outscores, outshoots and outrebounds him by wide margins.

Eastern Conference

(F) Joakim Noah: Noah does not put up stunning numbers (12.4 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 4.1 apg, 2.0 bpg--ranking eighth in the NBA in both rebounding and blocked shots) but overall he is having a career season, contributing not just defensively and on the glass but also as a solid scorer and outstanding high post passer.

(F) Chris Bosh: Chris Bosh is supposedly having a down season. Last season, as a vital member of a championship team, he averaged 18.0 ppg and 7.9 rpg while shooting .487 from the field. This season, as a vital member of the team with the best record in the East, Bosh is averaging 17.5 ppg and 7.1 rpg while shooting a career-high .545 from the field. Bosh may be the most underrated power forward in the NBA by everyone except the coaches, who have voted him to the All-Star Game in each of the past seven seasons.

(F) Tyson Chandler: Chandler's numbers are very similar to Noah's (12.4 ppg, 11.0 rpg--fifth in the NBA); he does not block as many shots as Noah does but, largely because he (correctly) refuses to attempt a shot outside of the paint, Chandler is posting a gaudy .673 field goal percentage after leading the league in that category with a .679 field goal percentage last season. The Mavericks miss his defensive presence and leadership, while the Knicks have been enhanced by those qualities.

(G) Kyrie Irving: The Cavaliers are awful but Irving has emerged as one of the top point guards in the NBA, ranking sixth in scoring (23.1 ppg) while also averaging 5.7 apg.

(G) Jrue Holiday: While the 76ers hope/pray that Andrew Bynum will make a healthy return to action, Holiday is posting career highs in scoring (19.4 ppg), assists (9.0 apg, fourth in the NBA), rebounds (4.2 rpg) and field goal percentage (.462).

(WC) Luol Deng: Deng led the NBA in mpg last season (39.4) and he is leading the NBA in that category again this season (39.8). He scores (17.4 rpg), rebounds (6.4 rpg), defends and is a solid passer. Deng's durability and versatility make him a coach's dream.

(WC) Paul George: George is a poor man's Scottie Pippen, using his length, athleticism and tenacity to good effect in diverse statistical categories: 17.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.8 spg.

I would not be surprised if perennial All-Star Paul Pierce is chosen over one of the younger players who I selected; Pierce is a borderline All-Star for the eighth seeded Boston Celtics this season: he clearly is not having a greater impact than my three frontcourt choices and even though his numbers are somewhat comparable to Deng's and George's I think that Deng and George deserve credit for posting their statistics for teams that are doing quite well despite the injuries suffered by Derrick Rose and Danny Granger respectively.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:32 AM

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