In most years, who makes the All-Star Game as a reserve is more or less determined before the voting is even complete. This year there's more uncertainty, particularly in the frontcourts.
With the backcourts, there is a little to a lot more certainty. In the Eastern Conference, although they play for losing teams, the performances of Kyrie Irving and Jrue Holiday rises so far above the rest that they are easy fits and generally regarded as shoo-ins.
In the Western Conference, it would be virtually criminal to fail to include former teammates Russell Westbrook and James Harden. That takes care of the West backcourt.
In both conferences the frontcourt is extremely tight.
In fact, there are no easy picks in the East. The fourth-best frontcourt player in one person's opinion might not even deserve the nod in another's.
That, coupled with the fact that it's hard to say that other backcourt players are clearly deserving, could see the five remaining slots filled by frontcourt players, with a versatile small forward taking the second wild-card slot.
In the East, it's just too hard to imagine that Chris Bosh won't get in and take up one of those spots. Being one of the Big Three that won the NBA title, he'll make it. In the West, likewise, it's impossible not to include Tim Duncan.
That leaves just three slots for more than three deserving players in the West and just four spots in the East up for grabs.
The following players are the ones who are on the bubble. Each has some merit to get in, but each may be left off. Play is just one aspect of the selections. Other aspects enter in, too. In fact, the politics of things might be the difference here.
Why He’s In: Serge Ibaka is emerging as one of the best shot-blockers in the NBA. Some people equate that with being one of the best defensive players in the game.
Statistically, he’s only scoring 13.9 points and grabbing 8.4 rebounds per game. Neither sum makes him All-Star-worthy on most teams. However, he plays on one of the fastest, most exciting young teams in the league. If you’re looking for a third All-Star to represent the Thunder, Ibaka is the best bet.
Why He’s Not: This is going to be seen as Ibaka-bashing, but it’s just being realistic. He’s overrated defensively, and that was exposed last year during the Finals. According to 82games.com, his opponent’s Player Efficiency Rating is a fairly weak 16.2 (compare that with competitors like Zach Randolph, 13.7, or LaMarcus Aldridge, 14.7). Ibaka’s numbers don’t warrant inclusion, and his defense is weaker than players whose numbers are better and are the first option for their team.
Frankly, Ibaka shouldn’t be in.
Why He's In: The biggest reason that Josh Smith is on the bubble list is that he was widely considered to be the biggest slight last year. He's a versatile, stat-stuffing machine with extreme intensity and athleticism.
He is the Hawks' leading scorer at 16.5 points per game and is a sensational defender. It's not a stretch to say he is one of the 10 most versatile players in the NBA.
Why He's Out: As gifted as he is, he might be even more stubborn. He is far too much in love with his own horrible jump shot—so much so that he even gets booed when he takes jumpers in Atlanta.
Add to that the recent suspension by his team and the attitude problems that appear to be behind it, and Smith may have been ousted from the All-Star Game.
Why He’s In: Deron Williams is simply the biggest name on the Brooklyn Nets. While his shooting has been off this year, it’s picked up since the coaching change, averaging 18 points with a .573 shooting percentage and 6.9 assists per game since the coaching change.
That coupled with the Nets resurgence since the change might be enough to squeeze him in as a backcourt player considering the weakness of the overall competition.
Why He’s Not: There are a couple of reasons why he still might not get in. His overall season performance is not close to his career standard. Some will view Brook Lopez as a better option than Williams and consider the Nets deserving of, at most, one candidate. Also, there’s the issue of the Nets “underachieving.” One other thing that could bump Williams is the perception that he got Avery Johnson fired.
Considering the perception that he also got Jerry Sloane fired in Utah, Williams might not be high on the lists of coaches around the league right now.
Why He’s In: Future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce is probably having the best season of any Boston Celtic. He’s by far the team’s leading scorer, averaging almost four points more than anyone else. He’s second on the team in assists and third on the team in rebounds. From the perspective of pure play, Pierce makes a strong case for the All-Star Game.
Why He’s Not: Here’s where politics come into play. Rightly or wrongly (and there are strong opinions on both sides), team success plays into the All-Star Game. The Celtics, even though they are in eighth place in the East, have the potential to send three All-Stars. If Pierce goes, it could mean that one, two or even three of the teams ahead of Boston might not send any.
It’s hard in some minds to justify sending three players form the eighth-place team and none from the third-place team. By voting in Kevin Garnett, Celtic fans may have effectively voted out Paul Pierce.
Why He’s In: The Pacers' Paul George has been having nothing short of full-on breakout this year. His performance keeps getting better as the season progresses, and the way he’s playing over the past 10 days has been truly remarkable.
George is averaging 22.5 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 3.2 steals over the past 10 games—all of that while shooting .422 from deep.
For a small forward, those rebounding numbers are nuts. For anyone those steal numbers are even more nuts. He’s already been Player of the Week once this year, according to NBA.com. He is in the running to win it again.
Why He’s Not: He just doesn’t have the name recognition as the others. He plays in a smaller market. He’s not viewed as having earned his stripes, so to speak. Many unofficially feel you have to get a “slight” before you actually make it in, and this is George’s first real All-Star-caliber season. He should get in, but with the frontcourt situation being what it is, he may not.
One remedy would be putting George in as a backcourt player.
Why He’s In: The Golden State Warriors are this year’s breakout team, and the two biggest reasons why are Stephen Curry and David Lee. The duo are the team’s top two scorers, with Lee netting 757 points and Curry 751. Lee is the closest player in the NBA to averaging 20 and 10, scoring 19.8 per game and averaging 10.8 rebounds. Curry is one of only three players averaging more than 20 points and six assists per game. The other two are LeBron James and Russell Westbrook.
Either Lee or Curry could make it in.
Why He’s Not: Just because either, or even both, could make it in, it doesn’t mean that either will make it in. The problem is that they have such an equal claim that it’s not a given. There is the chance that coaches determine that they should vote for one Warrior, and then split the votes between the two.
Why He’s In: Tyson Chandler is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and that’s going to get him some consideration all by itself. He’s also a New York Knick, which does a lot of good for escalating star status. Not too many Knicks get “underrated.”
He’s also playing on a Knicks team that is doing better than any Knicks team has done since the times of Patrick Ewing. There is real title hope in the Big Apple. Being the second most deserving player on the East’s second-best team should give him some consideration as well. Having a career high in scoring and leading the league in field-goal percentage don’t hurt.
Finally, there’s the fact that he’s in the “overdue” club; the fact that he’s never been in wins him the tiebreaker over his juniors.
Why He’s Not: Statistically, while he’s All-Star-worthy, he doesn’t stand out. His high field-goal percentage is partly an effect of having absolutely no game outside of the restricted area, and therefore rarely shooting from there. His defense is down this year. According to 82games.com, his opponent’s Player Efficiency rating is 17.1 this year compared to 13.4 last year. Still, it would be a surprise if he didn’t make it.
There's also the chance that J.R. Smith steals some votes from him, but not many.
Why They're In: Joakim Noah is easily having the best year of his career and is the most multi-faceted center in the game today. His rebounding, scoring, passing and defense provide him with a complete package that no one else competes with. Certainly there are centers adept at different aspects of the game, but as a full package, no one is more complete.
He’s also been among the favorites for Defensive Player of the Year, which only adds to his luster. That combined with the fact that the Bulls are faring far better than expected in the absence of Derrick Rose, and he is viewed as the biggest reason why.
Luol Deng is every bit the kind of player coaches love. His affinity for the little things that don't show up in box scores make him the best "glue guy" in the NBA. He leads the team in scoring. He's one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA. He's the other big reason the Bulls are winning without Rose.
Why He’s Not: Noah and Deng have a serious chance of getting wedged out by one another. Throw in Boozer's late run and how he could end up on a few ballots, and it's possible the Bulls won't have anyone in the All-Star Game this year.
Why They're In: Zach Randolph leads the NBA in double-doubles. He's not flashy or spectacular, but he's consistent as all get out. Marc Gasol is one of the best passing centers in the league, trailing only Joakim Noah in assists. He's also competing with Noah for Defensive Player of the Year, as the Grizzlies are winning primarily because of their defense, and Gasol is their defensive leader. Either player could get in. Both have merit.
Why're They're Not: The Grizzlies are very much in the same boat as the Bulls and the Warriors. They have two borderline All-Stars that are going to split a lot of coaches' votes. It's hard to say which one should get in, and with the stockpile of deserving frontcourt players, it's hard to give the Grizzlies two of the spots, even if they are one of the best in the NBA.
Why He’s In: How about because he’s arguably the best power forward in the NBA right now, and that “arguably” is being generous to every other power forward? Aldridge is the Trail Blazers' leading scorer, second leading rebounder and most important player on defense. He is the biggest reason they are one of this year’s most surprising success stories.
Why He’s Not: If he’s not, then a great crime has been committed against the game of basketball and all NBA coaches will owe Aldridge a personal apology. That doesn’t mean he’s a shoo-in, though. Portland is not an elite team, and that’s going to hurt. It’s also a small-market West Coast team, and that’s going to hurt. Aldridge just doesn’t get the recognition he should.