some would say we lost the space race
The news that four Pistons had been selected for this year’s all-star game has provoked a tempest of mixed feeling here at FreeDarko, as consideration of its implications has shifted from the immediate and painful (Arenas) to the broad and unsettling. As many observers have noted, the number itself is not without precedent. Six other All-Star Games have featured four players from a single team – one in every decade since the revelry's inception.
Yet if the honor itself is not unique in ASG history, the justification – prizing defense and teamwork over individual talent – probably is. It was not for team chemistry or sublimated stardom that the ’83 Sixers team sent its four to the game. Moses Malone or Dr. J could have led a team of girl scouts to the semi-finals, while youngsters Mo’ Cheecks and Andrew Toney were recognized only for their promise of future greatness. The same formula goes for the ‘98 Laker foursome (Shaq, Kobe, Van Exel, Eddie Jones), whose terrifying potential and youth was then still largely unformed by Phil’s triangle. Here, the success of the team seemed almost incidental to the valuation of individual talent (at the time of the break, the Lakers did not even lead their division), while for Detroit, it has become its very premise.
There is also a second, more concrete way in which Detroit’s nominations lack precedent: it is the first time that all four players have been picked as reserves by the coaches. All other teams sent at least two starters, and some (such as the Sixers) sent as many as three. This shiny bit of ASG arcana has been given surprisingly little attention in the press, but I believe it has much to tell us. After all, what is most unusual about this year’s All-Star game is not how many players are from wining teams, but how few. The 12 players on the 1983 East and 1998 West won almost 70% of their first 41 games, with starters winning 76% and 71%, respectively. Yet in the past 5 years, the correlation between great players and great teams has become increasingly tenuous. Starters in the last four All-Star games (2002-2005) won an average of only 58%, 52%, 57%, and 61% of their first 41 games. It is in this context that coaches have mobilized their voting power to enshrine team success as a condition of individual player value. Thus, in a sharp break from the historical norm, the reserve players in the last four games came from better teams than the starters, with winning percentages of 59%, 58%, 60%, and 62%. This year, thanks in large part to Detroit’s big four, the East and West reserves will boast an average winning percentage of 64%, compared to just 57% for starters. But however hard they try to redefine it, the contradictions between individual and team greatness are becoming too obvious to ignore.
Last week, the rationale given for passing over Arenas and Redd was the same as that given for the rookies in 2004; that team effort and team success are the better measure of individual player value. This is a very recent invention. Jordan and Oscar Robertson were rookie season all-stars from sub-.500 teams. And top-five scorers have always had a place set at the all-star table.
As for Detroit, certainly much of their success can be attributable to the players, all of whom deserve acknowledgment and respect. Yet an equally important share of that success is due to altogether different forces, the most significant of which – savvy cap management – would seem to be the very last thing an All-Star game is meant to honor. Yet how many times in this week’s media has the ostensible praise of Rip and Chauncey wound up as paean to Joe Dumars’ payroll skills. Reading his column last Monday, I half expected Chad Ford to redefine all all-stars in terms of their maximum rate of surplus value.
However the profits are split, the rewards for “good management and teamwork” (to use Ford’s tidy phrase) are increasingly abundant in today's league, while the rewards for stars and style are shrinking. Perhaps someday the two-headed hydra of globalization and stat-tracker will finally rid the league of teams; then, every game will be an all-star game, with a single weekend set aside to remember the bygone virtues of "all that is right and good in baskeball" - loyalty, humility, and a savy front office. Until then, though, let us keep the weekend sacred, and close.