Fans' picks for All-Star Game starters will be announced on Thursday, but with the potential for debate abound, The Point Forward couldn't pass up the opportunity to cast our own ballot for the starting lineups of both conferences. Below are the picks -- two backcourt players and three frontcourt players from each conference, per the league's new rules -- who by these eyes warrant featured spots in the Feb. 16 midseason showcase in New Orleans. (All stats and records are through Jan. 21.)
FC: LeBron James, Miami Heat
26.2 points, 6.5 assists, 6.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game; 58% FG, 37.2% 3PT
Even though LeBron has dialed his night-to-night effort down a bit, there's still no debate here. "Coasting" just doesn't even seem all that relevant in the case of a player this absurdly good on a team that has the luxury of taking its time.
FC: Paul George, Indiana Pacers
23.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.9 steals per game; 46% FG, 39.5% 3PT
George's leap year has been an absolute delight. Beating out the rest of the East's frontcourt players for a starting spot is only secondary; George is so splendid a defender and so thoroughly improved offensively that he warrants comparison to James and Kevin Durant, putting him in a realm of one-on-one competition on an entirely different plane.
FC: Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers
12.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in only 30.3 MPG; 46.5% FG
Carmelo Anthony will be a popular choice here, and likely the popular choice via the official fan vote. But if we're talking about the Eastern Conference frontcourt players who have made the most profound impact this season, I have a hard time talking myself out of Hibbert, who has been the single most staggering defender in the league.
The Pacers are set for a historic defensive season, and while Hibbert has help through George's top-tier wing defense, sturdy coverage options at every position and the guidance of coach Frank Vogel, it's his unique abilities as a rim protector that make it all possible. Indiana could be a good defensive team even without Hibbert, but it's only by channeling ball handlers in his direction that the Pacers are capable of truly outstanding work.
On some level, it also just makes more sense to me to reward the standout defender on the league's best defensive team as opposed to a very good offensive player on the 20th-best offense. Anthony isn't really to blame for the Knicks' struggles to score consistently, and in many cases his ability to manufacture offense has kept New York from slipping further. I do think, though, that there is some responsibility for carryover between individual strengths and team strengths when discussing players of this caliber. One of the finest players at his position should at least make his team passable at what he does best. Anthony helps New York's offense, but there's not much worth celebrating in carrying a team to sub-mediocrity.
There's risk here of conflating an individual award with team evaluation, but I aim more to point out the differences between Anthony's merely positive influence and Hibbert's transformational effect. Hibbert's abilities as an interior defender provide the most compelling basis for the Pacers' contention. Anthony's abilities as an offensive centerpiece have been impressive (particularly in the face of the Knicks' roster-stemmed adversity) but lack the same level of consistently positive influence.
To zoom out slightly: At worst, Hibbert is a useful offensive piece and rebounder with best-in-the-league defensive standing. Anthony's offensive game doesn't measure up to the NBA's elite quite so favorably, and his own liabilities as a defender are so pronounced as to be damaging. Even then Anthony is only edged out by a hair; he's had a fine season, truly, but Hibbert's defense puts him just a cut above.
BC: Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
18.9 points, 4.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game; 54% FG
Wade is one of the few backcourt options on the board that I feel completely comfortable in choosing, which I realize is an odd thing to say regarding a player who has missed about a quarter of his team's games.
Off the top: I don't really see the 12 games that Wade has skipped as reason to disqualify him. On balance, he's still proved to be one of the league's best wing players and has found an essentially perfect balance in his work as a creator and complement. He's played enough to establish a baseline of performance this season, and in effect has only missed time out of prudence. That Wade has willingly sat out to serve his and his team's long-term interests isn't much of a demerit in my eyes. The cautious approach hasn't prevented him from otherwise playing at a high level or cost the Heat much in the grand scheme of their season, and it wouldn't rule him out for the All-Star Game itself. What, then, would be the reason behind omitting him on the basis of games missed?
If this were a season with a more competitive group of backcourt candidates in the East, this might be an entirely different issue. One could see Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo or Kyrie Irving challenging for this spot under different circumstances, but none of them are currently in effect with Rose out, Rondo easing his way back from knee surgery and Irving underwhelming. All the more reason to appreciate Wade's terrific work, no matter if he misses every fourth game or so in service of the long game.
20 points, 8.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game; 43% FG, 32.6% 3PT
This strikes me as a less contestable call, as Wall's work as a shot creator has risen to a level worthy of this distinction. He nonetheless benefits from the aforementioned lack of viable alternatives in the conference, but in my eyes there's a clear separation between Wall and the remaining candidates, especially given the burden he carries.
Other Wizards can create in spots -- Nene dabbles in a variety of play types, and Bradley Beal can handle the ball a bit. But Wall's case lies in just how much control he has to exert to keep the Wizards on track, particularly when giving up the ball too early to the wrong player could derail the offense entirely. Cogs like Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat are entirely useful, but the timing in positioning them to score is rather delicate. With that, Wall not only has to pressure the defense to create openings for his teammates, but he also has to set them up with perfect placement and timing as to maximize their scoring chances.
That's a tall order, but one that Wall has largely managed. He's making more impressive feeds with each passing season, and this one is no different. Few guards thread passes to corner shooters so accurately and consistently, no matter the traffic between his release and his target. Only four players create more points per game for their team by assist: Chris Paul, Kendall Marshall (!), Ty Lawson and Stephen Curry. Of those four, though, only Paul and Curry top Wall in total points created when accounting for scoring as well.
Wall still has a long way to go as a defender, and his jumper off the dribble is a sometimes-brutal work in progress. But Wall has made enough big-picture strides to deserve this honor. The 23-year-old should be a staple for All-Star consideration from this point forward.
Next page: Western Conference starters
F: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
30.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game; 50.2% FG, 41.1% 3PT
Calls don't come much easier than this. Durant has an unimpeachable résumé: He's been the NBA's best player this season, has balanced a massive workload with high efficiency and is doing it all for one of the best teams in the league. If there is a single, persuasive argument as to why Durant wouldn't deserve a spot in the West's starting lineup, I know not of it.
F: Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves
25 points, 13 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 0.9 steals per game; 45.9% FG, 38.6 % 3PT
Love's individual success has contrasted sharply with the Wolves' deflated record. On most every night, he's the best thing Minnesota has going. Love has evolved into one of the game's most prolific point generators. His bulk scoring (fourth in the league in points per game) comes through incredibly flexible means, dependent on situational matchups and Love's own inclinations. He'll power his way inside for post-ups as easily as he'll step into a quick-fire three-pointer -- a combination that makes Love almost impossible to guard without trade-offs elsewhere on the floor. That potency as a catch-and-shoot threat, in particular, causes all kinds of problems for defenses; such is inevitable when an opposing big man is forced to float out to the perimeter and chase Love around screens, responsibilities that test the integrity of entire defensive systems.
The 25-year-old Love also acts as a rebounding catch-all and a productive passer. Few are capable of mounting so complete an assault on the standard box score. Love fills it up across multiple columns, dominating the game offensively and bailing out the Wolves' iffy defense with his ability to close possessions with a rebound. His case would be even more complete if he were a more competent defender.
24.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.0 blocks per game; 47.6% FG
Aldridge is an unusual talent, and his success at the center of the NBA's best offense has more than earned him a place as an All-Star starter. Portland's offensive structure relies on many things -- the shooting of Damian Lillard, the flexibility of the Blazers' wings, the ability of every player to read and react as necessary. But no single factor is more crucial than Aldridge's capacity to create advantages and convert difficult shots, particularly from zones on the floor that are typically inefficient. It takes a special player to turn long-range post-ups into a healthy diet, and Aldridge is just that.
Plus, he separates himself rather cleanly from many other candidates with his defensive abilities, both on the ball and in help situations. Aldridge isn't so effective to salvage Portland's still-underwhelming team defense, but he's legitimately helpful in coverage and his presence has coincided with a 6.7-point swing in points allowed per possession, according to NBA.com.
G: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
23.5 points, 9.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game; 44.2% FG, 38.3% 3PT
A remarkable shooter, a spicy ball handler and an awesome, fluid passer -- Curry doesn't just deserve inclusion in the All-Star Game, but we also flat-out need him there. The spectacle in his play alone is worth an All-Star berth, though Curry makes it easy by also ranking as one of the league's best offensive players. His gravity is unmistakable; few players draw such concerted defensive attention so far from the basket, and fewer still are capable of then breaking down the defense the way Curry can.
He commits a ridiculous number of turnovers in the process, but Curry's shooting is so demanding of defenses and so lethal that the giveaways are almost beside the point. He influences the game on an every-play level offensively. When he's without the ball, a defender still has to stay glued to Curry, no matter what happens elsewhere on the floor. When he's in control of the offense, every dribble and hesitation bears the threat of a pull-up jumper, which on average for Curry holds an effective field goal percentage of 50.2, per SportVU. He's basically a walking cause for defensive overreaction, which in turn opens up scoring chances for every other Warrior.
24.3 points, 5.3 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game; 44.9% FG, 33.5% 3PT
This is Chris Paul's spot, but Harden gets the call with CP3 injured. His credentials are well-established at this point: Harden may be one of the NBA's sleepiest perimeter defenders, but he's such a creative dynamo on offense that it's impossible to deny him. Houston is one of the NBA's most efficient scoring teams in large part because of Harden's work as an impetus. His ability to maintain an exceptional true shooting percentage while playing such a prominent role anchors Houston's scoring. His endless foul-baiting buoys the Rockets' league-best free-throw rate. And Harden's drive-and-kick work activates so much of his team's offense -- whether through direct pick-and-rolls with Dwight Howard or a pass out of a drive leading to the pass leading to the pass leading to an open three-pointer.
He's a gaudy scorer and an effective passer, but moreover: So much of an elite offense can be traced directly back to Harden. That counts for quite a bit, and in this case gives Harden the edge over a very competitive crop of Western Conference guards.GOLLIVER: The All-Payday Team: Five young players set to cash in this summer