The NBA All-Star game on February 18th marked a showcase of the 24 best players in the league. In theory anyway. In practice (“we talkin ‘bout parctice”) the fan vote for the game’s starters usually boils down to the ten most popular players, which is why Shaq and Allen Iverson made it in seasons where they were averaging roughly 10 points. This year, fans pushed an undeserving Yao Ming into a starting spot despite his being injured for all but five games this season. Obviously, this is counterproductive and the result of a misguided, celebrity-driven idea of what an NBA “star” is.
That being said, the coaches’ vote (for the 14 reserves) can be just as problematic. It ends up being an opportunity for the coaches to, somewhat self-servingly, reward the players on the best teams. This is why Tim Duncan will receive something of a Lifetime Achievement selection this year despite his meagre 14 pts , 9 boards (compare these stats with Kevin Love’s 22-16 and Blake Griffin’s 22-13). Meanwhile, Love -the best rebounder in a decade- was snubbed, though later added by the commissioner to replace Yao.
The reason for selecting a merely passable center for the biggest showcase in basketball is the go-to watchword of Team Success. Duncan’s Spurs are the league’s best squad, winners of 46 games. The misguided logic the coaches use demands that a great team must have multiple great players who make it that way. Even the 2009 Cavaliers (aka “the Lebron show”) had a second All-Star, point guard Mo Williams. Conversely, Kevin Garnett put up 20-10 seasons for years on a mediocre Minnesota team; every season since he has been an All-Star with the Celtics despite having a reduced role and minutes. This season, those Celtics have 4 players in the All-Star game despite nobody on the roster averaging more than 20 ppg or 10 rpg. Admittedly, Pierce and Garnett are both stellar defenders, and Ray Allen is a reliable, efficient contributor to the East’s best, while Rajon Rondo’s 13 assists per game speak for themselves.
But what about Timberwolf Kevin Love’s 16 rpg? Is his ridiculous individual accomplishment irrelevant without team success? Is the futility of Love’s Wolves more of a stain on his performance than Rondo’s Shaq like free-throw ineptitude? As stated, all 4 Celtics contribute to a fantastic team. But why does that make them inherently All-Stars? Is it because coaches have waited while Pierce, Allen, and Garnett languished on bad teams, and those coaches are now jumping to reward them for quality play on a successful team? That logic is entirely circular, and only works within the same warped thinking the coachesused to not reward those great players when they were on poor teams. The fact is that almost no one player has a significant enough impact on his team to single-handedly determine the winning percentage. Those few who can are candidates
The purpose of the All-Star game should be to gather the NBA’s best and brightest, the top stars, and for one magical game let them play together. This is squandered if the Celtics, Lakers, and Spurs have nine players on the floor.
Yes, good teams clearly have top players performing especially well. But All-Star isn’t something a player should get because of team success – it’s something a player should get in spite of team success. The 2nd All-Star on a great team must prove that despite his squad playing cohesive, precise, unselfish basketball and succeeding together as a whole, he still rises head and shoulders above the rest and is a) responsible for much of the team’s winning, and b) an excellent player – a star in his own right. And there it is: the All-Star Game should have stars. Not above-average role players, stars.
Admittedly, some so-called stars are pretenders to the throne, stars only by virtue of being the only player on their team good enough to market. Some argue that it’s easier to put up bigger numbers on terrible teams, due to increased minutes and a lack of quality players competing with the star for stats. But being on a mediocre or terrible team is no guarantee of individual statistical success: 9 sub-500 teams this season have no players averaging over 20ppg (or even 15 in some cases).
Now, good teams like the Hornets and Spurs also lack a 20-point threat, and ppg is by no means the only way to judge stardom, but the point is that stats aren’t necessarily easy to pad on subpar teams. The truth is that while it is easier for a star to shine on a weak roster, a weak roster doesn’t polish up coal. A bad team is just as harmful to statistics, because those teams tend to not get as many points, rebounds, or assists as good ones – there are simply fewer numbers to go around. Furthermore, look at Detroit: this current Pistons team has half the winning percentage of the championship contenders of the mid-2000s, and the point total of the top 4 players on the earlier, winning squad are noticeably higher. So with these instances of lower statistics on weak teams, it becomes clear that both winning and losing can and do inflate or limit numbers, so unsurprisingly there’s no easy way to generalize.
Ultimately, though, an individual’s high level of play should be a cause, rather than byproduct, of their team’s record. Has Kevin Love contributed more to his team’s 13 wins than Duncan has to his team’s 46? Does the Wolves’ mediocrity hurt the legitimacy of Love’s impressive accomplishments more than the Spurs’ success validates Duncan’s moderate numbers?
Looking closer at the stats, the first All-Star snub to appear on the list of top Pts/Reb/Ast is Memphis big man Zack Randolph, whose 20-13-1 put him at #12. The All-Stars to appear last on the chart are Tim Duncan at 52 (no, that’s not his age), and Ray Allen at 64 (*see Duncan comment).
Why does Boston deserve three more All-Stars than Chicago (three games behind the Celtics)? That’s literally an additional All-Star for every game Boston is up on Chicago. However, some teams do inherently have a certain number of All-Stars just based on how the team is set up. Denver has only one (but not for long!), while the whole purpose of the Heat is to have exactly three. But this is independent of record: the WIzard are built around John Wall whether they win 50 games a season or 20 (spoiler alert: it’s going to be 20). Detroit, Houston and, yes, Boston and San Antonio all win or lose by committee.
Admittedly, being a star requires more than being better than everyone else on your team – it requires you be better than everyone else in the conference, at least at your position. Good players on moderate or mediocre squads often suffer from the same flaws that doom their whole team. Raymond Felton shoots poorly – so do his Knicks. Bragnani is bad at defense – so are the Raptors. An All-Star should clearly bring his team up, not keep them down.
But Tim Duncan?? To quote Seth Myers: really?
The fact is that the Spurs’ entire starting lineup each score more than 11 points, with their three key reserves chipping in about 8 apiece. This means there’s only about 10 points separating the top player in the rotation from the 8th player (on the Thunder, this separation is 25.5 points). The Spurs are a team predicated on just that – being a team. The reason they have 46 wins is that they are a cohesive team getting huge contributions from a variety of important players, and are succeeding in spite of, not due to, their aging franchise center. For Duncan to be put into the All-Star game in his worst and least important year is simply wrong, and counterintuitive to the ASG’s purpose.
Coaches are going to have to accept that All-Star isn’t a surreptitious way to reward teams for playing well; it’s a superficial way to reward the most exceptional, mesmerizing players (i.e. not Duncan).
Ultimately, coaches, you know what the reward is for winning? Winning. The playoffs, a championship. The All-Star game is the only opportunity for the NBA to reward and showcase lesser teams’ outstanding talents. Maybe if this actually happened often enough, the league wouldn’t have had to bail out the Hornets already, and Lebron wouldn’t be bringing up contraction. It’s time to look back to individual achievement, and put actual stars in the All-Star Game.