Houston, it's on.
The Toyota Center, home of the Rockets, will play host to one of the NBA's biggest stages in 2013—the All-Star Game.
Last year's exhibition in Orlando was a hot-button occasion. Noses broke, trade rumors swirled, and the Association's most talented athletes put their best foot forward and entertained us with a gripping finish.
And you know what? I'm expecting much of the same this upcoming year, sans the nose-break.
But while the level of interest and hype surrounding February's game will be the same, the rosters will not.
We'll see some old faces, of course—a few of which (spoiler alert) who will be representing a different conference—but they'll also be plenty of new ones to admire and debate.
And while we've got a long road ahead of us until the NBA's stars literally align, it's never too early to take a gander at how this year's All-Star rosters will shake out.
Derrick Rose's injury isn't all bad. For Rajon Rondo, that is.
Not only is Rondo now the unquestioned leader of a seasoned Celtics team, but his backcourt star-caliber competition will be significantly thinner with Rose missing a large chunk of the season.
Plus, if we're honest, Rondo's Rucker Park-like tendencies will be a perfect within an environment that encourages flashy play and relishes in sometimes unnecessary flamboyant offensive products.
After the way Rondo closed out last season—not to mention all he has done for the Celtics over the years—this will prove to be a well-deserved, long-time coming honor.
Simply put, 2013 will be the year Rondo makes the jump from an All-Star reserve to a bona fide starter.
Kobe Bryant's 2012 assailant will undoubtedly be returning to the star-packed stage in 2013.
While Dwyane Wade has become increasingly injury-prone, he's still a stud who has plenty of prolific accolades left in the tank.
His penchant for attacking the rim and finishing strong even if he winds up sprawled out on the hardwood is just too polarizing for the NBA and its fans to walk away from All-Star weekend.
There's also the fact that Wade has been an All-Star weekend fixture for nearly a decade, and the tradition is not about to die now, especially when the pickings for star-caliber guards in the east have never been slimmer.
Barring any severe injuries, Wade will be adding a ninth notch under his All-Star belt.
Carmelo Anthony will begin next season much slimmer, but his chances to yet again repeat as an All-Star will have never been fatter.
Despite a relatively lackluster performance throughout the first half of last season, Anthony's popularity earned him a starting gig. So, just imagine how likely he is to re-assume that role now that his performance in New York will once again become the product of a system that's built around him.
See my point?
We can argue that Anthony is one of the most overrated and one-dimensional players in the game until Eddy Curry's back in shape, but there's no denying his scoring prowess commands respect from both the fan and NBA population.
And while there will eventually come a time when All-Star appearances will not come easy to the small forward, next year won't mark the start of such an era.
Is there really any surprise here?
LeBron James is fresh off an historic season that saw him claim an NBA title, league and finals MVP and then an Olympics gold medal. Do you really think he's about to taper off now?
The only thing that could conceivably prevent James from starting in next year's All-Star Game is an injury, to which he has proven to be nearly immune over his illustrious career.
James can play and defend all five positions on the court, score at will and lead an entire team laden with superstars—see Heat and 2012 All-Star Game—without even breaking a sweat.
I mean, at this point, he has to be the favorite to win All-Star MVP as well, provided the East prevails. He's that good.
So here's to James, and his ninth straight All-Star appearance.
And here's one of those shifts in conference representation to which I alluded earlier.
When Andrew Bynum was traded to the Sixers, he instantly became the best center in the Eastern Conference. There's simply not another center—not Roy Hibbert, not Tyson Chandler—who can match up against his versatile skill set.
Subsequently, there's not a big man in the conference who will even come close to matching the amount of votes he will undoubtedly receive.
Yes, his presence in the low post of next year's All-Star exhibition is a certainty. All he has to do is show up to tip-off the regular season, stay healthy and embrace the reality of being Philadelphia's "man."
The voters will take care of the rest.
The Nets roster is now laden with household names, but Deron Williams will have no trouble distinguishing himself from the bunch.
Not only does Williams have more weapons to dish off to now, but we must assume he is going to have a healthier campaign this season.
And when you combine the much-improved environment he's playing in with his prolific two-way versatility, you have an athlete who will have no problem waltzing his way onto an All-Star team for the fourth consecutive year.
Not bad for a guy who has spent the better part of two years shrouded in uncertainty.
This is going to be the year.
John Wall was a fantasy sleeper last season, and he should now be considered an All-Star sleeper heading into this one.
We've never doubted Wall's acrobat-like abilities, but there's been something separating him from the upper echelon of NBA players the past two years.
Now, however, with a revamped supporting cast and an efficient running mate in Bradley Beal, Wall will have no trouble creating a name for himself as a superstar.
Sometimes, all you need is a competent supporting cast that will allow you showcase your on-court talents even further. And that's why we can expect Wall to score, pass and soar his way into next year's All-Star game.
Paul George is poised to have quite a season.
The moment the Pacers dealt Darren Collison to the Mavericks and handed the playmaking reins to George Hill and D.J. Augustin, George became that much more important.
Neither Hill nor Augustin are exceptional facilitators, so, as an above average ball-handler, George will be expected to carry some of the burden as well.
If not anything else, though, the additional touches George receives will help his point totals skyrocket.
His top-notch perimeter defense and penchant for fierce board-crashing will take care of the rest.
It's about damn time.
Josh Smith was easily a snub from last year's All-Star squad, but history won't repeat itself here.
Not only is Smith officially the centerpiece of Atlanta's two-way attack with Joe Johnson in Brooklyn, but he's only 26 and still improving.
Few players in the league can make the type of impact Smith can. He's a tenacious defender, rebound hoarder and crafty scorer. And with Johnson out of the picture, expect to see a much-improved jump shot from the volatile shooter as well.
The Hawks are seldom considered an exciting team to watch, but Smith is as explosive as they come.
And this upcoming season, his penchant for earth-shattering accolades won't only help render Atlanta relevant, but it will also earn him a trip to Houston.
Yes, Chris Bosh will be back for more.
Why exactly? Because he's never been in a better situation in Miami.
Through last season, the Heat continued to experiment with different centers, but after small-balling their way to an NBA title, Bosh will be free to roam the paint on his own much of the time.
Better yet, with LeBron James' improved post game, he'll have even more opportunities to step out to the elbow and knock down that trademark jumper of his.
There's no need for another big man in Miami, because Bosh can do it all on offense. And now that the Heat's attack is officially going to change, the fruits of Bosh's labor are going to be even more, well, fruitful.
Luol Deng is headed back to the All-Star Game too.
With Derrick Rose watching from the sidelines until as late as March, the Bulls are going to need to lean on someone. Hint: That someone isn't going to be Carlos Boozer.
After Rose, Deng is Chicago's most capable and efficient two-way presence. He can score from anywhere on the floor and is one of the top perimeter defenders in the league; his off-ball defense of the passing lanes is particular exquisite.
So, while the Bulls will undoubtedly struggle in their quest for an identity and relevancy without their cornerstone, Deng gives the team a star presence to turn to.
As well as someone to represent the Bulls in Houston next year.
If it wasn't for a torn pectoral muscle last season, Al Horford would have seen the light of this stage last year as well.
Atlanta's power forward-turned-center is one of the most refined big men in the NBA. He has a great touch around the basket, has incorporated a baby-jumper into his arsenal, dominates the glass at will and boasts outstanding anticipation at the defensive end of the floor.
Factor in his superior mobility and coordination on both sides of the ball, and you have an unquestioned superstar just waiting to break out of the confines of his shell.
And I'm thinking a third All-Star appearance in 2013 will be just what he needs to do that.
You might think I'm kidding, but I'm not.
Yao Ming was selected to play in the All-Star Game each of the eight years he was in the NBA—he was only healthy enough to appear in six—courtesy of his global popularity, and Jeremy Lin is virtually in the same boat.
Though the movement that was Linsanity may in the rear-view mirror, the point guard's captivating persona is alive and well.
And whether he deserves to or not—more likely not—he, like Ming before him, will be named to the Western Conference squad as a starter.
Sorry, Chris Paul.
Make it 14 straight All-Star selections for the now-34-year-old Black Mamba.
Kobe Bryant may be at the tail end of his career, and he may be expected to adjust his role within the new-look Lakers offense accordingly, the four-time All-Star MVP has plenty of accolades left in that tank of his.
Playing off the ball more will prove to be a bit of a challenge for the shooting guard, but he's offensively gifted enough to score under any circumstances.
Not only has Bryant been the face of the Lakers for the better part of two decades, but he's also become a fixture in all things NBA; you can't have a star-laden party in the Association and not invite one of the most clutch players in the game.
That notion has held true for 13 consecutive years, and one day it may change, but not now, and certainly not by next February.
Kevin Love is almost everything Blake Griffin is not, which is a good thing.
The stretch forward may not be as explosive as others who play his position, but he's a rebounding freak who spreads defenses wafer thin with his limitless range.
Minnesota's finest shot and rebounded his way to a reserve spot last year, but keeping his ever-evolving popularity in mind, it's easy to imagine him making the jump to a starter in 2013.
Perhaps Ricky Rubio makes Love look better, and perhaps his numbers can have a tendency to be bolstered by playing on a relatively thin Timberwolves team, but there's no denying Love is one of the most talented forwards in the game.
And he will be rewarded as such when this upcoming season's All-Star rosters are announced.
Last year's All-Star MVP isn't going anywhere.
Kevin Durant is the NBA's most resourceful scorer and has helped fuel the Thunder's rise to prominence in a short amount of time. He's a calculated rebounder, a willing defender and an admirable leader, and next year's dance party in Houston simply wouldn't be the same without him.
So, while Durant—involuntarily, of course—often finds himself taking a backseat to Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, it's a different case when it comes to the All-Star ballots.
The small forward is one of the most humble and polarizing figures in the game, which is a rare combination.
And come hell or high water, Durant is going to find himself appearing in his fourth ever—and consecutive—NBA All-Star showcase.
Dwight Howard won't just be replacing Andrew Bynum in Los Angeles next season, but Houston as well.
With Bynum setting up shop in the opposite conference, Howard is, without a doubt, the best center in the West.
Though his back injury is cause for concern moving forward, the big man has been the epitome of fitness and durability for almost a decade, so we can only assume he'll be coming into the season strong. And after all that went down in Orlando over the past 18 months, he's liable to come back with a vengeance and thirst for image reparation as well.
That's bad news for the everyday opponent, but a welcomed reality for the Lakers, their fans and Howard's future All-Star Weekend teammates.
Chris Paul should be starting, but as previously mentioned, he won't be.
That said, the game-changing point guard is a lock to make his fifth straight All-Star Game.
Not only is Paul arguably the most talented, multi-faceted floor general in the league, but he's proven capable of carrying immensely heavy burdens all on his own.
The Clippers wouldn't even be a playoff team without Paul. His precise passing and stellar perimeter defense creates countless opportunities for his teammates, and every move he makes is aimed at maximizing the Clips' scoring potential as a collective.
So, while Jeremy Lin may earn the starting point guard honors, Paul is the All-Star candidate that is more likely—and capable—of stealing the show.
Criticize Russell Westbrook's play-stylings all you want; the kid is a freak of nature—in a good way.
Though Westbrook has a tendency to become one-sighted and forget his open teammates, he is one of the most athletic backcourt players in the entire league. He's great at getting to the rim, has an efficient mid-range game and never gives up on a play, especially in transition.
And while Westbrook could stand to embrace the art of self-restraint on a occasion, his perpetual aggression is what truly separates him from the rest.
Last season, his unconventional tactics at the point guard spot earned him an All-Star bid. We should expect no less this time around.
Steve Nash is old, but he's also an All-Star.
Even though he will be tasked with piecing together a complicated—albeit prolific—offensive dynamic with the Los Angeles Lakers, he's surrounded by the type of weapons he's never had before.
It will undoubtedly take time to adjust to the Lakers' offensive scheme, but Nash is one of the most intelligent players in the league, and his transition into purple and gold should be, at the very least, almost seamless.
Kobe Bryant may struggle to play off the ball more, Dwight Howard may be forced to his expand his offensive horizons, and Pau Gasol may need to re-acclimate himself to pick-and-rolls, but Nash, essentially, just needs to be Nash.
And that means he's fated for a ninth All-Star selection (eighth appearance).
The Clippers need more from Blake Griffin, but regardless of whether they get it or not, his high-flying accolades will be enough to seal the deal for another All-Star appearance.
Though the rise and progression of Kevin Love will prevent Griffin from starting, it's almost inconceivable to believe he won't earn the necessary votes to appear in his third All-Star Game.
This holds especially true given his penchant for playing above the rim suits such an exhibition perfectly. The All-Star Game has a tendency to become a constant dunk contest for sizable spans, and Griffin fits such a bill to the letter.
So, while his one-dimensional offense can often be exploited during the regular or postseason, the All-Star Game provides Griffin with an opportunity to shine.
More so than usually, in fact.
For all the talk about Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki has put together an impressive All-Star streak of his own.
Heading into 2013, Nowitzki has been selected to 11 straight Western Conference squads. By the time we actually hit 2013, he'll be a lock to make it 12.
Dallas' cornerstone may be 34, and his numbers have steadily regressed over the past four seasons, but he's still one of the most versatile and crafty scorers in the Association. His seven-foot stature coupled with his offensive bag of tricks has rendered him one of the most dangerous scorers of all time.
And that remains a fact today, tomorrow and leading in 2013, no matter how old or close to retirement he may be.
Yes, I'm going here.
People tend to consider Serge Ibaka as nothing more than an exuberant shot-blocker, but they are sorely mistaken.
Ibaka has not only perfected his mid-range jump shot and ability to decipher how and when to roll off screens, but he's evolved into an all-around—not just shot-swatting—defender.
Watch closely, and you'll see great help defense from the power forward, most notably on the weak side. Watch even closer and you'll notice impeccable timing, efficient footwork and superior coordination on that end of the floor as well.
Simply put, Ibaka is developing into a reliable scorer and the type of defender who can change the culture of an entire team—a more athletic and offensively-inclined version of Tyson Chandler, if you will.
Such progression will prove invaluable to the Thunder and essential to Ibaka's cause, as he heads toward his first ever All-Star appearance.
DeMarcus Cousins may not have been cut out for Team USA this summer, but he's certainly got what it takes to crack the Western Conference All-Star rotation.
Sacramento's forward-center has the ability to do a wide array of things on both ends of the floor that people seldom give him credit for. He's a deft shot-blocker, voluminous rebounder, strong post scorer and an above-average passer for someone his size.
Though we may still question his attitude and overall demeanor, there's no more denying his two-way prowess. And despite being one of the most volatile athletes in the league, he's officially the Kings' most reliable performer.
As a result, he'll be expected to do more as the mess that is Sacramento unfolds this upcoming season; his role with the team will be increased to levels of the utmost importance.
And he'll prove up to the challenge, as he continues to develop as both a player and person, a transformation that will culminate in him being named to his first ever All-Star squad.