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.

Steve Kerr on military displays at games: “Sometimes, it’s really inspiring… sometimes it feels like we’re being patronized”

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Things changed in sports after 9/11. The national anthem had always played before sporting events, but in the wake of our national tragedy American sports leagues turned to patriotic and military displays before games as a way to help unify fans. In a small way, some sporting events helped heal the country after that life-altering event.

However, those militaristic displays have continued on 17 years later, with some leagues buying in more than others, and not everybody in the sports world is comfortable with that.

Golden State coach Steve Kerr, never someone shy about speaking out about political and social issues, was asked about the displays at sporting events as part of a wide-ranging interview with Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area, which can only be seen in full on the new NBC Sports My Teams app, but we have a clip.

“Sometimes, it’s really inspiring. You see a mother and daughter or a father and son reconnected after a tour of duty, and everybody gets emotional. And sometimes it feels like we’re being patronized. Like this is being used. We’re just playing a sport here, and it feels sort of nationalistic, if that makes sense. So we are kind of wandering down a dicey path on this front.”

Kerr speaks out on politics — usually to bash President Donald Trump — and likely will do more of that with the midterm elections coming up. However, don’t think he takes that step lightly, or that he thinks it’s for everyone. Kerr has a nuanced view and understands the risks of what he does.

“First, you have to feel comfortable with what you’re talking about and what you’re discussing. So if you’re not comfortable with speaking about social issues, then I don’t blame anybody for not doing so. But there’s also a sense, when you’re in a job like this, that you’re working for people. You’re working for a league. You’re working for an owner. You’re working for an organization. And almost everything you say is going to be looked at two different ways. You start to worry about offending people. You start to worry about ‘Am I doing something wrong?’ ‘Am I going to get fired?’ ‘Am I going down the wrong path?’ ‘And I really like this job and I like coaching basketball and I just want to coach. So you sort of leave that alone. I’ve got no problem with that.”

Kerr can speak out because he’s in a secure space (same with the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich). For a lot of coaches, the backlash from speaking out may not be worth the hassle, not from just fans but from within the organization.

Kerr also teamed with Rock The Vote to try and get more people to use their voice at the ballot box. Kerr also knows his megaphone is larger than that, and he’s not afraid to use it.

Did Suns deserve all 35 of their assists? (video)

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The Suns had 35 assists in their season-opening win over the Mavericks last night.

That’s their most assists since… their final game last season, when they also dished 35 assists against Dallas. But the Mavericks were tanking hard. Before that, Phoenix last had 35 assists with Steve Nash at point guard.

How did they Suns do it?

They moved the ball well and knocked down shots.

They also appeared be quite generous in scorekeeping.

The NBA defines an assist as a “pass that directly leads to a basket. … An assist can be awarded for a basket scored after the ball has been dribbled if the player’s pass led to the field goal being made.”

Would you say all four of these assists led directly to a basket?

Many scorekeepers systematically award assists if the shooter took two or fewer or dribbles after receiving the pass. Those above plays are not egregious in league-wide context, though maybe a couple of them should be.

But this Deandre Ayton pass really stretches the limit (hat tip: Carter Rodriguez of Fear The Sword):

Again, maybe we just have to live with a hard-and-fast two-dribble rule. Even though Josh Jackson turned and hesitated a couple times while using both dribbles, this technically falls under the threshold.

But then explain this Trevor Ariza assist to Jackson, who took three dribbles:

That looks like more of an assist than some of the two-dribble plays above. So, maybe the standard is fitting the spirit of the definition OR a player shooting within two dribbles. That casts quite a wide net.

But remember, don’t cast stones at the Suns from inside a glass house. They’re not alone in their loose assist-granting.

LeBron James set to make debut for Lakers at Trail Blazers tonight

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PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) — It’s not going to be just a game when the Los Angeles Lakers invade Moda Center Thursday night to face the Portland Trail Blazers in the regular-season opener for both teams.

It will be a happening.

It’s the first game in the splendid 16-year NBA career of LeBron James that the future Hall of Famer will be wearing the uniform of a Western Conference club — the Lakers, with whom he signed a free-agent contract during the offseason.

Members of the national media and a TNT audience will be watching along with a full house at the 20,000-seat Moda Center. And James has caught the fever.

“The season is here,” James told reporters after a recent practice. “First of 82 (regular-season games). It will be fun.”

The basketball world is intrigued to find out how well the 33-year-old James will mesh with his mostly younger teammates, and how much he can help them improve on their 35-47 record of a year ago. Thursday at Moda Center is the first step, but Lakers coach Luke Walton isn’t taking it as a giant leap for mankind all in one swoop.

“We’ve got four years,” said Walton, referring to James’ contract, which calls for three years guaranteed and a player option for a fourth. “We want to make sure we’re not only playing our best come the end of the season, but that he is fresh. It’s a goal for us, and it’s not a one-year journey.”

James, who led the NBA with 36.9 minutes played per game in 2017-18, likely won’t match that average this season. Even so, he figures to be on the court a lot Thursday night.

“If my body is feeling good, then I’m out there,” James said. “If my body is not able to perform at the level I would like to play for my teammates, then I won’t.”

The Lakers could have drawn an easier first opponent that the Trail Blazers, against whom the Lakers have had no success in recent years. Portland holds a 15-game win streak in the series dating to March 2014, and has won seven in a row at Moda Center.

The Blazers mostly stood pat after going 49-33 and earning the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs a year ago, then getting swept in four games by New Orleans in the first round. Portland added a pair of low-cost free agent guards, Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas, to bolster its perimeter shooting game. The Blazers may also have a more significant role available now for 7-1 stretch forward Meyers Leonard, who shot .783 from the field and .727 from 3-point range in the preseason.

“Seth and Nik give us a totally different element with Meyers, the way he shot in the preseason,” Portland general manager Neil Olshey said. “We brought in guys who could have more of an impact at the offensive end.”

The Blazers may be without their starting small forward, Moe Harkless, who missed the entire preseason while rehabbing from knee surgery. His place will likely be taken Thursday night by third-year pro Jake Layman, who averaged 12.0 points and shot .512 from the field and .500 on 3-point attempts through the preseason.

“We’re pleased with the way Jake has seamlessly stepped into that role,” Olshey said.

Report: Clippers “have a better than not chance of getting” Kawhi Leonard next summer

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This line of thinking has gone from a quiet buzz around league circles to a rumor to the point where the game’s top news breaker — Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN — is reporting it as 50/50 or better:

Kawhi Leonard could be coming to the Clippers next summer as a free agent.

Here is what Wojnarowski said on a podcast with Zach Lowe:

“What the Clippers are doing right now is very below the radar. What they’ve done to put themselves in position. They didn’t gut themselves and they’re not tanking. They’re putting a competitive team on the floor. I think, right now, with Kawhi Leonard, they have a better than not chance of getting him. We know things will change. He could love Toronto…

“The Clippers are in great position with him. They have two max slots. They will be heard from again, I think, in these Jimmy Butler trade talks.”

The Clippers name came up in the Butler trade talks early, but Minnesota (read: Tom Thibodeau) reportedly asked for Tobias Harris and the Clippers shot that down cold. The talks have gained no traction after that, according to sources. The Clippers like Harris (who is a free agent this July and wants to get paid) and ideally want to keep him, but there will be serious roster overhaul in Los Angeles this summer and what happens to Harris will depend on a lot of other variables. Leonard included.

What Wojnarowski is reporting here is along the lines of what a lot of people around the league are talking about. This isn’t out of left field.

I can hear Lakers fans now: He is coming to us. (Knicks fans may be thinking that too, unless they are busy dreaming about Kevin Durant.) But there are a couple of reasons the Clippers make sense over those other markets.

First is the shadow of LeBron James. Not everybody wants to play in it. If Leonard — or, more accurately, the people around Leonard — want to build his brand and have him become the center of a marketing machine, being in that shadow could be seen as stunting his growth.

Them there is just fit with an organization. By his nature, Leonard does not seek out the brightest lights, he is not on social media, he does not dream of being part of the celebrity culture, and Leonard does not like a lot of drama in and around the locker room. All of those things come with signing a Lakers’ contract, and the same thing with the Knicks. While the Clippers are in Los Angeles and players there can seek out all those distractions if they want, the Clipper brand isn’t doesn’t bring the same intensity of spotlight that the Lakers with LeBron would.

All of those reasons — plus one extra guaranteed year at north of $40 million — could keep Leonard in Toronto if the team does well this season. However, if next July he’s looking to move on, the Clippers really could be his new home.