By Ben Golliver
The last seven All-Star Games have featured an average of five first-time selections, including a number of players who made the cut only as injury replacements. Only once in that stretch have the fans voted a first-timer an All-Star starter (Andrew Bynum started at center for the Western Conference last season).
This year, all 10 expected starters for the Feb. 17 midseason showcase -- Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Garnett in the East and Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard in the West -- will be repeat All-Stars. That means any player hoping for his first All-Star berth will need the coaches to select him as one of seven reserves in each conference. Long-term injuries to 2012 All-Stars Bynum, Derrick Rose, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Love and Steve Nash could open the door a bit more than usual for first-timers in a process that tends to work against all but the very best of the up-and-comers.
Here's a rundown of the 10 players most deserving of first-time All-Star recognition and a look at how easy or difficult their respective paths to Houston will be. (All stats and records are through Jan. 10.)
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Numbers: 26.5 points per game, 5.3 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 1.9 steals, 45.4 percent shooting, 23.6 Player Efficiency Rating (PER)
Record: 21-15, No. 6 in the Western Conference
Analysis: This one is as good as booked. Harden's All-Star credentials are bulletproof and surrounding circumstances have played out ideally in favor of his candidacy. Harden, the NBA's fourth-leading scorer, has evolved from super-sub to 38-minutes-per-game franchise player exactly as expected when the Thunder traded him in October. He's supplemented his outstanding scoring numbers with solid contributions across the board, but his league-leading 10.1 free-throw attempts per game and his 29 percent usage rate help explain exactly how important he is to the Rockets' explosive offense. Harden's exact placement among top West guards -- along with Bryant, Paul, Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker -- is debatable, but he's no worse than fifth. Importantly, he's above two-time All-Star Manu Ginobili in terms of numbers, playing time and because two other Spurs, Parker and Tim Duncan, are surefire selections this year.
The Rockets' emergence as one of the biggest surprise teams and Houston's role as the host city only further solidify his open-and-shut case. Also not up for debate: Harden will easily lead the league in parties hosted during All-Star Weekend.
Numbers: 12.6 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.0 blocks, 1.3 steals, 47.2 percent shooting, 17.1 PER
Record: 19-14, No. 5 in the East
Analysis: Noah's breakout this season might not be as obvious as Harden's, but it's been much-needed for the Bulls as they await Rose's return. Omer Asik's departure has pushed Noah's playing time from 30.4 minutes last season to 38.9 minutes this year and he's scaled his production, posting career highs in points, assists, steals and blocks. Despite a host of offseason moves, Chicago has the NBA's No. 4 defense after ranking No. 1 in 2011 and 2012; coach Tom Thibodeau's system is as proven as it gets, but Noah and forward Luol Deng, who was named to his first All-Star team last year, deserve the bulk of the credit, and Noah's activity and awareness made him my pick for Defensive Player of the Year at the season's quarter mark. His playmaking has also stood out, highlighted by a triple-double with a career-high-tying 10 assists against Boston last month.
The Nos. 3-8 seeds in the East are separated by just 3½ games. The logjam makes it difficult to handicap which teams in that mix will have the best record, often an unofficial tiebreaker in determining which team gets multiple All-Star representatives. Indiana has two legitimate candidates in David West and Paul George; Atlanta could have two candidates in Al Horford and Josh Smith; Brooklyn has two perennial All-Stars in Deron Williams and Joe Johnson and a third candidate in Brook Lopez; Boston is expected to have two starters, Rondo and Garnett, and Paul Pierce as a reserve candidate. With Rose out, the coaches must choose whether to take Noah, Deng, both or neither. The crowded field could mean only one spot for Chicago, and while Deng's stats are virtually identical to those he posted last season, Noah deserves the shine.
One last X-factor: The East starting lineup will not include a traditional center under the new ballot that allows for two "backcourt" players and three "frontcourt" players. Garnett, who regularly plays center but has been listed as a forward on past ballots, is expected to start. If the coaches seek some positional balance -- and they should considering the quality of the field -- it's possible that multiple centers are selected as reserves.
3. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
Numbers: 23.5 points, 5.6 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 46.7 percent shooting, 22.1 PER
Record: 9-28, No. 14 in the East
Analysis: It takes a truly sensational player to merit All-Star recognition when his team has the second-worst record in the league. Irving is that player. He won't turn 21 until more than a month after the All-Star Game, but his standing among the league's best at his position is already taken as fact. Ranking No. 4 in PER among point guards behind only Paul, Westbrook and Parker, Irving is close to the total package: He can score, he can create, he can shoot (43.1 percent on three-pointers!), he can lead and he can defend (the defense, though, is still very much a work in progress). His aggressiveness, creativity and confidence in late-game situations have helped him develop the "closer" reputation. Other than persistent problems with fluky injuries, Irving seems on a fairly clear track to greatness.
Losing big man Anderson Varejao to knee surgery was a huge blow to Cleveland's prospects for winning this season, as he was a playing like a candidate for his first All-Star appearance, too. Not that it's any consolation to Cavaliers fans, but Varejao's absence does make the All-Star selection process easier for Irving. Coaches now won't need to pick between Irving and Varejao or talk themselves into taking two players from a last-place team. Now, it's Irving all the way. He was a fringe All-Star candidate as a rookie last season, but there just wasn't room with Rose, Rondo and Williams. With Rose out and Williams having a down year, there should be hell to pay if the coaches can't squeeze him on this time around.
Numbers: 12.7 points, 10.6 rebounds, 68.6 percent shooting, 21.8 PER
Record: 23-12, No. 2 in the East
Analysis: Chandler is riding a wave of recognition after spending a few quality years in the overlooked/underappreciated vortex. The 2011 title, 2012 Defensive Player of the Year award and last summer's Olympic gold medal have put Chandler in a position to earn the first All-Star nod of his 12-year career. His impact is well-known by now: The 7-1 Chandler is a long, agile big man who specializes in protecting the rim, finishing alley-oops and manning the glass. The Knicks are below average in points allowed per possession after finishing fifth in that category last season, but Chandler's double-double average, league-leading shooting percentage (it's hard to miss dunks) and excellent PER should be more than enough to send him to Houston.
Under the old ballot rules, if players had been listed at the same positions as last year, Chandler would have been in line to be an East starter by virtue of leading all centers in the fan vote. Instead, as noted above, Garnett is set to get the nod after the elimination of the center designation on the ballot. The coaches should do the right thing and make up for the ballot-induced snub. The Knicks' strong start gives them a good chance for a second All-Star to join Anthony, who will be voted in as a starter. The available options are Chandler and J.R. Smith, whose case rests on his career-high scoring (17.1 points), multiple game-winning shots and improved rebounding. Is it possible that Chandler and Smith both make the cut? Yes, but the East logjam will likely prevent that, and Smith's 41.5 percent shooting and reserve role work against him, too. If the Knicks get just one reserve, Chandler is the most deserving.
5. Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder
Numbers: 14.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.9 blocks, 57.1 percent shooting, 20.0 PER
Record: 27-8, No. 2 in the West
Analysis: Ibaka, like Harden before him, might never get his proper respect as the No. 3 guy behind two perennial All-NBA performers in Durant and Westbrook. His play this season, though, suggests that he's willing to do whatever it takes to get noticed. Asked to play more minutes and expand his offensive game, Ibaka has risen to the task with career highs in scoring, rebounding and shooting -- the last an impressive feat considering he is attempting 3.1 more shots this season than he ever has before and trying more long jumpers. Taking on a larger offensive burden and performing more efficiently is no easy task. Ibaka, the league's top shot-blocker, is a key reason why the Thunder, generally known as an offensive juggernaut, rank sixth in defensive efficiency.
While a very worthy All-Star candidate, Ibaka falls victim to two sets of circumstances. First, he's competing against a loaded West frontcourt field that includes Durant, Griffin, Howard, Duncan, David Lee, Zach Randolph, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol. Second, he'll face the question of whether the Thunder are deserving of three All-Stars, given Durant's and Westbrook's assured selection. Outside of the Heat's Big Three, the Thunder's case to land a third All-Star is as strong as any team's. But the combination of the two factors -- i.e., the coaches would prefer to take Lee and Randolph or Gasol as their respective team's sole representatives rather than Ibaka as the Thunder's third -- could wind up keeping him out. If this season winds up being a developing year for future All-Star bids for Ibaka, that's not the end of the world.
6. Paul George, Indiana Pacers
Numbers: 16.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 42.2 percent shooting, 16.7 PER
Record: 22-14, No. 3 in the East
Analysis: If you've watched the Pacers play recently, perhaps on Thursday night's nationally televised game against the Knicks, you probably caught yourself thinking that George is better than you thought. That's because he is, and he has been for a solid five or six weeks now. George's raw numbers are good. His advanced numbers aren't spectacular, but his impact is enormous. It's not just home-team hyperbole when his coach, Frank Vogel, calls him the best defensive wing in the league. George accepts the biggest challenges and plays with both fundamentals and aggressiveness. He does it all while carrying a significantly larger load on offense this season because of Danny Granger's absence. He is, to put it plainly, the best defensive player on the NBA's top-ranked defense.
The Pacers will need at least one All-Star representative given their solid record. We know, for sure, that 2012 first-time selection Roy Hibbert won't be back for the sequel. That leaves George and West, who is having a solid season as well in averaging 16.4 points and 7.9 rebounds. A two-time All-Star with the Hornets, West has the name recognition and veteran credibility that are so important with the coaches. It's understandable why some skeptics would want to see this level of play from George for a longer period of time to make him "prove it," especially after he started the season slowly as he adapted to his enhanced role. The best answer to those voices is that George, at 22, is just scratching the surface. George's career highs virtually across the board, his 37.2 percent three-point shooting and his big-time games against the likes of the Heat and Knicks should be enough to get him on the radar.
7. Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks
Numbers: 16.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.4 blocks, 1.4 steals, 44.5 percent shooting, 18.4 PER
Record: 20-14, No. 4 in the East
Analysis: For some reason, it seems like no one can ever get as excited about Smith's All-Star prospects as Smith himself. Last year, he memorably made a bit of a stink after he was snubbed yet again, saying that "politics" kept him off the East squad. Politics, sure, but the presence of teammates Horford and Johnson, both selected multiple times, had something to do with it, too. On the new-look Hawks -- who traded Johnson to the Nets and Marvin Williams to the Jazz -- Smith has pretty much been the same old guy. In fact, his scoring, rebound and shooting numbers are all a bit off compared to last year. While his shot-selection issues are likely to stick with him throughout his career, Smith is still posting a PER that puts him among the East frontcourt leaders. On the other end, he's a key piece on the NBA's eighth-ranked defense.
We've now reached the point of the list where these guys likely won't make the cut for the All-Star rosters unless they are named as injury replacements. Smith should fall below Garnett, Anthony, James, Chris Bosh, Pierce, Noah and Chandler, pushing him to the outskirts of the discussion. Will the coaches remember his comments from last season? It seems to be a safe assumption that the coaches will again favor Horford -- who is averaging 15.8 points and 9.6 rebounds and shooting 53.1 percent -- and decide to spread the love around rather than give the Hawks a second representative.
8. Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets
Numbers: 18.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 52.5 percent shooting, 25.6 PER
Record: 20-15, No. 6 in the East
Analysis: Lopez makes this list for his efficiency, not for aesthetic reasons. As it turns out, you don't need to be a ballerina to post the No. 1 PER among centers. The Nets, with their midseason coaching change and down seasons from Deron Williams and Johnson, are a tough team to handicap this early, both in terms of playoff positioning and All-Star nods. Lopez serves as the alternative to the backcourt chuckers by maintaining his solid scoring numbers from past seasons for a winning team and by bumping up his rebounding stats a bit. The fact that he's performing well coming off a lost, injury-ravaged season and after signing a big-dollar deal that drew questions brings a little flair to his candidacy, but that's akin to adding sprinkles on a bran muffin.
Lopez should be below both Noah and Chandler in the pecking order of traditional centers, and it seems unlikely that the East would need three true centers for an exhibition. He's also facing real competition from his own teammates. Williams has made the last three All-Star Games; Johnson has made the last six. Inertia has a way of prevailing in these cases, and it's not guaranteed that the Nets will even land both of their incumbents.
9. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Numbers: 20.2 points, 6.4 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 43.6 percent shooting, 18.9 PER
Record: 22-12, No. 5 in the West
Analysis: Health clearly has been the key for Curry, who has experienced repeated ankle problems in his career. On the court and playing huge minutes, he's showing just how deadly a 45.2 percent three-pointer shooter who expertly runs the pick-and-roll can be. He's averaging career highs in points, assists and rebounds and, along with Lee, he's been a steadying force on a team that's dealt with injuries to Andrew Bogut and Brandon Rush. His play has been so good that he's made Monta Ellis a forgotten man.
The issue for Curry is that, as great as he's been and as well as he's shot the ball, there's just no way he's cracking the West's top-five guards (Bryant, Paul, Westbrook, Parker and Harden). Further, he's competing with Lee, a 2010 All-Star who is averaging 18.9 points and 10.4 rebounds. While Golden State has vastly exceeded expectations, it's going to be hard for two Warriors to get selected if at least two Thunder players (Durant and Westbrook), at least two Lakers (Bryant and Howard), at least two Clippers (Paul and Griffin) and at least two Spurs (Parker and Duncan) are on the books. The Grizzlies, Rockets and Blazers will all rightfully feel like they should have at least one guy before the Warriors get two.
Numbers: 16.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 1.2 blocks, 42.8 percent shooting, 18.3 PER
Record: 20-15, No. 7 in the West
Analysis: Given how loaded the West's power forward position is every year, it's a bit strange that the conference's small forward position right now amounts to Durant and then everyone else. Batum and Timberwolves forward Andrei Kirilenko, an All-Star in 2004 with the Jazz, are the best candidates for second-best small forward in the West. Like Kirilenko, Batum is a talented two-way player who uses his length to wreak havoc on defense and doesn't shy away from the tough matchups. Batum used to be known mostly as a catch-and-shoot specialist on offense, but he's been given increased freedom to create his own shot and be distributor under coach Terry Stotts' share-friendly system. His shooting percentages have predictably taken a hit, but his expanded role and monster minutes (more than 38 a game) have led to career highs in points, rebounds and assists. If there's been a knock on his game, it's that he's been loose with the ball, turning it over 2.5 times per game.
Batum is a real long shot for the All-Star Game. The Blazers, like the Warriors, are unlikely to get two representatives, and Aldridge is the more worthy candidate. While Aldridge's shooting has dropped from 51.2 percent last season to 46.4 percent this season, he's averaging 20.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and more than a block and a steal per game, similar numbers to his 2011-12 All-Star season. Tellingly, Stotts is already campaigning on Aldridge's behalf. After signing a four-year, $46.1 million contract over the summer, Batum's growth this season puts him in the mix for more serious consideration in future years. Of course, it's possible he will be facing off against both Aldridge and rookie point guard Damian Lillard for All-Star honors soon enough.Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): Ryan Anderson Jamal Crawford Kenneth Faried Nuggets Rudy Gay Jrue Holiday 76ers Al Jefferson Brandon Jennings Bucks Paul Millsap Nikola Pekovic