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January 25, 2010
Making the Picks
All-Star Reserves

by Kevin Pelton

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I am annually torn on how much interest to take in selections to the NBA All-Star Game. For the most part, the hysteria about snubs is ephemeral. When was the last time you considered Mo Williams' All-Star plight from just 12 months ago? At the same time, there's a counter-argument. If journalism is, as the cliché goes, the first draft of history, then so too are All-Star selections. Years from now, basketball fans won't get any of the context around Allen Iverson being voted a starter for the Eastern Conference the past two seasons. They will know only that Iverson was an 11-time All-Star, and that matters when it comes to establishing someone's legacy.

That should not be taken to mean I'm against fan voting. Usually, it works just fine, and ultimately the All-Star Game is a showcase for the fans. It does seem like it might be time for some tweaks to ensure that balloting really does reflect fan sentiment. I like the suggestion from Art Garcia of NBA.com to weight votes differently depending on whether they are cast by paper ballot, online, or via text. I'm also for the suggestions to revise the traditional guard/forward/center ballot division, preferring John Hollinger's method (point guards, wings and bigs) to the perimeter/post breakdown suggested by FanHouse's Bethlehem Shoals.

For now, let's focus on the seven reserves, who will be selected by each conference's coaches this week and announced on Thursday. Using a combination of advanced statistics, observation and past performance, here are my picks.

Eastern Conference

Guards - Rajon Rondo, Boston; Andre Iguodala, Philadelphia

Ultimately, I don't think Iverson's selection altered the East roster as much as Tracy McGrady's might have thrown things off in the West. One of the most striking things as I went through making my picks for All-Star reserves, which will be announced on Thursday, was the disparity at guard between the two conferences. 14 guards have rated as worth at least four Wins Above Replacement Player this season. Just four of them play in the East. With Devin Harris, Jameer Nelson and Derrick Rose all struggling due to injury, the East's second-best point guard by WARP has been Gilbert Arenas, believe it or not, followed by Williams (the subject of no All-Star groundswell even before his shoulder injury) and Charlotte's Raymond Felton.

Rondo seems like an easy selection for his first All-Star appearance. Only Steve Nash and Chris Paul are handing out more assists per possession, and Rondo is shooting an incredible 56.3 percent on two-point attempts. Add in that he's arguably the best defensive point guard in the league and Rondo is far and away the top player at his position in the East. The other spot is open to more debate. Joe Johnson is the likely choice, given that he has been a fixture in the game and the Hawks have become a contender in the East. However, his only real advantage over the versatile Iguodala is his ability to create plays. Iguodala may be more of a No. 2 option on offense, but it is his play at both ends of the floor that makes him a star, as I wrote about last spring.

Forwards - Josh Smith, Atlanta; Chris Bosh, Toronto

The biggest key to what the Hawks have done this season has been Smith maturing into a star. The potential has always been there, but Smith's inconsistency limited him, especially in 2008-09. By taking the three out of his game, making better decisions and improving his defensive focus, Smith has reached the next level and the All-Star Game. Bosh is pretty much a given by this point, barring injury, but his outstanding play this season has been overshadowed. At 9.5 WARP, Bosh is fifth in the league. He's posting career highs in both True Shooting Percentage (.602) and usage rate (.285) as well as rebound percentage (18.0 percent).

Center - Al Horford, Atlanta

To me, this is the most interesting choice for the coaches. There are no fewer than six Eastern Conference centers who have posted between 5.0 and 7.1 WARP, and I think an argument could be made for any of them. Here's how they compare statistically.

Player              Tm   Win%  WARP    TS%    Usg   Reb%   Pass   SB%
---------------------------------------------------------------------
Brook Lopez        NJN   .636   7.1   .572   .241   15.2   0.17   5.2
David Lee          NYK   .625   6.8   .593   .230   17.7   0.61   2.0
Al Horford         ATL   .615   6.0   .617   .168   16.6   0.32   4.0
Joakim Noah        CHI   .609   5.5   .548   .167   20.2   0.24   4.9
Andrew Bogut       MIL   .622   5.1   .529   .228   18.2   0.21   6.1
Ben Wallace        DET   .603   5.0   .508   .093   19.0   0.33   5.2

Lee and Horford are the most likely to actually earn a spot in the All-Star Game, while Lopez is unlikely to even get a mention given his team's 3-40 record. It's hard to pin that on Lopez, however. The remainder of his teammates have combined for 3.5 Wins below Replacement Level. Lopez has developed into a dangerous post player whose usage rate is fourth among centers while remaining an efficient option. His block rate is also second among this group after Andrew Bogut.

Still, my pick is Horford because of his individual defense. While opposing centers have scored at an above-average rate against both Lopez and Lee, our defensive numbers show them performing a whopping 13.7 worse than normal against Horford, whose block rate is lower in part because he is staying at home defensively and keeping his own man off the glass. Horford has also become a high-percentage scorer and a surprisingly good distributor for the Hawks this season, posting a net plus-minus of +14.4 points per 100 possessions. That's enough to earn him the slight nod.

Utility - Gerald Wallace, Charlotte; Brook Lopez, New Jersey

Wallace's career year should make him the first Bobcats player ever to play in the All-Star Game. In addition to his improvement on the glass, Wallace is also one of 11 regulars in the league with block and steal rates above 2.0 percent. And he scores at an efficient 57.9 percent True Shooting Percentage thanks in large part to getting to the free throw line on 18 percent of his possessions.

The last spot is more challenging. The East is much deeper inside than on the perimeter, and Johnson has a pretty credible claim to a place on the roster given he has been the fourth-best guard in the East. Paul Pierce has the strongest career resume of the contenders, though his WARP total is limited slightly by the time he missed with a knee injury. Both players will probably make it, and it's hard to complain about that. In terms of performance this year, however, one of the centers should fill out the roster, and I would favor Lopez over Lee in what is essentially a coin flip.

Western Conference

Guards - Chris Paul, New Orleans; Brandon Roy, Portland

Other than Jeff Bower and Nate McMillan, who cannot vote for their own players, there really is no excuse for any Western Conference coach not to write down these two players and move on. Paul and Roy are both no-brainers.

Forwards - Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City; Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas

There's not a lot of question about these two spots either. Durant continues to develop into as dangerous a scorer as there is in the league. Thanks to an improved free throw rate, Durant has pushed his True Shooting Percentage to nearly 60 percent. Only one player in the NBA using such a heavy load of his team's possessions has a higher TS%, that being LeBron James. Durant has also stepped up his game at the defensive end of the court this season, as Chris Ballard recently detailed in Sports Illustrated. Nowitzki, almost certainly the lone representative for the host team, is another sure thing.

Center - Pau Gasol, L.A. Lakers

And now things get more difficult. Chris Kaman is a popular pick here, but I'm not seeing it. While he has had a bounceback season, Kaman has produced only 3.0 WARP. His .541 True Shooting Percentage is only average, and Kaman hasn't been especially impressive on the glass or as a shot-blocker. Now, a lot of that is because Kaman shares the floor with Marcus Camby, but an All-Star shouldn't be overshadowed by his team's other starter in the frontcourt. Instead, I see three legitimate candidates.

Player              Tm   Win%  WARP    TS%    Usg   Reb%   Pass   SB%
---------------------------------------------------------------------
Marc Gasol         MEM   .621   6.3   .639   .170   16.0   0.21   4.7
Nene               DEN   .616   6.1   .590   .164   14.0   0.38   4.5
Pau Gasol          LAL   .695   5.5   .611   .196   16.6   0.73   4.1

If healthy, Pau Gasol would be the obvious choice, but his brother and Nenę have both contributed more value this season because of Pau's injuries. Ultimately, my belief that the All-Star Game should not strictly be about first-half performance pushes me to Pau. He's played extremely well when he has been on the court this season and made a major impact for the conference's best team. Basically, the way I think about the question is like this--if Gasol stays healthy the rest of the season, would it look silly for him to not have made the All-Star team because his injuries happened to occur in the first half of the campaign and not the second half? I think so, and that's why Pau is my pick.

Utility - Deron Williams, Utah; Zach Randolph, Memphis

Look, Williams has been an All-Star the last two seasons, when he's totaled 25.6 WARP. His presence in a conference loaded with elite point guards shouldn't take anything away from Williams, who is long overdue to actually play in the game. This year, which just happens to be played in his hometown of Dallas, should be Williams' chance. Chauncey Billups has missed time due to injuries, while Tony Parker has had a disappointing season by his standards.

As for the 12th spot, I think Randolph has earned it. He has demonstrated the ability to contribute to an above-.500 team, addressing many of the criticisms leveled at him over the years. Randolph has been a willing passer and shared the ball as part of an offense playing even better than my optimistic preseason assessment. Defensively, he is putting forward the effort and our numbers show him holding opponents slightly below their typical productivity. Randolph's individual numbers have never been the issue, but he has taken a step forward in the measurable statistics too. His 55.7 percent True Shooting Percentage and .624 per-minute winning percentages are both career highs.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton as he tries to make sense of the up-and-down Washington Huskies.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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