Rewarding Players on Winning Teams With All-Star Berths Isn't So Bad

Since the All-Star rosters were announced, many have expressed a familiar lament about the poor job the coaches do picking the All-Star reserves each year.  The point, a good one, is that the coaches' picks skew towards good players on winning teams rather than the best players in the conference.  This can tend to award All-Star berths based on how good a player's teammates are compared to his competitors.

This is unlikely to change in the near future because of the incentives the coaches have (or believe they have).  One of the greatest challenges for coaches is to convince players to play unselfishly, maximizing the team's benefit rather than their own glory, shots, or money.*  A great way to do this is to convince players that winning will bring individual rewards; an even better way is to self-fulfill that prophecy by actually bestowing individual awards on players from winning teams.

*Whether playing "selfishly" actually results in getting paid more in this era of ever-improving scouting, stats, and defensive metrics is another question.

Roy Hibbert's selection to the All-Star team over Tyson Chandler was dubious at best.

These incentives lead to what seem like absurd results.  Probably the biggest injustice this year was Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert over New York Knicks center Tyson Chandler.  This selection was more reflective of the teams' respective records on February 9 (Pacers 17-9, Knicks 10-15) than the ability of the two players.  If you asked the league's 30 coaches which player they would rather have on their team for the remainder of this season, I would be surprised if a single one selected Hibbert over Chandler.  The irony is that in selecting Hibbert to reward his team's winning, the coaches actually rewarded the player who has accumulated traditional stats over one who actually helps his team win more.  Although he has provided better help defense when I've seen him this season, Hibbert's defensive value is limited by his slow feet.  Most of Chandler's value, by contrast, is in his defensive contributions that do not show up in traditional stats.  But he deserves the lion's share of the credit for New York's improvement from 21st in defensive efficiency last year to 8th this year, as he is the most significant personnel change.

Adding to this insult, the fortunes of the Pacers and and Knicks have wildly diverged since the rosters were announced.  The Knicks are in the midst of a 7 game winning streak.  The Pacers lost 5 straight before last night, and their 5 point home win over the Nets doesn't convince that they've stanched the bleeding.  Had New York been only 3 games behind Indiana at the time the coaches voted, Chandler might well have outpointed Hibbert.  It seems clear that selection of Hibbert over Chandler is unfair to Chandler.* He's the better player and more deserving of the award.

*Emboldened by this piece on basketball elitism (who, me?) I'll acknowledge that aesthetically I really enjoy Chandler's game and loathe Hibbert's.

But in a macro sense, I'm not sure this is a bad thing.  The ability of coaches to motivate their players to play unselfishly leads to better basketball.  Watching well-coached teams that move the ball and play hard is far superior to watching a team like the Wizards jack up contested jumpers all night. If players believe that being on a winning team will lead to individual rewards, they will work harder to play the winning basketball that fans want to see.  If better basketball throughout the NBA is the result, the injustice of inferior players filling out the last two spots on the All-Star roster is worth it.


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