2014 NBA All-Star reserves: Tough calls in my picks for Eastern, Western squads
The coaches' selections for All-Star Game reserves will be announced on Thursday. The Point Forward couldn’t pass up the opportunity to cast our own ballot. Below are the picks – two backcourt players, three frontcourt players and two wild card selections from each conference to join the starters, according to the league’s new rules – who warrant featured spots in the Feb. 16 midseason showcase in New Orleans.
(All stats and records are through Jan. 28.)
My Western Conference All-Star reserves
-- *Assuming Chris Paul is unavailable
• Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
• Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets
These three have been just terrific enough to separate themselves from all other candidates, save Anthony Davis. Luckily, with wild card spots available, there's not really a decision to be made between Griffin, Nowitzki, Howard and Davis. All can be accommodated, and thus the discussion of who is most deserving between them is a bit irrelevant.
Instead, it comes down to weighing the exploits of these three players against the rest of the Western Conference frontcourt field -- a talented bunch, but one a cut removed from this class of player. Griffin continues to be one of the best offensive players in the league, but this season he's stretched his skill set to accommodate the absence of Chris Paul. Without the micromanaging lead guard, Griffin has had to take the lead as a shot creator for the Clippers. His post play has given Los Angeles an easily accessible fallback when things get tight. His ability to handle the ball and set up his teammates mitigates the need for a ball-dominant point guard. He's such a huge part of what the Clippers run offensively on an every-play basis and so magnificently productive that it would be illogical to exclude him.
Nowitzki gets the nod on a similar basis. While not as prolific a rebounder as Griffin or a handful of other candidates, Nowitzki makes up for that deficit by stretching defenses in a way that few can. Dirk isn't quite in prime form, but he's close enough in potency to still score in bunches, remain an anchor for the sixth-ranked offense and influence every single action the Mavs run just by being on the floor. Every Nowitzki screen is a huge imposition to defenses, as the possibility of him springing open for a mid-range jumper is as considerable a threat as some other Mav cutting toward the hoop. That Nowitzki maximizes his efficiency on difficult, contested shots only makes him that much more useful, and Dallas' offense on the whole that much more resilient.
Howard tends to be criticized for all that he's not, but let's consider all that he is for a moment. He's the highest-scoring active center in the league and top five overall in field goal percentage. He's all that stands between a possible contender and a complete defensive collapse; his work has helped Houston creep into the top 10 in points allowed per possession. He's an elite pick-and-roll partner for James Harden and Jeremy Lin, a solid post-up threat (no matter what Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal tell you) to complement Houston's fast-breaking offense and one of the NBA's top-five rebounders. He buoys the Rockets to the highest free throw rate in the league by a wide margin and is strong enough inside to anchor four-out lineups. Howard's is an open-and-shut case.
• Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
• Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs
The selection agony begins in the West backcourt, where there are four candidates (Conley, Parker, Goran Dragic and Damian Lillard) contending for just two All-Star spots. All are vital to their respective teams, and they're separated by the thinnest of margins: A few effective field goal percentage points, a dab of scoring here or there, about half an assist per game and a handful of contextual factors.
Between them, Lillard was my first cut. He's having a terrific year and seems likely to be selected by the coaches, but in competition this tight I couldn't overlook his relative shooting inefficiency and still-troublesome defense. Even with All-NBA long-range shooting helping his case (41.7 percent on 7.1 three-point attempts per game is all kinds of amazing), Lillard is a less efficient shooter overall than Parker and right in line with Conley while carrying a comparable load to both. The ability to manufacture offense is one of Lillard's greatest strengths, but against this crop of players he doesn't create enough separation to really distinguish himself for selection.
He also remains a defensive liability despite improving since last season. Lillard still does a pretty terrible job of navigating screens, which is one of the most important dimensions of perimeter defense in the modern NBA. In conjunction with the bad recovery angles and poor positioning that plagues so many young players, that makes for a pretty serious problem. Portland is able to hide Lillard from potential disaster on most nights by shifting Nicolas Batum and/or Wesley Matthews to handle the most explosive point guards, but even that neither wholly makes up for nor fully obscures Lillard's defensive faults.
Dragic is an even more painful case because he is just as deserving as either Conley or Parker. I opted for Conley because while the two are very comparable in their offensive production, he's a far better defender than Dragic. That may not matter to some in selecting entries for a game predicated on entertainment value, but All-Star selection is first and foremost a means of honoring the best players in the NBA this season. By my evaluation, Conley, who carried the Grizzlies to sustenance in an expanded offensive role, is just slightly more qualified than Dragic because of the breadth of his two-way success.
Weighing Dragic against Parker is just as difficult a case. No matter what the Spurs' record might have you believe, Parker didn't exactly pick up where he left off with his outstanding 2012-13 season. Earlier in the season, he had been just a shade less dominant. He was still plenty clever and capable, but Parker stalled slightly when trying to shift into superstar gear, and now finds his offensive efforts encumbered by San Antonio's rampant injuries. I haven't seen enough of the thoroughly dominant Parker for him to land an All-Star spot cleanly … though even then he edges Dragic. The two have remarkably similar production, but Parker deserves credit for being the bigger gravitational pull on defenses and the more capable between them of orchestrating a high-functioning NBA offense. Dragic is still great, but something's gotta give.
Disagreement is welcome and inevitable; there will be those who prefer Dragic or Lillard, neither of whom is the wrong pick. But lines have to be drawn somewhere, and unfortunately mine excluded two of the best guards in the league from enjoying the weekend's festivities.
• Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Davis is another fairly easy call here, but the last wild card spot is nearly impossible. If it weren't tough enough to decide between backcourt or frontcourt options, combining the remaining fields for a final selection makes for an even more daunting challenge. Lillard and Dragic are back on the board, as are the aforementioned likes of Ibaka and Duncan. But I ultimately wound up favoring Cousins, who has been bonkers for the Kings this season.
That he's been so good for the Kings -- who have the worst record in the West -- is likely to give some pause, but Cousins' play has been too loud to ignore. Sacramento isn't a bad team because of Cousins. Its defensive failures don't stem from his personal faults, and if anything its above-average offense is powered by his high-usage and increasingly efficient contributions. At that point, why should Cousins -- in the running for an individual honor, no less -- be penalized for the fact that his team is crummy?
One can find caveat in his defense, which is still less than adequate, or his field goal percentage, which at 48.8 doesn't measure up well to his positional contemporaries. But the former is overwhelmed by all the positive value he offers as a shot creator and rebounder (and countered by the exceptional defensive plays Cousins makes when focused), while the latter is often considered in the entirely wrong context. Comparing Cousins to other bigs ignores the fundamental difference between them: Cousins' league-leading usage rate. If he only attempted the shots that Andre Drummond or DeAndre Jordan take, Cousins could be an exceptionally efficient scorer. But he's far too skilled and versatile for that. Locking up Cousins in that manner would do a disservice to his talents. So he shouldn't be compared to other players who play his position, but to other high-usage scorers.
In that realm, Cousins is Carmelo Anthony's equal in effective field goal percentage and a slightly more efficient shooter than LaMarcus Aldridge. That categorization puts Cousins' offensive role and production in an entirely different light -- one that voters might find more palatable.
My Eastern Conference All-Star reserves
• Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
• Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
• Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
I picked Roy Hibbert over Anthony for my All-Star starters, but my comparative criticism of Anthony's contributions shouldn't be applied broadly. Hibbert has had the bigger impact this season, but Anthony remains one of the league's deadliest scorers and a walking mismatch, not to mention provider of most of the Knicks' redeeming qualities. He hasn't always been the most willing passer, but by and large Anthony has succeeded in spite of his Knicks teammates -- an injured, ill-fitting group that has had trouble executing the basics on both ends of the floor.
Noah is a name I've seen omitted from All-Star lists in other places, even though his smart offensive facilitation and top-tier defensive work have prevented Chicago from slipping into ruin. From the moment Derrick Rose was ruled out for the season, this became a season of woe for the Bulls. But the Bulls trudge on, and while many credit coach Tom Thibodeau as the motivational and tactical monolith behind Chicago's perseverance, none of it would be possible without Noah.
Thibodeau's defensive schemes are great, but it's the tireless and disruptive Noah who turns a set of principles into the second-best defense in the league. The offense may be a mess without Rose or Luol Deng, but it's through Noah's work as a passer that the Bulls have been able to overcome their limitations to go 10-4 in January and play .500 basketball overall.
He's still not much of a scorer, but Noah's passing ability makes him an offensive focal point all the same. Chicago is reliant on Noah's ability to read the defense from the top of the floor, particularly with D.J. Augustin, Kirk Hinrich (when healthy) and Mike James otherwise running the offense. His placement at the elbow is so often the anchor around which Chicago's movement revolves, making Noah the all-important trigger in lieu of a more dynamic, off-the-dribble creator. It's for that reason that Noah averages as many frontcourt touches per game as Cousins or Nowitzki, and averages roughly as many passes per game as either of the team's primary point guards (per SportVU). He isn't just the Bulls' backbone at this point, but their entire skeletal system.
Bosh fills a very different role, as he's long been of value in Miami for his malleability. He could very easily be the lead scorer of a terrific offense, but the Heat don't ask that of him. They need spot scoring when something elsewhere on the roster goes wrong, which Bosh has largely been able to provide. They need a unique pick-and-roll defender capable of pressuring high up on the floor and recovering in time to save plays, which he does a dozen times a game. They need a floor spacer who can make the most of kick-out opportunities from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, a regard in which Bosh is one of the most effective bigs in the game.
There's not much glamour in uncontested mid-range jumpers, but Bosh has given up the accoutrements of basketball stardom (the touches, the status, the go-to designation) for the sake of playing a unique and important role on an unusually constructed team. He's awesome in that capacity, and a worthy All-Star of a different kind.
• Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic
Lowry is the only no-contest pick among the East's remaining guards, which are as unspectacular a group as advertised. Still, he's more than earned an All-Star berth with outstanding play for the resurgent Raptors, who have turned around their season by leaning more on Lowry's abilities as a pick-and-roll creator. He attempts almost six fewer shots per game than DeMar DeRozan, but Lowry is Toronto's truest star at the moment -- an aggressive penetrator and high-volume three-point shooter, not to mention one of the better defenders at point guard when fully engaged. He's been a handful since the Raptors dealt Rudy Gay and arguably the most valuable player in the East who doesn't play for the Heat or Pacers.
As for the other guard spot, I can understand why some would advocate for Indiana's Lance Stephenson, but I can't sell myself on taking the fourth-most-important player on a great team when a guard like Afflalo is so thoroughly overcoming his circumstances in Orlando. Some will use the fact that Afflalo plays for one of the worst teams in the league against him. It's a prevalent thought among basketball fans that someone has to put up big numbers on a bad team, which would then season Afflalo's 20.3 points with a few grains of salt. I just don't see how that thinking applies here. Saying that Afflalo's numbers are somehow lessened by his team's stature strikes me as a misread of the situation, as he's been one of the most efficient scorers in the league.
Among players averaging 20 points or more, only two have posted a higher effective field goal percentage than Afflalo: LeBron James and Kevin Durant. That he's able to convert shots at such an incredible rate is only made more impressive by the fact that he plays for a bad team. Afflalo doesn't have a Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh to work off of for easier shots. He doesn't even have a Reggie Jackson, really. He plays on the 24th-ranked offense and has seen some of his better teammates shuffled out of the rotation by injuries throughout the year, and yet he still hits those bafflingly high marks as a scorer.
I don't mean to undersell Afflalo's other contributions, either; he's a decent enough rebounder and a sound, if unspectacular, passer, rounding out a 20-4-4 line. Combined with pretty solid defense, that makes Afflalo a productive, well-balanced candidate in a field without better options.
The final spots in the East are relatively easy to decide by comparison. For starters: Millsap's far-reaching contributions in a giant role for the Hawks earn him an All-Star berth without much issue. Atlanta is too often a forgotten team, eclipsed in the national consciousness by the rise of the Pacers, the Heat story of the week, the slow starts of the New York teams and the sad state of the East in general. But Millsap has enabled the Hawks to compile a 23-21 record -- the third best in the conference -- despite injuries to Al Horford and Jeff Teague. That is no small feat, particularly for a player who in past seasons struggled to stay efficient when operating without the help of other star scorers.
That hasn't been an issue for Millsap as a Hawk. He leads the team in points (17.8), rebounds (8.2), steals (1.7) and blocks (1.2) while chipping in more assists (3.0) than any non-point guard on the roster. It would be hard for Millsap to take on any more responsibility with the Hawks than he does already, and yet he's remained very effective through that role inflation.
Irving, on the other hand, has been a bit of a disappointment. This has been a slight down year by his standards, if only because he hasn't responded positively to any of the factors intended to elevate his ascent. The hiring of coach Mike Brown hasn't done much for Irving's defense, which remains regrettable even on an effort level. The full-time return of Anderson Varejao hasn't done much for Irving's offensive game, and he has played pretty poorly with Deng on the floor so far.
All of that's a bit of a bummer for a superstar-in-waiting, though not quite enough to derail Irving's All-Star candidacy. Even without taking any big steps forward, Irving is still a good enough scorer and functional enough passer to slide into this slot over players like Stephenson or DeRozan. He'd be more than a wild card if he were he able to replicate his shooting percentages from last season. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.