Contemplating What Functional 2008 All-Star Teams Would Look Like

What makes all-star games great is that it gives the fans a chance to choose their favorite players and then watch all of them play at once.

In fact, that’s what I remember most about my first encounter with an all-star game. I was about nine years old at a baseball game and someone handed me a bunch of those punch hole ballots and said to choose the all-stars. This was probably my first live baseball game and maybe the second or third I had ever watched to completion in my life. But I punched away, just finding all of the players from my home team (the Oakland A’s) and then dropping them in the box on my way out. It sure is a good thing that I didn’t just choose the guys with the coolest names -- that REALLY would have skewed the vote that year.

Let’s not kid ourselves – all-star games are popularity contests more than true competitions among the league’s best talent. And why not? It’s all for the fans. But that is probably exactly what annoys me most about all-star games as I’ve "matured" as a fan – any fool with a ballot can pick the most popular player but I want to see the best of the best play a game for bragging rights.

So since this is a hypothetical all-star team selection, I have the chance to pretend that the all-star game is about putting together a coherent team using the best players the WNBA has to offer. And here's what I came up with...

By "best" in this instance, I mean "most productive" or the players who GMs would identify as worthy of building a team around from scratch. (in contrast to those contributing the most value to their current team). By "coherent", I mean a team that is functional and balanced, while also featuring the best players.

Of course, I want to use statistics to determine most productive…and this is one of those cases when statistics might not match what might be considered "common sense" about who is most deserving of an all-star spot. So here’s how I picked my all-stars and an analysis of why I think they are the best all-star "teams". Ultimately, I wanted to put together functional Eastern and Western conference teams that would make for a competitive and entertaining game…without regard for player popularity.

Finding the best of the best

At first I set out to pick an all-star team based purely on statistics, thinking I would just pick statistical leaders in key categories. But those results were too zany and contradictory.

I believe in what I’ll call the Hollinger-Calderon All-Star principle: always select the best basketball players at each position over popularity or one-dimensional dominance. Statistics can help illuminate the best players, but no one statistic can determine them. So I thought of a simpler approach – create teams from a pool of the best players in each conference rather than trying to find the right statistics to choose from.

First, I made a pool of the top 20 players from each conference by using the WNBA’s official player rating statistic, Efficiency (EFF). Many APBRmetricians dislike this stat because it overvalues scoring, however common sense judgments of basketball players also generally overvalue scoring. So EFF becomes a decent estimator of a top tier of players, if not identifying the best in order. I ended up excluding Sylvia Fowles and Erica DeSouza, who haven’t played many games. And to things even, I excluded Lecoe Willingham and Tangela Smith from the Western Conference (sorry Phoenix fans, but they were the 10th and 11th rated interior players in the West so I figured it was ok to drop them). But I won’t stop there.

Next, I decided to narrow the list down by identifying the top five all-around players in each conference using Model Estimated Value (a rating designed to estimate a player’s productivity, described in depth at Hardwood Paroxysm by David Sparks), defensive plus/minus (described yesterday), and SPI versatility (a player’s versatility in scoring, perimeter skills, and interior skills, based on John Hollinger’s versatility rating).

My logic here is that it’s always helpful to start a team with versatile players who can produce on both ends of the floor. Then I just ranked the players in each category and then selected those with the top scores as my "core players". This gave me a good idea of the best all-around players in each conference.

Last, I took the styles of those five core players and made some assessments of how to build a team around them using the players available in my best player pool. In the end, I believe I constructed two competitive teams composed of the best players in the game.

The core players

Here are my five core players from each conference based on their statistical offensive and defensive ability as well as versatility.

EC:

C: Janel McCarville
F: Candice Dupree
F: Taj McWilliams-Franklin
G: Deanna Nolan
F: Lindsay Whalen

WC:
C: Lisa Leslie
F: Lauren Jackson
F: Candace Parker
G: Seimone Augustus
G: Diana Taurasi

Thus far, although the EC team might be "grittier" the WC team of Olympians looks poised to destroy someone. So I will fill out the WC team first and then the EC team.

How knowledge of player styles can help in building a team

To fill out the teams, I’m going to use David Sparks’ SPI player styles spectrum to see what type of chemistry each team has and determine who would be the best players to add. I will also take into account my point guard and defensive rankings, just to make sure all elements of the game are considered. For the point guards in particular, I will use the point guard playing styles that I laid out the other day to get a better sense of how they work with the team.

EC: Ball handling and passing are key

Right now, this is a pretty versatile team, but not well balanced in the sense that their forwards are somewhat redundant.

McCarville (utility), McWilliams-Franklin (post presence), Candice Dupree (interior scorer), Nolan (scoring pg), Whalen (combo pg)

While they have a number of scorers, they could probably use another distributor as the backup point guard and forwards who are able to drive to the basket. A strong post presence to rebound and block shots (McCarville’s weaknesses) could also be helpful.

So to take care of the center position first, I would choose Tammy Sutton-Brown who is another hard working center who can rebound and block shots.

At the forward spots, I would add Asjha Jones just because she’s the best player left available, but she’s another interior scorer, so it would be nice to have at least one forward with better perimeter skills. That would be Katie Douglas.

At the guard spots, there really aren’t a whole lot of options in the way of distributing point guards among the players left. So I’ll go with another scoring guard in Jia Perkins who is having an excellent season. With the next spot there are options – Alana Beard, Katie Smith, and Shameeka Christon (if Douglas slides to the guard spot) are all good options and I have two spots left.

Christon is more of a pure scorer, whereas Beard and Smith are players that can provide a little more versatility in terms of playmaking and definitely defense. Beard is having a terrible shooting season thus far with a 49.81% true shooting percentage and that alone could be enough to eliminate her. But there are also arguments in favor of Smith and Christon – Smith is the best ball handler left in the pool and Christon is having one of the best shooting seasons among guards in this pool. So I’ll fill out the roster with Christon and Smith.

So here’s the final roster for the EC:

C: McCarville, Sutton-Brown
PF: Dupree, McWilliams-Franklin, Jones
SF: Douglas, Christon
SG: Nolan, Smith
PG: Whalen, Perkins

Not a bad roster – it’s balanced with scorers and outstanding passers, including McCarville who is a huge asset to this team in facing the WC. There are also a few solid team defenders, including Douglas and McCarville.

The key to this team would be ball movement and finding shots for their power forwards in the mid-range and cutting to the post as well as Christon on the perimeter. Whalen and Nolan is a lethal combination on the perimeter and Smith and Perkins are two very efficient guards off the bench. You figure that one thing a team like this might do is try to spread the court with Dupree and McCarville playing around the wings or high post and allowing Nolan and Whalen to drive and kick. This could work.

But let’s withhold judgment until seeing the WC’s team…

WC: Throw it to the post and clear out

The WC team is potent on both ends of the floor, with great defenders at four of five starting positions and great scorers at every position.

Leslie (post presence), Jackson (interior scorer), Parker (utility), Augustus (perimeter scorer), Taurasi (scoring guard)

So off the bat it’s clear that this team could go two ways – continue to load up on scorers and post players or find some passers to complement the scorers.

The center position should be pretty easy to fill as Ann Wauters is definitely the next best option at center. She’ll add another interior scorer to complement Jackson and Leslie.

At the forward positions, the starters are pretty strong and Augustus and Taurasi can play small forward easily. So I’m going with best available. One such player is Sophia Young, who is have a great season defensively in addition to efficient scoring output. She is also more of a perimeter oriented forward, which will give the team some nice inside-outside balance.

If we continue to define Augustus and Taurasi as guards for the sake of this team, then I have no problem choosing between Rebekkah Brunson and Sancho Lyttle for the other forward spot. As much as I love Brunson’s game, I have to go with Lyttle here. She is having a great season – the best rebounding percentage, true shooting percentage, and block percentage left in the pool. She is just the type of efficient, do-everything utility player that would complement a team like this really well. In term of numbers and production on both ends of the floor, Lyttle is the clear choice.

As the two backup guards, I think adding a combo guard like Sue Bird who can score and pass would be helpful. She’s the second best point guard in the league right now behind Whalen and would be perfect to distribute the ball to the players on this team.

At the other guard spot, there’s a choice between Candice Wiggins, Becky Hammon, and Cappie Pondexter. All three can score, but Pondexter has the lowest true shooting percentage… so she’s out. So if it’s between Wiggins and Hammon (both of which have broad fan bases to anger) I’m going to go with Wiggins. The reason is simple – defense. Wiggins is the best perimeter defense option left and along with her scoring and play making ability, she’s the best all-around player available.

And for the 11th and final spot, I should choose a guard because the roster is already so forward heavy. And it’s a tough decision – Ticha Penicheiro would be the perfect point guard for a team like this, but Hammon and Pondexter are great scorers. Again, I’m going to go with defense over offense and pick Penicheiro. She has among the highest steal percentages among guards and her pure facilitator playmaking ability would go perfectly with this team.

So here’s what the WC roster would look like:

C: Leslie, Wauters
F: Jackson, Young, Lyttle
F: Parker, Augustus
G: Taurasi, Wiggins
G: Bird, Penicheiro

That’s a pretty dynamic roster. It’s clearly a post oriented team, but they could go "small" with Jackson at the center and Parker at the power forward and run as well. This is also an extremely talented defensive team with almost every bench player added being a candidate for the WNBA All-Defensive teams.

What would the game look like?

The WC should be heavily favored in this game… it would almost be too easy for them. All they would have to do is bring the ball down the court and initiate a high-low post game. Watching it would probably make Sparks’ fans cry as they imagine what could have been with a better point guard this season. Once they established the inside game, they’d have perimeter scorers everywhere who would be ready to pick up the scraps.

The EC really has nothing with which to stop that strategy. If the WC went to a zone defense with their starters, it would be almost impossible for the EC to crack, even with good passing. And there are great defenders all over the WC roster.

Nevertheless, I argue that this could be an interesting game to watch. The EC team would probably play well enough together to make the game engaging, although it’s difficult to imagine them winning.

Transition Points:

Lyttle and no Hammon??? What?!?!?
Here I insist the numbers tell the story. Hammon's game is predicated on scoring. When she's not shooting well, the team is more likely to lose. And her shooting percentages (FG and 3P) are down this season. So...it's difficult to make an argument for her...other than the fact that she's popular.

The big snub in the WC to me is Brunson. And that was a tough choice. She’s a great player and has put up amazing numbers considering that she’s been injured. But right now, Lyttle is the better all-around player and Young and Jackson are definite MVP candidates. It just shows how talented the WC is.


If the WNBA wants to play another outdoor game
, why not make it the 2009 All-Star game? The game is meaningless, it’s all about entertainment, and it would be an event worthy of the national television stage.


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