The NBA All-Star Game will tip off in Houston next month with some familiar faces, maybe some new ones and one thing that will never change: the urge to play as little defense as possible.
It's a showpiece exhibition created in large part by fan voting, which means you get some close calls, as in Jeremy Lin lurking dangerously close to being named a starter. Now that would be Linsanity.
For the most part, the fans got it right, and now the coaches will name the reserves on Thursday. Hopefully they'll agree on the players selected here. But before revealing my picks for the bench, let's revisit what the fans did:
East starters: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Carmelo Anthony.
This might be a first, having two players on a team with a losing record become All-Star starters on both the East and the West (see below). KG is more qualified to be an All-Star reserve, at best, but apparently the fans love them a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios.
West starters: Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant.
The Lakers might not even make the playoffs, and while having two All-Star starters sounds insane, well, there are reasons for that. Kobe is actually deserving. Howard hasn't been consistent or healthy enough to be an All-Star starter, but such is the benefit of playing on the Lakers. Fans see you so much on TV that their votes are influenced.
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As always, filling out the rest of the ballot is a tricky task and is best done with a pencil and eraser. There's always somebody who falls through the cracks or, for some reason, didn't make the cut. Here's my final answer:
East backcourt: Kyrie Irving and Jrue Holiday. The general rule, which I never follow, says individual honors should exclusively go to players on winning teams. Like anything else, there are exceptions. And anyone who has followed Irving and Holiday know the deal. The Cavaliers are chugging through another tough season, mostly because of Anderson Varejao's health issues and a still-developing roster, but that's no reflection on Irving. When you study the entire body of work, ---the points (23.7), assists (5.7), steals (1.8) and his overall and three-point shooting percentages (47 and 40) -- only a sprinkling of guards compare. Plus he has old-school intangibles that can't be put to statistics. Holiday is much the same way; if not for Andrew Bynum's absence the Sixers would be much better, and even their current state should not be held against a player whose numbers compare very favorably to Irving's. There really wasn't much head scratching over these choices.
East frontcourt: Joakim Noah, Tyson Chandler and Paul George. Just because Bynum hasn't played a minute doesn't mean the East has suffered greatly in terms of quality big men. Noah and Chandler are almost a carbon copy of each other, a pair of frisky centers who made a first-half impression on defense and the boards while rating high in intangibles. Noah is averaging almost four assists a game and has shown a sharp court sense for a center. Chandler's defense hasn't dropped at all from a year ago when he grabbed best-defensive honors and now he's shooting a league-high 67-percent, which seems Wilt-like. Brook Lopez is leading the Nets in scoring and his offense is clearly his strength, but he suffers defensively compared to Noah and Chandler and can't rebound half as well as those two. George struggled early in the season, perhaps because asking him to adopt a go-to attitude in the absence of Danny Granger was a challenge at first. But since then he has sparkled in almost every phase of the game. I chose him by a whisker over Paul Pierce, who's having a solid season for the Celtics but hasn't been as instrumental to his team as George for the Pacers.
East wild cards: Josh Smith and Luol Deng. Very tough choices here. Lopez is worthy. Chris Bosh has had a decent season for Miami but nothing tremendous by any measure. J.R. Smith of the Knicks deserves strong consideration, but in the end it's Josh Smith and Deng who get the nod. Josh Smith has taken over a Hawks team that lost Joe Johnson and has done very well, to the point where the Hawks are one of the NBA's surprise teams. He was always a borderline All-Star in the past and remains so now, but the ability to win without Johnson nudges him over the top. Deng's game and numbers compare very favorably to Smith's, which is no surprise, because they're very much the same type of all-around player.
West backcourt: Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Quality guards are abundant in the West, and yet these two former teammates in particular have stood out this season. Westbrook's numbers, for the most part, are slightly higher than his career averages, and he's a big reason the Thunder haven't missed a beat since trading Harden. The guy knows only one gear and uses it on both ends. Yes, his shot selection and decision-making can be irritating, but he mostly manages to overcome that. Harden confirmed his max-contract status by turning into a lethal scorer in Houston and a certified go-to player in the fourth quarter. He's averaging 26 points and early on battled another former Thunder teammate, Durant, for league honors.
West frontcourt: Tim Duncan, Zach Randolph and David Lee. Before we go on, let's give a special shout-out to LaMarcus Aldridge, who was the toughest omission of all. He's the leading scorer among power forwards in the West and working hard to improve his low-post skills, his only major weakness. That said, Duncan, Randolph and Lee are the choices here. The surprise is Duncan, who at 36 is not having a typical Tim Duncan first half. Usually around this time of year, Duncan is on cruise control, saving his best for the spring, at least over the past five years. But now, he's off to a terrific start and showing a spark that you rarely see from big men in their 16th season. Randolph has been the symbol of the Grizzlies this season, a tough and gritty player who is keeping Memphis among the elite in the West, no easy task there. He's No. 2 in the NBA in rebounding after Howard. No power forward in the West has numbers like Lee, averaging almost 20 points, 11 rebounds and four assists and playing much better defense than ever before for a team that's winning games with defense.
West wild cards: Tony Parker and Steph Curry. Because most of the talent seems concentrated in the West, it's no dishonor to be considered third-string at the All-Star Game. You could even make a case for Parker and Harden being mentioned in the above category. They've been that solid. Parker is the highest-scoring point guard in the West after Curry while shooting 52 percent from the floor, 40 percent on threes and averaging seven assists. Curry has been a delight to true basketball fans, someone who instinctively knows what to do and when to do it. His sharp senses are matched by an amazing three-point stroke (46 percent) and an improved ability to find the open man. Now you know why the Warriors are so fun to watch. Jamal Crawford and Marc Gasol were also under consideration.