Raptors: An all-star is an all-star, team record be damned

Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images

By @RyanGrosman
Laced
February 3, 2022

Today the 2022 NBA All-Star reserves will be announced. So what are the chances that both Toronto Raptors standouts — Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam — get the honours? Very slim to very none.

Why? Because of a backwards, nonsensical rule that an 8th place team cannot have two all-star reps.

In early January, when asked about Fred VanVleet’s all-star candidacy, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said, he has to be in the conversation, but “we got to climb the standings some. I just think that’s part of it.”

To which I ask, why? Why does team record matter?

Of course, this isn’t something that Nurse made up himself. His response was based on decades of evidence. Team record has been and continues to be a huge factor in determining a player’s all-star worthiness. And most people, it seems, are happy to just nod along and accept this as doctrine. That this is just the way it is. Like it’s some sort of NBA commandment etched in stone somewhere in Secaucus, New Jersey.

“Thou shalt select all-stars based on team record.”

Recently on the Raptors Republic podcast, The FAN 590’s Blake Murphy gave further insight into this common practice when asked if VanVleet would make the all-star team. He said, “The Raptors are only a game over .500, so that’s going to be tough. A lot of coaches have said, I take the standings and go at it that way. And the Raptors are pretty far down the standings. By the time they get to 8th in the East, your ballot might be full.”

Again I ask, why? Why do we focus so much on team record? After all, it’s called an “All-Star Game,” not an “All-Team Game.” We’re not selecting the best teams. We’re selecting the best players. The stars. It’s an individual acknowledgement. A snapshot of the top players in the NBA for the first half of the season. There’s already something that exists that rewards team success. It’s called the NBA Championship.

Yet, if you’ve listened to any podcast or read any article over the last couple of weeks about who should make the all-star team, team record is cited every single time — as evidence either for or against a particular player.

There’s nothing wrong with crediting a player who has greatly contributed to a winning team. But, at the same time, we’re not selecting 24 MVPs here. Nor is this All-NBA.

To say that a team must have a requisite number of all-star reps based on where they are in the standings is asinine. Just because a team is in 1st place, doesn’t mean it automatically deserves three all-star slots. Or that a 2nd place team deserves two slots. And so on.

If this is the case, all we’re really doing is filling in the blanks. It’s starting with the teams when we really should be starting with the players — are they themselves having an all-star worthy season.

And what do team records even really mean this season? Nothing. The standings are as useless as a pig farmer in space. The majority of teams have been decimated by COVID-19 and health and safety protocols. Players have been in and out of lineups. Entire rotations have been replaced by G League call-ups. Names long forgotten (and long thought retired) resurfaced. One All-NBA player is only playing half of his team’s games while another is playing none. It’s silly season. Heck, the NBA already set a new record for the number of players in a season way back in December.

Plus, with so many teams bunched up in the standings, especially in the East, choosing one player over another because of a 4–5 win difference is just absurd. As of February 1, the 1st place Chicago Bulls and the 8th place Raptors are separated by just 5.5 games.

Let’s look at all-star cases for other players before we get back to the Raptors’ dynamic duo.

The Wiggins paradox

No player may have been more advantaged by the standings than Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins who was voted in as an all-star starter. A week later, it still doesn’t sound right. Or sit right, for that matter.

Yes, the fan vote did most of the work here. But even before the K-pop star push, Wiggins’ name was constantly being floated as a potential West all-star (but as a reserve, of course). And I couldn’t think of any reason why other than because of the team he suits up for every night.

Statistically Wiggins is having a pretty decent season. But he’s had better. And other than his three-point percentage, his numbers don’t exactly leap off of the Basketball Reference page. They’re actually quite comparable to players that no one would ever consider to be an all-star starter, let alone a reserve. (Have a quick peek at Desmond Bane’s stats when you get a sec. It’s eye-opening.)

Sure, Wiggins is finally buying into the defensive side of things. And that’s great. But no one looks at defence when making their picks.

So again, it begs the question, is Wiggins an all-star in people’s minds because of his play on the court or because he plays for the Warriors? I firmly believe the latter. Had he not been voted in as a starter, chances are the coaches still would’ve named him a reserve simply because he wears the blue and gold.

Playing for a top-seeded team has automatically vaulted him ahead of more deserving players on lower-seeded teams, such as the Spurs’ Dejounte Murray, the Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards and the Pelicans’ Brandon Ingram. It shouldn’t, but it did. I call this “The Khris Middleton Selection” (copyright still pending).

Quick thought experiment. Let’s say Wiggins got traded to the Spurs a month ago and registered the exact same stats and played the exact same way. Would he still have received the same all-star buzz? Would he still have been voted in as a starter? No and most definitely no. Because the Spurs are a fringe playoff team. So why would a jersey switch suddenly change his all-star status? Does he become less of a player just because he’s wearing different threads?

The not so curious case of Bradley Beal

It goes the other way, too. If your team is drowning in the standings, it makes your all-star case that much harder. Even if you happen to be averaging an absurd 28.6 PPG. That’s what happened to the Wizards’ Bradley Beal a few years back.

For the 2019–20 season, Beal was left off of the all-star team despite averaging 28.6 points, 6.3 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game. The reason for this highway snubbery? The Wizards were deep in the East basement with no signs of digging themselves out. I guess when the coaches made their reserve picks, they took one look at the standings and drew a big, fat marker line right through Beal’s name.

Garland vs. Allen

Other than the Grizzlies, perhaps the most surprising team of the first half is the Cleveland Cavaliers. They’re currently 31–20, just 1.5 games back from the 1st place Bulls.

If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that the Cavs “deserve” an all-star because of their record, well, I’d have a lot more coin in the old bank account.

The Cavs top two all-star contenders are guard Darius Garland and forward Jarrett Allen. Garland seems to be the consensus pick to make the reserves. Perhaps he is indeed an all-star. But he should make the team on merit. And not because the Cavs deserve a spot and he happens to be the best they’ve got.

The best the Cavs got may not be the best the East’s got. Garland’s candidacy should be based on how he compares to the East’s top guards. The likes of VanVleet, Zach LaVine, Jaylen Brown, Jrue Holiday, LaMelo Ball, James Harden and Kyle Lowry. I’d argue most of these players are more deserving.

Earmarking an all-star spot for the Cavs has had a very odd effect on the discussions surrounding Garland. Suddenly the conversation shifted away from his standing among the East’s guards to pinning him against his own teammate — Jarrett Allen. It then becomes, if the Cavs are only allotted one spot, who’s the more deserving rep between the two? Is this really the question we should be asking?

Freddy All-Star vs. Point Pascal

This takes us back to the Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam all-star discussion.

There’s a crazy stat that’s been making the rounds the past few days. Since the NBA merger, the only teammates to combine for 325+ points and 100+ assists in a month are Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon; Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan; and Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam.

Unfortunately, according to the codified rules, because the Raptors currently sit 8th, they’ll only be afforded one spot…if that. Again, why?

The Raptors hovering around .500 for what seems like eternity times infinity is no fault of Steady Freddy’s. Nor does his team’s 26–23 record make him any less of an all-star.

Whether his team’s first, last or 8th, Mr. Bet On Himself is having himself a career year that’s deserving of an all-star appearance. His numbers stack up against the East’s elite guards, so much so that he’s now being guarded like one. Getting doubled. Blitzed. Trapped. Smothered by lengthy wings. VanVleet is seeing it all this year and more. That shows major respect from the opposing coach. That the 6-foot Fred VanVleet is the guy they must target on D.

So again, what do this year’s standings really tell us? That some teams have been luckier than others? At one point this season, the Raptors had 10 guys out at the same time due to health and safety protocols. And not just any 10 guys — practically the entire rotation. Only Chris Boucher managed to evade the precarious protocols.

In a game against the Cavs on December 26, players named Tremont Waters, Daniel Oturu and Juwan Morgan not only suited up for the Raptors, but got real minutes. The players and coaches met for the first time an hour before tip-off. The Raptors were fielding a glorified Summer League team…minus the glorification.

Unsurprisingly, the Cavs mopped the court with the Raptors. Or rather the players who were wearing Raptors uniforms. Of course, this wasn’t unique to the Raps. It was happening all over the league over a long period of time.

And while co-stars like Siakam and OG Anunoby have missed time due to injury, VanVleet, who happens to lead the league in minutes per game, was forced to shoulder the load on most nights while still putting up Freddy All-Star numbers. So is it really VanVleet’s fault that the players he relies on have been in and out of the lineup? Or that they got hit hard by COVID?

VanVleet’s long-standing teammate is also making a case to be Cleveland-bound. Thanks to Siakam playing the best basketball of his career over the last few months, he’s now pushed himself into all-star consideration.

And he’s not just doing it with his staggering offensive game. He’s doing it with elite defence and significantly improved playmaking. So much so that Point Pascal has become a very real thing. Who would’ve ever thought?

While VanVleet sat out a few games recently due to injury, Siakam played the PG role like he’s been doing it his entire life. As the starting PG vs. the Hornets on January 25, he put up a near triple double while tying his career high with 12 assists. He set up his teammates while still getting his own. Nothing forced. Everything in rhythm. Making good decisions with the ball. Playing better than his All-NBA year.

In a different world, his numbers alone would make him an all-star, even forgetting the fact that he’s an all-world defender and, outside of VanVleet, is the biggest part of what makes the Raptors’ offence sing. But we don’t live in that world. We live in this one.

Because an 8th place team can’t have more than one all-star, there’s very little chance Siakam gets voted in by the coaches as a reserve. Just like Garland and Allen, VanVleet and Siakam have also been pinned against one another, leading to the idiotic question: who’s more deserving to be the Raptors’ lone all-star rep?

The truth is, both should be no doubt all-stars. However, the Raptors’ one allotted spot will no doubt go to VanVleet, which makes Siakam SOL.

One of the major knocks against Siakam this year comes from those who believe that he missed way too many games to start the season to qualify as an all-star. But in the very next breath, these same people say that Jimmy Butler’s a 100%, sure-fire lock. Guess what? Siakam’s played more games than Butler. Guess what again? Siakam missed just 10 games to start the year. In the grand scheme of this season, that’s not even a blip. But apparently it’s fine to miss a huge chunk of games during the season. Just don’t you dare miss games to start the year. No sirree.

Instead of being compared to VanVleet, Siakam should be compared to East forwards like Allen, the Pacers’ Domantas Sabonis and the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum. While Siakam, Sabonis and Tatum are putting up numbers across the stat sheet, Allen falls short in a few categories, including points and assists.

Despite Garland likely being the Cavs’ chosen rep, there’s still a chance the coaches hand the less deserving Allen a spot over Siakam. If they do, it’ll no doubt be because the Cavs sit 4th in the standings while the Raptors are 8th.

Team record as a tiebreaker

The only possible way I’d ever accept using team record as an all-star selection factor is if it’s used as a tiebreaker. Like if there are two players who are absolutely deadlocked in your mind. But even then, I’d weigh other factors first. Factors that actually have to do with the players themselves and not the team. Crazy, I know.

The first tiebreaker for me would be, who plays better D? Two-way players always win out in my book. After that, it’s who’s played more games. Then, and only then, I might turn to team record.

Truthfully, if all-star selections didn’t affect player salaries or their chances to make the Basketball Hall of Fame, I doubt I’d even care all that much. But it does. So if we’re going to do it, and this means something to the players, let’s do it right.

Let’s reward the player and not the team.

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Ryan Grosman

Ryan Grosman

Welcome to Laced — sports with a little something extra. Follow me on Twitter @RyanGrosman

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