Reserving space for stars in Atlanta

While some of you were unavoidably coerced into watching a game of American football on Sunday night, NBA coaches and Stein Line operatives were facing a deadline.

Reserve selections for the NBA All-Star Game were due at the league office today by 1 p.m. (EST). There are seven slots in each conference left to fill and the voting process, as of last season, has changed a bit. Which only gives voters and pretend voters more to consider.

The league notified teams again Thursday that, as introduced last January, it wants coaches picking the seven best possible candidates for Atlanta. The rules still call for at least two forwards, two guards and one center on each coach's seven-man ballot, but ...

Problem A: Jordan doesn't want to be a 13th man, and I still don't know why folks want to force him to play in a game that doesn't interest him.

Problem B: Robinson might not be the only Western Conference legend headed for retirement.

Utah's John Stockton could well be in the midst of his final season at 40, and Stock would certainly be a candidate for one last All-Star moment if so. But who knows? Stockton hasn't announced his future plans and never gives hints anyway.

Utah's Karl Malone is another fortysomething (OK, almost) facing similar uncertainty, except that Malone is leaning toward playing at least one more season. Yet again we say it, though: Who knows?

Should it turn out that this was a last chance for Stockton or Malone to be an All-Star, they'd be just as deserving as MJ or Admiral Dave for a roster favor.

The vote here, then? To be equitable, let's just take a pass on the idea of 13th men in the 52nd All-Star Game. We can say our farewells to these guys in the playoffs. And if you're worried that Jordan's Wiz won't make it ... there seems to be just as much chance that Jordan will keep playing anyway.

Who knows?

Coaches are now encouraged to vote for a player at the position "he thinks is most advantageous for the All-Star team, not necessarily the one he plays most often during the season."

This is the new policy essentially because the NBA doesn't want to force the coaches to vote for undeserving centers, in an era where traditional pivot men are almost extinct. Last year, for example, Dirk Nowitzki was named by West coaches as the backup five, instead of thirtysomethings David Robinson or Vlade Divac. That created sufficient roster room for Chris Webber, Karl Malone, Peja Stojakovic and Wally Szczerbiak. It also led commissioner David Stern to choose Elton Brand, a 6-foot-8 power forward, as Shaquille O'Neal's injury replacement.

East coaches would have loved to make use of that provision today, but there really isn't a forward of All-Star stock out there who's tall enough to masquerade as a center. That's why Indiana's Brad Miller, Miami's Brian Grant and New York's Kurt Thomas have all received All-Star consideration to play behind 6-8 starting center Ben Wallace, thus further squeezing the worthy swingmen in a conference overflowing with them.

The other main rule for coaches, of course, is that they can't vote for players on their own teams. Following all of the above guidelines, this is how our theoretical coach's ballot would have looked.

The fans' East starters

  • Forwards: Vince Carter (Toronto) and Jermaine O'Neal (Indiana).

  • Center: Ben Wallace (Detroit).

  • Guards: Allen Iverson (Philadelphia) and Tracy McGrady (Orlando).

    Coach Stein's East reserves

  • Forwards: Jamal Mashburn (New Orleans) and Antoine Walker (Boston).

  • Center: Zydrunas Ilgauskas (Cleveland).

  • Guards: Jason Kidd (New Jersey) and Jerry Stackhouse (Washington).

  • Wild cards: Ron Artest (Indiana) and Paul Pierce (Boston).

    Coach Stein's East rationale
    Hopefully, we don't have to explain Kidd's presence here. Mashburn, Walker and Stackhouse were all musts as well, but, as stated, none of those three is big enough to submit as a faux center, necessitating the selection of a real center behind Wallace. For his unusually good health as much as his production, Ilgauskas is the best choice there, over the aforementioned Miller, Grant and Thomas.

    Big Z thus rules out Cleveland's Ricky Davis -- Cavs can't have eight wins and two reps -- and put Ricky Ricky on a list of snubees that also includes Milwaukee's Ray Allen, Detroit's Richard Hamilton, Chicago's Jalen Rose, New Orleans' Baron Davis and, yes, Washington's Michael Jordan. Had to take Pierce over all those guys ... and Pierce, mercifully, has indeed hiked his shooting percentage to a slightly more acceptable .401, cracking the 40 percent barrier with 'Toine out.

    MJ has been even cagier this season than last season and looks sturdier, too, but there just isn't room at guard or forward for him. Allen lost out in part because Toni Kukoc and Michael Redd have actually been Milwaukee's most impactful players, but also because of time lost to injury. Same goes for the banged-up Baron.

    Rip was edged by Artest because the Pacers merit two All-Stars more than the Pistons do, while Rose was omitted (like Miami's Eddie Jones) because of Chicago's place in the standings. We indeed factored in that the host team has no participants in any of the All-Star Weekend competitions, but Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Glenn Robinson still didn't get a sniff here. The Hawks aren't winning or drawing, so we're guessing the folks who finally fill Philips Arena on Feb. 8 and 9 will survive without Reef or Dog.

    The fans' West starters

  • Forwards: Tim Duncan (San Antonio) and Kevin Garnett (Minnesota).

  • Center: Yao Ming (Houston).

  • Guards: Kobe Bryant (L.A. Lakers) and Steve Francis (Houston).

    Coach Stein's West reserves

  • Forwards: Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas) and Chris Webber (Sacramento).

  • Center: Shaquille O'Neal (L.A. Lakers).

  • Guards: Stephon Marbury (Phoenix) and Gary Payton (Seattle).

  • Wild cards: Karl Malone (Utah) and Steve Nash (Dallas).

    Coach Stein's West rationale
    The fans' support for Yao complicates matters, because -- impressive as his rookie season has been until this past week -- Yao isn't an All-Star yet. Shaq as the starter would have allowed Nowitzki to repeat as the backup center and thereby open up a frontcourt slot for one of the poor swingmen out West who got overshadowed by the timber.

    Four good players immediately come to mind in that category: Phoenix's Shawn Marion, Dallas' Michael Finley, Golden State's Antawn Jamison and Utah's Matt Harpring. A fifth, Sacramento's hard-charging Stojakovic, would have been on the list if not for an injury-induced slow start. All five face being left out when the real votes are added up, with two more tall victims: Clippers good guy Brand and Portland's cuddly Rasheed Wallace.

    Webber and Nowitzki could just as easily be starters and have to be the first two on the coach's list. Shaq, even with his negligible vertical leap and constricted range of motion, still managed to play more than two-thirds of the schedule and remains the league's most dominant center. On our ballot, that left six guys scuffling for four spots.

    Payton, Marbury and Nash are all right there with Francis at the top of the quarterback ratings and had to claim spots. So does Malone, and not because of sentimentality. It's because the Jazz has been a major surprise and he's still the face of the franchise.

    The choices were made marginally easier by Bobby Jackson's unavailability through injury and Mike Bibby's own long injury absence. Otherwise at least one of those guys surely would have deserved to make it, to match the Mavericks' two representatives. That left Marion and Finley as the most unlucky snubees here, mainly because the point guards they play with have been just as good.

    Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.