By Rob Mahoney
With the All-Star festivities coming at week's end, we're rapidly approaching the second selection season for the main event. Inevitably, some worthy All-Star will be ruled out due to injury, thereby opening up a spot on either conference's roster for a substitute. In the case of the West, it's looking increasingly likely that Tim Duncan might sit out the weekend due to soreness in his knee, while a few others (Dwight Howard, Chris Paul) are conceivable scratches given their nagging injuries. As such, let's take a look at what the rest of the West has to offer, in order of worthiness as a replacement:
Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
This is less a substitute and more of a mulligan, as the NBA's coaches made a definite error in excluding Marc Gasol from their initial reserve selections. I suspect that Gasol wound up on the wrong side of the cut due to the voters' preference for fellow Grizzly Zach Randolph, but Duncan's potentially vacated spot would allow for the inclusion of both Memphis big men. (I ultimately preferred a few other candidates to Randolph, but what's done is done, and he isn't an egregious choice by any means.)
There are higher scorers and bigger rebounders in contention for this spot, but no remaining Western Conference player can match Gasol's value on both ends of the court. He's one of the few realistic candidates who is a legitimately elite defender, a quality that may prove out of place in the context of the All-Star Game but should nonetheless be rewarded. It's truly uncommon for big men to move, shade and angle defenders as impeccably as Gasol does, and it's through his play that Memphis has managed the second-best defense in the entire league to date (97.6 points allowed per 100 possessions). He may not have the traditional athleticism that we so often see in elite interior defenders, but Gasol is surprisingly quick on his feet and manages splendidly with superior length and timing.
Beyond his extraordinary defensive credentials, I feel as though there's a fundamental misunderstanding of how critical Gasol is to the Grizzlies' offense. Part of the reason why Lionel Hollins is able to use Mike Conley and Zach Randolph in the fashion that he does is because Gasol is so wonderful from the high post and in his facilitation of the offense in general. Gasol may not be as productive or efficient as other All-Star-level bigs when it comes to his own individual scoring, but he plays an active part in so much of what the Grizzlies create and helps to make sense of an otherwise cluttered offense. His role -- regardless of what his basic stats (13.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game) might suggest -- is a critical one, and it's possible solely because Gasol is such a unique talent.
Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors
I can certainly understand why some would put Curry at the top of this list, and, to some extent, the choice between him and Gasol comes down to which skills you prioritize in player evaluation. I opted for exemplary defensive performance and overall balance. We can definitively say that Gasol has been among the best defensive players in the entire league this season, while Curry rates as "merely" an excellent offensive player. We're splitting hairs between the résumés of terrific players, but by default I side with the player who is more specifically outstanding and most able on both ends of the floor.
That should take nothing away from Curry, who is a potent and flexible scorer that does the Warriors all kinds of good whenever he's on the court. It's because of players like Curry that Golden State can find stability in a jumper-heavy offense; not only does he shoot an amazing -- and historic -- 44.8 percent from beyond the arc on a whopping seven attempts per game, but the threat that Curry poses opens up chances for a crew of other resourceful scorers. Plus, the fact that Mark Jackson can play him off the ball has allowed for some incredible balance in terms of spacing and creative responsibility between Curry, David Lee and Jarrett Jack, the fruits of which often create the Warriors' most efficient offensive stretches.
Factor in his now-decent defense, and Curry should be too good to leave off the All-Star team. But the coaches made a few questionable calls in their initial reserve selections, and in snubbing Gasol appear to have also snubbed Curry. That said, Curry does have one thing very much working in his favor when it comes to injury-replacement selection: He's set to participate in All-Star Weekend anyway via the three-point contest, which could make him the most convenient choice from a logistical perspective if the call is made in the 11th hour.
Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder
This is where things get a bit trickier. Gasol and Curry are very clearly the top two Western Conference players on the bubble, but in the third spot you could go a number of directions with a handful of capable candidates (most of whom are addressed in the section below). I prefer Ibaka to the alternatives largely because of his monstrous defensive effect. It means something to have a shot-blocker like Ibaka on the backline, and even though he hasn't progressed enough for my liking from a technical standpoint (his placement and timing are still a bit off), opponents have to account for his presence on the backline in the same way that a defense has to account for a floor-spacing shooter. He casts his shadow over every defensive play purely by virtue of his swatting ability, and in doing so becomes a powerful deterrent. The Thunder allow the second-lowest shooting percentage at the rim in the entire league, in large part because of the impact of Ibaka's shot-blocking projection.
He's an impact player for one of the best teams in the league, and has come along on offense to become an altogether more dynamic threat. We're seeing a greater confidence on his mid-range looks, amazingly efficient scoring at career-high levels (15.4 points per 36 minutes), the ability to do a few new things off the catch in pick-and-roll situations, nice positioning relative to the offense and a poise with the ball that makes him a really useful all-around player. He isn't asked to do as much as some of the other players in consideration, but he maximizes his value with defense and low-usage production.
DUE DILIGENCE: Barring a plague, it's unlikely that the West would need any more than three replacement players for the All-Star squad. With that in mind, we'll wrap up the rest of the reasonable candidates in brief.
Nicolas Batum, Portland Trail Blazers -- Damian Lillard gets much of the credit for the Blazers' successes, but Batum and All-Star forward/fellow Blazer LaMarcus Aldridge give Portland's 13th-ranked offense its backbone, all while Batum regularly defends a wide range of versatile scoring threats.
Al Jefferson, Utah Jazz -- Among the best low-post players in the NBA and a solid rebounder to boot, Jefferson would have trouble defending a tortoise in the pick-and-roll. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.