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Friday, January 31, 2014

2014 All-Star Reserve Selections Feature Veterans Nowitzki and Bosh Alongside Three Newcomers

In 2013, six of the 14 All-Star reserves were first-timers and 2012 featured five newcomers but this year there are only three new All-Stars among the coaches' selections: DeMar DeRozan, Paul Millsap and John Wall (Stephen Curry is the only newcomer among the 10 starters selected by the fans). Dirk Nowitzki returns to the midseason classic after a one year absence, while Tim Duncan was not tapped despite serving as the primary post presence for the San Antonio Spurs, who are tied for the second best record in the Western Conference. Nowitzki has earned 12 All-Star selections, a total exceeded by just 13 players in ABA/NBA history. Overall, the coaches agreed with 11 of my 14 All-Star reserve selections after agreeing with all 14 of my choices in 2013 and after agreeing with 12 of my 14 selections in 2012.

The 2014 Western Conference All-Star reserves are LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Damian Lillard, Tony Parker, Chris Paul and James Harden. I would have substituted Duncan for Nowitzki as a frontcourt player and David Lee for James Harden as a wild card; Duncan's impact for a winning program extends well beyond his individual numbers (though he still ranks among the league leaders in rebounding and shot blocking despite playing limited minutes), while Lee is the main frontcourt threat for Golden State, serving a more valuable all-around role than the one filled by Harden for Houston. That said, Nowitzki and Harden are both playing at an All-Star level this season, so I don't have a big problem with either choice. At least one more roster spot will probably open up in the West because starter Kobe Bryant does not plan to play, so new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will select Bryant's replacement and then West Coach Scott Brooks will decide which reserve will be elevated to a starting slot.

The 2013 Eastern Conference All-Star reserves are Chris Bosh, Roy Hibbert, Paul Millsap, John Wall, Joakim Noah, DeMar DeRozan and Joe Johnson. I picked Lance Stephenson as a wild card instead of Noah. Stephenson has emerged as a valuable, versatile threat for the East-leading Indiana Pacers, topping the team in assists while ranking second in scoring and rebounding. Noah is an excellent player who is having another very good season and he is not a bad choice but I think that this season Stephenson is the better choice. Perhaps Stephenson's checkered history/reputation cost him some consideration.

Bosh is a popular whipping boy for some media members and some fans but he is now a nine-time All-Star, tying him on the all-time list with Hall of Famers Robert Parish, Gary Payton, Dominique Wilkins and Lenny Wilkens.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:03 PM


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Who Should Be Selected as All-Star Reserves?

The 2014 NBA All-Star Game starters were announced last Thursday. LeBron James led the fan balloting for the third time in his career (2007, 2010,2014), tying him with Kobe Bryant (who received the most votes in 2003, 2011 and 2013) for fourth on the all-time All-Star voting leader list and placing him behind only Michael Jordan (nine times), Julius Erving (four times) and Vince Carter (four times) since fans began voting for NBA All-Star starters in the 1974-75 season.

Here is the list of the 2013 NBA All-Star Game starters:

Eastern Conference

LeBron James, Miami 1,416,419 votes
Paul George, Indiana 1,211,318 votes
Carmelo Anthony, New York 935,702 votes
Dwyane Wade, Miami 929,542 votes
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland 860,221 votes

Western Conference 

Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City 1,396,294 votes
Stephen Curry, Golden State 1,047,281 votes
Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers  988,884 votes
Blake Griffin, L.A. Clippers 688,486 votes
Kevin Love, Minnesota 661,246 votes

Generally, the fans do a good job of selecting players who deserve this honor but this season the fans chose Kobe Bryant--who has appeared in just six games--as one of the West's starting guards. Many commentators have been griping for years that fans should not be given the opportunity to choose the All-Star starters but, as I noted in my Februray 2012 article about this issue, "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."

Bryant clearly has not earned All-Star status this season but even though the fans erred by giving him some kind of career achievement award the end result is still going to most likely turn out all right; Bryant has stated that he does not plan to play in the All-Star Game, which means that NBA Commissioner David Stern will select a worthy replacement player (and then the West Coach will decide who takes Bryant's spot in the starting lineup). I still think that it is fine that fans have a say in the All-Star selection process, particularly because checks and balances are in place to make sure that deserving players who do not receive starting nods will be tapped as reserves when the coaches make their selections; speaking of which, the coaches will now complete the All-Star rosters by choosing seven players: three frontcourt players, two guards and two wild cards (coaches are not permitted to vote for players from their own teams).

Last season, the coaches agreed with all 14 of my All-Star reserve selections and in 2012 the coaches concurred with 12 of my 14 choices. Here are my picks for the All-Star reserves, with brief comments about each player:

Western Conference

(FC) LaMarcus Aldridge: He is posting career-high numbers in scoring (24.3 ppg, fifth in the league), rebounding (11.5 rpg, sixth in the league) and assists (2.8 apg) while leading the Portland Trail Blazers to the third best record in the West.

(FC) Dwight Howard: Howard has not quite regained the explosiveness and dominance that he displayed prior to injuring his back during the 2011-12 season but he is still a powerful presence in the paint at both ends of the court. He is averaging 18.0 ppg, just slightly below his career average of 18.2 ppg, though well short of his career-high 22.9 ppg in 2010-11 (his last fully healthy season). Howard remains a productive rebounder (12.5 rpg, fourth in the league after winning the rebounding crown in five of the six previous seasons) and shot blocker (1.8 bpg, ninth in the league but his lowest average in this category since the 2005-06 season). He also ranks fifth in the NBA in field goal percentage (.577).

(FC) Tim Duncan: Some "stat gurus" might scream in protest but Duncan is the primary post presence at both ends of the court for a San Antonio Spurs team that has the second best record in the West and the third best overall record. The Spurs rank second in field goal percentage and eighth in defensive field goal percentage in no small part due to Duncan's contributions. Duncan's per game numbers are no longer as gaudy as they were during his back to back MVP seasons (2002, 2003) but despite playing limited minutes he still ranks sixth in blocked shots (2.0 bpg) and 15th in rebounding (9.8 rpg).

(G) Damian Lillard: The 2013 Rookie of the Year is the second most valuable player for the much improved Trail Blazers. His assist average and two point field goal percentage have declined this season but he has increased his scoring average (from 19.7 ppg to 20.8 ppg) and three point field goal percentage (from .368 to .419). His free throw percentage is up and his turnovers are down, so overall he has become a more mature and efficient player.

(G) Tony Parker: Duncan's post presence has been the foundation for San Antonio's success since he arrived in the NBA but Parker's speed, penetrating ability and shooting touch make him the catalyst for the Spurs' offense. His statistics are not as spectacular as the numbers posted by some NBA guards but Parker plays a key role in a winning program. He is not what TNT analyst Kenny Smith would call a "looter in a riot," a player scoring a lot of points for a bad team.

(WC) Chris Paul: The 32-15 L.A. Clippers are 10-3 without Paul, so perhaps he is not quite the indispensable leader that he is made out to be, but--even considering the fact that his assist numbers are artificially inflated--Paul is a first rate playmaker who remains on the short list of top NBA point guards.

(WC) David Lee: This two-time All-Star provides inside muscle for Golden State to complement the outside shooting of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. He ranks 12th in the league in rebounding (9.9 rpg) and 18th in field goal percentage (.522).

If Russell Westbrook were not out indefinitely due to his knee injury (and thus presumably unavailable to play in the All-Star Game) then he would be my top reserve guard and I would bump everyone else down a notch (meaning that Lee would not be on my reserve roster in that case). Oklahoma City went 21-4 with Westbrook in the lineup, as the dynamic scorer/passer/defender averaged 21.3 ppg, 7.0 apg and a career-high 6.0 rpg. Kevin Durant is playing extremely well while picking up the slack for Westbrook but the Thunder are 15-6 sans Westbrook--Durant's greatness has kept the Thunder in the mix but they are only a dominant team when Westbrook is healthy.

James Harden is not an elite or "foundational" player; he is performing at an All-Star level--ranking seventh in the league in scoring (23.7 ppg)--and I would put him on the team to take the injured Bryant's place but I think that the seven players listed above are more valuable than Harden. Put it this way: Harden would not start ahead of any of the aforementioned guards if they were on the same team, nor would a good general manager trade Aldridge, Howard, Duncan or Lee for Harden (contract status and age notwithstanding but looking only at current on court impact).

Dirk Nowitzki is playing very well for a Dallas team that is clinging to the eighth playoff spot but his numbers and impact do not match the performances posted by the frontcourt players and wild card players who I selected.

Eastern Conference

(FC) Chris Bosh: Bosh is underrated by many fans and commentators but coaches realize his true value: he is an eight time-All-Star, though he has only been voted in by the fans three times. Bosh scores inside the paint and from the perimeter, he ranks second on the Miami Heat with 6.7 rpg despite playing out of position as an undersized center and his defensive versatility is vitally important to the two-time defending NBA champions.

(FC) Roy Hibbert: Hibbert is the cornerstone piece of Indiana's dominating defense and he has come a long way from when his awkward gait reminded me of "Anakin Skywalker taking his first halting steps after being entombed in the Darth Vader suit." His numbers do not jump off of the stat sheet--though he ranks second in the league in blocked shots (2.6 bpg)--but his impact is undeniable.

(FC) Paul Millsap: Millsap is the best, most consistent player on the fourth seeded team in the East; that is not much to write home about this year but it is good enough to earn an All-Star selection in 2014.

(G) John Wall: The fourth year Wizard is finally healthy and he is having a career year, averaging 20.0 ppg (16th in the league), 8.5 apg (fourth in the league) and 1.9 spg (fifth in the league). Washington is below .500--like most of the Eastern Conference--but the Wizards would be even worse without the contributions of their versatile point guard.

(G) Lance Stephenson: In his rookie season with Indiana four years ago, Stephenson scored just 37 total points but now he is a key all-around threat for the East's top team: he leads the Pacers in assists (5.3 apg) while ranking second in scoring (14.2 ppg) and rebounding (7.0 rpg). He has authored three triple doubles, topping the NBA in that category.

(WC) DeMar DeRozan: DeRozan ranks 11th in the league in scoring (21.8 ppg) and he is the best player on a Toronto team that surprisingly has the third best record in the East.

(WC) Joe Johnson: The Brooklyn Nets' big name starting five has not produced many wins but Johnson is the one star on the roster who has at least come close to meeting expectations; he leads the team in scoring (15.7 ppg) and three point field goals made (83 in 42 games).

Outside of Indiana and Miami, the East is a vast wasteland this season. It is difficult to rave about individual performers on sub-.500 teams; no one on the sorry Eastern teams is playing like Pistol Pete Maravich in his prime or like Kobe Bryant in the Smush Parker-Kwame Brown years, carrying decrepit squads to the brink of respectability. Many former Eastern Conference All-Stars are either out of action due to injuries (most notably Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo) or have declined dramatically due to age, changing roles and/or other factors. The situation is so bad that TNT's Charles Barkley could not even come up with seven worthy reserve candidates; he picked Hibbert, Bosh, Stephenson, Wall, Millsap, Johnson and "a Raptor."

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:58 PM