With Miami HEAT point guard Goran Dragic selected to replace the injured Kevin Love in the 2018 NBA All-Star game, the debate rages anew about who deserves to be in the game. Is Dragic deserving based on his team’s fourth-best record in the East? Or should the spot have gone to a player like Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker, who advanced stats suggest is more valuable to his team?
According to off-court numbers, the Hornets are absolutely crushed by 13.8 points per 100 any time Walker is on the bench. As we’ve noted, this is double the off-court impact of any other Hornet. Meanwhile, the HEAT are +3.1 with Dragic on the bench, which means Miami scores more efficiently with Dragic off the court than any other player.
That brings us to the definition of a star. Since the All-Star team is supposed to be comprised of star players, we first must ask, what is a star? In a bit of a reductionist exercise, we’ll start with one former NBA executive’s definition of a superstar.
“By definition, I would argue that if a player is really, truly a superstar, then the cause and effect is that he causes his team to win, and win at a very high level,” said former Atlanta Hawks GM Pete Babcock in a 2013 interview with Jeff Pearlman.
By the time of that interview, Babcock had many years to reflect on his career and the impact of his 2001 decision to trade rookie Pau Gasol for Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Vancouver never won more than 23 games in Abdur-Rahim’s five seasons, but he averaged over 20 points in all but his rookie season.
If a superstar causes his team to win at a very high level, then shouldn’t a regular “star” be a player who at least causes his team to win at a moderate level? Sure, Walker is an exceptional player and an All-Star last season who can’t be singled out for his team’s status as the East’s biggest under-achievers. But the Hornets are not without weapons.
Is the suggestion here that Dragic is a star since his team is winning? Certainly not. But before Dragic was added, every team in the Eastern Conference playoff picture was represented except Miami. The Pistons and Knicks were even represented by Andre Drummond and Kristaps Porzingis, even though both teams are currently outside the playoff picture.
Perhaps the player that really got snubbed is Josh Richardson, the Miami small forward who is third among active HEAT players with 12.8 points per game. With Richardson on the bench, the HEAT is outscored by 5.1 points per 100, a team-high off-court net rating. Dragic was quick to share credit for the honor with his teammates.
“Credit goes to them too, because without them this would not be possible,” Dragic told reporters in Philadelphia at a practice ahead of Friday’s visit to the 76ers. “They put me in the right spots so I can give my best and I’m really grateful and thankful for that.”
Dragic leads the HEAT with 17 points and 4.8 assists per game. The counter argument to net rating is that, just because Miami doesn’t play its most efficient offensive basketball with Dragic on court, the team still needs his production. If Dragic wasn’t accounting for all those scored and assisted baskets, there’s no guarantee that a player whom net rating paints a rosier picture of would pick up the slack.
Regardless of arguments on individual merits, the All-Star game is supposed to be a celebration of excellence. With seven other Eastern teams in playoff position and two outside it already represented, the HEAT deserved to be recognized after playing themselves into position for home court advantage. Walker’s Hornets are only four games out of the eighth seed and a game behind Porzingis and the Knicks, but sit a full 7.5 games behind the HEAT in the East standings.
Dragic may not be the best individual player among those who might have replaced Love. But this is a well-deserved team honor for Miami.
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