The Importance of Playing the Game

A couple of weeks ago, the NBA announced this year’s all-star reserves for the NBA All-Star game which will be played later this month in New Orleans. Instead of the new, convoluted, part fan, part player, part NBA does what it wants algorithm, which was used to select the starters this year, the NBA continued to let the coaches select the reserves, and from the fan’s point of view, these reserve selections were unsurprising and stereotypical to how the league has chosen previous all-star teams.

As someone who enjoys watching the world’s longest hardwood track and field event (Let’s be serious for a moment; there’s as much defense in any all-star game as the French showed against the Germans: None whatsoever.) to see the younger players mix-it-up with the established veterans, I was disappointed when I realized that Joel Embiid, the up-and-coming, rookie center was not selected for this year’s game. Some writers and analysts have noted that Embiid, if he was healthy for this game, should be on the roster instead of Atlanta’s big man Paul Millsap. Before jumping to this same conclusion, I felt it was necessary to do a deeper analysis of which player was most deserving of this last roster spot.

When comparing the two players’ stat lines, one can see that each player is putting-up similar per-game numbers.

Millsap: 17.8 PTS, 8.1 TRB, 3.8 AST, 1.0 BLK, 44 FG%

Embiid: 20.2 PTS, 7.8 TRB, 2.1 AST, 2.5 BLK, 46.6 FG%

As other writers have pointed out, Embiid has had a considerable presence on both ends of the court, especially when considering how he impacts his opponent’s shooting percentage in the paint. On the other end, the Hawks run a considerable amount of their offense through Millsap, which explains why he has more assists and ranks 8th among all centers and power forwards in this category. After looking through these per-game numbers, both players appear to have similar contributions to their respective teams.

This debate for this last spot gets more contentious when one starts looking at each player’s per-36 stat line, instead per-game. As mentioned in a previous post, per-36 is better a stat line to compare two players who do not play the same number of minutes.

Millsap: 18.9 PTS, 8.6 TRB, 4.0 AST, 1.1 BLK

Embiid: 28.7 PTS, 11.1 TRB, 3.0 AST, 3.5 BLK

When looking at each player’s per-36, one can easily identify that Embiid’s numbers get a considerable boost because he averages 28 minutes a game, a byproduct of the Sixers protecting their injury prone star. Based off of this analysis, Embiid is a much more efficient player on a per-minute basis than Millsap, and this notion is confirmed when you look at their individual PERs: Embiid’s is 24.7 while Millsap’s is 18.5 for this season.

Critics of this basic analysis will point out that Embiid, due to his minutes restriction, has played half as many minutes this year compared to Millsap, therefore, leading to this inflated per-36 stat line and favorable PER. Even though Embiid does benefit by being more rested in the games he does play in, it is hard to imagine that his stats, particularly his per-game, would decrease by an amount that would keep him out of all-star conversations. The hardest problem with evaluating Embiid is he has not played enough games against quality opponents. His per-game and per-36 clearly illustrate his potential, but they don’t tell the whole story of how he has performed throughout the year. To better understand their individual impacts for their teams, I decided to take an unconventional approach by looking at their 10 best performances of the year based on game score.

In Embiid’s 10 best games of the year, the Sixers are 7–3 while he has averaged 26.1 PTS, 8.2 TRB, 2.4 AST, and 2.4 BLK. Millsap, on the other hand, is putting up as impressive numbers by averaging 25.7 PTS, 10.5 TRB, 4.6 AST, and 1.5 BLK, during his 10 best games of the year. Additionally, the Hawks went 8–2 in these games. The biggest difference between Embiid’s and Millsap’s performances is Embiid’s best games of the year came against weaker competition, like the Nets and Suns (twice) — two of the worst defensive teams in the association. Millsap’s best performances came against stronger competition, and his best game was a 32 PTS, 11 TRB, 3 AST, and 1 BLK performance in a win against the Spurs, the second best defensive team.

Based on the precedent set by past years of all-star selections, the coaches got this last roster spot correct by selecting Millsap to his fourth All-Star Game. Even though Embiid puts up better stat lines, especially when looking at points and blocks, than those put by Millsap, it is difficult to rank Embiid over Millsap because Millsap has more data points (games) to justify his selection. If Embiid had played in more games during this first half of the season, he would have been a lock for this year’s game; however, he needed more games, especially against better teams, under his belt before he could knock off a proven veteran for this final spot. Until then, “The Process” is going to have to keep “processing,” and I have a good feeling it is a matter of when, not if, Joel Embiid will make his debut in the mid-February classic.