The first ten spots in the 2013 NBA All-Star Game have officially been filled.
Not that there was necessarily much suspense regarding who, exactly, would fill them.
On Jan. 17, the league unveiled the starters for the Eastern Conference and Western Conference squads, as determined by the fan ballot. As expected, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant emerged as the leading vote-getters on their respective teams.
LeBron will be joined in the East's frontcourt by Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Garnett, with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo earning nods in the backcourt. Out West, Kobe will once again be sharing the court with three other L.A. residents—Chris Paul and Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers and Dwight Howard of the Los Angeles Lakers—and Oklahoma City Thunder scoring-sensation Kevin Durant. Here's an overview of the All-Star starters and their respective performances at the ballot box, courtesy of Bleacher Report:
2013 NBA All-Star Game starters: EAST -- Wade, Rondo, LeBron, Melo, KG. WEST -- Kobe, CP3, Durant, Howard, Griffin twitter.com/BleacherReport…— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 18, 2013
The coaches will determine who receives the remaining seven tickets to Houston on each side. Those reserve choices may well dictate whether the West wins its third straight showcase or the East starts a streak of its own.
For now, though, let's see how the starters stack up against one another and who will have the upper hand in each case come Feb. 17 on TNT.
No offense to Rajon Rondo, but he'll be hard-pressed to hang with Chris Paul in Houston.
Not that Rondo, in his fourth All-Star Game, doesn't have the skill, the will and/or the physical ability to challenge CP3, or that Paul, making his sixth All-Star appearance, is all that overwhelming of an athlete. And to Rondo's credit, his numbers (13 points, 11.2 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 1.8 steals in 37 minutes) are, on the whole, comparable to Paul's (16.8 points, 9.7 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 2.6 steals in 33.4 minutes).
Still, Paul is undoubtedly the finest point guard on the planet today, as Isiah Thomas would surely attest. Rondo is a fantastic floor general in his own right, but has demonstrated himself to be bound by a significantly lower ceiling. His shot, be it from the floor or at the free-throw line, remains subpar, thereby limiting his effectiveness as a scorer and a slasher. Rondo's a terrific passer, but his leadership, while solid, remains well below the level one would expect from a championship-caliber superstar playing for a marquee franchise.
Paul, on the other hand, sports a smooth shooting stroke, can take over a game with his scoring if need be, particularly in crunch time, and is truly a coach on the court.
In short, Rondo, as great as he is, remains a liability in some situations, while Paul's game is nearly without flaw for that of a point guard.
Edge: Chris Paul
Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant are only separated by about three and a half years in age and are both feeling the effects of Father Time, but might as well be miles apart as far as how they've handled the breakdown of their respective bodies.
Wade, playing in his ninth straight All-Star Game, remains a seminal talent with a Hall of Fame resume, but can no longer dominate as frequently as or to the extent that he once did. His 19.9 points per game would be his fewest since his rookie season, and his 4.4 assists per game would constitute a new career low. What's more, Wade, a born scorer, has failed to crack the 20-point plateau in each of his last four games and five of his last six.
Not that Wade is entirely to blame. He's shooting more accurately than ever (.504 from the field, .359 from three), but is getting fewer touches (28.5-percent usage rate) and fewer shots (14.8 attempts) than he has since 2003-04.
And, to D-Wade's credit, he's done well to rebound from offseason knee surgery without losing too much of his signature athleticism, even on his 31st birthday.
That being said, there's no denying just how well Kobe has played this season, and how much more impressive his performance has been in light of his circumstances. Bryant, in his 15th All-Star Game, leads the NBA in scoring (29.9 points) while shooting a career-high 47.8 percent from the field.
This, despite his penchant for launching impossible jumpers, his "sharing" of the floor with three top-notch talents (Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol), and his 34-year-old, injury-riddled frame.
Like Michael Jordan before him, Bryant has done a masterful job of extending his prime by sharpening his shooting stroke and expanding his game to include all manner of post moves and deceptive maneuvers on the perimeter.
So, while D-Wade is only at his best when his body allows him to be, the Black Mamba has essentially transcended his own physical limits by becoming a smarter, craftier scorer. Expect that—along with Kobe's grinding axe over Wade breaking his nose during the 2012 All-Star Game—to show when these two go head-to-head.
Unless, of course, Wade spends the whole game alleying and ooping with LeBron James, which isn't all that far-fetched.
Edge: Kobe Bryant
Any opportunity to see LeBron James and Kevin Durant face off against one another is one that basketball fans, casual and die-hard alike, should cherish. These two have enjoyed many a memorable battle, dating back to Durant's days as a rookie with the Seattle SuperSonics and James' as the centerpiece of the Cleveland Cavaliers and running up to and through the 2012 NBA Finals between the Thunder and the Heat.
Durant, now bound for his fourth straight All-Star Game, has done marvelously well to grow his game to a point wherein it mirrors LeBron's in an almost eerie manner. The Durantula is still scoring at a steady clip (28.7 points), thanks in large part to shooting numbers that, if the season ended today, would make him the eighth member of the ever-exclusive 50-40-90 Club. He's taking fewer shots overall than he has since his rookie season, but has cut down on his long-range twos while spending more time in the post.
Additionally, KD has developed into a more prolific passer (a career-high 4.2 assists per game) and more of a menace on the defensive end.
Which is all well and good, except it still leaves him as a sharper-shooting facsimile of LeBron, who already owns the mantle of "Best Player in the Known Universe" going into his ninth straight All-Star Game. James' scoring (26 points) is down to its lowest level since his rookie season, though he's shooting more accurately overall (.546) and from three (.398) than he ever has as a pro.
But, as always, LeBron's brilliance extends well beyond his ability to the put the ball through the hoop. He leads the East-best Heat in points, rebounds (8.1), assists (6.9) and steals (1.6). He's also spent the bulk of the season as Miami's nominal power forward, wherein he's had to absorb punishment from hulking opponents, while also taking turns defending all five positions on the floor.
Durant may claim the 2012-13 MVP by way of "voter fatigue," but, at the very least, LeBron deserves the benefit of the doubt in any matchup between the two. His advantage in bulk and strength—along with his 12-3 record in head-to-head meetings with Durant (8-2 in the regular season, 4-1 in the playoffs)—only tilts the odds further in James' favor.
Edge: LeBron James
To be sure, the coaches on either side may well decide it more advantageous, one way or the other, to pit LeBron James against Blake Griffin and Carmelo Anthony against Kevin Durant.
But, in the interest of preserving an NBA Finals rematch, hoops heads should hope that Anthony and Griffin wind up going mano a mano in Houston.
Frankly, pitting these two stars against one another would be reason enough for All-Star Game intrigue. Both play for teams that have taken massive leaps forward into the No. 2 seed in their respective conferences.
On the one hand, 'Melo, now a six-time All-Star, has taken on more responsibility with the New York Knicks this season. He's posting career highs in points (29.3), three-point attempts (6.6), three-point makes (2.8) and three-point percentage (.421) to go along with 6.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists. He's also playing with more effort, energy and intensity on the defensive end, despite having to guard bigger, stronger power forwards more often than he has in the past.
On the other hand, Griffin, bound for his third All-Star Game in as many seasons, has seen his productivity decline a bit, though also in service of his team's success. His scoring (17.7 points) and rebounding (8.4 boards) numbers would both represent career lows, and his field-goal percentage is down slightly as his share of shots at the rim has declined.
Griffin's statistical shift, though, isn't entirely his fault. He's playing a mere 31.9 minutes per game—down from 36.2 a season ago and 38 during his Rookie of the Year campaign—due in large part to the superb efforts of the Clippers' gifted bench and the way in which L.A.'s "other" team has been blowing its opponents out of the water.
That aside, Carmelo is still too skilled an offensive player to not take the jumpy Griffin to school on that end of the floor.
Edge: Carmelo Anthony
In a battle between players best described as "Damaged Goods" nowadays, Dwight Howard still gets the nod over Kevin Garnett.
Howard clearly hasn't been himself this season. The now-seven-time All-Star has been slow to return to his former dominance after undergoing major back surgery in April 2012 and carving out a new niche for himself amidst immense pressure with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Even so, Dwight's been remarkably productive—17.8 points, an NBA-best 12.6 rebounds, 2.6 blocks—though perhaps not enough to satisfy those who'd rather see Tim Duncan or Marc Gasol starting in the middle for the West.
Especially considering the way in which the Lakers have struggled this season.
The same argument can be applied to Garnett, at least as far as Chris Bosh is concerned. The 15-time All-Star is scoring (14.6 points) and rebounding (seven boards) less than he did last season, when he failed to make the midseason showcase for the first time since 1999. Furthermore, The Big Ticket's Boston Celtics are a middling 20-18 on the season and their defense, of which KG is presumably the anchor, has only recently picked up.
Since Avery Bradley returned from double shoulder surgery, no less.
But, like it or not, Howard and Garnett are both headed to Houston, and in a head-to-head showdown, Dwight, who's shown flashes of his former greatness this season, holds the higher ground.
Edge: Dwight Howard