With the reserves released tonight, I figured I could wait to put this up until today. I did follow the NBA’s short sighted guidelines. No cheating allowed!
Two backcourt players, three frontcourt players
Backcourt: Kyrie Irving
The numbers aren’t totally there, but Kyrie Irving has given Boston what they lacked the previous year: A star who can take them to the next level. A legit title-contender level.
The knocks are essentially on the efficiency: Irving isn’t above 40% from three and is jacking almost seven a game. His PER isn’t sky high at 24.1, but it’s also the highest of his career. Combine the PER with a 31.5 usage rate, and people are gonna have a problem.
But, Irving’s been the guy, and is handing out five assists a game in Brad Stevens’ offense, which has been beautifully mastered to not allow Kyrie to have the ball all the time.
When it comes down to crunch-time, you’re no longer wondering if the Celtics are gonna survive. You know they are, and that’s the difference Kyrie makes.
He’s also not been a disaster defensively. Most of this is again the system Stevens’ employs and his surroundings; guys like Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris and Al Horford are amazing on that end. But it’s not an easy or interchangeable system; Irving’s adjusted decently to the constant switching. Obviously Boston is better on that end with him off the court, but it hasn’t been detrimental like some imagined.
Backcourt: DeMar DeRozan
Deciding between him and Victor Olidipo is easier than people are making it out to be. While Olidipo’s season has been just as amazing as surprising, DeRozan’s cranked it up a notch as well. And it’s meant more.
The Raptors are 2nd in the East thanks to DeRozan and a new, actual NBA offense. Dwane Casey’s finally turned the corner, instilling ball movement and allowing threes to be put up. That’s not DeRozan’s game, but it helps his case. It’s the fact that he hasn’t changed while the offense has. He’s still only attempting 3.2 threes a game, and is making them at a surprising 35.6% clip. But 15.3 of 18.5 shots a game are twos. He’s getting those shots through the movement, as 28.2% of them have been categorized as “open” by NBA.com.
What makes DeRozan a starter though is his talent that we’ve always know though: The absolute ball-out ability. 48.2% of DeRozan’s shots have came with a defender playing “tight” defense on them (defined by NBA.com as defenders within 2-4 feet), and 51.5% of those shots are going in. That’s insane.
I’d love to put Olidipo here. Him and the Pacers have been one of the best stories in the league this season. He’s got a good case for an All-NBA spot, and will definitely make an appearance later here. But DeRozan’s team is better, and that matters.
Frontcourt: LeBron James
Say what you want about the Cavaliers as a whole: Their record, their defense, how the team may not be able to escape the Conference Finals, the Kyrie trade, whatever. LeBron James is still an All-Star.
LeBron’s putting up 27.3 points a game, 8.8 assists and eight rebounds a game. He’s 33.
I mean, c’mon now. That is simply absurd. The durability year after year is unmatched. He’s somehow squeezing out 36.9 minutes a game, which is 3rd in the NBA. It’s totally unfair and ridiculous to him, but it’s not like he’s gonna complain about it.
I could say more, but I think his general line speaks for itself. There’s no debate.
Frontcourt: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Like LeBron, his team should be better. But it doesn’t matter.
One way to quickly quantify this: He owns a 29.6 PER at a 31.4% usage rate. I mean, Lord have mercy.
For Giannis though, it’s much more than the stats. He’s been incredible yet again at getting to the rim, so much so that I don’t understand why he doesn’t do it every single time. I mean, for one he is totally unstoppable; no one can defend that specimen attacking at that speed. Secondly, having Giannis do the same over and over again has to be a better offense than whatever Jason Kidd is running – they need Jabari Parker back ASAP.
The jumpshot is still a work in-progress; every time he tries it, you can tell there’s serious hesitation. It just doesn’t look clean.
Though the shots are coming at and around the rim, Giannis is shooting 54.8% and is grabbing 10.1 rebounds a game. This is occurring at the same time as Giannis leads the league in minutes, and is practically playing center on defense (1.2 blocks a game. Plus, 1.5 steals! How is that possible?).
I don’t think he’s the MVP this season so far, but if James Harden continues to miss games, he’s gonna have a serious case.
Frontcourt: Al Horford
This was the hardest decision in the East (Possibly in the column). I tossed it around for a while.
The main things it came down to: 1) Games played 2) I could criticize Embiid about more things. As good as he is, there’s some faults. Horford doesn’t have many.
Embiid has meant a lot more to his team numbers wise, the on/off court difference is stark when he’s not out there. But the Sixers are worse than they should be, and Embiid their best player. Isn’t there some responsibility there?
He’s also been a little pouty in games. One bad possession or two and his body language changes. Turnovers have also led to that.
Horford is the classier and more valuable player. I don’t think Boston would be the No.1 seed in the East without Horford. He had an MVP case early before James Harden stole the throne.
Horford does the small things. Sets screens, gets rebounds, keeps spacing, makes fantastic passes (He leads the Celtics in assists!). Him and Irving’s chemistry has been unmatched in the Eastern Conference.
He deserved the spot. It’s understandable that Embiid won; the fan popularity, the Process. His numbers aren’t bad either. I just think Horford’s a little more valuable.
Backcourt: Stephen Curry
He’s missed a lot time, but that didn’t stop the media and fans from caring. They got it right.
Plus, who would have replaced him here? Would we really have felt good about Russell Westbrook starting instead? I would have started Jimmy Butler had Steph not been eligible.
This doesn’t need a lot of explanation. Curry’s been just as good as he was in 2014-2015, when they won the first title. He’s very close to 50-40-90 club; his field goal percentage is just half a percent shy. He’s putting up 27.7 points a game and has a 126 offensive rating, which is completely insane given the amount of time he spends on the floor. PER has him at 29.3, which would be 2nd in his career behind that magical 2014-2015 season. Need I say more? Oh, and he’s on the best team in the league. It’s too easy.
Backcourt: James Harden
He’s also missed games, but not nearly to the extent Curry has.
The Rockets have hit a tough spell recently, but that doesn’t knock James Harden out. He’s still my leading MVP candidate, due to the season-long success and pure dominance he’s shown this year. Harden leads the league in scoring and is the engine of the Rockets. Everything runs through him, but it’s done in an efficient and pure way. He’s dishing out 9.1 assists and has a PER of 30.4 (Some of the PER numbers this year are insane). His usage rate is 35.9%, highest in the league. That’s not usually a good thing, but when your PER is that high as well, then you’re doing something right. It’s the same thing as Giannis.
Frontcourt: Kevin Durant
KD has been just as good offensively this year than any other year prior, but that’s not what I want to hit on.
It was clear after June’s Finals that KD had gone up a level defensively. He went one-on-one with LeBron and beat him on both ends.
He’s backed that up this season.
With Zaza Pachulia not playing at the competent level he had been in previous years and Jordan Bell being solid but still raw, it’s forced KD to play a ton at the center position and under the rim. And he’s been amazing. He’s averaging 2.1 blocks per game, and is allowing a 54.7% field goal percentage on shots less than six feet from the rim per NBA.com. That seems high, but guys should be making shots at much higher rates on layups or put-ins. An opponent field goal percentage that low for a small forward playing center is pretty impressive. He’s also been just as good on the wing, allowing opponents to shoot only 32.7% on three point attempts.
What I worry about going forward is if he can keep this up on both ends, especially if Golden State ends up playing Boston in the Finals or if Cleveland makes a trade for DeAndre Jordan or Marc Gasol (The 2nd option is a better one). That might force Golden State to make a move for a five.
Frontcourt: Anthony Davis
The frontcourt spots in both conferences had some tough decisions. In the West it’s even harder.
Thankfully, Anthony Davis is the easy shoe-in. The Pelicans have been incredibly mediocre, but Davis has been awesome. He’s averaging 26.7 points a game with 10.5 rebounds. He’s shooting 55.9%, which is extremely impressive given that he’s not playing under the rim this year. The Pelicans love to move him all over the court: At the elbow, in the corner, on the wing. With his skill set, he’s got moves to score from any of those places. You could say he’s the single reason New Orleans is even this good.
This is kinda an underwhelming spot. There’s not really a great option.
DeMarcus Cousins was a MVP candidate very early on, but he’s not the best player on his team and still has some character issues (He’s very, very pouty. Even more than Embiid). It’s also hard to fathom Cousins AND Davis, who we can’t forget are playing for the very, very mediocre Pelicans.
LaMarcus Aldridge seems to be one of the consensus picks. His bounce-back season has been one of the more delightful stories this year; everyone was off his bandwagon (I was voluntarily jumping off) after the playoffs. He’s putting up 22.6 points a game on 48.7% shooting; a fine number considering he’s shot from all over the court.
Look at that distribution! The Spurs have figured out how to use him, finally: He needs the ball and he needs it within the three point line. He can’t play out on the wing. That creates issues with the way the league is now and come playoff time, but the Spurs don’t care. They’re just happy to be where they’re at right now.
Some people have gone with Karl Anthony-Towns, which is puzzling to me. Sure, he and the Timberwolves have come on lately. But that totally ignores the first 30 games of the season, where Towns was a disaster defensively.
You could not blame him for it though. The Wolves don’t switch, leaving poor defenders like Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague in bad spots most of the time. A lot of their defensive issues are team based, but there’s also no excuse for the simple lack of effort displayed by KAT early on.
Paul George is the last candidate here. He’s a huge reason why the Thunder are 4th in defensive rating despite his slumpy shooting season (To be fair, he’s always been kind of up and down FG% wise). However, he is shooting almost 43% from three on 7.3 attempts per game. That’s just under half of his shot attempts on the year.
The Thunder have came around offensively. George isn’t a massive part of their offense; it’s still heavily dominated by Russell Westbrook, who holds a 34.9 usage rate (That’s just way too high). But when the Thunder need George, he’s been productive, scoring 20.6 points per 36 minutes. It’s not how he should be used, but he’s been the perfect wingman for Russ while making a huge impact on the other end.
One last guy you could throw in is Jimmy Butler, but that would requiring slotting him in as a forward, which the NBA didn’t allow on their ballot. Butler’s been good, and on fire recently, finally taking over at the end of games and usually guarding the other team’s best player. But he’s not a forward, they play Andrew Wiggins at the three mostly, and Butler has the ball in his hands too much. It’s not just the NBA’s ballot holding me back.
George and Aldridge are the two it really comes down too. KAT hasn’t been consistent all year, and Boogie likes to disappear here and there.
To make this simple, here’s what it comes down to: Aldridge is the sole reason besides his coach that the Spurs are this good. At the same time, his coach could be the only reason. George has made his team elite defensively and while making them a tad more efficient on the offensive end, and it’s not his fault they’re not more efficient in the first place.
I’m gonna go with Aldridge. There’s more volume there, and he’s been more valuable.
Frontcourt: LaMarcus Aldridge
Quick hits on the East Reserves:
Players are listed by the two backcourt, three frontcourt, two wild card formula employed by the NBA
- Victor Olidipo: Covered above. Would have loved to start him.
- Bradley Beal: Washington pisses me off; they can’t win in the clutch and give up way too easily, but Bradley Beal has been awesome, finally staying healthy and putting up 23.8 a game on 46.2% shooting.
- Joel Embiid: Covered above. The 2nd most obvious reserve.
- Kristaps Porzingis: The Knicks could be worse. Porzingis has been a menace defensively, leading the league in blocks. I still worry about him one-on-one. New York just doesn’t have the personnel to do anything different on the defensive side of the court.
- Tobias Harris: Well, this is not where I expected us to be at this point in the season. Harris has been the Pistons whole offense. They have some type of trade to make.
- Kyle Lowry: Six rebounds a game despite a down year.
- Jayson Tatum: Tatum’s been a delightful surprise. He could be a No.1 scorer on a team someday. He needs more shots.
Quick hits on the West Reserves
Players are listed by the two backcourt, three frontcourt, two wild card formula employed by the NBA
- Klay Thompson: He’s shooting 45.3% from three which leads the league. Oh, and he’s putting up 20.6 a game. Oh, and he’s on the best team in the league.
- Jimmy Butler: A huge reason for the Wolves being able to get things going. He’s been great in crunch-time.
- Draymond Green: Still amazing defensively. He’s averaging 7.9 rebounds, 7.6 assists, and 1.3 blocks and steals a game this season. That’s just silly.
- DeMarcus Cousins: Can’t leave him out despite the non-start. New Orleans might be terrible, but him and Davis are a joy.
- Paul George: Covered above.
- Russell Westbrook: For the stats alone, he has to be on here. He’s insanely close to averaging a triple double again. The Thunder are better than they have been in years with him the running the show by himself (Accounting for the year KD was hurt too).
- Lou Williams: I consider CJ McCollum here. But the Blazers still aren’t great even when McCollum has played well. The Clippers might have 10 wins if not for Williams.