Ready to shine? Assessing early favorites for first All-Star appearances in 2014
While there have been about five first-time All-Stars per year since 2005, the 2013 All-Star Game in Houston featured a bunch of new blood, thanks to a rash of injuries to big-name players. All told, there were seven newcomers once Brook Lopez was named as the injury replacement for Rajon Rondo; Brooklyn's center joined Tyson Chandler, Paul George, James Harden, Jrue Holiday, Kyrie Irving and Joakim Noah, who were all tabbed as reserves by the coaches.
Rondo is still without a definitive timetable for his return (as is 2012 All-Star starter Andrew Bynum), but four players who were sidelined or limited before the break in 2013 -- Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Dirk Nowitzki and Deron Williams -- are back in the mix for 2014. Even with Russell Westbrook expected to miss the first 20 games or so, the (very early) forecast for 2014 looks like a tight squeeze on spots available to newcomers.
Indeed, nine of the 10 starting spots, which are determined by a fan vote, already look to be formalities: Rose, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in the East, and Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard in the West. That's true despite Bryant's indefinite absence due to an Achilles injury, as the fan voting margins have been overwhelming in recent years. A solid number of 2013 reserves for both conferences -- including Irving, George, Tony Parker and Harden -- are positioned to get the call again for New Orleans, as are 2012 selections like Roy Hibbert and Marc Gasol, who missed the cut in 2013.
If injuries dictated first-time All-Star opportunities in 2013, look for player movement to be the headlining criterion in 2014. Three of last year's All-Stars changed teams this summer -- Howard, Kevin Garnett and Holiday -- as did a host of perennial fringe candidates, including Josh Smith, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson.
The concentration of those moves -- particularly the free-agency signings of Smith, Millsap and Jefferson -- suggests that the bulk of this year's first-timers will again come from the Eastern Conference. Holiday's trade from the Sixers to the Pelicans opens a spot on the East roster, and it further crowds an overcrowded Western Conference backcourt picture. Rudy Gay's midseason trade from the Grizzlies to the Raptors means that he's now competing with the likes of Luol Deng and Paul Pierce rather than Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, David Lee and former teammates Gasol and Zach Randolph to earn a spot. The Nets' blockbuster summer trade consolidated the talent pool in the Atlantic Division, giving Brooklyn the ability to roll out a starting five composed entirely of 2012 and 2013 All-Stars: Williams, Joe Johnson, Pierce, Garnett and Lopez. Still, it would take a very strong start to the season for more than two of those players to be selected in 2014, as the coaches tend to spread the love around.
Contrast that with the West, where you could construct a potential roster -- Paul, Bryant, Durant, Griffin, Howard, Harden, Parker, Westbrook, Tim Duncan, Love, Stephen Curry (in place of Lee) and Gasol (in place of Randolph) -- with only one first-timer (Curry), while snubbing the likes of Aldridge, Lee, Randolph, Nowitzki and Holiday, plus all of the other newcomer candidates. Now that's a deep pool.
Even if the West is likely to feature mostly familiar faces, here's a quick survey of the top candidates to become first-time All-Stars in 2014 from both conferences.
John Wall, Wizards: If the Nets' Williams doesn't reclaim his spot after Holiday's move to the West, Wall looks like the odds-on favorite. After missing the first two-plus months to open the 2012-13 season with a knee injury, Wall came back to average 18.5 points and 7.6 assists while posting a 20.9 Player Efficiency Rating (PER), which ranked No. 6 among point guards. Those individual numbers -- in conjunction with Washington's 24-25 record when he played -- helped Wall secure a five-year rookie extension from Washington this summer. Wall's talent should be enough to keep the Wizards firmly in the playoff picture all season after a five-year postseason drought. That should put some pressure on the coaches to acknowledge Washington's improvement with their midseason voting. Honestly, who doesn't want to see the hyper-talented and freakishly athletic Wall in an All-Star setting?
Josh Smith, Pistons: The variables working against Smith's selection are slowly deteriorating. In Atlanta, he was passed over year after year in favor of his teammates (Johnson, Al Horford) and, it seemed, because he was regarded as a bit of a malcontent. The Hawks' consistent "good but not great" postseason work created a certain malaise. Moving to Detroit as a free agent gives Smith a fresh beginning, and it could jump-start his All-Star chances.
The Pistons haven't made the playoffs since 2009 and they are positioned to compete for a spot this season. If things progress as expected, Smith will be in line for the lion's share of the credit, as he's the roster's "biggest name" and most established veteran star type, and he's produced at an All-Star level for seven straight seasons. His impact will also be easy to gauge: Last season, Atlanta ranked No. 10 in defense while Detroit ranked No. 23. That gap should narrow, perhaps considerably, and a strong swing would make a compelling case for Smith's value. Deng would seem to be a particularly vulnerable incumbent.
Al Jefferson, Bobcats: Don't look now, but the East's crop of All-Star-caliber centers has gotten pretty strong. Even though the NBA relaxed its rules last season, encouraging fans to vote for three "frontcourt" players rather than two forwards and a center, there's no lack of available talent: Lopez, Hibbert, Noah and Chandler are all contenders for All-Star returns; those four players have established reputations and should produce strong statistical cases while playing for upper-echelon teams. That doesn't leave much room for Jefferson, whose lowly Bobcats will likely be among the league's worst teams this season. Still, anything short of 20/10 production from Jefferson would be a categorical disappointment, and those type of numbers get you into the conversation, especially if some of the more traditional selections falter.
Rudy Gay, Raptors: Like Smith, Gay benefits from an increased profile on his new squad. The Raptors haven't made it to the postseason since 2008, and someone will get some love if they can hang in contention into January. Clearly the No. 1 guy in Toronto (at least until Jonas Valanciunas fully blooms), Gay is also in position to be one of the league's top 10 scorers, and nine of the top 10 scorers last season earned All-Star nods (Curry was the only exception). Hopefully, the coaches will only reward Gay if his efficiency numbers take a big leap forward, but he's lurking if Toronto starts well and someone like George unexpectedly falters.
Paul Millsap, Hawks: A regular victim of the Western Conference's power forward glut, Millsap's outlook has improved somewhat with his move to Atlanta. He still faces some pretty serious hurdles, namely the presence of Horford and Atlanta's ingrained reputation as a slightly above-average squad. It doesn't help that Millsap's game trends toward workmanlike rather than highlight-driven, or that Smith, one of his top rivals for All-Star recognition, seemingly has a leg up on him when it comes to circumstantial factors. At the very least, though, Millsap should enjoy a little more buzz, as he's not trying to stand out from the likes of Griffin, Duncan, Randolph, Nowitzki, Aldridge and Lee. That's an easy forest to get lost in.
Larry Sanders, Bucks: The All-Star Game isn't always the best place to find defense-first big men: Chandler needed 12 seasons to get his first call, while 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Gasol didn't make the cut for Houston. Throw in the fact that Sanders plays for the small-market Bucks, who are expected to be in the middle of the pack again, and it's probably best to categorize his chances as a long shot. That said, Milwaukee clearly understands his value, as evidenced by his big-dollar extension this summer, and Sanders, who is just 24, should be in the discussion as a possible All-Star candidate for years to come. His competition as he progresses -- Lopez, Hibbert, Noah and Horford -- is as clear as can be.
Stephen Curry, Warriors: The Warriors' sharpshooting, dynamic guard checked in at No. 15 on The Point Forward's Top 100, and he was the only player among the list's top 28 with zero All-Star selections. That will almost certainly change this year, as a strong 2013 postseason not only raised Curry's individual profile but it also cemented the fact that Golden State belongs to him rather than Lee.
A 2013 snub, Curry's case for 2014 looks rock solid: He was the No. 7 scorer last season, he ranked No. 5 among point guards in PER and the Warriors should be among the West's top six teams this season. It's taken awhile for the NBA as a whole to realize just how deadly a weapon Curry's shooting can be, perhaps because he battled the injury-prone label during his first few seasons. There's just no ignoring 45.3 percent three-point shooting on more than seven attempts per game, especially when it fuels his team's offensive identity (Golden State ranked No. 10 in offense last season) and when it doesn't come at the expense of his teammates (Curry averaged nearly seven assists).
Serge Ibaka, Thunder: Ibaka is an All-Defensive first-team selection for two years in a row. His singular shot-blocking prowess tends to overshadow his efficient offensive game and his ability to make an impact on the boards. The massive shadows cast by Durant and Westbrook have also kept him stuck in the third-wheel hole, a tough place to be at All-Star selection time, especially considering the competition at his position.
Westbrook's early-season absence should allow Ibaka additional opportunities on offense, plus the benefit of newfound attention that comes with being the No. 2 guy (if only temporarily) on a contender. Will that be enough to vault Ibaka above players like Nowitzki and Aldridge, who should be productive No. 1 guys for their respective teams, or to keep him above Westbrook on the recognition pecking order if the point guard comes back on schedule? Probably not. Receiving an All-Star selection can often be a multiyear stepping-stone process, and Ibaka will be in position to make real progress this season.
Damian Lillard, Blazers: The 2013 Rookie of the Year has repeatedly made it clear in preseason interviews that he wants to make it to New Orleans. It's a lofty goal, as he's competing against Paul, Westbrook, Parker, Curry and Holiday, plus sleepers like Steve Nash and Mike Conley. Also an issue: the presence of Aldridge, as the Blazers pencil in outside the West's top six teams and will almost certainly be limited to, at most, one All-Star.
Aldridge, a two-time selection, is a superior two-way player to Lillard, who has pledged to improve his defensive focus and fundamentals during his sophomore season. Westbrook's injury does open a window for Lillard, who led the league in minutes last season and will carry a heavy load again this season, especially after lottery pick CJ McCollum went down with a broken foot over the weekend. The most plausible scenario for Lillard to make the All-Star team is that he replaces the injured Westbrook and Curry replaces Lee, while Love or Nowitzki knocks out Aldridge.
Kawhi Leonard, Spurs: The Spurs' small forward is an absolute beast, even if the stats from his second season (11.9 points, 6 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.7 steals) undersell his impact. Gregg Popovich said recently that Leonard has "improved more quickly" than any Spurs player he's coached, and that's no small praise, obviously. San Antonio's perennial success virtually guarantees at least one All-Star placement per year, and it's easy to envision the days in the not-too-distant future when Parker and Leonard are side-by-side representing their conference. Last January, The Point Forward identified Leonard as one of the most likely future All-Stars from the 2011 draft class, and his strong 2013 postseason run did nothing to dissuade us from that opinion.
Anthony Davis, Pelicans: The No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft will need to climb the ladder of respect rung by rung before he receives an All-Star nod. As veterans like Duncan, Nowitzki, Randolph and Lee push further past 30, though, it's only a matter of time before the 20-year-old Davis steps into that hole. His production as a teenager -- 16.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes -- suggest a franchise talent in the making, and he possesses the intangibles and the personality to be a generation-defining type of guy.
What would need to happen for Davis to be the Pelicans' hometown representative in February? A very strong team start, for one, as well as an individual campaign that sees him scale his production in larger minutes while avoiding the minor injuries that sidelined him at various points during his rookie year. That still might not be enough, given the West's crowd of frontcourt talent.
DeMarcus Cousins, Kings: There is a laundry list of reasons that Cousins won't make the 2014 All-Star team: The Kings are expected to be doormats; he has one of the worst reputations, behavior-wise, in the NBA; and his defensive abilities and shot selection need a lot of work. That said, he's almost certainly going to be in the discussion on a regular basis over the next five years. Cousins, who turned 23 in August, was one of just eight players to average at least 17 points and nine rebounds last season. That group included six All-Stars in 2012 or 2013, plus Jefferson. What's more, he posted a top 10 PER at his position and trailed only Nikola Pekovic among full-time Western Conference starting centers (assuming you label Duncan a power forward). Outside of Howard, the pickings should be pretty slim among centers in the West over the next few years, and the trade of Tyreke Evans thrust Cousins into the No. 1 guy role. If Sacramento can ever position itself to snap a playoff drought that dates to 2007, Cousins' reputation stands to gain, at least if he can keep the distractions to a minimum.