NBA All-Star Game 2013: Which Starting Lineup Has the Edge?

Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistFebruary 16, 2013

NBA All-Star Game 2013: Which Starting Lineup Has the Edge?

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    The NBA All-Star Game may be a yearly exhibition that carries less weight than a paper clip, but it's arguable that this is the only contest where the fans have a real and noticeable impact.

    As they do every season, the fans chose the starters for the Eastern and Western Conference teams that will do battle on Sunday in Houston. Among those players are four from the two Los Angeles teams in the West and a bevy from a certain championship-hoisting team in South Beach.

    Though oftentimes controversial due to the popularity contest-like results, there are very few who can argue with this year's results. Each of the two backcourt and three frontcourt spots are filled with top-tier players on both sides, which could make this a pretty close game.

    As for whether the East or West has the overall advantage coming into Sunday, that requires a deep delve into the individual matchups on the floor. 

    Due to Erik Spoelstra's fun exercise in nepotism—starting Chris Bosh in place of Rajon Rondo instead of Kyrie Irving or Jrue Holiday—we're going to have to make some assumptions about the Eastern Conference's traditional "positions." But because positions and defense matter about as much as health consciousness does at McDonald's, it really won't matter all that much.

    So with that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of each positional battle in the 2013 NBA All-Star Game

BC: LeBron James vs. Chris Paul

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    Right off the bat, Spoelstra's decision to start Bosh over a traditional point guard leaves one massive question for the East: Who brings up the ball?

    Well, there is a pretty obvious answer to that question and he just so happens to be the NBA's best player. LeBron James' season has been talked about ad nauseam at this point, but that's not without plenty of good reason. He's averaging his yearly standard of 27.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game, but doing it in the most efficient fashion of his career. 

    The field goal percentage ascent has been well covered. James' 56.5 percent field goal rate is a full three percent better than his previous career high, and he's nailing an astounding 66.9 percent of his shots in February.

    He's doing this by playing off the ball more than any point in his career. Mario Chalmers has mostly taken over the traditional point guard reins, with James' increasing responsibilities as a low-post presence taking precedent. 

    But let's not forget he's still averaging exactly his career average in assist rate, so it's not like James' passing abilities have fallen off a cliff. In an alternative universe, he probably could be the NBA's best point guard.

    Instead, that distinction goes to Paul, who has led the Clippers directly into Western Conference championship competition. He's averaging great individual stats (16.6 PPG, 9.6 APG, 2.6 SPG, 26.80 PER), but it's his presence in the L.A. offense that has proven to be so vital.

    Whenever Paul has missed time due to injury, the Clippers have floundered. They are just 6-6 without their star guard this season, compared to being 20 games over .500 with him in the lineup. For all the talk of Eric Bledsoe being an up-and-coming young guard, his effect is utterly benign compared to his All-Star teammate. 

    Paul is one of the five best players on the planet. That being said, this is not even remotely a contest. LeBron beats anyone, everyone and anything this season. 

    Advantage: Eastern Conference

BC: Dwyane Wade vs. Kobe Bryant

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    At the other backcourt spot, we have one of the few traditional matchups we'll see on Sunday and one that feels all too familiar to fans across the league.

    How familiar you ask? This is the eighth straight season that Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade have been named All-Star starters at a guard spot. Though Bryant sat out in 2010, thus preventing the streak from actually extending to the floor, the best shooting guard in the league argument has been between just two players for nearly a decade.

    Part of that is due to an extreme dearth of talent at the position. The shooting guard has somehow neared going the way of the dodo, competing with center for the "weakest" spot in the league on a yearly basis.

    Nonetheless, it's hard to find two better faces of a singular position.

    Wade, who may still be in his prime for all we know, is arguably swallowing the bitterest pill in the league on a nightly basis. Once the star of the Miami Heat, he's been (understandably) relegated to the "and Co." portion of LeBron James and Co. James' season has been so phenomenal on so many different levels that the shadow has encompassed one of the game's 10 best players.

    That doesn't mean Wade is having a bad season. Far from it, actually. He's averaging 21.0 points on a career-high 50.5 field goal percentage and adding 4.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists a night for good measure. One has to wonder whether, despite sharing a lineup space with James, Wade will use Houston as a platform to remind everyone how great he remains. 

    Bryant has been nothing short of marvelous this season, despite all of the drama in Los Angeles. He's averaging his patented 26.8 points per game while shooting 46.4 percent from the field, his highest rate in four years. He's also taken on an ever-increasing role as a distributor, dishing out his most assists per game since the first year of the post-Shaq era with 6.8 dimes a night in February.

    Choosing between the two stars is tough, but when Kobe Bryant says he'll be chucking up shots in an All-Star Game, you bow at the altar.

    Advantage: Western Conference

FC: Carmelo Anthony vs. Kevin Durant

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    Just when you think Kevin Durant cannot possibly get any better, he embarks on what could become the greatest statistical shooting season in NBA history. He's on pace to become the latest member of the historic 50-40-90 club, and is doing it while scoring more points per game than anyone on the list except Larry Bird in 1987-88.

    It's a truly astounding ascent that has seen Durant improve in every facet of his game. Once a hesitant ball-handler, Durant is creating more of his shots off the dribble than ever. He's also taking fewer bad shots than ever and knocking down the ones he does take at career-best rates across the board. 

    In other words, Durant is the complete offensive package. No player scores with more ease or in more ways than Durant. If LeBron wasn't rampaging over the entire league at the moment, Durant would be the runaway choice for MVP at the All-Star break.

    Speaking of players who would garner MVP consideration in a normal season, Carmelo Anthony hasn't been too shabby himself. He's been scoring at or above his career-high pace throughout the season, while showing a vastly improved game from beyond the arc. A career 33.5 percent shooter from long range, Anthony is shooting a full seven points higher this season while taking a career-high amount of attempts.

    And he's doing this all while embracing a new power forward role and leading the Knicks to a surprising 32-18 record. 

    However, on just about any basis imaginable, Durant's season and performance defeats Anthony. If KD was having 'Melo's season, we'd be walking into the All-Star break wondering what's wrong with Durant, not congratulating him. 

    With the mitigating circumstances surrounding the Knicks forward, the West's advantage here becomes kind of cavernous. 

    This would certainly be a closer matchup if anyone was sure Anthony was healthy. But he suffered an arm contusion on Wednesday, which he described as "dead arm," and was a question mark for Sunday's contest before deciding to give it a go.

    While it's a guarantee Anthony will be in the Eastern Conference's starting lineup, it's not a lock he plays extensive minutes. Nor is it certain that he will be all that good when in the game. Anthony did shoot just 5-of-24 against Toronto after suffering the injury, with his shot looking noticeably flat.

    West wins here and it's not even worth a second thought.

    Advantage: Western Conference

FC: Chris Bosh vs. Blake Griffin

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    Other than the weird (and hypothetical) pairing of LeBron James and Chris Paul, the traditional "power forward" spot may represent the biggest style difference between the two starters.

    Griffin is one of the most athletic and powerful marvels in the game. Nearly half of his shots come in the restricted area, and a whopping 64.4 percent of his attempts come from somewhere inside the paint, per NBA.com.

    Those percentages get him a bad rap—mostly from people who don't actually watch basketball games—as a dunks-only type player. And while Griffin does lead the NBA in dunks heading into the All-Star break, that ignores the very real strides he's made as a post presence over the past 12 months. It isn't the smoothest array of moves you'll ever see down low, but Griffin is much underrated in the post—especially when starting a possession facing up his defender. 

    Though gifted with a solid post game of his own, Bosh's offensive array is far more varied. His most-used area on the court is in the mid-range, per NBA.com, and he actually struggles quite a bit inside the paint outside the restricted area. But Bosh's ability to space out the floor has been absolutely essential to the Heat this season, as has his surprisingly effective move over to the center spot. 

    If this were a seven-game series or a game with any semblance of meaning whatsoever, Bosh would have the advantage. He's still the better overall player and gets vastly underrated by proxy of playing with two all-time greats.

    However, this is the All-Star Game. Defense means nil and lanes will be wide-open for the taking on nearly every possession. That level of high-flying pace plays right into the strengths of Griffin, who is one of the best athletes at the 4 spot ever.

    He'll throw down copious amounts of alley-oops in a myriad of ways, much to the awe of those in attendance. Griffin's game is tailor-made for this setting, while the more understated and better-skilled Bosh tends to take a background role.

    It might not be the fairest of outcomes, but Griffin is the better All-Star Game-type player.

    Advantage: Western Conference

FC: Kevin Garnett vs. Dwight Howard

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    On the surface, this should be by far the biggest mismatch between the two conferences.

    For the West, you have Dwight Howard, a 27-year-old athletic freak who is built like a figure from Greek scripture. For the East, you have Kevin Garnett, a battle-tested warrior whose best playing days and hours spent caring about the All-Star Game are behind him.

    I should be able to write five sentences and we all move on with our day. Here is the rub: As most Lakers fans know, Dwight Howard, Greek god, has not showed up this season. In his place has been a headband-wearing impostor whose stats have cratered since suffering a partially torn labrum. 

    In the month of February, Howard is averaging 14.6 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. That's not a bad month, it's an atrocious one for a player who is supposed to be the NBA's best big man. And with Nikola Vucevic improving his play with every passing game, the folks in Orlando don't seem to be missing D12 all that much right now.

    Meanwhile, February has sparked an awakening from Garnett. He's a nightly double-double (16 points and 10 rebounds) again while playing less than 30 minutes a night. With Rajon Rondo out of the lineup, Garnett and Paul Pierce have both basked in returning to their alpha dog roles. 

    So despite all things superficial pointing to Howard, I'm giving Garnett the nod here. In his last All-Star Game, look for Garnett to go out with a bang—at least compared to the human whimper known as 2012-13 Dwight Howard.

    Advantage: Eastern Conference