By Ben Golliver
The first round of fan voting returns are in for the 2013 NBA All-Star teams and the immediate takeaway from the results is that changes made to the ballot and voting process have not had a drastic impact on the projected starting lineups -- but they haven't had zero impact either. Remember, the NBA eliminated the "center" designation on its ballots so that fans vote for two "backcourt" players and three "frontcourt" players rather than two "guards," two "forwards" and one "center." The league also opened up its voting to social media sites.
Even with those changes, eight of the 10 2012 All-Star Game starters project to start again this year: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard.
The two new projected starters enter because of major injuries to incumbents. Celtics guard Rajon Rondo, who finished third among East guards in 2012, moves in for Bulls guard Derrick Rose, who has not played this season due to a knee injury. Celtics forward/center Kevin Garnett, who finished fourth among East forwards last year, moves in for Sixers center Andrew Bynum, who was the leading vote-getter among West centers last year before the Lakers traded him to Philadelphia. (He has also yet to play this season due to a knee injury.)
The East's big winners
Garnett is easily the biggest winner of these first returns due to the ballot change and Bynum's injury. Heat forward Chris Bosh is right there with him. Both players see minutes at the 5 in small-ball lineups so both were arguably getting short shrift under the old system, which listed both as forwards. The ballot change looked to address that and voters have responded.
Last year, Garnett finished behind James, Anthony and Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire among East forwards. To put it bluntly, Garnett had no chance to earn a starting nod if last year's system had been maintained and he continued to be listed on the ballot as a forward. Short of a catastrophic injury, Garnett would have been voted in by the coaches as a reserve. Last year, James accumulated almost one million more votes than Garnett and Anthony nearly tripled his vote total. Already in these first returns, James and Anthony have each more than doubled Garnett's tally.
Bynum's injury opened the door for several candidates at the third frontcourt spot in the East, a race that is not yet decided because Garnett tallied less than 8,000 more votes than Bosh (218,246 to 210,724). Last year, it's worth noting, Garnett wound up receiving 43,000+ more votes than Bosh in the final count. We can't know for sure where a healthy and productive Bynum, who was the runaway winner among West centers last year with more than 1,000,000 votes, would have placed. Even without playing a single game and making more headlines for his hair and bowling than his basketball abilities, the Sixers center garnered 68,596 votes, good for ninth among East frontcourt players. Even without the Lakers' massive fan base powering his vote tallies, Bynum likely would have been the favorite to be the third frontcourt player behind James and Anthony; at worst, you would think, he would have made this a tight three-horse race.
The East's big losers
Knicks center Tyson Chandler and Bulls center Joakim Noah.
With Bynum injured, Chandler or Noah almost certainly would have been the starting center for the East under the old system. Last year, Noah outpaced Chandler by 73,000 votes, but the Bulls were coming off an Eastern Conference finals appearance, the Knicks hadn't ascended to their current standing and Chandler hadn't yet been recognized as 2012 Defensive Player of the Year. Chandler has more than doubled Noah in the early 2013 returns, 151,744 to 73,366. The Bulls, without Rose, haven't garnered the same attention and the Knicks are off to arguably the hottest start in the league.
Still, Chandler ranks just fifth among East frontcourt players, trailing both Garnett and Bosh, and he's already more than 66,000 votes out of third, a position which would grant him a starting spot. Under the old system, he would be cruising to a starter's nod in his first career All-Star Game. Now, he will almost certainly have to wait for the call from the coaches. Similar situation for Noah: under the old system, he would be a distant second behind Chandler in a two-man race; this year, he's essentially off the board.
The West's big winners
Bryant and Paul.
The major intrigue in the West was whether Rockets guard Jeremy Lin, a global sensation after rising to superstardom with the Knicks last season, would unseat one of the 2012 starters. Last year, Lin wasn't on the All-Star ballot; indeed, he wasn't even originally included in the Rookie/Sophomore game and had to be added at the last minute. Once he showed up in Orlando, "Linsanity" took over, and his press conference drew a larger crowd than commissioner David Stern's annual "State of the Union" address.
The first returns tell us that Bryant has nothing to worry about. He's been at or near the top of the leading vote-getters list for years and he's ranked No. 2 overall this season, just a few thousand behind James. Paul, though, is not yet in the clear, tallying 353,603 votes to Lin's 298,319. That's comfortable, but not overwhelming. Paul's cause is helped by the fact that his Clippers are atop the Pacific Division and by Lin's unspectacular season to date, as he's averaging 11.3 points, 6.1 assists and 4.2 rebounds while shooting just 39.9 percent from the field.
The West's big losers
With all five starters on track to return, there really isn't that much intrigue or controversy in the West. This is a popularity contest, of course, and it's incredibly difficult to unseat Bryant, Durant, Howard, Paul and Griffin in a popularity contest. Four of the five play in Los Angeles, and Durant is as famous, popular and recognizable as any small-market player over the last 25 years. Durant's teammate, Westbrook, gets it bad here. There's just no way Westbrook can be considered fifth among the West guard choices in terms of quality. Some would argue he should be above Paul for second and, if not, there's no disputing he should be either third or forth, depending whose style you prefer, his or Parker's. Westbrook logged just 143,437 votes, less than half of Lin's total. That's ridiculous for a player with a 24.45 PER averaging 21.1 points, a career-high 8.5 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game for the best team in the West.
Almost everything that was just said about Westbrook can be said for Parker and it's even worse because Parker earned just 69,983 votes, less than one-quarter of Lin's total. Parker ranks No. 4 among point guards in PER, his Spurs have the second-best record in the West and he finished fifth in MVP voting last season. He's currently averaging 19 points, 7.6 assists and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 50.9 percent, and it's unfair to either Parker or Lin to put the two players in the same sentence.
Harden's case is similarly cut and dry although not as egregious because Houston's record isn't as good as Oklahoma City's or San Antonio's. In an ideal world, Harden would be fifth behind Westbrook and Parker instead of fourth behind Lin and ahead of the two others, given that he's averaging 25 points, fifth in the NBA, plus 5.4 assists and 4.4 rebounds. The upshot is that Westbrook, Parker and Harden should make it easily as reserve selections.
The big losers overall
Centers, for sure.
Howard and others have squawked about the ballot change marginalizing centers unfairly because fans prefer the excitement of perimeter players and the hard work down in the post gets overlooked. The early vote totals seem to indicate that. As expected, fans are not as inclined to vote for centers when given the option to vote for three forwards.
Howard, who the leading vote-getter for the 2012 All-Star Game in Orlando, moved back to second among West frontcourt players this year, trailing Thunder forward Kevin Durant. Last year, when fans were forced to vote for a center, Howard tallied 250,000+ votes more than Durant did. There are plenty of variables here to account for: the 2012 All-Star Game was played in Orlando and Howard was the Magic's starting center, Durant has been on the rise thanks to his first Finals appearance and his gold medal performance in the 2012 Olympics, the Lakers have struggled early, Howard's popularity took a hit in the ugly run-up to his trade from Orlando to Los Angeles and Howard hasn't been 100 percent healthy following back surgery, among others.
This isn't just about Howard coming back to Earth, though. The top 12 vote-getting centers last year were: Howard, Bynum, DeAndre Jordan, Marc Gasol, Noah, Nene Hilario, Chandler, Marcin Gortat, Kendrick Perkins, Joel Anthony, JaVale McGee and Al Horford. This year, seven of those 12 players -- Jordan, Nene, Gortat, Perkins, Anthony, McGee and Horford -- missed the cut on the early voting returns. There were only three newcomers at center who did make this year's returns: Anderson Varejao, Brook Lopez and Omer Asik. Add it up, and that's a net loss of four centers from last season.
The question is whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, and arguments can be made both ways. Guys like Perkins, Anthony and McGee have no business getting All-Star mentions, even way down the ballot. Jordan and Horford, though, both deserve some down-ballot recognition that they aren't getting this season. Meanwhile, forwards like Zach Randolph (Grizzlies), Metta World Peace (Lakers), Anthony Davis (Hornets), Luol Deng (Bulls) and Jeff Green (Celtics) make this year's list whereas they would have been outside the cut last year. Randolph and Deng certainly deserve the recognition; World Peace, Davis and Green clearly do not.
Most overrated by fans
A brief, non-scientific rundown.
1. Steve Nash, Lakers (sixth among West backcourt)
2. Jeremy Lin, Rockets (third among West backcourt)
3. Omer Asik, Rockets (seventh among West frontcourt)
5. Metta World Peace, Lakers (ninth among West frontcourt)
Most underrated by fans
A brief, non-scientific rundown.
1. Anderson Varejao, Cavaliers (12th among East frontcourt)
2. Marc Gasol, Grizzlies (12th among West frontcourt)
3. Tony Parker, Spurs (seventh among West backcourt)
4. Russell Westbrook, Thunder (fifth among West backcourt)
5. Manu Ginobili (ninth among West backcourt)
Players who received votes without playing a single game
Andrew Bynum, Sixers (68,596)
Amar'e Stoudemire, Knicks (64,266)Ricky Rubio Timberwolves