Can we just skip the All-Star Game and the next three months of basketball and just get to the Western Conference playoffs already?
In fact, just simulate the East to the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, so that there’s more air time for the playoffs out West. Just listing these names alone has peaked my excitement and intrigue into the possibilities and scenarios we may encounter once the postseason begins.
There wouldn’t be a single postseason scenario with the current seeding that wouldn’t be worth watching. Even the first-round matchups between the one and eight seed or two and seven seed would be worth catching.
Were the season to end today, San Antonio would be playing Phoenix and Oklahoma City against Dallas. Sign me up.
The depth of talent out West is insane compared to the East. While out East, the likes of Arron Afflalo and DeMar DeRozan are making it, both deserving in their own right, the player with the sixth-highest PER in the NBA plays out West may not make it and there would be valid reasoning behind it.
And this is with Kobe Bryant having to sit out. If Bryant were playing, there would be two extremely deserving players, who may just be starters on the East’s team, that wouldn’t be able to make it.
The depth of talent at the point guard, power forward and center positions out West is phenomenal. There may only be one true shooting guard and one true small forward on the roster, while the other ten spots are taken up by big men and floor generals.
There’s only so much room for so much talent, but we were able to whittle our way down into a 12-man roster that may be among the best in All-Star Game history.
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Backcourt: Stephen Curry
For the first time in his career, Stephen Curry is shooting below 43 percent from beyond the arc. And yet, he’s still as volatile and dangerous as ever, documented by a 43-point effort against Charlotte and the nine other games where he scored at least 30 points this season.
He’s also attempting over eight three-pointers per game, though, nearly one full three-pointer more than he’s ever averaged, leading to his 38 percent shooting this year. He has taken it upon himself more than ever to lead his Golden State Warriors, posting a career-high usage rate, as well as career-highs in field goal attempts per contest.
Curry is currently second in the league in three-pointers made this season, trailing Damian Lillard by three, and is averaging a career-highs in points (23.5) and assists (9.2). He’s posting up nearly two more assists per game than his previous high, which has led to an assist percentage of 40.9 percent, and is good enough for second in the league.
Steph never had a higher assist percentage than 32.3 percent prior to this season. He’s fourth in the league in points created by assists per game and has been the focal point of a Curry-or-bust offense in Golden State.
There may not be a larger dropoff on the offensive end when it comes to a single player. When he’s on the court and leading the offense, the Warriors are generating 109.7 points per 100 possessions, the second-best on the team among rotation players. But when he’s off the court, the Warriors are garnering only 87.5 points per 100 possessions.
The Warriors are losing over 20 points on offense when Curry is off the court. Overall, Golden State is a minus-12.2 when off the court, but a plus-10.3 when he’s on.
Here’s hoping Jordan Crawford somehow solves those woes.
Backcourt: Chris Paul
This is of course assuming Chris Paul is healthy enough to play when the All-Star Game rolls around.
In 34 games this season, and with Rajon Rondo hurt, Paul is attempting to lead the league in assists per for the first time since 2009 while still a member of the New Orleans Hornets. His overwhelming mastery over the game has led to his averaging 11.2 assists and an assist percentage of 54.1 percent, also the best mark in the league.
He’s had six games this season recording at least 15 assists. Even with a 42-point game against Golden State, his most remarkable performance of the season remains finding a way to record 17 assists in only 27 minutes against Chicago.
His facilitation has led to the Clippers ranking sixth in the league in offensive efficiency and tied for fifth in assist ratio. They’re three points better per 100 possessions on offense when Paul is running the show.
The increase in assists is because he’s now surrounded by competent shot-makers in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, shooting 36 and 38 percent from three respectively. Blake Griffin has also played a role with his newfound semi-ability to make jumpers.
Per Synergy, Griffin has made 41 percent of his spot-up attempts this season. It has only helped Paul’s ability to facilitate when Blake is becoming the stretch-four he needs to become in order for the Los Angeles Clippers to become a legitimate title contender.
On top of being a world-class point guard on the offensive end, he’s also been his usual dominant self on the defensive end. Per Synergy, Paul ranks 42nd in the league in points per possession allowed, holding opponents to 37 percent shooting overall and 31 percent spot-up shooting.
Paul remains the league’s best point guard until further notice. In fact, at the moment, there’s hardly any competition, with so many of the league’s point guards either injured or working their way back from injury.
Frontcourt: Kevin Durant
There’s no player more deserving of an All-Star starting spot than Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant.
Since setting the season-high mark for points when scoring 54 against in a win over Golden State, Durant is earning serious MVP recognition and has moved ahead of LeBron James, although there’s still a few months left of basketball to still play.
How did Durant reach this point? It’s not only because he’s leading the league in points per game and averaging a career-high 31.0 points per game on a shade above 50 percent from the field. No, he’s led the league in points per three times already.
What’s separating Durant from the field is his response to the adversity his team is facing without Russell Westbrook. Despite the All-Star point guard playing only 25 games, the Thunder are still 33-10, good enough for the Western Conference’s best record.
Durant has led a young roster led by the likes of Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb to becoming the league’s fifth-best offense and third-best defense. His shot-making ability has been extraordinary and he’s indisputably the toughest guard in the NBA.
His PER of 30.8 is also tops in the league.
He ranks 15th, per Synergy, in points per possessions, third as the pick-and-roll ballhandler, seventh in isolation and 19th on post-ups. He’s shooting 63 percent around the rim and over 40 percent from just about every region within the perimeter.
But we already knew about his offense. The reason why his MVP contention is so serious is because of the improvements he’s made at aspects such as his passing and defense.
As a passer, Durant is averaging 5.1 assists per game, a career-high, and only 3.3 turnovers per, the lowest he’s averaged in over two years.
On defense, Durant is holding opponents to 35 percent overall shooting, as well as 31 percent shooting to pick-and-roll ballhandlers, 22 percent to those in isolation and 32 percent to those who utilize spot-up opportunities. If there ever was an individual season needed to loosen LeBron’s stranglehold on the MVP award, Kevin Durant is having one.
Frontcourt: LaMarcus Aldridge
It hasn’t only been the maturation of Damian Lillard, the perimeter shooting of Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum and the vastly improved bench that’s led to the Portland Trail Blazers becoming one of the league’s best teams.
LaMarcus Aldridge, now in his eighth season, is having the best season of his career, earning him legitimate MVP noise and best power forward in the league talk, as well. After averaging between 21 and 22 points the past three years, Aldridge has made a significant jump this season, averaging 24.2 points on 21 field goal attempts per game.
He’s also averaging nearly 12 boards, over two more than his previous career-high.
Outside of Kevin Love, Aldridge has been the league’s top scoring big man. He’s been a force this year from within the perimeter, shooting 41 percent on post-up attempts, over 50 percent when used as the pick-and-roll man and 47 percent on spot-ups. He’s shooting nearly 53 percent on 89 midrange jumpers taken from the left side and 47 percent on 92 midrange jumpers taken from behind the free throw line.
There’s also a significant dropoff in not just the offense, but the defense of Portland when Aldridge exits the court. The offensive efficiency drops from 113.5 points per 100 possessions to 101.5, while the defensive efficiency drops rises from 103.8 to 110.2.
Those numbers are indicative of Portland still needing a better bench, especially when the first bigs off the bench are Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland, but also of the impact LaMarcus has had on his team this year. His ability to stretch the floor has been imperative to Portland’s vast success on offense as it leads to open shots from the perimeter for the likes of Lillard, Matthews and Batum.
Portland has held the league’s top offensive efficiency for most of the year. At some point, their shooting may begin to drop off, but it won’t be a lack for open looks. With Aldridge attracting so much attention to his shooting and post-up ability, the floor becomes spaced to the Blazers benefit as their shooting trio works off the open looks they garner from LaMarcus’s influence.
Frontcourt: Kevin Love
If the Minnesota Timberwolves win just half of their games decided by less than five points, they’re probably in the playoffs as a low seed. Instead, they’re 19-21, and another MVP-caliber season from Kevin Love may go all for naught once more. After playing only 18 games last year, Love has reacclimated to the NBA without a hitch, averaging 25.1 points on 46 percent overall shooting and 39 percent three-point shooting.
Naturally, he’s averaging 13 boards, second in the league behind DeAndre Jordan, and is among the league’s top contested rebounders, having 39 percent of his boards labeled as such. He’s also a part of more rebounding battles than any other player in the NBA, garnering nearly 20 rebounding chances per game. He is one of two players averaging at least 19.
Love hasn’t lost anything upon returning from the knee surgery that cost him close to a complete season last year. In fact, he’s only improved. His career-high PER of 27.2 is fourth in the league at the moment, trailing only Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Chris Paul.
He’s also back to hitting three-pointers from the left-side center beyond the three-point line. Two years after shooting 41 percent on 137 attempts from there, Love is shooting 42 percent on 129 attempts. Strangely enough, he’s struggling from the left side of the court from the midrange.
Love remains the league’s best scorer among big men. His ability to stretch the floor with his perimeter game, while simultaneously annihiliating opponents in the paint, on both ends of the court, has made Love into a player of elite status that deserves a start on a roster with deep talent at the four and five.
There are few players who can compete with Stephen Curry when it comes to shots off-the-dribble. Damian Lillard is one of those few players. And he’s not just competing with Curry, he may actually be besting him without anybody noticing.
Curry is taking a higher frequency of pull-up jumpers, but Lillard is making them at a higher percentage. Curry is making 41 percent on almost 11 pull-up jumpers per game, while Lillard is at 43 percent on only six attempts per. On threes, Curry is only shooting 35 percent on almost six attempts per, while Lillard is a 42 percent shooter on 3.4 attempts per.
Either way, when it comes to pull-up jumpers, Lillard and Curry are almost in a league of their own. Although Stephen may still be given the edge in shooting performance overall, he’s not the one currently leading a legitimate title contender to a possible one seed in the highly-contested Western Conference.
That honor goes to Lillard. In his second year, the former Weber State star is averaging 21.2 points on 42 percent overall shooting and 43 percent three-point shooting, while also dishing out 5.8 dimes and grabbing 3.7 rebounds per contest. His PER has also shot up from 16.4 in his rookie year to 19.9 this season.
Perhaps the most impressive part of improvement, however, is seen in his three-point shooting. He was already a solid threat last year when converting 37 percent of his six attempts per contest, but he’s become nearly unstoppable this season with the way the Blazers have been able to open up the floor for their perimeter shooters. Lillard is one of those benefactors, as well as Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum.
It’s also incredible with just how much influence a second-year point guard has on his team’s offense. When Lillard’s running the show, the Blazers, who possess the league’s top offensive efficiency, are generating an absurd 112.4 points per 100 possessions. When he’s off, though, that number drops all the way to 104.8. Then again, it’s consistent with the whole starting lineup as the offensive efficiency significantly drops when Aldridge and Batum both leave the court, too.
Lillar has made an impressive jump this season and it’s led to Portland becoming a title contender overnight.
No, it wouldn’t be right at all if the best player on perhaps the best team in the Western Conference didn’t make the All-Star Game.
Even though Tony Parker has had better years, last year for example, he’s still the focal point for the league’s third most efficient offense, averaging 18.4 points and 6.3 assists, shooting 52 percent from the field, and a career-high 44 percent from beyond the arc.
His midrange game remains as deadly as ever. He’s a 59 percent shooter in the 8-16 foot range on the left side and a 48 percent shooter from the same range on the right side.
Naturally, however, it’s near the basket where he’s getting the majority of his looks. He’s shooting 56 percent on 276 attempts at the basket this year, which is actually down from 59 percent last year. He remains arguably the league’s top pick-and-roll player, using it for 44 percent of his offense and having shot 48 percent on 228 shot attempts this season as the ballhandler. He also ranks 36th in points per possession when it comes to isolation settings, 18th on hand-offs, and 42nd coming off screens.
It’s just another year for Parker and the San Antonio Spurs, really. They use an absurdly balanced offense and defense to destroy opponents and are in need of a representative for the All-Star team. With Tim Duncan not performing as well as he has in previous seasons and Kawhi Leonard not quite there yet, Tony Parker earns the selection for remaining such a vital part of the Spurs offense.
Parker facilitating through the pick-and-roll has become one of the most difficult aspects of the Spurs offense to control. It gets Duncan open looks from the midrange and frees up shooters when he’s able to collapse the defense with penetration.
Even with a career-low three-point percentage of 33 percent on over six attempts per game, James Harden still remains arguably the league’s most prolific shooting guard. Well, at least on the offensive end. The Rockets offense plummets from 109.4 points per 100 possessions when Harden’s on the court to 103.7 when he exits. As a whole, the team drops off from a plus-6.6 to a minus-3.2, the only negative plus/minus rating for anyone on Houston when they’re off the court, when he hits the bench.
Harden is the owner of strong averages once again since leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder after three seasons. In his second season as Houston’s primary scorer, Harden’s scoring 24.3 points per game on 45 percent shooting, while hitting two three-pointers per contest, dishing out 5.4 dimes and averaging just below five rebounds per contest. This could be Harden’s first season averaging at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game. He came a mere percentage point away from doing so last season, but finished the year averaging only 4.9 boards per.
Harden ranks among the league’s top isolation, pick-and-roll players, and spot-up shooters in the league, per Synergy, in terms of points per possession. He ranks 26th, 59th and 37th, respectively, and is also a 61 percent shooter in transition, which makes up for an absurd 23 percent of his offense. His facilitation, as well as that of the likes of other excellent pick-and-roll players like Jeremy Lin, has led the Rockets to the league’s fourth most efficient offense.
Harden’s actually in the middle of a down year, however. He’s not shooting from beyond the perimeter nearly as well as he has in previous seasons, shooting 34 percent from the right-side center beyond the three-point line compared to 40 percent last season, but has seemed to improve his midrange game.
He was shooting 34 percent from the free throw line last year, but is up to 48 percent this season. It certainly helps to have Dwight Howard taking up that attention in the post, which leaves defenders more prone to laying off Harden in the midrange, in favor of guarding a possible alley-oop to Dwight.
Don’t look now, but Blake Griffin may have just solved the riddle that has plagued his game since his entry into the league.
Griffin, the owner of 22.6 points and 10 rebounds per game averages, has seen his midrange shot significantly improve since last year. From between the free throw line and three-point stripe, Griffin has seen his shooting percentage rise from 31 percent on 42 shots last year to 45 percent on 53 attempts this year.
Other improvements from the floor include Griffin’s shot from the left side of the floor in the 16-24 foot range, where shooting percentages have risen from 37 percent on 54 attempts to 58 percent.
If Griffin is able to maintain this sort of production from the midrange, the Clippers become championship contenders. Stretch-fours who can pop out and hit jumpers off pick-and-rolls are becoming an even more integral part of a roster as teams look to generate offense through their perimeter shooters stretching the floor.
Having a power forward or center who can only consistently score close won’t help in the playoffs. Teams will adjust easily to a player who scores everything near the basket. Griffin developing his game and becoming a jump shooter is a necessity if the Clippers want to be taken seriously. He’s also shooting 40 percent on five catch-and-shoot attempts per game. Something is beginning to click.
His free throw shooting has also seen its best days. After only achieving a high of 66 percent last year, Griffin is shooting 71 percent on eight attempts per contest. He’s taking three more free throws per game than he was last year.
He’ll end up getting the start because of fan voting, which isn’t as egregious a selection compared to the previous two years. He’s putting up the best numbers of his career since his rookie year, leading one to believe that Griffin is expanding his game.
Defenses are going to adjust to Griffin. They kept leaving him open and he kept missing. That’s changed this year. After heavy criticism for a lack of a jumper in his three years in the league, Griffin is beginning to find his jumper, and he’s only 24 years old.
A year after missing the All-Star Game for the first time in 11 years, Dirk Nowitzki has reaffirmed himself as a bonafide and legitimate nominee to send to New Orleans this year. And he’s 35 years old. But his age has proven to have little impact on his game thus far. In fact, he’s putting up some of the best numbers of his career, averaging 21.1 points per game on 48 percent overall shooting and 39 percent three-point shooting to go along with 5.9 boards and 2.9 assists per contest.
His PER of 23.2 is the highest it’s been since 2011, when Nowitzki led the Mavericks to their first NBA championship. It’s highly doubtful that Dirk ends up leading Dallas back to another title appearance any time soon, but it’s plain and obvious to see that Nowitzki is still the enduring, borderline unstoppable force he’s been throughout his career. Nowitzki’s PER has him ranked 10th in the league.
The Mavericks have also yet to show that they can be as competent on the court without Dirk as they are with him. The team is a plus-5.3 when he’s on the court, but a minus-5.7 when he’s off. Both the offense and defense suffer when Nowitzki hits the bench.
It’s more of the same from Dirk, who is having another stellar year from the midrange. He’s a 67 percent shooter from 16-24 feet on the left side of the court, a 51 percent shooter from the 8-16 foot range on the left side of the court, and a 68 percent shooter around the rim. He’s also converted 46 percent of his 77 three-point attempts from the top of the perimeter.
The only spots where Nowitzki is struggling from are the corners, where he’s a combined 0-of-4 this season from both sides. However, he makes up for it with strong shooting numbers from everywhere else on the floor, especially from the sides of the court and from the free throw line.
Dwight Howard nearly earned himself a spot in the starting lineup for his individual defense alone, but Kevin Love’s and LaMarcus Aldridge’s gaudy numbers this year have left Dwight on the outside looking in.
Of course he’ll end up starting because of fan voting, and that’s not a bad selection at all. Howard is the owner of healthy averages of 18.3 points, 12.6 boards and 1.8 blocks per contest. Although the averages are similar to what he was putting up in his injury-riddled time with the Los Angeles Lakers, his PER has jumped from 19.4 last year, the third-lowest of his career, back up to 21.9. His true shooting percentage is also the highest it’s been since 2011.
Howard’s impact on defense has also been felt for a team that needs it. With little resistance up top being made by the likes of Lin and Harden — although Patrick Beverley does solid work — Howard constantly has to bail out his teammates. The defensive efficiency per 100 possessions jumps up from 101.3 points when Howard’s on the floor up to 104.8, nearly a four-point difference.
Dwight is also allowing opponents to shoot 47 percent at the rim on over nine attempts per contest. Not the greatest numbers for someone of Dwight’s notoriety as an elite post defender, but solid enough to have the Rockets ranked 11th in defensive efficiency, caused by having the league’s seventh-highest pace.
It looks like we’re going to have to get over Dwight Howard never developing a fully well-rounded post game as we hoped for early in his career. He’s still shooting 58 percent and is a 61 percent shooter around the rim, but his back to the basket play is still in need of heavy refining.
Plus, with so many other scoring bigs in the league, Howard’s offensive reperotire is miniscule in comparison to the likes of Kevin Love or DeMarcus Cousins.
It came down to either DeMarcus Cousins or Anthony Davis, but with the way he’s been scoring and asserting his authority on seemingly every opponent, Cousins gets the nod by a slight margin, even though he’s at an extreme loss on defense when compared to someone like Davis. If Chris Paul ends up sitting out, Anthony Davis should earn a spot with the reserves.
Cousins is quickly becoming one of the toughest guards in the league and he’s only 23 years old. He’s a 55 percent shooter around the rim and has been extremely effective from the left side of the floor and free throw line jumpers, but it’s his versatility as a big that has earned him the recognition of possibly becoming a first-time All-Star this season.
He’s made quite the leap from last year, too. After seeing his PER drop off from the year before, Cousins has shattered any previous mark he once held. He’s averaging career-highs across the board, including points (22.6), rebounds (11.6), assists (3.0), steals (1.8) and field goal percentage (49 percent).
His PER of 26.51 is also the best of his career, as well as good enough for the league’s sixth-best PER. (Anthony Davis’ PER is 26.54.)
Cousins’ career-highs also extend to his true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage. His usage rate of 33.2 percent is also the highest of his career and tops in the league.
DeMarcus’s three-highest scoring games this season all came against Portland, topping off with a pair of 35-point efforts. He also scored 31 points in a loss to Indiana where he only played 30 minutes and largely dominated one of the league’s top defensive frontcourts.
If not for his attitude and overall demeanor when facing adversity from the officials, Cousins would be a more popular pick. His overall game is one of the most versatile you’ll encounter from a player his size and he’s nearly unstoppable once he’s comfortable in the post and getting inside position.
Just missed out: Anthony Davis, Mike Conley, Tim Duncan, Ty Lawson, Serge Ibaka, Goran Dragic
What do you think?
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