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Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Is Dirk Nowitzki's All-Star run in jeopardy?

By Jeff Caplan

About this time a year ago, my esteemed colleague Tim MacMahon, contended that Dirk Nowitzki didn't need to be anywhere near the All-Star Game. He argued this because Nowitzki was coming off a right knee sprain that sidelined him for nine games in January, a time in which the team practically went belly-up, and if a championship run was going to be had, the Mavs had to have Nowitzki at full strength.

Nowitzki, who was playing at an MVP level prior to the injury, could simply use the weekend off to rest, MacMahon essentially wrote. And Nowitzki, essentially, ignored the plea. The Western Conference coaches selected him to a 10th consecutive All-Star squad and Nowitzki proudly represented the West. And then he ran roughshod over the league to capture his first championship.

A year later, the tone has changed. It's no longer a question of should he play because of his current knee/conditioning issue, but is his season even worthy of selection among the West's loaded field of forwards?

The suspense of Nowitzki being voted a starter by the fans for the first time in his career never materialized. Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin quickly filled the void left by Carmelo Anthony's defection to the Eastern Conference. Starters will be announced Thursday night and the all-Oklahoma City duo of Thunder superstar Kevin Durant and Griffin, an OKC native, have those spots sewn up.

The issue facing West coaches in selecting the seven reserves is what to do with Dirk? The reigning NBA Finals MVP and an All-Star mainstay would typically be a no-brainer selection based on history, even if his numbers aren't quite up to typical standards.

However, Nowitzki has had a most unusual season that now includes a mid-season, week-long hiatus and behind-the-scenes personal training camp, plus the lowest marks since his rookie season in scoring average (16.7), rebounds (5.8) and shooting percentage, both overall (44.8) and behind the arc (20.0).

Last year's All-Star team included Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and Griffin selected as reserve forwards with Kevin Love officially handed the forward-center tag and Pau Gasol granted a spot at center (Yao Ming was voted the starter, but was injured and later retired).

We know this: coaches are not going to leave Portland Trail Blazers forward and Dallas native LaMarcus Aldridge off the team after last season's snub. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle has said he voted for Aldridge and had no idea how he didn't make the team. Aldridge is averaging 22.6 points and 8.8 rebounds and he will be wearing an All-Star uniform for the first time in Orlando on Feb. 26.

Love, the Minnesota Timberwolves' double-double machine, is averaging 25.5 points and 13.5 rebounds and is another lock.

Memphis' Rudy Gay (17.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Utah's Paul Millsap (17.1, 9.4) and Gasol (16.6, 9.5) are all candidates. And what about Danilo Gallinari (17.9, 5.3) with Denver? The Nuggets have the second-best record in the West at the moment and might not possess an All-Star.

Of course, if Nowitzki doesn't get in, the defending champs will almost assuredly not be represented at the NBA's showcase event, and that seems highly unlikely. If he does get in, it could come at the expense of a more deserving younger player.

The number of players selected at guard (for instance, Deron Williams is now in the East and Manu Ginobili is injured) and center (which will include Andrew Bynum as a starter and perhaps Marc Gasol as a reserve) will also play a role.

Not everyone can get in. There's always snubs. Perennial All-Stars tend to get the nod and particularly ones that are also the reigning Finals MVP. But, in this most unusual, lockout-delayed season, Nowitzki has followed suit with a most unusual and unexpected one.

Will it cost him an 11th consecutive All-Star selection? If it does, don't expect Nowitzki or owner Mark Cuban to protest too loudly. For them, the ring is the only thing.

Reserves will be announced on Feb. 9.