Breaking the All Star Code of NBA Coaches

Much criticism has been leveled at the fans who selected the starters for the NBA's midseason All-Star game. Allen Iverson -- who nearly retired from the game after being told he was not going to start for the Memphis Grizzlies -- was voted in as a starter in the Eastern Conference. And more than one million fans thought Tracy McGrady - who has only played 46 minutes this year -- should start for the Western Conference.

Perhaps such apparently poor choices could be avoided if NBA insiders made the selections. But did the NBA coaches really do better when they chose the original reserves for this year's All-Star game?

To answer this question we have to determine what factors the NBA coaches considered. Such a task would seem on the surface to be impossible. After all, NBA coaches have access to film on each and every player. And one suspects that coaches not only consider everything that we see in a standard box score, but also a host of other factors that people on the outside never get to see.

At least, that might be our suspicion. A quick study of the actual choices, though, reveals a fairly basic two-step formula.

Step one simply involves throwing out all players who play for losers. Almost every player the coaches originally selected came from a team that posted a winning record after 41 games.

For step two we need to rank players at each position by points scored per game. This second step essentially reveals all the players selected by the coaches. To see this observation, consider the coaches' original selections in the East (rankings are only from players on winning teams):

Rajon Rondo: second leading scorer among point guards (Mo Williams - the leading scorer -- is hurt)

Joe Johnson: second leading scorer among shooting guards (Dwyane Wade - the leading scorer -- was selected by the fans)

Paul Pierce and Gerald Wallace: second and third leading scorers among forwards (LeBron James - the leading scorer -- was selected by the fans)

Chris Bosh and Al Horford: first and third leading scorer among centers (Dwight Howard - the second leading scorer - was selected by the fans).

The only exception to this pattern in the East was the selection of Derrick Rose. Currently Rose toils for a losing team. But he also leads active point guards in the Eastern Conference in points scored per game. Hence we shouldn't be surprised to see Rose - despite playing for a loser - be the lone exception to the basic pattern.

And this pattern is not confined to the East. Here are the coaches' original selections in the West:

Chris Paul and Deron Williams: first and second leading scorers among point guards

Brandon Roy: second leading scorer among shooting guards (Kobe Bryant - the leading scorer - was selected by the fans)

Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, and Zach Randolph: second, third, and fourth leading scorers among forwards (Carmelo Anthony - the leading scorer - was selected by the fans)

Pau Gasol: second leading scorers among centers (Amare Stoudemire - the leading scorer - was selected by the fans)

These lists from the East and West reveal that although the coaches might have access to an abundance of information, the coaches' code is actually quite easy to break.

Simply rank all players by winning and scoring and you can see virtually all the coaches' choices.

Shouldn't the coaches, though, focus on more than these two factors? Aren't the other performance factors (i.e. rebounding, turnovers, shooting efficiency, etc...) important?

Certainly these other factors dictate outcomes. But studies of what determines a free agent's salary, the coaches' voting for the All-Rookie team, the coaches' allocation of minutes in a game, and where a player is selected in the NBA draft all tell the same story. Scoring totals dominate player evaluation in the NBA.

Yes, playing for a winner also matters. But players know that whether or not their team wins depends upon the player's teammates. What the player has much more control over is his scoring. And since scoring leads to many rewards, we shouldn't be surprised that many players focus on how many points he scores in a game.

So the next time you see a player focus on his scoring at the expense of his team, remember how players are really evaluated in the Association. The players know that coaches focus primarily on scoring when it comes to handing out minutes and awards. The players also know that scoring gets them paid. The coaches' original choices for the 2010 All-Star game reserves is certainly consistent with this story. And these choices are but one more piece of evidence confirming that players who focus on their own shots are likely to reap significant rewards in the Association.

More on this story can be seen at The Wages of Wins Journal. And the more on the studies briefly mentioned above can be found in Stumbling on Wins (available next month from Financial Times Press).