Friday October 3rd, 2014

The NBA's All-Star Game has seen an influx of new faces over the last two years, in large part because so many established superstars -- Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, etc. -- have dealt with injury issues. Although the league has averaged roughly five first-time All-Stars per year since 2005, the 2013 and 2014 All-Star Games saw a combined 13 first-timers: Tyson Chandler, Stephen CurryAnthony Davis, DeMar DeRozan, Paul George, James Harden, Jrue Holiday, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Brook Lopez, ​Paul Millsap, ​Joakim Noah, and John Wall

The defining roster-related questions for the 2015 All-Star Game, set for New York City in February, will center around how many newcomers are able to hold onto their spots and, if they are displaced, will it be by returning veterans or other up-and-comers? A quick, very early survey of the landscape suggests that this could be a tough year for first-time All-Stars to squeeze in.

In the East, the arrival of Kevin Love, who was voted as a starter for the West, will almost certainly slide into the East starting spot vacated by Paul George, who is sidelined with a leg injury. All told, perhaps half of the East's roster spots are up for grabs for various reasons -- George injury, Roy Hibbert's baffling inconsistency, and the potential rise of Toronto, Washington and Charlotte at the expense of Indiana, Brooklyn and Miami -- but there are also many deserving returners back in the mix. Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Al Horford are all back from injuries this season; Both Rose and Rondo have been selected by the fans as starters in previous years, which helps their cause if they are still working back towards 100 percent at the break. Wall, a first-time selection in 2014, looks well-positioned to retain his spot for years to come. Dwyane Wade, the player most likely to feel the effects of age-related decline, was easily voted in by the fans as a 2014 starter, suggesting that he will be back in 2015, barring a catastrophe. 

Out West, Love's departure barely makes a dent in the conference's frontcourt glut, as Davis -- an injury replacement last year -- looks poised to fill Love's roster spot. Bryant and Westbrook both return from injuries, and Bryant's immense popularity makes him a very likely starter. None of the conference's other 2014 selections are dealing with major or lingering injury issues. Unless one of the roster's elders -- Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki or Tony Parker -- suffers a setback or has a slow start, it's quite possible that the West's 2015 All-Star roster is entirely composed of returning All-Stars. In fact, there's so much talent on hand that guys like Lillard, Westbrook and Parker are at risk of being the odd man out if everyone remains healthy.

Simply put, first-timers face a steep uphill battle to the Big Apple. Which players stand the best chance of climbing into this picture? Let's take a look. Last year's top candidates, many of whom are back this year, can be found right here.

Eastern Conference

Kyle Lowry, Raptors

The most logical place to begin this exercise is with 2014's biggest snub. Toronto's bulldog point guard had a strong case to be included over the likes of Joe Johnson and teammate DeMar DeRozan last year, and it was widely speculated that a chippy reputation might have held him back in the eyes of the coaches. Although Lowry's individual statistics were excellent (a career-high 17.9 points, 7.4 assists, 4.7 rebounds, a 20.2 PER that ranked No. 5 among all point guards), he also faced midseason doubts about whether the Raptors were for real, as they were just beginning their turnaround following the Rudy Gay trade. Toronto's strong push down the stretch resulted in the East's No. 3 seed, and Lowry's role as the team's clear leader, should have helped address those doubts.

Lowry, 28, should be considered the odds-on favorite to become a first-time All-Star in 2015, following a similar path as Curry in 2014, even though the East has a deep crop of point guard candidates (Irving, Rose, Rondo, Wall, the forgotten Deron Williams). To get there, Lowry needs to (more or less) replicate his career-year production and Toronto must (more or less) retain its position in the East's top tier. If it comes down to Lowry versus DeRozan for a single Raptors representative, hopefully the coaches get it right this time. 

Bradley Beal, Wizards

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The table is set nicely for Beal, 21, to become a perennial All-Star. He is paired with a point guard in Wall who makes his life easy. He plays for a Wizards team that seems to have opened a multi-year window for contending in the East. The shooting guard position has been pretty thin in recent years, and All-Star mainstays like Bryant, Wade and Joe Johnson will soon be exiting stage left. His dependable shooting stroke and smooth style combine to give him an offensive game that both puts up numbers (17.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 40.2 percent three-point shooting) and appeals to fans. Beal excitedly declared on media day that the Wizards possess the league's best backcourt, but he's clearly playing second-fiddle to Wall and Washington will need to be at or near the top of the conference standings for both of its guards to make the All-Star cut. Whether he makes the roster could come down to a face-off with DeRozan and Johnson, who the coaches inexplicably love. If Washington is ahead of both Toronto and Brooklyn in the standings, you have to like Beal's chances.  

Al Jefferson, Hornets

Skepticism about Charlotte's stronger-than-expected start and some tough positional competition seemed to keep Jefferson on the sidelines for the 2014 All-Star Game. After watching so many futile years for the Bobcats (now Hornets), the coaches passed over Jefferson in favor of three "safer" picks: Bosh, Noah and Hibbert, who were all returning selections. Jefferson, 29, was also beaten out by former Jazz teammate Paul Millsap, the only true power forward selected among the East reserves. Charlotte's low-post monster did his part statistically last year (21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 50.9 percent shooting) and, despite a one-way reputation, he played huge minutes in the middle for what proved to be one of the league's best defenses. Jefferson was rewarded with an All-NBA Third Team selection, and it's quite possible the coaches catch on to his worthiness in the 2015 voting, especially if the Hornets are firmly in the playoff picture when it comes time for voting. 

Lance StephensonHornets

"Born Ready" enjoyed some deserved All-Star buzz last season, but those were simpler times: Indiana was still cruising right along at the top of the standings, Hibbert hadn't yet subliminally called out Stephenson as "selfish," ear-blowing was still something that happened at drive-in movie theaters rather than the Eastern Conference finals, and Michael Jordan hadn't yet come calling in free agency. How will the unpredictable Stephenson, 24, respond to a new city, a new coach, new teammates and new leadership responsibilities? Who knows. The dynamic nature of his all-around game (13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists) should travel well, and he should get the opportunity to flex his muscles a little more on offense. The biggest factor working against his All-Star chances is that the Hornets are "Jefferson's team." As with Beal and possibly DeRozan, it could take a really special season from Stephenson and his team to sneak on as a second All-Star. That Stephenson lags behind Beal, DeRozan and Johnson as a scoring threat could wind up being the tipping point that keeps him out.    

Andre DrummondPistons

It's time to put the 21-year-old Drummond on the All-Star radar, even if a 2015 selection isn't particularly likely. There's plenty of work to be done filling out his game on both sides of the ball, but the massive Drummond already ranked among the league's leaders in rebounding, blocks and field goal percentage in just his second season. Indeed, his second-year stats (13.5 points, 13.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 62.3 percent shooting) weren't all that different than Dwight Howard's second-year stats (15.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 53.1 percent shooting). Although Drummond clearly lacks some of Howard's athletic tools, he still has the potential to ramp up his scoring, as Howard did in his third and fourth seasons, and new coach Stan Van Gundy will surely look to retool Detroit's roster around his centerpiece. With a bunch of worthy veteran centers to compete against, Drummond may not get his All-Star due until after the Pistons turn the corner into a playoff team. Make no mistake, though, his time is coming.

Western Conference

Goran Dragic, Suns

Dragic stood as the West's most deserving snub once the Pelicans' Davis was named as an injury replacement. That said, the competition was so fierce that it was easier to make the case against Dragic than the case for him. He was beaten out by Curry, Paul, Parker and Lillard, all four of whom played for teams ahead of the surprising Suns in the standings. Dragic's 2013-14 numbers (20.3 points, 5.9 assists, 3.2 rebounds) were very similar to Lillard's ( 20.7 points, 5.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds), but Portland's scorching hot start and the fact that Lillard was a lottery pick coming off of a Rookie of the Year campaign swung the balance. Dragic, by contrast, was a 27-year-old former second-round pick enjoying a monster mid-career breakout that later turned into an All-NBA Third Team selection. Now that Westbrook is back in the picture, Dragic will need to take his own game and the Suns to new heights if he wants to earn a trip to New York City. He will also need to perform demonstrably better than backcourt mate Eric Bledsoe, himself a worthy pick for this list, to avoid any splitting of votes.

DeMarcus CousinsKings

Best backcourt in the NBA? Wizards' Wall, Beal fall short of claim

Although stats alone are rarely enough to merit an All-Star nod, Cousins' case starts with the fact that he arguably posted the best numbers (22.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.3 blocks, 49.6 percent shooting, 26.1 PER) of any true center last year. That career-year production didn't translate to a huge jump in the standings for Sacramento, but it did seem fully repeatable. His combination of size, strength and skill level is a rare commodity in the NBA, and the questions about his maturity are starting to fade, albeit very slowly. The Kings' dim outlook could again weigh heavily on Cousins' All-Star hopes, especially because he is competing against so many A-listers on good teams (Griffin, Howard, Aldridge, Nowitzki) and Davis, who also boasts off-the-charts statistical production. If Cousins is tabbed this year, it will be because the Kings make an unexpected early run at the No. 8 seed and/or he takes his own output to such ridiculous heights (say, 25 points and 13 rebounds) that it becomes impossible to write him off.   

Serge Ibaka, Thunder

The 2014 Western Conference finals did wonders for Ibaka's reputation. Oklahoma City looked helpless without him and as dangerous as ever once he returned from injury. That contrast unfolded on both ends, as Ibaka, 25, transformed Oklahoma City's interior defense and made San Antonio pay with his mid-range shooting. Ultimately, the Thunder were unable to dig out of their 0-2 hole in the series, but Ibaka still succeeded in making his case to casual fans that he was a two-way force that can't be dismissed as a typical "No. 3 guy." Carving space for Ibaka on the All-Star roster remains incredibly difficult, even with Love heading East. Griffin, Aldridge, Davis, and Nowitzki all remain above him on the pecking order, and defense-first players -- even three-time All-Defensive First Team selections -- are usually at a disadvantage compared to their offense-first colleagues when it comes to the midseason showcase. Although it's a remote possibility, Ibaka could find himself in New York City if Oklahoma City races out to the No. 1 seed and a few injuries meaningfully thin the West's big man herd. 

Klay Thompson, Warriors 

​A strong showing at the FIBA World Cup boosted Thompson's profile considerably, but the Warriors guard still needs some serious help to make the West's roster in the short-term. Entering his fourth season, the 24-year-old Thompson has firmly established himself as one of the league's premier outside shooters and one of its best two-way off guards. Even if his off-the-dribble game is limited and he doesn't really get to the line that often, Thompson's spot-up shooting and his ability to create good looks with his off-ball movement are more than enough to make him a deadly secondary threat alongside Curry. The widespread credit he has received recently for his effort level and fundamentals on defense is deserved, and he cleanly fits the prototype of what a shooting guard should be. Thompson's scoring production has ramped up during his first three seasons, and he's certainly capable of averaging 20+ points per game going forward in his career. For now, he's clearly behind Bryant and Harden in his positional pecking order, and Golden State would need a torrid start for both Splash Brothers to be selected in 2015, given the West's many backcourt superstars.

Kawhi LeonardSpurs

Mavericks' Chandler Parsons embarks on a season of redefinition

Leonard was included on last year's version of this list, and the variables influencing his potential selection haven't changed much over the last 12 months. His postseason glory still overshadows his regular season stats (12.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.7 steals). The continued excellence (and non-retirements) of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili restrict what coach Gregg Popovich asks of Leonard offensively. San Antonio's perennial success and unique approach to minutes distribution puts Leonard in direct competition with his teammates, most likely Parker, for the designated "Best Spur" All-Star roster spot. ​All of those factors acknowledged, Leonard's 2014 Finals MVP was further proof that the 23-year-old small forward has the capacity for elite, A-list play. The only Finals MVP besides Leonard to never make an All-Star team was Cedric Maxwell (1981); look for Maxwell to be alone on that list again within, at most, four years. 

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