Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The 2014 Western Conference All-star Game Picks

The ballots are in, and the game will commence with two center-less lineups as Kevin Love edged out Dwight Howard and the east's premier center, Hibbert, doesn't have the flash of Carmelo Anthony. Positions have been an issue with previous all-star games. For years, there was much media attention about the death of the NBA center because the reserve center (and sometimes even the starting center) was usually an awful choice. Duncan insisting he was a power forward exacerbated this issue, and players such as Ilgauskas and Jamaal Magloire were invited to the game.

The NBA's solution, much like their attempt to "fix" the lottery, was an overreaction and just creates a new problem. The real problem with the strict positions of the previous ballot was that many players waffled between PF and C, as the distinction between the two positions had been all but erased on many teams, but for the all-star ballot Duncan was either a PF or a C; there was no in between. The guard-forward-center structure is an archaic one from decades ago, and one possible solution would be to change it the modern standard of point guard-wing-big man. There are still issues with combo guards and picking a point guard in a weak year, but at least it's better to have a subpar year from Kidd in the game than someone like Magloire because at least a point guard can make passes and flashy plays. Instead the NBA oddly decided to group centers in with forwards, and as a result we have two strange looking starting lineups without centers.

While there's nothing abjectly horrifying about this, because at least the most popular players are picked and that's the goal of the NBA ballot, the all-star games represent time capsules to explain the history of the league and it's important they're representative of the current league. Some people like to judge eras by looking at the all-star team to see who was playing, and a George-LeBron-Carmelo frontcourt will look bewildering. To put it simply, I would prefer an NBA starting lineup that makes "basketball-sense." You don't want the first reaction to be, "Huh? LeBron's the center?"

The Correction

You vote for one of each: PG-SG-SF-PF-C

The tweak? A player can be voted for multiple positions based on how he's actually used in a basketball game. LeBron James, for example, would be eligible for SF or PF, Roy Hibbert just C, and Stephen Curry PG and SG. This would eliminate some of the weakest choices in all-star history, as well as any strange lineups where LeBron is the "center."

Western conference picks


Guard: Chris Paul*

Even though he's currently injured, I think that he's the best point guard in the league and the third best player in the game (when healthy.) There will be some noise made about how the Clippers have been playing without him, but it's been against a weak schedule and they just got JJ Redick back. (And Paul does have a +5.1 raw plus/minus so far.)  But Paul's same critics ignore the evidence of his value from previous seasons when he was lost for stretches and his team was significantly worse, including when he switched teams and revived a franchise that was considered a laughingstock. He should receive more credit for this.

Chris Paul is still the best point guard in the game, a master tactician and perfectionist who controls the game -- SportVU credits him with 25.3 points created from his assists, far and away the best in the league, along with his 19.6 points per game on high efficiency (which makes him responsible for roughly 60% of the points created whenever he's in the game.) That he can do this while only averaging 2.5 turnovers per game is remarkable, and it makes him a one-man offense. If he's healthy, he deserves to start.

Guard: Stephen Curry

After arguably the best three-point shooting season ever and a surprising run in the playoffs, he's adorned as an NBA star and probably the least-hated top player in the league. The gap between Carmelo and Curry's shooting efficiency last season was smaller than people would think, due to Curry's mediocre scoring inside, and he causes too many turnovers, but he still creates a lot of scoring opportunities for his teammates due to his ability to shoot off the dribble long distance and even elite defenses don't know how to stop him. He's taken a higher load on offense this season while maintaining his efficiency; he's clearly taken a step forward, despite his lowest three-point percentage ever. His quick shooting ability makes him dangerous, as SportVU has him only taking 2.6 catch-and-shoot three's a game ... relative to his 8.4 total attempts per game behind the arc.

Forward: Kevin Durant

Durant, after a remarkable season of shooting efficiency that was only eclipsed by a legendary one from LeBron, is currently in the pole position for the MVP race, and it's well-earned. He's north of 30 PER, which is a rare threshold; his Win Shares per 48 minutes from basketball-reference of 0.329 would be the second highest mark ever behind Kareem in '72; and a plus/minus model (seeded with a statistical model for a prior) rates him as the top player in the league. To put it simply, his game is unfair to the rest of the league. Given his height and long arms, he effectively has the size of a center, but he's one of the best shooters in the league and has become adept at putting the ball on the floor and passing. He's an impossible cover, leading the league in points per touch, which is impressive for someone with as many assists and rebounds as him, and also leads the SportVU statistic for pull-up three-point percentage at 47% out of 56 qualifying players. What are you supposed to do with a player who's at least 6' 10" in shoes who can hit those shots? If you crowd him, he'll go to the rim where he hits his shots at 72% within five feet and nearly 90% from the line. He's a historic force, and he'll go down as one of the best players of all-time.

Forward: Kevin Love

Due to Minnesota's position out of the playoffs currently and their problems in close games, Kevin Love's credentials are being criticized. He's not a "true star" because he can't carry his teammates to wins; he's putting up empty numbers that don't mean anything; he can never have a central role on a great team; etc. People have labeled him a garbage scorer, somehow, who can't create his own shot ... he's currently fourth in the league in points per game with very good efficiency. How is it possible to score 25 points per game while being a garbage scorer? Via Synergy, 25% of his plays have come from post-ups and a good 0.88 PPP efficiency -- that's a high volume of post-up plays, as last season Duncan was at 28%, Brook Lopez 29%, Dirk 26%, and Cousins at 25%. He's the highest non-point guard in touches per game, via SportVu, and even when ignoring defensive rebounds (frontcourt touches only) he's still ranked high among non-guards, ahead of guys like Aldridge, Wade, and Dirk.

People complaining about the lack of elite post scorers in the modern league can look no further -- here's a guy who clears the 20/10 marks by a mile, posts up pretty frequently, can pass well, hits his free throws, sets up his other teammates, shoots behind the three-point line well, drawing out big men and creating attention. He's not conducive to winning, yet when he's on the court, according to 82games.com, his team has a point differential of 9.8 and when he's off it's at a pathetic -10.0? Raw plus/minus has its problems, but even after using advanced adjustments he's still near the top. We've been through this song and dance before with another Kevin. In his prime, Garnett missed the playoffs two straight seasons, and people questioned his superstar status. The next season, he was given great teammates, Pierce and Ray Allen, and immediately won a title with one of the most dominant seasons from a team since Jordan retired. We have failed again to learn from history.

Forward: Dwight Howard

There are some interesting arguments for another forward over Howard, but I prefer a more complete lineup with players in their ideal positions. Paul/Curry/Durant/Love/Howard is a lineup I believe will hold up historically and looks more like a Dream Team. Howard's not a popular player anymore, due to personal problems and a disaster in Los Angeles, but he's still an incredibly effective defender and a better offensive player than people care to admit. He cleans up the boards, remains one of the best rim protectors in the game, has regained his quickness on the perimeter, and posting him up is not a good idea -- I've seen players like Pekovic get destroyed by Howard. People obsess over raw point totals, but I'm more interested in how he passes out of the post and sets screens. And his post game is much better than his detractors indicate, as he's learned counter-moves and is nimble when facing up and driving to the basket. With Marc Gasol sidelined for weeks with a knee injury, I believe Howard was the undisputed best center in the west, since Cousins has problems defensively and Duncan can't play the minutes Howard can. Without Howard, Houston's defense falls off a cliff -- and given his high percentage scoring and work on the boards, and he's an easy all-star.


Guard: James Harden

I have some reservations about Harden, though not as severe as many critics, but he does well with box score metrics and impact stats, from RAPM to the fact that he's the lead scorer/creator for one of the best offenses in the league. His concentration on the NBA's hotspots -- the three-point line and the rim -- may seem like a cheap way to score, but it's effective and style points are not given. His defense is awful, one of the worst for full-time starters, but as a guard it's not enough to offset his scoring. He also has the ignominy of covering the third fewest miles per 48 minutes in the NBA and last among guards, via SportVu and for players with at least 20 games and 20 minutes per game. This is a little surprising given Houston's fast pace, but when he gets the ball he's going in a straight line to the rim and he's not known for his activity on defense.

Guard: Damian Lillard

After winning an Rookie of the Year award mainly because he played heavy minutes, Lillard has taken a step forward as a scorer and as a distributor. He's cut his turnovers down, improved his defense, and has been lights-out from the three-point line. If it weren't for Curry last season short-circuiting our understanding of outside shooting we'd be more impressed by Lillard. He's taking 7 a game and hitting 42% of them, many off the dribble. He's also been incredible in clutch situations, making ridiculous game-winning shots and taking over in the fourth quarter. If there are any doubts of Lillard over another point guard in the talented west, there's the fact that he's one of the two leading contributors to what may end up being, by some measures, one of the best offensive teams of all-time. The difference between Portland's offensive efficiency compared to the league average is 7.8 currently (via b-ref.) The only teams since the merger with superior stats are the 2004 Mavericks (Nash and Nowitzki flanked by shooters) at +9.2 and the ground-breaking 2005 Suns with Nash/Marion and a young Stoudemire at +8.4. They're also close to the crowded group 7.7 points better than the league average: two more seasons of Nash, the '02 Mavs and the '10 Suns, the Stockton/Malone '98 Jazz, and the '97 Bulls. And adjusting for strength of schedule, Portland jumps ahead to +8.5.

Forward: Dirk Nowitzki

It's no surprise Dirk is aging so well. His height and shooting won't deteriorate as quickly as the NBA skills others rely on like lateral quickness. His per possession stats, with the exception of his rebounding, aren't too dissimilar from his stats in his MVP-days, and Dallas is riding a very good offense without too much other help to a playoff spot in a tough, tough conference. He's a darling of the advanced stats crowd for a good reason -- he's once again near the top in adjusted +/-, and his sterling shooting efficiency combined with his obscenely low turnover rate provides a tremendous amount of lift to any team's offense. And a more nuanced, closer look at his game uncovers more treasures: his ability to draw out defenders as a big man and space the floor is hugely important for the role players around him, and his offense holds up very well against even the best defenses because there's not much you can do about a one-legged fade-away jumper from a seven-footer. Advanced stat gurus don't love the midrange game, but things change when you consistently make 50% of your shots with few turnovers.

Forward: LaMarcus Aldridge

Box score lovers will complain about Aldridge's shooting efficiency (and sometimes his lack of offensive rebounds), but, as was pointed out with Lillard, he's a vital part of an electric offense. With a usage rate near 30, one of the highest in the league, and a below average TS%, you'll occasionally hear a criticism about Aldridge's "chucking." However, my counter is this: with how good the team is on offense now, and how large a part of the offense Aldridge is, how much better would they be replacing him with an average player? With that kind of simple analysis, you would be forced to posit the Blazers would turn into the best offensive team ever, arguably, and the best team in the league. But perhaps the highest usage player on the league's best offense is, gasp, a very good player. A cursory glance of the box score misses out on a few factors here. One is that Aldridge spaces the floor well, but you can't tell from the box score because he takes long two-pointers. And like Nowitzki, he has a tiny turnover rate, which makes him more efficient than one would think. The team also plays well off him, as any double teams will be thwarted with a kick out to their shooters, and he's a tough cover because of his size and length coupled with his ability knock down fade-away jumpers. Whenever Portland can't generate an open three or attempt at the rim, they can always throw it to him. He's also a very good defensive player, not an "anchor" but a tier below due to his fundamentals, quickness, and length. The MVP talk is probably an overreaction, even though he leads the league in "pure" RAPM; where was this MVP talk the previous two seasons, when he was almost the same player?

Forward: Blake Griffin

For the last required big man in the west, there's one sure pick left: Blake Griffin, who's been earning more respect lately for performing well with Paul out with an injury. Since his stats were virtually the same in his rookie season before the trade for Chris Paul, it was a strange criticism that he would be nothing without Paul creating for him. The talk about his lack of a post game was also hyperbole. Shaq only had a few moves, but variety doesn't matter when can simply dunk over everyone. The legitimate concern was his jump shot and free throw touch. Thankfully, he's cleared the 70% mark from the line, and his jump shot has looked better, smoothing out the hitch in his release and setting a career high in his percentage from the midrange zone. Griffin has actually rated well by advanced plus/minus metrics for a while. Few people praise his ability as a ball-handler and passer, and that versatility typically adds significant value to big men. He's also hedged enough weaknesses defensively that it's no joke he's starting in the all-star game.

Wild cards:

Guard: Mike Conley

I had a difficult time picking between Tony Parker and Conley for one of the last guaranteed spots. Tony Parker is at the helm of one of the league's best offenses, but the counter is that Conley has had very little help in Memphis with Gasol's injury, age bringing down Randolph and others, and little talent besides the core players. Prince shouldn't be a starter anymore, but the Grizzlies have had few other options. Conley has responded with his best season yet, raising his usage level while maintaining his efficiency and curtailing his turnovers by a significant amount. It's remarkable that Memphis had a league average offense, while Parker has the benefit of possessing a large array of toys to work with in the half-court, orchestrated by a Hall of Fame coach. I'd still rather have Tony Parker on offense, of course, for his mastery of pick and rolls and ability to finish inside, but Conley is one of the best defensive guards in the league -- Parker is simply decent at best. Likewise, Conley gets the nod over Dragic for the same reason. Like the Memphis guard, Dragic is doing a lot for a team that shouldn't otherwise be competing, but the Dragon is quietly one of the worst defenders at his position.

Forward: Anthony Davis

Choosing between Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and Tim Duncan is torture. They have entirely different situations and playing styles. They own stats in different ways -- Duncan's team is one of the best in the league, Davis leads the league in blocks and flashes an efficient, versatile game, and Cousins crushes people with high volume scoring and rebounding. It's easy to look at Davis' stats and think he's a Defensive Player of the Year contender -- if that's true, then how are the Pelicans last in defensive efficiency? Looking further into this issue, coaching problems on defense are the likely culprit here; Anthony Davis isn't a glaring negative. Since they're cycled through a few awful defenders and useless players with Davis in the frontcourt -- Ryan Anderson is lights-out on offense with Davis, but there are still issues on the other end of the court -- he hasn't found a competent frontcourt partner. Since Davis can stop perimeter players in isolation and recover quick enough to block shots at the rim, and SportVu has him currently 15th out of 80 players in opponent field-goal percentage at the rim when he's near the player, I have to give him some credit here. He's in a terrible environment for defense, and while he's prone to mistakes, I still think he's more of a legitimate all-star overall when taking a step back.

Cousins is lighting up the scoreboard by focusing more on his strengths and attacking the basket, but I still have issues with him as a player. Davis makes mistakes on defense, which is normal for a 20 year-old, but Cousins does too and he can't make up the ground with his quickness and shotblocking. People will point to his steals, but that's indicative of a player who gambles far too often -- he's still limited by foul problems and this is his fourth year in the league. He picks up loads of rebounds, but those are sometimes deceptive because some players, like JJ Hickson, don't box out and would rather crash the offensive glass than get back in transition defense. Per NBAWOWY, the Kings rebound 76.1 percent of the available defensive rebounds when Cousins is on the floor, and 74.5 percent when he's off the floor. That's a significant decline, one that would drop you a few places in the league-wide DRB% rankings. But when Davis is on the floor for New Orleans, their DRB% is 74.2, and off? A pathetic 70.6%. Davis has few rebounders on the bench behind him, but it's the same with the Kings who often used Derrick Williams as a PF.

Duncan makes this issue stickier. His team is much, much better and he is a central reason why. He's slipped, sure, and can't make the same kind of high percentage plays Davis can but his defense is, of course, fundamentally sound and he uses his size as well as anyone. His adjusted plus/minus stats aren't any better than the two young studs, but it's more difficult to provide +/- "lift" to an elite team than a bad one. Plus, Duncan has to contend with an elite bench and a coach who's coasting through the season. I'm almost certain Duncan is the better player right now ... but only per minute/possession. So why take Davis? He can play heavy minutes, has no behavioral problems, and doesn't collect fouls by the bucket. It's a close call, but I'll take Davis because I'm slightly more certain he's the more valuable player to any random team in the league.

*Injury replacement for Chris Paul (or anyone else): Tony Parker

I've outlined the reasons why I'd take him over, say, Dragic above in the Conley section. He's still a very good player and helps run a fine offense. For a fun stat, he's 9th in distanced traveled per 48 minutes from SportVU -- advanced technology telling us what we already know about the speedy, active point guard, but it's nice to have confirmation. He has a slim lead over other candidates like Cousins, but the point guard crop in the west is unusually strong even without Westbrook gone and I'm positive Duncan doesn't even want to participate. And if Popovich coached the all-star game, would we put it past him to bench his own players for the entire game?

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