Perhaps more so than any other era of professional basketball, today's NBA is truly a superstar-driven league. The All-Star Game is the ultimate stage for these players to shine, but not every All-Star candidate is created equal.
The 2013 NBA All-Star Game is fast approaching, and voting for who will compete just ended Monday night. The starters will be announced live on TNT on Jan. 17, during a special one-hour pregame show at 7 p.m. ET on TNT.
The Feb. 17 game should feature plenty of familiar faces and mainstays from years past, but there are a number of up-and-comers hoping to make their presence felt in Houston.
Being named an All-Star is one of the greatest honors in the league, but it is bestowed on only a select few, and just because a player has donned his conference's jersey before does not necessarily mean he will have the opportunity to do so again.
Here is who I am "buying" and "selling" as deserving of a nod from the 2012-13 All-Star hopefuls and how they have been performing this season. This hypothetical version of the All-Star vote takes place in a world where fan voting doesn't exist.
Statistics accurate as of January 14, 2013 and courtesy of Hoopdata.com.
The New York Knicks have been struggling somewhat since their hot start to the 2012-13 season, but Carmelo Anthony has been playing absolutely sensational basketball all year long.
He is averaging 29.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game on 46.1 percent shooting from the field and 42.1 percent from beyond the arc.
Although he is having some difficulty converting at the rim, 'Melo is splashing mid-range jump shots better than he ever has and is forcing the issue offensively less than usual. He is shooting 47.6 percent from 10-15 feet.
In fact, Anthony is taking a smarter approach to every facet of the game. He is playing more spirited basketball on the defensive end, encouraging ball movement on offense and not taking as many contested shots.
Carmelo's popularity makes him a lock for an All-Star spot every season, but he especially deserves recognition for his current, and best, campaign.
The Boston Celtics have finally returned to their winning ways, but despite recent triple-doubles against the Atlanta Hawks and Bobcats, point guard Rajon Rondo has been mired in a bit of a slump.
He is still averaging 13.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 11.2 assists per game on 49.5 percent shooting, but he has not been the same dynamic playmaker he was in November.
His mid-range jump shooting has improved, as he's connecting on 49 percent of his attempts from 16-23 feet, but he is relying on his outside game too much and is still shaky from the three-point line and the charity stripe.
Defensively he has been spotty, using his quickness and length to hassle opposing guards at times, but at other times letting his man consistently get the better of him.
Rondo has had some difficulty taking care of the ball (3.6 TO per game), and of course, his maturity issues cannot be overlooked. He is expected to lead this team and therefore needs to control his emotions better and not let them boil over.
With Derrick Rose injured, Rondo could end up being the Eastern Conference's starting point guard, but the reality is that his 2012-13 campaign has had its share of ups and downs.
The Miami Heat have struggled to rebound and guard the post since making Chris Bosh their primary option at the center, but the former Georgia Tech standout has actually played quite well leading up to All-Star voting.
He is averaging 17.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists and a career-best 1.5 blocks per game. He is doing all this while shooting a blistering 55.7 percent from the field and playing just 33.6 minutes per game.
Always renowned for his shooting touch, Bosh is connecting on a stellar 58 percent of his jumpers from 16-23 feet and has been a very dangerous third option for Miami. He knows how to get himself open, and his ability to draw big men away from the paint is essential for the Heat's stellar offensive execution.
Defensively, Bosh sometimes struggles with physical big men but actually does a respectable job using his length to bother opponents.
He has been incredibly consistent all season long, excels in his role with the Heat and deserves to be on the Eastern Conference's All-Star bench.
LaMarcus Aldridge has played solid basketball as the Portland Trail Blazers have exceeded their preseason expectations. However, he has been scoring at the least-efficient clip of his career, shooting just 46.3 percent from the field.
His averages of 20.5 points, 8.6 boards and 2.5 assists are solid, but he is not always being as aggressive offensively as he should be. Aldridge is a good shooter from outside, but he needs to attack the basket more often.
For the 2012-13 season he is attempting 7.6 shots from 16-23 feet, a personal high, and hitting 38 percent of them, a personal low.
His work defensively and on the boards has been respectable, but unfortunately he is being outshone regularly by stellar rookie Damian Lillard and a much-improved Nicolas Batum.
The San Antonio Spurs are rolling through the Western Conference once again, and the unexpected resurgence of Tim Duncan has been a huge reason why.
Playing like the two-time MVP he is, Duncan is posting 17.1 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the field.
His minutes have increased slightly, but he is posting a phenomenal PER of 24.36 and providing absolutely stifling help defense to boot. His jumper has been shaky, but he is scoring quite well out of the post.
Gregg Popovich is doing a good job of keeping Duncan's minutes from becoming unreasonable, and so long as he does not suffer an injury, there is a great chance he can keep up his sensational play through the postseason.
Duncan's play on both ends of the court has been nothing short of sensational. Even with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili on the roster, he remains easily San Antonio's best player.
After a terrible start to his inaugural season in Houston, Jeremy Lin has found his stride as a Rocket. However, he is simply not an All-Star talent and does not deserve to be representing his team when it hosts the league's stars.
Lin is notching 12.1 points, 3.9 boards and 6.3 assists per game, but shooting a mere 42.6 percent from the floor. He is struggling to connect on his three-pointers and has not always done a great job of taking care of the basketball.
Lin can create his own offense and find his teammates for open looks at the rim, but he also goes long stretches without making any substantive impact.
He remains a gifted passer who can break down defenses, making him capable of the occasional statistical outburst, but the days of Linsanity are long behind him.
He can come up with steals but is not a reliable one-on-one defender and too often has difficulty keeping his man in front of him.
The Jeremy Lin-James Harden backcourt will take Houston far, but only one of them should be earning his first All-Star berth, and that is the Bearded One.
The Los Angeles Lakers have not had the 2012-13 season anyone envisioned for them, but there is no denying Kobe Bryant's play has been impressive, even in losing efforts.
Often, Bryant is the only player keeping Los Angeles in games, and that is reflected in his averages of 29.8 points, 5 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game on 47.5 percent shooting overall.
He is playing a superhuman 38.7 minutes per game and still managing to make an impact on both ends of the court. His shots are falling at a high clip, particularly from mid-range and the three-point arc, and he continues to show that ability to absolutely dominate games offensively.
Bryant is a step slower than he used to be but remains a solid defender who knows how to stay in front of his man and read passing lanes. Los Angeles' team defense has been atrocious, and Bryant's off-ball defense has been troubling. But Kobe alone hasn't been the issue.
The Lakers have not always succeeded during Bryant's best scoring games, but Kobe has earned himself a trip to Houston.
Make no mistake: Dwyane Wade has been good for the Miami Heat, but he has not been the D-Wade of old. Injuries have been piling up and are hampering his explosiveness.
Wade is still averaging 20.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, but he is spending less time with the ball in his hands and is hoisting up just 15 shots per game. In addition, his 22.5 PER is his lowest since the 2007-08 campaign.
Although he can still attack the basket off the dribble and make plays at the rim, he has been settling for more jump shots than usual and having some troubles defensively.
The veteran Wade is still one of the league's better perimeter defenders, but he can no longer be considered shutdown, as he is posting two combined blocks and steals per contest, his lowest since his rookie campaign.
Based on name recognition and popularity, Wade will likely be a starter at 2-guard, but despite his efficiency he is clearly not the same unstoppable player that he once was.
The Philadelphia 76ers have not had much success with Andrew Bynum sidelined due to knee troubles, but point guard Jrue Holiday has had a phenomenal year as the team's go-to guy.
Taking a larger role on offense, he is averaging 18.7 points, 4.1 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game on 45.4 percent shooting from the field and 35.5 percent from three-point range.
The Sixers have virtually no depth at point guard, and Holiday has been playing major minutes night in and night out. With Andre Iguodala gone, he is spending more time with the ball in his hands and creating more open looks for his teammates.
Holiday's ability to penetrate helps to create open looks for his teammates, particularly at the rim, and though he is turning the ball over 3.9 times per game, his other contributions outweigh the giveaways.
He is displaying more confidence with his stroke from the perimeter and has had great success knifing his way into the lane and either drawing fouls or finishing at the basket.
Bynum's prolonged absence may ruin any hopes Philadelphia has of a playoff run, but Jrue Holiday is doing his best to keep the team relevant and certainly deserves recognition for that.
Compared to the league's other top centers, Dwight Howard is having a sensational season, but he has not been having the same impact he did during his tenure with the Orlando Magic.
Hampered by a shoulder injury midseason and still showing effects from back surgery, Howard has been averaging 17.4 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game on 57.7 percent shooting.
His perpetual struggles at the foul line have become all the more apparent, as teams are deliberately fouling him in order to keep the ball away from the Lakers offense.
He is not as explosive in transition as he once was and has not been as dominant of a finisher in the paint.
His defensive rebounding rate of 26.1 is impressive, but it is also the lowest rate of his career. Howard can swallow up the glass, but with Pau Gasol, Antawn Jamison and Jordan Hill also hitting the boards, there are simply fewer boards for him to get. His total rate is a mere 18.8, quite low by his standards.
Los Angeles has not been winning consistently with Howard, and that hurts his All-Star stock, but whether he deserves it or not, he will be starting alongside teammate Kobe Bryant.
The Los Angeles Clippers have gone from a playoff team to a legitimate title threat, and a good deal of that success can be attributed to the effect Chris Paul has had both on the court and in the locker room.
His numbers are mundane by his own standards, but Paul has turned this L.A. squad into a tight-knit group that expects to win and plays its heart out every night. That he's averaging 16.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 9.7 assists and a league-leading 2.6 steals per game certainly doesn't hurt his case either.
Paul is playing just 33.4 minutes per game, but his ability to dictate the tempo of the game and make his teammates better is just as apparent even in his reduced playing time.
He does not look for his shot much but is a gifted shooter who can drill three-pointers, as well as pull up in the lane or use his phenomenal handle to get to the rim, where he is shooting 69.7 percent.
Defensively, Paul can shut down opposing point guards despite his small stature and is one of the tougher perimeter players in the NBA.
His 4.5 assist-to-turnover rate speaks to his decision-making ability and he remains one of the few players in the league that can take over a game without doing much scoring.
His leadership is immensely valuable, but Chris Paul also makes the plays an All-Star-caliber point guard should make.
Blake Griffin has not been having a bad season by any standard, but with all the talent the Los Angeles Clippers have assembled, he simply has fewer opportunities to contribute.
He is posting 17.7 points, 8.6 boards and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 53.4 percent. He is playing just 32 minutes per night and taking a career-low 13.4 shot attempts per game.
Griffin continues to be an explosive finisher at the rim, but he has been relying a bit too much on his perimeter game. He has improved his stroke but must continue to be aggressive. His free-throw shooting has improved by 10 points from 2011-12, but is still lower than in his rookie year.
His rebounding rate is the lowest of his career, and he often does not show the kind of quickness and athleticism on defense that he does on offense. There is no reason that Griffin should not be a reliable shot-blocker given his timing and explosive leaping ability.
Although he is not playing poorly, Blake Griffin is not playing up to the standard he has set for himself, particularly on the glass.
Griffin's overall game is developing, and he remains one of the league's top power forwards, but he simply does not look as sharp as he did in his first two seasons with the Clippers.
All miscellaneous streaks aside, LeBron James is yet again playing brilliant basketball. The Miami Heat have looked sluggish at times in their title defense, but James has been his MVP self since the campaign began.
Notching 26 points per game on 54.6 percent shooting and 40.7 percent from three alone would be impressive enough, but James is also grabbing 8.2 rebounds and handing out 6.9 dimes per contest.
He has been spending more time playing the power forward position but continues to dominate the game as a point forward, doing a good deal of the ball-handling for Miami. He has cut down on his turnovers, and his court vision is as developed as any point guard in the league.
Defensively, James is a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, as he has locked down everyone from guards to centers with ease. He covers a tremendous amount of ground and always manages to stay in front of his assignment.
James knows how to read passing lanes and is always capable of a game-changing block, but he is also a smart defender who knows when it is better not to gamble.
Offensively, he has been hitting outside shots better than ever and remains as dynamic a finisher as there is in the NBA today. Once he builds up a head of steam, there is simply no stopping LeBron.
This may seem like just another season for LeBron James, but he has developed his game and is a lock for another All-Star spot.
After missing the early part of the season rehabbing from knee surgery, Dirk Nowitzki began his 2012-13 campaign coming off the bench. He has since returned to the starting lineup and has been putting up decent numbers, but he is not quite the perennial All-Star he once was.
Nowitzki is averaging 13.3 points, 5 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game on 42.1 percent shooting overall and 40.5 percent shooting from three-point range.
Conditioning has been an issue for Nowitzki, as he has had to work himself back into midseason shape. At times he has struggled to make a positive impact on the game, and it will take time for him to become the Dirk of old.
Reduced minutes have obviously been a reason for his decreased production, but Nowitzki has not been the elite scorer he once was. His three-pointers are falling, but not his mid-range jumpers, and he has had difficulty coexisting with O.J. Mayo. Nowitzki is shooting just 40 percent on his shots from 16-23 feet.
Never a superb rebounder, Dirk is making even less of an impact on the glass, as he has been playing more out on the perimeter than usual.
By April, Nowitzki may have returned to form, but his Dallas Mavericks are not winning, and he does not deserve an All-Star berth for 2012-13.
Everyone expected James Harden to shine when he joined the Houston Rockets, but no one expected him to be quite as dominant as he has been in 2012-13.
Harden set the Rockets' franchise record for consecutive 25-point games (14) and is averaging a sensational 26.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game while shooting 45.7 percent from the floor and 35.1 percent from distance.
He is not as efficient as he was during his Sixth Man of the Year campaign with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but that is not surprising considering he went from being the third option with OKC to the first option with Houston. He is also being asked to play 38.5 minutes per game, seven more than last season.
Working primarily with the ball in his hands, Harden is doing his damage largely at the rim but is also torching opponents from beyond the arc. Even his assists are leading primarily to layups and open three-pointers.
His defense leaves a little to be desired, but Harden is capable of jumping into passing lanes and creating easy transition opportunities as a result.
For Houston to progress in the postseason, he'll need to take better care of the basketball, but Harden's brilliance has been a huge reason for the Rockets' unexpected resurgence.
His shooting percentages have not been stellar, but the Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook is having quite possibly the best season of his young career. With Harden in Houston, Westbrook has improved as a pure point guard and has been facilitating as well as he ever has.
Westbrook is posting 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game, although he is shooting just 41.6 percent from the field. Still, he is making a positive impact in nearly every facet of the game and has improved as a pick-and-roll facilitator and excelled at finding open teammates.
He remains one of the most explosive point guards in the league, and his quickness makes him a nightmare to try to cover in the open court. He can knife his way into the lane and is as good as anyone at drawing contact and finishing in the paint.
Despite being fairly small, he is one of the most versatile point guards in the league thanks to his incomparable quickness, ability to score, crash the glass from the perimeter and drop dimes.
As long as Kevin Durant is around, Westbrook may never be more than a second option, but he is playing the best all-around basketball of his career and should be a lock for another All-Star nod.
Finally healthy after nagging ankle injuries forced him to miss 40 games in the 2011-12 season, Stephen Curry has been absolutely outstanding for a Golden State Warriors team that has been one of the league's most pleasant surprises.
Splitting time at the point with Jarrett Jack, Curry has been looked at as more of a scorer and is posting 20.5 points per game while shooting 43.7 percent from the floor and 46.1 percent from behind the three-point line.
He has also developed his overall game nicely, notching 4.2 rebounds and 6.6 assists per contest. His man-to-man perimeter defense is still pretty average, but he does manage to force turnovers and create fast-break opportunities.
Curry has as pure a shooting stroke as they come, and he is always a threat to catch fire from outside. He is lethal as a spot-up shooter and has also been reliable from mid-range as well.
Curry is actually a solid rebounder for a point guard and has improved as a facilitator, in part due to there being more talent around him. With shooters and finishers aplenty, the Warriors have one of the league's strongest offenses, and Curry is at the steering wheel of it all.
He is not the most efficient scorer in the league, and Golden State should probably cut down his 38.1 minutes per game to keep him rested and healthy for their postseason push, but Curry is having unquestionably the best season of his career and should earn his first All-Star berth.
The Brooklyn Nets have gotten back to their winning ways, but point guard Deron Williams has not quite been living up to expectations in his first season with the franchise since signing a lucrative extension.
Playing with far more talented teammates than in seasons past, Williams is posting just 16.8 points, 3.2 boards and 7.7 assists per game. He has been playing plenty of minutes, but he is having difficulty finding his shooting stroke and has actually not been as dominant of a passer as he was with the Utah Jazz.
Sharing backcourt time with Joe Johnson, Williams is looking for his shot less and is generally having less of an impact than he did when the Nets were a perennial lottery team.
He is shooting just 40.9 percent from the field and a mere 32.8 percent from the three-point line.
Williams remains a subpar defender despite his tremendous athletic talents, but he has not been the same elite offensive player he once was.
Williams can break down a defense and attack off the dribble, but he is not getting to the rim as effectively and relying more on his shaky outside shot.
He is one of the league's better point guards, but he has not made a strong case to be an All-Star.
Oklahoma City was expected to start slowly in the wake of James Harden's departure, but the brilliance of Kevin Durant has more than made up for his absence. Durant is playing the best basketball of his career and has gone from being a top-notch scorer to one of the most devastating two-way players in the league.
In the midst of an MVP-caliber season, Durant is averaging 28.9 points (3rd in the NBA), 7.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game on absurd 52.4 percent shooting and 40.2 percent shooting from behind the arc.
Durant remains one of the game's most dominant scorers with his ability to create his own offense, pull up from anywhere and finish with authority in the paint. He can also draw fouls and convert at the charity line.
What has been most impressive about Durant's evolution is his all-around play. He has morphed into a dominant rebounder and is spending more time handling the ball and setting up his teammates for quality shots.
He needs to add some strength to his frame, but he uses his length to contest his opponents' shots and keep them from driving the lane.
He has become one of the best leaders in the game, and the Thunder are a better team because Durant has been consistently aggressive.
Kevin Garnett remains one of the league's best defensive players, but he is no longer the reliable offensive player that he once was. His leadership on and off the court has been invaluable, but in reduced minutes he has not made a consistent impact for a Boston team that has struggled somewhat out of the gate.
For the year, Garnett is averaging 14.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists for the Boston Celtics. He is shooting 50.9 percent from the floor but playing a mere 29.5 minutes per game.
Garnett is no longer a dominant rebounder, and while he paces the Celtics on the glass, he isn't capable of posting a double-double on any given night anymore.
Offensively, he has relied more than ever on his outside game, and while he can drill outside shots as well as any big man in the league, he is not quite as reliable of a back-to-the-basket scorer as he once was.
With Andrew Bynum sidelined by injury, Garnett could very well be a starter in the All-Star Game, but he has not quite played up to expectations.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have not exactly set the league on fire in 2012-13, but sophomore point guard Kyrie Irving has been nothing short of brilliant despite missing time with injuries.
Shouldering more of the team's scoring load, Irving is averaging a stellar 23 points, 3.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game on 45.9 percent shooting from the field and 41 percent shooting from three-point territory.
He has improved practically every facet of his game and has made significant strides as a scorer. He remains one of the most crafty off-the-dribble point guards in the league but has improved his outside stroke and emerged as an unstoppable offensive weapon.
Irving is turning the ball over more, but that is a product of a larger role while on the court and increased minutes overall.
The Cavaliers have not exactly been potent offensively, but Irving has managed to keep them afloat thanks to his creativity and ability to penetrate the lane.
Defensively he has made some strides since his rookie season, but what he does on the less glamorous end of the floor will never outshine his performances offensively.
Cleveland may not be winning, but Irving absolutely deserves All-Star recognition.