By Ben Golliver
The NBA All-Star Game starters have been announced:
(Remember, this year's ballot removed the "center designation," categorizing all players as "frontcourt" and "backcourt" only. Fans were asked to select two backcourt and three frontcourt players for each conference.)
The fans often catch grief over their selections, which are notorious for favoring big-market, big-name superstars over potentially more deserving alternatives. So how did they do this year? Short answer: not bad at all. Longer answer: keep reading.
Let's run down the 10 fan picks in order from least questionable to most questionable. (All stats and records are through Jan. 16.)
Category No. 1: Offensive To Even Suggest A Discussion
1. LeBron James, Miami Heat (East Frontcourt)
Not only is there no argument to be made against James' inclusion as a starter, but it's almost not worth the server space to type out his defense. Being a 2013 All-Star starter is really the least of his achievements over the last 12 months, which include: NBA title, regular-season MVP, Finals MVP, Olympics gold medal, Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, All-NBA first team, All-Defensive first team, youngest in NBA history to score 20,000 points. James is leading the league in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) for the sixth straight season, averaging 26 points, 8.1 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 1.7 steals.
James is widely regarded as the best player in the world, with a very select few giving the nod to Durant, but LeBron's competition in the East's frontcourt is significantly weaker than Durant's in the West. The best East frontcourt you could create without James would be some combination of Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Joakim Noah and Tyson Chandler. None of those five players belong in a head-to-head discussion with James.
2. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder (West Frontcourt)
Even with an extremely deep West frontcourt pool to contend with, Durant's ticket to Houston is just as inarguable as James'. The Point Forward's first-quarter MVP selection has been mind-blowing. Durant trails James in PER by a fraction of a point and is averaging 28.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks. Durant is challenging for his fourth scoring title in a row, he is on pace to join the ultra-elite 50/40/90 shooting club and he has the Thunder tracking toward one of the most dominant regular seasons of the past decade.
While there are plenty of worthy All-Star candidates among the West's power forwards and centers, Durant is well above the rest of the small forwards in his conference. Rudy Gay? Nicolas Batum? Andrei Kirilenko? Danilo Gallinari? The best West front line without him would include some combination of Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, David Lee and Zach Randolph. Durant has been head and shoulders above all of them this season.
Category No. 2: No Argument Whatsoever
3. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks (East Frontcourt)
Please don't let the "Honey Nut Cheerios" rumors, his recent suspension and reports that his owner is eavesdropping during his on-court conversations distract you: Anthony, a perennial All-Star, is having a career season. He's averaging a career-high 29.3 points and shooting a career-high 42.1 percent from three-point range. He ranks No. 4 in PER after finishing No. 28 last season. Amar'e Stoudemire's injury cleared the way for Anthony to play in lineups that surrounded him with shooters, and his ability to read the defense has been a major key to New York's 24-13 start. The Knicks are deep, talented and unselfish. Even with health and age continuing to loom as big questions for New York, Anthony is playing well enough to carry the Knicks through a playoff series by himself, regardless of who is or isn't healthy.
Anthony is the obvious second leg of the East's frontcourt next to James. He's the most potent weapon on the league's second-most-efficient offense. Less important: He's an excellent exhibition player, averaging 18.4 points in five All-Star Game appearances. Lock him in.
4. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat (East Backcourt)
No one could be blamed for feeling a little bit of disappointment with Wade. The 31-year-old's numbers have been on a decline for the last five years, a curve that was clearly accelerated by the arrival and entrenchment of James as Miami's No. 1 option. Still, Wade's averages of 19.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 50.4 percent shooting are excellent. They only look disappointing compared to his own high standards, like the completely ridiculous line of 30.2 points, 7.5 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.3 blocks he put up in 2008-09.
Wade is slotted in this category because there is simply no alternative among East shooting guards. He ranks 10th in the NBA with a 22.8 PER. Can you guess the East's second-best two-guard by PER off the top of your head? Try Charlotte's Ben Gordon, who places No. 67 overall (17.7). Brooklyn's Joe Johnson and New York's J.R. Smith are the most likely names at the position to get into the East backcourt discussion. Wade, even on his worst day, clears those hurdles.
Tempted to consider an East lineup that fills both backcourt spots with point guards? The top candidates would include the fans' vote, Rondo, along with Cleveland's Kyrie Irving and Brooklyn's Deron Williams, and maybe the likes of Philadelphia's Jrue Holiday and Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings if you stretch a little bit. Wade's credentials -- his success, Miami's record -- lead that pack easily.
Category No. 3: No-Brainers, But With Credible Alternatives Worth Mentioning
5. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers (West Backcourt)
No single position can match the quality of depth at West point guard. This is not a new phenomenon. In last season's MVP voting, Paul finished third, San Antonio's Tony Parker was fifth, then-Phoenix floor leader Steve Nash was ninth and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook tied for 12th. Nash is out of the this race because of a leg injury that sidelined him from Halloween until nearly Christmas, but Parker and Westbrook are surefire All-Stars.
Paul wins out in this three-horse race fairly easily because he is the heart, soul and conductor of the Clippers, who have the second-best record in the league. His elite smarts and feel for when to take over and when to step back have never been put to better use than this season, when he's been surrounded by all sorts of talent in need of opportunities. Paul is averaging 16.8 points, 9.7 assists and 2.6 steals, scaling back some of his own offense to make way for others while leading a turnover-forcing machine on defense. Paul wins on advanced stats -- he ranks No. 1 among point guards and No. 3 overall in PER, topping Westbrook (No. 2 among point guards and No. 8 overall) and Parker (No. 4 among point guards and No. 13 overall) -- and he clearly wins the "most valuable to their respective team" debate for on- and off-court reasons. Westbrook's absurd athleticism and Parker's consistency might give you pause, but it should only be a brief one. For these reasons, Paul is the most deserving West guard overall, rendering moot any discussion of a lineup that might feature two shooting guards, such as a Kobe Bryant/James Harden pairing.
6. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers (West Backcourt)
Bryant's case for yet another starting spot -- he has started 13 previous All-Star Games -- is incredibly strong, even at 34 years old. He is leading the NBA in scoring at 29.9 points, hitting a career-high 47.8 percent from the field and tacking on 4.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.5 steals. His No. 6 ranking in PER is his best since 2006-07, when he averaged 31.6 points. His case isn't just numbers, of course. He's been the one steady piece in a turbulent season for the Lakers, holding down the fort through a coaching change, a long-term injury to Nash and shorter-term absences for Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.
Like Paul, he falls in this second category rather than the first one because of the competition in the West. Harden, blooming after a blockbuster trade, has been very, very good. His numbers -- 26.3 points, 5.3 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 44.7 percent shooting -- are close to Kobe's and his PER ranks No. 12 among all players and third among two guards, behind Bryant and Wade. Picking between Bryant and Harden isn't a dilemma worth thinking twice about, but Harden deserves the courtesy of a mention for his individual play and the Rockets' plus-.500 start.
Does Westbrook or Parker have a case against Bryant in a pairing of two point guards with Paul? Not past a first glance. Westbrook's scoring prowess and strong performances against the Lakers during the last two postseasons jump to mind, but Bryant tops him in PER this season and is shooting five-plus percentage better from the field. He's also doing it as the No. 1 guy, which can't be said for Westbrook (No. 2 to Durant) or Parker, who has thrived at the head of a much more balanced Spurs attack.
Category No. 4: Solid Picks In Murkier Circumstances
7. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers (West Frontcourt)
After Durant, the list of starter-quality frontcourt options in the West goes on and on and on. That's even true with Kevin Love and Dirk Nowitzki off the table because of injuries. Of the many worthy candidates, Griffin's case is the strongest. The Clippers are a huge success, he's been instrumental in powering their excellent offense and havoc-wreaking defense and he's the type of player who commands so much extra attention that his impact on the game doesn't always come across in the numbers. Like Paul, his stats are down, as he's playing fewer minutes (31.9 per game after averaging 36.2 last season) because of the Clippers' depth and because a lot of blowout victories means plenty of fourth-quarter rest. Still, Griffin is averaging 17.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.5 steals, and he's shooting 53.4 percent from the field. His per-minute stats are comparable to those in his two previous seasons.
Among West frontcourt candidates, Griffin's PER trails only that of Durant and Duncan. The combination of his team's success, his solid numbers and the fun factor he brings to a showcase game make it difficult to dispute the fans' selection. Even if thousands of people are voting for him only because he can dunk, Griffin brings much more to the table.
Golden State's Lee (19.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists), Portland's Aldridge (20.6 points and 8.6 rebounds) and Memphis' Randolph (16.4 points and 11.6 rebounds) are compelling alternatives, but all three play significantly more minutes than Griffin does. Importantly, none can make a clear-cut "I'm the No. 1 option, Griffin isn't" argument that favored Love last season: Lee has had help from Stephen Curry and a solid roster; Batum and Damian Lillard have aided Aldridge; and Randolph is part of a two-headed low-post monster with Marc Gasol. Nothing about Griffin's inclusion as a starter screams "unfair," so give the people what they want.
8. Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics (East Backcourt)
We all miss Derrick Rose for millions of reasons, but his status as the best point guard in the East leaves a mess now that he's missed the whole season so far while recovering from knee surgery. The fans have selected the enigmatic Rondo, who actively defies comparison and comprehension at every turn. Rondo's case rests on his all-around contributions: 13.0 points (on 49.2 percent shooting), a league-leading 11.2 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals. The biggest hole in his game -- his lack of shooting range -- goes without saying. His eccentricities are too many to list. Floated as a possible fringe MVP candidate to start the year, that campaign never got close to launching. The Celtics started slowly (they've picked up the pace in recent weeks) and rank No. 19 in offensive efficiency, although that does represent an improvement from last season. One shudders to think what Boston's attack would look like without Rondo, but we can't exactly gloss over the fact that it's still below average with some capable pieces.
The good news for Rondo is that his strongest veteran challenger is the Nets' Williams, who has struggled so much this season that he recently said he didn't deserve to be an All-Star, let alone a starter. Williams is averaging 16.8 points, 7.7 assists and 3.2 rebounds, so he's not a bum, but he's shooting only 40.6 percent. That the Nets are ahead of the Celtics in the standings boosts Williams' stock a bit, but Rondo's elite playmaking would seem to trump anything that Williams has supplied this season.
The best contender for Rondo's spot is actually Cavaliers second-year player Irving, the PER leader among East point guards playing at least 30 minutes per game. The knocks against Irving as a possible starter are obvious: His Cavaliers are 10-31, he's still only 20 and he registers 5.6 assists against 3.7 turnovers. Still, this is a 23-point scorer who shoots better than 40 percent on threes: He's a model of efficiency, even with no reliable help to speak of on his roster. If Rondo gets points deducted for Boston's subpar offense, then the fact that Cleveland ranks in the bottom five in offensive and defensive efficiency must enter the discussion somewhere. While a poor record and team statistics shouldn't be outright disqualifiers when it comes to picking starters, there's a strong argument to be made that Irving is merely excellent and not transformative right now. The burden of proof is still on him.
None of the two-guard options behind Wade (led by the Nets' Johnson and the Knicks' Smith) offer convincing cases to take a nontraditional route and exclude a point guard in the starting lineup. As with Griffin, then, Rondo's inclusion by the fans is worthy and it stands up just fine to scrutiny.
Category No. 5: Difficult To Justify
9. Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics (East Frontcourt)
The East frontcourt's third spot is a tough one. The fan voting was close, with the 36-year-old Garnett narrowly edging Bosh.
Garnett is still Garnett, one of the most fearsome competitors and best tone-setters in the game, but age has been showing for a number of years now. He's averaging 14.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 29.5 minutes, numbers close to in line with what he's done in recent years. Bosh is averaging 17.8 points and 7.1 rebounds in 33.4 minutes, and his 21.5 PER outpaces Garnett's 18.7. Chandler's PER is virtually identical to Bosh's, and the Knicks' center is averaging 12.4 points and 10.9 rebounds and shooting 67.2 percent. Noah is putting up 12.4 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.3 steals. Owing to his 45.6 shooting percentage, Noah's PER of 17.1 places him fourth among the candidates.
This seems like a case in which team performance and balancing the starting group with representatives from multiple teams provides the solution. The Celtics, of course, are below the Heat, Knicks and Bulls in the standings. Boston's shaky start hardly seems worthy of two starters, even if Rondo is merely keeping Rose's seat warm. Bosh, the archetypal third wheel, is not having his best year, and the Heat's jog through the first few months of the season doesn't warrant three starters. Miami's No. 12 ranking in defensive efficiency and No. 26 ranking in rebound rate don't do him any favors.
I would make this a race between Chandler and Noah and pick the latter, despite his deficiencies in the personal advance metrics. The Bulls' defense is much better than the Knicks' (No. 3 in points allowed per possession compared to No. 16), Noah has established himself as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and he's been an important emotional force in keeping Chicago competitive and relevant in Rose's absence. Chandler's case to make his first All-Star team is totally sound, though, and he would have been a very worthy All-Star starter selection, too.
Category No. 6: Wrong Pick
10. Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers (West Frontcourt)
Here again, team factors weigh in. How exactly, in good conscience, can the 11th-best team in the West, and the league's biggest disappointment, have two West starters? Especially at the expense of worthy candidates on better (for now) teams, such as the Grizzlies, Warriors and Trail Blazers. Howard would be the first person to tell you that he hasn't been himself this season because of injuries, even though he's averaging 17.8 points, a league-leading 12.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. Howard isn't the wrong pick because he hasn't met extremely high expectations during his first season in Los Angeles; he's the wrong pick because his name isn't Tim Duncan.
At 36, Duncan ranks No. 6 in PER among players logging at least 30 minutes per game, trailing only James, Durant, Paul, Anthony and Bryant. His team, despite dealing with injuries to Stephen Jackson, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard, sits atop the Southwest Division at 30-11, third best in the West. He's averaging 17.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 2.7 assists while shooting 50.1 percent. Those numbers compare very well with Howard's, and are better nearly across the board on a per-minute basis. Meanwhile, the Spurs rank No. 5 in offensive efficiency and No. 3 in defensive efficiency, beating Howard's Lakers, who rank No. 6 and No. 17, respectively.
While Howard's persona is a perfect fit in the overindulgent All-Star Weekend, Duncan remains the standard by which big men should be measured. His best season since at least 2009-10 is worthy of a starting spot. Editor's Note: An earlier version of this post debated the worthiness of probable All-Star starters. It has since been updated to reflect the confirmed starting lineup.