Joel Embiid and James Harden conversing 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 on TNT crew revealed on Thursday night. Point guard James Harden was not one of the seven reserves selected for the game.

For Embiid, 2023 will mark a sixth consecutive appearance at the game. He leads the NBA in scoring at 33.5 points per game. The big man is putting up a double-double with 10.1 rebounds per contest. Considering Embiid is in a battle for MVP with Nikola Jokic once again, his selection was merely a formality. As I wrote last weekend, Embiid should’ve actually been a starter. There was basically no case to be made that he was the fourth best frontcourt player in the East. Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo should’ve been the odd man out of the starting five. But, the fans voted him fourth. Their vote is worth 50 percent of the count.

That Harden wasn’t selected as a reserve is perhaps as ludicrous as Embiid not being voted in as a starter because DeMar DeRozan and Jrue Holiday were selected as reserves. Philadelphia outscores the opposition by 5.76 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the court. The Sixers outscore opponents by 1.53 points per 100 possessions when Harden is on the court without Embiid this season, according to PBP Stats

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

On the other hand, Holiday is the second best player on 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 court, and minus-3.54 per 100 with him off. The Bucks outscore the opposition by six points per 100 possessions when Holiday is on the court without the aforementioned Antetokounmpo. 

Having laid all of that out, this is where the advanced numbers say Harden was rightfully the odd man out. Philadelphia is still plus-2.14 per 100 possessions with Harden off the court. He’s the only one of the three guards whose team maintains a positive output with him off the court. Philadelphia has been better with him off the court than with him on the court without Embiid. That’s a good segue to the next point that the advanced numbers make. Philadelphia’s net is worse than both Chicago’s and Milwaukee’s when each team’s other star (Embiid, LaVine, Antetokounmpo) is removed for purposes of isolating impact. 

But, it’s also important to remember that head coaches are supposed to be the ones voting for reserves. It’s difficult to know how many of those voters lean towards analytics for this conversation or how many even take All-Star selection seriously. So, perhaps the advanced numbers are irrelevant to the conversation.

In that case, the basic box score categories suggest Harden absolutely should’ve 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 averaging a double-double with assists. The other two are Nikola Jokic, who was voted in as a starter in the Western Conference, and Tyrese Haliburton, who was selected as a reserve. The only meaningful category in which Harden trailed DeRozan and Holiday was games played (47 and 40, respectively, compared to Harden’s 34).

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

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 have not. If you’re dealing with a difference of six games played or negligible separation in team records, actual production should take priority. And that simply wasn’t the case here.

Harden expressed that he would welcome another All-Star nod after 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 up here and say I should be an All-Star and make a case? Like, numbers show it, our seed shows it. So, it will be, I think, my 11th in a row. Obviously, it’s always an honor. You never want to take that for granted. Means you’re doing something right, and you’re making an impact on your team and on the game.”

But, Harden didn’t lose sight of the big picture, adding, “If my name is called, then 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, it might be for the best anyway. Cleared of the obligation to go to Utah, Harden now has a week’s time to rest and regroup for the stretch run and the motivation to silence any doubters.

The Eastern Conference’s 3-seed, barring any injuries, will have one representative to keep Philadelphia fans interested. And based on a check-in with a team staffer, it doesn’t sound like Embiid plans to protest his starting snub or Harden’s reserve snubbing by declining his invitation to the game. 


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