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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Evaluating the NBA's New Voting Procedure for All-Star Starters

NBA All-Star starters used to be chosen entirely by fan vote but this season the NBA decided to include input from both current players and selected media members. The fan vote is now weighted at 50%, while the player vote and media vote count for 25% each. In the event of a tie, the tiebreaker is based on the fan voting.

The NBA announced the final voting results on Thursday January 19. The 2017 Eastern Conference All-Star starters are frontcourt players LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounpo and Jimmy Butler, plus guards Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan, while the 2017 Western Conference All-Star starters are frontcourt players Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, plus guards Stephen Curry and James Harden.

Under the old system, the East All-Star starters would have been James, Antetokounpo, Joel Embiid, Irving and Dwyane Wade, while the West All-Star starters would have been Durant, Zaza Pachulia, Leonard, Curry and Harden. Including the players and the media in the voting process resulted in Butler and DeRozan starting over Embiid and Wade in the East and Davis starting over Pachulia in the West. Fans are often accused of stuffing the (metaphorical) ballot box for their favorite players even if those players do not deserve to be All-Stars and that would certainly seem to be the case with Wade (popular veteran playing in a big market), Embiid (young player who many have adopted as the poster boy for Sam Hinkie's infamous tanking "process") and Pachulia (who apparently garnered support not only from the Bay Area but perhaps from his entire home country of Georgia).

The value of starting versus coming off of the bench in the All-Star Game is largely ceremonial. While total All-Star selections is a category that merits at least some attention when evaluating a player's career, no one seriously considers how many times a particular player started versus how many times he was chosen as a reserve (or even as an injury replacement, as was the case for Tom Chambers in 1987 when he filled in for Ralph Sampson and won the MVP).

My take on the fan vote prior to this season was that as long as the fans selected five worthy All-Stars in each conference--even if the selected players were not necessarily the very best players at their respective positions in each conference--the coaches who select the reserves would balance things out by taking any players who had been "snubbed." If you look at the All-Star voting over the years, even when the fans made some questionable decisions (such as Dan Issel over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1977) the players who they picked deserved to be All-Stars (A.C. Green, 1990 All-Star starter, is perhaps one exception, though he was a key rebounder/defender for a team that had just made three straight Finals appearances and had won back to back titles in 1987-88). The All-Star Game is for the fans and as long as they are not making a mockery of their voting privileges they should have some voice in the process.

The movement to make Pachulia an All-Star may have resulted in the rule change. Pachulia, who is averaging 5.6 ppg and 6.1 rpg this season, has called the new voting process "Zaza rules." It would have been a travesty if Pachulia--who did not receive a single media member vote and who finished 12th among West frontcourt players in the player vote--had made the All-Star team at all, let alone as a starter. While stronger cases could be made for Wade and Embiid, I would not select either player as an All-Star in 2017. So, the NBA's decision to reduce the importance of fan voting from 100% to 50% looks like a good idea.

However, it is important to note that the players (1) have obvious biases based on loyalty to teammates and/or rivalries with opposing players and (2) did not always take voting very seriously. Matthew Dellavedova and Goran Dragic each received six player votes as an All-Star starter, with all of those votes presumably coming from inside their respective locker rooms. Dion Waiters and Mo Williams each received one vote. While Dragic made the All-NBA Third Team in 2014 and Williams made the All-Star team in 2009, none of those four players is even close to being an All-Star in 2017, let alone being one of the top two guards in the East.

The players have lobbied to have a voice in this process and if they want to continue to have a voice then they are obligated to take voting seriously. I am often justifiably critical of the way that media members evaluate players but the media All-Star voters did an excellent job in 2017--better than the fans or the players. Only five West guards received votes: Russell Westbrook (93), James Harden (91), Stephen Curry (6), Chris Paul (1) and Klay Thompson (1). Nine frontcourt players in the West received votes, led by Durant (94), Leonard (91) and Davis (78). DeMarcus Cousins (11) was a distant fourth, with Marc Gasol, Draymond Green, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan each receiving five votes or less. Seven East guards received votes, with Isaiah Thomas (61) and DeRozan (55) outpacing Irving (32), Kyle Lowry (27), John Wall (15), Wade (1) and Kemba Walker (1). James (96), Antetokounpo (93) and Butler (70) led 11 frontcourt players in the East who received votes. Kevin Love (15) was the only other East frontcourt player who received at least 10 votes.

The tiebreaker system came into play twice. Thomas won the media vote and finished second in the player vote but because he was only fourth in fan voting he lost out to DeRozan, who also had a weighted score of 2.75. DeRozan finished third in the fan voting, beating Thomas 796,112 to 755,102. Curry, Harden and Westbrook each had weighted scores of 2.0. Westbrook won both the media vote and the player vote but he finished third in the fan vote and thus will have to depend on the coaches to select him. Since Curry and Harden are more popular among fans than Westbrook, Westbrook had no chance of being a starter either under the new system or under the old system.

Here are my choices for the 2017 All-Star starters, with a brief explanation for each selection:

East Frontcourt

LeBron James: Best all-around player in the league and best player on the Eastern Conference's best team (25.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 8.3 apg).

Jimmy Butler: Outstanding two way player who is posting career-highs in scoring, rebounding and assists after moving to small forward to enable the newly acquired Wade to remain at shooting guard (24.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.8 apg).

Giannis Antetokounpo: Milwaukee Bucks are in playoff contention largely because of his efforts (23.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 5.6 apg).

East Guards

Kyrie Irving: Most stars who play alongside James are forced to accept vastly reduced roles but Irving has come the closest to being a legitimate 1b (at least offensively) to James (23.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 5.6 apg).

Isaiah Thomas: Clearly the best player for a Boston team that is fighting for second place in the East and emerging as a possible playoff threat for Cleveland (28.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 6.0 apg).

West Frontcourt

Kevin Durant: Has established himself as the best player on the team with the best record, an impressive feat considering that one of his teammates is the reigning two-time regular season MVP (26.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 4.7 apg).

Kawhi Leonard: The Spurs are indisputably his team now and they remain a championship contender even after losing the defense/leadership of Tim Duncan (25.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3.1 apg)

Anthony Davis: He is posting awesome numbers for a Pelicans team that started slowly but is now contending for a playoff spot (28.6 ppg, 12.0 rpg, 2.3 apg).

West Guards

Russell Westbrook: He is well on his way to averaging a triple double for the entire season and his supporting cast is so weak that his team needs 30-10-10 from him on a nightly basis just to compete (30.6 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 10.4 apg). 

Stephen Curry: He should not be punished for accepting a 1b role on a team that might win 70 games for the second season in a row (24.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 6.1 apg).

I generally prefer bigger guards to smaller guards, so why did I not take DeRozan in the East and Harden in the West? Both players clearly deserve to be All-Stars. None of the top guards in the East are great defenders (other that perhaps John Wall but his Wizards have underachieved until recently), so the All-Star selections by necessity are based mainly on offense. Irving's ballhandling, shooting range and playmaking skills elevate him over DeRozan, even though DeRozan is stronger and has a great midrange game. I typically cast a jaundiced eye toward undersized guards like Thomas but Thomas is a tremendous clutch player and leader. I don't have a big problem (no pun intended) with taking DeRozan over Thomas but Thomas would be my choice.

Westbrook is without question the best player in the NBA this season, so he should have been one of the starting guards in the West. Harden's statistics have predictably increased in Mike D'Antoni's point guard-friendly system but I would still rather have Curry, a proven leader and proven clutch scorer whose statistics reliably translate into sustained team success. Offensively, Curry is at least as good as Harden even though Harden plays in a system that enables him to put up gaudier numbers. Defensively, while it is true that Curry can be overpowered by bigger players it is also true that his sound fundamentals and quick hands help him to be at least adequate at that end of the court. Opposing teams attack him not so much because he is a bad defender but rather because (1) his backcourt mate Klay Thompson is a first rate defender and (2) it is good strategy to try to wear down a dynamic offensive player by forcing him to defend. The All-Star team should not be selected just by looking at the leaders in various statistical categories (whether those categories are basic box score or "advanced") but rather by considering each player's skill set and his role for his team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:49 PM



At Saturday, January 21, 2017 11:40:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

"Westbrook is without question the best player in the NBA this season"

I question the hell out of that. He may be the most important to his team, but Lebron is definitely still better, and I'd argue Durant, Curry, and a few others probably are too. Best =/= gaudiest numbers.

Other than that nit to pick, though, I largely agree. Westbrook (or mayyyyyyyyybe Klay Thompson, if you look at it just right and squint a little) should have been the second guard, not Harden.

I'd also take Derozan over Thomas all day every day, but that's just me. Neither is much good defensively, but DeRozan's more "meh" and Thomas is legitimately awful. Thomas is a more diverse offensive player, but DeRozan's probably harder to stop, and as you are fond of saying "you can't teach size."

I'd probably take Lowry over both, though.

At Sunday, January 22, 2017 5:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, James needs to play better than RW if he wants 'best player in world' title. James 4th best player at best this season so far.

Thompson as a starter? I have serious doubts he'll even make the AS team.

DeRozan maybe over Thomas, but it's very close.


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