Let the debates begin: Selecting the 2015 NBA All-Star Game reserves
The NBA has announced the starting lineups for the 2015 All-Star Game, which can only mean one thing: it’s time to argue about the reserves.
Below, you'll find SI.com’s picks to fill out both the Eastern Conference and Western Conference rosters for the All-Star Game, set for Feb. 15 at Madison Square Garden. These selections are made following the same protocol used by the coaches when they make the real selections: each conference’s group includes two backcourt players, three frontcourt players, and two wildcard players that can play any position.
To review, here are the starting lineups voted upon by fans:
Important note: A major injury must be taken into account in this selection process. Bryant is expected to miss time, possibly the rest of the season, with a torn rotator cuff on his right shoulder. Per NBA rules, commissioner Adam Silver gets to replace any player that is selected by the fans or coaches but is unable to play due to injury.
Making these picks involves a number of factors, including: each player’s statistical output and advanced stats performance, his impact on his team, and his team’s record. Let’s get on with the show.
* Editor's Note: You can see the reserves selected to the NBA All-Star Game here.
The fan voting process always stirs up a lot of controversy, but it’s only truly problematic when a player who is totally unworthy of All-Star status gets chosen to be a starter. When that happens, there’s one fewer spot for a legit All-Star and a greater cramp when it comes to the reserves. Good news: the fans went five-for-five in picking East players worthy of All-Star status this year, thereby avoiding any unnecessary logjams in the reserve corps.
Jimmy Butler, Bulls: Last week, SI.com selected Butler instead of Wall as a starter, noting how tight the three-way race was between Butler, Wall and Lowry. Even though Butler’s numbers have started to slide in January, the breakout player of the 2014-15 season has done more than enough to claim his first All-Star selection. He ranks first among East guards in Win Shares, second in PER, and fourth in Real Plus-Minus. His raw numbers (20.6 PPG, 6 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.8 SPG), two-way play and tirelessness make him a favorite of coaches across the league and an easy selection.
Jeff Teague, Hawks: Atlanta’s point guard was the captain of SI.com’s All-Ignored Team, comprised of the most overlooked players in the fan voting process. Teague now ranks first among East point guards in PER, second in Win Shares, and third in Real Plus-Minus; perhaps more importantly, he has guided Atlanta to the East’s best record, including 14 straight wins. Teague’s career year (17.2 PPG, 7.4 APG, 2.7 RPG, and 1.8 SPG) has him ranked in the top 10 in both assists and steals, even though coach Mike Budenholzer has kept his minutes in check. Another obvious first-time selection.
Paul Millsap, Hawks: In a dream world, Millsap would be starting in place of Anthony. In reality, New York’s score-first small forward pulled down 5.3 times as many votes as the versatile, unselfish Millsap. Those are the breaks in a wide-open popularity contest. Like Teague, Millsap has put up quality numbers (16.8 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.9 BPG) for a winning outfit without playing an insane number of minutes. Although he’s undersized compared to many power forwards, Millsap scores very well in the major defensive stats (Real Plus-Minus, Defensive Rating, Defensive Win Shares), and his flexibility, work ethic, and dependability are a major reason why Atlanta’s defense is among the league’s best. On the other end, he’s a great fit for Budenholzer’s spread system because he can contribute without ball-stopping, he can play both inside and out, and he can find success in both pick-and-roll and spot-up situations. He deserves to make his second consecutive, and second overall, All-Star Game without question.
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Chris Bosh, Heat: Miami has faded from national relevance without James, but Bosh – a popular punching bag during the “Big 3” years – surely isn’t to blame. The scope of his bounceback this year (21.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2.1 APG) is a reminder of just how much he sacrifice offensively to accommodate James and Dwyane Wade. Although his numbers haven’t quite returned to their Toronto-era high-water marks, Bosh is a deadly weapon, connecting on 39.2 percent of his three-pointers and a strong 45.9 percent of his mid-range shots. The Heat’s sub-.500 record says more about their injury issues and nothing about the state of Bosh’s game. He ranks 13th overall in scoring, fourth among East bigs in PER and he should make his 10th straight All-Star appearance given the relatively weak nature of the East’s frontcourt field.
Al Horford, Hawks: The third frontcourt reserve is the toughest spot to fill on the East’s roster – by far. The top candidates all have obvious warts. Horford’s per-game numbers (15.1 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.4 BPG) don’t blow you away because he’s one of many key pieces in the Hawks’ balanced approach; even though he has a case as Atlanta’s most important player, he doesn’t lead his team in points, rebounds or assists.
Kevin Love has suffered through a slow transition to life in Cleveland, with his defensive limitations getting dissected and his scoring numbers taking a noticeable hit as he learns to play alongside stars. The Cavaliers’ rocky road doesn’t do him any favors, even if his numbers (17.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists) are good enough. Although the Magic's Nikola Vucevic has generated some buzz by nearly averaging 20 and 10 (19 PPG, 11.1 RPG) and by posting the best PER among East centers with at least 20 games played, Orlando’s sub-.500 record works against him, as do his unimpressive impact numbers (minus-5.3 net rating, 0.07 Real Plus-Minus). Finally, Al Jefferson (Hornets) looked poised to make his first All-Star Game during the season, but a nine-game injury absence and a disappointing year in Charlotte have combined to make him a long shot, now that his individual numbers (17.6 PPG, 8 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.1 BPG) have dropped compared to 2013-14.
Of the top four candidates, Horford is the most well rounded, the most polished, and he plays for the best team (by a wide margin). That combination earns him the nod for his third All-Star Game, barely, as the major advanced stats (PER, Win Shares, Real Plus-Minus) don’t combine to overwhelmingly favor anyone in this group.
Dwyane Wade, Heat: Filling out the last two wildcard spots is less of an ordeal than settling on the final frontcourt. Wade, who was passed by Lowry for a starting spot in the last round of balloting, probably feels like he has done enough this season (21.8 PPG, 5.5 APG, 4 RPG, 1.1 SPG) to warrant the starter’s job. While Wade has missed 10 games this season, the dramatic age-related fall-off that some feared after the 2014 Finals hasn’t really taken shape. In fact, he remains tops among East two guards in PER, he ranks 12th overall in scoring now that he’s picked up more slack following James’ return to Cleveland, and he can still get to a game-changing level on defense at times. Even if the 33-year-old Wade is several years past his prime, he deserves an 11th straight All-Star selection. Father Time is approaching, but he’s not here yet.
Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers: The last roster spot goes to the 2014 All-Star Game MVP. That’s appropriate, as Irving’s strengths (scoring, off-the-dribble creativity, play-making) work perfectly in the showcase format while his shortcomings (defense, ball-stopping, shot selection) don’t really matter in an exhibition. Cleveland’s start hasn’t been the greatest, at all, but Irving has just about managed to replicate his numbers from his two All-Star seasons (21 PPG, 5.3 APG, 3.1 RPG, 1.6 SPG). Although learning to play with James remains a work in progress, Irving has kept his free throw numbers up, he’s cut down on his turnovers, and his PER remains fourth among East point guards (trailing only Teague, Lowry and Wall – three other obvious All-Stars).
Irving is a take-over threat in a way that Vucevic and Jefferson aren’t, and he’s adapted slightly better than Love to life in a “Big 3.” The East’s other point guard candidates – Kemba Walker, Brandon Knight, Derrick Rose – are all a slight notch below Irving when it comes to scoring and the key advanced numbers (PER and Win Shares). Importantly, none of those candidates can claim that they have played a central role on a team that is significantly better than the Cavaliers.
Kyle Korver (Hawks) merits mentioning here, but it’s hard to square the smaller scope of his role compared to the workload that Irving has handled, especially during James’ injury absence. It’s not easy leaving Korver at home given that his record-setting shooting numbers are nothing short of mind-blowing, but hopefully the presence of three of his teammates on this roster helps ease the pain. Irving moves on to his third All-Star appearance.
Constructing the roster in this manner offers a nice balance: Atlanta appropriately leads the way with three players, Chicago, Cleveland and Miami can each claim two All-Stars, and the other three spots go to clear alpha dogs (Wall, Lowry and Anthony).
The fan voting process didn’t work out nearly as well in the West. Bryant’s selection is the most obvious gripe: among the top 50 vote-getters, the aging Lakers legend had arguably the least impressive résumé (a paltry 0.1 Win Shares, -2.42 Real Plus-Minus, -12.2 net rating). Griffin’s presence in the starting lineup is also debatable; SI.com selected Aldridge instead of Griffin based on Portland’s better record and Aldridge’s better numbers.
Most would agree that injuries are among the worst absolute worst things about professional sports. They do present a silver lining in the Western Conference, as they can help ease some of the competition for roster spots. With a little bit of finagling, there’s a way to make sure all of the most deserving candidates wind up in New York City. Let’s take a look.
James Harden, Rockets: No player has a bigger gripe with the fan voting system than Harden. Not only is he a top-five MVP candidate this season – many would argue top two – he also finished with the fifth-most All-Star votes overall. That’s right, Harden pulled in more votes than six of the 10 starters but he’s relegated to a reserve spot because he happened to trail both Curry and Bryant. That’s bum luck.
If Bryant’s injury proves to be serious, Harden (27.2 PPG, 6.7 APG, 5.5 RPG, 1.9 SPG) is the no-brainer choice to replace him in the starting lineup. Either way, he needs to be in New York City: he ranks No. 5 overall in PER (No. 1 among two guards), No. 1 overall in Win Shares, and No. 3 overall in Real Plus-Minus. Harden also leads the league in scoring, ranks sixth in steals and 12th in steals. One of the league’s top offensive talents, Harden succeeded in carrying the Rockets through Dwight Howard’s injury absence, in large part because he’s stepped up his defensive intensity. Punch his ticket to his third All-Star Game.
Chris Paul, Clippers: There’s a debate to be had whether Curry has surpassed Paul as the league’s top point guard. There’s no debate to be had over Paul’s All-Star merits. The Clippers are starting to pick up the pace after some ups and down, and Paul (17.6 PPG, 9.6 APG, 4.6 RPG, 1.9 SPG) continues to orchestrate brilliantly. He ranks third among point guards in PER, fourth overall in Win Shares, and sixth overall in Real Plus-Minus. Regarded as the top all-around point guard for the last five years, Paul ranks third in assists and seventh in steals, and he’s heading up the league’s most efficient offense. Case closed. NYC should mark his eighth straight All-Star selection.
LaMarcus Aldridge, Blazers: SI.com selected Aldridge as a starter last week in what seemed like a straight-forward decision at the time. As the central piece on what had been the West’s second-best outfit, Aldridge was putting up monster individual numbers (23.2 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 1.9 APG) and chugging along towards another All-NBA worthy campaign.
His ill-timed thumb injury would seem to complicate this picture, but in reality it simplifies the decision. The coaches have an easy win-win compromise here. They should vote for Aldridge to reward his strong performance over 38 games, which has been good enough (top five among power forwards in PER, +7.2 net rating) to merit discussion as an MVP candidate. Remember, there’s no downside to selecting Aldridge at all: he gets to claim the All-Star tag and Silver simply replaces him with another player, effectively increasing the size of the roster in the process.
Voting for Aldridge, in a roundabout way, is a vote to avoid snubbing and a vote to avoid the painstaking debate that might ensue if one tried to parse the merits of the West’s strong frontcourt options. By taking Aldridge, the coaches create that extra roster spot, which in turn can be used to satisfy just about everyone. More on that below.
Tim Duncan, Spurs: Well, 2014-15 will go down as approximately the 234,349th incredible season of Duncan’s career. His basic numbers are typically understated (14.9 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 2.3 APG, 2 BPG), but he continues to score very well by the advanced stats (top 10 among West bigs in PER, No. 4 overall in Real Plus-Minus, top five in Defensive Win Shares). Importantly, Duncan kept the Spurs in the playoff picture as all sorts of key pieces (Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter, Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills, etc.) around him came in and out of the lineup due to injuries. Not only should he be considered for the Defensive Player of the Year award, Duncan should receive his 15th All-Star nod (whether he wants it or, more likely, not).
DeMarcus Cousins, Kings: Sacramento’s centerpiece spent last year knocking impatiently on the All-Star door. This year, he’s ramped up his numbers (24 PPG, 12.7 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.7 BPG, 1.3 SPG) to the point that he’s impossible to ignore. Among bigs, only Davis can claim a more impressive individual output, and Cousins’ performance in the advanced metrics (No. 1 in PER among centers, No. 8 overall in Real Plus-Minus, +7.4 net rating) helps make up for the Kings’ poor record. And, really, it’s harder to hold his team’s performance against him during a season that saw his coach abrupt fired in confounding fashion.
That Cousins hasn’t fully whipped his immaturity issues just isn’t a convincing reason to exclude him. The best (fairly recent) statistical comparison for Cousins, among true centers at the same age, is Shaquille O’Neal. That’s worthy of a first All-Star trip, even if everyone (including Cousins himself) can agree that it would be nice if he drew less technical fouls and if his team’s record were better.
Russell Westbrook, Thunder: This is the point of the process that would be dreadfully difficult if not for the injuries to Bryant and Aldridge. Assuming both are out, life gets a lot easier. Rather than selecting just two players from a group that includes Westbrook, Kevin Durant (Thunder), Damian Lillard (Blazers), Klay Thompson (Warriors), Dirk Nowitzki (Mavericks), Monta Ellis (Mavericks), Dwight Howard (Rockets), Mike Conley (Grizzlies) Goran Dragic (Suns), and Eric Bledsoe (Suns), the two extra roster spots created by the injuries allows four of those players to go.
Two of the toughest questions simply disappear. First, can you really justify giving the Thunder (still currently out of the playoffs) two roster spots? (Yes, you can – as long as it’s two roster spots out of 14, rather than two out of 12.) Second, how do you choose between Thompson and Lillard if both are the No. 2 guys on excellent teams? (Now, you don’t have to.)
Solving this puzzle starts with rewarding Westbrook, who would have a strong case for a starting spot (and possible MVP consideration) if not for an early-season hand injury. He’s bounced back to top all point guards in PER, to rank 10th in Real Plus-Minus, and to score very well in the major per-minute advanced stats). His basic numbers (25.1 points, 7.4 assists, 6.1 rebounds, 2.3 steals) have been matched just twice in history: Michael Jordan in 1988-89 and James in 2004-05. For all his shaky decisions, out-of-control moments, and grating post-game interviews, Westbrook is one of the absolute most powerful individual forces in the NBA today. He deserves his fourth All-Star selection, and first since 2013, despite the missed time.
Damian Lillard, Blazers: Lillard’s incremental progress in Year 3 deserves more attention than it’s received. All of his numbers (22 PPG, 6.2 APG, 4.7 RPG, 1.4 SPG) represent career-highs, his PER has risen considerably (No. 5 overall among point guards), the other advanced stats love him (No. 6 in Win Shares, No. 8 overall in Real Plus-Minus, +7.7 net rating), and he’s taken meaningful steps forwards as an individual and team defender. The bread-and-butter elements of his game remains outside shooting, shot-creation, and a love for late-game situations, but he’s starting to diversify his offensive attack. He is option 1B to Aldridge’s 1A in Portland. With Aldridge out, Portland needs a representative in the game to reflect their team success. Lillard competed in five All-Star Weekend events in 2014, and he should make his second career trip this time around.
Klay Thompson, Warriors: Selecting Lillard with the 12th spot need not come at the expense of Thompson, whose claim to the title is very, very strong as well. Thompson is posting career numbers virtually across the board (21.9 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.3 SPG) as the No. 2 option in Golden State’s league-destroying offensive machine. A deadly sniper (top five in 3P%), Thompson is also one of the league’s most disciplined and effective perimeter defenders. He ranks third among two guards in PER and boasts a gaudy +17.8 net rating. Given the Warriors’ dominance so far this season, sending Curry as the team’s only representative would feel wrong if multiple other teams had multiple players on the West roster. Adding Thompson as Bryant’s injury replacement solves that problem and sends the 24-year-old to his first All-Star Game.
Kevin Durant, Thunder: The 14th and final spot goes to Durant, largely on the basis of the “smell test.” Kevin Durant is an All-Star. You know it. The world knows it. Everyone knows it. Yes, the reigning MVP has missed 23 games due to injury this season – a number that would automatically disqualify just about everyone. Durant isn’t “just about anyone,” of course, and Aldridge’s injury adds some much-needed flexibility to address the unusual Durant’s unusual situation. Since his return, Durant ranks No. 2 in the entire league in PER, he’s posting predictably obscene numbers (25.5 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 3.9 APG), and he’s well into the process of leading the Thunder into their postseason push. The actual All-Star Game will be more fun with him, his recent play has been sufficiently dominant to warrant inclusion, and adding him using Aldridge’s injury spot doesn’t require a terrible snubbing. Send KD to NYC and let’s call it a day.
The biggest remaining snubs are Nowitzki, Conley and Howard, who are all top performers on very good teams. Numbers-wise, there’s not much of a case to be made for Nowitzki (18.7 PPG, 6 RPG, 2 APG) over any of the selections above (except for maybe Duncan, who is clearly a better all-around talent). Conley is simply the victim of being an elite player at a position and in a conference stacked with elite players. Howard’s basic numbers are competitive (16.7 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 1.4 BPG), but he missed a stretch earlier in this season and isn’t viewed as a truly elite player by PER, Win Shares, or Real Plus-Minus.
Omitting Nowitzki does snub Dallas entirely, which is regrettable, but the Mavericks have used a balanced attack to their No. 2 offensive rating and quality record. That doesn’t seem totally egregious. As for Conley, Grizzlies fans can take heart that Marc Gasol will represent the franchise – and in a starting role to boot! Similarly, Rockets fans surely understand that Harden is clearly the franchise’s most deserving representative.
The balance here is as close to “perfect” as can be managed: the Warriors, Blazers, Thunder and Clippers all have two representatives while the Spurs, Rockets, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Kings and Lakers each get one. That covers six of the current playoff teams; the two exceptions, Dallas and Phoenix, are on the outside in part because their top players split the numbers and the attention with their teammates to a greater degree than the players selected above.