With the all-star voting drawing to an end and the game itself around the corner, I thought I’d share my selections for the all-star ballot for the starters and the reasoning behind them. For some objective evidence, I’ve paired my own metric with ESPN’s RPM. My metric is still in the beta stages, but it’s a statistical plus/minus model that uses an expanded box score (basically, a few stats you can track that aren’t in box scores but can be found in the play-by-play logs) along with a handful of SportVU stats for defense. You can see details on the SportVU stuff here, although I will note I’ve wrestled the contested rebound stuff into more logical results. I threw in RPM to stabilize the results and smooth the outliers.
I digress: my selection process started with a few “locks” I had in mind that were confirmed with the stats. To wit:
Western Conference locks:
Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis.
Eastern Conference locks:
Kyle Lowry, LeBron James.
Curry’s the frontrunner for MVP on the league’s best team. Harden has improved considerably on defense and is unquestionably one of the best offensive players in the league — as long as you concede that his free throws count. I’ve considered Anthony Davis’ “real” impact, partly given his team’s problems on defense, but when watching games he doesn’t seem to be the problem on defense and his incredibly long arms lead to a lot of solid contested shots. Kyle Lowry is one of the better point guards on offense outside of Curry/Paul/Westbrook, and he adds in some solid defense — in the eastern conference, that’s enough. LeBron James even with a slow start to the season is still one of the best players in the game. We don’t need to discuss this further, especially since the forwards in the east are so weak.
For the final west starters, I’ll have to throw in philosophy to the mix. The all-star game unfortunately is only based on half of the season, but the game is etched into history — we still quote all-star appearances of guys from the 50’s and 60’s. Accordingly, I don’t care that Durant missed the first part of the season; I’m also not using a “small sample size” in minutes. We know he’s an incredible player, and no one would bat an eye if he started. He belongs in that mix. (He won’t get voted in, however, because the NBA’s voting site doesn’t put him on the first page due to his low minutes; you have to manually search his name.)
For the last spot in the west, I’ll have to eat crow and give Cousins the credit he deserves. The knock on him last year was that his defense erased a lot of his offensive value, and that plus/minus stats didn’t care for his contributions — that’s been reversed this season. Purely using the numbers, Cousins looks like one of the best defenders in the league, which would have seemed bizarre a year ago. He’s a great rebounder, sure, but he picks up a high number of charges and he’s huge with long arms. If positioned well, he’s a significant deterrent near the rim. His team isn’t doing well, but that’s not his fault; they storm the league when he’s on the court.
Also, I didn’t see any other frontcourt players with an argument over him. Duncan probably has the best one, but his minutes aren’t very high and he’s not an offensive force anymore. Marc Gasol is one of the best offensive centers in the league and a pleasure to watch, but I don’t think his defense is as good as it’s been in the past and the numbers see him as a non all-star — an overreaction, sure, but that points to him not being a starter. The Memphis defense, in fact, is far from the dominance it had in the past and is only a little above average. Blake Griffin will get voted in by the fans because he’s popular, but he’s had a down season thanks largely to his insistence on taking midrange jumpers like he’s Chris Bosh. Blake, spacing is powerful (and I actually incorporate the spacing effect of long two’s) but you shoot like 75% near the rim and get to the foul line like crazy. Attack the paint. Lastly, Chris Paul is having another consistently excellent point guard season, but Curry and Harden have been just a little bit better, at least per the numbers, and Harden has the best chance that anyone has in usurping Kobe’s spot in the fan voting.
The east is a mess. I’ll start with the frontcourt players where two spots remain. The first guy who shows up in the numbers, and the first Hawk, is Paul Millsap. He was an all-star last season and Atlanta is destroying teams; he’s in. The candidates I have for the last spot are Love, Pau Gasol, Carmelo, and Bosh. Korver’s numbers would actually have him as the third highest-rated frontcourt player in the east … if he were listed there. Unfortunately, the positions for the all-star team are still illogical; Korver quite naturally plays both shooting guard and small forward, but he’s stuck at guard in the ballot I have. Love is still a pretty good player all things considering, but the metrics might be overrating his defense a tad right now. Pau’s been overrated this season: he’s not mobile and can get killed in pick and rolls, while strong guys often steal rebounds from him. Win metrics are high on him partly because his minutes are so high. The Knicks are so terrible even the 76ers are better than them — not Carmelo’s fault, but it’s a bit concerning. Bosh probably has the best case here: he was all-star caliber last year, the numbers have him about even with the rest of the candidates, and I’m confident in his talent right now.
For the last guard spot, I’ll stick with simplicity: Wall’s the second highest rated guard in the east and most other analysts are jumping on his bandwagon now, since his defense is better and he’s a swift, talented distributor with high assist numbers. The other candidates are guys like Butler, Teague, and Korver, who are more likely to have their numbers (particularly shooting percentages) regress to the mean. Kyrie Irving is another candidate, but his defense is not up to the task yet. Wade’s a decent one too, but his minutes are lower and RPM doesn’t care for him this season; though even my numbers don’t give him an edge over Wall or Lowry. Kemba Walker is another interesting case too, but let’s cross that bridge when we pick the bench.
Even when sticking close to the numbers, I’m confident in picking two starting units that represent the best of the best in the league, a snapshot of the 2015 season that also serves to reward the right guys. I wouldn’t recommend ever blindly using numbers, but in most cases mine aligned with reality and other opinions. But this is the easy part — now we get to argue about the bench selections.
Western conference starters (ExSPM*) (RPM**)
Stephen Curry (8.52) (8.39)
James Harden (8.19) (7.22)
Kevin Durant (7.41) (4.77)
Anthony Davis (8.19) (7.22)
DeMarcus Cousins (7.01) (6.34)
Eastern conference starters
Kyle Lowry (5.38) (5.81)
John Wall (3.31) (4.28)
LeBron James (6.39) (5.38)
Paul Millsap (2.45) (3.73)
Chris Bosh (4.44) (1.79)
*The beta version of my metric, which uses stats found outside the box score including SportVU tracking