|ESPN.com: NBA||[Print without images]|
For a supposedly meaningless exhibition, people sure attach a lot of significance to who gets to play in the All-Star Game. I know it's a big branding opportunity for the players. The honorees stick in our minds more than the All-NBA teams -- you know, the ones based on an entire season, with no politics in play. Maybe it's because we actually get to see the All-Stars assemble and play. And party. Let me begin by saying the fans always get it right, no matter which players they vote in. The game is for the fans, so let them choose whomever they want. The most memorable All-Star moment was provided because fans voted for a guy who had not played a game that season -- Magic Johnson, post-HIV retirement in 1992. If the fans want to vote in Jeremy Lin, it's actually a good sign for the NBA. It means that a lot of people who don't follow the game closely care enough to vote. If you get the casual fan into the tent, you're winning. Of course, Lin's inclusion at the expense of Chris Paul would cause a chain reaction that would end in another worthy guard getting bumped. I'm worried it would be Steph Curry. Curry's Golden State teammate David Lee is putting up 20 and 10 a game and could easily land a spot on the squad. But Lee's numbers aren't much different from last season or from his final season in New York in 2009-10. What did those teams have in common? Neither qualified for the postseason. These Warriors are playoff-bound, and a primary difference is Curry, now that his ankles are functional. He already has played in 10 more games than he did all of last season. He is averaging a career-high 20.5 points per game. He is making 46 percent of his 3-pointers. He dishes out 6.6 assists per game. He is bringing pro basketball excitement back to the Bay Area. That needs to be rewarded with an All-Star spot. I'm big on winning as a prerequisite.
I have a hard time believing Lee can't also be an All-Star. So let's hammer this out. Assuming the starters will be Paul, Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant, the locks after that are Tim Duncan, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and probably Curry. That leaves three spots for a handful of deserving candidates. The Grizzlies are deserving of an All-Star, and Zach Randolph probably stands out as the most deserving. Tony Parker probably falls under the category of "the Spurs deserve a second All-Star," though most would probably agree that the rejuvenated Duncan, who is averaging 2.7 blocked shots (only once has he averaged more than that in a season, 2002-03 when he blocked 2.9 per game), is the player who's really driving the Spurs this season. With that last spot, it's hard to argue that Lee isn't the most deserving of the remaining candidates. It's unfair to keep him out just because he has put up similar numbers on losing teams in the past. His 19.9 points, 10.9 rebounds and 53 percent shooting are better than LaMarcus Aldridge's numbers. (In fact, I'd say Nicolas Batum is the most deserving Blazer because of how he affects the game.) And either Lee has been an underrated defender his entire career or he has improved in that area too, because the Warriors are among the best in the league in shooting percentage allowed. I'm putting him in, and it's not just because the Warriors are the surprise team of the season.
I don't consider the Warriors that big of a surprise. I thought they'd make the playoffs; I just didn't think they'd be up as high as they are right now. Portland is more of a surprise to me. And in that case, the credit goes to Damian Lillard. He has been the difference-maker, much like Curry in Golden State. He would also be the first rookie All-Star guard since Michael Jordan in 1985. Maybe the vets would freeze him out during the game, leading to a long, bitter feud that one day results in Lillard scheming to keep someone off the Olympic team. But I'm getting ahead of myself, because I doubt the coaches will add a rookie. Plus, Parker's numbers are better, so I'd make him the final guard. I'd go with Z-Bo too, even though his numbers are down this season. He has had five seasons in which he's averaged 20 and 10, with only one All-Star appearance to show for it. Give it to him as a lifetime achievement award. It's unfair that Portland or Denver could get shut out while the Lakers and their losing record send two players to the All-Star Game. If you think the combo of Parker plus politics keeps out Lillard, doesn't that mean Aldridge should represent the Trail Blazers? OK. To the East, my brother. Who ya got?
Oddly enough, the Eastern Conference has been big-man territory this season, even with Howard changing conferences and the supposed obsession with small ball. Assuming Kevin Garnett hangs on to that starting spot, Chris Bosh, David West, Joakim Noah, Brook Lopez and Tyson Chandler all have fairly easy cases to play in Houston. The weakest case of that group would be between Bosh, who was close to Garnett in the latest All-Star returns, and West, whose numbers aren't jaw-dropping. Lopez's numbers are better than both, while Chandler and Noah are more critical to their teams' success. But West has been the leader of the league's best defense, and a top-three seed deserves at least one All-Star. The way the Heat have been playing lately, it's hard to argue that they even deserve a third All-Star next to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. But both Bosh and West likely will get a nod. Let's hope it's not at the expense of Noah, whose 12.3 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks have been a major reason why the Bulls are hard to beat even without Derrick Rose. If all five of those bigs find a way to get in (doubtful), that leaves two spots for three deserving candidates: Kyrie Irving, Paul Pierce and Jrue Holiday. If I'm picking, I'm taking Irving -- might as well start his All-Star run this season, because he has been stunning at times -- and Holiday. I know Holiday turns the ball over too much, but that's a product of carrying a team. Steve Nash, Wade and Bryant have all been near or atop the league leaders in turnovers at some point. Holiday is having a breakout season and deserves this recognition. Pierce might just be a victim of the numbers, especially if Garnett hangs on to that starting spot. In terms of All-Star selection, maybe the Celtics have waited too long to finally turn the corner.
I like Holiday -- more so than Irving. Even though the 76ers have been unable to maintain their early pace (can you believe that in mid-December they had the best record of the four teams involved in the Dwight Howard trade?), Holiday has increased his scoring by five points per game and has almost doubled his assists. I'd send him there along with Josh Smith, Noah, Chandler, West and Paul George. Yes, George and West. If you're going to send one, might as well send both. Their scoring and rebounding numbers are virtually identical, and this team could end up being the second-best squad in the East. And, sorry, I'd have to put Brandon Jennings ahead of Irving as well. Jennings has the Bucks hanging on to a playoff spot, while we're still waiting for the Cavs to hit double-digit victories. Jennings is averaging 20 points and seven assists in Milwaukee's victories. Irving will get his share of trips to the All-Star Game. For now, he still has the rookie-sophomore game to get him a trip to Houston. Can't believe we haven't talked about Deron Williams, but his numbers have dropped off and it seems like every game he is limping around with some new injury.
I have to say I'm a little shocked by the love Smith is getting. His numbers are down from a year ago, and as much as the Hawks had a nice stretch earlier this season, they're going through an equally woeful stretch right now. It only serves to strengthen the idea that Smith will get traded in February -- possibly to a West team. I understand knocking Irving for his team's win total -- heck, if Anderson Varejao had stayed healthy, he'd probably be the best Cavs candidate -- but let's be honest: People decide who they want to see in an All-Star Game and then create an argument for them. And my argument for Irving is this: That dude is good! Better than Jennings. And Jennings is another player reportedly on the trade block, which can't possibly enhance his All-Star argument. I love how you're putting in George ahead of Bosh, even though I don't agree with it. Last season, Charles Barkley said on South Florida radio that he'd take George over Bosh and was subsequently mocked when George no-showed in that series (10 ppg on 37 percent shooting) and the Heat won a title with strong play from a hurting Bosh. If this happens, it'll be a bit of redemption for Sir Charles, and a heckuva call by you.