Thursday, May 26

NBA All-Star starters: Andrew Wiggins pick leads to some significant snubs among starters

Zaza Pachulia was supposed to prevent this. When the official center, encouraged by the support of his home country of Georgia, was about to start the All-Star Game in 2017, the NBA finally decided to introduce some checks and balances in the voting process. Fan voting still exists, but instead of bearing the full brunt of headline selection, it now controls just 50 percent of the process. Media and player votes are responsible for 25 percent each. That was supposed to ensure the right players got one of the highest honors in the league.

And yet, five years later, fans of the former Pachulia team helped propel Andrew Wiggins into a starting role. Wiggins is a far superior candidate to Pachulia. After all, he finished sixth in media voting and fifth among players, suggesting he had a reasonable chance of making the team as a reserve. Yet few would consider Wiggins among the top three frontcourt players in the Western Conference, even with Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George out due to injury. The inclusion of Wiggins generated quite a few snubs in the starting lineup. Here are the five biggest.

We can start with Wiggins’ own team. Draymond Green has been the second best Warrior this season. He beat Wiggins in both the players’ vote (where he placed third) and the media vote (fourth). But Green came in sixth place in the fan vote. Wiggins took third place. That earned him the spot. Ironically, Green lost because his own fan base packed the polls for someone else.

Beyond the points and the 14 games he’s missed, there really isn’t a basketball argument that favors Wiggins over Green. As much as Wiggins has improved defensively, Green is the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year. He is Golden State’s de facto point guard, setting up many of the easy shots that have helped Wiggins get into this conversation with the spacing assistance provided by Curry. Golden State is 7-7 in the games Green has missed … and 28-6 in the games he has played. If that doesn’t emphasize his value to Golden State, nothing will. As good as Wiggins has been, Green is significantly more important to his team.

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We go from Wiggins’ current teammate at Green to his former teammate at Karl-Anthony Towns. As simple as it sounds, Towns leads Wiggins in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage. Frame score stats don’t exactly tell the whole story. If they did, Green would not be in the discussion here. But it shows how central Towns is to what Minnesota does. The Timberwolves trust Towns far more than the Warriors trust Wiggins.

If Towns still struggled defensively as much as he did when he and Wiggins were teammates, this might be a little closer, but like Wiggins, Towns has improved significantly on that side of the floor since they parted ways. Minnesota’s revamped scheme has made better use of his athleticism by playing him more often on the perimeter. Towns isn’t much of a rim protector, but he has developed into a decent enough defender to support his stellar offense. He generates a lot more for Minnesota than Wiggins does for Golden State.

If Wiggins’ case revolves around his defense, Gobert, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and still in his prime, should beat him. If your case revolves around offense, it’s also not hard to find a reason to pick Wiggins. He scores just two more points than Gobert, but Gobert’s value as a blocker and jumper is a big part of what drives Utah’s No. 1 offense. He leads the NBA in field goal percentage and could be the best offensive rebounder in the NBA.

The team’s performance might favor Wiggins slightly, but it’s worth noting that Utah trails Golden State by just six games in the loss column. Gobert has missed seven games and the Jazz have lost six of them. That’s the biggest point in Gobert’s favor. The Jazz are 12.6 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor. They go from a championship-caliber team to a .500 team also run by the time he goes to the bench. The Warriors are just 0.8 points per 100 possessions better with Wiggins on the floor. That’s not your fault. He plays for a much deeper team than Gobert. But if Wiggins isn’t better on offense or defense and isn’t as critical to his team’s success, it’s hard to justify choosing him over a player as valuable as Gobert.

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If there’s one player likely to get vocal support for a starting nod off the Western Conference frontcourt, it’s Chris Paul. There’s a certain segment of the basketball world that believes team success should be an important part of the selection process, and no team has been better than Paul’s Suns. At 38-9, they not only have the best record in the NBA, but are also on pace for an extremely impressive 66 wins all season. Paul hasn’t missed a game, and as has been the case in several of his stops, he has led the Suns to the best record in the NBA (17-3) and net rating (an astounding plus-43.6) in the clutch. If your goal is simply to reward the best team in the NBA by giving them a starter, Paul is a reasonable choice considering the seven games Devin Booker missed.

But statistically speaking, Paul just isn’t in Morant’s stratosphere. Part of what makes the Suns so good is that Paul shares the ballhandling burden with Booker. Morant doesn’t have that luxury. Morant is averaging 11 points higher than Paul and his usage rate is almost 13 points higher. Considering his lower support talent, Morant might say leading the Grizzlies to 33-17 is more unlikely than Phoenix sitting at 38-9, and if he’s going to get hit by the 10-2 Grizzlies without him, It should be noted that the Phoenix network’s rating drops only slightly from plus-9.3 to plus-6.1 when Paul sits down. That’s a testament to the incredible roster the Suns have built. The Grizzlies aren’t there yet. They’re much more reliant on Morant than the Suns are on Paul, and that’s why Morant justifiably earned the initial nod here.

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Morant vs. Paul is a pretty clear case of team success versus individual courage. Does Young bring against Zach LaVine? That one is significantly more difficult. Players on sub-.500 teams don’t start All-Star Games very often, but it would be hard to blame Young for much of Atlanta’s failures. The Hawks are 3.6 points per 100 possessions worse when sitting down. That’s not an overwhelming number by itself, but once again, Atlanta fails to generate an NBA-caliber offense off the bench. Without Young, his offensive rating drops to a pitiful 103. Young runs a roster that doesn’t seem very interested in running.

That plays a part in explaining his raw statistical advantage over LaVine. He scores more points (27.7 to 24.9) and distributes many more assists (9.3 to 4.3) because his team needs him. The Hawks are completely based on the idea that Young, by himself, can provide them with an elite offense, and everything else he does on the floor is almost irrelevant. That’s not LaVine’s job. He’s never been the shotmaker that Young is, but he doesn’t need to be. Having DeRozan and a group of other skilled shotmakers on his team has allowed him to focus on being an elite finisher. He’s having the second most efficient season of his career and outperforming Young on that front. He’s a much stronger defender, as well as having long ago graduated from the status of responsibility that Young still has.

So who deserves more recognition? The great player in the great team? Or the solo act keeping a lesser roster afloat? This is ultimately subjective. A little more luck at the front of the list and the shoe could be on the other foot here.

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