Earlier this week, the NBA released the first round of All-Star fan voting. If the voting ended today, the Western Conference starters would be Stephen Curry, Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol, while the Eastern Conference starters would be John Wall, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Pau Gasol.
The voters have selected a solid group of starters thus far, however, there are a few positions where some (arguably) more deserving players are being snubbed. To show this, we will look to some advanced statistics. The first is John Hollinger’s player efficiency rating (PER), which in Hollinger’s words “sums up all a player’s positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments, and returns a per-minute rating of a player’s performance.” We will also look to a recently developed statistic called Real Plus-Minus (RPM), which “estimates how many points each player adds or subtracts, on average, to his team’s net scoring margin for each 100 possessions played.” Neither statistic perfectly captures how well, nor poorly a player has performed, but each provides insight that goes beyond the usual eye test and standard box score numbers. Some of these position debates could easily be determined without an in depth inquiry, but it’s still worthwhile to explore exactly which players should be starting based on their performance so far this season*.
There are three selections in the Eastern Conference that are on point and not in need of debate. John Wall has been the best point guard in the Eastern Conference so far this season. LeBron James, despite looking less physically dominant than in past seasons, is arguably still the most dominant player in the league, and Pau Gasol looks rejuvenated with the Chicago Bulls and has posted great per game statistics (though it should be noted that Gasol’s PER and RPM numbers do not indicate that he is the obvious choice here). But while Dwyane Wade has played well (when healthy) this season, it is not clear that he is having a better season than other Eastern Conference guards like Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, or Jimmy Butler. Let’s take a look at what the PER and RPM numbers look like for Wade and some of his notable competition.
Based on these numbers, it appears that Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler are most deserving of the starting guard position that Wade currently holds. Lowry was snubbed last season, and has led his Toronto Raptors to the best record in the Eastern Conference this season. He has probably been the second best point guard in the Eastern Conference this season, and is carrying the Raptors without teammate DeMar DeRozan (out with a groin injury). Butler has had a breakout season and has hit star status, though he falls short of Lowry’s overall impact thus far. At this point, it seems Rose has missed too many games and has not had enough of an impact in the limited minutes he has played to deserve a starting spot. Irving and Teague have both been solid, and are positive contributors to their teams’ early season success, but both are outshined by Lowry and Butler at this point.
The next position up for debate is held by Carmelo Anthony. Anthony has performed close to his usual standard this season, but his team is currently 5-26 and has been the most disappointing team so far this season. Here are what the numbers say about Anthony’s performance compared to his notable competitors.
Here, it appears that Bosh and Millsap have the best cases to start ahead of Anthony, with Vucevic slightly behind them. While Bosh and Vucevic have higher PER ratings, Millsap has a significantly higher RPM rating, suggesting that he helps his team win games more so than any other player listed here. Also, the fact that the Hawks are currently ranked second in the Eastern Conference should help Millsap’s cause. Bosh has played well this season too, putting up big numbers when he is healthy and active. But it is hard to ignore the great season Millsap is having so far. But again, the fans choose who they want to see, not necessarily who deserves the starting spot the most. Anthony has been a starter each season since he joined the Knicks in the East, and that doesn’t figure to change this season.
In the West, the players that have thus far clearly earned their starting position are Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol. However, like Wade in the East, Kobe Bryant has a starting position while there are more deserving players. James Harden is having an MVP caliber season thus far, Klay Thompson has shown major improvement from last season and is arguably the best two-way shooting guard in the league, Russell Westbrook has been a force since returning from injury and Damian Lillard is arguably playing better than any other point guard right now. Also, each one of these guards plays for a competitive team, while Bryant is playing for a Lakers squad that is currently ranked 14th in the Western Conference.
This selection is pretty tough to make based on the stellar numbers some of these guards are posting. Harden has the best case based on both his PER and RPM numbers, but Westbrook has the best PER rating in the league and has looked like an unstoppable force at times this season. Thompson has been very good as well, but his PER numbers are low compared to the other candidates. Chris Paul is having a very good season in terms of shooting, and has been the same heady floor general we’ve come to expect, but Damian Lillard has been on a tear lately and is leading a quietly dominant Portland squad that is currently ranked second in the stacked Western Conference.
This spot features a lot of worthy candidates, but it appears that the starter here should be Harden, who is arguably the MVP front-runner at this point in the season. Bryant is likely to hold onto this spot, however, considering his global popularity and extensive resume. He may not be playing efficiently this season, but Bryant is a top draw and a 16-time All-Star.
The last position up for debate in the Western Conference is currently held by Blake Griffin. Griffin has been playing fantasticly lately, but like Wade, Anthony, and Bryant, he has worthy competition.
For this spot, it seems that the best competition for Griffin is Tim Duncan, Tyson Chandler and DeMarcus Cousins. Duncan has been playing exceedingly well (especially for a 38 year old in his 17th season). The only knocks against Duncan are that he rests on some nights, and his Spurs are only ranked seventh in the West at this point. However, Duncan has the highest defensive rating in the league, according to RPM (5.59), which is impressive. Chandler has been a force for the Mavericks this season, showing new life after a down season with the Knicks. As for Cousins, he missed significant time recently due to viral meningitis, but has been arguably the best big man in basketball when active. His PER eclipses all of the other candidates listed here and is fourth best in the league. Also, his RPM number is second best in the league, showing just how valuable he has been to the Sacramento Kings this season. However, similar to Duncan, Cousins gets knocked for missing time and the fact that his team is currently ranked 12th in the West.
LaMarcus Aldridge is often compared favorably to Griffin, but Griffin is the more efficient player, and impacts games just about as much, if not more than Aldridge. Aldridge’s team is performing better than Griffin’s Clippers, but it’s not obvious here that he deserves to move ahead of Griffin on that basis. As for Nowitzki, he has played well this season, but his RPM number of 0.23 suggests that he is not the most significant factor in the Mavericks’ early season success. For this last spot, it seems that Cousins is probably the most deserving candidate, though Duncan and Chandler have strong cases as well. Also, it should be noted that Kevin Durant will likely make a furious push as a starter once he is healthy and logs more games.
As previously stated, these statistics do not tell the whole story, but do provide valuable insight. Also, we are just about 30 games into the season (there is a long way to go before the starters are locked in), and this list does not cover every player that has a legitimate argument to be a worthy starter. However, this serves as a quick look at which top players have had the greatest impact up to this point in the season, and which are currently most deserving of a starting spot in this season’s All-Star game.
Josh Smith Shines in Debut with Houston Rockets
In his first game with the Houston Rockets, Josh Smith contributed 21 points, eight rebounds, and three assists in 32 minutes of action. Smith was instrumental in the Rockets 117-111 overtime defeat of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Smith signed with the Rockets earlier this week after the Detroit Pistons surprisingly released him, eating the remaining two-years, $26 million on his contract. Smith has notoriously struggled with his shot selection and inefficiency, but has real value when he is dialed in and playing to his strengths, which was apparent on Friday night.
Smith and the Rockets next face Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday.
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