NBA Metrics 101: Biggest Snubs from 2019 All-Star Starters Voting
Picking All-Star representatives is always a fickle process.
Do you go for the entertainment factor, even if that means leaving out better players in favor of less-productive contributors capable of producing more highlights? Popularity has to matter in this midseason contest, but to what extent? How much does reputation factor into the voting? Should defense count as much as offense in a meaningless exhibition game that typically features scoreboard-shattering point tallies?
Appease us here.
Let's pretend the goal is to pick the most deserving candidates from each of the NBA's two conferences, based solely on the value they've provided during the first half of the 2018-19 season. That's nothing more than a fantasy, but we're running with it.
To objectively determine the should-be representatives, we'll turn to a composite metric called player score that's built from a number of different catch-all metrics: minutes played (to credit those who filled big roles and stayed healthy), NBA Math's total points added, box plus/minus, win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, ESPN.com's Real Plus/Minus and RPM Wins. That gives us a healthy blend of different calculations, some favoring volume and others efficiency. By finding the z-scores for every player in each category and summing those results, we can arrive at the number you'll see listed parenthetically throughout this article.
Player score is all that matters here, but remember our intention. We're looking at All-Star snubs purely from a value standpoint, intentionally eschewing the entertainment factor that is never ignored in the selection process.
Eastern Conference Backcourt
The Actual Starters: Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics (16.25); Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets (10.271)
The Should-Be Starters: Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics (16.25); Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (12.06)
Next Up With Gripes: Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee Bucks (11.566); Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors (11.007)
Snub: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (12.06)
You can reasonably pick at some serious holes in Ben Simmons' game.
His utter dearth of jump-shooting ability continues to hinder the Philadelphia 76ers' offensive efforts in the half-court set. He can get a bit too sloppy with the ball. His free-throw shooting makes him a liability in some late-game scenarios, and he might be even more confident attacking the basket if he weren't likely to be exposed at the stripe (see: Drummond, Andre a few years ago).
All of this manifests itself in some baffling on/off splits, as the Sixers barely see their net rating improve when head coach Brett Brown calls his number. But the team can also live with the hiccoughs for the time being. Simmons' defensive switchability and do-everything offense still make him an integral part of the schemes, allowing them to involve shooters, alleviate the scoring burden shouldered by Joel Embiid and keep pace with the top-tier squads in the Eastern Conference.
Despite the undeniable, indisputable fact he's only made 35 jumpers in 48 games as a primary point guard, just five of which have come from beyond 12 feet, Simmons has become an efficient scorer. Buoyed by his remarkable ability to earn unassisted dunks and his tremendous finishing around the basket (72.1 percent within three feet of the rim), he's one of just 21 qualified players to average at least 16 points per game with a true shooting percentage north of 59 percent.
That he's doing so while playing strong defense, pulling down 9.5 rebounds per game out of the backcourt and registering at No. 3 on the assist leaderboard (8.3 per contest) just makes him all the more special.
Eastern Conference Frontcourt
The Actual Starters: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (19.867); Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (13.213); Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors (12.788)
The Should-Be Starters: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (19.867); Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic (14.342); Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (13.213)
Next Up With Gripes: Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons (12.833); Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors (12.181); Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers (10.504)
Snub: Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic (14.342)
Don't make the mistake of assuming Nikola Vucevic doesn't belong in the starting conversation just because the 20-28 Orlando Magic sit outside the playoff picture in the NBA's weaker half. One man can only do so much, and this center is doing his darnedest to make sure his squad at least stays afloat this deep into the campaign.
With Vucevic off the floor, Orlando finds itself falling to foes by a whopping 10.5 points per 100 possessions. When he plays, that net rating skyrockets to 1.2, landing in the green and proving that he can anchor a competitive outfit. Should he really be penalized for operating alongside a putrid supporting cast, especially when further analysis shows that it really is his teammates dragging him down?
ESPN.com's RPM attempts to account for the quality of running mates, and it gives Vucevic the No. 13 mark in the Association. Factor in playing time, and his 6.55 RPM Wins grant him identical placement, placing him behind only the following Eastern Conference frontcourt candidates: Giannis Antetokounmpo (7.72) and...that's it. Even Joel Embiid (6.41) falls just shy, while Kawhi Leonard (5.03) trails by a substantial margin because of both a surprisingly shaky defensive score and a steady supply of "load management" days.
Even on the most basic level, Vucevic's 20.5 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.2 blocks per game should propel him into the All-Star picture. Diving deeper just validates the numbers, confirming his improved play and unadulterated dominance from the blocks rather than portraying him as an empty-stats guy who can't aid the winning cause.
Western Conference Backcourt
The Should-Be Starters: James Harden, Houston Rockets (25.464); Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (15.888)
Next Up With Gripes: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (15.047); Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans (11.753)
Actually getting the choices right in one of the roster subsections is rather difficult, but the fans, media and players combined to nail the Western Conference backcourt.
James Harden is an obvious choice, especially during a scoring binge that's seen him average 45.4 points and 7.2 assists on a 44.0/33.5/89.9 slash line during his last 10 games. He means everything to the injury-riddled Houston Rockets, should be considered the MVP front-runner at the halfway point of the season, is producing pinch-yourself-to-make-sure-you're-not-dreaming numbers and has a valid argument to be considered the best player in the NBA.
Stephen Curry's score pales in comparison to Harden's, but so does everyone else's.
He's been superior to all other members of the pack chasing down a certain guard wearing a follicular forest. Even with his missed time in November, this Davidson product is producing offensive numbers comparable to the ones earned during his unanimous-MVP efforts in 2015-16: 29.3 points and 5.6 assists per game while shooting 48.8 percent from the field, 44.8 percent from downtown and 92.7 percent from the field.
The only other reasonable choice would be Damian Lillard, who's done enough to earn a score that would trail just Kyrie Irving in the Eastern Conference backcourt. But the West is a different beast, which dooms the Rip City standout to another fight for a reserve selection—one he should claim with ease, considering the chasm between himself and the next tier of candidates that includes Jrue Holiday (11.753), Mike Conley (10.11) and Russell Westbrook (10.075)
Western Conference Frontcourt
The Should-Be Starters: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans (21.912); Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (19.605); Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (18.965)
Next Up With Gripes: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves (13.622); Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers (13.099); Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder (11.269)
Snub No. 1: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans (21.912)
Astoundingly, the Western Conference starters checked in at Nos. 4, 5 and 6 in our objective analysis. Paul George, bolstered by his two-way prowess during an inspired season for the Oklahoma City Thunder, served as the leading member of that group, with Kevin Durant not too far behind. LeBron James checked in even further back, though that's largely because he's missed a significant portion of the season recovering from a groin injury that helped prove he's not a true bionic man.
All three forwards have produced fantastic seasons. They all rank within the top dozen in player score, regardless of conference or positional affiliation. But none of them are Anthony Davis, who should've been a lock for the starting five during a season that could result in serious MVP consideration.
Perhaps Davis, whose player score trails only that of James Harden, is being penalized for the lack of success enjoyed by the New Orleans Pelicans, sitting at No. 12 in the Western Conference despite laying claim to the entire Association's No. 12 net rating. Maybe he's being dinged for the troublesome left index finger now keeping him out of the lineup.
Either way, he's done enough as an individual to merit far more respect. His 29.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 2.6 blocks per game count as historic numbers, and the two-way burden he's shouldering for the bayou-based franchise would make Atlas shrug, clearly incapable of hefting so much weight for such a prolonged period. If Davis isn't on his game as both a defensive stopper and alpha-dog scorer, the Pelicans won't stand a chance that night.
Durant, George and James are each playing at All-Star levels. This is still the most egregious snub of all.
Snub No. 2: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (19.605)
For the purposes of this article, we're not buying into the notion that players should be rewarded just because they're on good teams. But Nikola Jokic's case is a bit different; the Denver Nuggets, replete with a collection of quality contributors who won't earn much reserve consideration, are great because of him and his teammate-boosting heroics.
Jokic's efficient scoring makes him valuable enough. While shooting 50.4 percent from the field, 31.5 percent from beyond the rainbow and 84.7 percent at the stripe, the big man rains in 19.8 points per night with a steady diet of twine-tickling jumpers and finesse-driven post moves.
But his individual point production isn't what makes him most special. Not even close.
Thanks to his touch lobs to cutters, the dimes squeezed through tight lanes and the transition feeds that clearly establish him as the best quarterback in Colorado, Jokic has produced more potential assists per game than all but 16 players—the vast majority of whom are point guards. Even more impressively, his Nuggets teammates have connected on 65.9 percent of their shots off his assist-worthy passes. That's not too shabby for a collection of compatriots who have shot 46.2 percent from the field this season, and 42.5 percent on shots that wouldn't result in Jokic assists.
Jokic is an offensive wizard, and he's keying a top-five offense while still finding time to play his improved brand of positional defense.
Snub No. 3: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (18.965)
Rudy Gobert is a stellar offensive contributor in his own right. Though reliant on setup passes from his teammates, he rarely takes bad shots and thrives in pick-and-roll situations, displaying both timing and touch on his athletic dives to the rim. But even while he averages 14.9 points on a devilishly good 66.6 true shooting percentage, defense remains his primary calling card.
Only Joel Embiid is contesting more shots at the basket, which makes sense when the fourth-rated Utah Jazz defense intentionally funnels players toward the French 7-footer's painted domain. He's the lifeblood of the stopping unit, swatting shots with aplomb and actively deterring players from even daring to test his lanky arms and preternatural timing. It all adds up to a 4.77 score in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus, which, if maintained, would allow him to pace the league for the third consecutive season.
In reality, Gobert was never going to be an All-Star starter. He's not even a veritable lock to make the roster as a reserve, given the depth of talent in Western Conference frontcourts. But he should be both in a world that values defense as much as it does offense and views value as value even when not derived from scoring exploits.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @fromal09.