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The Real NBA All-Star Team: The East

Nate Duncan constructs the most effective real team for the All-Star game. Today, he builds the East.

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With the All-Star reserves to be announced on Thursday, the annual controversy over the rosters is about to be in full swing. But the game itself is an exhibition with little intensity until the final few minutes. All-Star selections serve their purpose of commemorating the best players of a given (half) season and allowing fans to see their favorite players. But what if there were something really at stake? What would the best possible real team assembled from each conference look like?

While it may seem overly simplistic, the philosophy of team-building can be summarized in a similar but more detailed version of the team ratings on a video game. A team should be constructed not merely to get as many of the best players on one squad, but so that the overall roster (and best lineups) get as close to the maximum on all the possible elements of team quality as possible.

Those key elements, in as much brevity as possible:

Offense:
Shooting, both off the catch and the dribble
Passing
Dribbling/slashing
Finishing at the rim, both off the dribble and passes from others
Foul-drawing
Postups
Offensive rebounding
Turnover avoidance
Cuts
Transition offense
Screening

Defense:
Individual containment
Rim-protection
Pick-and-roll defense (bigs)
Help defense
Steals
Perimeter shot contesting
Post defense
Defensive rebounding
Transition defense
Overall energy

Some of these are obviously more important than others. For example, a total lack of shooting can kill an offense no matter what other strengths you have. Some, like post defense, are more niche but can still kill a team, as the Toronto Raptors found to their chagrin in the playoffs a year ago. Nevertheless, the goal will be to construct teams and lineups that max out the meters on all of these attributes as much as possible.

Not only is it essential to acquire players with incredible strength, but to avoid players with weaknesses the other team can attack. The most easily exploited weaknesses are lack of shooting (by the standards of his position), post defense or pick-and-roll defense. In this incredibly high-level game, even the slightest weakness in key areas could kill a team.

Last week, we looked at the West’s “real All-Star team.” At first blush, it is immediately clear how much weaker the East is, especially at the big positions.  The good news is, the East features the best smallball power forward in history.

Starters

Point Guard: Kyle Lowry.  Point guard is perhaps the East’s deepest position, with Lowry, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose all worthy of consideration.  But as with the West, a point guard who can shoot is paramount to punish teams for going under the pick and roll.  That leaves Lowry* and Irving as the two main candidates to start.  Lowry is a far better distributor and defender than Irving, especially when he doesn’t have to carry such a load offensively.  Plus his bulldog strength and competitiveness make him tough to post up on switches.

*Lowry is shooting only 33 percent on threes this season, but has had to take a lot of bad ones this year as the primary impetus of Toronto’s offense with DeMar DeRozan out.  He’s been over 36 percent the previous four years.

Shooting Guard: Jimmy Butler.  Butler has cooled after a hot start from the field, but he still gets to the line a ton and merits at least a closeout from beyond the three-point line.  He is used to playing without the ball and can provide some points off cuts and the offensive glass.

More importantly, the Bulls’ shooting guard is really the only premium wing defender in the East who is also elite offensively.  Butler is not a perfect option due to the fact that he is not a great shooter, but we need someone who can guard on the wing.

Small Forward: Carmelo Anthony.  Here is where the pickings for the East start to get a bit slim versus their counterparts in the West.  The Anthony of the past two years would be a far worthier pick as a starter, but with recent knee problems and the onset of his 30s that player may be gone forever.  And he has never really defended at even an average NBA level at either small or power forward. Nevertheless, who else are you starting on the wing?*  Dwyane Wade can’t shoot threes and is no great shakes as a defender either.  DeRozan is too inefficient and also doesn’t shoot threes.  Kyle Korver might be the best competition.  He is a better team defender, although he cannot bang with power forwards to the extent Anthony can.  And Korver is not going to be an asset defending one-on-one either.  This spot is Anthony’s by default, although it is quite possible the team would end up playing a little better with Korver on the floor. The East definitely misses Paul George, who would be the obvious pick here with his two-way play.

*I am including both shooting guards and small forwards here, since Butler can play either wing spot.

Power Forward:  LeBron James.  James has played little at the four in Cleveland with Kevin Love anchoring that spot and unable to move up to center.  But memories of what he and the HEAT were in Miami persist.  Despite his much publicized weight loss over the summer, James still has the heft and activity to battle post players when needed.  And he and Carmelo on the floor together means the opposition must either downsize or risk a mismatch with their power forward against either of them.

After a rough stretch to begin the season, James is looking like the game’s best player again since resting for two weeks.  Playing him at power forward with adequate shooting around him is the best way to negate the West’s massive advantage up front.

Center:  Chris Bosh. With all this offensive firepower, the East center would ideally be someone who can finish pick and rolls at an elite level while protecting the rim and defending pick and rolls and postups.  Unfortunately, the East does not really possess such an established player.  Al Horford and Chris Bosh come the closest. Both have been a part of good defenses, but neither has the size or length to be truly elite on that end.  They also can stretch defenses with their shooting, but they aren’t elite at dunking lobs and sucking the defense in on pick and rolls either.

Nevertheless, it probably comes down to these two.  Andre Drummond may be the ideal sort of player eventually, but he isn’t good enough on defense yet.  Bosh is probably the pick to start because of his superior length and legitimate three-point range, but Horford will also get plenty of time.

Backup Bigs:

Al Horford: Horford might be the best two-way big man in the East.  Although he is still a bit undersized as a center, he has the strength to defend postups against all but he largest behemoths. He knows where to be and how to execute the system, as evidenced by Atlanta’s excellent defense this year.  And Horford’s elite midrange jump-shooting can help spread the floor for others.  If Bosh cannot hold up on the boards with this small starting lineup, Horford could end up seeing the lion’s share of the playing time.

Paul Millsap:  Millsap has grown into a better defender than many think after developing a bad reputation in Utah playing next to Al Jefferson.  He also can drill three-pointers and get to the basket off the dribble.  Millsap is not a perfect player due to his lack of length and explosion, but the East bigs are not exactly overflowing with explosive athletes.

Hassan Whiteside:  Yes, really.  Many will say this is an overreaction to a few good weeks, but it must be remembered this is an end-of-the-bench spot on this team.  It seems unlikely Whiteside is the star-type player he has looked like of late, but if he is he provides exactly what this team needs defending the basket while finishing pick and rolls and offensive rebounds at the hoop.  Why not spend the last roster spot on the flier that Whiteside can provide something the team lacks?

Andre Drummond: The logic on Drummond is similar to that of Whiteside: another flier trying to find this squad’s Tyson Chandler.  Drummond has not yet shown the ability to impact the game defensively the way even Whiteside has in his short career, but he has the physical tools.  What’s more, we know he can be a great weapon in pick and rolls offensively, and is a monster on the offensive glass.  I am quite comfortable spending the last two roster slots on wild cards to see if we can find someone to play the role this team really needs.  Without such a player, the team is likely going to devolve into trying to outscore the West.

Why not?

Pau Gasol:  Gasol simply isn’t athletic enough to play effectively in a game like this.  While he has been a revelation at around $7 million per year with the points and rebounds he is putting up, he lacks the athleticism to defend other than in the immediate basket area (where he has been solid).  He also is not a good enough defensive rebounder.  While post scoring might be welcome on this team, Gasol is only effective in that role against subpar defenders.  Zach Lowe did a nice job further outlining some of Gasol’s weaknesses in his All-Star piece today.

Joakim Noah:  Noah would probably be the starter for if we were picking the squad this time last year. At his peak, his ability to protect the rim and switch pick and rolls would be precisely what the squad needed on defense.  That Noah has been largely absent this year though as he works back from a knee injury. More importantly, Noah is now a total liability offensively, shooting 44 percent and a mere 51 percent in the basket area.*  Teams don’t even guard him, and that’s not going to fly on this team.

*The NBA average is around 60 percent.

Al Jefferson: Big Al just isn’t mobile enough defensively, and this team is not going to need his relatively inefficient shot-creation in the post with the firepower on the rest of the roster.

Kevin Love:  Love doesn’t make this team for the same reason he isn’t a great fit with James in Cleveland. The East will likely function best with James at the four, and Love will get destroyed defensively at the five.  While his shooting and passing would be a nice weapon, Millsap provides many of the same things with a more well-rounded skillset on defense.

Nikola Vucevic:  He is nowhere near a good enough defender to merit inclusion on this team.

Backup Wings:

Kyle Korver: The potential author of the league’s first 50/50/90 season gets a spot due to his shooting gravity.  He is a near perfect complement to the weapons on this squad offensively, although he lacks the abilities to punish teams that switch onto him off the dribble and will never be much of a one-on-one defender due to his athletic deficiencies.

DeMarre Carroll:  This squad is going to need someone who can play wing stopper when Butler goes out or gets in foul trouble as he does on occasion.  Carroll is one of the few East wings who meets that definition and can still drain threes at a solid rate. He is one of the most underrated players in basketball, although his inclusion on this team speaks as much for the East’s lack of two-way wings as it does for his own prowess.

Why not?

Dwyane Wade:  What Wade is doing at his age should not be discounted; he has carried the HEAT offensively.  But his old man game does not work as well against the best defenders, he can’t shoot threes and isn’t much of a defender any longer.  Without the ball in his hands, Wade does not add enough to this team even with his “ghost cuts.”

Bradley Beal:  The hype on Beal has always gotten a bit ahead of what he is actually doing on the court.  While he is shooting a blistering 44 percent from three-point range, he is no Korver in terms of gravity.  While he is probably a little quicker than Korver, it is not like he is asked to be a stopper for Washington right now.  Korver and Carroll are just a little better at what this team needs.  In a couple of years time, Beal would have a much better shot.

DeMar DeRozan:  His main skills are handling in pick and roll and creating long twos. That has value for his NBA team, but he is too inefficient and not a good enough defender to get a serious look as a role-playing backup wing because of how little value he provides without the ball in his hands.

Backup Point Guard:

John Wall:  Wall is one of the best players in the East, and might be the best defender among point guards at this point.  He will be the best passer on the team with the possible exception of James. Wall is also tall enough to slide to the two defensively but play point on offense, which he must do since he isn’t a good enough shooter to play off the ball.  A two point guard lineup with he and Lowry could be effective if the East wants to push the pace. It is a concern that teams will play off him and dare him to shoot, but he’s so much better as a distributor than the other point guard candidates that he needs to be on the team.

Kyrie Irving: The Cavs point guard gets the last spot due to his shooting ability.  If Lowry needs a break and the opponent successfully dares Wall to shoot (or James is handling the ball), Irving can make the defense pay from downtown or get to the basket, where he’s markedly improved his finishing this year. While his defense is lacking, he has at least improved his effort on that end.

Why not?

Jeff Teague:  Teague is having a wonderfully efficient season.  But he just is not quite as dynamic with the ball in his hands as Irving and Wall, lacking the former’s shooting ability and the latter’s vision.  His lack of a particular elite skill sinks him here.

Derrick Rose: Rose is showing flashes of his old self more and more.  He is getting to the basket with greater ease (though still struggling to finish) and starting to hit enough threes to keep the defense honest.  Unfortunately, he still is not efficient enough that you want him taking away opportunities from the great players on this team–he will need to start getting to the line a lot more to approach that level.  What’s more, Rose’s defense has slipped from his pre-injury level, although he has shown flashes.  Rose may get back to All-Star level by the end of the year, but for now he shouldn’t be on this team.

Who wins?

The West would be a big favorite. They have better point guards, better shooting, more two-way players on the perimeter and, most importantly, far more defense at the basket.  The East’s only hope is to force the West into going small with James at power forward, but even then the West’s superior defensive versatility and their ability to deploy Howard, Davis or Cousins (who the East will have to double team) as the lone big man would be a massive advantage.

 

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst, salary cap expert and attorney. He has also written for Sports Illustrated & ESPN, and a host on #NBACast

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