There are six spots in total. Can Lowry or DeRozan have one? Can they have it?
Despite their last second playoff elimination at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets, 2013-14 was a tremendously successful season for the Toronto Raptors. They set a new franchise-record in wins at 48, captured their second-ever division crown, and pushed a veteran-savvy Nets team to the brink of elimination. I’m currently in the process of writing an extremely wordy eulogy of the season, so if you would like to wax poetic, do so here, here, or here.
The team was led by a pair of guards in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry who both enjoyed breakout seasons. For DeRozan, it was a case of development and hard-work meeting opportunity. For Lowry, he stayed healthy and focused which allowed him to actualize his potential. DeRozan was named to the All-Star team as a reserve, while Lowry was narrowly edged out by Joe Johnson. The pairing ranked among the league’s best, despite John Wall’s claims to the contrary.
However, were their heroics sufficient to garner a spot on an All-NBA roster?
Let’s quickly review the voting process. The award is voted upon by a panel of sportswriters and broadcasters. They are instructed to fill out a full ballot of three teams consisting of two guards, two forwards and one center per team. Voters are also encouraged to only cast votes for players in the position they normally play (so no DeRozan as a forward, for example). First team votes count for 5 points, second for 3 and third counts for 1. The five highest totals form the first team, the next five for the second, and the remainder for the third team. Votes are cast prior to the post-season, meaning the award is solely based on regular season accomplishments.
Three teams with two guard spots each leaves six spots in total. However, three spots are all but guaranteed for Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and James Harden.
Paul missed 20 games due to injury, so he’ll likely fall into the second team. He averaged 19.1 points, 10.1 assists, 2.5 steals while posting a 58.0 TS%. He led the league in both assists and steals per game. His Clippers won 57 games in the Western Conference. Simply put, he was tremendous, and had he played the entire season, he would be a lock for the first team.
Stephen Curry is also guaranteed a spot. His Warriors finished with a record of 51-31 while Curry led his team in scoring (23.1) and assists (8.4). He was Golden State’s only reliable scorer and the team’s best playmaker. Most impressively, he was able to score both efficiently, and in high volume. He posted a true-shooting percentage of 61.0%, which ranked just below the likes of LeBron James (64.9) and Kevin Durant (63.5).
Finally, although fans love to throw shade on his admitted abhorrent defense, James Harden is absolutely deserving of a first or second team spot. The Rockets won 54 games playing in the incredibly difficult Southwest Division (seriously, Spurs, Mavericks, Grizzlies and Rockets all made the playoffs). Harden averaged 24.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game while scoring at a rate of 61.8 TS%.
Paul, Harden and Curry’s dominance leaves three spots left for an impressive crop of players. I’ve lumped the contenders into groupings.
The Former Winners
Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade and Tony Parker have all found themselves on the list in the past. Wade leads the pack with 8 selections while Parker and Westbrook are tied with 3 appearances apiece. All three players have established brands and hail from the league’s elite teams. Luckily for Raptors fans, they missed significant portions of the season due to injury which hurts their cause. Wade missed 28, Parker missed 14 and Westbrook missed 36 games.
The Nike/Adidas All-Stars
John Wall, Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving are on television every single day and not just during their games. Wall and Lillard are signed with Adidas, while Irving is in Nike’s camp. John Wall listens to Lady Gaga while shopping for Beats by Dre, Kyrie Irving is Uncle Drew, while Lillard has “No Rings“, but over $100 million reasons to smile. They might not be household names, but the increased awareness has certainly boosted their popularity. For example, despite Irving’s lackluster season, he was still voted as the starting point guard in the Eastern Conference for this year’s All-Star game. Each player has their merits, that’s without a doubt, but their public profile gives them an edge in popularity.
This is where we find DeRozan and Lowry. They were vital to their teams’ success, but lack a #brand. This list also includes Goran Dragic, Mike Conley and perhaps even Isaiah Thomas. Dragic’s breakout year in Phoenix didn’t go unnoticed, as he was named the Most Improved Player and DeRozan was voted to the All-Star team. Aside from that, there aren’t any big commercials or awards on their resumes. They only have the stats to back-up their cases.
The 7-Time All-Stars
You can never count out Joe Johnson, amirite Raptors fans?
Given the names listed above, Lowry and DeRozan have plenty of opposition. However, based on on-court statistical production alone, there is a case to be made for either of them (but mostly Lowry, as Braedon Clark of Raptors HQ outlined). The data was pulled from basketball-reference. I color coded the tiles to give a relative scale of their production. Green is good, red is bad. If anyone knows how to embed a table with Tableau software, please let me know (email: email@example.com).
Based on just the numbers alone, Lowry has a good case. He battled through a spate of injuries and played almost the entire season. Aside from raw per-game scoring, he ranked above average in just about every category. He also boasts the fourth-highest win shares total (a testament to his health). Most importantly, Lowry’s defense factors in as a plus. In addition to leading the league in charges taken, Lowry was a central figure in one of the league’s 10-best defenses.
Lowry’s closest competitors are likely Dragic, Lillard, Parker, Conley and Wall. Dragic is a worthy competitor, and if you want to put him over Lowry, I’d be totally fine with that. Lillard played on a better team and was ridiculously clutch, but his defense is on-par with Harden’s, which is to say it’s a significant negative. Conley fits a similar profile as Lowry in that he’s a good two-way player, but he missed more games and I’d argue his supporting cast was much better (Marc Gasol is a top-15 player IMO). Wall doesn’t have much of a case over Lowry, as his team performed worse and he scored less efficiently (midrange jumpers will do that). Had he played an entire season, I would have Parker over Lowry, but he missed a bunch of time and the Spurs didn’t miss a single beat without him. That’s not to say that he’s not fantastic, as I think the world of Parker, he just wasn’t as productive in my mind.
DeRozan falls more into the middle of the back. He scored less efficiently than Lowry, but his function in the offense was entirely different, which makes comparing aggregate statistics between positions a futile task. He got to the free-throw line a tonne, and despite his defensive shortcomings, he did lead the Raptors in scoring. However, given the names on the list, he falls short in my mind. Also, there is no way two Raptors should be on the list. If I had to pick one, I’m going with Lowry.
Having said all that, merit and statistical production isn’t everything. Narratives, star-power and team performance also matters. In an ideal world, voters would make decisions with clarity and full knowledge of each player’s candidacy, but they’re not. For the most part, they’re like everyone else — they’re lazy, so they rely on heuristics.
If voters rely too heavily on heuristics, Lowry’s case is diminished. He doesn’t have much name recognition and he has a poor reputation around the league. The former also applies to DeRozan.
Contrast them to Wall, for example. Wall was drafted with the first overall pick, so he’s expected to be good. He’s also incredibly athletic, which makes him flashy. Thunderous dunks and superhuman quickness tends to leave a bigger impression than charges drawn. Pair that with his All-Star selection, and Washington’s best season in years. The narratives surrounding Wall’s coronation easily tops that of Lowry for DeRozan’s.
The same applies for players like Parker and Lillard. Parker is a central figure to the Spurs, who led the league in wins last season. Obviously, he needs to make it. Meanwhile, Lillard’s case is almost exactly the same as Wall’s. Game winners and incessant television commercials have a way of making legitimate defensive shortcomings disappear (except in Harden’s case).
I’m inclined to be cynical, so I don’t expect Lowry or DeRozan to beat the odds. I think the Wall will likely sneak in ahead of Lowry for the reasons listed above. If the voters are anything like me, they filled out the ballot with only a nary glance at basketball-reference. I could be wrong, but I’m not holding my breath either. It’s also entirely possible that the Raptors votes are split between the two.