I’m not a huge baseball fan, but the discussion about the meaning of Major League Baseball’s All-Star game underlying the debate about whether rookie Yasiel Puig should make the game brought out interesting, if long-standing, arguments about what exactly the value of the game is.
For baseball, the discussion of meaning is complicated by the tiered selection process, the fact that it determines home field advantage for the World Series, and a always-controversial rule about each team having a representative at the game. In a way, it’s at once the most meaningful game (home field advantage) with elements that threaten to make it meaningless (the requirement for each team to be represented).
But anyway, one of the most interesting aspects of the debate is that All-Star games in any league are ultimately both a celebration of the game itself designed to entertain and a showcase of the game’s best talent. Most of all, it’s a running historical record of the league’s best and, long after the scores or any specific moments are washed away with the passage of time, we’re left with an index of which players were the best to play the game.
And for me, that’s just about the only value of these selections in basketball: the All-Star game ultimately charts the course of a league’s history or, at the very least, serves as a quick shorthand to honor those who might have emerged as the best among their peers.
In the first half of the 2013 WNBA season, it seems as if there shouldn’t be a whole lot of debate about who belongs in the All-Star game: most of the game’s biggest stars haven’t failed to impress and, if we go by the numbers, the reserves look to be pretty clear as well.
For me at least, I usually see the All-Star selection process as like a mid-season All-WNBA selection process by conference. As I’ve done in the past, you could use any number of metrics for that, but I tend to use MEV, which is the weighted productivity metric underlying the “MVP” metric that I use to look at MVP candidates.
As of the beginning of this week, here were the top players WNBA players by conference independent of position:
East MEV West MEV Angel McCoughtry 19.72 Candace Parker 22.69 Sylvia Fowles 17.61 Diana Taurasi 20.33 Elena Delle Donne 17.46 Maya Moore 17.88 Tamika Catchings 17.36 Lindsay Whalen 17.37 Tina Charles 15.25 Danielle Robinson 16.04 Epiphanny Prince 14.95 Brittney Griner 16.01 Kara Lawson 14.06 Nneka Ogwumike 15.02 Ivory Latta 13.29 Lindsey Harding 15.01 Erika de Souza 13.25 Kristi Toliver 14.67 Crystal Langhorne 13 DeWanna Bonner 14.02 Allison Hightower 11.47 Glory Johnson 13.5 Cappie Pondexter 10.84 Seimone Augustus 13.26 Erlana Larkins 10.63 Candice Dupree 13.08 Courtney Vandersloot 10.48 Rebekkah Brunson 12.92
Top WNBA players by conference as of 7/17/13. Announced starters in italics.
So what probably stands out immediately is that Syliva Fowles was probably the highest-rated snub as a starter, but I think the argument could be made that the biggest starting snub was Lindsay Whalen.
As you can probably tell, one point of MEV is pretty significant – only a few players even exist in that class of a 16 or above and after that there’s a bit of a drop-off. When taking that alone into account, Whalen has had quite a bit more value than Augustus. When adding the fact that point guards are never really rated that highly by single metrics because their strongest statistical contribution is usually assists and what they don’t do (turn it over) Whalen could even be given the nod over Maya Moore as a team MVP (which is a different discussion for a different day).
Setting aside the difficulty of comparing point guards to other wings, the easier comparison might be to Kristi Toliver. While Augustus might have an edge on the defensive end, Toliver has been the more efficient scorer (57.1%) and ball handler this season (2.4 PPR).
On the other side of things, Cappie Pondexter stood out as a bit of surprise starter particularly given what Ivory Latta has meant to the Washington Mystics this season. Kara Lawson has been hurt and thus inconsistent by Allison Hightower’s defensive ability and production while playing out of position is noteworthy as Pondexter struggled to start the season. But then it comes back to the question of what this thing is about: Pondexter’s reputation as a one-on-one player still makes her one of the biggest stars in the league and her numbers are good enough to make the case for her being in the game over those other players.
But the reason Pondexter is so low should be obvious to those who have followed her stats closely this season: her true shooting percentage of 45.2% is very low for a volume scorer (28.8% usage rate). The reason she is as productive as she is relates to minutes: at 35.5 minutes per game, she just plays more than anyone else in the league.
Should she have been a starter? Perhaps not. But as a key player on a playoff hopeful, it’s not a stretch to make an argument for her being on the roster either.
Filling out the rosters
As I’ve probably made clear on this site a number of times, I really think the point guard position requires a distinct skillset that should probably be judged on its own merit rather than in comparison to other perimeter players. So, while I like the WNBA’s new voting format, I’d probably still think rosters should be as follows for the sake of the historical record:
PG – Wing – Wing – Post – Post
Really, all that amounts to is a three guard two frontcourt format instead of the current one, but it also better reflects how lineups are usually made – a ball handler, two players flanking that ball handler, and two posts. So if I were to fill out a roster, I’d probably look for two PGs, four wings, four posts, and then a wild card for the best remaining player.
The Eastern Reserves Position Player PG Ivory Latta Wing Allison Hightower Wing Kara Lawson Post Sylvia Fowles Post Tina Charles Wild Erika de Souza
The point guard and post selections there should be pretty obvious – they’ve all been in the mix for the MVP race this season so they should be considered locks as All-Stars.
After that, I put Lawson in as a wing since there wasn’t really a point guard in the starting lineup (yes, Pondexter can handle the ball but her pass percentage of 44.28% puts her immediately below Amber Harris and Jen Lacy, which I’ll doesn’t exactly lend support to her being a point guard). Hightower’s true shooting percentage of 51% is only around average, but her 45.2% 3-point percentage is impressive and she’s really stepped up this season: she has increased her scoring efficiency in more minutes.
The last spot was tough: either Crystal Langhorne or Erika de Souza could be considered reasonable candidates. de Souza is the less efficient scorer in part because she sometimes has trouble finishing at the rim and doesn’t get to the free throw line as often. Langhorne doesn’t rebound as well and isn’t quite the defensive presence that de Souza is.
Ultimately, de Souza’s presence in the paint and dominant 22.72% defensive rebounding percentage put her over the top here, but both are solid candidates.
Western Conference Position Player PG Lindsay Whalen W Kristi Toliver W DeWanna Bonner P Glory Johnson P Nneka Ogwumike Wild Danielle Robinson
There isn’t much here that we haven’t discussed extensively elsewhere on this site.
For the posts, Nneka Ogwumike is among the top five offensive rebounders in the league (13.2% offensive rebounding percentage) among those who play significant minutes and the most efficient post scorer in the league (64.8%). Glory Johnson did have a rough patch – even before getting injured – but started the season so strong that her numbers are still among the best of the league’s post players.
For the perimeter players, Robinson and Whalen are two of the best three point guards in the league this year almost any way you look at it. Toliver’s scoring efficiency this season has been described above. Bonner hasn’t been all that efficient a scorer, but her versatility allows her to do enough things well – while not turning the ball over – to put up numbers.
But with that lineup, Harding would be left out, which would be a bit of a snub albeit understandable: while she is the third most efficient distributor in the league (4.26 pure point rating), she’s behind Robinson (6.5 PPR) and Whalen (4.26). Whalen is the most efficient scorer of that group (57.13%). So with Diana Taurasi playing so well this season as a point guard, the question becomes whether you add a fourth point guard to an All-Star roster. The problem is that in a league with six teams per conference you have to draw the line at some point – the fourth point guard is no longer even in the top half of the conference no matter how good she has been.
There’s quite clearly some room for debate about who deserves a spot on the team, but with all of the injuries this season the choices are made easier.
For more on the All-Star game, visit our 2013 WNBA All-Star Game section. If you have an extended response or thoughts on who should make it, write a fan post or fan shot.