NBA All-Star 2020

Standouts on sub-.500 teams still deserve All-Star reserve spots

As coaches ready to pick their reserves, winning matters ... but so does entertainment

CHICAGO — Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young is averaging 29 points a game, third-most in the NBA and a level that would get him all the way to Springfield, Mass., if he kept it up beyond this second season of his career.

But the Hawks are 9-32, which means Young’s prolific scoring might not even get him to Chicago for a weekend in February.

Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond leads the NBA in rebounds per game (15.7), offensive rebounds (4.4), defensive rebounds (11.3) and rebound percentage. He recently became only the eighth player in history to amass 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in six or more consecutive seasons. Of the seven others, six who are eligible for the Hall of Fame all are in.

But Drummond might not be participating in the 2020 NBA All-Star Game because his Pistons are 14-27 this season.

As for Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine, his 24.5 ppg is the highest of his career. He’s sixth in 3-poiners made, seventh in field goals made and ninth total minutes, while cracking the Top 15 in steals, free throws, free throw attempts and usage.

Traditionally, local guys not just make but star on All-Star Sunday. Yet LaVine’s Bulls are tied with the Pistons in the East as coaches start firming up their ballots to select the All-Star reserves.

That means LaVine faces an uphill challenge if he’s going to participate in the Game itself rather than one of the All-Star weekend events. Because another tradition is that the coaches — more than the media, certainly more than the fans — tend to factor in team success when assessing All-Star worthiness.

That seems more than a little misguided, leading not just to Type I errors in the selections (deserving players left off) but Type II errors as well (borderline candidates getting in).

This annual debate got batted about on “Inside the NBA” as the second fan returns of All-Star voting were released. Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal were trying to weigh “winning” against a player’s personal stats before bestowing official All-Star status. And then Boston coach Brad Stevens told reporters that it’s an explicit part of his thought process before picking his seven reserves in the East.

“I start with a couple things from a statistical standpoint, obviously,” Stevens said, “but then look at how their teams are playing, if they’ve won or not.”

Stevens has had, and has, plenty of company among his peers, who find it harder than fans to overlook a saggy W-L record before “rewarding” the best player on a meh team.

You play the game to win, right? And what wins in the NBA more than anything else? Stars. Therefore, however faulty the logic, a team cannot have a true star if it isn’t winning.

Of course, coaches are the same people who will remind anyone who’ll listen that basketball is about having the best five players. So presumably if you stuck LeBron James on a roster otherwise filled with insurance salesmen and delicatessen countermen, and their team played appropriately to that talent level, the Chosen One shouldn’t get chosen. (Good thing for James that he crushes it at the fans’ ballot box every year, because last season the Lakers were 28-29 at the All-Star break.)

Meanwhile, dominant teams like the Milwaukee Bucks are presumed to “need” a second All-Star. No matter how clear it is that the Bucks are built around one transcendental player and a robust, talented supporting cast.

No one wants to begrudge a player like Khris Middleton — or worker bees before him like Jeff Teague or Wally Szczerbiak — their day in the All-Star sun. But they were All-Stars because it seemed odd to have multiple reps from teams with lesser records.

Should a sidekick get on the marquee ahead of someone who — with higher quality or healthier teammates, maybe even better coaching — could easily be vying for a Top-4 seed, team-wise?

The answer is right in the title: All-Star Game. So no.

Team success gets rewarded with playoff berths. It even factors in varying doses into winning NBA Awards. The standings often matter when considering a serious Kia MVP candidate. Kia Sixth Man and Kia Defensive Player of the Year winners historically come from clubs that finished above or around .500.

The Kia Rookie of the Year award often goes to a potential star on a losing team. But that’s baked into the system: it’s hard for a newbie to flip a loser into a winner in one season.

Curiously, another award in which a stellar W-L record isn’t necessary is Coach of the Year. Many winners have come from teams that simply improved a lot or exceeded low expectations. It’s hard for a coach to thrive, the argument goes, when the talent level is low, so he must have coached his bleep off.

Yeah, well, it’s hard for a star player to lift a team if his partners are young or hurt or just aren’t very good.

“A lot of times players get put in situations that aren’t their fault,” Washington coach Scott Brooks said. “Whether it’s injuries or the organization is in a rebuild, there are just so many things.”

Brooks mentioned Shareef Abdur-Rahim, a smooth power forward who was the No. 3 pick overall in 1996. Abdur-Rahim spent his first five seasons with the Grizzlies during their raggedy Vancouver incarnation. Over his first seven seasons, he averaged 20.7 points and 8.3 rebounds. But his teams in Vancouver and Atlanta were a combined 239 games under .500, and was named an All Star only once.

“He was a ‘good scorer on a bad team,’” said Brooks, an assistant in Sacramento, where Abdur-Rahim spent his final three seasons from 2005-2008. “That guy is one of the biggest winners I’ve ever been around. How he prepared, how he talked to younger players, how he communicated with the veteran players and coaches. If he was with an organization that was in a different spot, he might have been a 10-time All Star.”

Stevens did go on to cite as his tiebreaker in choosing All-Star reserves (and by rule not voting for any Celtics) the “fear factor when we’re getting ready to play against” a potential pick’s team. Well, nobody gets game-planned against more thoroughly than that lone star on a struggling squad.

The All-Star Game is an individual showcase. Fans deserve to see Young, Drummond and (mostly for the local hook) LaVine, with no snub intended for a No. 2 star on a winning team. The same applies to Washington’s Bradley Beal, who did something coaches should value when he re-upped with a rebuilding team instead of fleeing. The same can be said for the New Orleans Pelicans’ Brandon Ingram and Phoenix Suns’ Devin Booker, who have established themselves among the game’s bright young stars ahead of schedule for their developing teams.

“It’s unfair,” said Brooks, who can’t vote for Beal but has no doubt his guy should be in Chicago next month. “If you’re one of the 12 best players in the conference, you should be voted in as one of the All Stars.”

Fortunately/unfortunately, injuries typically rear up by the middle of February. The commissioner’s office then names replacement players, not necessarily bound by vote totals. That ought to improve LaVine’s chances in particular, if the NBA likes the idea of a Bulls player cavorting in the city’s first All-Star Game since 1988 with Michael Jordan.

That 1987-88 season was the Bulls’ fourth with Jordan, the first in which they cracked .500. Probably some stubborn coach then argued he shouldn’t have been an All-Star his first three years, either, cuz of “winning.” Good luck finding the guy willing to admit it.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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