2015 NBA Eastern Conference nERD-Stars: Choosing All-Stars Through Advanced Analytics
Now that the NBA All-Star teams have been officially announced and we know exactly which starters the fans voted in, which reserves the coaches selected, and which injury replacement commissioner Adam Silver threw in the mix, the complaining can begin in earnest.
We have this discussion every year; are the teams being selected properly? The fan voting is a popularity contest, the coach voting is usually colored by player attitudes or legacies, the commissioner's choices rarely align with what bloggers and Internet commenters want (although, to be fair, Silver nailed the Boogie pick this year), so on and so forth.
Some people excuse the more egregious fan selections with the argument that the All-Star game, at its core, is supposed to be a fun exhibition for fans of the NBA and the people should get what they want. Others counter with the fact that All-Star selections go on career résumés and often lead Hall of Fame discussions, so they should be more carefully selected by people with a more intimate understanding of the game.
Every year, without fail, the naming of the teams stems into countless on-air segments, articles, podcasts, etc. about who on the teams doesn't deserve to be there and who was snubbed. This year has been no different and it has even stemmed a discussion about expanding the All-Star rosters (which commissioner Silver is reportedly considering).
Selecting All-Star Teams Through Analytics
Last year, my take was that we should let some kind of analytical model decide the East and West All-Stars. It would eliminate the biased selections (well, the emotionally biased ones at least) and it would truly reward players that performed at a high level. A player could track his own progress towards making the team and improve his game to fit the mould; one built on efficiency and solid production.
Of course, that idea comes with its own flaws. Deciding on a model -- some form of all-encompassing one-number statistic -- would be very difficult. Would we use player efficiency rating (PER)? Win shares (WS)? Win shares per 48 minutes (WS/48)? Real plus-minus (RPM)? Also, some players are extra efficient and do well in various forms of advanced statistics, but wouldn't exactly be considered "stars" (which some would say is defeating the purpose of showing off the game's best and, particularly, its brightest).
On top of that, we can't sleep on the fact that the two schools of thought -- those who like statistics and those who don't, for lack of a simpler description -- are so far apart on how to analyze and evaluate players that the chances of anyone ever coming to an agreement on switching the current system for an analytical one would likely take decades. In other words, this'll probably never happen.
But screw it. We're called numberFire. We like manipulating data, running algorithms, and discussing it in writing and, chances are, you're probably here because you like doing the same.
So, let's use our in-house metric, nERD, to make the selections. If you're wondering, nERD is an estimate of how many wins above (or below) .500 a league-average team would finish an 82-game NBA season with the player in question as one of its starters. From there, if we use the existing format for the rosters (two starting guards, three starting frontcourt players, two bench guards, three bench frontcourt players, and two wild card selections), we can fill in each slot with the players with the highest nERDs at some given point before the All-Star game. For our purposes, that arbitrary end point can be today's numbers (including all games played in the 2014-15 season up to and including February 2nd, 2015).
Below is the list of who would make the Eastern Conference All-Star Team. Stay tuned tomorrow for Part II, when I'll present and discuss the Western Conference version.
Eastern Conference nERD-Stars
|Starting Guard||CHI||Jimmy Butler||14.6|
|Starting Guard||ATL||*Kyle Korver||8.8|
|Starting Frontcourt||ATL||Al Horford||10.4|
|Starting Frontcourt||TOR||*Jonas Valanciunas||9.5|
|Starting Frontcourt||CLE||LeBron James||8.5|
|Bench Guard||ATL||Jeff Teague||8.7|
|Bench Guard||CLE||Kyrie Irving||8.4|
|Bench Frontcourt||ATL||Paul Millsap||8.6|
|Bench Frontcourt||CHI||Pau Gasol||7.5|
|Bench Frontcourt||TOR||*Patrick Patterson||6.7|
|Bench Wild Card||TOR||Kyle Lowry||7.0|
|Bench Wild Card||CLE||*Kevin Love||6.6|
* Denotes a player who qualifies as a "nERD-Star" but didn't make the actual NBA All-Star Team.
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Butler is having what is easily the best season of his career and he's already a solid lock for the NBA's Most Improved Player award. He's averaging career highs in points (20.5), rebounds (6.0), assists (3.2), blocks (0.6), three-point percentage (32.9%), and free throw percentage (83.2%), all while leading the league in minutes (39.8), placing in the top 10 in steals (1.8), and shooting a near-career-best 46.0% from the field. The coaches were right to name him an All-Star reserve (his first ever selection), but he would've been the first Eastern Conference player on the All-Star team if selected by nERD.
Kyle Korver, Atlanta Hawks
Korver is considered one of the biggest snubs from this year's Eastern Conference All-Star Team, but he would start for ours. The traditional box score categories that we gauge excellence on in the NBA - such as points (13.1), rebounds (4.2), and assists (2.8) -- don't make such a strong case for Korver, but his efficiency numbers sure do. Forget the elusive 50/40/90 club, Korver has a shot at making his own 50/55/90 club, as he's currently shooting 52.3% from the floor, a league-leading 54.0% from long range, and 91.8% from the charity stripe, resulting in a league-best true shooting percentage of 74.5%. Yikes.
Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
One good Hawk deserves another, as Horford has returned from the torn pectoral that cost him most of last season to earn himself a third career All-Star appearance. As far as we're concerned, his 15.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.4 blocks, and mere 1.2 turnovers per game to go with 55.1% shooting from the field and 75.0% from the line should've earned him a starting nod.
Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors
ESPN Analyst Jeff Van Gundy mentioned JV as one of his choices for the All-Star reserves and the Internet collectively raised an incredulous eyebrow. Not so fast, Internet; maybe JVG was onto something here. Valanciunas is only putting in 26.3 minutes per game for the Raptors, but is averaging 12.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per contest, shooting an ultra-efficient 56.4% from the field and 81.0% from the line, while only turning the ball over 1.3 times per game. Pro-rate those averages to their per-36-minute equivalents and you've got a 17.1-point, 11.6-rebound, 1.6-block player with sterling percentages. He ranks in the top 10 in the whole NBA in field goal percentage (6th at 56.4%), true shooting percentage (5th at 62.4%), offensive rating (9th at 122.7), and win shares per 48 minutes (9th at .200). If he ever earns the trust of his coaches, he could very well become an All-Star staple for the Dinos for years to come.
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
You may think LeBron has lost a step since returning to Cleveland, but his 26.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.5 steals, and 0.7 blocks per game to go with 49.0% shooting from the field, 35.1% from deep, and 73.1% from the charity stripe is still more than enough to earn him a starting spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team, regardless of how you construct it.
Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks
More Hawks? Sure, they're fantastic and Teague is a big part of the reason why. His 16.8 points, 2.6 rebounds, 7.5 assists, and 1.7 steals all represent career highs, as does his 56.9% true shooting percentage. He's the motor of the 40-9 Atlanta Hawks and the coaches got it right by naming him to his first career All-Star game.
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
A lot of people thought Kyrie would take a bit of a backseat to LeBron and K-Love this season, but his 21.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.6 steals are pretty much exactly in line with his All-Star selections of the last two seasons. On top of that, he's added some extra efficiency thanks to "the LeBron effect" (his 57.6% true shooting percentage this season represents a career high). He's also seventh in the league in offensive win shares (5.1) and has been a key factor in the Cavs' recent 11-game win streak.
Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
Our fourth Hawk, Millsap is one of the quietest stars in the NBA, but his stat line is among the most drool-worthy in the whole league. The Sapper does a bit of everything, averaging 17.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.7 steals, and 0.9 blocks per game, while shooting 48.0% from the floor, 35.7% from deep (on 2.9 attempts per game), and 76.0% from the charity stripe. The coaches voted him into his second straight All-Star game and we couldn't agree more with the selection. The more Hawks, the merrier.
Pau Gasol, Chicago Bulls
Pau hasn't been an All-Star since 2010-11, but the fans nailed it by naming him a starter in 2014-15. We completely agree with the selection as well, as his averages of 18.2 points, 12.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.2 blocks, 48.4% shooting from the field, and 80.3% from the line makes him the most impressive renaissance story of this season. Being in the top five in both rebounds (5th) and blocks (3rd) at age 34 is ridiculously impressive.
Patrick Patterson, Toronto Raptors
Yeah, I'm shocked too and I'm a Toronto fan. Even so, 2Pat's contributions off the bench for the 33-16 Raptors are undeniable. His averages of 8.8 points and 5.5 rebounds in 26.5 minutes per game are the definition of understated, but the 47.2% shooting from the field, 1.4 triples per game on 41.5% long-distance shooting, and his 78.9% mark from the charity stripe make him very valuable. He might play limited minutes in a backup role, but his 129.6 offensive rating actually puts him at second in the whole NBA and that kind of efficiency earns him a nERD-Star nod, even if he'd never sniff the actual All-Star game.
Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
That makes two Raptor nERD-Stars (Valanciunas and Patterson) that weren't really close to making the actual All-Star game, but Lowry earned his first real-life All-Star selection this year by way of fan voting. He certainly deserves it too, when you consider his career highs in points (19.0), rebounds (4.8), assists (7.4), steals (1.6), and PER (20.9). Most advanced analytics love Lowry, as he places in the top-10 in both box plus/minus (9th at 4.9) and value over replacement player (8th at 5.0).
Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
The gaudy box score lines don't come along as frequently as they did in Minnesota, but Kevin Love is still a big contributor as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. He's been struggling lately, but his 16.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game aren't exactly nothing. An interesting aside: this team is made up entirely of Hawks, Raptors, Bulls, and Cavs.
John Wall, Washington Wizards
Wall was voted in as an All-Star starter this year (his second consecutive selection), but he didn't make the cut on our team. That's too bad when you consider his impressive line of 17.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 10.2 assists, and 2.0 steals per game, but he's weighed down by his sky-high turnover average (3.7 per contest). Problems in ball-handling efficiency can drag down someone's nERD, particularly when they have such a high usage rate (25.3%). That worked against him here.
Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
The coaches named Bosh to his 10th consecutive All-Star team, but we weren't so kind. His line of 21.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and a career-high 1.4 triples per contest represents his best numbers in a Heat uniform at first glance, but his field goal (46.2%) and free throw (77.4%) percentages are among the worst he's registered since his rookie season. His career-high 28.8 usage percentage combined with that reduced efficiency has dropped his nERD significantly from previous years.
Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
The fans may have voted Melo into his eighth All-Star game, but his sore knees have hurt his scoring efficiency pretty significantly this season. Sure, he's still scoring 24.3 points per game, but shooting 45.1% from the floor on 20.0 shots per game isn't really being the best Melo you can be.
Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
D-Wade's 21.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game still represent All-Star-worthy numbers, but his 54.5% true shooting percentage is the lowest he's registered since his rookie season. He's had to take more shots since LeBron's departure and is simply connecting on them at a lower rate. Throw in a dozen games missed for various ailments and he simply doesn't cut it on a nERD-Star team filled with more efficient/productive players.