Commentary

PER Diem: Jan. 26, 2009

John Hollinger casts his All-Star reserves ballot, leaving off one former Finals MVP. Prepare yourself for the truth.

Updated: January 28, 2009, 11:03 AM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Al JeffersonNoah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesShaq may have the name recognition, but Al Jefferson has the All-Star-worthy stats.

456.

That's the most important number to remember as coaches select the All-Star reserves for both conference teams this week, because it's a huge reason why a player who isn't getting much support should absolutely, positively be on the team.

First, a little background. Coaches vote on the seven reserves from each league this week, after the five starters for each side were chosen by fan balloting. Each coach submits a list of seven that must include at least one center, two forwards and two guards, though they're permitted to fudge the positions slightly if it's plausible that a player could switch to a different slot -- for instance, Eastern coaches might be inclined to list Chris Bosh as their one center.

But that 456 figure? That's actually the key number in deciding the center position in the West.

It's the difference in minutes between Al Jefferson and Shaquille O'Neal, and it's a whopping figure. Jefferson has played 1,532 minutes for the Wolves, while O'Neal has seen only 1,076.

That's not because of any extended injuries -- it's because O'Neal sits out the second games of back-to-backs and often rides the pine for long stretches even on nights when he plays.

Jefferson, on the other hand, hasn't missed a game and plays 40 minutes every night.

The two players have virtually identical player efficiency ratings and rebound rates, with Shaq's superior true shooting percentage offset by Jefferson's far lower propensity for turnovers. They are similar players -- left-block, low-post dominators who command a double-team but can struggle at times defensively -- and the nine-game disparity in their records can be easily explained by the fact that only one of them plays with Amare Stoudemire and Steve Nash.

The only major difference is that Jefferson is on the court 42 percent more often. Using O'Neal's average of 30 minutes per game, he's played 15 Shaq-games more than Shaq in the first half of the season -- that's out of a 42-game season. Project over a full year and the difference is 30 games.

So while it would be a hoot to have Shaq in Phoenix for the game, I don't think that's a good reason to exclude a player who is so abundantly more deserving. The coaches' long-standing bias against players with losing records is well known and has been taken to a ridiculous extent in the past few seasons, but it would be a huge mistake to leave Jefferson off the West roster.

Here's how I'm filling out the rest of my Western Conference ballot:

Western Conference

Center: Al Jefferson, Minnesota.

Forward: Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas. I nominated Nowitzki as a starter last week, so this shouldn't come as a big shock to anybody. Stoudemire will be starting in his place, but Nowitzki should easily snag a reserve role from the Western coaches despite the Mavs' mildly disappointing start to the season.


Forward: Pau Gasol, Lakers. The other obvious pick at forward in the West, Gasol has done all the usual things he did in Memphis, but the move back to his natural power forward spot has allowed him to show off his variety of skills and subjected him to fewer beatings around the basket at the defensive end. As the clear second star on the conference's best team, it would be unprecedented for him to be excluded.

Guard: Brandon Roy, Trail Blazers. Roy has quietly hung with Kobe Bryant on the PER charts for most of the season, and while he doesn't quite bring Kobe's defensive mojo (Saturday's 10-steal explosion aside) Roy has proven to be among the league's most clever offensive operators.


Guard: Tony Parker, Spurs. Another no-brainer, as he's turned up his offensive game another notch to help the Spurs overcome some serious age issues at other positions. He's fourth among Western guards in PER behind Chris Paul, Kobe and Roy, and has kept his assists, turnovers and TS percentage steady while averaging nearly two points more per 40 minutes.

Wild Card No. 1: Chauncey Billups, Nuggets. A relatively easy call, given his impact on the Nuggets at both ends in helping Denver to a surprising lead in the Northwest Division. Billups ranks behind a few other Western candidates in PER, but once you factor in defense and durability, he rises to the top of the list.


Wild Card No. 2: Paul Millsap, Jazz. First, let's get two players out of the way: Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony. They haven't been their usual selves this season because of injuries, and if you want to argue that they should be in the game because we all know they're really better than this, I suppose you can make that case.

Personally, I think that's getting a little too loose with the benefit of the doubt. I'm sure both these guys will be in future All-Star games, but it's tough to reward them for what they've done in 2008-09 when, based on current-season production, neither is even the best remaining candidate from his own team (Millsap and Denver's Nene have those honors).

Instead, let's look elsewhere. The top three PERs in the West that I haven't already nominated belong to Manu Ginobili, Shaq and Millsap. Shaq and Ginobili have played a fraction of Millsap's minutes, even though he was stuck on the bench for the first 12 games.

Since then Millsap has played 26 games and has 24 double-doubles, a performance that screams All-Star from the top of the Wasatch range.

Let me add that the rules of the All-Star voting leave a decent chance that Millsap will get screwed anyway. As I wrote two years ago, the position rules the coaches must follow can have some bizarre consequences -- for instance, one can have multiple centers make the team even when no coach voted for more than one. That could very well happen here if Shaq and Jefferson split the backup center vote, and if so it would likely put both on the team while leaving Millsap (or Williams, or Anthony) out in the cold.

Eastern Conference

In the East, it's a little more cut and dried until the very end. Let's quickly move through the easy choices before we get to the nitty-gritty:


Center: Chris Bosh, Raptors. Coaches are allowed to list Bosh as a center, and given the dearth of Eastern centers who are even remotely deserving of an All-Star spot, I highly encourage them to do so. Bosh leads all East reserve candidates in PER, so hopefully the silly, overwrought coach-speak about players from losing teams not belonging won't be a factor here.

Guard: Devin Harris, Nets. I nominated him as a starter last week so I won't spend a lot of time repeating myself; suffice it to say that he's the reason the Nets aren't at the bottom of the East like everyone expected.


Guard: Jameer Nelson, Magic. Nelson has been among the league's most improved players, and either he or Harris is likely to win the award this spring. In the meantime, Nelson's stellar play at the point has the Magic rivaling Cleveland and Boston for the top seed in the East; and his PER is the best of any Eastern Conference guard candidate not based in New Jersey.

Forward: Danny Granger, Pacers. Indy's sharpshooting wingman has been virtually automatic from long-range, enabling him to bust into the league's top five in scoring and the top 20 in PER. As with Bosh, the biggest threat to his making it will be the coaches who decide on their own to invoke the old "the All-Star game should be a reward for winning" defense, even though those aren't the league's guidelines and the coaches were never asked to invent new ones.


Forward: Vince Carter, Nets. People get caught up on how many players a team "deserves" based on its record, and I keep having to remind them that this isn't some kind of parliamentary system of proportional representation. The job is simple -- select the 12 best players in the conference. It's perfectly logical that the best team might have only one of those 12 (as is the case with Cleveland), or that a middling team could have two or even three of them (as is the case with the Nets).

With that said, Carter is an obvious choice for the team -- except that everybody is ignoring him based on the theory that there can't possibly be two Nets on the All-Star team; also, it doesn't help that Carter's malingering has made him an easy target in the past.

OK, try this exercise then: List the 12 East players having their best seasons and try leaving off Carter. You can't. He's been carrying the Nets when Harris hasn't, and it's not his fault that guys like Bobby Simmons and Jarvis Hayes surround them.

Incidentally, I slid Carter up to the forward spot here since he was the most qualified remaining player and just as easily could play the 3 as he could the 2.

Wild Card No. 1: Joe Johnson, Hawks. This is where it starts to get hairy. Truth be told, only nine guys in the East are having All-Star caliber seasons, and if I could fill out the final two spots here with leftovers from the West I would.

That said, Johnson is easily the most qualified of the remaining bunch. His numbers are down after a hot start -- he's fallen out of the top 50 in PER, in fact -- because the Hawks play him a zillion minutes and ask him to cover all Mike Bibby's defensive shortcomings, but among the remaining reserve candidates he has the strongest combination of defense, durability and production.


Wild Card No. 2: Rajon Rondo, Celtics. For the last spot, we had four potential candidates: Antawn Jamison, Paul Pierce, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Rondo. Ilgauskas played great but missed too many games. Jamison has actually played well for Washington, and there isn't anything different he's doing now than in the past two seasons when he was voted in … but he's not Rondo's equal on D and isn't far enough ahead in PER to make up for it.

That leaves us with Rondo and Pierce. I'm sure many will consider it unprecedented to leave a Finals MVP off the All-Star team; I'd ask Chauncey Billups for a second opinion. More importantly, Pierce hasn't played nearly well enough to merit inclusion. Yes, he's taken up the challenge of guarding top wing players and done an excellent job of it; on the other hand, Rondo is even better on D and outranks him in PER, and other wings who play major defensive roles (Johnson, Andre Iguodala, Rashard Lewis) also outrate him.

So we can pick Pierce solely on reputation or we can pick Rondo based on what he's done on the court. Easy call.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.