Rolling My Eyes At the All-Star Starters & Looking Forward to Reserves

. Wednesday, July 15, 2009
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Well…at least the fans didn’t vote Candace Parker as an all-star starter.

That’s good!

But that also means that they were actually watching the games…and still left out Diana Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter, Jia Perkins, and Nicky Anosike, without doubt the best players on the ballot at their respective positions and easily among the top ten players in the WNBA overall this season.

I know, I know…the criteria people use for all-star voting is about as rigorous as that of an elementary school student council vice president election (the student council president’s selection might be more rigorous). You know how it goes: someone gives a speech and promises pink lemonade in the water fountains or video games during recess and everybody just blindly votes for the kid. But really, it doesn't matter what the candidates say or do because ultimately, it's a popularity contest.

I get that.

But wouldn’t it be nice to publicly honor the players who have worked hard over the years to get to the top of their games with a starting spot in the all-star game?

It’s not so much that the players selected don’t belong in the game. For example, the selection that at first appears most perplexing – Swin Cash – is not that bad once you look at what she has done this season. She could make a legitimate claim for a spot on the roster…there were just at least 3 players on the ballot who were as deserving if not more than Cash.

So ultimately, I believe that everyone who deserves an all-star bid will get one. And really, look on the bright side – this just means that the coaches’ job got a lot easier. They’re busy people and since there are about 7 or 8 no-brainer selections for the reserves, at least they won’t have to take too much time to think about it…

But wait…

Maybe not thinking is what got in the way of the starters’ selections…hmmmm…

So, ok... hypothetically, if there was any interest in making sure the best players made the game, here’s who should probably be included on the roster. Instead of a strict positional breakdown, I’ll just pick one player from each position and fill in the rest of the spots with the best players available.

Some of these will merely be arguments repeated from my previous post on all-star selections, but some things – especially near the bottom of the reserves – have changed.

Eastern Conference reserves

I’ll start with the East because Jia Perkins has been the best guard in the conference this season, if not the best player in the conference overall…and she plays for the Sky, who I happen to like. Here are my picks:

G- Perkins
F – Shemeka Christon
C – Erika Desouza
1 – Sancho Lyttle
2 – Lindsey Harding
3 – Lindsay Whalen

In my original all-star selections, I did say that assuming Perkins had one starting guard spot locked up, Beard, Douglas, and Lindsay Whalen all had legitimate claims for the other starting spot. That’s still true, though I think at this point, Whalen is probably a bit behind the other three. But Perkins is clearly the best of that bunch.

What separates Perkins from Beard and Douglas is that in addition to being one of the top scorers in the East, she’s also one of the best play makers in the conference (and the WNBA). She is putting up numbers that rival those of an elite point guard in addition to being her team’s top scorer. Her assist rate of 19% is in the top tier of the league and well above Beard (9.28%, bottom third) and Douglas (12.4%, middle third). Her pure point rating (2.70) is better than that of Harding (2.40) and Whalen (1.71), easily the best two point guards in the conference.

But beyond the stats, she has single-handedly taken over games and carried her team to victory in at least two games that I’ve watched this year – at Seattle on Sunday (to end a 15-game winning streak) and in Chicago against the Monarchs. When the team is in a tight game down the stretch, the ball is in Perkins’ hands. And she brings energy on defense. Just watching her play, she has something special and is clearly the leader of that Sky team on the court. If Dupree and Fowles are in, Perkins has to be.

Sancho Lyttle could have legitimate reason to feel snubbed as well…and I did dedicate a whole post advocating for her to be a starter… but as of Monday, she and Candice Dupree are playing neck and neck, so it’s not as egregious. So she does get a spot on the team. But for the first forward position, Christon is playing so well that she deserves it.

It’s not just that Christon is one of the top scorers in the East, it’s also that she is assuming the majority of the burden for her team’s limited “success” thus far this season, while also scoring very efficiently. I’m normally not a big fan of pure scorers, but she’s doing it so well this year that she deserves credit.

The center position is where it gets tricky in the East. Desouza, Tammy Sutton-Brown, and Janel McCarville have arguably played as well or better than Fowles to this point in the season, keeping in mind that even though Fowles missed games, she has still played only one less than Desouza nad Sutton-Brown. Fowles is just the best defender of the bunch and is a force in the paint, so she deserved the start. But picking the back-up is tough.

I’m tossing McCarville out because no matter how you think about it, she’s contributing the least to her team’s success this season. She is probably the most talented center in the East, but has not exactly outperformed the competition. That leaves Sutton-Brown and Desouza and they too are pretty even. However there is one glaring, and important, difference between the two that I think matters for post players – 2 point percentage.

Desouza has been an outstanding finisher around the basket this season with a 2 point percentage of 55.65% while Sutton-Brown is at 46.73%. Given that we’re talking about centers who are otherwise quite even, this large differential swings my opinion in favor of Desouza.

Harding is the best point guard in the conference statistically no matter how you want to measure it and with her shooting percentages creeping upward, she deserves a spot.

That leaves one more spot and I think it’s a really tough choice between Whalen, Asjha Jones and Crystal Langhorne. Each one of them brings something very different to the table – Whalen brings intangibles and court leadership, Jones is one of the best scoring power forwards in the conference, and Langhorne is an outstanding rebounder. Any one of these three would be legitimate choices in my mind.

However, I would put Langhorne aside because she is really the third most important on her team behind Beard and Harding, whereas Whalen and Jones are leaders for their team, and I think that should count for something. But choosing between Whalen and Jones is difficult. There’s not a lot of separation there as neither is clearly the best at their respective position and they’re both pretty much equally responsible for the team’s success.

But I’m throwing my support to Whalen because in addition to being the leader of that team on the court, she is almost indisputably the best at running an offense in the conference, despite having an off year. And even in that off year, she’s really only second best to Harding who is having a great year. Jones is playing well, but is only an average rebounder this year, which make it tough to select her as a forward.

Western Conference

Independent of whether Taurasi will be able to play in the all-star game, she should be selected to the team. She’s having an amazing season. If the league suspends her, they can choose a replacement. With that in mind, here are my Western Conference picks:

G- Cappie Pondexter
F – Diana Taurasi
C – Nicky Anosike
1 - Charde Houston
2 – Tanisha Wright
3 – Temeka Johnson

The argument in favor of Pondexter and Taurasi should be relatively simple – they are arguably two of the top candidates for Most Valuable Player in the league on the best team in the West. Nobody in the West deserves it more than them.

After that, Anosike is the best center in the league this season, hands down. She is a top tier player in every single statistical category except usage rate and assist rate (where she’s right in the middle with a rate of 16.71%). But most importantly, she’s probably the front runner for Defensive Player of the Year – any time your center can come out to the perimeter and steal the ball from opposing guards you know you have something special. Anosike is that something special.

Anosike’s teammate Charde Houston is also having an outstanding season, carrying a large proportion of the scoring load and doing it efficiently in addition to doing a good job rebounding and taking on a large portion of the burden to win in Augustus’ absence.

Where the West gets tricky is with the last two spots. For me it’s between Wright, Johnson, Sophia Young and Ruth Riley. DeWanna Bonner looks good statistically as well and it’s hard to ignore her as a candidate for the all-star game. Of course, if Leslie is unable to play and Taurasi is suspended/unable to play, four of these players should get in making it easier to decide.

So first, Bonner is the best all-around athlete and basketball player of those five players. So why not just pick her? A very easy argument could be made that each of the other players except Riley means more to their team than Bonner. So perhaps that should eliminate Riley.

Next, Tanisha Wright is having the most productive season of this bunch, and similar to Perkins, she gets my respect for being a guard that’s putting up both scoring and facilitating numbers. In the Storm’s tough home loss to the Sky on Sunday, Wright was pretty much running the team when Bird disappeared. Kevin Pelton has nicely summarized Wright’s success already, so I won’t go on.

So that leaves Bonner, Johnson, and Young. To be honest, I’m partial to Johnson because she’s one of the top point guards in the league this season. While she and Bonner are close in terms of production or success metrics, the big difference is plus/minus – when Johnson is on the floor, she is not just producing, but the Mercury play better (+12.8). In contrast, Bonner is at -5.1. When their respective roles on their own team are considered, it would be very difficult to make an argument for Bonner over Johnson. Young is having a good season, but she is a scorer and her percentages are down thus far this season. So I’m choosing Johnson.

Looking Forward to Coaches’ Choices

Obviously, a lot of things are still up in the air in terms of who deserves to be on the all-star teams, especially with the players near the end of the roster. All of these players are in the top 30 or so in the league this season, so any of them would make a worthy participant in the all-star game.

An argument could be made that all four of those players I last considered in the West are more deserving of a spot than Cash, who is an all-star starter, but Cash is having a solid season on a good team.

In any event, it will be interesting to see how the coaches disentangle these issues and select rosters. Part of it is a matter of personal preference – I’m partial to players who produce wins and do so while doing the least harm to their team’s chances at winning. It’s a delicate balancing act, but it’s part of what differentiates great players from good ones.

Transition Points:

Fan voting is not only a WNBA problem -- it’s a problem across professional sports. I would actually be all for the players and coaches voting in the starters and having the fans vote in the reserves. The reason is simply – we can at least be sure the players have seen the players play…because they play each other. And wouldn’t it be cool to make the starting spots a peer choice award? At least the selection might have some credibility. Let the fans save their wacky selections for the bench.

In my scheme, Sacramento and Detroit would have no representation at the all-star game (in addition to Los Angeles, if Leslie is unable to play). But going back to that problem I have with focusing on players who win games, it’s hard to make an argument that a player on a cellar dwelling team is having an all-star season.

My “no-brainers” for the all-star team would also be my MVP candidates. Based on the season so far and the arguments I’ve just made above, my short list would be Taurasi, Pondexter, Lauren Jackson, Nicky Anosike and Jia Perkins. Right now, I’m going with Jackson, but of course we have a lot of season left to play.

If Perkins is not selected as a reserve
, she should revive Rodney Dangerfield’s “No Respect” comedy tour (but I hope she has a better social life)...because it would clearly be a tragedy of epic proportions.

And by the way, the reference to elementary school student council races
was not a manifestation of any long-held bitterness – I actually did campaign for and win a spot in third grade with some ridiculous slogan. I don’t even remember what we did except get the privilege to feel important attending.