What does it mean to be an NBA All-Star?
That might seem like a somewhat existential question on the surface. But with the NBA’s annual All-Star Game back in Charlotte this weekend for the first time since 1991, we set out to answer that question by analyzing every All-Star player from 1991 to present.
There is a searchable database, compiled from Basketball-Reference.com, at the bottom of this story with the raw information from those 200-plus players.
As for what we found? A sampling:
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▪ Stars in the NBA are expensive, with game participants earning about one-fifth of the league’s total salary dollars each season. But does that spending correlate to winning?
▪ The average age of an NBA All-Star hasn’t changed, but it now takes players longer to reach that status. Why?
▪ The rosters demonstrate the value of top-three draft picks, but also that the correlation between how highly a player is drafted and his likelihood of ending up an All-Star falls off quickly.
▪ The average height of All-Stars has remained almost the same since 1991, but the average weight over the years is a lot like yours and mine: up and down.
▪ Six teams since 1991 have had four All-Stars in the same season, and those teams have had surprisingly mixed success.
There might not be a clear answer as to what makes a modern All-Star, but there are certainly quantifiable trends that help paint that picture — and reflects the larger picture of changes in the NBA overall.
Salaries/Impact on the salary cap
▪ Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker is a definitive outlier among 2019 All-Stars regarding salary: His $12 million this season is $8 million less than any of the other nine All-Star starters, and he is just the sixth-highest paid Hornet (behind reserves Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo).
▪ All-Star players today — there are 24 players initially selected to the game each year, before injuries cause replacement — make up about 6 percent of all NBA players. But All-Star players’ salaries constitute about 20 percent of overall league payroll, acording to data from Spotrac.
In other words, roughly 24 NBA players make one-fifth of all players’ total earnings.
▪ Teams are spending 25 percent more of their overall cap space on All-Star players now than they did in 1991, which reflects how star-driven the NBA has become. Where teams in 1991 were spending about 15 percent of their collective payroll on All-Stars, now teams are spending 20 percent.
▪ Does all that spending correlate to winning?
Of the 20 NBA teams since 1991 whose All-Stars accounted for the most cap space:
— 10 teams, including the 2017-2018 Golden State Warriors, won the NBA Finals that season.
— Another four advanced to the Finals but lost.
— Only five did not advance to the Finals.
— The 2018-2019 Golden State Warriors’ season is still underway, but the team is in first place in the Western Conference.
It’s debatable how much of the rise in All-Star salaries as a percentage of the league’s total payroll is a leading or trailing indicator. Are team’s being more proactive in keeping rising stars off the market with lucrative contracts in advance of them being All-Star worthy? Or are these salaries reflective of rewarding past performance?
Probably some of both, but the data reinforces what a bargain Walker has been for the Hornets at $48 million over four seasons, which includes three All-Star appearances.
▪ On the opposite side of that spectrum, the championship team that spent the least percentage of its salary cap on All-Star players? The 2004 Detroit Pistons, at just 13 percent. That Pistons team did not have a single 20-point scorer, and its lone All-Star, forward Ben Wallace, averaged 9.5 points and 12.4 rebounds per game. However, three other players on that Pistons team — Chauncey Billups, Richard “Rip” Hamilton, and Rasheed Wallace — each made at least three All-Star appearances in other seasons.
▪ Salary-specific fun facts for the 2019 All-Star Game:
— The average 2019 All-Star makes $21.8 million this season.
— Each of the five starters from the Western Conference — Stephen Curry, James Harden, Paul George, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James — makes at least $30 million.
▪ In possibly the most surprising finding from the data, there has been no change in the average age of All-Star players (around 28).
▪ However, there has been a significant shift as to when in a player’s career he makes his first All-Star appearance, which might reflect when players now enter the NBA, typically earlier than in the early ’90s:
From 1991 through 2001, every All-Star Game featured at least five players who had previously made his All-Star Game debut as a rookie. For example, in 1991, there were six such players: Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, and David Robinson.
But that trend has stopped dramatically. There haven’t been five or more All-Stars who had debuted as rookies in any of the past 18 seasons, bottoming out from 2016 through 2018, when there was not any All-Star who first made the game his rookie season.
The only former rookie All-Star in this year’s game is Blake Griffin, the last rookie All-Star in 2011.
▪ The dearth of rookie debuts seemingly relates to the “one-and-done” rule for U.S. college players. They are less likely to be named All-Stars as rookies today because they enter the league with less developmental time. Where players often once spent multiple seasons honing their skills and bodies in college, they now are entering the NBA as less-polished, less physically mature projects.
“It used to be when you got a young guy and you were a bad team in the NBA, he could help you immediately,” Charles Barkley, the MVP of the 1991 All-Star Game in Charlotte, told the Observer. “Now you have to wait until he gets physically bigger and stronger.”
▪ Also worth mentioning as it relates to rookies being named All-Stars: NBA teams in the past 20 years have shifted their draft philosophies. Teams focus less on how quickly a player will be a finished product, and more on prospects’ long-term potential.
There are still All-Star-caliber rookies, such as the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic this season, but the overwhelming number of gifted players sometimes forces talented rookies to “wait their turn.”
“It’s different now,” Glen Rice, the 1997 All-Star Game MVP, told the Observer. “Not to knock what (Doncic is) doing — I’ve been watching and he’s been doing unbelievable — but it’s sort of like you have to put your dues in before you get right in there.”
▪ Fun facts about All-Star ages:
— The only players named All-Stars as rookies since 1991 are: Dikembe Mutombo, Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill, Tim Duncan, Vince Carter, Yao Ming, and Blake Griffin.
— Kobe Bryant was the youngest All-Star (19 years old) since 1991, and Dirk Nowitzki (40, this season as a special addition) is the oldest.
▪ This year’s All-Star Game features the most top-three draft picks of any game since 1991, with 14 such players. That partially illustrates the tremendous value of a top-three draft pick, and probably also a shift in drafting philosophy in that time span..
▪ But not every All-Star Game has sported so many top picks, and there’s a reason.
From 1991 to 2002, there were just over 10 top-three picks on average in the All-Star Game. Then from 2003 to 2009, that number dipped to eight, before rising back above 10 from 2010 through today.
Those numbers might not seem significant, but they mirror a league-wide trend during those eras. From 1991 to 2002, and then again from 2010 to today, the NBA has been dominated by dynastic players and the teams they came to represent. Think Michael Jordan and the Bulls, or Stephen Curry and the Warriors. In both periods, there were multiple organizations that won a series of championships.
But from 2003 to 2009, a different team won the Finals each season, reflecting a type of parity that clearly isn’t always present in the NBA. Unlike today, there weren’t a handful of top picks consistently winning titles in the mid-2000s. Instead, the mantle of “the best players in the league” constantly shifted year-to-year rather than a handful of highly-drafted stars with long-term staying power.
▪ Of the 201 total players tracked, 79 of them were top-five draft picks, and 115 (60 percent) were top-10 picks.
However, outside the top 10, a team’s odds of selecting an All-Star player at any point in the draft were random. You had as good a shot as finding an All-Star player with the eightth pick (four All-Stars since 1991) as you did with the 24th pick (six All-Stars since 1991).
▪ More fun facts:
— The first overall pick, not surprisingly, yielded the most future All-Stars (26 players).
— Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton (39th overall in 2012) and Denver’s Nikola Jokic (41st overall in 2014) are the only 2019 All-Stars who were not selected in the first round of the NBA draft (and each player is making his first appearance).
▪ The average All-Star is only an inch taller than he was in 1991 (from 6-6 to 6-7). However, they have gotten significantly heavier. In fact, there are two clear trends from looking at the weights of All-Stars:
— From 1991 through 2011, All-Star players’ average weight rose from 211 pounds in 1991 to a peak of 232 pounds in 2011.
— Then from 2012 to present, average player weight has decreased every year, with players down about 6 pounds over the past 8 years.
Those trends mirror the NBA’s average weight over those same spans ... but why? Those increases can be largely explained by playing styles and how much physicality was allowed under previous rules. During the 2000s, when physicality in the NBA reached levels of “bully ball,” weights naturally rose as players prepared for greater and more collisions.
But as NBA rules changed — notably, outlawing hand-checking on defense and calling flagrant fouls more often — that physicality became less commonplace. In recent years, the sleeker style of play has changed body types at least slightly: The center position has been minimized in favor of 3-point shooters (guards and wings), and weights have steadily declined.
▪ A few fun facts over the years:
— Yao Ming is the tallest All-Star since 1991 (7-foot-6), and Isaiah Thomas (5-foot-9) is the shortest.
— O’Neal is the heaviest (325 pounds), and at half that weight, Michael Adams in 1992 (162 pounds) was the smallest.
▪ There are clear trends about which teams produce the most All-Star players. For example, the Lakers and Spurs (who have accounted for a combined 10 championships since 1991) are tied for the most total All-Star selections with 39. On the opposite end of that spectrum are the Memphis Grizzlies, who have never appeared in the Finals, with six total selections.
▪ On a related note, there is also a difference between teams as to which organizations get their players into the All-Star Game quicker. Again, the Lakers and Spurs lead the league, averaging about 2 seasons before their All-Stars’ first appearance. Comparatively, the Grizzlies and the Hawks are on the opposite end, at about 5.5 seasons.
The Hornets/Bobcats lean more toward the longer end of that spectrum, with their All-Star players taking an average of 4.8 seasons before their first appearance. That is largely a factor of two extreme groups of players: Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, and Baron Davis each took three or fewer seasons to make their first All-Star Game, but Glen Rice, Gerald Wallace, and Walker each took six or more seasons.
▪ A few final notes about specific teams:
— 46 players have made All-Star appearances for multiple teams. Shaquille O’Neal leads all players in that regard, as he was an All-Star for four separate teams: the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, and Phoenix Suns.
— Eight players have made All-Star appearances for three different teams: Charles Barkley, Dikembe Mutombo, Ray Allen, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, Jason Kidd, LeBron James, and Allen Iverson.
— Six teams since 1991 have had four players named to the All-Star Game in the same season:
☆ The 1998 Los Angeles Lakers (O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel)
☆ The 2006 Detroit Pistons (Chauncey Billups, Richard “Rip” Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace)
☆ The 2011 Boston Celtics (Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo)
☆ The 2015 Atlanta Hawks (Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague)
☆ The 2017 Golden State Warriors (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green)
☆ The 2018 Golden State Warriors (Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green)
Of those six teams, the 2017 and 2018 Warriors won the NBA title — and none of the others reached the Finals.