Sports

NBA All-Star Game snubs top contenders from competing

With the end of that big football game last week, the NBA All-Star Game is approaching quickly, and with it comes the year’s widely anticipated All-Star selections.

Amid cries that players were stiffed out of well-deserved All-Star appearances, a group of very deserving candidates ended up receiving spots in the game. There is also a group of head-scratchers that truly don’t belong. So, as the yearly debate over who got snubbed rages on, here’s my two cents.

Let’s start with the Western Conference, since it’s far easier to identify which spots should be vacated. It’s almost impossible to say someone was cheated out of a spot when trying to dissect the extremely talented West, since there is a list of about 20 players who could fill the 12 remaining spots left. The only player who does not belong on this All-Star roster, based on play this season, is Kobe Bryant, and that’s only due to an injury.

Unfortunately, Los Angeles Clippers reserve guard Chris Paul might also miss the game due to an injury, leaving two spots that might open up. Since both players are guards, the two reserves will likely be guards.

However, since there is one spot on the roster that can be either a frontcourt or backcourt player, it is possible that one guard and one frontcourt player will be added to the mix.

There are four candidates who truly deserve these last two spots. One is Memphis Grizzlies guard Michael Conley. He has played fantastically on the offensive end this season, keeping afloat a Grizzlies offense that has been stagnant over the past few years, even with the absence of center Marc Gasol. What the team has lost in Gasol’s high post-passing they have regained in Conley’s excellent season at the point.

Conley ranks near the top of the league in both Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and Offensive Win Shares, which are statistics that show how well he has played using a massive volume of the team’s possessions, taking care of the basketball, and taking — and making — good shots. While his defense this year has worsened, his notable offensive uptick has carried a flawed team, plagued by injuries and an awful start, to compete for a playoff berth in the West.

Another deserving candidate is Phoenix Suns guard Goran Dragic. The Suns are one of the NBA’s best stories this year. Despite preseason predictions that this team was tanking and playing for a draft pick, Jeff Hornacek’s stellar coaching and guard Eric Bledsoe’s development have turned this team into a legitimate playoff threat. In addition to Bledsoe, Dragic, who was known for so long as an excellent backup point guard, was having the best season of his career. Many people thought the Suns of Anarchy, as fans affectionately call them, were doomed when Bledsoe sat out for an undisclosed amount of time due to a meniscus injury.

These people were wrong. Dragic has been an unstoppable force since taking over as full-time point guard, being near the top of the league in points and assists per game, field goal percentage, PER, win shares, and win shares per 48 minutes. After his massive amount of playing time, it’s time to consider Dragic one of the best guards in the NBA. His defense is above average and very few point guards in the league are actually good defenders, so he gets points for positional scarcity.

Forget one of the two possible vacancies — Dragic easily deserved the nod above Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damien Lillard. Lillard is having an excellent season and deserves to be an All-Star, but with limited spots, Dragic’s superior offensive and defensive season should rank above Lillard’s impressive clutch shooting.

It’s splitting hairs at this point, but denying the 47 minutes of star basketball that Dragic provides the Suns in favor of the one minute of superstardom that Lillard provides the Trailblazers seems unfair. Dragic might still make the All-Star Game if Chris Paul is unable to play, but Paul is one of the top five talents in the league, and hopefully he’s back on the court sooner rather than later.

The most baffling omission was New Orleans Pelicans center Anthony Davis. Already known as a premier defensive stopper, Davis was really coming around offensively as well, even placing fifth in the league in PER up to this point, taking high efficiency shots and protecting the ball. That statistic does not even include how much Davis has improved without the ball.

He has become a top pick-and-roll big over the course of the season. Despite an injury that stole some of Davis’s season, his offensive and defensive activity has been hugely positive for the Pelicans. This success is quite a task considering that the roster is built around three players with identical skill sets. There have not been any holes in Davis’s game this year, so the problem is figuring out whose spot he deserves.

It’s likely that Davis will get Bryant’s spot, considering that he both deserves it and that the game will be played in New Orleans. The fact that a deserving New Orleans representative was denied a chance to play in this game on his home floor is probably not something the NBA will let happen upon further review.
The fourth and final omission from this All-Star team in the West is Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins. He has been an absolute beast offensively, regularly putting up 30 and 10 lines for the Kings. There are two reasons he ended up missing the cut. The first is that the frontcourt spots in the West are extremely difficult to get; there are far more deserving players than there are spots. The second is that Cousins often gets docked for perceived character issues stemming from spats with his coach and teammates as a rookie.

The truth is that Cousins’s game has been elevated to another level. He’s getting better offensively without the ball and has become unstoppable when he has possession. His defense is still subpar, but it’s no longer the massive liability it was before this year. On a team with more assets than the Kings, he could be an MVP candidate, but his season to date has been excellent. The problem with saying he should be in the All-Star Game is figuring out whose spot he should take. The six big men on the current roster and, potentially, Davis, are all having stellar seasons. Clippers’ Blake Griffin, Houston Rockets’ Dwight Howard, and Trail Blazers’ LaMarcus Aldridge are in MVP talks, and Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant is probably the MVP at this point in the season. Dallas Mavericks Dirk Nowitzki is having an excellent year and has been one of the most efficient players in the league to date, and Minnesota Timberwolves Kevin Love is probably the best all-around power forward in the game. Cousins should be in the All-Star Game — there just aren’t enough spots in the West.

The West does not have any true snubs because there are way too many deserving players to fit all of them on the roster. These four only scratched the surface, but players like San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan and Thunder forward Serge Ibaka are also worthy of consideration. The pool of players to choose from made for a tough field more than it resulted in snubs.

The Eastern Conference, on the other hand, probably stretched a bit to find enough players to be in this game. However, there are two definite snubs of players who were more than deserving of an All-Star spot, while others were seemingly chosen for no reason.

The truth is, of the 12 East All-Stars, only eight deserved their spots. The omissions of Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson and Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry show just how far the East had to reach to find big names to put in an All-Star Game.

The inclusion of Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan over fellow Raptor Lowry makes no sense. With the possible exception of Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, Lowry has been the best guard in the East. DeRozan was supposed to be a big piece of the Raptors before the season, but Lowry’s amazing year has put him at the center of the team’s astonishing turnaround, ascending from a cellar dweller last year to a division leader this year. Part of their record has to do with the Atlantic Division, but the Raptors are actually playing good basketball. DeRozan has been relatively inefficient this year, taking tons of bad shots, while Lowry has kept everyone in the offense humming. He has been generally excellent as a playmaker, in addition to being a good shooter. Lowry is having a better year than Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving by a long shot. Irving is having a subpar year by anyone’s standards — let alone the All-Star team’s — but he is still having a much better season than Brooklyn Nets forward Joe Johnson. Lowry probably deserved to be a starter.

Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson was also snubbed. His improvement has catapulted the Pacers from being the third team in the East to comfortably leading the conference. Last year he was a complementary player, but this year he is the best backcourt player in one of the best backcourts in the league. His defense has been suffocating, and he completely eliminates whoever he is guarding. His offense has been okay — it’s been very efficient thus far, but not spectacular. However, Stephenson deserved a All-Star spot in the East, and should not have been denied it because Irving’s name is more recognized (despite his huge regression) or because Nets’ Joe Johnson hit two buzzer beaters despite having a generally bad season.

The Eastern Conference All-Star team, which should have 10 deserving players, only has eight while the Western Conference All-Stars spill over the roster limit. This game will probably not be a classic, but the difference in talent between the East and West might be on full display. The exhibition nature of the All-Star Game means it usually ends up as a highlight contest, so the honor of being named an All-Star matters more than the game. This year, being named an Eastern Conference All-Star might be even less important.