With the announcement of the All Star reserves scheduled for Thursday, today is a Theme Day around the NBA blogs of SB Nation. Everyone is posting on the All Star theme, with a particular emphasis on making the case for All Star reserves. The Clippers already have two starters in the game, and they happen to be the team's two best players, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. But the organization is also promoting a third All Star selection: super sub Jamal Crawford.
This post isn't going to be a cliff hanger. I'll end the suspense now. Jamal Crawford is not going to be selected as an All Star reserve. However, having said that, I will admit that he is much closer to being in the conversation than I at first suspected.
The Clippers media folks point to a few sparkly stats for Crawford to pump him up as an All Star candidate -- he's in the top 10 in the NBA in plus/minus, he's in the top 5 in fourth quarter scoring, he leads the league in 20 point games off the bench. Those things all sound pretty good, but there's not a lot of meat there. Raw plus/minus, as we've discussed, is a very noisy metric, and the leaderboard in plus/minus is dominated by players from the teams who outscore their opponents by the widest margin. If we used plus/minus to choose All Stars, the Western Conference team would literally consist exclusive of players from the Thunder, Clippers and Spurs who place 12 names in the top 14 in the entire league. At least half the team will come from the Big Three in the West already, we can make room for a few others. As for high scoring games off the bench, that's a terrific argument -- if you're voting for the Sixth Man Award. It turns out that All Star Game selection is not limited to bench players, so it's not particularly relevant that he has come off the bench. Crawford has scored well in the fourth quarter, that much is true, but a lot of that is simply a matter of fourth quarter minutes.
So I don't find any of those arguments as compelling as the Clippers would like me to, but even so, Jamal is right on the fringe of the All Star conversation.
The biggest question of course is the simple numbers game. Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant have already been named the All Star starters, and the good news there is that both of them are deserving, so they haven't taken anyone's rightful spot on the team. The rules allow for a minimum of two and a maximum of four additional guards to be chosen by the coaches as All Star reserves. Most years they pick three guards, and this year they'll pick at least three. However, with many top Western Conference bigs suffering through injury-plagued or simply down seasons thus far (Kevin Love, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol) there's a possibility that a fourth guard reserve could sneak in this season.
To my mind there are four leading All Star guard candidates in the West: Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, James Harden and Stephen Curry. All four of those players have a significantly more compelling All Star case than Crawford. Three of them have a PER better than 22 while Curry's is at 19.6 -- Crawford's is 16.7. And although Harden's Rockets have slumped to below .500, all of those teams are right in the Western Conference playoff race. There's just no reasonable way to make Crawford's case ahead of any of those four.
Especially considering that Paul and Griffin are already on the team. All Star reserve selection has always included a major component of team success, and the Clippers performance to this point of the season almost requires two All Stars -- but it doesn't compel three. It didn't help losing two key games just before the votes were handed in, but it wouldn't really have mattered. If this Clippers team were structured differently, more like the LeBron James Cavs or the Dwight Howard Magic, with one massive star and a slew of productive players around him, then Crawford's numbers combined with major team success might well have produced an All Star bid (think Mo Williams or Jameer Nelson in 2009). But the Clippers have their two All Stars, and the coaches won't go "activist" to try to correct some injustice.
Here's what I find most interesting though: after Paul, Bryant, Westbrook, Parker, Harden and Curry, there is no Western Conference guard having a better season than Crawford. Even by PER, a measure that will never look kindly on a player like Crawford who is asked to do one thing on the court, Jamal is legitimately in the next group. Manu Ginobili has played fewer than 900 minutes and is currently hurt or he'd be a decent choice. Crawford's teammate Eric Bledsoe is a PER monster but plays limited minutes and is inconsistent as we well know. From there Crawford's rivals in the west are the likes of Goran Dragic, Jarrett Jack, O.J. Mayo, Damian Lillard and Mike Conley -- and I think it's pretty clear that one could make a compelling case for Crawford over any of those players.
In the end, I'm left with the conclusion that Crawford has probably been the seventh best guard in the Western Conference this season. Given that there will be at most six West guards on the All Star team, that leaves Jamal on the outside looking in. However, if you'd told me when the Clippers signed Crawford that he'd be in this conversation at all, that he'd be in the top 10 among Western Conference guards (bear in mind, there are 15 Western Conference teams who start two guards each), I'd have thought you were delusional. Crawford has been a revelation and a big part of the Clippers success so far this season, and the Clippers are lucky to have him, but he's not quite All Star worthy.