By Ben Golliver
Analyzing the NBA All-Star ballot tends to be a pointless exercise. But some intrigue was added this year for two reasons: The league has expanded voting to popular social media sites like Twitter and Facebook and done away with the "center" designation on the ballots, so fans can now select guards and "frontcourt players."
The official ballot, which was put together late in the preseason, includes 120 names, 60 players total for each conference, with 24 guards and 36 frontcourt players nominated in both the West and East. The voting process only covers the starting lineups, so this always winds up being a massive popularity contest and waste of time. The usual suspects: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony are sure to find their way back into the starting lineups again. There is a little uncertainty thanks to Jeremy Lin's global popularity and the injury absences of Derrick Rose and Andrew Bynum, but selecting the final four starters for February's game in Houston doesn't need to be a three-month voting process.
Everyone agrees that this process is all about hype, not "need," and there's something to be said for the "I'm just happy to be nominated" sentiment that comes with inclusion on a ballot. For younger guys, it marks a certain respect level and a first step toward making the All-Star team. For older guys, it can be a tip of the cap for a career well done. For teams, good and bad alike, having players included on the ballot makes for good fodder for the in-game experience at arenas. It's an honor. Not the greatest honor, but still an honor.
With that in mind, here are a few guys who feel they should have been included on this year's ballot, given their early-season work, with a look at who they might have replaced.
Jamal Crawford (Clippers): The former Sixth Man Award winner says he hasn't been this comfortable since high school, and it shows. Chris Paul recently vouched for Crawford's All-Star credentials as the reserve guard has gotten off to a smoking start, averaging 20.5 points per game and shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 42.2 percent from three-point range. Even better, the Clippers sit atop the Pacific Division at 6-2. Crawford's exclusion is easily fixed: Simply remove Chauncey Billups, who will wind up missing months of the season with an Achilles injury, and problem solved.
Damian Lillard (Blazers): The only rookie on the ballot is Hornets power forward Anthony Davis, a worthy inclusion. Despite suffering a concussion that cost him portions of two games, he's shaping up to be the kind of player who makes the All-Star team for a decade, averaging 15.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.5 steals. Talk about an immediate impact. Lillard, Davis' top competition for Rookie of the Year, has gaudy numbers, too: 18.4 points, 6.6 assists, 3.1 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 40.8 percent three-point shooting. He's getting all the playing time he can handle, more than 37 minutes per night, and he's looked every bit of the capable starter whom Blazers management promised he would be from Day One. With the benefit of hindsight, surely he could have been squeezed on in place of Billups or West guards dealing with long-term injuries, like Eric Gordon or Ricky Rubio.
Jason Kidd (Knicks): Kidd's inclusion here might be more influenced by New York's team success than J.R. Smith's, who flat out deserves to be there on his own merit (see below). But there's just no good reason to take three guards from a 2-6 Raptors team (Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jose Calderon) and take only Raymond Felton from the Knicks, not when New York is No. 2 in offensive efficiency and No. 1 in defensive efficiency and the Raptors rank No. 18 and No. 23 in those categories. Lowry is an All-Star-caliber player and Calderon has put up great numbers since overcoming an ankle injury, but Kidd's high IQ and experience made an immediate impact in New York. Even if his raw numbers don't compare to Calderon's, they are solid: 7.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 22.8 minutes, while making 7-of-14 from deep. If you really don't want to remove Calderon, who had a triple-double in a win over the Pacers this week, then simply put Kidd in Kirk Hinrich's spot. The Bulls' guard is shooting just 32.6 percent from the field. Kidd is No. 5 in Player Efficiency Rating at his position while Calderon ranks No. 25 and Hinrich is down in the 30s. Brandon Knight, shooting 37.6 percent from the field, ranking No. 50 among point guards in PER and playing for a Pistons team that didn't win its first game until Wednesday, is another strong cut candidate.
DeAndre Jordan (Clippers): The idea of DeAndre Jordan is still way better than the actual DeAndre Jordan, but this season has certainly been the big man's most promising. He's shooting a league-best 71.4 percent, averaging a career-high 10.9 points and tacking on 7.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. Never known as a volume scorer, he put up back-to-back 20-point games earlier this month. One could still argue he's not doing enough to justify his massive contract, but you can't dispute that he should be on the ballot instead of Clippers forward Grant Hill, who hasn't played yet because of a knee injury.
Mike Dunleavy (Bucks): There wasn't any easy way to predict that Ersan Ilyasova's game would drop off a cliff, from 49.2 percent shooting last year to 27.9 shooting this year, along with averages of 6.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and a PER of 4.4. But it's a good thing for Milwaukee that Dunleavy has been his same steady self, averaging 11.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists with a top-10 PER at his position. Larry Sanders, averaging 10.1 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks off of Scott Skiles' bench, also looks like a more deserving inclusion than Ilyasova so far.
J.R. Smith (Knicks): The brash Smith isn't usually one to inspire pity, but it's impossible not to feel bad for him. A major key to New York's unbeaten start, Smith is averaging 18.2 points and shooting 72.2 percent (13-of-18) from three-point range. Yes, you read that correctly. He's not just scoring, though, averaging 4.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.2 steals. He's never looked more comfortable or focused and it's fair to say that he's playing the best all-around ball of his nine-year career. The pity comes from seeing him excluded for the likes of Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey, who is averaging 9.3 points and shot 1-for-23 during the first three games of the season.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Bobcats): Kidd-Gilchrist can play on my team any day. He is a monster in the making. The No. 2 pick might be destined to an NBA career full of perceived snubs, as his lack of range is going to be a limiting factor on his ceiling as a scorer, but he does so much else that he deserves recognition. He's averaging 11.1 points, 6.9 rebounds 1.4 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.7 blocks, and the Bobcats are 4-3, about three wins more than most would have expected. He's No. 8 at the stacked small forward position in PER and, by the way, he just turned 19. This guy has to be there if the likes of Al Harrington (hasn't played yet because of injury), Omri Casspi (has logged only 34 minutes) and teammate Byron Mullens (a 7-footer shooting 39 percent) are going to be included.
Carl Landry (Warriors): Coach Mark Jackson has had his hand forced: Small ball is the only legit option on the table with Andrew Bogut back on the shelf and Andris Biedrins still playing like Andris Biedrins. The undersized Landry is small ball defined. Golden State hasn't exactly blown anyone away coming out of the gates but Landry is producing well: 15.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 59.3 percent shooting, even with more than 10 attempts per game. There's definitely room for him on a list that includes Kendrick Perkins, who is slugging along to the tune of 4.8 points and 4.8 rebounds.
Al-Farouq Aminu (Hornets): What to trust? The two years of evidence that Aminu is a non-impact player or the flashes he has shown during a great start? Aminu is averaging 13.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.3 blocks in six games, very good two-way production that really emerged from nowhere after a quiet start to his career, both before and after last season's trade from the Clippers. He's in an ideal situation to put up big numbers -- playing lots of minutes on a team that is likely headed for a below-.500 record -- but he's doing it efficiently, shooting 50.7 percent and ranking No. 13 among small forwards in PER. The West forward position is always stacked and he's still in the "prove-it" stage, so his exclusion isn't exactly a travesty. Brandan Wright (Mavericks): The way the Mavericks play with Dirk Nowitzki sidelined makes it difficult to single out individuals for recognition. Even without their franchise guy, the Mavericks have five players averaging double figures, and the ballot actually gives Dallas a lot of love, with O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Shawn Marion and Chris Kaman all joining Nowitzki. I'm not entirely sure which one of those guys you remove to make room for Wright, or even if you should, but his start has been great to see. Written off as a bust back in his Warriors days, the long and athletic Wright is shooting 64.8 percent. Wright plays only 21.6 minutes while sharing time in a crowded frontcourt, but he's averaging 10.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. That's good enough for a No. 6 PER placement among centers. Not bad for a guy on a minimum deal.