The changes the NBA announced to its All-Star Game format Tuesday, which will have two captains pick teams instead of pitting the Eastern and Western Conferences against each other, should help create more competitiveness — and perhaps even defense — in what’s become a high-profile practice run.
But the NBA airballed an opportunity to also ensure the best 24 players will be on the court at this season’s All-Star Game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Though players won’t represent their conferences any more, the league still plans to choose 12 players from the East and 12 from the West. And with the West as dominant as ever in terms of star talent, now was the right time — past time, really — to change that part of the selection process.
A history of West dominance
As the Western Conference has had the upper hand on the court against the East over the past decade-plus — the East has won a higher percentage of interconference matchups just once (in 2008-09) since the start of the 2000s — so too, naturally, has the West had the lion’s share of the star talent in the NBA.
Based on the wins above replacement player (WARP) accumulated by the 12 players originally selected to the roster (before injury replacements), the West has surpassed the East 16 times in the last 18 seasons, with 2009 and 2011 as the two exceptions.
This hasn’t necessarily translated into imbalanced All-Star results. While the West has won 12 of the last 18 All-Star Games — including both times the East has had more WARP, oddly — most have been relatively close, with just five of those games decided by more than 10 points. However, it has had a significant impact on which players are on the court. The imbalance is only likely to get worse this season.
All-Star talent migrates West
Though the West All-Star team already had an advantage of 21 WARP over the East last season, we can expect that gap to grow in 2017-18 — like Fievel in “An American Tail,” NBA All-Star talent goes West.
Of the 13 players on last year’s East roster, including injury replacement Carmelo Anthony, four have changed conferences. In addition to Anthony, Jimmy Butler and Paul George were also traded from East to West for younger players, while Paul Millsap signed with the Denver Nuggets as a free agent.
Meanwhile, the East has added just one 2017 West All-Star: Gordon Hayward, who signed with the Boston Celtics. Add in a hip injury that’s expected to sideline East All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas until January and suddenly there are a lot of empty spots to fill on the East roster.
Of the top 24 players by projected 2017-18 WARP from my SCHOENE projection system, a whopping 17 play in the Western Conference. Same with the top 24 projected players in ESPN’s real plus-minus (RPM). At least five of those players, deserving All-Stars if the lineups were chosen without regard to conference, will be left out when the initial rosters are chosen. Meanwhile, a number of less deserving players from the East will be headed to L.A. for the All-Star Game.
Winners and losers of All-Star reform
The upside of the NBA’s current All-Star format is it will give budding young talent in the East a chance to shine on the All-Star stage. Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks and Myles Turner of the Indiana Pacers are a pair of third-year players with a chance to claim open All-Star spots, with Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards another strong first-time All-Star contender. (Beal should have been chosen over Anthony as an injury replacement last year.)
However, young players in the West likely won’t have the same opportunity with 15 players who made the 2017 All-Star Game already vying for just 12 spots. That’s bad news for Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz, two rising stars who are likely to be among the league’s top 24 players but not among the top 12 in the West.
Worse still is the fate of longtime bridesmaids like Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the best players never to make an All-Star Game. Conley’s 12.5 WARP last season would have ranked seventh in the East but put him 13th among West players and squarely on the wrong side of the All-Star roster bubble.
Contrast Conley with Joe Johnson of the Utah Jazz, who spent his prime years in the East with the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets. Johnson is a seven-time All-Star despite racking up barely more WARP in his 16-year career (70) than Conley has in 10 NBA seasons (68).
Given the important role All-Star selections play in Hall of Fame discussions, it’s crucial to get our picks right to help shape players’ legacies. It’s past time for the NBA to pick the 24 best players for the All-Star Game. Particularly now that the two conferences won’t even square off on the court, there’s no good argument against making one more change to the process.