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Impact Percentage: A New NBA Fingerprint

No two teams in the NBA are alike when it comes to the mixture of player tendencies, lineup combinations and styles of play. One metric that tells a story of player involvement (and furthermore, can serve as a team’s fingerprint) is usage percentage. This estimates the portion of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor. In other words, it shows us how often a player ends his team’s possessions. Players like Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, and DeMar DeRozan currently lead the league in usage percentage.

Using our revolutionary STATS SportVU data, we have recently developed an improvement upon traditional usage percentage. Now, not only can we tell how frequently a player terminates a possession (with a FGA, FTA, or Turnover), but we can also quantify how often they impact a possession (with a drive, a ball screen, an isolation or a post up). We’ve appropriately named this value impact percentage.

Why is this valuable? Consider players like Goran Dragic and Mike Conley, who rank 38th and 49th, respectively, in usage. Although a glance at these numbers might persuade one to think that these two aren’t chief possession-influencers, they are both among the top 10 in the league in impact percentage.

This new statistic was mentioned in ESPN the Magazine’s newest analytics issue, which hit the stands on March 17. Today, we are going to use it to analyze Monday’s matchup between Oklahoma City and Golden State.

As mentioned earlier, Russell Westbrook leads the NBA in usage percentage – but he also sits at the top of the leaderboard in impact percentage. When you look at OKC exclusively, no one comes close to the amount of impact that Westbrook has on their possessions.

ImpactPercentage

Usage plays a part here, but when you break down OKC’s SportVU plays – drives, isolations, post ups, and ball screens – it’s evident that these are where the bulk of Westbrook’s impact lies. Westbrook accounts for over 51 impactful plays per game on average. The next closest Thunder player is Victor Oladipo at 16.

ImpactPlays_OKC

Let’s talk about variability. In statistics, standard deviation measures how spread out a distribution is. A low standard deviation tells us that most of the numbers in a sample are close to the sample’s average – in other words, there isn’t much spread. A high standard deviation tells us that the numbers are more scattered. Unsurprisingly, due to Westbrook’s outlandish numbers, OKC has a very high standard deviation when considering impact percentage.

The Thunder’s standard deviation comes to a whopping 15 percent. In comparison, Golden State, before Kevin Durant’s MCL sprain on February 28th, had a standard deviation of 8 percent.

ImpactPercentage_standard-deviation

The biggest and most obvious takeaway here is that these are two completely diverse teams when it comes to how the ball is facilitated, and further, who the offense revolves around. Yet, a deeper dive into the Warriors’ Impact numbers reveals that they’ve had to adjust their strategy in KD’s recent absence.

ImpactPercentage_KD-Table

Steph Curry’s impact percentage has increased from an already team-leading 49 percent to an even higher 55 percent while Klay Thompson’s has shot from 31 to 37. This is all expected. What’s more compelling, though, is how a guy like Ian Clark is doing exponentially more with his limited minutes.

In his first eight games* since Durant’s injury, Clark has nearly doubled his ball screen usage (2.6 to 4.8 per game) and increased his drives (1.2 to 1.9 per game). On top of that, his minutes slightly decreased – even with him playing 34 minutes March 11 against the Spurs as Steve Kerr rested all his stars.

It’s important to mention that impact percentage is not necessarily a reflection of efficiency. Just because a player is influencing his on-court possessions doesn’t mean that he’s influencing them positively. It’s no secret that the Warriors are struggling to fill Durant’s shoes, especially when it comes to productivity – but it does appear as if guys are at least stepping up to the challenge and getting involved.

With all of this in mind, it’ll be interesting to see how OKC handles a Golden State team that finally seems to be adjusting to Durant’s absence.

*all numbers are as of 3/17/17

Photo By: AP Photo/Alonzo Adams
Illustration By: STATS/Andrew Skweres

Kingdom of Kevin: Why Durant is the NBA’s first-half MVP

If it seems like a basketball lifetime ago that Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden all shared the same hardwood, that’s because it was.

It’ll be five years this June since one of the most talented Big 3s we’ve ever seen disbanded before the NBA would truly grasp the potential that Oklahoma City trio had, none having reached his 24th birthday prior to getting the little brother treatment from LeBron James and friends in the 2012 Finals. Harden was shipped to Houston before the following season began, and after four years of not quite getting over the hump together, the Durant/Westbrook duo broke up with the former’s decision to bolt for the Bay Area.

Each finally has a franchise to pilot on his own, and in the case of Westbrook and Harden, that’s being taken quite literally. Jilted at the altar by Durant, Westbrook has channeled his manic on-court energy into a one-man show the league has rarely seen. His 41.1 usage rate is the highest since the league started keeping track in 1997-98 – Michael Jordan’s swan song from relevant hoopdom (sorry, Wizards). The season Kobe averaged 35 for a mediocre Lakers team? The era of Iverson’s “practice” rant? Both positively passive compared to what Russ is doing.

Harden is just three spots behind, using 34.3 percent of the Rockets’ possessions while leading the league in minutes. As he continues to rack up assists in his new role as Houston’s point guard, Harden has touched the ball 5,730 times this season. Only Westbrook (5,504) is within 1,000.

Either has a perfectly good case as the league’s MVP. Westbrook has kept the Thunder firmly in the Western Conference playoff picture by himself. He’s averaging a triple-double. He’s pulling down basically the same number of rebounds per night as DeMarcus Cousins while carrying a team that scores 106.6 points per 100 possession with him on the court and just 97.2 – think last season’s 10-72 Sixers level – when he’s on the bench.

Prior to New Year’s Eve, no player in NBA history had recorded a 50-point triple-double. Before the end of January, Harden had done it twice. Until 2016-17, there had been five seasons in NBA history where a player had averaged double figures in both assists and free-throw attempts – all by Oscar Robertson in the 60s. Westbrook and Harden are on pace to give the Big O company for the first time in a half century.

And neither should be the NBA’s midseason MVP.

Durant left a good situation in Oklahoma City for a historically great one in Golden State, and while there’s not going to be a follow-up 73-win season for the Warriors, make no mistake – this is a better team than the regular-season juggernaut of 2015-16. They’ve been 12.6 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions, a full point above last year’s 9-loss squad and 3.6 ahead of the league’s next-best team (San Antonio) this season. For as incredible as Golden State was last season, the Spurs had a better point differential.

It wouldn’t have taken a fortune teller to figure out that Durant would score less for the Dubs than he did with the Thunder, but he’s still leading Golden State by averaging 25.8 points – just 2.4 fewer than he did last season on 2.2 fewer shots. Durant is producing 1.52 points per field-goal attempt, second best in the league other than the DeAndre Jordan/Rudy Gobert/Dwight Howard troika which rarely takes a shot outside the restricted area.

Who’s the only one ahead of Durant? That would be Harden (1.55), but the Rockets’ star is getting there with a 52.5 effective field-goal percentage. Durant’s at 59.5. His true shooting percentage of 65.2 is the best of his career, better than any non-big other than the Wizards’ Otto Porter.

Durant’s shooting 37.4 percent from 3-point range, which while far from a bad number is his lowest since 2010-11. But consider what he’s doing from inside the arc. As NBA.com’s John Schumann points out, he’s finishing at an elite level both inside the paint and from mid range.

Schumann_graphic

What Durant has done when he drives to the basket separates him from any MVP candidate, LeBron James included. Seventy-five players in the league have driven toward the hoop at least 200 times. The only player scoring more than one point per drive is Durant, and he’s nearly a full quarter of a point (1.14) ahead of No. 2 Tobias Harris. Last season, no one was higher than 0.88 per drive – Durant himself.

Perhaps an even better measure is team points per drive, which takes into account more than just the individual’s finishes. Durant’s head and shoulders above the rest of the league here, too, with a top eight that’s basically a who’s who of NBA megastars.

Drives Team Points Per Drive
1. Kevin Durant (GSW)
235
1.55
2. Chris Paul (LAC) 212 1.36
3. LeBron James (CLE) 490 1.35
4. James Harden (HOU) 628 1.32
5. Stephen Curry (GSW) 336 1.32
6. DeMar DeRozan (TOR) 520 1.31
7. Kyle Lowry (TOR) 565 1.30
8. Jimmy Butler (CHI) 473 1.29

In the two years STATS SportVU data on drives has been fully available, the top finishers were Harden (1.37 in 2014-15) and Curry (1.38 in 2015-16).

Durant is shooting 72.4 percent when meeting resistance at the rim, tops in the league among 108 players with at least 100 contested field goals. Finishing in the restricted area overall? 78.1 percent, 2.7 above LeBron James at No. 2 and miles better than any big (Howard, Jordan, Whiteside, et al) who makes his living inside the few feet around the basket.

It only seemed logical that moving to Golden State’s ball-movement favoring, constant motion offense and leaving behind Oklahoma City’s ISO-heavy sets would decrease Durant’s need to create by himself once a play breaks down. And it has. Durant had the seventh-most ISOs in the league last season, going at his defender 1-on-1 on 9.2 percent of his possessions. That percentage is down to 6.8 with the Warriors – 19th in the NBA – but he’s been even a tick more effective, scoring 1.00 points per ISO after putting up 0.99 with the Thunder. Westbrook (0.90) and Harden (0.88), who ranked first and fourth in total ISOs, are considerably behind.

They’re not as far back of Durant there as they are in transition, however. Let’s start by pointing out that the three teams we’re looking at are the three who most frequent the fast break. Let’s continue by mentioning that there are 36 players in the league, as of the All-Star break, to attempt at least 100 field goals in transition. Durant happens to cash in more often than any of them, averaging 1.34 points per transition bucket while Westbrook (0.99) and Harden (0.97) sit at 31st and 32nd. Part of the reason? Durant rarely coughs up the basketball.

Transition turnover percentage Rank (out of 36 qualifiers)
Durant
9.4
25th
Westbrook 21.1 2nd
Harden 29.2 1st

Neither Durant, Westbrook nor Harden has the reputation as a lockdown defender, and it’s still difficult to find a reliable all-encompassing defensive statistic to go by. ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus, measured in net point differential over 100 offensive and defensive possessions while adjusting for teammates and opponents, has Durant ninth among small forwards (1.89), Westbrook 19th among point guards (-0.09) and Harden 72nd among shooting guards (-1.72), a position he doesn’t even really play. A lot of noise there, too hard to draw a huge conclusion.

But remember how effective Durant is when he drives to the basket? He’s been nearly as good when he’s the one defending the drive. Last season, of the 126 players to stand in front of at least 200 drives, Durant ranked 106th while allowing 1.22 team points per drive. As we inch toward the three-quarters mark of the 2016-17 season, let’s use 150 as a minimum threshold. With the Warriors, Durant is seventh of 117 qualifiers at 1.04.

That’s just one example, but Durant has taken on the challenge of protecting the rim after going from a team that had multiple great defensive options inside to one without any particularly good ones. His 1.7 blocks per game and easily a career best and he’s accounted for 36.4 percent of the Warriors’ blocks overall. He’s defending slightly more post plays per game than he did in OKC and he’s doing it well. Durant’s limiting the player posting him up to 0.40 points per post, ninth best in the NBA of the 60 players to defend at least 75. And consider the company. Marc Gasol is giving up the exact same number. Teammate Draymond Green is at 0.41. Likely defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert is at 0.59. Does that mean Durant is a defender on par with those three overall? No. He’s had roughly two-thirds of the amount of post-up defensive opportunities as Gasol, Green and Gobert. But does it mean Durant can hold his own on key possessions down low against the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and James come late May? Quite possibly.

Consider one other part of his game that doesn’t get a ton of credit. The Warriors are the league’s third-best team from behind the 3-point arc, shooting 38.8 percent. Golden State is shooting 41.2 percent on 3s off passes from Draymond Green, 39.9 percent from Curry and 37.7 percent from Andre Iguodala, their first-, second- and fourth-ranked assisters overall. On passes from Durant, they’re shooting 47.9 percent. Curry’s percentage on passes from other Warriors is 40.3, and on Durant dishes it kicks up to 49.5. Klay Thompson goes from a 41.7 percent shooter from deep on passes from non-KD teammates to a 53.7 deadeye when firing off a feed from No. 35.

Westbrook and Harden have been fantastic this season, the NBA’s two most overwhelming forces lifting what are likely lottery teams without them to playoff squads (and, in Houston’s case, home-court advantage) with them. But Westbrook has the ball in his hands more than a quarter of the time he’s on the floor. Harden’s a smidge under the 25 percent mark.

Sure, that’s their job. Ball dominance shouldn’t preclude a player from being the league’s MVP. But Durant is finding a way to take over games while having the ball in his hands just 7.5 percent of the 34 minutes a night he plays. He’s been the best player on a team with the two-time reigning MVP, a team that’s statistically even better than last season’s regular-season behemoth.

Durant won’t lead the league in scoring, rebounding or assists and he won’t turn in lines every night that would make Oscar Robertson blush. The Warriors don’t need him to. What they do need from Durant has been delivered on a higher plane than any other player in the league. And that’s why he’s the NBA’s midseason MVP.

Brett Huston is a Senior Editor at STATS LLC. Contact him at bhuston@stats.com or on Twitter at @BHuston_STATS.

Photos By: AP Photo/George Bridges/Sue Ogrocki/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Illustration By: STATS/Andrew Skweres

Team USA Players to Watch During FIBA World Cup and Next NBA Season

Basketball: Brazil at USAPhoto by David Banks/USA Today

The USA Basketball Men’s National Team is set to compete in the FIBA (International Basketball Federation) Basketball World Cup that is being held from August 30th to September 14th in Spain.  The 12 players who will be representing our melting pot of a country were announced following Team USA’s 112-86 victory over Puerto Rico on August 23rd. The build up to the selection of the 12-man roster came with more drama and attention than managing director Jerry Colangelo and head coach Mike Krzyzewski probably wanted, but alas we are here. With the roster set, here are four players who should benefit the most from their first experience on Team USA.

DeMar DeRozan

DeMar DeRozan made his first All-Star game appearance last season and has shown growth in each of his first 5 years as a pro. DeRozan had a stellar game during the now infamous intra-squad scrimmage that was ended after the Paul George injury, and showed how well rounded his game can be playing with a group of All-Stars by posting a stat line against the Dominican Republic of 13 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds and 1 turnover on 6 of 9 shooting. On a team loaded with scorers, DeRozan has begun to set himself apart as an efficient player who works hard on both ends of the floor but can also be a playmaker when the ball is in his hands. DeRozan is not currently part of the core 8 or 9 players that Coach K will lean on during the final round (16 team single elimination), but DeRozan can earn his way into these big games if he performs well during the group stage.

DeMarcus Cousins

DeMarcus Cousins is an emotional and passionate player. He’s led the NBA in technical fouls the past two seasons in large part because he has been on the losing end of more games than ever in his basketball career. The kid deserves a break and being on the winning culture that is Team USA should be the bone this dog (I say that with all due respect to Demarcus) deserves after his outstanding 4th year in the NBA. Last season, Cousins was one of two players to average at least 22 points and 11 rebounds (LaMarcus Aldridge), and his 53 double-doubles ranked third in the league. Cousins’ work on the boards has translated to the international game as he has grabbed 12 rebounds in 28 minutes of play – the best rate of any player on the team.  Coach K has noticed the effort that Cousins brings to the court and went as far as to say that “his attitude is tremendous”.  Cousins is soaking up this experience and will be even better next season because of it.

Kyrie Irving

Playing for Team USA should be a nice preamble to what Kyrie Irving will experience once the lights of the NBA season come on. The 2013-14 Cleveland Cavaliers could probably go to Spain and win gold and saying that is no hyperbole. On both teams, Irving will need to be a facilitating point guard rather than a scoring point guard, and his defense on opposing point guards will be vital to his team’s success. Irving has been impressive in the exhibition matches as he leads Team USA with 15 assists while only turning the ball over 2 times.

Anthony Davis

By all indications, Anthony Davis is the future of Team USA basketball. Davis is the team’s defensive anchor and will become a household name by the end of the tournament (if he’s not one already). Last season, Davis led the NBA with 2.8 blocks per game. In the three exhibition games thus far, Davis has 10 of Team USA’s 25 blocks. Anthony Davis will be a star during the FIBA World Cup, and I’m confident he could be THE STAR when all is said and done. 

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Who Should Win the NBA’s Major Awards?

Photo by Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Photo by Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

With the conclusion of the NBA regular season, it’s time to take stock of the major awards. MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, Executive of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year, Most Improved Player, and All-NBA picks from our NBA analysts Jared Dubin and Chi Nwogu are below.

Most Valuable Player

Jared Dubin’s Ballot

1. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

2. LeBron James, Miami Heat

3. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls

4. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

5. Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns

Chi Nwogu’s Ballot

1. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

2. LeBron James, Miami Heat

3. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls

4. Al Jefferson, Charlotte Bobcats

5. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

Dubin: Chi and I have differences at the bottom of our ballots, but the top three seems pretty settled here. LeBron at his peak is still the best player on the planet, but the quality of Durant’s play this season was a cut above. This is not one of those voter fatigue cases where people are bored with LeBron winning MVP every year; Durant legitimately took it from him by destroying all comers, night after night after night. Playing without Russell Westbrook for most of the season, Durant increased his usage and somehow again managed to become even more efficient, and he progressed as a distributor, rebounder, and defender, as well. He did all this all for a team that was at or near the top of the Western Conference standings for basically the entire year. Nobody was better than KD this season.

Defensive Player of the Year 

Jared Dubin’s Ballot

1. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls

2. Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers

3. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

Chi Nwogu’s Ballot

1. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls

2. Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers

3. Paul George, Indiana Pacers

Nwogu: Joakim Noah is the heart of the Chicago Bull’s and his season numbers sure don’t lie. Noah led the NBA in Defensive Rating (95.8) and Defensive Win Share (6.6) after starting the season a step slow due to strained groin. If Noah does not win this award, then a lot of very smart people, including Jared and I, will probably start a riot. Roy Hibbert and Paul George are members of the NBA best team defense, but their individual play can not be denied and makes both players deserving of a top-5 finish in this race. Tim Duncan continues to astound in his 16th NBA season. Duncan ranks 3rd in ESPN’s new defensive real plus-minus metric.

Rookie of the Year

Jared Dubin’s Ballot 

1. Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic

2. Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers

3. Mason Plumlee, Brooklyn Nets

Chi Nwogu’s Ballot

1. Mason Plumlee, Brooklyn Nets

2. Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic

3. Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers

Dubin: I understand Chi’s rationale for picking Plumlee here (he came on strong down the stretch, playing an important role for a good team), but I had to give the nod to Oladipo and MCW ahead of him because they just played so many more minutes and carried so much more responsibility for their (admittedly worse) squads. Had Plumlee been in the lineup all year and produced as he did for the last few months, he’d have run away with this thing. But he didn’t. Oladipo was a more efficient scorer than Carter-Williams (not saying much), and while not quite at his level as a distributor, his defense was so far and away better that it nudges him ahead in this race.

Coach of the Year

Jared Dubin’s Ballot

1. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs

2. Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix Suns

3. Steve Clifford, Charlotte Bobcats

Chi Nwogu’s Ballot

1. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs

2. Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls

3. Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix Suns

Nwogu: Denying Gregg Popovich the award for most outstanding coach this NBA season would be inexcusable. Once again, if we are just looking at this season and not at the names, a coach with the best record in the ultra-competitive Western Conference and the NBA (3 game lead over the Thunder) automatically belong in the top-3 for this award. Factor in Pop’s ability to manage the minutes of his veteran players (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili), develop young players (Leonard, Splitter) and transform fringe-rotation players into highly efficient nightly contributors (Green, Mills), and you have coaching genius that can not be ignored nor marginalized.  Much respect to Jeff Hornacek and Steve Clifford for the work they’ve done in their first season’s as NBA coaches. Tom Thibodeau once again has gotten every ounce of effort out of a team without Derrick Rose in a Popovich-like manner.

Executive of the Year

Jared Dubin’s Ballot

1. Ryan McDonough, Phoenix Suns

2. R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs

3. Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets

Chi Nwogu’s Ballot

1. Ryan McDonough, Phoenix Suns

2. Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors

3. Ernie Grunfeld, Washington Wizards

Nwogu: The Suns came into this season an after-thought in the Western Conference. The Suns hired a young, up-and-coming general manager in Ryan McDonough and from there the magic began. McDonough happily took Eric Bledsoe off the hands of the Clippers, hired a young coach with a vision in Jeff Hornacek and cut veterans with bloated salaries (Scola, Dudley, Butler) in order to begin a rebuild. The Suns were an absolute joy to watch this season and are positioned to make noise in the Western Conference next season as they are equipped with the rights to Eric Bledsoe (restricted free agent), three 1st round picks, and plenty of cap room. Impressive for a first year GM.

Sixth Man of the Year

Jared Dubin’s Ballot

1. Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls

2. Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers

3. Markieff Morris, Phoenix Suns

Chi Nwogu’s Ballot

1. Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls

2. Reggie Jackson, Oklahoma City Thunder

3. Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers

Most Improved Player

Jared Dubin’s Ballot

1. Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns

2. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers

3. Terrence Jones, Houston Rockets

Chi Nwogu’s Ballot

1. Markieff Morris, Phoenix Suns

2. Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns

3. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

Dubin: Which leap is more impressive: from good to great, or for fringe to solid? I lean toward the former, while it appears Chi leans toward the latter. Both Suns are good candidates for this award, but I think the progression Dragic made from being a good offensive player that hovered just above league average for point guards into a legitimate MVP candidate and best player on the league’s most exciting team is enough to put him over the top.

All NBA Teams

Jared Dubin’s Ballot

First Team: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers; Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder; LeBron James, Miami Heat; Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls

Second Team: James Harden, Houston Rockets; Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns; Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves; Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Third Team: Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs; John Wall, Washington Wizards; Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks; Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs; Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets

Chi Nwogu’s Ballot

First Team: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers; Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors, Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder, LeBron James, Miami Heat; Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls

Second Team: James Harden, Houston Rockets; Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns; Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves; Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Third Team: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors; John Wall, Washington Wizards; Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks; LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers; DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings

Dubin: Chi and I actually agreed across the board on both the First Team and Second Team here, which is pretty remarkable. LeBron, Durant, and Noah are undoubtedly First Teamers, but I think a legitimate argument could be made for any of Paul, Curry, Harden, or Dragic to make the First Team squad. While it may seem incongruous that I’ve got Paul and Curry on the First Team but Dragic in my top five on the MVP ballot, my rationale is that while those two guys had better overall seasons, they also had way more help in the form of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, and others. Harden is just an incredible scoring force, but I think both Chi and I dropped him to Second Team due to his being maybe the most disinterested defender in the league. Love and Griffin each have arguments for “Best Power Forward Alive” and the only thing keeping either or both of them off First Team is the best two players in the world. Davis just put in the best age-20 season, maybe ever.

Wall and Dirk made each of our Third Team rosters, which sounds about right. I lean toward Parker over Lowry because he carried a bigger offensive burden on a better team, but I don’t begrudge the choice of a Raptor here. Duncan and Howard get my frontcourt nods mostly due to defense, but they were both excellent two-way players for pretty much the entire season. Aldridge was an outside MVP candidate to start the year, but his efficiency waned as the season went on, and his team defense was not quite at the level we’re used to, and it showed in Portland’s defensive rating. I feel bad leaving Cousins off my teams because he had an incredible season.

NBA All-Star Game Reserve Picks: Western Conference

Photo by Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports

Photo by Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA announced the starters for the 2014 All-Star Game last week. In the Eastern Conference, we have Kyrie Irving and Dwyane Wade in the backcourt along with LeBron James, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in the frontcourt. For the Western Conference, Stephen Curry and Kobe Bryant (more on this in a minute) were voted in as backcourt starters, while Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love comprise the frontcourt.

The reserves were voted on by the coaches and will be announced during TNT Thursday. From each conference, we get two backcourt players, three frontcourt players, and two wild cards. Due to Bryant’s injury, there will also be an injury replacement named to the Western Conference All-Star Team. Without further ado, here are our picks for the Eastern Conference reserves. 

Allow us to insert a caveat that we’re operating under the assumption that Chris Paul will not be able to play in the game due to his shoulder injury, so he did not make the list. 

Western Conference

Backcourt – Tony Parker, PG, San Antonio Spurs; Mike Conley, PG, Memphis Grizzlies

Parker is probably the best guard in the league not named Chris Paul. His shot-making ability is nearly unmatched for guards in this league – he’s joined by only Andre Iguodala, Marco Belinelli, and Courtney Lee as guards who qualify for the minutes per game leaderboard shooting over 50 percent from the field this season. He’s also – for the first time in his career – making in excess of 40 percent of his threes, though that number is obviously affected by the fact that he’s only attempted 46 of them to this point in the season.

Parker’s mid-range game is as deadly as ever – he’s knocking down 45.4 percent of his shots from outside the paint but inside the three-point line. The sight of Parker wrong-footing a defender behind a Tim Duncan screen, taking a quick dribble to his left and loading up for a jumper is about as demoralizing as it gets for a defense facing the Spurs. It’s essentially an automatic two points.

Once he gets in the paint, he’s a just as anomalously great shooter. He’s made over 47 percent of his shots from the back half of the paint – the floater and runner area of the floor. To give you an idea of just how good that is, consider this: the league as a whole averages just over 39 percent from the area of the floor. The point guard average is just 36.3 percent. He’s ridiculous. Parker’s also made nearly 59 percent of his shots in the restricted area, a number that is actually low for him but it still more than 3.0 percent better than the average point guard’s conversion rate.

He’s the central hub of the league’s fourth-best offense, the whirling dervish that gets all that whirring ball movement started with a pick-and-roll, a well-placed entry pass, or a hit-ahead on the break. The Parker-Duncan pick-and-roll is still among the more dangerous plays in the game, and the fact that he’s flanked by so many shooters just makes it all the more terrifying. The Spurs have things humming so well that the offense is only 1.6 points per 100 possessions better with Parker on the court, but that undersells his import to how things run. He’s a special player having a great season, again.

The choice to go with Conley over Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard here was a tough one – probably the toughest to make in either conference. But Conley’s performance this season both with and, especially without Marc Gasol, in which he’s taken over a much larger share of the Memphis offense, has been too revelatory to not reward him with a spot on the team.

Just two years ago Conley used only 18 percent of Memphis’ possessions while on the floor. This year that number’s up to 24.2 percent. He has somehow managed to get more efficient in that period of time (his true shooting has jumped from 52.3 percent to 55.8 percent). That’s not supposed to happen with a massive usage jump like that, but Conley’s been able to keep his three point shooting steady at around 37 percent while improving his finishing inside the arc. He’s at 43 percent from mid-range, 39 percent in the back half of the paint, and 60 percent in the restricted area. That’s some Parker-esque two-point shooting.

Conley is the only player in the league that has used at least 20 percent of his team’s possessions, assisted on at least 30 percent of his teammates’ baskets while on the floor, and turned the ball over on less than 11 percent of his total possessions, according to Basketball-Reference. That 31.2 assist percentage is a career high, and the 10.7 turnover percentage is his personal best by 3.5 percent. It’s a ridiculous number for a primary ball-handler.

That Conley was able to keep a shooting-starved Memphis team in the middle of the pack offensively without Gasol is remarkable. The Grizz scored 104.6 points per 100 possessions during the games Gasol was out, the equivalent of the 11th-ranked Denver Nuggets offense and 1.7 points better than their season average on the whole. Conley was the primary creator for Memphis during that time period, and really the only player on the team with the ability to create offense off the dribble, whether for himself or others.

That’s all offensively, but where Conley really separates himself from Lillard is on defense. Lillard has made marginal improvements, but can still generally be described as a minus defender. Conley, meanwhile, is one of the best point guard defenders in the league. Memphis struggled defensively for the first couple months of the season, but they’ve really picked things up since the calendar flipped to 2014, a time period during which they have the third best defense in the league. Safe to say that grit n’ grind is back. It was Conley who kept them afloat while Gasol was out, though, and for that as much as his overall performance, he deserves to be rewarded.

Frontcourt – LaMarcus Aldridge, PF, Portland Trail Blazers; Dwight Howard, C, Houston Rockets; Anthony Davis, C, New Orleans Pelicans

Aldridge entered the fringes of the MVP discussion almost entirely due to the fact that his teammates have played better this year than they did a year ago, which is a little ridiculous (it’s barely even a two-man race at this point), but the fact remains that he’s having a terrific season worthy of an All-Star nod.

When comparing Aldridge’s numbers this season to last, one place where he’s made real strides is in the rebounding department. He’s now snaring a career-high 17 percent of available rebounds while on the floor, and over 26 percent of defensive rebounds as well. His previous career highs were 14 percent and and 20.9 percent, each set last year. Considering that his rebounding and defense had fallen off slightly prior to that, it’s a hell of an improvement to make over the last couple years.

Aldridge is using nearly 30 percent of Portland’s possessions, which has resulted in him sporting a career-low 51.8 True Shooting Percentage. But he’s also assisting on more baskets than ever before (13.6 percent of teammate baskets while on the court) and turning it over at a career-low rate of 7.0 percent. He’s the main hub of Portland’s offense, even moreso than Lillard. Whether running high screens or posting up, he’s the number one option on the number one offense in the league.

On 9.7 post-ups per game, he’s averaging 0.87 points per play according to mySynergySports, very good efficiency for such high usage. He’s been even more efficient as a roll man in pick-and-roll plays, generated 0.98 points per play on 5.1 plays per game, and 0.92 points per play on 3.4 spot-up plays per game.

Portland’s offense is 9.2 points per 100 possessions better with Aldridge on the court, as they drop from the number one offense to the equivalent of the 19th-ranked Pacers offense when he exits the game. The same is true of Portland’s defense, which is 5.6 points better with Aldridge than when he’s not on the floor. It drops only from 21st to 30th, but the point still holds. Much of that is due to the quality (or lack thereof) of Portland’s backup bigs Joel Freeland, Meyers Leonard, and Thomas Robinson, but Aldridge’s total impact of plus-14.8 points per 100 possessions gives you a pretty good idea of how important he is to the Blazers.

Far too many people are using their dislike for Dwight Howard, the person, to disparage Dwight Howard, the basketball player. No, it’s not really possible for Dwight to have handled his free agency worse than he did, but now that he’s actually in Houston, his performance should be judged on its merits alone. And that performance has been excellent.

Only four players are grabbing a greater share of available rebounds than Howard this season, and only four players are snaring more contested rebounds per game, according to the SportVU data released by the league and STATS LLC. He’s putting up better per-game scoring and rebounding numbers than last year in two fewer minutes per game, and he’s back to making more than half of his free throws, a welcome development. He’s fourth among power forwards and centers in Player Efficiency Rating, and he’s one of a very few players to have played in 100 percent of his team’s games this season, a good sign that he’s healthier than he’s been in the last few years.

Houston has been better on both offense (by 1.2 points per 100 possessions) and defense (by 2.4 points) with Howard on the floor than off, and they’ve played the equivalent of top-8 ball on both ends with him on the court (and top-5 offensively). The defense drops off to the equivalent of the 18th-ranked Cavaliers when he comes off the court, and though opponents are attempting a load of shots in the restricted area with Howard on the floor, they’re not converting at a very high rate when he’s the one actually challenging those shots, according to the SportVU data.

He’s not quite the two-way force he was in his Orlando prime, but he’s probably around 85 percent of that force, which is good enough to make him one of the best centers in the league, and possibly the best in the West, depending on how you classify our next All-Star’s position.

Anthony Davis might be in the middle of the best age-20 season in the history of the league. He’s on track for the best Player Efficiency Rating by a player 20 or younger, as well as the most Win Shares Per 48 Minutes by a player 20 or younger. He currently sits fourth in the NBA in PER, seventh in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes, and 10th in Wins Produced Per 48 Minutes. No player aged 20 or younger has ever accumulated the stats Davis is on track for this season.

So, yeah, he should be an All-Star, regardless of the fact that the Pelicans have been somewhat underwhelming this season. It’s hard to say it’s Davis’s fault that they’re not exactly in the thick of the playoff race. The team’s offense is 3.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court, scoring at the equivalent of a top-8 offense when he’s in and falling to 18th when he exits. The defense is also 1.1 points per 100 possessions better with Davis than without, but it’s a bit of a disaster either way.

Again, though, it’s hard to pin that directly on Davis. When he shares the floor with Jrue Holiday and Al-Farouq Aminu, the other two unquestionably plus defenders on the Pelicans, they suppress points at a top-8 rate. When it’s those three with Jason Smith next to Davis in the frontcourt, the sad-sack Pellies defense morphs into the second-best unit in the league. So there’s a good defense hidden in there, it’s just tough to find it through the numbers staring you directly in the face.

Davis has made individual improvements on that end, though he’s obviously not the all-around destructive force he has the potential to be just yet. He moves quickly and easily through the paint and on the perimeter, but he can still be a tad jumpy and inconsistent with his positioning. He’ll get there eventually. He’s only 20, after all.

But it’s mostly his remarkable and efficient offensive work as part of the 10th-ranked New Orleans offense that gets him a spot in the game. His True Shooting Percentage is up a point and a half from last season even as he’s used more possessions than he did a year ago; he’s assisting on more baskets and not turning the ball over as often; he’s drawing almost 50 percent more free throws and making them at a slightly higher clip; his offensive rebounding rate is up; and he’s already accumulated more Offensive Win Shares in 37 games than he did in 64 last year. This should be the first of many, many All-Star Games that Davis gets to attend. He’s well on his way to being a perennial top-10 player in the game, if he’s not there already.

Wild Card – James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets; Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Dallas Mavericks

It’s gotten pretty difficult to enjoy watching James Harden play basketball. The endless parades to the free throw line turn each game into a slog, and now that he’s on the same team with Dwight, I mean, it’s just enough already. That said, Harden’s ability to draw those fouls seemingly at will is a huge part of what makes him such a good offensive player. You can probably picture him driving through the paint with his arms extended way the heck out in front of him, scooping the ball up toward the basket with his left hand while the right is being slapped or smacked or pulled in some other direction, with the faint hint of a whistle blowing in your ears.

Harden hasn’t been quite as good this year as he was a year ago, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t deserving of an All-Star nod. He currently ranks sixth among guards in Player Efficiency Rating, as well as sixth in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes and Wins Produced Per 48 Minutes. He’s the only guard and one of just seven players in the league with a usage rate over 27 and a True Shooting Percentage over 58 percent. He’s one of three players averaging at least 23 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, along with LeBron and Steph Curry.

He’s the primary creator and scorer on the sixth most efficient offense in the league, one that is 4.0 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than off. The Rockets score like the third-best offense in the league with Harden on the court, and the 11th-best when he leaves the game. They score more points in the paint, off offensive rebounds, on fast breaks, and off turnovers, and turn the ball over less often when Harden is in the game, and they draw fouls about 10 percent more often as a percentage of field goal attempts when he’s on the floor than when he’s off.

His import to the Houston offense can’t really be overstated. The Rockets’ preferred starting lineup of Harden, Howard, Patrick Beverley, Chandler Parsons and Chandler Jones has demolished the league when all have been healthy, outscoring opponents by 12.1 points per 100 possessions, making it the fourth-best lineup to play at least 250 minutes together this season behind only the starting units for the Warriors, Pacers, and (?) Wizards. That unit scores like the best offense in the league and defends at a level surpassed by only Indiana and Chicago. Harden is still a spacey and downright lazy individual defender, but his offensive contributions key everything that happens for the Rockets on that side of the court.

Dirk just keeps chugging along. He’s carrying a group of castoffs and unwanteds and grizzled vets that used to be star-caliber players on a night-to-night basis, and he’s doing it at the same level we’ve become accustomed to over the last decade and a half that  he’s been in the NBA public consciousness. He’s another one of the seven players with a usage rate of at least 27 and a True Shooting Percentage over 58, and he’s actually raised his efficiency this year despite using about 3.0 percent more of Dallas’ possessions than he did a year ago.

To say this season is Vintage Dirk would be a bit of an understatement. His Player Efficiency Rating is at its highest level since his age-30 season in 2008-09. He’s averaging more Win Shares Per 48 Minutes than he has in any seasons since 2010. He’s assisting on a greater percentage of his teammates’ baskets while on the floor than at ant point since the 2007-08 season. His turnover percentage is a career-best 7.2 percent, making him one of just three players this season with a usage rate above 27 percent and a turnover percentage below 8 percent. He’s averaging his most combined steals and blocks per minute since he was 26 years old.

The Dallas offense is 4.7 points per 100 possessions better with Nowitzki on the court, an unsurprising development. That the defense has also been 2.0 points per 100 possessions better with Nowitzki on the court is a welcome sight. As happened last year, he’s playing more of his minutes as the nominal center (Basketball-Reference estimates that he’s played 40 percent of his minutes at center this season) than he had for quite some time, and those lineups (ones where Brandan Wright or DeJuan Blair is the other big man) have generally been fine, depending on what the point guard and wing mix is. The ones with Shawn Marion in the mix have unsurprisingly been better than the ones without him.

Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis have both been excellent pick-and-roll partners for Nowitzki, each representing a different style and a different threat. Calderon has the outside shooting to ever-so-rarely get bigs to stray from Nowitzki for a beat and leave him for a jumper. Ellis attacks the rim with (sometimes reckless) abandon, speeding around Nowitzki screens to beat the defense when he draws that stay-attached coverage defenses need to use to protect against his jumper. Ellis has cooled off after a hot start, but it’s no surprise that playing with Nowitzki turned him into a better and more efficient player, even if the improved efficiency was fleeting.

Injury Replacement – DeMarcus Cousins, C, Sacramento Kings

Boogie!

You could talk me into Goran Dragic, Damian Lillard, Serge Ibaka, or any number of other players for this spot, but the vote here goes to Cousins, who is putting up some ridiculous numbers on a terrible team.

His 26.5 Player Efficiency Rating is second to only Davis and Kevin Love (tied at 26.8) among power forwards and centers. He’s established new career highs in usage rate (33.0 percent of Sacramento possessions), true shooting (54.9 percent), effective field goal percentage (48.8 percent), defensive rebounding percentage (a league-leading 30.5 percent), total rebound percentage (20.4 percent, fourth-highest in the league), assist percentage (17.7 percent of teammate baskets), steal percentage 2.8 percent) and block percentage (3.0 percent). That makes him only player in the NBA to have a steal percentage of at least 2.5 and a block percentage of at least 3.0 percent.

That he’s been able to increase his scoring efficiency while using nearly 5.0 percent more possessions this season is a great feat. His two-point shooting is improved for the third straight season, and he’s doubled down on it by drawing fouls even more than he did in the past. He’s cut down on those pesky mid-range shots to the point where they now represent 5.2 percent less of his shot total than they did a year ago, and he’s made those decreased attempts and a 5.1 percent better clip. He’s shooting an eminently respectable 37.6 percent from mid-range now, just 2.5 percent south of the overall league average.

He’s become a better and more frequent pick-and-roll player with Isaiah Thomas by his side, he has great touch, soft hands, and excellent passing ability both when stationary and on the move. His defense has improved. He’s not yet a net positive on that end, but he’s inching closer to that point. He’s incredibly deserving of an All-Star spot, whether he gets one or not. But anyway, All-Star games are supposed to be fun, and who’s more fun than Boogie?

NBA All-Star Game Reserve Picks: Eastern Conference

Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA announced the starters for the 2014 All-Star Game last week. In the Eastern Conference, we have Kyrie Irving and Dwyane Wade in the backcourt along with LeBron James, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in the frontcourt. For the Western Conference, Stephen Curry and Kobe Bryant (more on this in a minute) were voted in as backcourt starters, while Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love comprise the frontcourt.

The reserves were voted on by the coaches and will be announced during TNT Thursday. From each conference, we get two backcourt players, three frontcourt players, and two wild cards. Due to Bryant’s injury, there will also be an injury replacement named to the Western Conference All-Star Team. Without further ado, here are our picks for the Eastern Conference reserves. 

Eastern Conference

Backcourt – John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards; Kyle Lowry, PG, Toronto Raptors

Wall’s path to the All-Star Game seems like the culmination of a very logical progression while Lowry has taken a far more circuitous route, but they both secured places on this faux-ballot by virtue of their import to teams somewhat surprisingly standing firmly in the middle of the Eastern Conference morass.

The profoundness of Wall’s impact on the Wizards is perhaps best expressed in terms of plus/minus. With Wall on the court, the Wizards have outscored opponents by 2.6 points per 100 possessions, a respectable margin that would sit between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Dallas Mavericks‘ season-long outputs. In the minutes the Wizards have played sans Wall, however, they have been outscored by an astronomical 13.7 points per 100 possessions. Wall coming off the floor has essentially morphed the Wizards into the worst team in the league, one that is a full 3.5 points worse than even the lowly Milwaukee Bucks.

Most of the pain comes on offense, where the Wizards completely fall apart without Wall. They’ve scored registered an offensive efficiency of 104.0 with Wall in the game, but that number has plummeted to 91.2 whenever he’s left the floor. Eric Maynor was signed to be the backup point guard, but extreme ineffectiveness led to him ceding the role to Garrett Temple, who can’t hold a candle to Wall either. The backup point guard spot is once again a massive problem for the Wiz, which only serves to highlight just how well Wall has played on an individual basis.

He’s one of only three players averaging in excess of 19 points, 4 rebounds, 8 assists, and 1.5 steals per game this season, the other two being Chris Paul and Stephen Curry, both of whom would likely be starting the All-Star Game if Paul wasn’t injured (he’d be a shoo-in as Kobe’s injury replacement). The work Wall has done just to raise his three point shooting up to a semi-respectable level after totally eliminating the shot from his game over the last two seasons (he attempted only 87 threes combined in 115 games across those two seasons, compared to 160 in 44 games already this year) is pretty remarkable, and he’s still one of, if not the best in the league at both running the break and spotting shooters for corner threes.

He’s a special player coming into his own, and you can make a pretty convincing argument that he deserves to be starting for the Eastern Conference squad. He’s clearly on the team.

Lowry gets the nod here over Raptors teammate DeMar DeRozan (who was really, as we’ll discuss in the wild card section, in competition with two other players and not with Lowry) for a few reasons, namely efficiency, offensive burden, and defense. Lowry is sporting a career-best 58.2 True Shooting Percentage, pulled upward by the fact that he’s shooting a career-high 40.0 percent from three on a career-high 6.1 three-point attempts per 36 minutes.

While he’s drawing fouls at a lower rate than ever before, he’s made up for it by dramatically upping his three-point usage; threes now make up more than 50 percent of his total shot attempts. Less than 15 percent of his shots have come from the mid-range dead zone, while over 25 percent have come in the haven of the restricted area.

Lowry snagging fewer rebounds than ever as well, but he is making up for that by establishing a career-high in assists per game (7.5) and assisting on a greater percentage of teammate baskets (34.9 percent) than at any point in his career, while also turning it over less than he ever has. Due to all of this, he’s already tied his career high with 7.0 Win Shares, just 44 games into the season.

His sturdiness as an on-ball defender, excellent shooting, pick-and-roll prowess and all-around floor game have made him one of the most complete guards in the Eastern Conference this season, and he should be rewarded with his first All-Star birth.

Frontcourt – Roy Hibbert, C, Indiana Pacers; Chris Bosh, PF/C, Miami Heat; Joakim Noah, C, Chicago Bulls

Hibbert is the backbone of the NBA’s best defense and the single most impactful defensive player in the league. Indiana’s league-best defense has been 3.2 points per 100 possessions better with Hibbert on the floor than off, and he owns the painted area near his own basket in way no other player can even approach.

Among the group of 54 players challenging at least 5.0 shots per game at the rim, none holds opponents to a lower field goal percentage than Hibbert’s 41.0 percent, according to the SportVU data released by the NBA and STATS LLC. With Hibbert on the floor, only 26 percent of Indiana’s opponents’ field goal attempts have come in the restricted area, 5.0 percent less than the share they make up without Hibbert on the court. Opponents make nearly 3.0 percent less of those shots as well.

Opponents also take a far larger share of their shots from the least efficient areas of the court (in the paint but outside the restricted area, and mid-range) with Hibbert on the floor than off (51.8 percent of attempts to 46.1 percent of attempts) and make a lower percentage of those shots with Hibbert on the floor than off, including nearly 6.0 percent lower in the back half of the paint – the area of floaters and runners that players try to use to combat Hibbert’s presence at the rim without actually approaching it.

While his offensive production is down, more of that is due to the reduced burden he’s shouldered than any bout of ineffectiveness. His usage rate stands at a career-low 19.9 percent as Paul George and Lance Stephenson have each taken on a greater share of ball handling and creation responsibilities. But Hibbert is not making this team for his offense, anyway. He’s making it because he’s the best defensive player on the best defense in the league, and the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year.

Bosh is likely the most unfairly-maligned player in the NBA. His reduced offensive role in Miami that has seen him become much more of a finisher than creator, one that has pushed him farther and farther away from the basket with each season, is partly to blame for that, as it feeds into the ridiculous perception that Bosh is “soft.” That word – “soft” – has so often been code for European and/or jump-shooting big men, and frankly it’s getting a bit tired.

Bosh’s transition from post player to jump-shooter and finisher is now complete, and the result is this: a career-high 61.3 True Shooting Percentage. While he is drawing fewer free throws per field goal attempt than at any point in his career, he also is taking a larger percentage of his shots from three than ever before, and he’s made those threes at the career-best clip of 37.2 percent, an elite mark for a big man. It’s right on par with Kevin Love’s 37.5 percent, for example.

Bosh has become the tip of the spear. More than 80 percent of his baskets this season have been assisted, continuing the upward trend that started when he came to Miami. In his last year in Toronto, just 49.8 percent of his baskets were assisted, and since then that number has gone from 60.3 percent, to 64.9 percent, to 76.7 percent last year and finally 80.1 percent this season.

That’s all on offense, though, and Bosh just might be the most important piece of Miami’s helter-skelter defensive system. The Heat have not defended nearly as well this year as in year’s past, but their ability to dial up the pressure as they so often do in big “test” games is very directly tied to Bosh’s athleticism and the deft way he is able to deal with pressuring, being switched onto, and outright guarding perimeter players. He might not be a rim-protector in the traditional sense, but he helps Miami keep opponents away from the rim in the first place and eats up space in a way not many bigs can match.

Noah is having a wildly productive season and has been instrumental in keeping the Bulls in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. While his true shooting is down, the climb in his usage rate essentially offsets that, and his defense and rebounding, along with his somehow-improved passing should be more than enough to garner him his second All-Star birth. (And if the Bulls’ official YouTube account is to be believed, that indeed is the case.)

With Derrick Rose again sidelined, the Chicago offense has rejiggered itself around the interior brilliance of Noah and Carlos Boozer. Noah facilitating from the elbow, whether posting up or after catching the ball after making a shallow roll after screening for the ball handler, is as common a sight as you’ll see in a Bulls game. Noah is assisting on a career-high 21.0 percent of teammate baskets while on the floor, making this the third straight season that number has risen. That 21.0 percent is also far and away the highest number of any center, and the fifth-highest of forwards and centers combined.

Noah has again been his usual stellar self on defense, anchoring a unit that has been the second-stingiest in the league on a per-possession basis. His tireless work covering large swaths of space in the paint and on the perimeter are key to Tom Thibodeau’s system. Despite being on track for a career-low in block percentage and a decrease in steal percentage, Noah is on pace to set personal bests in both individual defensive rating and Defensive Win Shares this season.

Much like Hibbert, he’s been an elite rim protector. Of those 54 players challenging at least 5.0 shots per game at the rim, Noah ranks seventh in opponents’ field goal percentage. Opponents are making 2.1 percent less of their shots in the restricted area and 5.3 percent less of their shots in the back half of the paint with Noah on the floor than when he’s off. He’s a beast, and very deserving of a spot.

Wild Card – Paul Millsap, PF, Atlanta Hawks; Arron Afflalo, SG/SF, Orlando Magic

Millsap is another big who added the three-point shot to his game this season. He’s already made more threes this year than he attempted in his final season with the Jazz, his 111 three-point attempts this year are just two less than he had attempted in his entire career entering this season, and his 41 makes are 10 more than he’d totaled in his tenure with the Jazz. He’s shooting a Bosh-ian 36.9 percent from beyond the arc. It’s an entirely legitimate weapon for him now.

Millsap has essentially turned himself into Al Horford since the latter went down for the season with a torn pectoral, averaging 19.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.5 blocks in the month Horford’s been out. Horford checked out with season averages of 18.6, 8.4, 2.6, 0.9 and 1.5, respectively. Taking a look at the SportVU touches and possession numbers makes the similarity even more clear, with Millsap averaging 0.44 points per half court touch to Horford’s 0.45 when he went out.

Millsap’s shooting percentages have expectedly gone down with the increase in usage, but that shouldn’t overshadow the work he’s done to keep Atlanta afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Hawks are 23-21 and one of only four teams in the East with a positive point differential on the season. They’re only 7-8 since they lost Horford, but six of those losses have come at the hands of Golden State, Memphis, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and red-hot Brooklyn. They’ve beaten most of the teams they’re supposed to beat, and even a couple they couldn’t have been reasonably expected to in Miami and Indiana as well.

Millsap’s work, first with Horford by his side, and then as the primary option in Mike Budenholzer’s offense, is a huge reason the Hawks are where they’re at and he deserves to be recognized with one of the wild card spots.

Afflalo over DeRozan and Indiana’s Lance Stephenson was the toughest call in the East, but the feeling here is it’s the right one. DeRozan carries the largest offensive burden of the three and Stephenson shoulders the heaviest load on defense, but Afflalo combines the best of both worlds.He’s not as good a defender as his reputation suggests. He doesn’t create as much chaos as Stephenson on that end, but he’s more solid in than DeRozan in almost every way. On offense, he doesn’t generate as many assists as Stephenson, but he turns the ball over far less despite a higher usage rate. DeRozan turns it over less, but isn’t as good a creator for others.

Afflalo’s outside shooting also gives him an advantage over the other two remaining candidates. His three-point game cratered under the weight of an offense-carrying burden last season, but it has bounced back in a big way this year, as he’s made over 42 percent of his shots from beyond the arc on a career-high 4.4 attempts per 36 minutes.

His true shooting percentage is more than 6.0 points better than it was last year, despite the fact that he’s bumped his usage rate 1.5 percent to the point where he’s now using nearly one-quarter of Orlando’s possessions while on the floor. Afflalo is also assisting on a career-high 18.0 percent of teammate shots while on the floor, making this the fifth consecutive year that number has gone up – he’s nearly tripled his AST% in that period of time.

Afflalo is also back to generating free throws at a high rate as he’s on track to set a new career high with 4.9 per 36 minutes. That his team has a worse record than both DeRozan and Stephenson’s is something I can’t hold against him – it’s not his fault that his teammates aren’t nearly as good as his counterparts’ happen to be.