With the All-Star starters to be announced Thursday, the annual controversy over the rosters is 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:
Shooting, both off the catch and the dribble
Finishing at the rim, both off the dribble and passes from others
Pick-and-roll defense (bigs)
Perimeter shot contesting
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.
With all that in mind, on to my picks. We’ll look at the Western Conference in this piece. We’ll focus on the Eastern Conference later this week.
Point Guard: Stephen Curry. Curry is the league’s premier offensive player at this point. But the best part about his game is that he operates without reducing anyone else’s effectiveness. His efficiency is off the charts with a 64 true shooting percentage, meaning he does not take opportunities out of the hands of others with his missed shots. And his shooting gravity means he opens up space for others off the ball. He also has become an extremely smart cutter. While he isn’t a monster blowing by his guy one on one, he can get to the basket off pick and rolls, where he shoots a crazy 72 percent within three feet. Curry is also an excellent passer. The only downside offensively is a somewhat above-average turnover rate. On defense he could still struggle a bit to stay in front of the quickest point guards and fouls a little too much, but he’s also a steals savant and one of the best point guards on help defense with his quick hands.
Shooting Guard: Klay Thompson. Why is Thompson starting over James Harden, a superior player? Simple: Thompson is a better defender and shooter. There are only so many balls to go around on this team, and Thompson is great at spreading the floor for everyone else with his shooting. He can also make guys pay on closeouts and finish at the basket, while his passing has improved to acceptable levels now. While Harden is a better offensive player in a vacuum and is on the team off the bench, Thompson better complements the rest of the starters. He also is more versed playing in a system with lots of movement, whereas Harden tends to dominate the ball. Thompson provides an extra schematic element with his shooting off pindowns and dribble handoffs as well.
Small Forward: Kevin Durant. Durant is another guy who is outstanding getting his own offense, but is just as effective off the ball creating space for others like on the 2012 Olympic team. Durant is perhaps the league’s ultimate spotup weapon because his shot is nearly impossible to challenge, though he rarely can focus on that role for the Thunder. Although Durant is not a lockdown defender, he has the length and quickness and can also switch onto either smaller or bigger players. With all the talent in this game, that is something that will likely need to be done fairly often on picks.
Power Forward: Anthony Davis. There is a little concern that Davis is young enough that he doesn’t execute that well defensively. Certainly, New Orleans’ defensive record under Monty Williams indicates that he has not learned a ton on that end. But his defensive performance at the World Cup and his positive plus/minus numbers defensively this year indicate that the Pelicans’ defensive problems aren’t his fault. Davis can also execute a switching scheme, and is perhaps the league’s premier shot-blocker. He protects the basket enough to play center too if the other team doesn’t have a burly postup threat, of which there are few in the East. Offensively Davis’ jumper is money for spacing purposes, but he doesn’t need the ball to be effective. He hits the offensive glass, gets out in transition and makes a great roll man. For the purposes of this team, he really has no weaknesses.
Center: Dwight Howard. This was the toughest call on the board as a starter. In truth, the starter might change based on the matchups. It came down to Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol, Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge. Cousins is having the best statistical season of these players, and provides by far the biggest matchup problem with his postups. But he also fouls a ton, and is prone to lapses in concentration on both ends, though his defense is much-improved. Howard is the most verastile defender of the bunch with his mobility, while still rating as one of the league’s best basket protectors. The rest of these players can be a bit slow out on the floor defending the pick and roll if necessary. And while he is having one of his worst offensive seasons in some time, that is more due to a decline in his effectiveness posting up. He can still play pick and roll, pass and finish – we don’t need his postups on this team. Howard is a miserable free throw shooter, but there’s plenty of depth behind him if the opposition decides to go the Hack-a-Dwight route.
DeMarcus Cousins: Cousins will get plenty of playing time as a backup because his postup ability is a potential game-changer. Off the bench, we will be looking for guys with elite skills who can come in and make an impact, and Cousins’ post offense and activity on the offensive glass are a real problem that can prevent the opposition from going small. That will be especially important given the lack of quality size in the East.
Marc Gasol: If the starting five is a bit light on anything, it is passing. Curry is a great passer and Durant has improved, but Thompson is only average and neither Howard or Davis have shown much acumen in that regard. If the ball movement needs a boost, running through Gasol at the elbow can get it done. He also sets some monster screens and of course is one of the better defenders at his position – though he can be taken advantage of out on the floor.
Draymond Green: What is a player with a mere 15.9 PER and 54 true shooting percentage doing on the team? Well, he shoots and passes well enough to be a threat, sets amazing screens and might be the Defensive Player of the Year. Green is an amazing help defender and does the league’s best job of guarding all five positions. His presence allows the team to switch nearly anything and still stay solid. I would not expect Green to get a ton of time, but if we are getting lit up defensively he can provide a needed scheme change to shake things up while still providing enough of a spot-up threat to avoid killing the offense. What’s more, Green already has great chemistry with Curry and Thompson. Those three to date have formed the core of what has been an all-time great team through the first half of the season.
Tim Duncan: He is a little too slow these days to get out on the perimeter, though he still ranks as one of the league’s best defenders. The real problem is offense; he really is only effective posting up mismatches these days and is not particularly efficient. Though he does set amazing screens in pick and roll, he is not a great target rolling to the rim due to his limited explosion at this point. Duncan really only does one thing at an elite level these days though, and that’s protecting the basket. This team needs more versatility.
Blake Griffin: Griffin is having a bit of a down year, but even at his best the fit is questionable. He is part of the reason the Clippers have never had an elite defense in his tenure. He’s not quite a good enough help defender or shooter to play the four for this team. While he’s a great player in most aspects of offense, and his passing would be quite welcome, his weaknesses can be attacked enough that I would rather go with someone a little more well-rounded. There’s plenty of scoring and passing on the team already, and those are really the two things Griffin does well.
LaMarcus Aldridge: He just isn’t efficient enough. This team has enough firepower that there is no need for the high volume of long twos he takes.
Dirk Nowitzki: The big German is still a great shooter and offensive force, but he’ll get roasted on defense.
Serge Ibaka: The toughest omission. Ibaka has finally stretched his range out to the three-point line after years of developing his jump shot. He is not an unbelievable threat from outside, but he can keep the defense honest. Ibaka would likely be utilized as a shot-blocking center who could also switch out onto the perimeter if needed if he were on the team. But he still doesn’t quite have Green’s versatility or shooting ability. That’s the name of the game with this group.
James Harden: The Rockets shooting guard needs a place on this team due to his incredible efficiency, passing and ability to get to the free throw line. The only reason he is not a starter is the fact that he dominates the ball a little too much. He’s also one of the best isolation scorers in the league. While such plays are inefficient overall, they can become necessary if the opponent is switching.
Kawhi Leonard: Leonard has a ton of versatility as well with his spotup shooting and defense. He shoots well enough that he can’t be left open from three, while providing a ton of little hustle plays. Leonard can also shift to the four in small lineups and effectively guard any perimeter position if needed.
Nobody: There really aren’t any other wings in the West anywhere near the quality of these guys.
Backup Point Guards:
Damian Lillard: Lillard is the only point guard shooter comparable to Curry. There’s no going under the screen with him on pick and rolls. If anything, he is a little better at getting his shot off from three with his superior elevation, and he’s really improved his finishing this year. Lillard will let us run all the same stuff as with Curry in the game without missing a beat.
Mike Conley: Conley is mostly here for his defense. Curry and Lillard are both improved defensively, but if they are getting lit up Conley can come in to put out the fire. He also has a more relaxed personality and hopefully won’t mind rarely playing if it comes to that.
Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook: These guys are better players than Conley and maybe even Lillard in the context of their teams. But both dominate the ball and have some weaknesses with their three-point shot. Paul shoots a nice percentage this year after a decline in previous seasons, but he takes awhile to get his shot off and it isn’t the most versatile. He was the toughest omission because he is so heady and is the best defender of this bunch when locked in. He can defend larger players on switches due to his strength. But he struggles to close out on shooters due to his short arms. Plus, both of these feisty floor generals would not be too happy about playing near the end of the bench.
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