Let’s actually set criteria for selecting All-Stars

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Has Dwyane Wade or Kyle Lowry had a better season?

Lowry smashes Wade in win shares (6.4 to 3.1) and tops him in Estimated Wins Added (6.5 to 5.7), too. There’s value in staying on the court, and because Wade has been hobbled by knee issues this year, it’s clear Lowry, an impressive and consistent two-way contributor, has produced more.

If you desire, you can dig deeper and examine the question from other angles. It’s a worthy discussion to have.

In three months.

If voting for an All-NBA team based on the season to date, I’d pick Lowry ahead of Wade. But for the 2014 All-Star game? Give me Wade every day of the week.

Before and after the NBA announces its All-Star starters tomorrow, you’ll find numerous smart analyses about whom should be picked to the teams. But few of of those picks will be preceded by an outlined standard for the choices.

The accepted logic is that, after the fans vote for the starters, the coaches should pick the players who’ve had the best season so far. Many will pore over stats, noting why this player or that player has performed better to date.

But I just don’t see much point in debating 40-some-game samples. All-Star appearances have, erroneously, become the historical standard for a player having a top-notch season. But unless the selectors have crystal balls, that’s impossible. All-Star appearances indicate only top-notch half-seasons, and those shouldn’t count for much in the grand scheme.

All-NBA teams are a much better tool for measuring historical greatness, and I wish more would analyze those with the keen eye they turn toward All-Star selections. I understand the playoffs running concurrently interferes, but even a little more attention to All-NBA teams would make us smarter when we look back on the historical record.

That would free the All-Star game to mean something else – as it should.

Meaning of All-Star selections

The All-Star game already has a mixed significance because of the fan vote. Kobe Bryant will almost certainly get one of the Western Conference’s starting guard spots, even though he’s barely played this season and played poorly when he’s been on the court. Allen Iverson and Yao Ming won the fan vote in years they shouldn’t have even made the team.

Debating players’ all-time greatness by All-Star nods already requires weeding out the undeserving selections. It’s not a good standard.

All-Star appearances should exist in a separate spectrum.

Just break down the word: All-Star. All the stars. Keep letting fans pick the stars as they see fit. Then, let the coaches fill in the rest of the roster with the players they see as the biggest remaining stars, the best players who won’t start the game.

The system works as long as we don’t assign too much meaning to which player had a better rebounding rate between November and January.

A litmus test for arguing All-Stars

Here’s the standard I use:

Who’s the best player right now?

That’s intentionally vague, but here’s the thought exercise I use to compare players. Imagine two teams full of average players for their positions – an average starting point guard, an average shooting guard, an average sixth man, etc. These teams are exactly equal. Now, replace one starter on each of the average teams with the players you’re comparing. Whose team wins? That’s the better player.

I don’t consider how good a player’s actual team is. An All-Star berth is an individual, not a team, honor, though a player’s team’s record can indicate how good that player is individually.

I don’t consider fit, either. No player should be punished because he happens not to complement the other All-Stars in a given year. To me, the All-Star game is more about honoring the NBA’s best players than strategically forming a squad. Besides, these teams are so deep and talented, and the rules mandate a certain number of players from each position, that the rosters will work for a single Sunday, at least.

DeMarcus Cousins vs. Tim Duncan and Kyrie Irving vs. Arron Afflalo

Ability matters more than production in the given half-season, though they can be tough to separate.

Parsing DeMarcus Cousins and Tim Duncan illustrates the dilemma. Cousins has had a better season so far, and he’s risen his game while Duncan’s production is slipping. But is Duncan merely preserving his energy for a playoff run, or is he too old to play as well as Cousins has? If the answer is the former, Duncan would be my All-Star choice. The latter, Cousins.

Kyrie Irving and Arron Afflalo provide another example. Irving started the year relatively poorly, and his season-long statistics are still weighed down by those early games. But lately, he’s shown the true player he is – a player that’s better than Afflalo, who has produced consistently between Irving’s extremes. An All-NBA debate between the two would be close, but an All-Star discussion is not. Irving has a clear edge.

What to make of Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo

Injuries are a little trickier.

Rajon Rondo won’t make my All-Star team, because he’s clearly not playing at an All-Star level as he tries to find his way after such a long layoff.

Chris Paul will, because he’s the best guard in the NBA right now. He probably won’t be healthy by the All-Star game, and if he’s not, he can be replaced on the roster.

Russell Westbrook sits somewhere between. Because his expected return date is later than Paul’s – meaning Westbrook is more likely than Paul to be rusty if he is back in time – Westbrook’s injury costs him more than Paul’s. But Westbrook, at the less-than-perfect health level he’s been this season, is still a top-four guard in the Western Conference.

My picks

Ultimately, it’s up to everyone to set their own criteria for choosing All-Stars. Before making your case, though, consider which lens you believe the selections should be made through. You don’t have to choose the same one I do, but you should make a deliberate choice rather than following the crowd for the sake of doing so.

So what do my All-Star teams look like? Probably not that different than the ones you’ll see elsewhere. Typically, the best players as I define them also play the best during the season’s first half. How well someone has played so far is one of the best indicators of how good he is.

But each when the there is a difference, the latter should trump the former.

Eastern Conference

Starters

G: Kyle Lowry

G: Dwyane Wade

FC: Paul George

FC: LeBron James

FC: Roy Hibbert

Reserves

G: John Wall

G: Kyrie Irving

FC: Carmelo Anthony

FC: Joakim Noah

FC: Andre Drummond

WC: Arron Afflalo

WC: Paul Millsap (Chris Bosh, who totally slipped my mind initially)

Western Conference

Starters

G: Chris Paul*

G: Stephen Curry

FC: Kevin Durant

FC: Kevin Love

FC: LaMarcus Aldridge

Reserves

G: Russell Westbrook*

G: James Harden

FC: Blake Griffin

FC: Dirk Nowitzki

FC: Anthony Davis

WC: Dwight Howard

WC: DeMarcus Cousins

*Damian Lillard and Tony Parker, in that order, would be my injury replacements.

Lakers lock up No. 1 seed in West with win against Jazz

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Anthony Davis had 42 points and 12 rebounds, and the Los Angeles Lakers clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs by beating the Utah Jazz 116-108 on Monday night.

The Lakers (51-15) own a six-game lead over the second-place Los Angeles Clippers and have five seeding games let before starting their first playoff run since 2013.

“If you’re winning enough games to secure the No. 1 seed, you’re building the right habits that are going to be necessary for you to win in the playoffs,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Obviously we have bigger aspirations than the No. 1 seed, but we are proud of the accomplishment and we’ll enjoy it while we’re getting ready to get our group ready for the playoffs.”

Utah (42-25) has clinched a playoff berth and is fifth in the West, a half-game behind Houston and a half-game ahead of Oklahoma City.

Davis’ final basket resulted in a 4-point play with 42 seconds left, as he sank a 3-pointer while getting fouled by Rudy Gobert and made the ensuing free throw to give the Lakers a 114-104 lead.

Utah’s Donovan Mitchell answered with a 4-point play of his own that cut the margin to 114-106 with 36 seconds remaining, but the Jazz couldn’t get any closer. Davis made two free throws with 5.2 seconds left to wrap up the scoring.

LeBron James scored 22 points, Dwight Howard had 11 and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added 10 for the Lakers.

Mitchell scored 33 and Mike Conley had 24 for Utah. Gobert added 16 points and 13 rebounds for the Jazz.

The Lakers were coming off a 107-92 loss to Toronto in which Davis shot just 2 of 7 and scored 14 points. Davis was much more active Monday right from the start, as he scored 13 points and shot 6 of 14 in the first quarter alone.

Davis had 24 points by halftime, marking the 20th time this season he’s scored at least 20 points in a half.

“Coach just told me to be more aggressive,” Davis said. “He felt like, and I felt like too, that I just kind of played into Toronto’s defense, accepted the double-team. I was making the right plays, but I still have to be aggressive at the same time.”

Utah stayed close and only trailed 58-56 at halftime because it got its own stellar start from Mitchell, who scored 21 points in the first two periods.

Mitchell then connected on a 3-pointer to cap an 8-0 run by Utah to open the second half.

But the Jazz got increasingly careless with the basketball as the third quarter progressed, enabling the Lakers to seize control of the game. The Lakers scored 14 straight points and went on a 19-2 run late in the third quarter.

“When they turn the pressure up, we’ve got to be able to execute even better,” Mitchell said. “We turned the ball over way too many times. They did a great job of taking us out of our actions. … We went up six, they turned it up even more and next thing you know, we’re down 12 or whatever.”

Even after Utah’s Emmanuel Mudiay snapped that run by hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer, the Jazz still trailed 86-76 heading into the final period.

The Lakers stayed in front the rest of the way.

Watch Shake Milton drain game-winning three, lift 76ers past Spurs

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How do you like Shake Milton now?

After a rough first game where he exchanged words with Joel Embiid on the sidelines, Milton bounced back and hit the game-winning three against the Spurs Monday night.

With the Sixers down two and 10.4 seconds left, Milton was inbounding the ball from the side. He got the ball into a well covered Al Horford who gave it right back, but Milton’s defender Dejounte Murray, sagged off to prevent a lob into Joel Embiid, and that left Milton open.

Ballgame. The Sixers go on to win 132-130.

Philadelphia has split its first two in the bubble.

This was a bigger blow to the Spurs, who are in a race for the eighth/ninth seed in the West and a shot at the play-in series. The Spurs had won their first two in Orlando but are now tied with the Trail Blazers for the nine seed, with New Orleans just half-a-game back after its win. It’s a Battle Royal in the West and this kind of loss could come back to bite San Antonio.

More Zion Williamson, more defense gets Pelicans first bubble win

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For two games the Pelicans played matador defense on the perimeter — Ole! — while the world was asking, “where’s Zion?”

With their playoff dreams on the line Monday night, both showed up.

Zion got to play 25 minutes and scored 23 points with seven rebounds, his attacking the rim opening up the Pelicans’ offense. More importantly, Jrue Holiday brought the defensive on Ja Morant — staying in front, cutting off his drives, and helping hold the soon-to-be Rookie of the Year to 5-of-21 shooting — sparking a night where the Pelicans held a high-powered Grizzlies offense to less than a point per possession.

The result was a 109-99 Pelicans win, their first in the bubble.

Brandon Ingram said after the Pelicans second loss in Orlando they would likely have to win out in their final six games to make the playoffs. Maybe, maybe not, but they have to rack up a lot of wins and this was a big first step. With the victory, New Orleans is 2.5 games back of eighth seed Memphis, and half-a-game game back of ninth-seed Spurs (the eighth and ninth seeds in the West almost certainly will be in a play-in series). There is still hope.

After a relatively unimpressive first two games for Zion — leading to whispers around the league about his conditioning and if he should be playing — he looked more like his best self Monday night. Even connecting with Lonzo Ball to finish a half-court alley-oop.

Zion wasn’t in peak form, going 9-of-21 from the floor and looking winded t points, but he was out on the floor and when he is his gravity opens up everything else. Brandon Ingram led the way with 24 points, including some clutch buckets late and a lot of shot creation. J.J. Redick had 16 off the bench.

The offense was the sizzle, but the Pelicans’ defense was the steak in this game. Alvin Gentry talked about the team defensive strategy on Morant, via Christian Clark of the Times-Picayune.

“We tried to keep him (Morant) out the paint as much as possible, so we gave up some 3s. But luckily for us, he only made one of them [1-of-10]. I thought we did a good job overall defensively. That was the difference in the game. We had our moments in the game offensively where we had great ball movement. But our defense is what won us the game.”

The Pelicans have to bring that energy on a back-to-back — they play the Kings’ tomorrow. Every game is still vital for them, this is a playoff sprint, not a race. Ingram was right, they can’t afford any more losses.

Because of their 3.5 game lead entering the restart, the Grizzlies are safe for now despite an 0-3 start in the bubble — losing every game by single digits. Morant is a future star, Jaren Jackson Jr. might be the best player on this team in five years (he had 22 points on the night), but this is a young team that is not consistent. It needs more shooting and that was evident tonight. They also miss Tyus Jones at backup point guard a lot.

The challenge for the Grizzlies is the five games they have left: the Jazz, Thunder, Raptors, Celtics, and Bucks. That’s a lot of brutal games lined up in a row, and Memphis needs to find some wins in there.

Michael Porter Jr. has breakout game, drops 37, Nuggets top Thunder in OT

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Michael Porter Jr. scored a career-high 37 points and Nikola Jokic had a triple-double to help the Denver Nuggets top the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-113 in overtime on Monday.

Porter, who averages just 7.5 points, had the big performance in only his third start of the season.

“He has got tremendous size, length, he can score the ball, he’s got soft touch and he does so (scores) in a very efficient manner,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “He can also rebound at a very high level. Tonight, we saw all those things put together.”

Porter made 12 of 16 shots and grabbed 12 rebounds. His previous career high was 25 points.

“All I’ve got to focus on is bringing the energy and the effort, lock in on defense and the rest will take care of itself,” Porter said.

Jokic had 30 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists. He scored 13 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to help Denver strengthen its hold on third place in the Western Conference standings.

It was a key win for the Nuggets, who were missing three starters. Jamal Murray sat out with left hamstring tightness, forward Will Barton sat out with left knee soreness and guard Gary Harris sat out with a strained right hip.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 24 points, Chris Paul had 23 and Danilo Gallinari added 20 for the Thunder, who also were short-handed. Thunder coach Billy Donovan said Dennis Schroder, Oklahoma City’s No. 3 scorer for the season, left the bubble to join his wife for the birth of their second child.

The game was close throughout. Denver’s Monte Morris was fouled with 6 seconds remaining, and he made both free throws to give the Nuggets a 109-108 lead. Paul missed the first and made the second of two free throws with 2.9 seconds remaining to tie the game at 109. Denver’s Troy Daniels missed a floater from near the free throw line at the buzzer, and the game went to overtime.

In the extra period, Denver outscored Oklahoma City 12-4 and held the Thunder to one field goal.

“In the overtime, I thought we played terrific on both ends of the floor,” Malone said.