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The [In]Conspicuous Case for Pascal Siakam as an All-Star

Ya, I am biased. So what. Pascal Siakam deserves an All-Star bid. Read it and weep.

15 mins read
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Photo via Getty Images | Contributor:Jennifer Pottheiser

*Data is prior to January 3rd games

Pascal Siakam is a lodestone of NBA furore.

Look no further than a Raptors Republic forum to see the microcosms of controversy. (Our fanbase suffers from major dissociative identity issues).

A loud, raucous conglomerate wanted his ass gone the moment Bubble Pascal popped in Disneyworld: overrated; overpaid; inefficient; overconfident. A calmer, patient type rationalized his struggles – COVID, the Bubble, shoulder surgery, increased volume, more responsibility, inevitable fatigue – and extolled his offensive and defensive gifts.

Go beyond the rantings – all intelligently reasoned, of course, oh ye faithful readers – into the greater NBAverse and his value is all the more misunderstood.

(Ohhh I’ll tell you why. For starters, one’s suspended for being a sulk and one isn’t).

(Whoever CCC is, I really feel for you, I really do. The desperation in Sactown has obviously poisoned your critical-thinking faculties).

(At first, I thought, hmm, fair. That’s worth a second glance. Then I second-glanced and realized Hamza wanted OG TOO!! hahahahahahahahaha).

(K, Joel. Here’s a paper bag full of my leftover cold french fries, now hand over that Triple Thick Milkshake).

(If your Twitter handle is, quite literally, NBA Trades, I feel like you have to do a little more heavy lifting than this).

Okay, I’m done with the laughs. Back on the job.

I am not here to litigate Pascal’s general worth; he’s already been named an All-Star and won a Ring. That file is closed. The higher courts have dismissed the appeal. We’re moving on. 

Though, as I write this, I also realize this is not just a discussion about Pascal Siakam’s All-Star candidacy but a critique of the All-Star selection process in general – in my oh so very humble opinion.

The decision-making is a careful balance between the objective and subjective. Of the former, it’s a bit easier, at least in the traditional sense, by looking at basic data.

When we delve deep into analytics or deeper still into the complex algorithmic realms of EPM, VORP, RAPTOR, SCHMAPTOR, SCHWAMPTOR, and DISCHTRACTOR, those analyses get a bit murkier. Suddenly, it depends. Look for the common trends affirming our eye for the game. And, hold our breath.

Then, there’s the question of what one does for their team more or less than another. A more contextual, and complicated, query. Do you simply consider wins? If so, how do you attribute it to one single participant? Or can you honour the individual play of a star on a crud-ass team in a vacuum? In other words, how much can lesser or greater teammates penalize a player? A question as vexing as the pastry vs ravioli PopTart debate.

A team’s record should count for something. In the official selection process, it seems to a lot – the crème de la crème justified in receiving multiple nominees; the basement dwellers should be so lucky to get one. 

Sometimes that’s legitimate. Kevin Durant and James Harden – shout out to Patty Mills – ARE the Brooklyn Nets. They’re cracker dust without’em. 

The Phoenix Suns or Utah Jazz, on the other hand, are more difficult to pinpoint. Certainly, CP3 and The Spida are the best players on their respective teams. Remove either, both teams still probably hang in there. Is that an argument for Devin Booker and Rudy Gobert or a demerit to Chris and Dono? It’s complicated.

But then, look at Toronto…

I dunno…

Look at Toronto. You tell me. What is this team’s rightful record were it not for injury and COVID? You know how many minutes Toronto’s 3 best players have played together? 114. How does that ingredient fit the All-Star selection recipe?

Fred VanVleet is obviously the best player on the team right now. He’s deserved of a flight to Cleveland – Lou already fancifully presented his case. Can we argue for a second despite a record hovering .500? I’m about to try. 

Pascal may not be the best current Rap, but he’s becoming the most dominant. It took a while. Coming off shoulder surgery, Pascal missed the first 10 games of the season. Maybe that right there disqualifies him. He rid himself of the rust and swiftly ascended into the fearsome two-way player loyal fans and Masai knew him to be.

O

On the offensive end, Pascal’s unleashing an arsenal unique to the league: the footwork of a salsa dancer; luring dribble sequences; violent post-ups; cunning attacks; pinpoint midrangers; timely dimes. His superior playmaking powers harnessed within his diversity of unpredictable moves. Few defenders can forestall such an array. 

 

Look at the more traditional data; Pascal’s in some rare company this season. (I know, I know, stats can always be pilfered and adulterated. Nikola Vučević set that record straight on the record he set):

 All the same, when you filter out numbers and a certain type of players remains, and that certain type of players are superstars, and Pascal Siakam is the other guy amongst those certain superstars, it’s something to pay attention to.

I used Pascal’s points, rebounds, and assists as minimum thresholds. Only 7 other players average at least 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists – 3 of whom are guards. Then, I filtered out players with a net rating of less than 0. That eliminated Luka Dončić, Russell Westbrook, and Julius Randle. Look who remains:

Player
CONF.
PTS
REB
AST
TO
EFG%
USG%
TOTAL TOUCHES
USED POSSESSIONS*
Pascal Siakam E 19.9 8.4 4.3 2.5 50.7 25.2 61.7 20.7
Giannis Antetokounmpo W 27.8 11.6 5.9 3.3 56.1 33.6 70.4 25.4
Joel Embiid E 26.3 10.8 4 2.5 50.8 34 71 25.4
Nikola Jokić W 25.7 13.9 7 3.7 60.2 31.7 100 24.2
James Harden E 22.4 8.2 9.8 4.9 49.7 27.9 94 24.6


*Compliments to Blake Murphy for the “used possession” algorithm. A rough estimate of how many possessions end with that player finishing a play (a sum of FGA/TO/FTA).

A mortal amongst Gods.

Pascal’s volume is less, but his efficiency is similar. Pascal, of course, does not exert the same planetary force as the others, but he’s still the 7th best isolation scorer in points per possession in the league and responsible for roughly 20% of his team’s assists (the 91st percentile for bigs). 

Pascal bedevils teams in the mid-range. This year he’s taking more shots (51% compared to 39% last year) at a more accurate rate (44% vs. 41%) – placing him in the 72nd percentile for bigs. That’s an impressive feat considering, most bigs score in the 4-14 feet range and are typically a monstrous 6’10” – 7’1″ and 230 – 260lbs. Whereas Pascal takes exactly 50% of his shots from 14 feet and beyond and has a body frame of the pinnerish variety.

At the rim, he’s decreased his frequency (from 38% last year to 30%), but boosted his accuracy (70% vs 63%), at an honest 58th percentile amongst the big boys. He’s become one of the best in the league finishing above or through nearby defenders inside of the arc.

The three-point shooting is Pascal’s last bastion to conquer. The sign of a mature scorer is knowing when something is not working and letting it progress naturally. At this rate, Pascal will have shot 33% fewer 3s than last year (he’s reduced his pull-up 3’s significantly too). If [when] that 3-point percentage ticks up, this entire All-Star argument will become an even easier submission.

D

To me, it’s Pascal defence that distinguishes him from most others in his bid for All-Stardom. Not in such a visceral way as Freddy V’s steals, strips, and deflections, but as a sound, independent, supportive defender. The team allows only 1 point less when Pascal’s on the floor. That’s not a major difference; the analytical counterparts aren’t that impressive either. He has a slightly negative defensive RAPTOR and estimated plus/minus and a not so pretty defensive rating. 

I’m not defeated. Those algorithms are said to favour the big. Pascal’s an integral part of Toronto’s aggressive, scrambly, defensive scheme. You see it clearly too. He covers huge swaths of the court protecting the weakside, looming over the ball side, busting pick and rolls, escorting paint probers, and governing the backbone of a complicated system. Pascal consumes 1.18 miles per game on the defensive end – 8th among all forwards and centres in the league.

You can’t play the P&R against a guy like Ja Morant any better than this:

His defensive versatility pops in the numbers. Pascal’s 12th in the league in overall opponent shooting percentage (7th best within 6 feet, 16th best within 10ft, and in the upper echelon beyond 15ft). Pascal tempers attackers at all 3 levels of the floor, which is integral to a team going full whack-a-mole for 24 seconds and extremely rare in the NBA.

Other Candidates

There’s worthy competition for those final All-Star forward depth spots. Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum are likely locks. Maybe 1 or 2 more forward spots are available. Here’s a pamphlet on Pascal’s competition:

  • Jarett Allen – 17/10.7/1.9

Pro: dominant rim defender + 6.9 net rating + plays for the hometown host
Con: not creating his own scores + probably the 5th scoring option on his team

  • Domantas Sabonis – 18.4/12/4.4

Pro: Back to bashing heads + stat filler
Con: Team stinx + not a versatile defender

  • Miles Bridges – 19.5/7/3.7

Pro: high-flying scorer
Con: among 3 other Hornets with similar stats + not the primary creator

  • Julius Randle – 19.3/10/5

Pro: primary [and only legtimate] scorer on a mediocre team
Con: -6 net rating + inconsistent defender + freefalling team

  • Jaylen Brown – 24.3/6/2.6

Pros: big-time wing defender doing a lot of the scoring
Con: Not a playmaker or best player (arguably) on a mediocre team

There’s a lot of parity amongst these guys. I’d argue, by virtue of his scoring and playmaking, that Pascal – Julius, fairly, can beef with this – likely draws the attention of opposing teams slightly more than the other fellas. Pascal’s also a more versatile defender – though not as elite as Jaylen or Jarett for their positions – than the rest.

To Close

All-Star, Schmall Schmar.

It’s not like any of this arbitrary award-giving stuff really matters. It only takes one set of high-efficiency Georgian Blockchain bots to mine 100,000 votes for Sandro Mamukelashvili’s nomination. Besides, after the top tier of superstars, it’s no easy task distinguishing who’s truly deserving or not. Depends on your criteria, or, what narrative fits Corporate NBA Media’s collective preferences.

How ridiculous are awards – All-Star or otherwise – anyways when there’s no standardized formula? Maybe that’s the fun of it? I find it ripe for misuse.

Can’t we just get Watson to figure it out and get back to us?

What matters, in all of this analysis, is that Pascal’s back. He looks healthy, confident, and sharp and is playing at an elite level again.

Do I think Pascal’s undervalued? Hell ya.

Do I care, so long as his success translates into the team’s success, that he’s playing All-Star weekend? Hell no.

Do I love that I get to rub this in the nose of all those Pascal doubters and haters for the time being?

Oh, Hellllll, yes.

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