The writers at numberFire took a look at some advanced metrics at the halfway point of the NBA season and came up with a list of players deserving of a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. The results may surprise you.—Ed.
by Russell Peddle / @rustypedalbike
The NBA’s halfway point is upon us, and naturally everyone who cares about hoops is debating who deserves the major awards and who belongs on the All-Star teams. After we reached the first quarter mark of the 2013-14 season, I weighed in on who I thought deserved the NBA’s honors and dishonors. For the second installment of my quarterly report, I’ll be changing the format a little bit. My opinions on the awards haven’t changed too significantly yet, so I’ll come back to those as we get closer to the end of the season. For now, I’ll give you some East and West All-Star teams, with a twist on the traditional selection criteria.
The concept of what exactly constitutes an NBA All-Star is heavily debated and rarely resolved. Every year, we discuss at length who should get in, why they should, and if it actually means anything. Once the teams are selected, the debate continues as we discuss who didn’t deserve the selection, who got snubbed, and who will play with a chip on his shoulder the rest of the season because of his being omitted.
Considering the level of disagreement, one can’t help but ask: Is the system broken and do we need to fix it?
The Current Selection Process
The starters are selected by the fans, the bench is voted on by the coaches and injury replacements are chosen by the Commish. The fans don’t always make what diehards consider to be the “right” selection on the starters, as popularity often trumps performance in any particular season.
Look no further than early returns on this season’s projected starters, where Kobe Bryant is a starting guard for the West despite playing in only six games and averaging 13.8 points over that span. And don’t even get me started on Jeremy Lin being the fourth-leading vote getter among Western guards over James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker and Damian Lillard. Just don’t.
On the other hand, All-Star Weekend is all about the fans and giving them what they want. Not to mention, the voting process is a big part of the advertising schemes of the league and individual teams and is not likely to go anywhere. Alright, so there’s no chance of improving the selection process that way. What about the coaches’ selections?
When NBA writers and fans debate who the coaches should pick beyond the starters, a variety of factors come into play. Should the top teams be represented? Is a player still an All-Star if he’s putting up gaudy numbers on a mediocre team? Are long-time stars and surefire Hall of Famers worth giving a spot just because they’ve earned it many times before, even if their play in the current season doesn’t necessarily make them deserving of the honor? Should All-Star selections affect how we perceive a player’s legacy? If so, why do we still use a system that has made the likes of Anthony Mason and Jamaal Magloire All-Stars?
A Proposed Change
As advanced metrics become more and more prevalent in professional sports, is it completely farfetched to think that someday we’ll be able to choose an algorithm that makes these decisions for us? If only a stat existed that took out the human bias and opinion. A stat that measured the raw efficiency and production of a player and rewarded those who played at a high level and maintained that efficiency. One that measured offense and defense and was able to sift out the stories and biases and give us a list of players who were simply playing at an elite level, contributing wins to their team regardless of how good their teammates were, and were truly deserving of the recognition.
Oh wait, we have one of those!
Our nERD metric combines a player’s offensive rating, defensive rating, usage rate, and time on the floor, mixes them all up in a pot with a few extra figures and spices and spits out a number that represents a player’s total contribution to his team. The idea is that a player’s nERD represents roughly how many games above .500 a league-average team would win with the player as one of their starters. For example, LeBron James currently has a nERD of 20.1. That means if you put King James on an average team, it would finish the season roughly 20 games over .500, so 51-31 (an eerie example of this, when you consider how average James’ old Cavs teams were other than him: the 2005-06 Cavs finished 18 games over .500 and James had a nERD of 18.4).
Letting a formula choose an All-Star team would probably ruffle a few feathers, especially with the old guard of NBA legends, media types, and basically anyone who is freaked out by advanced metrics (who incidentally also tend to fear the idea of computers eventually developing independent thought and enslaving the human race in some kind of post-apocalyptic hell on Earth, where we serve as entertainment for our robot overlords…but I digress).
It might not be a popular take, but using an algorithm to decide such honors is not without its advantages. A standard formula would legitimize selections as part of a player’s legacy and would be harder to argue with than a series of human subjectivity. If someone wanted to say, “Hey, why didn’t Player X make it?”, there would actually be a quantifiable answer to refer to. I guess Player X will just have to play better next year to deserve it!
To test this out, I set the teams as needing the following positions (I’ll keep some traditions): two starting guards, three starting frontcourt players, two reserve guards, three reserve frontcourt players and two wild cards. Essentially, two full lineups and two extra players to fill out the roster. This is basically in line with the way fans currently select a starting lineup, then coaches vote for a full reserve lineup and two extra players at any position.
The teams were then picked by going down our NBA Player Rankings and slotting in the players with the best nERDs until all the spots were filled. The results were interesting and arguably fair, albeit a little controversial. I’ll briefly break down the selections, why each player deserves to be there, and some noteworthy snubs (players that will probably have a chance at being actual All-Stars, but simply didn’t have a high enough nERD to make it on our teams). Today I’ll be starting with the Eastern Conference and I’ll be back with the Western Conference selections tomorrow.
Eastern Conference nERD-Stars
Starting Guard: Kyle Lowry (nERD 12.3)
The Raptors have emerged as one of the best teams in the Association over the last month and a half, and Lowry is a big reason why. He has elevated his play since the Rudy Gay trade, putting up averages of 18.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks, 2.8 three-pointers and only 2.1 turnovers per game over that 22-game stretch, while shooting .460 from the field, .439 from downtown, and .819 from the line.
There seems to be some debate about whether or not Lowry has earned an All-Star spot, but those numbers pretty much seal it. The only other point guard in the NBA putting up numbers like that plays is in Golden State (we’ll get to him tomorrow) and he’s considered a shoe in. Lowry has climbed to sixth on our NBA Player Rankings and is an unquestioned All-Star (and deserving starter) as far as our metrics are concerned.
Starting Guard #2: Lance Stephenson (nERD 7.9)
Sir Lancelot, like Lowry, is a player that the general public hasn’t unequivocally named as an All-Star yet. Like Lowry, our numbers say phooey! Stephenson fills up the stat sheet on a nightly basis, averaging 13.9 points, 6.8 rebounds (exceptional for a 6’5” guard), 5.2 assists, 0.7 steals and 1.1 three-pointers per game, combined with a smooth true shooting percentage of .565. Most importantly, he’s one of the key cogs in Indiana’s league-leading defense, slotted in as seventh in the NBA in defensive rating (97.4) and sixth in defensive win shares (2.8). For what it’s worth, he also leads the NBA in triple-doubles with three. The Pacers are currently the best team in the NBA with a record of 33-7 and not one of their starting five would look completely out of place on an Eastern All-Star team this year.
Starting Big 1: LeBron James (nERD 20.7)
The four-time MVP and two-time champion will be on any All-Star team chosen by fans, coaches, writers, metrics, or extraterrestrial beings seeing basketball for the first time. There’s not much need to sell this pick, but it’s worth noting that LeBron’s current .580/.372/.761 split of shooting from the field, long-range, and the stripe has never been accomplished by anyone taking enough attempts to qualify.
As if that wasn’t impressive enough, he’s averaging 26.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks and 1.3 threes per game to boot. He’s currently second in the NBA in scoring, second in player efficiency rating (28.9), first in true shooting percentage (.661), fourth in effective field goal percentage (.620), fifth in offensive rating (121.9), second in offensive win shares (6.9) and second in total win shares (8.6). Yeah, he’s pretty good.
Starting Big 2: Paul George (nERD 17.3)
George won last year’s Most Improved Player honors for making the jump from good to great and this year he has surprised many by making the leap from great to elite. Apart from being once again considered for the same award, he’s now coming up in the majority of MVP conversations, right alongside the NBA’s two best players (LBJ and a lanky Thunder player to be named later).
George has officially arrived as a superstar, putting up averages of 23.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.3 blocks and 2.6 threes per game on the season. He’s eighth in the league in scoring, seventh in steals per game, 10th in player efficiency rating (22.6) and fourth in total win shares (7.4). Like Stephenson, George contributes to the stingy Pacer defense, coming in as third in the league in defensive rating (93.7) and first in defensive win shares (3.6). George is a no-brainer as an All-Star and will be for years to come.
Starting Big 3: Joakim Noah (nERD 9.0)
“All hustle and no quit” are the five best words you’ll possibly ever find to describe Joakim Noah. With Derrick Rose done for the season and Luol Deng recently traded to the Cavs, there’s no doubt that the Bulls are Noah’s team to carry.
He has made it clear that he does not consider this a lost season and that he refuses to let his team tank for a lottery pick. With Noah dragging them along, the Bulls have surprised everyone by going 8-2 in January, fueled largely by Noah’s 14.9 points, 14.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.9 blocks per game over those 10 contests. His 11.2 rebounds per game on the season have him at seventh in the NBA, while he’s fourth in both defensive rating (95.2) and defensive win shares (3.0). All-Star games are typically about showcasing offensive talent, generally with about half the effort of a normal game. Noah is a fun participant to have, as someone who can display talent at both ends of the floor and is incapable of giving less than 100 percent on both ends, regardless of the format.
Reserve Guard 1: George Hill (nERD 6.9)
Hill is perhaps the first controversial member of this team, as his averages of 10.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks and 1.5 threes don’t scream All-Star by any means. His ranking is so high because he’s relatively efficient as a shooter (.554 true shooting percentage), but he gets his biggest boost from being yet another member of the stellar defense of the Indiana Pacers. Typical All-Star selection doesn’t really favor defensive specialists, but nERD-Star selection certainly does. Hill is tenth in the league in defensive rating (97.9) and thirteenth in defensive win shares (2.3). If anything, this selection doesn’t really discount the use of the nERD metric as much as it simply highlights how shallow the pool of talented East guards is.
Reserve Guard 2: John Wall (nERD 4.1)
Grabbing Wall for this list required reaching down the Rankingsa little, below many snubs from the West and even the East, but he is literally the fourth-best rated Eastern guard. Being ranked No. 36 on our list doesn’t make him undeserving as an All-Star, however, as he is having a breakout campaign and will probably get an invite to New Orleans when all is said and done.
Wall’s averaging a career high in points (20.0), assists (8.5) and steals (1.9) per game this season, while chipping in 4.2 rebounds and 0.4 blocks. Perhaps most impressively, this is the year that Wall has added a three-point shot to his arsenal. He’s made 47 three-pointers so far this season, shooting .326 from deep, compared to 49 made at a rate of .243 in his three previous seasons combined. He’s fourth in the league in assists per game, fourth in steals and 17th in points and deserves an All-Star spot, regardless of how he’s chosen.
Reserve Big 1: Andre Drummond (nERD 7.8)
Another surprising addition to the team. There’s likely no chance that Drummond makes the real team, because his Pistons are an incredibly mediocre 17-24 and he’s still only in his second year. He is definitely having an excellent season, though, as evidenced by solid averages of 12.7 points, 12.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.8 blocks per game, to go along with .605 shooting from the field.
He’s third in the league in field goal percentage, third in rebounds per game, seventh in blocks, sixth in effective field goal percentage (.605), first in offensive rebound percentage (16.4), first in total rebound percentage (21.6), ninth in block percentage (4.5) and 18th in player efficient rating (21.4). He is often criticized for his career .381 free-throw percentage (as he should be), but the future is very bright for this 20-year-old and he’s certainly arriving ahead of schedule. He will be overlooked in the real selection, but it will be hard not to see him as a snub with the season he’s having.
Reserve Big 2: Roy Hibbert (nERD 7.8)
Hibbert represents the fourth and final Pacer on the Eastern nERD-Star roster. The argument about how the best NBA teams should have the most All-Stars is not taken for granted when using our metrics to pick the All-Star teams, as one-third of our Eastern squad being made up of Pacers should prove. Hibbert is a very deserving candidate, as he is the early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year. Hibbert is averaging 12.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.5 steals and 2.6 blocks per game this season. He’s currently second in the league in blocks per game, third in block percentage (6.4), first in defensive rating (92.8) and second in defensive win shares (3.1). Any way you cut it or come to the conclusion, those are All-Star numbers.
Reserve Big 3: Chris Bosh (nERD 6.8)
CB is a severely underrated star, being the third banana on the two-time NBA champion Miami Heat. He plays his role masterfully and puts up understated numbers that are worthy of an All-Star selection in the process. His averages of 16.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.0 blocks and 0.7 threes don’t exactly jump off the page, but his efficiency surely does. He ranks twelfth in the league in true shooting percentage (.601) and sixteenth in effective field goal percentage (.558). He might not be the center of attention that he was in his days in Toronto, but he’s no less an All-Star because of it.
Wild Card 1: Carmelo Anthony (nERD 5.6)
Melo is an offensive guru who has been getting voted into the All-Star starting lineup for years, but has slipped out of ours due to his relatively inefficient shooting (at a high volume) and defensive deficiencies. He’s averaging 26.1 points, a career-high 9.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.7 blocks and 1.7 three-pointers per game this season, which are numbers that are more than worthy of a spot.
What drops him to the end of our bench is the low .478 effective field goal percentage and a disgusting 108.0 defensive rating. It doesn’t help that his Knicks have plummeted this season, currently sitting at 15-26, tied for 10th in the weak Eastern Conference. Melo will be on the real All-Star team and put on display for his offensive prowess, but he won’t get many minutes on our squad if he’s just going to be chucking up shots and letting people blow past him.
Wild Card 2: Anderson Varejao (nERD 5.5)
Varejao might stand out as an odd addition to the team, but let’s not forget that he had some All-Star buzz last year before losing his season to injuries. Sideshow Andy was having a quiet season this year, but since Andrew Bynum stopped suiting up for the Cavs in late December, Varejao has been up to his old tricks. He has averaged 10.6 points, 14.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.9 blocks per game over his last 13 contests, resembling the player we were all so enamoured with last year. He won’t be in the running for the actual All-Star team, but he’s been healthy all season (he has yet to miss a game) and I have no problem with him making this team to make up for the one he likely would’ve made last year if he had stayed healthy.
Notable Snubs:David West (nERD 5.4), Brook Lopez (nERD 5.3), Al Horford (nERD 4.4), Paul Millsap(nERD 4.3), Luol Deng (nERD 4.1), Dwyane Wade (nERD 3.9), Arron Afflalo (nERD 3.1),DeMar DeRozan (nERD 2.2), Kyrie Irving (nERD 0.9).
This list of snubs contains some guys that are very likely to make the real team (Wade, Irving), some who have a decent chance to (Millsap, Deng, Afflalo, DeRozan), some who would’ve if they hadn’t lost their season to injury (Lopez, Horford) and one guy who probably won’t because, come on, the whole team can’t be made up of Pacers (West).
Wade and Irving’s omission would likely stir up the most controversy, but Wade has missed close to 30 percent of his team’s games this season and Irving is having an inefficient shooting year (.475 effective field goal percentage) and is a minus-defender (defensive rating of 109). In reality, the two would make sense over guys like Hill, Drummond and Varejao, but I don’t think they should keep spots from Lowry, Stephenson, and Wall. Millsap is another guy that is deserving of a spot, but simply doesn’t make the cut in our cold hard numbers approach.