By Rob Mahoney
The fans have already selected the starters for the All-Star Game. Now the league's head coaches (or whichever assistant is assigned the paperwork) are responsible for picking the seven reserves in each conference by choosing three frontcourt players, two backcourt players and two players regardless of position. The reserves for the Feb. 17 midseason showcase in Houston will be announced on Thursday. Here are my picks:
This was the weakest of all the All-Star sub-categories in terms of competition, though Irving and Holiday are pretty obvious choices. I've seen some try to explain their way out of selecting Irving because he's missed 11 of Cleveland's 42 games, but I've never quite followed that logic. As long as a player has an adequate sample needed to assess performance fairly, why disqualify excellence? Irving has been way too good way too consistently to fall victim to some unwritten rule of All-Star selection, be it related to either his number of games missed or the Cavaliers' 10-32 record.
As for Holiday, he hasn't let the Sixers' sinking ship stop him from doing great work. In past seasons, Holiday was regarded as a promising young player because of his physical gifts and flashes of potency, but this year his playmaking has become significantly more sophisticated, his shot selection is a bit more choosy and he's proved to be worthy of an increased offensive role. To average 19.2 points and 8.9 assists per game while hitting the sweet spot on his percentages (45.8 from the field, 36.8 from three-point range) is no small feat, particularly given how little help Holiday gets from both the structure of the Sixers' offense and the general lack of shot creation throughout the roster. He may not be the miracle worker who can elevate Philadelphia's crummy offense, but Holiday has quietly performed well under difficult circumstances.
That was enough for me to give him the edge over Brooklyn's Joe Johnson -- a pretty deserving All-Star candidate who seems to have been written off after a slow start. November certainly wasn't Johnson's finest month, and had he warmed up with the Nets more quickly, this spot could very well be his.
All pretty easy choices from top to bottom, with no need to finagle positional alignments due to the league's new frontcourt/backcourt positional designations. All three of these big men -- none of whom has made an All-Star team -- would be better picks to start than Kevin Garnett. But the fans have spoken, and they wish to see a yappy 18-foot jump shooter and standout defender who, like all other All-Star participants, won't actually play any defense.
Lopez has been the best offensive center in the conference by a mile, transforming from trade bait into the best thing the Nets have going. Good health has helped Lopez raise his rebounding numbers back to his rookie-year levels, and though he's still a plodding participant in pick-and-roll defense, he's been noticeably improved this season. All in all, he's been a really efficient, high-volume scorer with a career-high (and league-leading, among centers) 25.2 Player Efficiency Rating, not to mention the stylistic centerpiece of Brooklyn's grind-it-out offense.
Chandler earns his All-Star berth on very different grounds, as he's something of Lopez's polar opposite. He doesn't command shots or touches, but constantly demands the defense's attention -- every move he makes toward the rim opens up space for his teammates, and the fact that Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton and Carmelo Anthony have been so willing to set up Chandler for dunks and lobs only exaggerates his constructed threat. Few can match the offensive benefit that Chandler creates without actually having possession of the ball, which is a credit to his screen-setting, finishing ability and mobility, among other attributes. Then there are his contributions to team defense, an area in which Chandler is one of the best in the league.
Tom Thibodeau's incredible work as Bulls coach seems to discredit the public estimation of his players, but Noah has been about as important to Chicago as any star has been to his team this season. As great as Thibodeau is, his defense can't be executed by just any big man. It needs a Noah -- a player capable of seamlessly transitioning from rotation to rotation to counter every strong-side attempt an opponent is even thinking of making. To bring all of that to the table along with great passing, strong rebounding and opportunistic scoring is downright essential to the Bulls' defensive excellence and attempts at offensive solvency.
This is where things get debatable, and there are many correct choices. I won't fault anyone for choosing Paul George, David West, or Al Horford in place of Pierce here, but there was a judgment call that needed to be made and I opted for the player I thought was making the biggest impact in the most substantial role. I don't see the inclusion of Garnett and a second East starter for Boston, Rajon Rondo, as a reason to disregard Pierce, nor do I think Indiana's or Atlanta's lack of an All-Star is in itself any justification to choose one of the alternatives. An iffy first stretch of the season hurt George. West lost out because of scoring volume and a discrepancy in offensive role (and still needed to be ruled out with a coin flip). Horford's dip in offensive efficiency became his All-Star undoing. All such little things, but the dividing lines here are painfully thin.
Pierce, for his part, has been the difference between Boston living and dying. If Pierce had been any less successful as a scorer this season, then the Celtics' 20th-ranked offense would surely unravel more than it already has, thereby putting even more pressure on Boston's still-rallying defense. It's all a very delicate balance for a team that's had to work hard for a .500 record, and on many nights it's Pierce -- with his efficient scoring and savvy defense -- holding it all together with a roll of duct tape. That he's accomplishing that much while getting less help than anticipated from Rondo (wasn't this supposed to be the year he became a more focused scorer?), Jason Terry, Brandon Bass and Courtney Lee only strengthens his case -- as if his raw numbers (20.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per 36 minutes) alone didn't make a worthy claim for this spot.
As for Bosh: Pick on him for his rebounding if you're so inclined, but I'm just too enamored with the increasingly absurd economy in his game. He brings some of that same Chandler-esque benefit to Miami's floor spacing, though through a completely different avenue: By spacing the floor out to 20 feet, Bosh creates a mobile kick-out option for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade with his ability to convert long twos at an absurd rate. For a player so reliant on those long jumpers to convert 54.5 percent from the field overall is almost unthinkable.
Toughest omissions: Paul George, David West, Al Horford, Joe Johnson
As cut and dry as All-Star selections come. If you have a dispute with either selection, I'm not sure there's anything I can do in this space to explain the obvious value of both players. Let's keep rolling.
Duncan can be packaged away with the other sure shots, but from there only two spots are left for frontcourt players (see my wild-card picks below for why that's the case) with as many as five players worthy of immediate consideration.
Serge Ibaka likely leads the omitted in terms of his overall impact. He was an absolutely brutal final cut because of his offensive improvement and increased role for a Thunder team that had to cope with Harden's departure. His improved shooting range makes the minutes on the court he shares with center Kendrick Perkins more palatable. His defense, while a bit overstated by his gaudy block numbers in seasons past, is legitimately getting better and better. I just find Gasol to be a tad more dynamic in terms of both his placement and abilities on both ends, and I give the edge to Lee's amazing offensive game over Ibaka's more balanced skill set. These things ultimately come down to a matter of preference, and I opt to give the slightest of edges to a great interior defender with a facilitating offensive game (Gasol) and an incredibly productive big man who frankly makes the Warriors' offense possible (Lee). Ibaka plays an important role for the Thunder, but I don't know that his function is as altogether crucial as what Gasol and Lee provide to the Grizzlies and Warriors, respectively.
Beyond Ibaka, I found Andrei Kirilenko to be hypothetically worthy of an All-Star spot, but he was beaten out by the sheer number of quality candidates in the West. Minnesota's horrid string of injuries has inflated Kirilenko's value over the course of the season, but I don't see that bit of circumstance as any kind of demerit. If anything, Kirilenko has taken the opportunity and used it to showcase his incredible value, and in the process helped the Timberwolves more than even the most ardent AK supporters could have predicted. On defense, he's one of the few perimeter-ish defenders who can approach a LeBron-like level of court coverage and overall impact. He's capable of smothering his own man, but Kirilenko's next-level value comes in the way he positions himself to disrupt the maximum number of plays possible and moves to make the correct judgments as a help defender without the slightest hesitation. Kirilenko has put together a wonderful season -- he just has the misfortune of competing against players who are a bit more prolific and a bit more qualified.
These two have been too vital to their teams to leave out. For Parker, this is merely more of the same, but no less spectacular than his showing in past seasons. Grand though Duncan's resurgence may be, Parker is still the engine behind one of the league's most outstanding offensive teams, not to mention the mechanism that gives the Spurs' depth such incredible value. Without Parker's manipulation of the defense with full-tilt drives and lean-back hesitation, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter would be open less frequently and correspondingly less useful. Plus, few guards better understand the value of consistent movement. Parker has become a really consistent shooter off curls and gives Duncan a well-timed target with his streaks down the lane. His terrific overall play may not be able to match that of Westbrook, Harden, Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant, but it nonetheless makes his inclusion rather simple.
I've seen many split the Curry-Lee pairing for the sake of accommodating the Warriors without nudging out other worthy selections, but I couldn't in good conscience ignore what Curry has been able to do as both a shooter and primary initiator of Golden State's offense. The raw statistical case is pretty striking in itself (20.7 points and 6.6 assists per game), but it's Curry's marksmanship (46.4 percent from beyond the arc), pick-and-roll defense and fit within the Warriors' backcourt that really sold me. Shooting accuracy was never much in question for Curry, but to convert so many three-point attempts (6.9 per game!) at that high a rate is downright historic. No player has even come close to this complete level of perimeter-shooting dominance, and it's from that unearthly precision that the rest of his game flows. Opponents are trained to look for even the earliest indicator of Curry's lightning-quick release, and thus his work off the dribble is made all that much easier every time he even glances toward the rim. Beyond that, Curry has improved his defense to a level that allows him to participate in a perfectly decent system, even without the likes of Andrew Bogut covering for him on the back line. He won't soon be confused for an All-Defense candidate, but ascending to a solid team defender was a valuable part of Curry's evolution.