The first round of fan voting returns are in for the 2014 All-Star teams. This year's batch has its share of intrigue, even if many of the names are familiar.
Eight of the 10 starters in last season's game project to start again: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard. The two projected newcomers: Kyrie Irving (in place of Rajon Rondo) and Paul George (in for Kevin Garnett).
Let's take a look at the winners and losers of the first round of balloting. (Click here for the full ballot. All stats and records are through Wednesday, Dec. 11.)
The West's big winners
Bryant is indisputably the biggest winner, as his Achilles injury barely influenced his All-Star popularity. Last year's leading-vote getter did slip to third overall and second in the West (behind Durant), but he remains an absolute lock for a starting spot even though he's played only two games and scored 29 points this season. Logging more than a half-million votes already, Bryant has actually tallied 17,000-plus votes for every point he's scored. In other words, All-Star voters took a page out of the Lakers' contract-extension playbook by rewarding Bryant for his lifetime achievements. You can't really blame them: Bryant is a four-time All-Star Game MVP and few players can match his global appeal, the top criterion in these popularity contests.
Kevin Love and Stephen Curry both stand out as winners, too. Love was a non-factor last season due to injuries, and Curry was the last guy left off the team. This season, both are mounting challenges for starting spots, having registered more than 275,000 votes, a massive total for a pair of 25-year-olds who haven't had the conference finals or NBA Finals stage to help boost their profiles. Love is better positioned to get a starting nod, as he's involved in a tight three-man race with Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin. Curry has a slim shot at catching Paul. Both guys will make this year's squad, barring injury, and their strong performances in the fan vote should help keep them out of the "bubble" discussion. They should both be locks.
One last winner: Durant. He not only leads the West with 607,407 votes but he could also unseat James as the top overall vote-getter. The two players are separated by a fraction of 1 percent. The Thunder forward has made it clear that he's sick of finishing second; perhaps this is his opportunity to score a rare head-to-head victory against James.
The West's big losers
The two players who have the most right to gripe about their placements are LaMarcus Aldridge and Dirk Nowitzki, who are eighth and 10th among West frontcourt players, respectively. Cases can be made that both should be in the top five in their group at the minimum, and Aldridge's continued shortcomings in the voting process (he received less than half the votes given to either Griffin or Love) undersell his status, especially this season with Portland off to such a strong start. Ditto for Nowitzki, who has had a nice bounce-back season and has the Mavericks at 13-10.
Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker will look at Curry's eye-popping vote total and wonder why they received less than half the number of votes given to the Warriors' star. Parker, in particular, has the right to feel overlooked, as he's led the Spurs to a 17-4 start and yet ranks only seventh among the West's backcourt players.
Last year, the NBA changed the ballot designations from two “guards,” two “forwards” and one “center” to two “backcourt” players and three “frontcourt” players. That wasn't a major factor in the West last year, and it remains to be seen whether it will play a role this year. If Love succeeds in beating out Howard, the West would start a center-less lineup, but the Paul/Bryant/Durant/Griffin/Love quintet isn't all that radical.
The bigger impact of the ballot change affects a player such as Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, who ranks 12th among West frontcourt players. Under the old system, Cousins would have been second among West centers, behind Howard, and his vote tally would surely have been larger with people forced to pick at least one center. Just being on the leaderboard is good recognition for Sacramento's fourth-year center, though, as it reflects an appreciation of his strong start (22.5 points and 10.5 rebounds) despite the Kings' struggles.
The East's big winners
The East's biggest winner is George, who has catapulted himself from well outside the "mainstream" to a position among the top-five overall vote-getters. The jump is astonishing: Last year, George placed 10th among East guards, receiving a total of 80,060 votes. This year, through just one round of balloting, George has pulled in 489,335, more than six times greater than his total last year and enough to virtually guarantee him a starting spot. That's big time, especially for a young, small-market star.
George and Anthony benefit from the "no centers" ballot change. In fact, under the old system, Anthony would likely be missing out on a starting spot, with Pacers center Roy Hibbert looming as the starter. Instead, the fairly tight race being waged between George and Anthony is irrelevant; both are locks to start in New Orleans.
Irving, who made his All-Star debut in 2013, is a winner, even if the start of his season has been a bit of a letdown. Cleveland's 21-year-old point guard has nearly registered as many votes this season (365,712) as he did all of last season (445,730), and he's the big beneficiary of injuries to Rondo and Derrick Rose. The hypothetical starting matchup between Irving and Paul is enough to make you lick your lips in anticipation even though we're still more than two months out.
The East's big losers
Much like last year, the "no centers" ballot change had its biggest impact among East centers. Hibbert, the early pick for Defensive Player of the Year, would be a runaway favorite to start under the old system. Instead, he's the leading snub, finishing fourth (by a mile) among East frontcourt players, behind James, George and Anthony. That's a tough break, but at least there's some consolation in the fact that his teammate George is getting recognized.
Perhaps the one player with an even bigger gripe than Hibbert is Nets center Brook Lopez, who inexplicably placed 14th among East frontcourt players and received fewer votes than three of his teammates (Garnett, Paul Pierce and Deron Williams). Lopez ranks No. 2 in the league in Player Efficiency Rating (trailing only James); yes, he's missed some time, but there's no way he should be outside the top six vote-getters in his grouping.
Most overrated by fans
Kevin Garnett, Nets (sixth among East frontcourt)
Pau Gasol, Lakers (seventh among West frontcourt)
Jeremy Lin, Rockets (fourth among West backcourt)
Most underrated by fans
LaMarcus Aldridge, Blazers (eighth among West frontcourt)
Brook Lopez, Nets (14th among East frontcourt)
Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks (10th among West frontcourt)
Tony Parker, Spurs (seventh among West backcourt)
Snubs: players who didn't make the voting leaderboard
Nicolas Batum, Blazers
Monta Ellis, Mavericks
Serge Ibaka, Thunder
Paul Millsap, Hawks
Jeff Teague, Hawks
David West, Pacers
Players who received most votes while playing 10 games or fewer
Kobe Bryant, Lakers (501,215)
Derrick Rose, Bulls (272,410)
Rajon Rondo, Celtics (80,889)
Steve Nash, Lakers (60,782)