After his fine performance last night against the Nuggets in Denver, sideline reporter Molly Sullivan asked Philadelphia 76ers breakout performer (of sorts) Evan Turner about his All-Star chances. The question took me by surprise, but not Evan, who clearly had been given the question some thought himself, and encouraged the Sixers' PR peons to get out the vote on his behalf. (He also concluded that regardless of whether or not he was selected, he knew that he was "on [his] way to becoming one of the best players in the league," which...well, hold that thought, ET.)
I hadn't really thought about Evan's All-Star chances, but it's true that an argument could conceivably be made for such a selection, as is true for a number of players on the Sixers--surprisingly so for the team with the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference. The Sixers' three notable veterans and their star rookie all have put up numbers this year that might at least merit them discussion in the All-Star debate--even though it's far from certain that any of them actually get picked (and a virtual impossibility that any get voted in by the fans).
But do any of them have a real chance, and are any of them truly deserving anyway? Let's break it down a bit.
Case For: Evan is certainly having the best statistical season of his career, averaging a robust 19.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists a game. The points per game ranks Evan in a tie for fifth with Dwyane Wade among East backcourt players, and the only three other players in the entire league currently with a stat line over 19/6/4 will all certainly be making an appearance on All-Star Sunday: LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love. Evan is also posting career highs in PER, TS% and eFG%, and both getting to the line more than he ever has in his career (nearly five times a game) and shooting at a better rate once there (about 82%, easily the best among Sixers regulars). He's also assumed a leadership role on the Sixers, and hit some big shots for them down the stretches of games, including a takeover overtime period against the Bucks in Milwaukee, and the buzzer-beating, game-winning floater against Brooklyn in Philly.
Case Against: Well, Evan might be putting up career highs in all those advanced-stat categories, but on average, his numbers still ain't that great. His PER of 14.4 is nearly two points higher than any other season of his career, but it's still below the assumed NBA average of 15, and his offensive rating is still in the double digits, with 100 being a sort of baseline number for a productive offensive player. His superficial shooting numbers of 44% from the field and just 29% from deep are also pretty ugly, and though he's done a better job of protecting the ball in the last few weeks, his 102 turnovers on the season also rank him eighth in the entire league in total giveaways.
And there's also that pesky other side of the ball. Even if Evan is having a career season offensively, defensively he's been roundly deplorable, average as a one-on-one defender but utterly miserable as a team defender, consistently blowing rotations and serving as the most deficient cog in the Sixers' historically poor three-point defense. If there's one enduring image of the Sixers' 2013-14 season on the defensive side, it's a haggard-looking ET stumbling his way through a screen out to a shooter behind the arc, getting there a step too late as the shooter drains the trey and Malik shakes his head in disgust from the booth. You generally want your All-Stars to have a higher offensive than defensive rating, and Evan's 99 / 110 combo doesn't exactly make you feel particularly gooey inside.
Verdict: Unlikely. Evan has a better chance than he would in most years, given how miserable the East has been and how some of the East's traditional perennials in the backcourt--Boston's Rajon Rondo, Chicago's Derrick Rose, possibly now even Cleveland's Kyrie Irving--have been out with injury. But he's probably not even the best candidate on his own team, and if the coaches really wanted to grant a high-volume, low-efficiency scoring guard an All-Star bid, they'd probably select Toronto's DeMar DeRozan, who doesn't have Evan's all-around numbers but does have a higher scoring average, and more importantly, plays for a team that's actually winning, at least by crappy Eastern Conference standards. Evan may believe he's on his way to being one of the best players in the league, but he's probably not gonna get that validation from the league this year, and he doesn't quite deserve it anyway.
Case For: Well, if All-Star voting was weighted towards the later games, Thaddeus Young would have a pretty airtight case for inclusion. Thad has been playing on a pretty inarguable All-Star level over his last five contests, as I already broke down earlier this week, making up for his slow-ish start to the season and then some. As currently stands, he's one of only six Eastern Conference forwards averaging 17.5 points and 7.5 rebounds a game, and of those six, only LeBron James has a higher FG% than Thad's 49.5%, and only LeBron and Atlanta's Paul Millsap have a better three-point percentage than Thad's 40.9%. Throw in a steal-and-a-half per game, and above-average team defense--a rarity on the Sixers for sure--and Thad's got a compelling resume, for sure.
Case Against: Well, those are all pretty good numbers that Thaddeus has on his resume, but none of them are really eye-catching or jaw-dropping enough to capture the attention of voters that probably haven't watched a ton of Thad this year, or really know the little things he does on a night-to-night basis to help the team win ballgames. And as with everyone else in this column, the fact that the team hasn't actually won a whole lot of ballgames hurts his case, especially as compares with someone like Millsap, part of an overachieving Atlanta team fighting for home-court advantage in the East.
Verdict: Thad probably falls just short, both in theory and reality. If you figure the East takes about five forwards, three of those slots would unquestionably be taken by LeBron, Indiana's Paul George and New York's Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron's frontcourt mate Chris Bosh and the previously mentioned Paul Millsap both have stronger cases for better teams than our Thad. An injury or a lack of acceptable centers could give Thaddeus a sliver of opportunity, but he'll probably have to wait for another year--maybe on a better team--before being given serious consideration.
Case For: Like ET, Spence is having easily the best offensive season of his career, a make-good campaign that finally validates his high draft selection seven summers ago and proves he does have a ceiling somewhere near where his boosters initially predicted. His 14.9 points per game rank him third among East centers--with both the players ahead of him, Atlanta's Al Horford and Brooklyn's Brook Lopez, being out for the season with injury--while his 8.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game rank him third and second among the same pool. Most impressively, Spence has by far the best three-point percentage of all centers with his 44%, which is actually tenth-best in the whole league, and his true shooting % of 59.4 is also best of East centers besides the injured Lopez.
Case Against: Well, again as with Evan, defense is kind of a problem. Spence does have the blocks to his credit--1.5 a game, among the best for Eastern centers--but his actual nightly team defense can be problematic, as you saw last night against the Nuggets, when his inability to move while defending the pick-and-roll resulted in a lot of open jumpers for the Denver guards and easy dump-off opportunities for their big men. When you're the defensive anchor for what has to be considered the league's worst defensive team, you tend to get a little of the blame for that.
Verdict: Well, it's going to be interesting. Spence definitely benefits here from playing in the crappy, injury-decimated East, where he a has a quasi-legitimate claim to being the second-best center in the conference this year, but given that neither the coaches or fans have to name even a single center to the East squad--the only requirement is six "frontcourt players," with two wild card players, none of whom are required to be a true pivot--it's entirely possible he gets left out anyway.
If the coaches do insist on having two centers for tradition's sake--because there certainly aren't any getting fan-voted in--they'll probably choose Indiana's Roy Hibbert, a true defensive anchor for the league's best D, and then they'll have their choice of Detroit's Andre Drummond, Chicago's Joakim Noah and Hawes. I'd say Hawes beats Noah thanks to his superior offensive numbers (and the perception that Spence is having a career year, while Noah has struggled to match his previous bests), but Drummond's insane rebounding numbers (12.4 a game in just 32.5 minutes) and insaner field-goal percentage (61.3%, best in the entire East) makes him a real threat to Spence's candidacy, despite Drummond also playing largely subpar defense on a struggling team.
I'd peg Spence as having about a 25% chance of making the squad at the moment, with a chance for that number to go up or down a bit depending on how both he and the team do in the next few weeks. Those aren't overwhelming odds for Spencer, but that's about infinity times better a chance than he's had in any season prior, so he should take it and like it just the same.
Case For: Well, if you're judging him in comparison to all other first-year players, not only is MCW the clear Rookie of the Year, he's basically an MVP candidate. He's leading all rookies in points, rebounds, assists, steals and PER, and there isn't even a particularly close second. True, this is a historically weak draft class that Carter-Williams is competing with, but even if you hold his numbers against all rookies from every year, they stand up--the only two other players to ever average 17 points, seven assists and five rebounds in their debut season are a couple guys you probably heard of, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson. Oh, and if you factor in MCW's league-leading three-plus steals a game, he's putting together a stat line that no basketball player has posted at any point in their career, like, ever.
That's all pretty good, and so is this: When Michael Carter-Williams plays for the Sixers, they're 9-11, which in the East would be a winning percentage that would easily get them into the post-season. Without him, they're 1-10. So that means so far this year, MCW is the difference between the Sixers being a playoff team and them being historically awful--a perception that also passes the eye test when you watch the team play with and without him. If that doesn't make him one of the 12 most valuable players in the talent-and-injury-depleted East, it's hard to say what would.
Case Against: Well, even though they did a brilliant job of demonstrating just how important he is to the Sixers by virtue of his absence, the 11 games MCW missed with various lower-body maladies does hurt his campaign a little, since that's a pretty large percentage of games to be sitting out pre-All-Star break. And even though he's actually been better than a lot of us predicted in terms of shooting the ball in his rookie season, a 41% FG percentage and 31% conversion rate from deep is still probably gonna stick out to some people as a negative, as are his 3.6 turnovers per game, which is currently the highest TOV rate in the whole league.
And despite the 3.1 steals a game, the defense still comes and goes a little with MCW, as he's had some trouble adjusting to Brett Brown's team defensive scheme coming from two years of playing zone in Syracuse, often finding himself lost or behind the play. The steals absolve a lot of sins, but as with Spence, playing point for the league's least-efficient defense has to be held against him to a certain extent.
Verdict: You know what? I'm saying he goes. If the East has to bring at least four backcourt players to the game, I'm not sure that you can make a case that there have been four better guards in the Eastern Conference this year than Michael Carter-Williams. Miami's Dwyane Wade will certainly be there, as will Cleveland's Kyrie Irving if he's healthy enough to play, and you have to think that Washington's John Wall, averaging 20 and nine for one of the East's only competent teams, will get his first All-Star bid as well.
But after that, who's beating out MCW? It's pretty slim pickings--the only player with a real argument is Atlanta's Jeff Teague, but even that is mostly record-based, as Carter-Williams is out-rebounding and out-stealing Teague about two to one, and out-scoring him on comparable field-goal percentages, despite being the nominally inferior shooter. It might still come down to record, but you tell me what's more impressive--getting a team that's made the playoffs each of the last six seasons to a handful of games over .500, or getting a team that everyone expected to be near-unprecedentedly horrific to double-digit wins by Jan. 1st, despite missing 11 games?
And then there's this: Who's the real story of this NBA season? Michael Carter-Williams has been one of the headliners of 2013-14 since he went toe-to-toe with LeBron and came out on top on opening night, and he's barely let up since then, blowing away the rest of his rookie class, making it to the top 15 in league jersey sales despite the official NBA Store not even selling his jersey, swinging fantasy leagues and making the Sixers an unexpected League Pass must-watch. I know these things aren't supposed to matter, but you tell me who NBA fans would want to see playing in this game with the league's best, Michael Carter-Williams or Jeff Teague? Brandon Jennings? DeMar DeRozan? Get that weakness outta here. It's gotta be MCW.
So, apologies Evan, but if we're gonna stump for any Sixer's All-Star chances, it's gonna be our rookie phenom. Tell your friends, write your local congressperson, tackle Mike Brown or Randy Wittman if you see them on the street and make sure they know what's what. Michael Carter-Williams deserves to be playing on that Sunday in February, and it's up to us to make it happen. Or at least to whine about it loudly and interminably when it doesn't.