Thursday, February 5, 2015

Are we seeing All-Stars at the All-Star?

The starters for the Western and Eastern teams of the upcoming NBA All-Star game were just announced Jan 22nd. The selection was uniquely based on fan votes.

In the West we have the vote-leading player Steph Curry, along with Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin, Kobe Bryant and Anthony Davis. Their Eastern counterparts will be Pau Gasol (not sure how often two brothers have faced each other in an All Star Game...), LeBron James, Kyle Lowry, John Wall and Carmelo Anthony.

The selection did raise quite a few eyebrows to say the least. Kobe? Sure he's an NBA legend, future hall-of-famer and all, but look at the Lakers record this season, look at his abysmal shooting percentage of 37.3%. Carmelo is also somewhat of a surprise given how the Knicks are performing this year. Sure the All Star is not about the team but the player, but his stats aren't eye-popping either. And then consider all the ones who didn't get in, James Harden, Klay Thompson, the entire Atlanta Hawk roster... Even if not for those reasons but purely on the voting volume, Mark Cuban declared the voting system broken. had a very interesting post on the topic, attempting to correlate players' performance with the number of votes received. Performance was measured in terms of Win Above Replacement (WAR), the number of team wins attributable to that player (computed as the difference between the number of wins the team got with that player in the game, versus a hypothetical world where the player is replaced by an average player). It does seem that the above a certain threshold, high-impact players get the votes they deserve, but under that threshold it's all more or less random.

Now I think the real question is: what do we want in an All Star game? Players naturally view it as an honor, a testimony of a great year they're having. But are fans voting for players deserving recognition? Or do they want pure 100% showtime? Imagine a natural born dunker, explosive, athletic and artistic at the rim. Even if that player had below average EFG%, below average WAR, RPM, RAPM or any of the other advanced metrics to measure player performance, wouldn't fans still want to see him in the All Star game?

So while I'm not saying it's fair to the players, I can understand why a Kobe would get voted in, and why a Paul Millsap or Kyle Korver wouldn't. If we really want to understand how fans vote, it would be interesting to see if we could find a metric that better correlates with player votes than WAR. Or perhaps first start including WAR for past seasons as well? I'm sure that if we did that we would have a better understanding as to why Kobe got voted. But how about a combination of team wins + number of dunks in the season? Or number of fast break points?

The debate does seem old and familiar, perhaps because it's so closely related to the one we have every single year about who should be MVP and how MVP is defined? The player with the stellar stats? The player who was most impactful on his team's success?

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