The All-Star starters were picked by the fans. The reserves were picked by the coaches. There were rules about positions, there were hash tags and there was apparently a mandate that Joe Johnson make the team… again. For our alternative game, there are no positional rules and the only mandate is fun. For our Third Annual Alternative All-Star Game, we asked some of our 172,893,465 writers to pick one player per conference. The Western Conference roster is below. Click here for the East.
Bo Churney: Rudy Gay, Sacramento Kings
Rudy Gay was so bad in Toronto, where he was averaging 19.4 points on 18.6 shots per game and put up a magnificent total of -0.7 offensive win shares. A move to Sacramento and a decreased offensive workload have boosted Gay’s efficiency to 20.7 PPG on 14.8 attempts per. (61.1% true-shooting!) That said, he can still put up shots like a maniac, which is an essential and fun aspect of any all-star game.
Robby Kalland: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
He averages 20.4 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.3 blocks, and 1.6 steals per game. His PER is 27.1. He has 0.220 WS/48. Oh yeah, AND THE ALL-STAR GAME IS IN HIS F***ING CITY. Let the Mardi Gras Flying Death Machine do his thing in the All-Star game, because he deserves it and it would be damn fun to watch.
Scott Raffety: Nick Young, Los Angeles Lakers
The All-Star game is meant to be fun and for that reason, how can Nick Young not be included in the festivities that’ll take place in New Orleans next weekend? He takes terrible shots, which is fun. Sometimes, he makes those terrible shots, which is even more fun. Sometimes, he attempts 360 layups that fail to hit the rim, which is, yes, fun. But he’s also a great interview and is yet to show us any signs that he knows how to play defense, which is perfect for everything that goes on during All-Star Weekend. And most importantly, he has one of the best nicknames in the game: Swaggy P/Swag Rambo/Swag Mamba.
Jack Winter: Markieff Morris, Phoenix Suns
There are varying types and degrees of individual improvement in the NBA. Players emphasize different facets of their games they wish to improve every summer, and most endure a similar process of trial and error through ebbs and flows of the regular season. Actual progression is easier said than done, however, and especially on a wholesale basis; shooting, passing, rebounding and defense rarely advance in direct cohesion, and even intricacies of each category are more likely furthered than aspects on the whole.
Markieff Morris, though, cares not for the typical trends of player development. On a Phoenix team that has wildly exceeded preseason expectations, Morris’s impact, predictably, has been relatively overlooked on the national level. The genius of Jeff Hornacek, rise of Goran Dragic, and loss of Eric Bledsoe have dominated headlines, and rightfully so. Those are the driving forces and limiting elements behind the Suns’s awesome success.
But the growth, reclamation, or both of several role players has been instrumental to Phoenix’s sudden prosperity, too. And while Channing Frye, Gerald Green, and even Miles Plumlee might get more attention, Morris has meant as much to the Suns as any other ancillary piece on the roster.
The raw numbers speak for themselves: Morris is averaging 12.8 points and 5.8 rebounds in 25.0 minutes per game while shooting 49.4% from the field this season. But even such a solid statistical profile – one worthy of Sixth Man of the Year consideration, by the way – grossly belies not only Morris’s overall influence on his team’s winning ways, but the long individual strides he’s made as well.
One of the most impressive feats a player can achieve is to increase his efficiency and usage in the same season. More possessions always mean more opportunities to finish them unsuccessfully, in addition to more attention from the defense. A player can’t snap his fingers and suddenly become a ball-dominant, high-yield offensive hub, the thinking goes; it takes time to develop the comfort and nuance needed to thrive in such a role.
But Morris, after two up-and-down, mostly underwhelming NBA seasons, has done just that in his third campaign. His 55.6% true shooting percentage and 21.6 usage rate are both career-highs. Those are impressive numbers in a vacuum, but are especially so considering Morris’s history. He didn’t reach 50% true shooting or a 19.0 usage rate in either of his previous professional seasons, offensive mediocrity coupled with physical limitations on the other end that led most to believe he’d top out as nothing more than a good team’s fourth big man.
But Morris’s newfound identity as high-usage, high-efficient scorer has gleaned significant optimism for his future, and the further you dig into his production, the brighter the coming days appear. Consider: Morris has more than doubled his free throw rate since last season and is being assisted on almost 12% fewer baskets. Combined with his new proficiency posting up on the left block, all this goes to show that Morris is now far, far more than the streaky spot-up shooter he was in 2012 and 2013.
Though that major transition hasn’t won him a starting gig and likely won’t garner much legitimate Sixth Man buzz, either, it’s certainly altered the trajectory of Morris’s career. In the process, he’s changed the course of Phoenix’s season, too.
Ian Levy: Monta Ellis, Dallas Mavericks
I thought this signing was going to be quiet disaster. Watching O.J. Mayo dribble the Mavericks’ offense into oblivion last season was a painful experience, and Ellis seemed like the worst kind of replacement. At least Mayo could hit from the outside (sometimes) and defend his position (occasionally). But it turns out that Ellis was the perfect growth medium for Dirk Nowitzki and Dallas. He does a passable impression of Jason Terry in his prime, albeit with a little less accuracy and a lot more rancor. His swashbuckling pick-and-roll penetration has been the lifeblood of the Mavericks’ offense and he’s revitalized an aging roster and his own career. Just don’t invite him to the Alternative Three-Point Shooting Contest.
Steve McPherson: Robin Lopez, Portland Trail Blazers
I watched Robin Lopez rip out my wife’s friend’s brother’s heart on national TV. This was when Lopez was teammates with his brother Brook, and 3-seeded Stanford faced 6-seeded Marquette in the second round of the NCAA tournament back in 2008. It was all so exciting: the game went to overtime and my sister’s friend’s whole family was there to cheer them on — until Stanford prevailed 82-81 on a basket by Brook. And Dan Fitzgerald’s basketball career was over. Well, not over — he’s played overseas since college — but that ascending arc from middle school to high school to collegiate glory had just abruptly tailed off. The family went from giddy anticipation to someone-just-ran-over-our-dog in seconds flat. Fitzgerald and many of the other players — both on Stanford and Marquette — were never going to make it to the NBA. They were going to follow different paths
And yet weirdly, even though Robin Lopez did make it to the NBA, he’s followed his own different path, especially in contrast to Brook. Taken by Phoenix with the 15th pick in the 2008 NBA Draft (while his brother — he of the shorter hair and greater offensive talent — went tenth), he averaged a shade under 15 minutes per game in his four years with the Suns before carving out a starting role last year for the (admittedly woeful) Hornets, all while looking like the offspring of Sideshow Bob and Jamie Lannister.
So you could call his impressive season in Portland so far the Journeyman’s Revenge. The Return of the Hustle. On an individual statistical level, Lopez doesn’t even necessarily look distinctively better than the man he replaced, J.J. Hickson (although Lopez’s offensive rating of 124.4 (3rd in the league) against a defensive rating of 108 is pretty damn good). But although Portland has also boasted an improved bench this season, Lopez’s addition to the starting lineup is the biggest change for a team that went from missing the playoffs last year to at times holding the best record in the league this year.
Let’s just add it up: On a jump-shooting team that’s leading the league in offensive rating and second chance points, Lopez is leading the team in offensive rebounds both per game and per 36 minutes. The Blazers take more midrange shots than any other team and Lopez is the one down there doing the dirty work of corralling the misses and putting them back in.
Is it glorious? No. Is it glamorous? No. Maybe it’s not even All-Star worthy. It certainly wasn’t back when he helped his brother and Stanford hang an L on Marquette, back when everyone knew it was Brook who would go first in the draft, who would have the garlanded career and the All-Star nods (he already has one). And they were more or less right. But Robin’s stint in Portland is demonstrating how success is often in finding your place, in discovering where what you do can do the most good. He’ll probably always be a sideshow, and not the headliner. But isn’t that what Alternative All-Stars are for?
Derek James: Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota Timberwolves
When you give a player a big contract you worry about a drop in production and/or injury. Despite turning his ankle in late January, Pekovic has remained mostly healthy for the first time in his career and has been downright dominant next to Kevin Love in Minnesota. Pekovic has pounded the opposition down low, averaging 18 points per game and dominating the glass at both ends with 9.1 per game. Love and Pekovic have continued to form a formidable tandem and would certainly do so in the big game in New Orleans.
Caleb Nordgren: Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves
Is there anyone in the league who would seem more suited to the ASG than Rubio? The lack of defense makes his total lack of scoring ability a non-factor and his passing would result in at least 12 open dunks and/or alley-oops for every 10 minutes he was on the floor. Of this I am certain.
Brian Schroeder: J.J. Redick, Los Angeles Clippers
Jonathan Clay Redick is perhaps the NBA’s most often marginalized player. He’s just a shooter (he’s shooting .514 on 2 pointers this season). He’s just a bench guy (the Clippers are +11.8 +/- when he’s on the floor). He’s just a role player (he’s posting 19.9 points per 36). Despite all of these, Redick has fought his from College Star to NBA rotation player to Coveted Trade Deadline Piece to full time starter for a legitimate playoff team, each time working himself into a position to take greater and greater responsibility. Anyone who’s watched the Clippers can tell you how important he is to their offense, through his passing to his screen navigation. He adds a component of constant horizontal movement to a unit whose biggest threat is usually up and down (sometimes literally) and straight line drives to the basket. Perhaps the biggest marginaliztion of Redick’s game is that he’s never even been in the three point contest, either. Forever the NBA’s invisible man.
Jared Dubin: Channing Frye, Phoenix Suns
Frye’s comeback from a serious heart defect is one of the most heart-warming stories in the league. His skill set would also allow him to be a rare big man who could actually get seriously involved in the All-Star festivities. Frye could just go all RAIN DANCE on folks from downtown, but, ya know, actually make his shots.
Jordan White: Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns
This is where I’m supposed to wax poetic about the merits and glory of Goran Dragic. His singular style, always seemingly playing in his own time signature yet still in complete rhythm with the rest of his teammates. I’m supposed to recite to you his statistics, how he’s flourished in an entirely new system alongside a player that was anointed as the point guard of the future one season after Dragic was similarly anointed. But you know all of that.
What you may not know is that Goran Dragic is freaking adorable.
He talks to you with a permanent sheepish grin, mixing mischief with bashfulness. Though he’s not a native english speaker, he’s well-versed in idiomatic and colloquial phrases, and he’s just as expressive off the court as he is on it. You may think he’d be reluctant to talk about Eric Bledsoe’s success, but when asked, all he does is glow about his new teammate. His eyes brighten as he talks about Bledsoe’s athleticism and his growth.
Twice I’ve wanted to ask Dragic to be my best friend. I want to say my journalistic integrity and fear of Matt Moore decapitating me held me back, but really, I’m just too afraid of rejection.
Andrew Lynch: P.J. Tucker, Phoenix Suns
Four members of the Suns seems appropriate for the Alternative All-Star Game. Phoenix has become the “but-when” team for League Pass aficionados — as in “I’m a fan of [any of the other 29 teams], but when they’re not playing, I’m watching the Suns.” And as that phenomenon has spread, so has recognition for P.J. Tucker. It helps that Tucker in 2013-14 is a much improved player over the 2012-13 version that first latched on in Phoenix. He’s still the same tenacious defender and hustle guy whose effort inspires a litany of cliches, but he grew his offensive value enormously by adding the corner three to his resume. Where he’s gotten exposure, that additional offensive weapon gets a lot of attention.
But the beauty of Tucker’s game is the brute-force appropriation of grace. A corner three is an elegant solution to the logic puzzle that makes up an offensive possession — unless it’s from Tucker, in which case it’s a player punching the rim in the mouth with a jump shot. That’s who Tucker is. It’s what he does.
How tough is P.J. Tucker? A Google search for “P.J. Tucker” returns about 11.3 million results. “P.J. Tucker tough”? 102 million.
The internet knows the truth. If you want the details, ask your favorite team’s wing players. Their bruises will tell the story.