Give and Go: Tackling the early NBA All-Star questions
Give and Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward's Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
Every new season brings its own revised hierarchy. Player development, regression, injury and movement scramble what was previously thought to be an established order, and in the process create all kinds of opportunities for players and teams to take on new roles in the altered NBA landscape.
And what is the preseason if not a chance to predict and anticipate those opportunities? Those who follow the game typically spend the lead-up to the season examining award races and anointing early championship contenders, but here we turn our attention to the broad (and inescapably controversial) process of All-Star selection. Whether by fault of fans who choose the All-Star starters or coaches who pick the reserves (two guards, two forwards, one center and two wild cards), a few contentious selections inevitably make the final cut every year. (Here are last season's rosters.) Today we get an early beat on that discussion and look to isolate the trends and factors that could come to determine the All-Star field.
1. Injuries to Kevin Love and Dirk Nowitzki have added some extra volatility to the already tricky Western Conference forward slots. Will both high-scoring power forwards be able to make the West's roster after missing out on the first few weeks of the season?
Rob Mahoney: Assuming that the recovery of both players goes more or less according to schedule, Love should still be a lock with Nowitzki more of a borderline case. Dirk is an exceptional offensive player, but time out of the lineup and more yet spent getting up to speed could very well nudge him out of an All-Star spot. If that winds up being the case, blame Nowitzki's slim margin for error. Assuming that Love, Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin are sure inclusions, that leaves just one remaining forward slot -- and possibly a wild card spot or two -- for the rest of a forward pool that includes Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Al Jefferson (who plays a lot of center), Paul Millsap, Zach Randolph, Andre Iguodala, Rudy Gay and David Lee. Even if Nowitzki were the best player out of that group (a claim that Aldridge can effectively dispute), that's a hell of a field to bet against.
Ben Golliver: It's been interesting to watch how both Love and Nowitzki have actively moved up their rehabilitation timelines. The fact that they went down in the preseason is clearly weighing on that; you don't want to lose team-wide momentum out of the gate, after all. Call me a sucker, but I'm leaning toward buying that both will get back to the court more quickly than initially feared, creating the opportunity for them to defend their 2012 spots. I agree that Love, even if he were to miss a month, can basically book his trip to Houston now. His stats are overwhelming, his value couldn't have been more obvious last season when he was a fringe MVP candidate, and he only added to his internal credibility with a gold medal in London. Something would have to go really, really wrong for him not to make it. Yes, something even more wrong than knuckle push-ups.
Nowitzki, though, was already hearing the whispers last season before he made it as a selection that carried just a smidgen of a "based on his reputation" taint. In particular, Gasol, given the new limelight in L.A. with Dwight Howard's arrival, is a big-time threat to steal Nowitzki's spot and reclaim his own place on the All-Star team, which he lost for the first time in four years last season. You can pencil in Griffin and, I think, Aldridge as returners. Both should have excellent numbers, and Griffin should ride the monster fan vote while Aldridge, assuming Portland isn't absolutely atrocious, should get an incumbent bump after his first-time selection in 2012. Other than Gasol, swingman Andre Iguodala is probably the most intriguing wild card, given his two-way skills and the likelihood that Denver should post a solid record by the time voting on the reserves gets turned over to the coaches.
2. Love and Nowitzki aside, are there any other longtime All-Star incumbents in jeopardy of losing their spot this season?
BG: Re-electing the entire old guard in the Eastern Conference just seems like such a formality, doesn't it? Is there any conceivable way, outside of catastrophic injury, in which Carmelo Anthony (fan vote), LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Rajon Rondo and Deron Williams aren't back in 2013? No one else from last year's squad really qualifies as a longtime incumbent.
In the West, a little more of the same: Chris Paul, Durant, Howard (imported from the East) and Kobe Bryant should all be back. Russell Westbrook and Griffin are absolute locks for their third straight All-Star Games. Entering the summer, Steve Nash would have seemed to be the most vulnerable, but then his persona changed from "noble leader of a lottery team" to "maestro conductor of the great Lakers Express." It's hard to see how he gets left home unless the Lakers are falling seriously short of expectations at midseason. By process of elimination that leaves San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker. I'm inclined to believe the coaches won't totally snub the Spurs; Parker seems like his team's favorite to head to Houston, over Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, for obvious health and age reasons. In short, Nowitzki looks to be on the shakiest ground among all the regulars.
RM: Nowitzki's All-Star streak is definitely in jeopardy, but I'm not ready to pencil in Parker just yet. One scenario I could see happening: Parker and Ginobili split the honorary Spurs vote, thereby opening up an All-Star spot to an equally deserving candidate. The alternatives from that point are many, as the West's depth may well nudge Parker out of contention for a guard spot and force him to compete for inclusion as a wild card. If the already deep ranks of West guards weren't formidable competition enough, then the inclusion of the forwards and centers in the pool could be Parker's undoing.
3. On the other side of that coin: Who are the players in each conference most likely to earn an All-Star selection for the first time?
RM: In the West, I'll tab James Harden. He may be coming off an absolutely brutal performance in the NBA Finals, but Harden is likely to play more and take on an even greater role in the Thunder offense this season. Given that kind of opportunity, there should be little doubt that Harden -- who was already one of the top offensive players in the game, and still evolving -- can make a run at a reserve selection. It'll be a tough sell with Paul, Westbrook, Nash and Bryant all in the mix (not to mention Parker, Ginobili, Ty Lawson, etc.) at guard, but a wild-card spot is well within Harden's grasp.
Kyrie Irving has a more promising case in the East, if only because Derrick Rose's injury again leaves one guard spot unaccounted for. A lot could happen between now and February to change the outlook of the All-Star field, but Irving's standing is incredibly solid. Even if he merely mimics his performance and output of a year ago, the 2012 Rookie of the Year stands a good chance to round out the reserve guards and become a first-time All-Star. He's that good already, and frankly Irving should've been named to the Eastern Conference reserves last time around.
BG: I can't argue with either the Harden or the Irving pick. So I won't. Instead, let me add one name: Hawks forward Josh Smith. Listed in the "snubs" category year after year, Smith made a bit of a fuss about it last year, a strategy that proved helpful for Aldridge in rallying the media to help him get selected for the first time in 2012. Smith benefits from Iguodala's move to the West and from Johnson's trade to the Brooklyn Nets. Now, Smith doesn't need to worry about where he falls on the pecking order alongside Johnson and Hawks center Al Horford. The coaches should have no problem tabbing both Smith and Horford, assuming the Hawks are in the East playoff picture by the time voting rolls around. Let's not forget one other crucial fact: This is a contract year for Smith.
4. A parlor game: How many Western Conference All-Stars will come from Los Angeles teams?
BG: I'm all in with the SoCal domination this season. I'll say the full six: Howard, Bryant, Nash, Gasol, Paul and Griffin. You better hold me back or I'll start making cases for Grant Hill, Willie Green and Chris Duhon.
RM: I'm inclined to agree, particularly if the coaches bend Gasol's positional designation and make him the West's reserve center.
5. Or, to riff on the same concept a different way: How many Eastern Conference All-Stars will come from New York teams?
RM: Just two. Though the New York-Brooklyn matchup is propped up with supposed star power, there are only two players in New York who are certain inclusions in the All-Star festivities. Anthony will likely start by way of his incredible reputation among casual fans. And even if another forward pulled off a massive upset in the popular vote, the coaches surely would pick Anthony as a reserve. The Nets' Williams, too, is as sure as these things come. If coaches saw fit to select Williams midway through a disinterested and inefficient campaign last season, then they won't hesitate to punch his ticket again in light of his much improved play this year for a better team.
Otherwise, Johnson will likely receive the most consideration for a spot, even though Tyson Chandler should pan out as the most deserving New York alternative. The work that Chandler does at the heart of the Knicks' defense is as outstanding as it is tragically overlooked, and sadly even NBA coaches can't quite be trusted to evaluate Chandler's contributions fairly against the rest of the center crop (Andrew Bynum, Roy Hibbert, et al).
BG: I'll push this to three. Anthony will be a fan vote and both Williams and Johnson are mainstays unlikely to perform so poorly that they lose their spots. The crop of East guards just isn't that deep, especially with presumed starter Rose out of the mix as he recovers from knee surgery. At center, Bynum will likely be the fan vote as starter, leaving Chandler to compete with Hibbert, a 2012 pick, for the last spot. Hibbert could definitely retain his spot under the "We need to have at least one member of the Pacers because they're good" corollary that was invoked last year. If the Pacers, slip, though, Chandler, whose profile has increased with his 2012 Defensive Player of the Year award and Olympic gold medal, could wind up getting the nod. Chandler isn't a traditional All-Star, given his defense-first approach, but Hibbert felt like a curious fit last year, too.
There's one player who was sidelined with injury last season who could definitely stand in Chandler's way: Horford. He's been there twice before, plays both ends well and always has solid numbers on winning teams. Now that I think about it, Horford might actually be a better bet than both Chandler and Hibbert.
Bonus: Who are your preseason 2012 All-Star teams?
East Starters: G Deron Williams, G Dwyane Wade, F Carmelo Anthony, F LeBron James, C Andrew Bynum
East Reserves: G Rajon Rondo, G Kyrie Irving, F Chris Bosh, F Kevin Garnett, C Al Horford, F Paul Pierce, F Josh Smith
West Starters: G Chris Paul, G Kobe Bryant, F Kevin Durant, F Blake Griffin, C Dwight Howard
West Reserves: G Russell Westbrook, G Steve Nash, F LaMarcus Aldridge, F Kevin Love, C Pau Gasol, F Andre Iguodala, G James Harden
East Starters: G Rajon Rondo, G Dwyane Wade, F Carmelo Anthony, F LeBron James, C Andrew Bynum
East Reserves: G Deron Williams, G Kyrie Irving, F Chris Bosh, F Luol Deng, C Al Horford, G Joe Johnson, F Paul Pierce
West Starters: G Chris Paul, G Kobe Bryant, F Kevin Durant, F Blake Griffin, C Dwight HowardMarc Gasol