By Rob Mahoney
With more deserving candidates than roster spots, some worthy players inevitably were omitted when the coaches' selections for All-Star reserves were revealed on Thursday. But let's focus here on what I consider the most egregious error in either conference: Nets center Brook Lopez should have made the East team.
Coaches could pick up to five frontcourt players among their seven reserves for the Feb. 17 game in Houston. New York's Tyson Chandler and Chicago's Joakim Noah richly deserved their spots for the East. But Lopez brings more to the table than the coaches' three other frontcourt choices: Miami's Chris Bosh, Indiana's Paul George and Chicago's Luol Deng. That's what we're really debating here; there's no question that those three are terrific players, but the numbers game of All-Star selection forces you to kill your darlings based on tiny flaws and small differentials in production.
First, let's look at Lopez's credentials. He is the Nets' best player this season, better than Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, thanks to his much-improved performance. That uprising began in the post, where Lopez has arguably been better than any big man in the league, given both his 0.97 points per play on the block (10th in the league, according to Synergy Sports) and the incredible prevalence of post-ups in his game as a top offensive option. There's no fluke of sample size in these numbers, as 28.1 percent of Lopez's used possessions come on post-up tries, and he navigates help defense and double coverage to score at a pretty remarkable rate. Factor in that he often shares the court with a player whom defenses regularly ignore in Reggie Evans, and Lopez's exploits down low are only that much more impressive.
His patience also makes him an unlikely force in the pick-and-roll, which at first seems odd for such a slow-footed player. Lopez's throwback build makes him more lumbering than many of his center contemporaries, but his poise after catching the ball affords him a wealth of options. For one: He's a credible mid-range shooter, though admittedly not one who should make a habit of hoisting 20-footers. But that skill widens the Nets' options out of basic pick-and-roll sets, not to mention creates space for Williams' ensuing drives or the navigation of various off-ball cutters.
Beyond that, Lopez has been more committed than in past seasons when rolling to the rim, and his ability to make a single dribble in traffic (an understated skill among big men) creates new angles and more preferable shot selection. He doesn't have the athleticism to explode to the rim, but perhaps no player is better at finishing over defenders who step up into good defensive position. It's tough to defend a 7-footer on the move, and Lopez's touch on an array of hooks and runners makes it impossible for many opponents to contend with his size, even if they happen to be in the right place at the right time to theoretically affect his shot.
All of which has resulted in a massively productive season for a prime offensive option -- as evidenced by his No. 7 ranking in the NBA in points per minute and, amazingly, his No. 4 ranking in Player Efficiency Rating. That's superstar-level efficiency from a player who has been pivotal to the Nets' success, the kind of performance that all but guarantees an All-Star berth. Before Lopez's snub, the last player to rank in the top four in PER without making the All-Star team was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1978 -- and he missed 20 games early that season with a broken hand after punching Kent Benson. PER certainly has its critics, but it's an effective short-hand for the kind of box score production that buttresses All-Star candidacies, and registering a mark as high as Lopez's is indicative of incredibly substantial output and efficiency.
Plus, if you're less inclined to look at Lopez's contributions as a one-number metric, all you need to do is evaluate his impact and statistical contributions on a more specific scale. Even looking solely at his points (22.8 per 36 minutes), rebounds (9.1 per 36, and no longer a problem for a player who was once board-challenged) and blocks (2.6 per 36), this is a combination of statistical excellence reached by only nine players in NBA history -- every one of them an All-Star. On that list: Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Robert Parish, Bob McAdoo and Ralph Sampson.
Obviously, many of those players became legends by putting up these kinds of numbers in season after season (Olajuwon, for example, hit those marks nine times) while making a larger defensive impact than Lopez does. But sharing statistical benchmarks with such illustrious company does make Lopez's season more difficult to shrug off. It doesn't much matter if he doesn't fit your conventional ideal of what an All-Star should be; he's performing and producing at a level that more than deserves selection, and those chosen over him only make his omission even more incomprehensible.
I understand Bosh's inclusion, in that he's having a terrific shooting year on a better team -- though it's worth mentioning that Lopez outproduces Bosh across the board while also posting a comparable field-goal percentage (52.1 vs 54.3). I'd also pick Lopez over George pretty easily because of George's slow start, as well as the fact that I'm not sure the Indiana swingman's sterling defensive play quite makes up the discrepancy in scoring efficiency or offensive value between the two. Still, I can understand and appreciate why others might feel differently, and I view George as being an All-Star-worthy player.
But Deng ... that's crossing a line. Deng, like George, is an elite perimeter defender, and he rebounds effectively (but not spectacularly, as George does). But beyond that, Deng relies on inefficient two-point jumpers because he doesn't get to the rim or the free-throw line all that regularly and isn't a major threat from three-point range. He also doesn't create shots for his teammates a lot. The 27-year-old forward is an undeniably important offensive player for Chicago, but his limitations and tendencies reflect, in a sense, those of the Bulls' 20th-ranked offense. He's a fine complementary talent, but he doesn't have the role or production necessary to make a more compelling All-Star case. All of that considered, I'm not sure where Deng, in particular, is supposed to outweigh a player in Lopez who leads a successful offense. When Lopez is in the game, the Nets score like the Clippers. When he's on the bench, they score like the Pistons. That's a huge jump that represents the value of having an efficient player in a crucial role, and I'm just not sold that Bosh, George and especially Deng make such a profound impact on their teams' performance.