2011 Western Conference All-star Starters

I’ll continue from my earlier post with the starting guards for the 2011 all-star game for the west. A few quick notes: I don’t care about how the ballots list the positions. While I use advanced statistics, I won’t rely on them; I realize many have holes. Also, I want the team out there to have continuity with seasons past. Meaning, some stats and how guys are playing is fluky. Sometimes shots fall. The all-star tag will carry with a player forever. You have to make sure a guy deserves the award, and that it’s not a fluke. As a last note, the stats are of January 29th, and thanks for the incredible basketball resources found from basketball-reference.com, hoopdata.com and 82games.com.

Starting Point Guard

The depth of elite point guards is historically great. Chris Paul is carrying his team with ridiculously efficient numbers, Deron Williams is having perhaps his best season yet, Russell Westbrook broke out and had MVP whispers at the start of the year, and Tony Parker is play great for one of the best teams. The punch line? Steve Nash will likely miss the game despite playing as well as he did in his MVP seasons.

Tony Parker is guy you can throw out first. Compare his season to Chris Paul’s. Can you say he’s accomplished more for his team? Paul is a much more efficient scorer at 60.8% TS to Parker’s 57.1, he’s a supremely better passer, and even a more effective defender who gets his steals not by gambling in the passing lanes so much but by swiping the ball away from the guy in front of him. Tony’s also only playing 32.9 minutes a game.

Now it’s only down to Paul, Williams, Westbrook and Nash. We’ll start with scoring, as it’s probably the easiest facet of the game to analyze. But each guy has a vastly different offensive game. Steve Nash is leading the pack in TS% at an otherworldly 64.3%, which is good for seventh in the league. But no player ahead of him shoots as much as Nash. Shaq and Nene are the next largest pieces of their respective offensives, and it’s not even close. Steve’s usage rate is 24.4, but with the other players on his team this year he should probably be pulling the trigger more. Chris Paul, like Nash, is a reluctant but deadly efficient shooter, but his TS% is human at 60.8% and his usage rate is 22.5. Deron Williams is close behind at 60.2% and a higher 26.7. These three traditional points contrast with Russell Westbrook, who has a higher usage rate at 30.5 but a TS% of 53.5%.

What the numbers are indicating is that Nash is an amazing shooter who should be a larger part of his team’s offense, Chris Paul and Williams are very efficient but Deron has the advantage of taking more shots, and Westbrook is shooting poorly and way too often. Earlier in the season Westbrook was shooting at higher rates and people were wondering if he was the best point guard in the league, but I think that has passed. He’s hurting his team by shooting too much. Looking at his stats from hoopdata.com, he’s shooting well enough inside at 55.5% but from ten feet and out he’s hovering around 37% … just like every other season. The difference this year is that his free throw percentage is up from around 80% to 85%, which is around Deron Williams’ percentage. Paul and Nash are a level above near 90%.

Moving on from shooting, in comparing their passing skills there are some disparities. While Nash is an amazing passer, his numbers are inflated compared to Paul’s because the Suns still play a bit fast while the Hornets are as slow as honey. And both guys are basically passing to a team of outcasts and hasbeen’s. But Paul stands out because is turnover rate is a microscopic 9.1. Nash is at 12.8. Westbrook and Williams are at 11.5 and 11.0, respectively. Despite carrying an overachieving team, Paul is turning the ball over like a catch-and-shoot specialist, and since a turnover is effectively costing your team an average of 1.1 to 1..2 points, this is a very important skill. With Deron and Russell, I don’t think we need to run through the numbers. Deron is a great passer but not on the level of Nash or Paul, while Russell is an improved passer but nothing special. His main skill is in penetration.

Defense can be a contentious topic because it’s not easily quantifiable or obvious. But with these four guys, it’s clear to see where they stand. Williams, Paul and Westbrook are plus defenders; Nash, while much maligned, is an adequate defender but needs help against lightning bug points, and in years past Marion would often get the nod. Williams’ size and toughness are a huge help, while Paul’s size isn’t too much of an issue because he has amazingly quick hands and often leads the league in steals, so posting him up can be a challenge. Westbrook, however, has the chance to be great. His size and athleticism are at the top 10% each at his position, but he’s still young and will often make mistakes.

There are a few more miscellaneous aspects of the game in which to compare the players. For rebounding, Westbrook is a Kidd-like rebounder with a rate of 8.3, which is leading the league for point guards, while the 175 pound Chris Paul is next in the group of four at 6.8. Chris Paul is leading the league with 2.6 steals, Westbrook following at 1.9, while Williams is at 1.2 and Nash is far behind at 0.6 per game. Another comparison, which is arguably the most important, is how much these guys play. Williams, Westbrook and Paul are fairly evenly spaced with 37.7, 36.3 and 35.2 minutes per game respectively. Nash, however, falls behind with his creaky back at 32.9 minutes a game. Additionally, he’s missed a few games, while only Deron has missed one this season. Westbrook has yet to miss a game in his pro career.

I think this is where Nash can be eliminated, despite his domination on the offensive end of the court. He hasn’t been on the court enough. Westbrook has the opposite problem — he’s on the court enough, but he’s not a great passer like Nash, and his shooting is hurting his team. Even if he eliminated the outside jumper, he’d still be a liability because guys don’t need to check him when he’s outside.

Now it’s down to Williams and Paul, and this time it’s actually close. In earlier seasons, the media liked to make a story out of nothing: who was better, Deron Williams or Chris Paul? But Paul had two of the best seasons ever by a point guard back to back. He was basically the entire offense, and he was extremely efficient — over ten assists a game with few turnovers, and high percentages on his shots. But last year, Deron was better because Chris was injured, and the injury has carried over into this season. Paul is having a great season, but not a historic one. The main difference is that he’s shooting less often. Deron has closed the gap, but I believe Paul still has the edge. Two advanced statistics agree — his PER is 25.7 and his WS/48 is 0.282, while Deon’s is at 23.1 and 0.185. Even after adjusting for minutes, Chris Paul is leading.

But those statistics only take into account box score numbers. There are a number of intangibles to consider, and I don’t think Williams has any sizable advantage. Finally, consider this: New Orleans has a better record and a much better average margin of victory, despite a tougher schedule. Besides Paul, their next best player is who exactly? David West, a power forward with decent but not great shooting percentages and matador defense? Williams has Millsap … and Al Jefferson. Chris Paul wins the starting spot here, but his injury concerns leave the door open for future discussions of best point guard in the league.

Pick: Chris Paul (New Orleans Hornets). Next in line: Deron Williams.

Starting Shooting Guard

This is supposed to be an easy win for Kobe, but most people are overlooking a couple key things. One, he’s shooting the ball at a rate of 32.7, which is leading the league; and despite a recent torrid stretch he only has a TS% of 55.8%, which normally isn’t bad (it’s a bit above average) but his team has a lot of options like Gasol, Bynum and Odom, who are all shooting the game at much lower rates despite their great shooting numbers. Here’s the second knock against Kobe — he’s only playing 33.2 minutes a game. His knee is ravaged, and as such he’s not as valuable as he once was.

But the candidates out west aren’t appetizing. Ginobili is having a great year (well, it’s statistically similar to every year he’s had) but he’s playing less minutes at 31.5 a game. Kevin Martin is one of the league’s best efficient scorers, but he’s strangely only playing 31.2. Brandon Roy was destroyed by knee injuries. Monta Ellis is a selfish gunner who only impacts the game with his scoring, but his shooting percentages are sub-par. Does another point guard deserve the spot? Or a small forward? I don’t think the situation is that poor where Durant or Deron Williams would be forced to the two spot. The next best candidate may actually be Eric Gordon, who’s playing 37.8 minutes a game. He’s shooting the ball well and often, and even plays great defense. But he has missed a few games with injuries.

So it’s basically Kobe versus Manu versus Commissioner Gordon. Eric Gordon sticks out, and there are a few reasons why. He’s an efficient scorer, but Manu is better and Kobe shoots more. He doesn’t rebound like those two, and his defense, while good, still isn’t near the hobbled Bryant. Advanced statistics show this too — despite his huge lead in minutes, his Estimated Wins Added from PER and Win Shares is still behind Bryant and Manu (though it’s mostly because he’s missed games.)

In comparing Bryant and Ginobili, it’s interesting to see how close they are, as Kobe’s minutes edged is nullified by Ginobili’s shooting efficiency. They are both dynamic scorers who can rebound, pass and shoot from anywhere on the court, though Bryant tends to believe a good shot is one where he’s fading away with two defenders in his face.

But let’s put these two in a real basketball context. Bryant probably shoots too much, but his TS% is about even with his team’s and he’s rarely turning the ball over despite all his shots and assists. He’s a larger part of the offense than Manu, and this stems from the kernel of truth of why Ginobili will remain a rung below the best in the NBA — he’s an offensive star, but you can’t run the team through him. He gets injured. He plays a low number of minutes. Kobe, however, will guard like crazy, and can carry his team through bad stretches. I think Kobe barely wins this starting spot on the all-star team. If Manu can match him in minutes, he’d probably deserve it. It’s also interesting to note that Manu hasn’t missed a game. This is a fluke, and I guarantee that he’ll miss a key stretch of games in the latter half of the season.

Pick: Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers). Next in line: Ginobili.

Starting Small Forward

This pick is easy until you include a couple of the power forwards who could conceivably play the 3-spot. Durant is a superior basketball player compared to Carmelo Anthony. Carmelo’s only clear edge is rebounding, where he doesn’t receive enough credit. He’s rebounding like an average power forward despite being the focal point of the Nugget’s offense and playing on a perimeter a lot. But both players derive their value from their scoring. They both shoot roughly the same number of shots where Anthony has a usage rate of 29.3 while Durant one of 28.4, but Durant has a TS% of 59.2% and Carmelo a terrible 52.3%. Basically, Durant is carrying his team offensively with a shooting efficiency that few can match, while Carmelo is taking shots away from other players who could probably do better than he has been. The strange part? Denver is leading the league with a 57.4% TS over Boston’s 57.1%. (This is mostly because of Nene’s amazing 69.4% TS, and great numbers from Billups, Afflalo and Lawson.) I wonder how well they’d do if Carmelo could hit the side of a blimp hanger.

Durant also matches or bests Carmelo in most other categories. Anthony’s a lazy defender while Durant has made strides. Anthony is a great rebounder, but Durant is above average also. Both are sub-par passers. Anthony lets Billups lead the team; Durant has taken a leadership role. There is no way one could argue Carmelo should start over Durant. And a power forward like Nowitzki isn’t justified here. Durant deserves to start.

Pick: Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder). Next in line: probably one the many great power forwards

Starting Center

I’m skipping ahead to center because the power forward spot is crowded while center is wide open. Basically, whoever can justify being labeled a starting center is eliminated from the power forward competition and thus makes the selection easier.

The conventional candidates here include Duncan, who’s playing better than people think; Nene, as mentioned above is scoring so efficiently that the difference between him and the amazing Nash is the difference between Boston’s TS% and New Jersey’s; Tyson Chandler, who’s certainly playing well but his limited offensive game and low minutes put him out of the running; and Bynum, whose defense is worthy of starting but has played few minutes. All four seven-footers are playing 30 minutes or less a game. The next best candidates are Nowitzki, who’s at least tall enough to play center; Gasol, who’s actually played most of his minutes at the pivot; Randolph, who weighs enough but doesn’t protect the rim; and Aldridge, who shares the court a lot with Cunningham and can be considered a center sometimes.

From that last above, it’s obvious who the best players are. Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki are a class above the rest. They’re both international big men who bring as much skill to a seven-foot frame as anyone in the game (or even the history of the game.) They’re both having great years, and I think I’ll keep the decision process simple. Gasol actually plays the center spot. Four of the top five rotation combinations include Odom and Gasol as the biggest guys on the court for the Lakers, and Pau is clearly acting as the center. Nowitzki shares the court with Chandler or Haywood, and he also does less center duties — rebounding, protecting the rim, etc.

Pick: Pau Gasol (Los Angeles Lakers). Next in line: *crickets*

Starting Power Forward

I guess I’ll begin with a giant list of the candidates in alphabetical order. LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Paul Millsap, Dirk Nowitzki, Lamar Odom, Zach Randolph, Luis Scola, and David West. I’ll toss out the obvious ones. Scola’s been playing well, but his TS% is 53.6, he’s playing 33.1 minutes a game and he plays no defense. The Ice-Cream Man is gone. David West is a fine power forward who’s having arguably his best season yet. But a devil’s advocate would point out that his only strength lies in scoring, and he’s not even at an elite level there. He’s gone. Millsap finally gets the Jazz 4-spot all to himself, but like Boozer before him he doesn’t play much defense, his rebounding is merely average, and compared to the other power forwards his shooting isn’t impressive. Goodbye. Zach Randolph is clearing the boards as well as he clears his plate, but again his defense is shoddy and his aim isn’t so true (53.1% TS.) He’s gone. Aldridge is underrated in that he can play huge minutes for a big guy without any ill effects and he rarely gets injured, but he doesn’t rebound and his TS% is still low at 53.0. Better luck next year. Tim Duncan is more of a center, but he’s had a huge impact on the court. He’s eliminated, however, because his minutes are a career low. Goodbye Timmah!

Who we’re left with is Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, and Dirk Nowitzki. If you include Pau Gasol (my starting center) then you have a group of four guys who are racially “white” in different respects. Love is American, Dirk is German, Pau is Spanish and Blake is half-white, half-black. I understand that point out race today is basically racism, but I thought it was interesting to note.

Moving on, these three guys present a quandary. Any time you try to eliminate one, the entire deck of reason falls apart. Picking out one guy is tough. Start with defense. No guy is known for defense, but Love probably gets the most hate in this respect. Nowitzki, however, is a quietly decent defender for a power forward. Blake the Flying Griffin is arguably as poor as Kevin Love in defense, and historically rookies have a hard time adjusting to the league. Love has had the advantage of a couple years learning how to defend NBA players. As for rebounding, Kevin’s lead isn’t as large as one would think. The T’Wolves are a surprisingly fast paced team, and Love’s rebound rate is only 23.5. (Only is relative to the media attention surrounding him; that’s still an outstanding rate.) Griffin is at 20.0, while Dirk is far behind at 11.7. And strangely enough, Nowitzki leads the three in blocked shots per game at 0.7. Blake has 0.6 per game and Love only 0.3. These guys aren’t protecting the rim, basically.

Offense is where we can eliminate the Winged Griffin. His TS% is only 55.4, despite all the dunks but partly because he’s a bad free throw shooter at 61.5%. He’s a large part of the offense with a 26.0 usage rate compared to Kevin’s 21.9, but when you factor in Love’s passing the advantage is clear. Blake isn’t out there for his defense, and his offense needs refinement.

Kevin Love, however, has become a great shooter. His free throw percentage is higher than Dirk’s (87.8 to 87.2) although Dirk gets to the line more often. But Love’s three-point numbers are even better. He’s at 44.4% for the year with 3.1 attempts versus Dirk’s 38.9% and 2.6 attempts a game. But those numbers are a bit fluky, and I’d expect some regression to the mean where the two are more evenly comparable. But Dirk doesn’t live by the three. He sets up near the free-throw line, and drains in mid-range shots with high accuracy and gets to the rim where for his career he’s probably the best seven-footer ever. Actually, he is the best seven-foot shooter ever. No candidates are close. This is where Dirk has a huge advantage. He’s a much larger part of the Mav’s offense, and he’s extremely efficient. He has better percentages and a much lower turnover rate (10.0 to 8.7.)

But the caveat is that Dirk has missed a few games. You can’t be valuable without being on the court. The Mavs have struggled without him, but some argue that you can’t derive value out of a player missing time. However, it drives home a major point — the Mavs are a great team because of Dirk, and the T’Wolves are terrible even though Kevin Love is out there every game playing large minutes. I think the “good stats on a bad team” argument for excluding players like him is shortsighted, but with the right information you can figure out which guy is a star on a terrible team and which guy is throwing up huge stats but keeping his team from success. In Love’s case, his rebounding is overblown and his defense is poor. He’s playing next a guy who can’t rebound in Milicic, the home-town stat recorder is giving him dubious rebounds, he can be seen in highlights stealing the rebound away from his own teammates, and his rate isn’t even that spectacular. (Camby is tied with him, and Reggie Evans was putting up a historic rebound rate of 26.3 to Love’s 23.5 before he got injured.) Love’s adjusted 2 year plus/minus is underwhelming too at +0.72. Dirk? +10.15. Since both standard error’s are around 3.5, I’d say it’s very likely adjusted plus/minus shows Dirk is the best player. (I used two-year plus/minus because one year has such a large error.)

What makes Dirk a great player is the notes he doesn’t play — he doesn’t turn the ball over (ever), he doesn’t miss free throws, he doesn’t make bad defensive plays, he doesn’t get in foul trouble, and he doesn’t miss shots even when contested. He also doesn’t miss games, and that’s where the recent stretch of absences can be partially excused. It was an aberration. He hadn’t missed more than 6 games in nearly a decade until this year. And this year it’s only 9. He’s amazingly consistent, and will likely end up north of 30,000 career points. Dirk is the pick because his value on the court is MVP-worthy.

Pick: Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas Mavericks). Next in line: Kevin Love.

So it’s:

Chris Paul

Kobe Bryant

Kevin Durant

Dirk Nowitzki

Pau Gasol

versus

Derrick Rose

Dwyane Wade

Lebron James

Amare Stoudemire

Dwight Howard

Not bad. The point of this is to pick the best starting line-ups for each conference. You want the team to be impressive and seemingly unbeatable. Unfortunately, in the real world Anthony is starting and Yao could be replaced by an idiotic pick like Mo Williams was a couple years ago. Let’s hope someone deserving like Pau gets it instead of a quote unquote real center like Chandler or Kaman last year.

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