With the NBA All-Star Game rapidly approaching and reserves announced later this week, we're doing an All-Star-themed mailbag this week. Let's dive in.
Outside of Kobe Bryant, which player was the least deserving All-Star starter?
-- Bryan C., Dallas
It's Kyrie Irving, Bryan -- but only because he was chosen to start. If you're asking me whether the Cavaliers' third-year point guard deserves to be an All-Star, the answer is "yes." He is one of the best in the Eastern Conference at creating his own shot and carrying his team at the end of the game.
He should be coming off the bench, but he should not be starting ahead of the Pacers' Lance Stephenson, who ranks first in assists and second in rebounding on the best team in the East, and leads the league in triple-doubles.
And yet it's understandable why Irving was voted to start. The East is lacking in star power, especially in the backcourt. Among the contenders at guard, Dwyane Wade and Irving were the biggest names in the conference.
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The Cavs are 51-100 (.338) when Irving has played over the last three years. That's a deplorable record, but Cleveland has been even worse (10-31, .244) when Irving hasn't played, which shows the lack of talent and experience around him. It's no punishment against Irving that he should be coming off the bench; it's giving credit to Stephenson for consistently helping his team to the league's best record.
Irving's scoring and shooting numbers are down this year. His coach, Mike Brown, has had four seasons of 50 victories or more in his short career, so he knows something about winning. But his players on this team have not been respecting his instruction, and Irving must have something to do with that.
Irving has the potential to be a phenomenal player, but will he emerge as a leader when he is surrounded by good players? I think he will, but I can't prove it because he hasn't proved it. My fear for his future is that making the All-Star team as a starter will validate him in ways that he has yet to earn.
Do you like the All-Star ballot's new format or do you wish they'd go back to including centers?
-- Andrew, Pittsburgh
I wish the ballot could feature centers, Andrew, but it can't. In previous years, I've been on the media committee to decide which players should be on the ballot, and we've had a hard time coming up with centers. When I've filled out my own award ballots at the end of the year, I've often wanted to slide Tim Duncan to center in order to make up for the dearth of real centers.
The ballot is a reflection of the way many teams have adapted to the fact that there aren't enough dominant centers being developed around the world anymore. The fact that there are so few has further inflated the value of those who are playing today. Would Roy Hibbert have been an All-Star in the 1980s or 1970s? I doubt it. But his enormous presence today gives Indiana an advantage over most teams.
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On Friday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix discusses how new NBA All-Star rosters make little room for big men like Roy Hibbert
and Dwight Howard
What would you think about the NBA making the All-Star Game mean something like in MLB? Maybe people would actually care if it decided home-court advantage in the Finals?
-- Ryan F., Florida
I would not like to see the conference that wins the All-Star Game receive home-court advantage in the NBA Finals, Ryan, because it would weaken the most important race of the regular season.
The top teams in the East and West will be competing over the next three months for the No. 1 seed. The two regular-season meetings between the contenders from rival conferences -- Oklahoma City vs. Indiana, for example -- will carry enormous importance if they wind up being tied at the end of the regular season.
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The impact of the All-Star Game makes sense in baseball, because interleague play has little impact -- no more than 18 interleague games are part of any team's 162-game schedule. In the NBA, however, every team plays 30 games against the opposing conference. Why enact a gimmick to prop up the All-Star Game that would wind up hurting the league in more important ways?
How is LaMarcus Aldridge not a starter out West? Do you think he should have been selected over Blake Griffin?
-- Aaron, Portland
Aldridge is the second-most deserving starter in the West, behind only Kevin Durant. They've been the two most valuable players in the conference.
The reason Aldridge was ignored in the election was because he and his team have yet to make an impact on the playoffs. If he goes deep into the postseason this year, then he'll earn more respect -- and votes -- next season.
Which player has been flying under the radar this season that you think deserves to make the All-Star team?
-- Mikey P., Philadelphia
I'll give you a few, Mikey. Stephenson is a starter on my ballot, as is Bulls center Joakim Noah. Pistons center Andre Drummond, Raptors swingman DeMar DeRozan and Wizards point guard John Wall all deserve to come off the bench in the East.
The only "surprise" pick I'd make in the West -- where there is far more talent and the competition for spots is filled with obvious choices -- is Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, despite Sacramento's 15-29 start. The key for young stars with losing records like Cousins and Irving is to show an ability to lead, and to view their own success within the needs of their teams. Even so, I think they're both deserving of All-Star status this year.
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What do you think about the All-Star Game ditching the East/West teams and going with U.S. vs. The World?
-- Max, Phoenix
Someday that will be a terrific idea, Max. As it stands now, there aren't enough great players from around the world. I filled out my ballot without regard to nationality, and of the 24 top players, only Noah, Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker would qualify for an international team. The other 21 are Americans, including Tim Duncan, who was born and raised in the Virgin Islands but has represented USA Basketball internationally.
Do you think DeMar DeRozan has done enough to earn an All-Star spot this year? If not, who do you think makes it over him?
-- Josh, Toronto
He has done enough, Josh, especially since Rudy Gay was traded to Sacramento. DeRozan has emerged as a team leader with the athletic aggressiveness of a star. He is a scorer who is unselfish. If he played in the West, then there would be no room for him on the 12-man All-Star roster. But in the East, he qualifies.
What's your favorite All-Star moment of all time?
-- Ben D., Baltimore
It was when Magic Johnson made a three-pointer to finish his spectacular comeback at the 1992 All-Star Game. Johnson had been forced to retire before that season upon being diagnosed with HIV. When the fans voted for Johnson as a starter, commissioner David Stern made certain that he would play, and that game became an inspiring and constructive statement that life can go on after HIV. He was MVP with 25 points and nine assists, and when he made that final three in his team's 153-113 win, it was almost too good to be true.
If you could make one change to All-Star weekend, what would it be?
-- Greg, Ann Arbor, Mich.
I would encourage more meaningful competition. It is right for the players to be showcasing their skills, but their opponents should be trying to stop them. Otherwise, what does it all mean?
I don't know how that can be done, however. Someday when the rest of the world is producing enough stars, then there will be a natural rivalry that will enable the Americans vs. the Internationals to create a kind of Ryder Cup setting. But for now the players are more focused on establishing (and protecting) their reputations than on winning a game.
Which team do you think will have the most All-Stars this season?
-- Devin, Miami
It will be your team in Miami, Devin. And that's how it should be. The Heat have won two championships and played in three straight Finals, and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have been the reason for that success.