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Does Luol Deng Deserve His All-Star Berth?

10 Feb 2012

In his eighth NBA season, Luol Deng has his first All-Star berth. Is he worthy of it?

Chicago players, coaches, fans and media have been saying for at least a year that Deng “deserves” to be an All-Star, but all that really means is he’s an excellent player, one of the best all-around forwards in the league.

All-Star berths are a very limited commodity; it’s not good enough to just be “an All-Star caliber player.”

Is Luol Deng one of the top 12 players in the Eastern Conference? Or more specifically, is he one of the top seven players beyond fan favorites Derrick Rose, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony?

The answer is a little tricky.

***

The NBA annually has the best All-Star rosters because you rarely have to choose between the best players and the biggest stars. By and large, they are the same men. (Unlike football.)

What’s more, performances don’t fluctuate wildly over the course of the season — unlike baseball — so it’s at least defensible most years to choose All-Stars on the basis of half a season.

*It usually comes out in the wash, but it’s never made sense that mid-season all-star games would choose players based on their first-half performances. They go back to their teams, play the second half of the year … and then, a year later, we wipe those second halves from memory when picking all-stars again.

Not this year, though. When you’ve played only 25 games, and those on the heels of an abnormal offseason and nearly non-existent preseason, you can’t pick All-Stars simply on their play this season.

So let’s look at what Deng and his top East competitors did this season and last season. We don’t want to pick a former great who has fallen off a cliff this season (e.g., Tim Duncan), but we also don’t want any 25-game flashes in the pan.

My favorite all-in-one measurement of an NBA player is Wins Produced Per 48 Minutes. It’s hardly the only all-encompassing statistic out there, but I appreciate that it corrects for our bias toward scorers. Shooting all the time doesn’t always lead to wins, and the formula acknowledges that.

Here’s WP48 data for 16 East all-star contenders:

(Click to enlarge, because obviously you can’t read that at all.)

The first seven names, left to right, are the players announced Thursday as East reserves. I have a few bones to pick.

But not with the selections of Paul Pierce and Andre Iguodala. Great players having great years, and of course, Iggy and the Sixers have been the surprise of the season so far.

From Roy Hibbert to Deng to Chris Bosh to Joe Johnson to Deron Williams, the WP48 declines steadily, reflecting the high-volume shooting of those latter players. Johnson has always been an overrated gunner, and Williams was more valuable before he starting shooting so much with the undermanned Nets.

The numbers bear out my preference to replace those two with Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo, the Boston guards who have been as productive as just about any players in the league this season. Look at those towering WP48 bars!

We probably should swap out Hibbert for fellow Hoya big man Greg Monroe, especially when you compare the full-season numbers from last year, but I’m not going to the wall for an unexciting second-year Piston.

***

Again, this isn’t about who has the best numbers this season. They’ve only played 25 games.

It’s about identifying the best players in the league — and right now, that Eastern group doesn’t include Joe Johnson or Deron Williams or Amare Stoudemire or Kevin Garnett.

In my estimation, it includes:

LeBron James
Derrick Rose
Dwight Howard
Dwyane Wade
Carmelo Anthony (only because of the fan vote)
Paul Pierce
Andre Iguodala
Rajon Rondo
Ray Allen
Chris Bosh
Greg Monroe
and yes, Luol Deng

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