I have ignored the fan voting for reasons that should be obvious, but I have followed the rules coaches must follow in voting for the seven back-ups—two guards, two forwards, one center and two wild cards, with the caveat that you can vote for someone out of position (i.e. designate Chris Bosh a “center”) if you believe it is best for the All-Star team.
Forthwith, the following players should comprise the Eastern Conference All-Stars:
LeBron James (F), Cleveland Cavaliers. This needs no explanation. He is the best basketball player on Earth.
Chris Bosh (F), Toronto Raptors. Bosh is having the best season of his life, with career highs in points per game (24) and rebounds per game (11.2). He’s not an outstanding defender, but he plus/minus numbers are solid and his defensive rebounding rate is 13th among all players who have played at least 400 minutes. You can take issue with the fact that 51 percent of his shot attempts are jumpers, but the screen/roll or pick-and-pop involving Bosh is the main reason the Raps have sported a top-five offense all season. He’s in.
Dwight Howard (C), Orlando Magic. Sure, his shot attempts are way down (from 12.4 per game to 9.1 this season), he still can’t shoot free throws, his turnover rate is up and Magic watchers have complained that his help D has been a step slow at times this season. He’s still easily the best center in the NBA and its single most destructive force on defense. A no-brainer.
Dwyane Wade (G), Miami Heat. Wade is weirdly similar to Howard, in that several of his key numbers are down (especially his shooting percentage) yet he remains by far the best guard in the Eastern Conference. He’s #3 in the league in PER, and the Heat are dead without him. Their offense scores 15 more points per 100 possessions with Wade on the floor versus with Wade on the bench—a huge, huge gap—and his adjusted plus/minus leads the entire NBA.
Rajon Rondo (G), Boston Celtics. I’m a huge homer, right? No way this can be a rational choice, right? Ok, fine: Tell me who ranks 2nd among Eastern Conference guards in Player Efficiency Rating, behind Dwyane Wade. Look it up. Hint: It’s Rajon Rondo, checking in with a 19.9 PER, six spots ahead of Eastern Conference guard #3 (Joe Johnson). Johnson assumes a larger burden of his team’s scoring than Rondo does (Johnson’s usage rate is 26.7 compared to 20 percent even for Rajon), but Rondo’s combination of passing and defense at the point guard spot is unrivaled aside from Chris Paul.
Rajon is 3rd in the league in assists (9.6), 7th in assist/turnover ratio, 8th in rebounds per game among all players 6’4” or shorter, and he is one of just six guards in the league shooting over 50 percent in at least 300 minutes played. (Rondo’s 53.1 shooting percentage ranks 2nd among all guards, behind only the great Steve Nash).
Boston’s defense is five points stingier per 100 possessions with Rajon on the court, and some very advanced defensive metrics rank Rondo among the very best defenders in the game—at any position.
If you’d like to make a case for any other guard in this spot, make it. It won’t be easy.
Joe Johnson (Atlanta Hawks): He isolates too much. He takes too many tough shots, especially at the end of close games. He doesn’t get to the line enough. All of these criticisms are valid, and Bret LaGree could probably rename his blog “Things About Joe Johnson That Annoy Me,” but even LaGree, one of the smartest—if not the smartest—Hawks fans on planet Earth, would concede that Johnson’s unique offensive game is still what holds the Hawks together.
Guess how many players in the NBA average 21-5-5 per game? One. Two other guys are right there—Dwyane Wade (27 points-6.3 dimes-4.9 boards) and Joe Johnson, who is putting up 21.2-5.0 rebounds-4.8 assists per game.
That is phenomenal stuff. His defensive numbers are never great, but his ability to guard point guards, shooting guards and small forwards in a pinch is one factor that allows the Hawks to switch on damn near every screen/roll and not get killed for it. Also: Atlanta’s offense scores about eight more points per 100 possessions with Johnson on the court.
Gerald Wallace (Charlotte Bobcats): Despite pulling down 11.5 boards per game, Gerald Wallace isn’t quite Dennis Rodman. He actually ranks “just” 20th in the league in rebound percentage, which measures the percentage of all available boards a player grabs. This is partly because the typical Bobcats game includes a ton of misses and because Wallace isn’t an elite offensive rebounder.
But to get 11.5 boards per game from your small forward? That’s special. Combine that with 18.3 points per game on 48 percent shooting, and you’re a long way toward sealing up a spot in the All-Star game. Wallace is a fairly disciplined shooter, too. Only 39 percent of his shot attempts are jumpers, and he takes fewer than two threes per game. His usage rate—basically a measure of how often a player ends a possession by doing something with the ball— is about average (20 percent), meaning Wallace produces without overwhelming the offense.
The Cats—the best defensive team in the league, by the way—allow six fewer points per 100 possessions with Crash on the floor.
If I’ve got a vote (and I don’t!), Wallace is in.
Josh Smith (Atlanta Hawks): One of the best stories in the league this year, at least if you like the kinds of stories in which headstrong players do some introspection and realize they need to ditch some personal selfishness for the betterment of the team. After his flirtations with the three-point shot did not go well (29 percent on 87 attempts last season), Smith has ditched the three in favor of driving to the hoop and creating for himself and his teammates.
Smith has taken just three triples all season, and at least one of those (and perhaps two) were end-of-quarter desperation bombs. He’s also taking fewer jumpers overall; only 36 percent of his shots this season have been jumpers, down from 47 percent last season. The result? He’s averaging a 15-8-4 with career bests in assists and field goal percentage (51 percent). His blocks are back up after a down year, he remains a terrifying weak side defender and the Hawks are 10 points better defensively with him on the floor—one of the biggest such numbers in the league.
If you like adjusted plus/minus, his numbers there are tops, too.
All of this makes the fact that Brian Scalabrine shut him down last week even more puzzling.
Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks. This is the toughest call on the entire roster, so hear me out. There is a glut of big men behind Howard producing very solid stats this season. Each player has glaring flaws, and it would be easy to say we should just skip the back-up center position altogether and name an extra guard.
But go take a look at the possible back-up guards. It’s a wasteland. Vince Carter? He’s shooting 39 percent, his assist numbers are awful for someone who handles the ball so much and he’s been hurt. Mo Williams? I didn’t buy it last year, and his numbers are down this season. Very good player. An All-Star? I’m not convinced. Andre Iguodala? A fine all-around player and one of the kings of advanced plus/minus, but I can’t get past the 42 percent shooting from the floor and his insistence on taking contested three-pointers. Ray Allen? He has that mystical ability to make others better that Paul Pierce lacks, but his shooting is way down, and he’s on the court primarily to shoot.
Devin Harris and Jameer Nelson are not really in consideration this season for various reasons, and Derrick Rose, though he’s coming on lately, remains 68th in Player Efficiency Rating and can’t guard anyone (or get to the foul line).
So in the end, I decided at least one of the non-Howard big guys deserves to make it.
And it’s Horford, by a nose. I don’t like it, readers—this act of putting three Hawks on my personal All-Star team. And I reckon Knicks and Nets fans won’t like it, either.
Horford averages 13.7 points per game compared to 19.3 for David Lee and 18.8 for Brook Lopez. But Horford get his points on just 10 shot attempts per game because the dude is shooting 59 percent from the floor. Horford doesn’t touch the ball nearly as much as Lee or Lopez, who each attempt about 14 shots per game.
There are two ways to read this: 1) Horford doesn’t touch or shoot the ball as much because he is not as capable an offensive player as the other two; or 2) Atlanta’s coaches and players aren’t doing a good enough job involving Horford in the offense.
If you side with #1, you think Horford is a dumb choice. If you side with #2, Horford is your guy here.
I’m in camp #2. Here’s an unexpected bit of trivia to back me up: Horford hits more of his jumpers than either Lee or Lopez, both of whom have received considerable attention for their improved Js. (See here, here and here for the numbers at 82games.com). He’s not as big of a pick-and-pop threat as either Lee or Lopez, but that’s a matter of strategy and not (lack of) skill.
Horford’s rebounding numbers already rival Lee’s, but it’s on defense that Horford separates himself from the other two. Atlanta allows 11 fewer points per game with Horford on the floor, while both Lee and Lopez are on the wrong side of the defensive plus/minus numbers. His adjusted plus/minus numbers are excellent, but his value on defense goes far beyond numbers.
Watch an Atlanta game and count how many times Horford ends up defending a guard because of Atlanta’s strategy of switching on every screen/roll. Then count how many times the other team is able to punish Atlanta by taking advantage of Horford.
David Lee (Knicks): After huffing and puffing about how Horford deserves the back-up center spot over Lee, I’m sliding Lee onto the team anyway. His 19-11 stat line is impressive for a guy who came into the league with the “can’t score” label, and he has developed a fairly reliable jump shot. He’s one of the league’s great rebounders, and his board totals aren’t as pace-inflated as people think; the Knicks average about 94 possessions per game, 8th in the league and just one little possession above the league median, according to Basketball Reference.
Lee also deserves credit for the fact that seemingly every productive New York possession involves a Lee screen/roll, pick-and-pop or dribble hand-off. He is the centerpiece of the team.
He’s not a great defender, though the numbers suggest he’s not terrible, either. Among a bunch of flawed candidates for what amounts to the last spot on the roster, Lee gets the nod.
To do this, though, we’ll have to classify someone on our ballot as a “guard.” This shouldn’t be a problem, considering how many ball-handlers we have on the roster.
Paul Pierce (Boston Celtics): Yup, he’s still an All-Star. The Truth is just humming along with an 18-5-4 on 46 percent shooting and an incredible 46.7 from three-point range—the 2nd-best mark in the league among players who have attempted at least 100 threes.
Pierce isn’t a perfect player or the dominant force he once was. He doesn’t get to the line as often (though he still spends considerable time there), and he can’t seem to lift bench players to a higher level during those stretches in the 2nd and 4th quarters when he plays with the back-ups.
But he is still the steadying force on a team that has missed its best defensive player and most consistent post presence for a third of the season. Pierce can bounce his way to the rim to draw a foul when the C’s absolutely need points, and his elbow jumper is still among the deadliest clutch shots in the game.
Antawn Jamison (Washington Wizards): Jamison will never be more than a neutral (at best) defender and he’s a poor passer, but he puts up 22-9 like clockwork and is the rock amid what has been a well-publicized mess.
Gil Arenas is gone (for now), Caron Butler has had a down year and the new guys (Randy Foye and Mike Miller) haven’t contributed as expected. It’s Jamison out there every night, knocking down about half of his field goal attempts, making sure the Wizards don’t become a complete debacle.
I covered a bunch of omissions above in discussing the lack of guards having All-Star seasons, but a few quick notes:
• KG: He’ll almost certainly get voted in, but I left him off because he has missed about a third of the season and his numbers—about 15-7—aren’t at his customary level. He’s still an elite player when healthy, though; he leads the C’s in PER (a smidgen above Rondo) and his plus/minus stats are excellent. The guy is a defensive monster.
• Andre Iguodala: I love Iggy and would like to see him make his first All-Star team, but I can’t get by the poor shooting percentage. Still: One of the elite wings in the league.
• Derrick Rose and Luol Deng: I covered Rose above, but a word on Deng: People don’t realize what a good season he’s having. Deng is putting up a 17-8 and plays good defense, and his plus/minus numbers are off the charts fantastic. Wayne Winston, of Mathletics fame, has Deng among his MVP candidates. That’s a little much, but Deng has been great.
• Brook Lopez. He may have the best upside of the Lee-Horford-Lopez triumverate, but he’s not as good as the other two right now.
• Perk. I love Perk. He has improved so much. But he’s not an All-Star this season, primarily because he turns the ball over too often. But he’s close, and he could make the team next year if he continues to improve.