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
My starting lineup: Stephen Curry (Warriors), James Harden (Rockets)*, Kevin Durant (Thunder), Kevin Love (Timberwolves) and LaMarcus Aldridge (Trail Blazers).
– *Assuming Chris Paul is unavailable
• Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
• Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
• 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.
My regrets to: Serge Ibaka, Tim Duncan, David Lee, Nicolas Batum, Zach Randolph, Andre Iguodala.
• 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.
My regrets to: Dragic, Lillard, Ty Lawson, Isaiah Thomas.
• Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
• DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
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.