It's time again in this little corner of the basketball universe to recognize the overlooked and underappreciated players who sacrifice their stats and egos to make a team successful. Introducing the fifth annual All-Quasar Teams, a one-man fanfare for players who won't be in Houston this weekend but who have been vital to their teams' first-half success.
By now I'm sure many of you use quasar regularly in conversation, mostly to annoy friends or short-circuit first dates clearly not going anywhere. For the uninitiated, though, quasar is scientific shorthand for quasi-stellar, celestial matter that sometimes resembles a star but is, in fact, not.
I'm also flattered that some of you take these awards so seriously that you've fired off angry e-mails raging that someone you considered worthy wasn't recognized on previous teams. The selection criteria is less important now that spam prevents me from providing an e-mail address to the public-at-large, but since Bill Simmons still knows how to get to me, here they are, anyway:
1. Only players on teams with winning records at the start of All-Star Week are eligible.
2. Only players who have not been on an All-Star team, and are likely never to be, are eligible.
3. Players who washed out elsewhere or have rehabilitated a career spinning sideways get special consideration. (Quasars being, of course, intergalactic first cousins to black holes. True dat.)
Adrian Griffin: At the heart of the Mavs' dramatic improvement on defense. Signed as a free agent after Mr. and Mrs. Doug Christie were forced by injury to retire, Griffin is now the Mavs' version of Bruce Bowen. Not only does he trade off with Josh Howard checking the opponent's top swing scorer, but as the fifth offensive option he still gets a couple of hustle buckets every night. (Travis Knight parlayed the same offensive role into a $33 million deal with the Celtics. We should all be so lucky.)
Raja Bell: How about this for a change: The Suns had to work on him for two months to lose his conscience about shooting the rock. He checks the team's top threat every night and has done so without trapping help since December, a big reason Phoenix's D has improved so dramatically. And now that he's letting it fly (at a 43 percent clip from the 3-point arc), there's a lot less grousing about having let Joe Johnson get away.
Bruce Bowen: Now the most efficient 3-point shooter the Spurs have, along with being their defensive lockdown artist. Even though San Antonio continues to bring in bigger names (Brent Barry, Michael Finley), no one has come close to bumping him from the starting lineup or the rotation. Why? Because he doesn't need the ball to impact the outcome; he's as mentally tough as they come and, at 34, he continues to hone and expand his skills. If the Quasar award ever developed a logo, a la the NBA's Jerry West silhouette, Bowen would be it.
Speedy Claxton: Chris Paul is deservedly getting the lion's share of accolades, but he and Claxton create a deadly, diminutive one-two punch for the Hornets. When they're on the floor together, there is no way the ball isn't getting into the paint, which creates backdoor cuts and mid-range jumpers for P.J. Brown and David West. Either that or Claxton is getting to the line, which he is doing at a career-high pace this season (4.8 FTs/game). Close to adding 3-point range to his arsenal.
Caron Butler: One of the biggest reasons why the Wizards haven't felt the absence of Larry Hughes or the sometimes zany play of Gilbert Arenas, who, despite being a mega-talent, doesn't always make the game easy for his teammates. Caron's steadying influence and consistent energy have been vital. Scoring and rebounding (per minute played) at career-high clips doesn't hurt, either.
Udonis Haslem: The selection committee is guilty of gross oversight for not recognizing him last year. Lame excuse: Damon Jones, journeyman extraordinaire, was having a more surprising year at the All-Star break and got the nod. Truth is, the Heat had a handful of quasars circling Shaq and Dwyane Wade last season. Now they have one.
Quinton Ross: A factor in the Clippers' strong start, as well as the team's willingness to deal Corey Maggette for Ron Artest. If Sam Cassell has been vital in Elton Brand having a career year, then Ross has been indispensable in Cassell being so much more than he was in Minnesota last year. As good on the ball as he is off it, he covers for Sam's lack of lateral quickness and Cuttino Mobley's lapses in concentration.
Anthony Johnson: One of those guys every playground legend thinks, "Hell, I'm better than he is." Below the neck, maybe, although AJ is a solid 6-foot-3, 200 pounds. Above it? Not a chance. The next flashy move he makes might be his first, but that's not what the Pacers need behind high-wire Jamaal Tinsley. Johnson, not surprisingly, has found his stride since the Peja-Artest trade because Indy, collectively, is playing fundamentally-sounder basketball.
Eduardo Najera: One reason why the Nuggets' shaky chemistry hasn't done them in yet. He's not quick, can't jump and isn't particularly big (6-8, 220), but he's always in your grill, crashes the boards on every play and if you hesitate will beat you to the ball. There's no stat for mistakes forced by distraction, but he'd be in the top five if there were.
Eddie House: No need to loosen the reins on this conscience. Has singlehandedly won a half-dozen games for the Suns, carrying them through a spate of early injuries. Not bad for a guy with his sixth team in four years.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life in Two Worlds."