NBA All-Star Game: Selecting the Eastern Conference reserves

With the starters being announced for the 2020 NBA All-Star Game last week, here are my picks for the seven reserves from the Eastern Conference

With the starters being announced for the 2020 NBA All-Star Game last week, here are my picks for the seven reserves from the Eastern Conference:

Lock: Bam Adebayo

Bam Adebayo to the Miami Heat has been eerily similar to Draymond Green on the peak Warriors. He may not have Draymond’s help instincts or ability to guard perimeter players on defense. Nor does he have his screen-setting/playmaking gifts on the offensive end, but Adebayo provides a reasonable facsimile in all of these elements for Miami. He is also a better scorer in the paint than Green ever was, even in his younger years.

Lock: Bradley Beal

Bradley Beal making the all-star team is a no-brainer. The Wizards were somehow a top-five offense before their recent onslaught of injuries, with Beal being the main reason. His improved strength and ball-handling have opened up a whole new world for him in terms of scoring efficiency and play-making. Even though his three-point numbers are inexplicably low, defenses will always respect him from out there.

Washington has had an 114.2 offensive rating with Beal on the floor, and this is despite playing with non-shooters in the starting lineup such as Rui Hachimura, Isaac Bonga, and Ian Mahinmi. He has admittedly been a major culprit to the Wizards’ defensive problems, but I am not going to hold that against him too much. After all, he has shown to be a capable defender in the past when on teams with winning cultures.

Lock: Jimmy Butler

Jimmy Butler has long been one of the most underrated players in the league. The 2015-16 Chicago Bulls crumbled after he hurt his knee against Denver, and has been a disaster ever since trading him. In Minnesota, the team was on track to finish with a top-four seed until Butler went down with another knee injury. It is clear that he is having the same effect on the Heat.

Odd shooting struggles aside, Jimmy Butler is doing pretty much everything else on the floor at a high level. His free-throw rates are at a “higher than Prime Shaq” level while also maintaining career-best assist numbers.

Lock: Kyle Lowry

The Toronto Raptors could have rested on their laurels to start the season and no one would have batted an eye. Instead, they are currently second in the Eastern Conference, despite nearly every rotation player missing significant time. Kyle Lowry has always been the king of making an impact without stuffing the box score, but this year has forced him to up the ante in that regard.

With him and Fred VanVleet as the only two proven ball-handlers on the team, Lowry has dialed up the aggression level after floating around as the second/third wheel during the Kawhi-era. His scoring rate is at its highest in three years, and he is also top-three in the league in minutes per game.

Lock: Ben Simmons

When Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers have it clicking, it is truly breathtaking. He is a two-way force who can transcend the Sixers’ spacing issues with his combination of speed/agility and vision at 6-foot-10. The jump shot will always be a problem, but against the vast majority of the league, it does not matter.

Simmons brings so much to the table in terms of his motor, leading the break, defensive versatility, dribble penetration, and rebounding, that you can live with his glaring flaws. Philadelphia went 6-3 when Joel Embiid was sidelined with a finger injury, with Simmons averaging 21.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 7.9 assists per contest on 65.3 percent shooting in those nine games.

Last two choices

I narrowed the field down to five candidates for the two final spots among the East reserves: two Celtics (Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum), two Pacers (Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis), and Khris Middleton. Here are some questions that I took into consideration:

Which Pacer has been more critical to the team’s success?

Brogdon has missed 14 games this season, while Sabonis has only missed three, so this is a natural starting point. The Pacers have managed to tread water in games that Brogdon has missed and Sabonis has played, going 6-7. On a more granular level, here is a chart that compares Sabonis and Brogdon in terms of on/off.

While this is a relatively small sample that does not control for the quality of teammates or opponents, it shows that Sabonis has likely been more essential to the Pacers than Brogdon this far. The eye-test backs this up as well. His bruising, team-oriented style is central to what Indiana does on both ends. Their mid-range happy offense (3rd in both accuracy and frequency) works because Sabonis is so polished operating dribble-handoffs.

He has become a lethal post-up scorer, and although he will never be an elite defensive big, he is a solid team defender. His individual numbers are also more prolific than Brogdon, so if only one Pacer makes it, it should be Domantas Sabonis.

Would it be a crime not to have Khris Middleton on the team?

I lean towards not having Middleton as one of my seven reserves. Yes, the Bucks are having one of the greatest regular seasons of all time, and yes, Middleton has been better than he was last year (when he made the all-star game), but I still struggle to rate him higher than some of the other players in contention.

The Bucks machine flows through Giannis first and foremost, and he is likely going to win another MVP. Although Middleton is widely regarded as the number-two option, he has the luxury to fade into the background on any given night. Eric Bledsoe is a terror on both ends. Brook Lopez has helped them become one of the stingiest defenses ever at the rim while also stretching opponents to its breaking point on offense.

The Bench Mob has killed teams all year long (I don’t know if George Hill has missed a shot yet this season). Contrast this to someone like Beal, who is under immense pressure to carry his team every game

Yet, it would be close to unprecedented if Middleton was not on the team. He is averaging 20 points per game (in under 30 minutes per game to boot) on the best team. The only other players that averaged 20 per game on 62 percent true shooting and didn’t make the all-star game were Reggie Miller in 1990-91 and 1991-92 and Kevin Johnson in 1996-97. The Bucks are still killing teams when he plays without Giannis.

Who has been better between Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum?

Going into this exercise I was lower on Jayson Tatum’s candidacy than the general consensus. There have been far too many 4-13 games and he had not shown advanced growth in too many areas. However, some of the advanced numbers are staggering.

Based on ESPN’s Real-Plus Minus, FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR model, and Jacob Goldstein’s PIPM, he has been one of the few best players in the Eastern Conference. A large portion of this is due to his defensive numbers, stemming in particular from his plus/minus. The Celtics have an elite 103.4 defensive rating with Tatum on the floor, and this is 7.8 points worse when he sits.

Ben Taylor and others have talked about his active off-ball defense, which is part of the reason why his steal/block rates are so robust for a wing.

Offensively, Tatum has taken the biggest leap forward in terms of his 3-pointer. While his percentage (36.6%) is lower than in past years, he is taking much more difficult attempts such as step-backs and heavily contested shots. This has allowed him to drastically improve his 3-point rate, which adds a whole new dimension to the Celtics’ offense. Tatum has also made incremental strides as a playmaker, but all in all, he still settles for far too many mid-range pull-ups. His finishing at the rim still remains a weakness as well.

Jaylen Brown has less responsibility – overall he is still mainly a play-finisher, but he has excelled in his role. He leads the Celtics’ in 3-point percentage and is second behind Gordon Hayward in a 2-point percentage. His nearly 10-point improvement from the charity stripe tells me that the shooting may be for real. Brown has for his entire career been the type of player who pops off the television screen but is not rated too kindly by the advanced metrics.

This dissonance has continued in 2019-20, but he has performed markedly better in these numbers across the board. He provides a consistent two-way presence for Boston that they would struggle to replace with the other players on their roster.

I would not want to fall prey to overreacting to a half-season of advanced defensive metrics, but there are reasons to believe that Jayson Tatum’s performance on that end has been legit. On the other hand, I would like to reward Jaylen Brown’s consistency on both ends. Would having both Brown and Tatum on the team be overkill?

The Celtics (+6.7) have over twice a higher point differential than Indiana (+2.9), with similar schedules. With Hayward in and out of the lineup, Boston has basically three reliable scorers, while with the Pacers it feels more like a collaborative effort. In Milwaukee, everything revolves around the human wrecking ball in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and everyone else feels more plug-and-play.

But his per-minute numbers are easily all-star caliber. Brown has been in the negative in terms of on/off differential three out of four years, so perhaps the all-in-one statistics are onto something.

Next: Miami Heat: The team’s dynamic duo has lifted their ceiling

My final two reserve picks:

  • Domantas Sabonis
  • Jayson Tatum