1. All-Star Game A Mistake?: It looks like we will have an NBA All-Star game this year even though the pandemic has made things more complicated. Even in the best of the times, the All-Star game was of dubious utility to more hardcore fans. We have written repeatedly about our ambivalence towards the All-Star game, as the defensive effort, has noticeably waned over the years to the point where the NBA finally tweaked the rules last year to get a competitive fourth quarter out of the players.
So, is it worth playing an exhibition event where there will be few fans and COVID exposure risk remains quite real? There is a decent argument against playing a game that I find uninteresting in the best of times. Mark Bradley noted in the Atlanta Journal Constitution that many players, including LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, have no interest in playing this year. Kawhi understood (but clearly did not support) the countervailing consideration: “We all know why we’re playing it. It’s money on the line; it’s an opportunity to make more money. Just putting money over health right now, pretty much…” LBJ mentioned being mentally disengaged from the concept. Bradley, after noting the groundswell against playing a meaningless game, wrote that “[t]he NBA shouldn’t ask its brightest stars to add another layer of travel and risk to their already frightful schedule.”
In short, the NBA has to balance health risk against potential to earn revenues. It sounds a little callous to force players to take risk for cold hard cash but this is a quandary we all face (though most of us face the risk on a much smaller scale in terms of money potentially earned, if not in risk exposure). Jabari Young wrote an article for CNBC where he explained that the All-Star game is actually a key revenue generator for the networks and sponsors. Specifically, Young interviewed an ad metrics company, Kevin Krim who: “estimated last year’s All-Star Game generated around $15 million for TNT, which packed more than 160 advertisement spots in its broadcast. ‘For a single game, that’s a lot of ads for a good price, and it’s effective,’ said Krim, adding that the total reaches $24 million if a related broadcast, like the Slam Dunk competition, is included.”
In other words, this game is a big deal for the companies that drive the NBA’s profitability. While the individual player and writer observations regarding the silliness of playing the game are clearly true, the game has to happen because All-Star weekend is too profitable to cast aside. Chris Paul, who is the NBPA President, understands this and is striking a deal with the NBA as we speak to play the All-Star game. Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the big NBA concession is allowing payers opt out of the game (attendance at the game is mandatory most of the time—just ask Charles Barkley, who tried to beg off the 1991 game before David Stern forced him to play).
What to make of this public argument? The NBA and the players are taking risks for more money. It sounds bad when you say it that way but it’s not really that crazy. The parties seem to agree that playing regular season games comes with an acceptable amount of risk and that the NBA, for the most part, has done a good job of mitigating risk (with a few notable exceptions). If the NBA plays one extra game that generates $25-35 million for the league (and the players) and the usual protocols are adhered to (they will probably have everyone quarantine before the game), there is not much argument for not playing the All-Star from a business perspective. As a fan, I totally understand the instinct to consider the ridiculousness of the risk-reward calculus but the debate was always theoretical.
2. Bad All-Stars: It’s an annual column idea to go through past questionable All-Star selections. We all remember the surprising ones (remember Tyrone Hill, B.J. Armstrong, and Dana Barros?). I thought we could assess the “bad All-Stars” by the advanced numbers, namely PER, BPM, WS/48, and VORP so we could see who comes up lowest. We are starting the search in 1973-74, when the NBA first kept track of turnovers, blocks, and steals. We are using player stats as of the end of the All-Star season (as opposed to stats at the time of All-Star game). Anyway, here are the bottom ten lists for each stat:
1. Dirk Nowitzki, 2018-19: 9.6
2. Mark Eaton, 1988-89: 10.6
3. Kobe Bryant, 2013-14: 10.7 (only six games played)
4. James Donaldson, 1987-88: 12.4
5. Kevin Duckworth, 1990-91: 12.7
6. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1988-89: 12.9
7. Norm Van Lier, 1975-76: 13.0
8. Allen Iverson, 2009-10: 13.4
9. Pete Maravich, 1978-79: 13.4
10. Norm Van Lier, 1976-77: 13.4
PER is a useful stat for overall offensive contribution but it measures very little defensive impact. Therefore, it has fewer dimensions than some of the other advanced stats. Still, most players with a PER below 15 are usually below average. Seeing older Kobe, Dirk, Iverson, and Kareem is not surprising, as they were legitimately below average at those points in their careers. Similarly, centers brought in as backups usually aren’t always great but fill the need in case the star centers are out (Duckworth, Eaton, Donaldson). Eaton and Donaldson are undersold by PER because their impact was mostly defensive. Van Lier and Maravich weren’t that old but both their careers were actually close to over (each would retire within two years). At his best, Van Lier never had a great PER (16.2 career best). Maravich did nicely in PER at his peak (20.5) but he tumbled down very quickly with injuries. He was 31 in 1978-79 and he limped through 43 games in 1979-80 before retiring in training camp in 1980.
1. Kobe Bryant, 2013-14: -.097 (only six games played)
2. Kobe Bryant, 2015-16: -.010
3. Pete Maravich, 1978-79: .004
4. Kobe Bryant, 2014-15: .006
5. Dirk Nowitzki, 2018-19: .016
6. Joe Dumars, 1994-95: .032
7. Latrell Sprewell, 1994-95: .0345
8. Allen Iverson, 2009-10: .037
9. Antoine Walker, 2002-03: .039
10. Chris Kaman, 2009-10: .039
WS/48 gives us a few new names in Kaman (another backup center for the All-Star squad) and younger players in Dumars, Sprewell, and Toine who just didn’t rate great. Dumars is particularly interesting because he was consistently a pretty good in WS. In the next four season before he retired, Dumars put up a .134 WS/48. In 94-95, he rated badly defensively and he took a ton of threes (for 1994-95 player) and shot an execrable 103-338 (.305% when his career number is .382% and he shot much better the next four seasons). It was just a weird year and, perhaps, no one noticed he wasn’t actually playing well.
That same year, a 24-year old Sprewell put a bunch of points on bad efficiency for a bad Golden State squad. He was not an asset for a terrible Warrior team that was going through an implosion (Sprewell was also behaving badly internally, so it was a surprise that he made the team on that basis alone). He shot poorly and it ended up being his worst season until the final year of his career in 2004-05.
Toine was only 26 but he also shot terribly (a then-career low .467 TS%). He would never be an All-Star again and his career was over by 2008.
1. Kobe Bryant, 2013-14: -5.1 (only six games played)
2. Dirk Nowitzki, 2018-19: -3.9
3. Pete Maravich, 1978-79: -3.7
4. Kevin Duckworth, 1988-89: -3.5
5. Kevin Duckworth, 1990-91: -3.3
6. Steve Johnson, 1987-88: -3.1
7. Allen Iverson, 2009-10: -3.0
8. Chris Kaman, 2009-10: -2.5
9. Joe Dumars, 1994-95: -2.4
10. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1988-89: -2.1
We will set aside the older vets who everyone wanted to see because they were stars at some point. The real story is that sometimes not choosing a backup center might be better idea than Duckworth or Kaman (ditto Steve Johnson). A talented power forward would likely have more value than a meh center for a single game. Maravich emerges again to show how far he had fallen by 1978-79. that Dumars’ year looks even worse in BPM than it did in WS/48.
1. Kevin Duckworth, 1988-89: -1.0
2. Kevin Duckworth, 1990-91: -.0.8
3. Pete Maravich, 1978-79: -0.8
4. Dirk Nowitzki, 2018-19: -0.4
5. Joe Dumars, 1994-95: -0.3
6. Steve Johnson, 1987-88: -0.3
7. Chris Kaman, 2009-10: -0.3
8. Allen Iverson, 2009-10: -0.2
9. Kobe Bryant, 2013-14: -0.1 (only six games played)
10. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1988-89: 0.0
Again, we won’t pick on Kareem, Dirk, and Kobe for their victory lap All-Star appearances as emeritus pros. That leaves Duckworth and Maravich as the worst two All-Stars over all advanced metrics. Duck had some nice point scoring but the notion that he was an All-Star was a function of the fact that he had decent raw stats and Portland was pretty good. Maravich (and Iverson) were totally falling apart as players in real time and the advanced stats saw it coming. Finally, Dumars’ one awful All-Star season is one the weird blips on the radar. He never played so poorly again.