Last week, Chris Palmer of ESPN selected his early picks for the All-NBA First Team (warning: must have ESPN Insider account to access). His All-NBA team consists of: Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Dwight Howard. Palmer’s piece is strange for several reasons. First, we’re only about 75% of the way through the season; why pick your team now? What happens if Kevin Durant averages 40 points per game over the next month? Second, he does not seem to understand how the All-NBA team is constructed. It consists of two guards, two forwards, and a center; positions are not broken down at a finer level of granularity (i.e., there’s no distinction between PG and SG). For instance, LeBron James and Kevin Durant were the two forwards on last year’s All-NBA team; there was no PF on the squad. Despite this, Palmer has selected one of each of the five positions to make up his team. Third, and most importantly, his selections and rationale are comically poor.
First, a disclaimer: I cannot stand Chris Palmer. Heckling Palmer makes up at least 30% of my Twitter activity. I’ve written multiple complaints to ESPN, threatening to cancel my Insider subscription if they continue to employ him. How he became an “Insider” is one of the world’s great mysteries. There are literally thousands of writers in the blogosphere who could do “C-Palm’s” job better than he does (yours truly included). If you’re not familiar with Palmer’s work, all you need to know is that he wears a backwards hat in his ESPN profile picture and often tweets “Insider” nuggets such as “Durant this year: 27.7 PPG, 8.1 RPG.” Really enlightening stuff, Chris; that kind of rigorous analysis is why you get paid the big bucks.
It’s pretty obvious that Palmer, who lacks intelligence, writing ability, and sources, is able to attract an audience only by making arguments so appallingly stupid that they generate controversy and, therefore, page views. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Palmer’s ridiculous article, so I decided to put my thoughts on paper and pick my own All-NBA First Team. Given that my blog averages approximately 6.5 hits per day, I briefly considered following Palmer’s lead and picking an all-troll team. I’m sure I could surpass the elusive 20-hit barrier if I put Jeremy Lin on my First Team. But alas, my integrity won out, and I selected the following boring — but undeniably correct — team.
Key Stats: 19.6 PPG, 8.8 AST, 3.4 REB, 2.4 STL, 49.0% FG, 38.1% 3PT, 59.1% TS%, 26.9 PER, .275 WS/48. (*NOTE: I usually avoid per-game – and even per-minute – stats, because they are not pace-adjusted and therefore misleading. However, Palmer’s points are so easily rebutted without resort to advanced stats that I mostly rely on archaic stats for the purposes of this post).
Key Stats: 23.0 PPG, 4.9 AST, 4.9 REB, 1.7 STL, 1.3 BLK, 50.7% FG, 57.1% TS%, 27.8 PER, .250 WS/48.
The guard positions account for two of the three discrepancies between my list and Palmer’s. As you’ll recall, Palmer picked Westbrook and Bryant as his guards. Let’s examine his rationale, and we’ll start with the more indefensible of Palmer’s two selections – Kobe Bryant.
Palmer justifies picking Bryant over Wade on the basis of Wade having missed ten games, plus “the fact that Bryant averages more points, rebounds, edges him from behind the arc and has a perfect attendance record despite a broken nose.” I’ll concede that Wade’s lack of durability gave me some pause about picking him for my First Team, especially since I excluded Derrick Rose largely on the basis of his twenty games missed due to injury. But the difference between Wade and Bryant is so vast that I’d rather have Wade 80% of the time than have Bryant 100% of the time.
Palmer, the statistical wiz-kid that he is, correctly observes that Bryant averages more points and rebounds than Wade. Per game stats are remarkably oversimplified, as they don’t account for pace or minutes. In this case, Kobe plays 16.3% more minutes per game than Wade. When we adjust those per-game averages to per-36-minute averages, Kobe still has a slight lead over Wade in scoring (26.0 points/36 compared to 24.9), but Wade overtakes him in rebounding. Of course, Palmer completely neglects to mention that Wade absolutely destroys Bryant in assists, steals, blocks, field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, PER, and WS/48. In fact, despite having missed ten games, Dwyane Wade is still tenth in the league in “Win Shares” (an estimate of how many wins an individual player accounts for) at 7.1; Bryant’s 5.7 Win Shares place him outside the top-20, and below the likes of Marcin Gortat and Paul Millsap.
Offensive efficiency is the biggest driver of the massive gulf between Bryant and Wade. Bryant’s effective field goal percentage (which factors in the extra point you get from making a three) is a career-worst 45.1%. Wade, on the other hand, has a stellar 51.7% eFG%. It’s pretty funny that Palmer points to Kobe’s three point shooting as justification for selecting him over Wade, given that Kobe is shooting just 28.3% from beyond the arc, his lowest mark since 2001-02. Undeterred by his inaccuracy, Kobe launches 5.1 threes per game. So, to recap, Kobe shoots 28.3% on 5.1 attempts per game. Wade shoots 30.4% on 1.1 attempts per game. And Chris Palmer lists three-point shooting as one of four stated reasons for picking Kobe over Wade. Again, this is why C-Palm gets paid the big bucks.
Anyone who has watched a Lakers game this year can see that Kobe’s ballhoggery has reached a new level. His Usage Rate (percentage of team’s possessions “used” by Bryant) is at an astounding 36.5%, almost five percentage points above his career average. This stat is particularly baffling considering Bryant’s diminished efficiency, and the hyper-efficiency of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, the Lakers’ second and third options. There’s little doubt that the Lakers would be a better team if Bryant shared the rock with Bynum and Pau. There’s also little doubt that Andrew Bynum is frustrated with Kobe’s antics; he has hinted as much several times throughout the season. I just don’t see how Kobe is even within the realm of legitimate candidates for the All-NBA First Team.
Having dismissed the Black Mamba, I move on to Russell Westbrook. I’ll begin by noting that Westbrook is having a much better season than Bryant, and one could reasonably argue that he deserves to be on the First Team over Wade. I guess that such an argument would center around Wade’s injuries. Statistically, Westbrook has a slight edge over Wade in PPG and AST. Again, Westbrook’s advantage in scoring disappears when we adjust for minutes. Wade annihilates Westbrook in just about every other relevant category (except for steals, where the two are tied on a per-game basis). And, despite playing in ten fewer games, Wade has produced 7.1 Win Shares to Westbrook’s 6.7. The bottom line is that there isn’t a legitimate statistical argument to be made in favor of Westbrook, but the stats are close enough that it’s not completely absurd to pick him over Wade.
However, it tests the limits of sanity to select Westbrook over Chris Paul. And since Chris Palmer explicitly set forth his rationale for doing so, I will take particular delight in shredding his argument apart. Here’s Palmer’s “thinking:”
Westbrook rebounded from a rocky postseason to turn the 2011-12 season into a career campaign. He has almost as many 30-point games (12) as peers Chris Paul and Derrick Rose combined (14), including two 40-point explosions (both wins). When he scores big, the Thunder win more often than not (OKC is 16-6 when he goes for 25 or more).
Westbrook has battled a rep as a bit of gunner but is actually shooting fewer 3s per game than Paul and Rose. The biggest statistical difference between this season and last is that Westbrook’s assists have dropped off by about 2.8 per game. That can likely be attributed to Kevin Durant and James Harden willingly taking on more distribution duties. But among players averaging 24 points or more, only LeBron James has more 8-assist games than Westbrook.
He gets as much out of his athletic ability as any small guard. He’s a terror in transition, and at 6-foot-3 is pulling down as many offensive rebounds (1.4) as James and Dwyane Wade. Westbrook is also one of the NBA’s most durable players, having never missed a game in his four-year career.
What about Chris Paul? It’s tough to make a case against Paul, but he’s a pass-first creator whose assist average has dropped 1.2 assists per game to 8.6, the second-lowest of his career. While the Thunder have the best record in the West, the Clippers are in a dogfight to remain in the playoffs, despite a comparatively talented roster.
Please excuse me while I go gouge my own eyeballs out. Where to even begin? First, let’s all take a moment to chuckle together at Palmer’s cherry-picked “has more [fill in the blank with arbitrary number] games than [fill in player who is better than Westbrook]” stats. Hey Palmer, Jarett Jack has more 21 point, 6 assist, 5 rebound, 9-14 FG games than Russell Westbrook. Therefore, Jack is better than Westbrook. Q.E.D. I mean, this type of argument is so stupid that I won’t even take the time to refute it, as I assume that most of my readers have triple-digit IQs and can take care of that themselves.
Let’s try to ignore the nonsense and cull out the real gist of Palmer’s argument. As I see it, he makes six points, which I analyze in turn.
1) Westbrook is more likely than Paul to have huge scoring nights. I am not going to take the time to fact-check Palmer, so I’ll assume he’s correct about the number of times Westbrook has scored 30 points. OK, so what? You see, Chris Palmer, there’s this newfangled statistical concept called an “average.” And Westbrook is averaging 24.4 PPG, which means that for every 40 point game, there’s an eight point stinker (not technically true, but you get the idea). There’s no denying that Westbrook scores more than Paul (per-36 minutes, it’s 24.6 to 19.4). But, as in the Wade/Kobe comparison, the efficiency stats belie the raw numbers. Westbrook chucks up 19.4 shots per game to get his points; Paul takes just 14.5. Do you really want your point guard attempting almost twenty shots a game when you have Kevin Durant playing on the wing? True Shooting Percentage, which basically captures a player’s total shooting efficiency, factoring in threes and free throws, goes to Paul in a landslide (59.1% to 55.3%), in part because Paul is a far superior three-point shooter. So, yes, Westbrook has more high-scoring games than Paul. But the numbers reveal that Paul could very likely go for 30 or 40 more often if he wanted to; it’s just not his style to compromise on efficiency for the sake of posting gaudy point totals. Finally, I have to call attention to Palmer’s single dumbest argument, that the Thunder are 16-6 when Westbrook scores 25 or more. So, you’re telling me that the Thunder win 72.7% of their games when Russell scores 25 or more. That’s great, but the Thunder win 76.9% of their games overall, meaning they are better when Westbrook doesn’t put a ton of points on the board!
2) Westbrook gets a lot of assists for someone who scores so much. Again, Palmer’s point is technically correct but completely irrelevant. Only LeBron James averages both more points and more dimes than Westbrook. But, as Palmer concedes, Westbrook’s assists are way down this year from 8.2 per game last year to 5.5. I find it hilarious that Palmer chides Chris Paul for his 1.2 assist per-game drop (more on that later), while trying to dismiss Westbrook’s precipitous decline as a facilitator.
3) Westbrook gets a lot of offensive rebounds for a guard. Russell Westbrook leads all point guards in offensive rebounds per game at 1.4. Awesome, because when I’m trying to decide who is the best PG in the league, offensive rebounding is definitely in my top 500 most important categories. Maybe we should make Johan Petro our First Team center because he leads all centers in 3-point percentage (at 100%!). I think we can move on.
4) Westbrook is durable. As an initial matter, why do we care that Westbrook has never missed a game in his career? Aren’t we picking our team based on this season? In 2011-12, Chris Paul has missed five games, all in a single week in January. Should we hold that against him? Maybe a little bit. But it hardly seems like a relevant consideration when Paul’s numbers are so vastly superior to Westbrook’s.
5) Chris Paul’s assists have dropped. Sometimes Chris Palmer makes this too easy for me. As noted by Palmer himself, Westbrook’s assists have dropped much more than Paul’s. Additionally, when you adjust for pace, Paul’s assists are down just marginally from his last two years in New Orleans, and are right around his career average. The Clippers play at the third-slowest pace in the league, using only 88.9 possessions per game. Paul’s “Assist Percentage” (an estimate of the percentage of teammate field goals that Paul assisted while on the floor) is at 43.3%, just barely below his rate of 45.8% last year. And Paul’s minor decline in assists is more than compensated for by his vastly improved turnover rate (a career low 10.9% turnover rate, or 2.0 TO per game). Chris Paul is on track to become the first player in history to post a usage rate above 23% (meaning his team relies heavily on him to generate offense), an assist percentage above 43%, and a turnover rate below 11%. (I know that stat is a little Chris Palmer-y, but I had to do it). By the way, Russell Westbrook’s assist-to-turnover ratio is a forward-esque 1.47.
6) Westbrook’s Thunder are better than Paul’s Clippers, despite otherwise comparable talent. “A comparatively talented roster”?!?! Hey Neil Olshey, why don’t you go call up Sam Presti and see if he wants to trade Durant, Harden, Ibaka, and Perkins for Griffin, Mo Williams, DeAndre, and Caron Butler. Because apparently that’s a fair trade. Look, the Thunder have a much better record than the Clippers, and that’s really the only case you can make for Russell Westbrook. But that logic can be extended to reach absurd results; should we pick Perkins over Dwight Howard because the Thunder are the better team? And does anyone seriously think that the Thunder wouldn’t improve if they traded Westbrook for CP3?
I could go on and on about why and how CP3 has dominated Westbrook this year (PER, Win Shares, WS/48, and virtually every other statistic), but I would hope that by now the point is clear.
Key Stats: 26.5 PPG, 6.6 AST, 8.2 REB, 1.9 STL, 0.8 BLK, 53.5% FG, 35.5% 3PT, 60.6% TS%, 30.4 PER, .295 WS/48. WOW.
Key Stats: 27.7 PPG, 3.5 AST, 8.1 REB, 1.5 STL, 1.2 BLK, 50.1% FG, 37.6% 3PT, 60.8% TS%, 26.5 PER, .233 WS/48.
Palmer and I are in agreement that LeBron James should be on the First Team. I assume that ESPN would have fired him immediately if he had omitted James.
So we disagree as to whether Durant or Love should be on the First Team (I’ll put my homerism aside and refrain from making a case for Blake Griffin). In fact, it’s not even clear that we disagree about that, because Palmer was apparently under the mistaken impression that he had to have a power forward on his team. If he had realized that both LeBron and Durant could be on the First Team together (as they were just last year), perhaps he would have given Love the boot. However, Palmer caused chaos in the twitterverse last week when he tweeted that Love was a more deserving MVP candidate than Durant, so presumably he would have stuck to his guns and picked Love over Durant even if he had recognized Durant’s eligibility.
Honestly, and surprisingly, Love over Durant is not a ludicrous idea. It’s hard to compare them, because they play totally different styles at different positions. I don’t want to slog through any more stats, so I’ll just say that it’s basically a statistical draw between these two. Durant has a slight edge in PER (26.5 to 25.6), and Love has a slight edge in WS/48 (.237 to .233). In short, they are both having incredible statistical seasons, and it wouldn’t be a miscarriage of justice to put either one on the First Team next to LeBron.
This is where I would invoke the “team success” argument. In my opinion, any tie should be decided in favor of the player who has led his team to the better record. The Thunder have the best record in the league, while the Wolves are a sub-.500 squad. Durant is a consensus top-two MVP candidate (it will be either KD or LeBron), so Palmer’s constant advocacy of Love over KD reeks of trolling. Again, it’s not a preposterous concept, but I think Palmer’s argument is grounded more in self-promotion than substance.
Key Stats: 20.9 PPG, 14.5 REB, 2.1 BLK, 1.5 STL, 58.0% FG, 57.3% TS%, 24.5 PER, .194 WS/48.
I think this one is beyond dispute. Unless you want to make an argument for Johan Petro and his other-worldly three-point percentage.
It will be fascinating to see how the real All-NBA teams turn out. Given the disproportionate weight assigned to points per game and team success, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Westbrook and Kobe get the First Team guard slots, which would be a travesty of epic proportions.