We're approaching the middle of the season, so it's time for scribes to unveil their All-Star picks. This column is no exception, but we're going to do it in a different way.
You might recall our preseason Film Room All-Star series, where Drew Garrison and I highlighted one player on each team who makes a major impact in ways that go beyond the surface level. None would be considered the best player on their teams, and many don't put up gaudy numbers, but all were essential to their squad's success. Almost all of them were also the types of players who are more important to their own teams than they would be to anyone else's.
More Prada's Pictures
More Prada's Pictures
Now that we're halfway into the season, it's time to unveil which 12 players in each conference best embody that spirit. The defining qualities needed for inclusion on the 2013-14 Film Room All-Star team:
- Is not in consideration for an actual All-Star berth, though there's one mitigating circumstance.
- Is solidly in a team's rotation, at the very least.
- Is uniquely important to his current team.
- Makes a positive impact on his team. This seems like a given, but you'd be surprised how many role-player types don't help their clubs despite having cerebral games.
- Makes the kind of impact that is difficult to notice on the surface.
Without further ado, here are the 12 members of the 2013-14 Film Room All-Star team. (Star denotes preseason pick):
Goran Dragic, Kyle Korver
Dragic is the slight exception to the first qualification because he's starting to make a push to steal a Western Conference All-Star berth with injuries to Russell Westbrook and teammate Eric Bledsoe. Nevertheless, it'd be surprising if he does actually make it, so we'll keep him here.
As noted in a piece earlier this year, Dragic is the key to the Suns' fast-break offense. By playing him with Bledsoe, the Suns get a head start on missed shots because both can handle the ball and both can also outrun wings when the other is leading the break. Dragic is already fast for a point guard; he's even faster when he's matched up with taller wings.
And whether he's running point or playing off the ball, his attacking style is needed to get Phoenix's open half-court offense going. He's not a great shooter, but he's a creative, aggressive driver who finds ways to get to his left hand even when he shouldn't, like here against Taj Gibson and the Bulls.
Dragic also offers the Suns some much-needed lineup flexibility when both he and Bledsoe are healthy, allowing Phoenix to never have to play a backup point guard. That's a huge advantage because many teams, even very good ones, have very poor point guard play off the bench. Lineups with Dragic and without Bledsoe have performed very well this season, though some of the more frequently used ones have fallen off since Bledsoe's injury. The Suns have to hope that trend rebounds once Bledsoe returns from his surgery.
Korver, meanwhile, is having the best season of his career and very much deserves this spot. We all know what kind of shooter he is, but it's impressive the way the Hawks use the threat of his shooting to open opportunities for others. Sometimes, it's on set plays like basic curls to the middle or more complicated sets like the Hawks' "Thru" action -- see this video -- that leads to a big man screening for Korver to pop open at the top of the key while simultaneously opening up a side of the floor. Korver can shoot or hit the roller with easy pocket passes.
Sometimes, it's through misdirection. The Hawks love to run Korver off a screen on one side while something else is set up on the other, and that freezes or altogether nullifies help defenders. Watch Paul George on this play, for example.
George starts on the nail, the perfect spot to help against a side pick-and-roll, but even though Jeff Teague comes right to him, he runs away because he fears the backscreen Paul Millsap is setting on Korver. The threat of Korver therefore gives Teague the space he needs to draw out Roy Hibbert and deliver the pocket bounce pass to Pero Antic for a dunk.
And Korver is no one-trick pony either. He's received a reputation for being a defensive sieve, which could not be further from the truth. Nobody is going to ask him to shut down LeBron James, but Korver is one of the best wing help defenders in the league. He always finds himself at the nail when appropriate, and when the Hawks double-team or overload one side when he isn't directly involved in the play, he slides over quickly to account for the man who would be open otherwise. Look at all the work he does to disrupt this Lakers play.
If Korver were just a shooter, the Hawks wouldn't still be over .500 despite losing Al Horford for the season and dealing with suboptimal backups on the wing.
Andre Iguodala*, Amir Johnson* (team captain), Robin Lopez
The Warriors are now 20-7 with Iguodala in the lineup and have the look of a darkhorse Finals contender, so it's not hard to understand that he's valuable. He just plugs so many gaps, whether it's off-ball movement to distract a defense, funneling his man into Andrew Bogut or, increasingly, making spot-up jumpers. The Warriors have not used his playmaking ability as much as I expected, but that's another way he can help them.
Johnson is the team captain because he perfectly encapsulates what it means to be a Film Room All-Star. We talked about his screen setting in the preseason, and that remains his best attribute, but he does much more than that. He's also a fantastic individual defender who uses his length and leverage to make life difficult for the men he's guarding. This is impressive work frustrating Roy Hibbert.
With Rudy Gay gone, the Raptors are running more pick-and-roll, and that's amplified many of Johnson's strengths. He's developed great touch on little floaters and runners when he can't get all the way to the rim, hitting difficult shots like this one with regularity.
Lopez has been one of the biggest reasons for Portland's rise. His impact has been spoken of in vague generalities, as if being 7' tall and therefore enabling LaMarcus Aldridge to slide to power forward is all that he's done. In reality, Lopez is one of the league's best offensive rebounders, giving the Blazers some unconventional inside punch to go along with their jump-shooting. He has the size, the long arms, the willingness to shove people around with his body and the anticipation to read the ball coming off the rim. This is an example of all four of those qualities.
Because Lopez is such an active offensive rebounder, teams can't double-team off him like they would with most non-shooting centers, which gives Portland's other four offensive dynamos the space they need to go to work.
And he's an underrated rim protector as well. He isn't known as a shot blocker, but he uses his body to position himself to alter them. Enes Kanter can't see anything around Lopez's long arms on this play, for example.
Teams are shooting just 44 percent at the rim on Lopez this season, according to the latest player tracking data. That's not Roy Hibbert-level good, but it's pretty close. Close enough to the point where you wonder why some suggest the Blazers need a better center. They have one that perfectly suits their needs already, so why change it up?
George Hill, Wes Matthews*
There are so many reasons the Pacers' defense is great, but one that gets overlooked is how hard its guards fight through screens. The Pacers want to protect Hibbert and maximize his towering presence at the rim, so they ask him to hang way back on pick-and-rolls. Such a strategy could yield a temporary advantage if the initial primary defender is picked off, because the guard or wing would be able to attack Hibbert with some space.
Problem is, George Hill just isn't picked off very often. Just ask Isaiah Thomas.
Or Kyle Lowry, who was funneled beautifully by Hill into Ian Mahinmi's clutching arms.
Thing is, that hurts. It's asking a lot for your point guard to get slammed that much without immediate help and be expected to fight through each time. Yet Hill doesn't complain and carries out his duties while three teammates -- Hibbert, George and Lance Stephenson -- get most of the defensive credit. He's like the free safety who is willing to protect the back end of the field while his partner attacks the line of scrimmage or jumps routes to get interceptions.
Matthews' shooting has cooled off a bit since a torrid start, but he still occupies an essential role in Terry Stotts' offense. Most of Portland's off-ball movement relies on Matthews' ability to cut and cross-screen for Aldridge, whether it's to set up a post-up or something else. Matthews also has enough post-up ability himself to surprise his defender by cutting down the lane as if he's going to screen and stop, pinning his man right under the hoop. The Blazers love to sneak him down there when they're in HORNS (i.e. two bigs at the elbow, two wings in the corner).
Throw in his tough clamp defense on top perimeter threats, and Matthews is a very diverse player.
Channing Frye*, Taj Gibson, Anderson Varejao*
We talked about the impact of Frye's shooting in our preseason series, so it's not surprising that the Suns' offense looks free-flowing now that he's playing heavy minutes. Frye is one of the league's best above-the-break three-point shooters, placing ninth overall and third among forwards who have taken at least 50 of those shots. This allows other Suns players the ability to play within their comfort zone, whether it's around the basket (Dragic, Bledsoe), in the mid-range area (the Morris twins), the corner (P.J. Tucker) or ... anywhere behind the line (Gerald Green).
Phoenix has also brought back variations of different plays that get Frye open, such as this double screen where the big man rolls as Frye pops to the three-point line.
That play resembles this look from 2011-12 with Steve Nash, Frye and Marcin Gortat.
Or, this play that looks like a double drag screen, but actually features Miles Plumlee screening for Frye instead of rolling.
Phoenix used to execute a slightly different design of this concept, except with Gortat and Robin Lopez screening on Frye's help defender instead of his man.
Frye's also an underrated defender and can post up smaller players if need be, so he's not just a shooter. There's a reason the Suns are 8.3 points better per 100 possessions with Frye in and 4.5 points per 100 possessions worse when he sits.
Gibson has always been a really valuable player, but he's improved his post game this season, allowing the Bulls to get something on their second unit. Two years ago, post-ups accounted for just 13.1 percent of Gibson's offense, per MySynergySports.com. This year, it's all the way up to 35.6 percent. Despite the massive increase in usage, Gibson has remained just as effective on the block.
Gibson has moves against different types of defenders. He can turn and face on bigger defenders and take them off the dribble, like he does here to Detroit's Greg Monroe.
Or, he can make moves with his back to the basket against more slender post defenders, like he does here against Ed Davis.
The Bulls are now running plays to get him deep position. Here's a compilation of the double baseline screen they run that several other teams use for more prominent post men.
All this works because it's very hard to push Gibson out of the post. Look how he holds his ground here against Luis Scola.
Or how he seals Andray Blatche on the ball reversal.
Gibson has yet to face a ton of double teams, but when he has, he's displayed good instincts passing out or faking to get the help defender away. Add this to his already excellent defense, and the Bulls have themselves a great bench player who is ready to take over as a starter.
Varejao continues to do his usual pesky stuff that we covered in the preseason, providing some movement in a Cavaliers offense that is otherwise stagnant. He has a lifetime spot on this team.
Darrell Arthur, Boris Diaw
Most analysts thought the Nuggets badly lost the Arthur-Kosta Koufos trade last summer, but that hasn't really come to pass. Koufos has struggled filling in for Marc Gasol and stands to lose minutes to emerging Ed Davis and the underrated Jon Leuer now that Gasol is healthy. Meanwhile, Arthur has become one of the few Nuggets frontcourt players willing to do the dirty work, whether it's defending a pick-and-roll, setting a good screen or making an important cut to distract the defense.
This play gives you a good sense of Arthur's value. The Nuggets like to trap the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls when Arthur is in the game because he is so good at hedging hard. He's also just as quick when patrolling the backline as someone else is hedging. Watch how he cuts off Glen Davis' roll, then recovers immediately to contest Andrew Nicholson's three.
Arthur has particularly developed nice chemistry with fellow backup Timofey Mozgov, who replaced Koufos in Denver's rotation. The Nuggets are outscoring teams by a whopping 16 points per 100 possessions when the two share the court, per NBA.com's stats page. Arthur's aggressive style defending pick-and-rolls blends well with Mozgov's ability to protect the rim, and Arthur is smart enough to cover for Mozgov when teams put him in the pick-and-roll instead. On the other end, the Nuggets love to have Arthur pick-and-pop to the top of the key, then have Mozgov duck in for a quick pass and shot in the paint. This is a beautiful, yet simple sequence to watch.
The Nuggets have a deep frontcourt, but they have been much better with Arthur in than on the bench, so they need to keep finding room for him.
Diaw, too, has thrived as a jack-of-all-trades forward for a Spurs bench that is carrying the team while the starting lineup has been weirdly ineffective. San Antonio is the perfect place to take advantage of Diaw's idiosyncratic offensive game. The Spurs randomly let him post up, and he's looked to score just enough to activate his fantastic passing skills. He's also one of the very best in the league at setting up to screen on one side, then darting around to the other side at the last minute before the defense can change its alignment. This is a textbook example against the Suns.
Surprisingly, he's been even more important defensively. Last year's Spurs rode Tiago Splitter's rim protection hard and became an elite defense because of it. This year, though, Splitter hasn't been as effective, and he's now out for an extended period of time. Still, the Spurs are a top-five unit this year, in large part because they've given Diaw more minutes to guard more types of players. Boris can guard larger wings, stretch 4s and traditional post-up players because he's quicker than you'd think. Look at how he recovers to the dangerous Frye here.
Would this happen on a team that needed him to be more conventional? Probably not. But that's the whole point of this team, isn't it?
ALSO RECEIVING CONSIDERATION (in no order): Gerald Henderson, Andrew Bogut, Kyle Singler, Brandon Bass, Andrei Kirilenko, Draymond Green, Shawn Marion*, Omri Casspi, Nene*, Thaddeus Young*, Mike Conley*, James Johnson, Norris Cole, Nick Collison, Spencer Hawes, P.J. Tucker, Patty Mills, Josh McRoberts, C.J. Miles, Marvin Williams.
PLAYERS TOO CLOSE TO THE ALL-STAR BUBBLE: Paul Millsap, Chris Bosh, Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry.
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