With Christmas Day now having been and gone, we’re entering into the business end of the NBA season. Before the playoffs and a championship can loom large on any team’s horizon though, there’s still the small matter of the All-Star Game. The All-Star Game is no more than a glorified exhibition, but with every passing year there seems to be a greater significance attached to it. This can be attributed as one of the great results of David Stern’s frequent attempts to have the NBA audience actively engage more with the game. Regardless of how it got to this point though, now, with less than three weeks left on the public vote and no Hawks players on the roster, it’s clear the audience isn’t engaging with this current Atlanta team.
The Hawks are the third-best team in the Eastern Conference, currently holding an 18-14 record. This makes them the only team after Miami and Indiana that holds a winning record in that conference. Under new head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks are playing better basketball than they have in years. Budenholzer, a long time disciple of Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, has the team firing on all cylinders offensively. This is particularly evident from Atlanta’s assist numbers. With 25.7 per game, the Hawks lead the NBA in assisted baskets. This makes the Hawks one of the most unselfish, fluid units in the entire league. This isn’t the norm in the NBA though and this might just be the reason why they are failing to connect with the basketball viewing public.
More than almost any other league in professional sports, the NBA is all about superstars. It’s a league of individuals, where one man will often single-handedly bring his team to either victory or defeat. Coaches regularly put their trust in their “star” players rather than the team as a whole and it’s a phenomenon that has been embraced by spectators for many years now. With the increased popularity of the All-Star Game, making their conference’s respective team has become not only a badge of honor for players, but a yardstick for the public’s perception of their ability. With this in mind, the league’s aim should be to assemble the players who are playing the best within that particular season, irrespective of the popularity or geographical location of their franchise. Instead it has become more of a popularity contest, leaving many deserving candidates on the outside looking in.
Let’s take a look at the three candidates the Hawks put forward this season.
With his season now cruelly brought to a close due to injury, Horford will not get the opportunity to add to his previous two All-Star appearances. Prior to tearing his right pectoral muscle, Horford wasn’t placing in the top 15 of the Eastern Conference’s frontcourt balloting, despite posting exceptional numbers.
On both ends of the floor Horford is a game changing force. Offensively, he has a 56.7 percent field goal rating, ranked seventh in the NBA, as well as leading the Hawks in scoring with an average of 18.6 points per game. Defensively, the Dominican has become one of the best rim protectors in the league also. Horford averaged 1.5 blocks a night while holding his opponents to an impressive 47.8 field goal percentage for shots at the rim. Add into the mix 8.4 rebounds a night and it’s clear that the 27-year-old is one of the most talented and well rounded big men in the NBA.
Players he should be ahead of: Kevin Garnett, Joakim Noah and Tyson Chandler rank sixth, seventh and 10th respectively in frontcourt voting. All three have struggled this year and are members of the three most underachieving teams in the East this season. Hypothetically, a healthy Horford should be making the team.
Former Wake Forest man Jeff Teague has continued his pattern of growth on an annual basis and looks well placed to finish the year with a career season. With so many of the players he used to defer ball handling duties to now gone, Teague has become the Hawks primary creator. Under Coach Budenholzer he is stepping up into a Tony Parker-esque role, also excelling in pick and roll situations with both Horford and Paul Millsap.
Teague is currently averaging a career-high 17 points per game, as his more aggressive style of play has made him a potent scorer. This would put him fifth among point guards within his conference for scoring. While at 8.2 a night, Teague is seventh in the NBA in assists and third among Eastern point guards. Leading the league’s best passing team in assists and with the Hawks in the third place in the conference, Teague has a legitimate case for making his first trip to the All-Star Game.
Players he should be ahead of: Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo for a start. That duo are third and sixth in backcourt voting despite long term injury. While you could also argue that Teague is having a better season than Deron Williams, George Hill or, indeed, the man on track to start at PG, Kyrie Irving.
Millsap is one of the most consistent players in the NBA yet to have made an appearance at the league’s showcase game. Moving from the Jazz to the Hawks this past offseason, the former Louisiana Tech man would probably have felt his chances had improved by leaving the Western Conference yet so far it seems to no avail.
Millsap has been a force for the Hawks so far and with Horford now injured, he’s likely to get even more productive. Now in his eighth year in the NBA, there is every reason to believe Millsap is on track to have his career-best season. He’s currently averaging a career high 17.9 points a game off 49.4 percent shooting from the field. His game has become more dynamic offensively as he is shooting five times as many 3s per night as he has ever done before, making a career high 42.5 percent, as well as going to the free throw line 5.0 times per game, also a career high. Add 8.6 nightly rebounds and 1.1 blocks and there is no reason why Millsap shouldn’t make his first All-Star appearance in New Orleans next month.
Players he should be ahead of: Carlos Boozer, Jeff Green, Paul Pierce and Josh Smith are all in contention for spots at the 3/4 positions within the top 15 frontcourt players in the East, but Millsap is thoroughly outperforming all of them. He is by far the most efficient, has the highest points per game of the five and only Boozer has more rebounds, by 0.1 more, per night.
At the moment, the starters for the East are projected to be Irving, Dwyane Wade, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. This starting five is pretty hard to argue with, but the concern is that beyond that the league and coaches responsible should not pay much heed to the popularity contest of the public vote. If they do, in the process turning their back on players from one of only three teams in that conference with a winning record, the whole spectacle will truly be a farce. It’s not just the Hawks that may suffer either, take the much improved Charlotte Bobcats as another example of a small market team punching above their weight this season. For the Bobcats, they have received exceptional levels of performance from both Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson, yet they are nowhere to be seen in the voting either.
In the longer term, the league should look at reforming the process of selection for All-Star Games, but for the meantime, lets just hope that by Jan. 20 it won’t just be under-performing big names getting the call.