First-timers, old-timers and even some surprises were recipients of one of the NBA's highest honors on Thursday evening, as the 14 reserves for the 2014 All-Star Game were unveiled.
Revealed in a special edition of NBA Tip-Off on TNT, the crew of Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O'Neal announced and analyzed the selections just a week after the 10 starters were made public.
Unlike the starting lineups, which are determined by fan vote, reserves are selected through votes from head coaches in each respective conference. Coaches are not allowed to vote for their own players, so Gregg Popovich's yearly push to snub his aging Big Three (wild speculation here) continues to go unrequited. But the real reason coaches—not fans—get to vote for the reserves is to recognize players seldom on the nationally televised stage.
The Portland Trail Blazers, tied with San Antonio for the NBA's third-best record, will get to see LaMarcus Aldridge don his third straight All-Star jersey, while 2013 Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard lands his first selection. Over in the East, the other first-timers include DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors, Paul Millsap of the Atlanta Hawks and John Wall of the Washington Wizards.
Overall, it's a year of relatively high turnover—though that's as much about the injuries ravaging the NBA as it is the ascent of young players. Injuries will obviously continue playing a factor in at least the Western Conference, where it's looking increasingly likely Kobe Bryant will be absent in New Orleans. Still, let's check in on the rosters for both conferences as they stand and examine how the coaches did.
|BC||Dwyane Wade||18.7 PPG, 4.7 APG, 4.7 RPG, 21.4 PER, .578 TS%|
|BC||Kyrie Irving||21.5 PPG, 6.2 APG, 3.0 RPG, 20.28 PER, .524 TS%|
|FC||LeBron James||26.2 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 6.4 APG, 28.8 PER, .661 TS%|
|FC||Paul George||23.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.5 APG, 22.10 PER, .580 TS%|
|FC||Carmelo Anthony||27.1 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 3.1 APG, 24.96 PER, .553 TS%|
|BC||John Wall||19.8 PPG, 8.5 APG, 4.4 RPG, 19.91 PER, .521 TS%|
|BC||DeMar DeRozan||21.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.6 APG, 17.99 PER, .517 TS%|
|BC||Joe Johnson||15.7 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.8 APG, 14.98 PER, .553 TS%|
|FC||Chris Bosh||16.9 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 20.55 PER, .612 TS%|
|FC||Roy Hibbert||11.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.5 BPG, 16.52 PER, .521 TS%|
|FC||Joakim Noah||11.7 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 19.09 PER, .518 TS%|
|FC||Paul Millsap||17.8 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 20.39 PER, .550 TS%|
Where the West is loaded to the brim with young, prolific talent, selecting seven reserves in the East had to have been a bit of a chore for the Eastern coaches. Only five teams in the conference are above .500 and only two have their heads above water by more than three games (Miami and Indiana).
Coming in, there were only a few true locks. John Wall has come out from the opening tip and attempted to make good on the max contract the Wizards handed him before the season. Fully healthy after an injury-marred 2012-13 campaign, the fourth-year guard is averaging career highs in points per game (19.8) and assists (8.5) while making marked improvements in previously deficient areas.
While Wall is still far from a perfect jump-shooter—he's hitting just 19.6 percent of his shots away from the rim—he has looked to emphasize the areas where he is comfortable pulling up. He's adept at shooting off the dribble from the right elbow, giving defenders just enough pause that he can use a nice hesitation dribble and fake them to the cup. Randy Wittman is also allowing Wall some freedom from beyond the arc, but he'll still have to improve upon his 32.5-percent clip to get any real respect from defenses.
On the other end of the floor, Wall still has a propensity for gambling but is making strides as a team defender. The Wizards are 16 points per 100 possessions better with Wall on the floor this season, nearly four of which come on the defensive end. Considering he's been on the floor more than Dwyane Wade, he probably would have been in my starting lineup.
Wall was quick to tweet out his thoughts:
Hibbert, the Defensive Player of the Year by a country mile at the season's midpoint, would have been a starter under the old rules. However, the NBA's removal of the center position from ballots last season, combined with three of the four most famous small forwards in the world taking residence in the Eastern Conference, had the 7-footer waiting for Thursday.
Opponents are shooting a league-low (min. 25 games) 41.2 percent against Hibbert when he's near the rim this season on 9.7 shots per game, according to SportVU data released by the NBA and Stats Inc. Only Serge Ibaka and Robin Lopez are within the same ballpark among frequently-used bigs.
Hibbert is the anchor in the middle of Indiana's league-best defense, which allows opponents just 93.8 points per 100 possessions. The next best rate is the Chicago Bulls at 98.0, for which the Windy City can thank Taj Gibson and Eastern Conference reserve Joakim Noah.
When Rose went down, most stuck a tombstone next to Chicago's title hopes. When the front office doubled down on that assumption and traded Luol Deng to the Cavaliers, the Bulls were expected to join the bottom barrel of the Eastern Conference and contend for ping-pong balls.
Instead, Noah has helped spearhead a resurgent Bulls team that seems locked into a playoff spot at this point. He's averaging 13.6 points, 14.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists in the month of January, establishing himself as the clear alpha dog and as perhaps the best-passing big in the league. The Bulls are still a league-average team at best when they're clicking offensively, but that's good enough within Tom Thibodeau's scheme.
Also surging of late is Chris Bosh, the oft-forgotten member of Miami's Big Three. With Dwyane Wade struggling with his bothersome knee, Bosh has averaged 23.3 points on nearly 60-percent shooting over the Heat's last eight games and reminded many what he can do in a go-to role. He's also getting more comfortable taking (and making) shots from beyond the arc, which will make Miami's already well-spaced offense all the more dangerous.
The most controversial selection will undoubtedly be Joe Johnson, who sneaks in over Lance Stephenson and Kyle Lowry. Johnson's overall stat line isn't nearly as impressive as Lowry's and he's not the two-way player that Stephenson is, but Johnson's recent play during the Nets' resurgence probably played a major factor.
|BC||Stephen Curry||24.1 PPG, 9.2 APG, 4.5 RPG, 22.87 PER, .534 TS%|
|BC||Kobe Bryant||13.8 PPG, 6.3 APG, 4.3 RPG, 11.3 PER .505 TS%|
|FC||Kevin Durant||31.3 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 5.2 APG, 31.17 PER, .645 TS%|
|FC||Blake Griffin||22.9 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 3.5 APG, 22.97 PER, .585 TS%|
|FC||Kevin Love||25.0 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 4.1 APG, 26.89 PER, .583 TS%|
|BC||Chris Paul||19.6 PPG, 11.2 APG, 4.6 RPG, 27.47 PER, .578 TS%|
|BC||Damian Lillard||20.6 PPG, 5.6 APG, 3.5 RPG, 18.87 PER, .571 TS%|
|BC||Tony Parker||18.1 PPG, 6.2 APG, 2.4 RPG, 20.12 PER, .571 TS%|
|BC||James Harden||23.7 PPG, 5.5 APG, 4.9 RPG, 21.12 PER, .593 TS%|
|FC||LaMarcus Aldridge||24.3 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 2.8 APG, 23.30 PER, .518 TS%|
|FC||Dirk Nowitzki||21.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.9 APG, 23.9 PER, .589 TS%|
|FC||Dwight Howard||18.1 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 1.7 BPG, 21.12 PER, .581 TS%|
The Western Conference selections were exactly like the East—except the complete opposite. Head coaches were left with probably 15 or so talents that would have garnered serious consideration in the East and asked to pare them down by more than half. That meant players like Goran Dragic, Mike Conley and Nicolas Batum—near surefire All-Stars on the opposite coast—never really got much consideration despite their strong seasons.
There were just too many guarantees, starting with the two players most considered the biggest snubs from last week's announcement: Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Howard frankly has his own petulance to blame for his rapid decline down the NBA's popularity hierarchy. In 2009, he was the top overall vote-getter with more than three million votes. This season, after an ugly departure from Orlando, followed by an even uglier one-season stop with the Lakers, Howard barely had more than a sixth of that total.
But no matter the fans' level of frustration with Howard the person, Howard the player looks rejuvenated in Houston. His overall numbers almost eerily match his career averages, and D12 has worked to vastly improve his game midseason. He's shooting 45.1 percent on post-ups after an abhorrent start to the season, per Synergy Sports (subscription required), and he remains one of the best pick-and-roll threats in the league—even if Houston doesn't use him enough as a screener.
And while Howard is not quite at the Hibbert level of rim-protection—or even at his own Orlando peak—opponents are shooting just 47.3 percent when he's defending the rim, according to SportVU data. The Rockets overall outscore their opponents by six points per 100 possessions with Howard on the floor versus 2.4 points when he sits.
Aldridge, likewise, isn't "suddenly" ascending to new heights now that the Blazers are winning, like some would want you to believe. He's merely matching his already-lofty standards while increasing his usage rate to career highs. His 29.7-percent usage rate is nearly five percent higher than his career average, which would seem selfish if Aldridge weren't playing so well on a nightly basis.
The Blazers outscore opponents by 7.5 points per 100 possessions while Aldridge is on the floor, a championship rate that speaks to just how well-constructed their starting lineup is. But when Aldridge (and most other starters) sits, Portland craters. Its league-best offense suddenly drops to the middle of the pack, and Portland's already-shaky defense falls off a cliff. Small-market bias probably prevented Aldridge from making the mid-February classic earlier in his career, so it's nice to see him recognized three years running.
Aldridge will be joined by teammate Damian Lillard, whose propensity for late-game heroics overcomes some problems with his underlying numbers. Lillard is still a bad defender and doesn't have the assist rate you would like from a primary ball-handler (though the excellent Batum helps mitigate that somewhat), but it is just impossible to deny the star power that buoys his candidacy.
Lillard is averaging 44.7 points per 48 minutes in close games with five or fewer minutes remaining, where "close" is defined as either side being within five points. That figure jumps all the way to 54.8 points with three or fewer minutes left and an astronomical 103.8 points with a minute or less on the clock. Small samples, sure, but it's those types of shots that stick with coaches the most.
Plus, he and Stephen Curry are basically equals beyond the three-point arc. That helps.
Lillard sounded shocked about the news:
Wow... Thankful— Damian Lillard (@Dame_Lillard) January 31, 2014
Including Lillard, the Western Conference backcourt will draw some level of polarization because there were four very viable candidates. Chris Paul, the best point guard on the planet, was selected despite missing almost all of January with a shoulder injury. It's currently unclear whether he will get to play. James Harden is included in festivities despite his lackadaisical defense becoming the brunt of jokes. And Tony Parker remains wildly underappreciated.
It was a near-impossible dilemma to solve with so many deserving players, so it came down to a decision to leave out one of the frontcourt or backcourt players. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are the two players who have the most cause for frustration, but with Paul and Bryant both on the injured list, it stands to reason that everything will work itself out by the time everyone arrives in New Orleans.
Note: All data provided by NBA.com unless otherwise stated.
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