Wednesday January 9th, 2008

Good luck to the Western Conference coaches in deciding which All-NBA candidates to snub from their All-Star team next month.

As much as I'm aware that the East has won two of the last four championships and that Boston and Detroit have earned the best records in the league thus far, the balance of talent still slants hard to the Pacific. The Western advantages at point guard and center couldn't be more severe. If not for Jason Kidd's miraculous resemblance to Dorian Gray, the East would be down to one -- one! -- validated All-Star at quarterback.

I'm picking my teams now because we're entering the stretch run of All-Star arguments, but don't hold me to these selections. I'll come out with my final choices after the coaches have had their say in picking the reserves (those selections will be revealed Jan. 31, one week after the fans' picks for starters are announced).

Center

Fans' Current Pick: Dwight Howard

My Starter: Howard. If Howard (22.6 points, 15.2 rebounds, 2.6 blocks -- top 10 in all three categories through Tuesday) did absolutely nothing on a daily basis, if he just lay propped up on the couch playing video games and eating Cheez Whiz, how long would it take him to develop a gut? I'm thinking five years. Maybe six.

My Sub: Shaquille O'Neal. Perhaps Woody Allen's last few movies haven't been so sharp. But he's still Woody Allen. So is Shaq still Shaq. If there comes a year that he doesn't make the All-Star team, then he ought to put on an alternative All-Star game of his own, and I have a feeling it would be more entertaining than the real thing.

On the Cusp: Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Rasheed Wallace

Power Forward

Fans' Current Pick: Kevin Garnett

My Starter: Garnett. In New Orleans next month it will suddenly occur to Garnett that the rest of the league is looking up to him more than ever.

My Subs: Antawn Jamison, Chris Bosh. Jamison (21.6 points and 10.6 rebounds) is nice to have around when Gilbert Arenas isn't, you know, around. (That's one of those sentences I'd like to have back.) So mature is Bosh that I have this sense of him as someone who never, ever drives faster than common sense prescribes, and then at the traffic light he turns around to the fourth-grade soccer team riding home in the back of his minivan and he says, "See what I told you? That car in front of me was flooring it like a drag racer, and look what it got him. A whole lot of nothing.''

On the Cusp: No one

Small Forward

Fans' Current Pick: LeBron James

My Starter: James. The conference is set up for James to lead the Cavaliers on a second-half run and put himself into the MVP debate. If Cleveland makes the right trade at the deadline, the East can become a three-team race.

My Subs: Paul Pierce, Caron Butler. There are times when scoring appears to be an afterthought to Pierce, who keeps improving his game in all areas. Then there is Butler, who, when Arenas isn't around, is a nice guy to have on your team. There.

On the Cusp: Richard Jefferson, Hedo Turkoglu

Shooting Guard

Fans' Current Pick: Dwyane Wade

My Starter: Wade. He isn't his young self physically and he may never in his life have been grouped with such a relatively unproductive mess of teammates -- and still Wade is going for 24.6 points, 7.0 assists and 1.9 steals. Remarkable.

My Sub: Richard Hamilton. This was the hardest of all calls, because no star has sacrificed more for his team than Ray Allen, who accepts being the No. 3 option on the Celtics while guarding everyone from Kobe to LeBron to Chauncey. But my gut feeling is that Allen is slightly less satisfied with his play (especially his 41.6 percent shooting) than is Hamilton, who has tightened up his game in several areas for the league's second-best team. Allen deserves to be rewarded, but not at the expense of Hamilton.

On the Cusp: Allen, Vince Carter, Joe Johnson, Michael Redd

Point Guard

Fans' Current Pick: Kidd

My Starter: Kidd. He is the NBA's Rickey Henderson, running and running and running ...

My Sub: Chauncey Billups. Is he keeping some energy in reserve for the playoffs? Averaging 33.5 minutes with his team drafting behind the Celtics, Billups is in excellent position to kick his way home at the right time.

On the Cusp: Stephon Marbury

Click below for the Western Conference picks (and more on Marbury) ...

(You know I was kidding about Marbury, right? Lighten up already.)

Center

Fans' Current Pick: Yao Ming

My Starter: Amaré Stoudemire. We understand what Steve Nash will do in the playoffs, just like we understand what Shawn Marion and even Grant Hill will do. But what will Stoudemire do? Will he create an MVP presence at both ends of the floor in the spring? Or will Tim Duncan prevail once again?

My Sub: Yao. In response to the Rockets' substandard 18-17 record, I have half a mind to replace Yao with Chris Kaman, who has been arguably more productive for the undermanned Clippers. But it goes against the spirit of the proceedings to replace the outside world's most popular star with a Clipper.

On the Cusp: Kaman, Marcus Camby

Power Forward

Fans' Current Pick: Duncan

My Starter: Carlos Boozer. It's not like Boozer played for a juco in the Dakotas: He spent three years on national TV at Duke. And it's not like he wasn't productive at Duke: He averaged 18.2 points and 8.7 rebounds his final year while sharing the ball with Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy, Chris Duhon and Dahntay Jones. So how exactly did all of those NBA scouting departments pick 34 players in the 2002 draft ahead of someone who is now averaging a monstrous 23.5 points, 11.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists? How do these things happen?

My Subs: Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki. It's a beautiful thing that the fans elect Duncan to the starting lineup after years of hearing how they would never relate to someone who played with quiet dignity. As for Nowitzki, is he going to launch Dallas on a second-half surge? It would be timely.

On the Cusp: David West

Small Forward

Fans' Current Pick: Carmelo Anthony

My Starter: Anthony. He must be on the Pierce diet: Anthony came in as a one-dimensional scorer but is now good for 6.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.3 steals, in addition to his 25.2 points.

My Subs: No one. With apologies to Josh Howard, I need all the room I can make for the wealth of guards in the West.

On the Cusp: Howard, Stephen Jackson

Shooting Guard

Fans' Current Pick: Kobe Bryant

My Starter: Bryant. Nothing would be more fascinating than to see Kobe turn the Lakers' 22-11 start into a deep playoff run. Don't put it past him.

My Subs: Allen Iverson, Manu Ginobili. Amid talk that Iverson was losing a step, he's putting up 27.1 points, 6.8 assists and 2.2 steals for the 21-13 Nuggets. As for Tracy McGrady, the underperformance of his team combined with his injuries leave him behind the inspiringly ingenious Ginobili.

On the Cusp: McGrady, Brandon Roy

Point Guard

Fans' Current Pick: McGrady

My Starter: Nash. The NBA balloting doesn't distinguish point guards from shooting guards, but this is my All-Star team. I'm the decider. I almost decided to start Chris Paul in recognition of his spectacular leadership, but the reigning champ prevails in a close decision: Nash remains in MVP contention for contributing 16.9 points and 12.2 assists to the West-leading Suns.

My Subs: Paul, Baron Davis. If Paul were to average a triple-double in New Orleans, would it make a sound? Davis has been sensational, making it a photo finish between him and Tony Parker.

On the Cusp: Parker, Deron Williams

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