When it comes to NBA players, being selected for the All-Star Game might be the next best thing to winning a championship.
"When I got to the NBA, I set a goal to be an All-Star," Wizards forward Caron Butler said at last year's event.
"It's been a dream of mine since I was a kid," Mavs forward Josh Howard added.
Butler and Howard were two of seven first-timers in last year's All-Star Game. The others were Carmelo Anthony, Carlos Boozer (who missed the game with an injury), Dwight Howard, Joe Johnson and Mehmet Okur.
This year features another bumper crop of worthy first-year candidates, but it doesn't look as if there will be as many spots. The Western Conference backcourt situation appears particularly daunting for first-timers. Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Tony Parker, Baron Davis and Manu Ginobili are all established All-Stars vying for spots, leaving little room for newcomers.
Coaches vote for the reserves. They must include a center, two forwards and two guards on their ballot. They also get to include two at-large spots. With Bryant and McGrady currently leading the fan balloting, it means coaches will have at most four guard spots in which to place any of those above-mentioned veterans as well as the impressive list of potential newcomers.
Here is our list of the top candidates for first-time honors, listed in order of their likelihood of making it. Keep in mind, this is just a status report of how it stands right now. The picture could change over the next few weeks before coaches have to fill out their ballots. (All stats and records through Tuesday.)
Key stats: 21.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 10.3 apg, 2.97 spg, 47.7 FG%, 36.6 3FG%
The skinny: The 6-foot point guard has been sensational this season. He leads the NBA in steals, ranks third in assists and is in the top 20 in scoring. Most important, he has led the Hornets to the fourth-best record in the West. He has to be on the squad, even if it means putting him ahead of Parker, Davis and/or Roy.
All-Star outlook: Get ready for some big cheers from the hometown New Orleans crowd during intros.
Key stats: 19.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.6 apg., 45.1 FG%, 31.4 3FG%
The skinny: Roy has seen a surge in his candidacy of late, thanks to the Blazers' recent 13-game winning streak. With his all-around contributions, he is worthy of making the squad. But will coaches go with a second-year player over established vets like Davis or Parker or Ginobili? The guess here is they will.
All-Star outlook: Good, especially if Blazermania keeps raging.
Key stats: 24.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.7 apg, 46.1 FG%, 30.6 3FG%
The skinny: The seventh-year small forward is making his strongest bid yet. He ranks sixth in the NBA in scoring (up 8.2 points from last season's 16.3 average) , while playing his usual solid defense. But the East frontcourt situation is crowded (Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Paul Pierce, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, et al.), and the Nets will likely be represented already by Jason Kidd.
All-Star outlook: He has an outside shot, but the Nets are going to have to start playing a lot better.
Key stats: 18.1 ppg, 14.0 rpg, 2.1 apg, 2.96 bpg, 47.4 FG%
The skinny: The 7-footer is tied for second in the NBA in rebounding and ranks third in blocks while providing a reliable low-post presence for the Clippers. Unfortunately for him, Amaré Stoudemire is a lock at backup center behind Yao Ming -- and the coaches aren't likely to go beyond two spots there. Plus, the Clippers have a dismal record.
All-Star outlook: Looks to be caught up in a numbers game.
Key stats: 19.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 9.0 apg, 1.1 spg, 51.3 FG%, 40.9 3FG%
The skinny: Williams is All-Star caliber (he ranks fourth in the NBA in assists and 18th in field goal percentage), but he has not been quite as sharp this season as Paul has been. Meanwhile, the Jazz have struggled since a 13-5 start. With Carlos Boozer also a prime All-Star candidate, the coaches are not likely to go for two Utah players on their ballot.
All-Star outlook: For the second straight season he is going to get squeezed out by the stiff competition at his position.
Key stats: 24.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.4 spg, 43.4 FG%, 39.8 3FG%
The skinny: He ranks sixth in scoring, which normally would give him a solid chance. But he has missed the last 16 games with a groin injury for the Kings. It is unlikely that Martin would beat out players like Roy or Davis, but if he comes back strong over the next few weeks, he could at least get back in the discussion.
All-Star outlook: Like Kaman, his team's poor record won't help either.
Key stats: 19.4 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.3 bpg, 47.7 FG%
The skinny: He's one of the underrated players in the league, the second-leading scorer and rebounder for one of the West's surprise teams. But with Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard, Boozer and Shawn Marion battling for two likely reserve spots, there just isn't going to be room.
All-Star outlook: Like teammate Tyson Chandler, he'll have to settle for being a hometown spectator.
Key stats: 21.2 ppg., 4.9 rpg., 4.0 apg., 1.3 spg., 40.0 FG%, 31.8 3FG%
The skinny: Jackson is having his best year and has been a key part of the Warriors' rise after an 0-6 start. But Davis is Golden State's best player, and he is no lock to make the squad. There is no way Jackson makes it ahead of him.
All-Star outlook: Go ahead and make those vacation plans.