For the Eastern Conference edition of our 1st quarter all-stars, click here.
A common refrain among those in my twitter feed, for anyone watching, has been that this season makes no sense whatsoever. I have to agree. The season has been unfathomably odd so far. I was going to do a freeform piece on the subject, but quickly realized there was a simpler way to go. Given that All-Star voting has begun, why not give you my first-quarter All-Stars? After all, we're already voting. And the game is in about a month. It's closer than you think, in other words. I'm not really doing statistical rankings here -- these are based on a combination of their stats (mostly documented here so we can look back later), what I've seen from watching them, and where the conference stands. It's a long look, so let's get to it. Keep in mind we'll be going with the infuriating All-Star positional designations; that is, guards, forwards, and centers. Four guards, four forwards, two centers, and two wildcard slots. Go.
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- STARTERS: Kyle Lowry, Kobe Bryant
The west is much more talent-rich than the east. Enough so that two or three of the definitive eastern all-stars to this point of the season -- namely Anderson, Jennings, and Lou Williams -- wouldn't even sniff the game if you traveled westbound. Trying to figure out who deserves to start and who's playing the best at the point out of all the western guards is immensely tricky, and I wouldn't really blame you if you threw up your hands and said "Alright! Fine! Give it to Chris!" I mean, really. Chris Paul is the league's best, by default -- he's one of the five best players in the league, surely he deserves to start, right? Well, yeah. Maybe. By the actual game, it's certainly possible that averages will descend to the mean and the superior talent between Paul and Lowry will even out. I'd argue it's even likely. But in the early going, although it's been close, I'd have to tip my hat to Lowry as the starting point for the West, even if this makes me a bit uncomfortable given the allegations swirling around him right now.
As for their play? Lowry has an edge on Paul in three key respects. First, I have to give Lowry a nod for his health -- Lowry has played in 16 of 18 games for the Rockets, while Paul has played in 10 of 15 for the Clippers. Assuming they're giving their teams roughly equally as much, a few extra games is a big deal. Second, his rebounding -- Lowry is averaging more rebounds per-36 minutes than any other point guard in the league right now, at roughly seven per game. On a team that starts Luis Scola, the extra rebounding is completely and utterly necessary, and Kyle's work on the boards helps make up for the team's current lack of big men. Third? His defense. Synergy lets me down, here, so I'm not really working off solid numbers -- I'm working off a feeling. I get the sense, when I watch Lowry, that his man works quite a bit harder for his points than Paul's man does. It doesn't hurt that I feel as though Paul gets dirty on defense a bit more often than Lowry, who (in my view) tends to run a pretty tight ship in terms of avoiding dirty defensive plays. Still, the Synergy stats do disagree -- CP3 allows 0.75 PPP to Lowry's 0.79 PPP. Both good, neither transcendent, and Lowry's ranked a tad lower. But I still can't shake the feeling he does a better job, and perhaps these are just confirmation biases at play. Now, these are only three things -- Paul is still a superior scorer, a superior passer, and an overall superior player to Lowry. But Lowry has played above his head and Paul has played a bit below his. Sometimes that's enough. For what it's worth, if Lowry doesn't break out of his current slump soon (he's shooting 32.3% in the past 5 games, and his numbers have tanked considerably from early season highs), there's a slim likelihood of him MAKING the all-star game, let alone deserving to start. There are simply too many qualified guards in the west. Really.
As for Kobe, I think we all know what we're getting from him. Relatively inefficient scoring, dependent on drawing a lot of free throws and taking a ton of shots. The thing is? He's been legitimately quite good this year. He ranks 35th in the league at isolation scoring with 0.8 PPP, 26th in P&R Ball Handler scoring (0.88 PPP), 18th in post-up efficiency (0.95 PPP), and 2nd in the entire league off screens with 1.15 PPP. The problem with Kobe is that he takes so many isolations that his overall scoring output -- 0.93 PPP -- ends up being 105th in the league when you account for the terrible distribution of his shots. Realistically, though, he's been about as good as a man can expect him to be at this stage of his career. Better, in fact. He's played the 5th most minutes per game of any player in the league, and at he time of posting, the most minutes to this date of any NBA player. His per-36 numbers of 28-5-5 are roughly at his career averages, and while you don't really want Kobe taking 23 shots a game, you can't deny that 28 points on 23 shots really isn't all that bad in the context of a Mike Brown offense. No, it isn't exactly MVP-caliber scoring -- but it's decent, and in a conference devoid of healthy star shooting guards, getting 38 minutes a night (every night) of production like that is a huge boon for a team.
- RESERVES: Chris Paul, James Harden
So, why not James Harden? Here are the facts, for James. He's averaging 17-4-3 in just 30 minutes per game, and on less than 10 shots per game. He's playing reasonably solid defense, to these eyes, and Synergy stats would tend to agree -- he's ranked 87th in the league, allowing his man 0.76 PPP. He doesn't guard the opponent's best player, no -- but he doesn't do a strictly poor job against the players he's given to stop, and he recovers very well on the pick and roll. And offensively? He's essentially lights out from every position on the floor -- he can shoot the three (extremely well), finish in traffic (expertly), pull up, spot-up, and manage the ball in transition. I'd stop short of calling him Manu-lite, because that's not really true -- his passing is about 200x worse than Manu's, and his defense is nowhere at Manu's pesky level. But this season, he's been the spark for the best team in the West, and he deserves at least some sort of nod for his excellent play. And with Westbrook playing poorly enough to not-really-deserve a spot? He's their second all-star, easily.
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- STARTERS: Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge
Durant is definitely going to start in the game, and quite frankly, he completely deserves it. Durant is putting up an effortless 25 points on 18 shots a night, seven rebounds, three assists, a steal, a block, and leading his team well. His advanced stats are fantastic, leading his team with a TS% of 60.2% despite a usage rate of 31.7%. His defense this year has been much improved, partly because he's getting a whole season with Perkins, Collison, and Ibaka manning the middle and allowing him more leeway to play his man close. With his size, he's always had the ability to be a positive defensive contributor -- this season he's beginning to make that a reality, and that's a scary thought for the league. He excels in defending in isolation and in recovering on his spot-up shooters -- mostly because of his size and long arms, he simply covers distances quicker than most shooters expect and what they thought was to be a wide-open jumper turns into a brutally covered quick shot. The evolution of Durant into a star who can be counted on to keep his man from going crazy is one of the underrated developments that have pushed the Thunder from the plucky and intrinsically good team they've been for the last few years into the odds-on favorite to win the western conference. I mean, really -- if Durant was playing the same defense he has the last few years, I'm guessing the Thunder lose at least 2 or 3 of the close games they've won to date. It's that important.
And then we get to LaMarcus. You can argue that Love or Millsap deserves this spot. You won't be wrong, strictly -- Kevin Love and Paul Millsap have both played some amazing basketball this season and certainly deserve the all-star spots I assign them in a paragraph or two. But Aldridge has been the rock for a surprisingly good Blazers team. They've lost games they shouldn't have lost, but this Blazer team really does look like it has a fringe shot of coming out of the West, and that's something you couldn't really say about the last few years without Roy. The ascendency of LaMarcus is one of the nicer stories of recent years -- always a disappointing not-quite-good-enough player, last year LaMarcus' offense finally decided to match his defense (which had been elite for a year or two before that) -- this year, he's continuing the hot streak and as we enter play for tonight's games LaMarcus has hit a lot of key career highs. He's maintained a TS% above his career average despite the highest usage rate of his career, and is demolishing his career highs in assist percentage and steal percentage. He's rated as the 14th best isolation defender in the league by Synergy, and although his spot-up numbers are relatively awful (and drag down his overall Synergy stats), he spends a lot of the game helping on defense to try and keep to Nate's system and he's one of the key cogs that makes it work. He's got an unguardable bank shot and has one of the best pick and roll games in the entire league. He's fantastic, a superstar, and deserves an entire boatload of superlatives for what he's doing in Portland right now. So he takes my starting spot. Tenuously.
- RESERVES: Kevin Love, Paul Millsap
The only reason LaMarcus is in here tenuously is because the West's depth at the forward position is absolutely insane. Any of LMA, Love, or Millsap would be starting for the East's team -- instead, two of them have to be reserves. Sad. But Kevin Love is quietly having an even better season than last year, at least as a complete player. Adelman isn't crazy enough to really match Love on players on the defensive end, but he has Love playing a floating post defense that he's actually not all that bad at. Not to say he's really a defensive asset, mind you -- his help has been as awful as we've come to expect from Love, but his voracious rebounding and his bulk really do wonders to help him effectively defend players who try to post him up. Which isn't to say he's really a shutdown post defender, because he isn't -- fundamentally, his defensive game is as lacking in polish as Dwight's offensive game was 3 years ago (which, by the way, it isn't anymore -- the "Dwight has no post game" meme needs to die a painful death, and should've died a painful death back during the Magic's 2009 playoff run) and while it's effective, it seems like it's primarily the system that did it. Is that bad? Not really. Now that he's no longer quite the sieve he used to be, Love's numbers mean a bit more to me. And they're absolutely insane numbers -- 40% from three on five threes a game, a rebound rate of 19% (fifth in the league, behind Dwight, Varejao, Bynum, and Humphries) translating to 13 boards a game, atop 23 points a night? That's some crazy stuff. Love is a great player, and now that Adelman has found an effective way to hide him on defense, there's nothing really tangible separating the words "all-star" and Kevin Love's name.
As for Millsap, this is another crazy small-season selection, but it's a strong one. Although he plays fewer minutes than Love, Aldridge, or Durant, he's putting up similarly impressive per-36 numbers -- 20-10-2-2 for Millsap to LMA's 22-9-3 and Love's 23-13-1. He's shooting 55% from the floor and finds himself far less involved in the Utah offense than LMA or Love -- he's sitting at a usage rate of 24%, quite a bit less than Love and LMA's 28% apiece. And the way he's scoring has been somewhat impressive. He's been absolute garbage spotting up and isolating, as you'd reasonably expect -- he is not a good shooter. He's been a bullish beast in the post, though, ranking 24th in the league at 0.92 PPP generated from the painted area. And he's been the league's top cutter at this point in the season, generating a completely absurd 1.65 PPP on cutting plays despite the Utah lack of a good passer. And he's been similarly excellent off the boards, having scored 1.42 PPP on offensive rebound attempts with 20 FGM and 3 And-1s on the year. Millsap has been completely beasting it this year, and while 20-10 may not look strictly wondrous, take a look at the Utah roster. Look at the pace they play at (markedly slower than the Blazers or Wolves, I might note). Look at their personnel. And tell me why that's not incredibly impressive. If you're coming up blank, that's sort of the point -- Millsap has been wonderful this season, and if we were choosing the team today, he'd be a must-pick.
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- STARTER: Marc Gasol
Marc Gasol got off to a relatively poor start this year, which is what makes my choosing him as a starter so insane to me. I'd essentially pencilled Bynum into this spot from the first day of the season, and didn't really expect it to change. The reality? Bynum has been good -- very good, even -- but in terms of overall value, Gasol has been the player I'd take nine times out of ten, this year. Gasol has been virtually unguardable in the post this year, not really by talent but sheer bulk -- watching footage of him in the post is like watching a tank run over a hobbit village populated by baby Koalas. It's brutal. And defensively? Good luck getting any space whatsoever when you're trying to post him up, and good luck swarming the rim when you know you have Marc there to erase your shot. He's been Memphis' rock this year, and has been better than anyone had any right to expect coming into this season. He's doing to everyone in the league what he did to Tim Duncan last year. And it isn't pretty, if you aren't a fan of his.
- RESERVE: Marcin Gortat
I really oscillated on this one a lot. The way I look at it is this -- in a fair world, the Suns would be an Eastern team and it'd be an easy call to put both Gortat and Nash on the team. They're equally as important to the success of their team. Nash makes the offense run, and Gortat makes the defense -- insofar as it exists at all -- function like an actual NBA defense. Gortat is also an excellent roll man, a great teammate, and one of the best cutting bigs in the league. He's a classical big man's center, and he's probably the best offensive weapon besides Amare that Nash has ever had backing him up. Nash is certainly helping Gortat out quite a bit, when they're on the court together. They have an exquisite two-man game that has the same qualities of the Nash-Amare game that enhanced both their talents.
In this case, though, I have to give the nod to Gortat above Nash. Not because he's a better player, per se, but because he simply means a little bit more to the Suns right now than Nash does. Not much, just a tiny bit -- when Gortat is on his game, though, the Suns defense looks positively average. His offensive game helps keep Nash's passing alive, as Nash symbiotically improves his offensive game with his passing. But the Suns offense looks to me to be about the same as their defense (and ratings hear me out -- they're 19th in the league on offense, and 19th in the league on defense) and Gortat gets criminally too few minutes. He's been great for them, absolutely all-star level, and (after a short period of disappointing games) Nash has been too. But on a team that's 6-11, in the west? You can't get two all-stars on that team. You just can't. So I'd pick Gortat, knowing full well that Nash deserves it just as much. It's a tough life out here for a blog, guys.
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ANDREW BYNUM: Given the incoherent ESPN debate about whether Bynum or Howard are better players, it probably isn't much of a surprise that Bynum's on this list. It probably is a bit of a surprise that I'd wildcard him, though, instead of letting him hash it out as a starter or a reserve. I may be alone in this (and I probably am!), but I really think Gortat and Gasol (Marc, of course) have played significantly better ball than Bynum, on both ends of the floor this year. Bynum is dominant and effective, but he often takes an extremely conciliatary role in the Laker offense -- gets the ball in the post, glances, then passes up an almost-open post shot in favor of another Kobe two. I'd like to see Bynum get a bit more aggressive in calling his own plays, and a bit more defensively active -- lost in the Laker's great defense this year is that Bynum hasn't exactly been playing the soul-crushing defense he played last year and the year before. He's been really, really good -- shutdown for the most part -- but he hasn't been the same kind of "system in a box" (as I like to call them) defender in Brown's system, yet. My guess? He figures out the system around halfway through this season, beasts it for the rest of the season, and leads the Lakers to a nice long playoff run that validates the incoherency of the ESPN commentariat that seems to think he's as good as Dwight. As of yet, though, I feel he's been less valuable to his team than Gortat and Gasol are to theirs. And the Lakers have been a bit disappointing so far, both because of it and because of the elder Gasol's heretofore poor season.
TY LAWSON: This last spot was probably the absolute hardest pick out of all of these. I ended up going with Ty Lawson for two reasons. First, I feel like he's Denver's most important player. Best? No, that'd probably be Nene or Gallo, but in terms of the player that defines the team, I think Lawson's never-say-die spirit and flawless command of his teammates' offensive execution has to win out in the end. The creative ways he creates for himself, his ball-handling might, his prowess at killing all comers in transition -- at some point, that has to be worth something, and on a Denver team that is absolutely crushing most people's expectations (and is currently in pole position for a #2 overall seed in, again, a tough Western Conference) that's worth a hell of a lot. Second, and probably most importantly? It gives me a prime opportunity to re-link an incredibly old GG piece that virtually nobody has ever read, detailing how much of a hilarious badass Ty Lawson is through a story from my years at Duke. READ IT.
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Where the hell do I start? How about at center, where Samuel Dalembert and Nene are both out of my chosen all-star game despite playing at a level that's usually all it'd take to get an all-star selection at their position? Or at forward, where Blake Griffin, Gerald Wallace, Danilo Gallinari, James Doakes, and Dirkus Circus all would merit serious consideration (or an automatic pick) in the east and make few bones about making the game in the west, to date? A list of all-star snubs in the west is less a list of snubs and more a list of "yeah, you could probably swap a few of these with my picks and I'd have no way to argue against it" type of list. Really.
I mean, point guard is a great example. At the point you have Russell Westbrook (having a disappointing season, but could turn it on at any time), Mo Williams (a serious 6MotY candidate who -- if not deserving of an all-star spot -- would at least merit consideration), Ricky Rubio (a rookie phenom who is certainly on the fringe and would occupy the same space as Kyrie in the East), Andre Miller (technically eliminated by Ty making the team, I suppose, but he's never had an all-star selection and he damn well still deserves one) and (finally) Tony Parker, who's putting up better numbers than virtually any of the non-starting Eastern picks I offered in my Eastern post a few days ago, and who has recouped from an awful start to posting a career high in assists per game despite below-average minutes per game, and back to a solid 18 points a game besides. Look. Name a random Western star. He was probably snubbed.
Except Derek Fisher, who was not snubbed. Sorry, Derek, you're just not that good anymore.
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Well, that was an excruciating process. Getting posts like this right is virtually impossible. There's always going to be room to criticize. I hope, regardless, you found fewer things to criticize than you could've. I more thoroughly understand how hard it is for KD to be consistently getting things right, and keeping it proper. I endeavor to do the same, but damn, it's hard out here for a man straight keeping it real. I'm white. Sorry. Thanks for reading anyway.