"The Point Forward All-Stars" will have a new theme each week centered on a single shared trait that brings together the team members.
This week, SI.com names its All-Ignored Team, an attempt to construct the best five-man starting lineup from players who were on the 2014 All-Star ballot but not among the top 50 vote-getters in the first round of fan voting.
The All-Ignored Team
Every year, we banter about which players are being underrated by fans during the All-Star process (usually small-market, non-flashy, younger guys, or good players on bad teams) and which players are being overrated by the fans (Lakers, Rockets, role guys on big-market or high-profile teams, past-their-prime veterans). The true snubs, though, come from players who fail to even make the leaderboard list.
All told, 120 players made the ballot for the 2014 All-Star Game, set for Feb. 16 in New Orleans. That group breaks down into 24 backcourt players and 36 frontcourt players from each conference. From that initial ballot, a total of 50 players made the voting leaderboard released by the NBA last week. This group of 50, which was determined by fan voting, breaks down into 10 backcourt players and 15 frontcourt players from each conference.
Remember, the cut-off to make the leaderboard in the Eastern Conference was roughly 32,000 votes for both backcourt players and frontcourt players. In the Western Conference, the cut-off line was 55,000 for backcourt players and 53,000 for frontcourt players. For perspective, players who failed to make the cut line in the East were unable to receive just five percent of the votes given to LeBron James, the NBA's overall leading votegetter. In the West, those who were left off the leaders list failed to draw nine percent of the votes cast for Kevin Durant, the conference's leading votegetter.
Try this helpful data point: The Sixers are drawing the fewest fans in the league this year, averaging 13,000 at their home games. Players who failed to make the All-Star voting leaderboard struggled to muster even muster a week's worth of Sixers attendance during the first round of voting. That's a serious lack of love.
To be clear, this isn't the fault of the players. All sorts of factors can contribute to a player being overlooked or undervalued in a popularity contest. To make amends, The Point Forward will endeavor to build the All-Ignored team, the best five-man line-up from the 70 players who were on the 2014 All-Star ballot but were not among the 50 leading vote-getters through round one. The All-Ignored team will aim for good shooting, solid defense, versatility and a cohesive fit.
(Note: All statistics through Dec. 17 games)
PG: Ty Lawson, Nuggets
Our first selection is a classic victim of a positional logjam. The NBA is in the midst of a point guard golden age, and the Western Conference is overflowing with riches. This year's voting leaderboard included, in order: Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Jeremy Lin, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Ricky Rubio, Steve Nash and Damian Lillard. Point guards filled eight of the 10 available backcourt spots on the leaderboard and that doesn't even include Jrue Holiday, who was a 2013 All-Star in the East. Even if you toss out Lin and Nash as totally undeserving, we're still talking about the type of depth that's usually reserved for poetry reading circles and WW2 submarine tours.
The best name missing is Lawson, who has every reason to believe he should be in the All-Star reserves conversation, even if his chances of being selected are remote. He has plenty of angles covered: he's putting up career-year per-game numbers, his advanced stats confirm his significant impact and he's helped keep the transitioning Nuggets above .500 and in the West's crowded playoff picture.
"I think he's in the mix to be an All-Star," Durant told the Denver Post this week. "He's not one of those sexy names like Russell Westbrook or Stephen Curry. He just started to become one of those guys you depend on as a point guard."
As of Tuesday, Lawson, 26, ranks No. 6 among point guards with a 21.1 Player Efficiency Rating (better than Westbrook, Parker, Lillard and every single point guard in the Eastern Conference) and he is one of only four players to average at least 18 points and seven assists per game (Paul, Curry and John Wall are the others).
Most importantly, he's delivering while shouldering a heavier load than he's experienced during his five-year career. Lawson is the only member of this year's Nuggets to average at least 30 minutes a night and the two other players who fit that bill last year -- Andre Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari -- were lost to the Warriors and a knee injury without comparable individual replacements. Denver's offensive efficiency has taken a step back from fifth last season to tenth so far this season, and the Nuggets rely on a balanced attack that has six players averaging in the neighborhood of double figures on the year. It works because Lawson (and Andre Miller) are able to run the show and generate quality opportunities even if there isn't a clear No. 2 or No. 3 scoring option. Denver ranks No. 6 in assist percentage this season, paced by Lawson, who ranks No. 6 in assists per game and boasts a sterling 3-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
The All-Ignored Team prefers Lawson over the likes of Holiday, Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas, Jeff Teague and Kemba Walker even if his defense leaves something to be desired. He has the right combination of experience, quickness, and reasonable outside shooting, but the key selling point is his natural instinct as a playmaker for himself and others. His handle and speed off the dribble ensure he spends plenty of time collapsing opposing defenses (creating opportunities for the shooters that will surround him) and he grades out very well as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (making him a good fit for the bigs on this squad).
SG: Arron Afflalo, Magic
The second half of the All-Ignored backcourt finds himself overlooked primarily for a lack of name recognition and his team's off-the-radar status. Let's face it, Afflalo isn't being lost in a deep pack of players at his position like Lawson. Indeed, only three two-guards were among the East's top 10 backcourt votegetters -- Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen and Evan Turner -- and from that trio only Wade has a PER that's above league-average. That's as weak as it gets from a positional standpoint.
Voting fans can be forgiven for missing out on Afflalo, who has been enjoying a serious breakout year. Traded from Denver to Orlando as part of the 2012 Dwight Howard blockbuster, the 28-year-old guard was clearly going to be asked to be more than just the "3-and-d" complementary player that he was for the Nuggets. A rough first year in Central Florida -- in which he shot just 30 percent from deep as he adjusted to life with extra attention from opponents and way less talent around him -- left many wondering whether he was equipped to fill a big shoes role.
The answer this season has been a loud and proud yes: Afflalo is averaging 21.6 points, which places him among the league's top 10, and he's scaled his rebounding (4.7 per game) and assist (4 per game) numbers to career-high levels while maintaining a healthy 41.5 percent three-point shooting clip. His 19.6 PER trails only Wade among Eastern Conference two guards and it ranks No. 4 overall at the position. He remains a reliable defender with good size while finding a new level of consistency on offense: he's scored 10+ points in 24 straight games this year, the longest such streak of his career.
"He’s just keeping the game very simple and a lot of times that’s a hard concept for guys to learn," coach Jacque Vaughn told Magic.com back in November. "We live in a society where a lot of times simplicity isn’t glamorized and it carries over to basketball. But being simple, it’s OK.’’
Orlando's 8-17 record, which has them in the Southeast Division's basement, shouldn't hold Afflalo back from selection as an All-Star reserve, assuming he keeps up this torrid pace for another month. He's a perfect fit on the All-Ignored team, where his outside shooting, basketball intelligence and two-way play will be of great use. He won't get anxious if the ball is in Lawson's hands and he'll be ready to launch at a moment's notice if his defender sags into the paint.
The only real competition for Afflalo's spot comes from Manu Ginobili and Monta Ellis, who simply can't match his dependability. Wesley Matthews would have been another name to strongly consider, but he was left off the ballot entirely, making him ineligible for this exercise.
SF: Nicolas Batum, Blazers
Portland's French forward seems doomed to a career full of inclusion on lists like this, not only because the West's frontcourt voting list is as stacked as its point guard ranks but because Batum is now the No. 3 guy on his own team behind two-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and 2013 Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard. Third wheel status is almost always an an insurmountable All-Star hurdle, save for a well-established player on a perennial championship contender like Chris Bosh. Playing in the West -- where Aldridge, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol, Blake Griffin, David Lee, Kevin Love, Dirk Nowitzki, and Zach Randolph are all commanding votes -- ups the difficulty level dramatically.
That works out well for the All-Ignored Team, which is glad to welcome Batum, who brings much of what Afflalo brings to the table, only in a stretched-out form and with a penchant for opportunistic risk-taking. The long-armed Batum can defend multiple positions, and he's been a key two-way cog in a Portland starting lineup that boasts a superb plus-13.2 net rating on the season. His plus-12 net rating leads the Blazers and his 17.6 PER trails only Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard among starting threes in the West.
Batum, 25, continues to make progress on the offensive end, where he's averaging a career-high 5.3 assists and taking on an expanded play-making role for the first time last season. Although he's limited when it comes to beating his man and creating shots in one-on-one situations, Batum moves very well off the ball and he's more than competent in the right pick-and-roll situations.
His greatest value remains his shooting: he's knocking down more than 40 percent of his threes this season while attempting more than five attempts per game, and only 11 other NBA players (who have made at least 20 appearances) can say that. "You can't make shots if you don't believe you're going to make them," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said after Batum sealed a recent win over the Thunder with a quick-trigger three-pointer that caught both teams by surprise. "Nic is too good of a shooter [to pass it up]."
According to SportVU tracking data, Batum and Afflalo are tied for third in the league when it comes to miles traveled on the season, making them the perfect wing pairs for Lawson's preferred up-tempo style. Batum, in particular, has the length to finish fast-break lops and the stop-and-pop ability to knock down trailing threes.
Overall, the fan voting did well to identify the top-performing small forwards in both conferences and the remaining potential candidates for the All-Ignored Team at this position -- guys like Martell Webster, Rudy Gay and Harrison Barnes -- just can't match Batum's efficiency and multi-dimensional game.
PF: Serge Ibaka, Thunder
Much like Batum, Ibaka is stuck on the outside looking in as Oklahoma City's third wheel, lagging behind one of the league's most dynamic, popular duos in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Getting recognition under such conditions is difficult, but Ibaka, who is somehow still only 24, has done quite well for himself. A two-time All-Defensive First Team selection, Ibaka has fared well in Defensive Player of the Year voting in recent years and he actually finished eighth in the final 2013 All-Star voting among West frontcourt players, topping the likes of Lee, Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Dirk Nowitzki (who was injured).
Perhaps a trip to the 2013 Finals for the Thunder would have helped Ibaka place higher on this year's voting, but he was likely bound to drop regardless due to the comebacks of Nowitzki and Kevin Love from injury as well as the emergence of Anthony Davis. Again, The All-Ignored Team won't hesitate to opportunistically snap up a talent like Ibaka, who brings elite shot-blocking skills, a dependable mid-range game and the ability to finish if the table is set for him in the basket area.
The strain created by the departures of James Harden and Kevin Martin are showing in Ibaka's shooting numbers this season, as his 51.4 percent shooting is well off his career-high. Regression was expected under the weight of new responsibilities, though, and Ibaka is averaging 14.6 points and 9.5 rebounds (both career-highs) as the Thunder work in their pair of emerging talents, Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb.
“We need [Ibaka] to do [the pick-and-pop],” Brooks told The Oklahoman in November, when Ibaka got off to a bit of a slow start this season. “That's what he's really good at. There's no question that he has expanded his offensive game, but he still has to do what he's good at. He's one of the best pick-and-pops in the league.”
That will be the All-Ignored Team's mantra, too, as the power forward's role will be to keep defenses honest if they press our wings and work the occasional two-man game with Lawson, falling back to hit the 16-footer or diving to the rim as the situation demands. Ibaka will be a fourth scoring option on this squad, and Oklahoma City has shown in recent years that he can be part of a lethally effective offense when playing that role.
Defensively, Ibaka has plenty of experience as a four in big lineups and as a five in smaller lineups, and he's already logged more than 1,500 playoff minutes despite his youth. Interchangeability is a plus, and Ibaka has the strength, length and athletic tools to handle a vast majority of the league's bigs on the block while also being able to step out to the perimeter and wreak havoc from the weakside when necessary.
When considering both sides of the ball, as well as the fit within the All-Ignored Team's context, Ibaka stood out from a quality pack of snubs that also included Ryan Anderson, Paul Millsap and Randolph, among others.
C: Al Horford, Hawks
It's high time that Congress launched a Federal investigation into All-Star voting irregularities in Georgia. The Hawks possess the East's third-best record (admittedly, not that great of an accomplishment, but still), and yet not a single player on their squad cracked the leaderboard during the first round of All-Star voting returns. That Horford, a two-time All-Star, was passed over for the likes of Kevin Garnett, Jeff Green, Carlos Boozer, and Paul Pierce, among others, is inexplicable. Can we please inspect the Fulton County voting booths for signs of tampering?
It's not exactly breaking news for a Hawks player, or even Horford himself, to be denied his just portion of the media spotlight. The team's paltry home attendance and reputation as a "good but never great" organization both push back against All-Star recognition and national popularity. The workmanlike nature of Horford's game is also a contributing factor: he's back on his grind, essentially replicating his 2012-13 numbers by averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 55.1 percent, but he spends far more of his time ground-bound than above the rim.
Kudos to the Hawks for breaking through this continued anonymity by creatively pitching Horford's late-game credentials in the form of a Twitter joke at Tony Romo's expense. Even if Horford isn't going to hit the highlight reels with dunks and blocks, he has owned clutch situations so far this season. Including a recent game-winner against the Wizards, Horford is 13-for-23 (56.5 percent) in clutch situations (five point game, last five minutes of regulation and overtime). That percentage that ranks No. 2 in the NBA behind Tony Parker among players with at least 20 clutch attempts, not bad for a big man who lacks an overwhelming physique.
The dominant story around Horford, 27, in recent months has been whether he is better suited to playing the four rather than the five. "I would like to play a little more power forward," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution over the summer. "I was talking to coach [Mike Budenholzer] and the way that the offense works, the 4 and the 5 are pretty much interchangeable. I feel like Paul [Millsap] and I will be able to complement each other. Having to guard the big 5 night in and night out, I felt took a toll on me so I’m hoping they will be able to find a big body, a big player to be able to help."
The All-Ignored Team understands those concerns and envisions Ibaka and Horford being able to swap defensive duties over the course of the game. It's also no accident that Ibaka and Batum -- two players with good rebounding numbers for their positions and plenty of length -- are tabbed to help Horford on the boards.
Still, it's important to remember that the 6-foot-10 Horford is no slouch in the middle: his PER of 21.4 ranks fourth among starting centers and the Hawks' efficiency numbers suffer noticeably on both sides of the ball when he goes to the bench. A productive pick-and-roll big man with plenty of mid-range game, Horford also finishes two-thirds of his attempts in the basket area. Consider Horford another great partner for Lawson, and the Batum/Horford combination should bear fruit in pick-and-roll situations too.
The All-Ignored Team would probably fare well against just about any roster in the NBA. A dynamic point guard flanked by two shooters and two mobile, versatile big men ensures that there are always five solid options on every offensive possession, and the abundance of proven defensive talent and length makes this a true two-way roster. Capable of both finding opportunities in transition and slowing things down to create open looks, The All-Ignored Team should more than get by on substance. This roster's biggest weakness, it would seem, is a lack of a clear tiered pecking order, which shouldn't be surprising given that the league's Alpha Dogs will always score well among All-Star fan voting. The flipside: the quintet has scoring balance to spare, featuring an ultra-confident floor general, two knockdown three-point shooters, and a reliable late-game option in Horford, who can do damage both inside and out. As far as safety valves go, it doesn't get much better than Ibaka. Something tells me this group wouldn't shy away from an exhibition game against whichever conference prevails at the All-Star Game in New Orleans.