Joel Embiid named an All-Star reserve, James Harden not selected

Joel Embiid and James Harden talking under the basket; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

Sixers superstar big man Joel Embiid was named an Eastern Conference reserve for the 2023 NBA All-Star game in Utah, the NBA revealed on TNT crew Thursday night. Point guard James Harden was not one of the seven reserves selected for the game.

For Embiid, 2023 marks the sixth consecutive appearance in the game. He leads the NBA with 33.5 points per game. The big man put up a double-double with 10.1 rebounds per game. Since Embiid is once again in a battle for MVP with Nikola Jokic, his selection was just a formality. As I wrote last weekend, Embiid should have been a starter. There was really no reason to believe that he was the fourth best frontcourt player in the East. Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo should have been the odd one out in the top five. But the fans voted him fourth. Their vote counts for 50 percent.

Harden not being selected as a reserve is perhaps as ridiculous as Embiid not being selected as a starter because DeMar DeRozan and Jrue Holiday were selected as reserves. Philadelphia outscores the opposition at 5.76 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the field. The Sixers outscore opponents by 1.53 points per 100 possessions when Harden is on the field without Embiid this season, according to PBP statistics.

Meanwhile, DeRozan’s Bulls are 23-27, just out of the Play-In Tournament. Chicago is plus-1.44 per 100 with DeRozan on the field and minus 2.95 per 100 with him off the field. The Bulls outscore the opposition by 5.3 points per 100 possessions when DeRozan is on the field without Zach LaVine, Chicago’s second best player.

On the other hand, Holiday is the second best player of the Milwaukee Bucks. They are 34-17 and the 2-seed in the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee is plus-7.58 per 100 possessions with Holiday on the field, and minus 3.54 per 100 with him off. The Bucks outscore the opposition by six points per 100 possessions as Holiday is on the field without the aforementioned Antetokounmpo.

After laying all that out, this is where the advanced numbers say that Harden was rightly the odd one out. Philadelphia is still plus-2.14 per 100 possessions with Harden off the field. He is the only one of the three guards whose team maintains a positive output with him off the field. Philadelphia was better with him off the field than he was on the field without Embiid. That’s a good transition to the next point the advanced numbers make. Philadelphia’s net is worse than both Chicago and Milwaukee’s when each team’s other star (Embiid, LaVine, Antetokounmpo) is removed to isolate the impact.

But it’s also important to remember that head coaches are supposed to be the ones voting for reserves. It’s hard to know how many of those voters for this conversation lean toward analysis or how many even take the All-Star roster seriously. So maybe the advanced numbers are not relevant to the call.

In that case, the basic box score categories suggest Harden definitely should have been selected over one of DeRozan and Holiday. Harden leads the league in assists per game. He is one of three players in the NBA to average a double-double with assists. The other two are Nikola Jokic, who was selected as a starter in the Western Conference, and Tyrese Haliburton, who was selected as a reserve. The only meaningful category in which Harden was behind DeRozan and Holiday was games played (47 and 40, respectively, compared to Harden’s 34).

I can understand an argument in which games played carry significant weight. But Holiday and Haliburton each played just six games more than Harden. Harden led both Holiday and Haliburton in categories that measured actual production. In Holiday’s case, Harden led quite squarely. If you want to add team record to the equation, fine. Philadelphia had the 2-seed over Milwaukee just a few days ago and is currently only half a game behind the Bucks.

Ultimately, unless we’re dealing with bias against Harden here, it feels like this came down to games played. DeRozan has played substantially more games than Harden. But Holiday and Haliburton don’t have that. If you’re dealing with a six-game difference or negligible split in team records, actual production should take priority. And that just wasn’t the case here.

Harden said he would welcome another All-Star nod following Wednesday’s victory over the Orlando Magic, saying, “That means you’re one of the best players in the league. Am I going to sit here and say I have to be an All-Star and defend a cause? Like, numbers show it, our seed shows it. So it will be, I think, my 11th in a row. Of course it is always an honor. You never want to take that for granted. Means that you are doing something right, and that you are having an impact on your team and on the game.”

But Harden didn’t lose sight of the big picture, adding: “If my name is mentioned, it’s great. If not, just bigger and better goals for the season.”

Harden, the Sixers and their fans have a right to be outraged by this season’s All-Star process. But maybe it’s for the best. Cleared of the obligation to go to Utah, Harden now has a week to rest and regroup for the long run and the motivation to silence doubters.

The Eastern Conference 3-seed will have one representative barring any injuries to keep the Philadelphia fans interested. And based on a check-in with a team staff member, it doesn’t sound like Embiid intends to protest his incipient rejection or Harden’s reticence by declining his invitation to the game.

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