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Hoops Lab: What Makes a Player a Superstar?

Andre' Snellings

Andre' Snellings is a Neural Engineer by day, and RotoWire's senior basketball columnist by night. He's a two-time winner of the Fantasy Basketball Writer of the Year award from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

In one of my earlier Labs this year I noted that James Harden was in the top-5 of the Yahoo! player rankings for the season (he's currently at No. 12 by totals, No. 25 by average). At the time I mentioned I didn't have Harden in my top-5, but I had projected him favorably enough this offseason that he was somewhat surprisingly in my preseason top-30.

Anyway, this weekend I read a couple of things that brought Harden to my attention again. First, Matt Buser had a picture of Harden as the advertisement for his fantasy rankings in which the caption compared Harden to Manu Ginobili. Immediately after I saw that article, I went to a basketball message board I frequent, and the first topic on the page was James Harden is a superstar.

"Superstar". That's a word thrown around a lot these days that should probably be used more selectively. A superstar, by definition, is among the absolute best-of-the-best. You can't have a league where everyone is a superstar, and Harden doesn't even start for his own team. I mean, surely that word doesn't fit a player like Harden, right? Good role player - sure. Possible Sixth Man of Year - ok. But superstar? Hardly.

But then, I started reading the case for his superstardom, and there was some pretty interesting information in there. At the time, Harden was averaging 7.5 free throw attempts vs. 10 field goal attempts per game (he's currently dropped to 6.3 FTA per game with 10.1 FGA), an extremely high ratio of FTA/FGA that's normally associated more with the likes of Dwight Howard than a scoring wing. Harden has an excellent assist-to-turnover ratio (2.1) for a wing, indicating he can create offense while still taking care of the ball. He's averaging 20 points per 36 minutes with an absurdly high true shooting percentage of 64.3 percent (by comparison, Reggie Miller has the highest career TS percentage for a guard in NBA history at 61.4), and his career best single-season mark was 65). Of course it's still early in the season, but these were some impressive credentials. So I decided to do some searching on my own.

At this early stage of the season, Harden measures out 16th in the NBA in the composite box score measure PER, and a whopping seventh overall in the basketball-reference Win Shares stat. So the advanced box score stats love him. And he compounds those excellent box score results with the second-highest on-court/off-court +/- mark on the first-place Thunder (+11.18). Of course, +/- data require a big sample size before really telling a story - even a full season isn't really quite enough, let alone just a few weeks. Multi-year +/- results are much more compelling. So I checked out a four-year adjusted plus-minus study from 2008-2011, and sure enough, there is Harden near the top at No. 22 in the league behind primarily big-named players (with three other young or bench players ahead of him as well). By this point I'm starting to be convinced that, while maybe not a superstar yet, Harden certainly is putting up star-caliber numbers while remaining virtually anonymous to the public.

In fact, statistically Harden IS starting to resemble an up-and-coming Manu Ginobili, as both the article and message board post linked above mention. And Ginobili, to me, IS a superstar, even if very few people realize it. Here's a quick superstar sniff test for you. If you look at the yearly regularized adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) studies available since 2002 (2002 was a partial season), these are the only players to lead the NBA in RAPM for a season:

Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki... and Manu Ginobili!

Ginobili led the NBA in RAPM in 2005, the same season that he led the Spurs in total Win Shares over the regular and post-seasons and very arguably could have been the Finals MVP on a title team. This is the same Ginobili that was clearly the best player on the court in the 2008 Olympics when he led Argentina to the gold medal over the superstar-heavy United States in the Olympics. Ginobili is an insanely good basketball player when healthy whose game passes both the eye-test and the stats test, but because of his team role (often a 6th man) and fewer minutes played he's historically thought of as only a great "role" player.

So, what is a superstar? Everyone's definition is different, but for me if a player is having one of the biggest impacts in the entire NBA on a night-to-night basis then he does deserve to be called a superstar. Ginobili has proven himself to be one in my book. Harden isn't quite there yet, but he's only 22 years old and in his third season. If Harden stays on this pace and keeps channeling his inner Ginobili, it won't be long before he too merits that designation.

Around the League

Angry Kobe: In my first Hoops Lab of the year, I pointed out that the circumstances seemed right for Kobe Bryant to play this season angry, and that I wanted "Angry Kobe" on my team. My only hesitance was the wrist injury, otherwise I had him as a first round talent and higher than his average draft slot. Well, Bryant is in the midst of a four-game run of 40 or more points which has pushed his season numbers up to 30.8 points to go with 5.7 boards, 5.5 assists and 1.3 steals. And I see no reason to expect him to slow down. The Lakers don't have the best record in the league, and the perception is that LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the new faces of the NBA. I expect Bryant to continue to operate at an extremely high level moving forward.

Wade's ankle: Dwyane Wade missed several games with a foot injury, then returned to the court only to sprain his ankle. The injuries are small enough that he generally maintains a "day-to-day" tag, but I maintain that any foot/leg issue for a player that relies on explosion is worth watching. Wade should be fine, but his issues mixed with Bryant's explosion have caused Wade to slide a bit in the NBA cheat sheet.

Clippers' backcourt: Chris Paul (hamstring) and Mo Williams (foot) are both out with nagging injuries, opening up space for Chauncey Billups and Randy Foye to get extended run as the starting backcourt. Interestingly, Foye played more of the point guard role on Monday (10 assists) with Billups staying at the shooting guard slot. Billups played more point guard on Tuesday, but the reluctance to move him would seem to indicate the Clippers are pretty committed to the Billups-at-SG experiment for the long haul.

Rose's toe: Derrick Rose has missed the last two games and three of his last five outings with a toe injury. As with Wade, I will keep an eye on the athletic Rose as he recovers from an injury to his base. The Bulls don't play again until Friday, but there is no official word as to whether Rose will play in that game against the Cavaliers.

Anthony's ankle and wrist: Carmelo Anthony is playing through ankle and wrist injuries, which kept him out one game this week and appear to be affecting his shot in the short term (14-for-49 shooting from the field in his last two games). The injuries are considered short term, but the shooting percentage is worth keeping an eye on at the volume that Anthony shoots.

Garnett center-eligibility: The Celtics are off to a slow start as a team this year, but Kevin Garnett gained some added roto value by starting a couple of games at center over the weekend which earned him center eligibility in Yahoo! leagues,

Irving on the rise: Kyrie Irving was the early safe prediction for Rookie of the Year, but he struggled a bit out of the gate. His time of struggle appears to be over, however, as he has scored 18 or more points in six straight games to average 21.8 points with 5.2 assists and 3.3 boards over that stretch.

Rubio in starting lineup: It was only a matter of time, but Ricky Rubio has moved into the starting lineup for the Timberwolves. He is a nightly double-double waiting to happen with 61 assists over his last six games, and he also has 17 steals in that same span. Rubio is playing well, and his role should do nothing but continue to expand moving forward.

Dalembert awake: When Samuel Dalembert signed in Houston, I touted him as a good acquisition because he generally produces well, and the Rockets are thin at center. Then, Dalembert didn't do much for the first couple of weeks of the season. That has changed in a big way over the last week, as he has moved into the starting lineup and averaged 15.3 points with 11.8 rebounds with 2.0 blocks over the last four games.

Kemba Walker starting and gunning: Walker is another of a strong rookie lead guard class and has recently moved into the starting lineup for the Bobcats. Walker has averaged more than 16 field goal attempts over his last few games, and though his percentages aren't great he appears locked in to score a lot of points as the starter.

Davis (back) may return to practice soon: The Knicks hope that Baron Davis (back) can return to practice next week, which would keep him on schedule to return to action in late January or early February. Davis is still a good point guard, and in a Mike D'Antoni offense his value will be pretty high if he can stay healthy. He could make an interesting "throw-in" player for you to try to acquire in a near-term trade before he gets healthy, as his upside potential is a roto stater.

Henderson balling at SF; Diaw to bench: Gerald Henderson has moved over to the starting small forward slot and taken on a larger role of late, averaging 22.3 points with a whopping 10.3 free throw attempts over his last three games. Meanwhile, Boris Diaw has lost his starting job and has struggled of late after such a promising start to the season.

New Additions

J.J. Redick (54% owned in Yahoo leagues): Redick moved into the starting lineup with the ankle injury to Jason Richardson and responded with 21 points and three treys in his first start. Redick is not the most consistent player around, but Richardson was so bad even before the injury that Redick could conceivably hold onto the starting slot even after Richardson returns.

Brandon Knight (54% owned): Knight has been solid and getting better of late, averaging 14 points, four boards, four assists, two combined steals/blocks and 1.3 treys over the last week. He is a rookie on a team with no playoff aspirations, meaning his role likely grows as the season goes along.

Marreese Speights (20% owned): Speights showed potential during his rookie season in Philadelphia but ultimately he was unable to carve out a consistent niche in that offense. Now he's getting starts in Memphis and has shown he has double-double potential if he can gain some consistency.

Chandler Parsons (16% owned): Last week I was asked about Parsons, whether he was worth a pickup. The rookie has been solid since moving into the starting lineup, averaging 8.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.9 spg, 0.9 bpg and even 0.4 treys I seven games. The main question is whether he can continue to hold off Chase Budinger for the starting slot, as Budinger has also been solid of late.

Michael Redd (6% owned): Redd has returned to the NBA after a long injury layoff, and is getting minutes on the Suns. He had an impressive 12 points with three treys in his debut, but has struggled from the field in the three games since. It makes sense that he would be rusty, and Suns Coach Alvin Gentry has already publicly flirted with the idea of starting Redd. He's more of a "one to watch" than a pick-up at this point, but Redd is certainly on my radar right now.

Jordan Farmar (5% owned): Farmar has stepped it up of late, averaging 13.8 pts, 3.7 asts, 1.3 stls, 2.7 treys in 23 minutes over last four games as he has carved himself out a regular role off the bench. He is unlikely to stay so hot from downtown, but Farmar has shown in the past that he can produce on a regular basis and he could make a decent 3-ptr role player with some upside in the case of a Deron Williams injury.

C.J. Watson (3% owned): Watson returned from an elbow injury just in time to help replace some of Derrick Rose's scoring in his absence. Watson is worth a short-term add while Rose is out, with current averages of 20 points, four boards, 2.5 assists, 1.5 treys and 1.5 steals in his two games this year.

Best Players in NBA history

In this section of the Lab I pick one of the top players in NBA history as voted on in this project and discuss some of his career accomplishments - in other words, what made him so great that he deserves a spot among the greatest? This week's is Earvin "Magic" Johnson, a player with the body of a power forward, the skills of a point guard, and the mind of an offensive genius. Johnson case is built on that unique combination that made him effectively unstoppable offensively in a team setting, contributing strongly to one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history.

1. Magic finished in the top-3 of the MVP vote nine times, good for second all-time (tied with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one behind Michael Jordan at 10). Magic had finished top-3 in nine straight seasons, and top-2 in four of the last five seasons, before his untimely retirement due to HIV at only 31 years old.

For the rest of Johnson's highlight facts, be sure to check out the blog.

Keeping up with the Professor

If you're interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don't forget that you can catch me on the radio on Rotowire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 87, Sirius 210.