Ten down, 14 to go.
In a special edition of NBA Tip-Off on TNT on Thursday, Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Kenny Smith and Grant Hill announced the 10 starters selected to the 2014 NBA All-Star Game.
As expected, LeBron James and Kevin Durant led their respective votes in the Eastern and Western Conferences. James' 1,416,419 votes was about 20,000 more than Durant's 1,396,294, coinciding with the gap he's held overall throughout the process.
The rest of the starters were also mostly devoid of surprise, with nine of the 10 players leading the third returns getting nods.
Bleacher Report's NBA Twitter account had the announcement, including votes from all players:
The western conference All-Star starters! pic.twitter.com/6TZGdB8WxV— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) January 24, 2014
The eastern conference All-Star starters! pic.twitter.com/AioSFzIu69— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) January 24, 2014
Considering the uproar that the fan vote usually causes every year, this is a rather benign list—with a couple notable exceptions. There will likely be some unhappy about Kobe Bryant's selection and there's debate about some others, making the selection of the reserves next week something to watch.
The reserves, voted on by coaches around the league, will be announced next Thursday, Jan. 30—a little less than a month ahead of the 2014 All-Star Game, which will be held in New Orleans on Feb. 16. The reserves will be comprised of two backcourt players and three frontcourt guys, along with two wild cards.
For now, though, let's check out a complete breakdown of the starters in both conferences.
Backcourt: Kyrie Irving (PG, Cleveland Cavaliers)
2013-14 Stats: 21.7 PPG, 6.1 APG, 3.0 RPG, .525 TS%, 20.0 PER
The Cavaliers have largely been a disappointment this season, a trajectory followed by their best player. While Irving's counting stats are largely in line with his All-Star campaign a year ago, a slow start from the field and lack of leap on the defensive end make his selection more a product of Derrick Rose's injury and John Wall's still-rising national popularity than anything.
Irving had an especially rough shooting slump for the season's first 20 games, hovering below the 40 percent mark and hitting a disconcertingly low 30.4 percent from the three-point arc. As expected, he's positively regressed since, and he has splashed nearly 46 percent of his threes in January.
Plus, the frustrations of the Greater Ohio area cannot obscure that Irving is still one of the most exciting young point guards in the league. Visions of Irving's otherworldly All-Star Weekend a season ago, where he crossed Brandon Knight into NBA oblivion during the Rising Stars Challenge, won the Three-Point Contest and had a fine showing on Sunday, still have to be dancing in voters' heads.
On sheer individual merit alone, Wall is probably the more deserving choice, but it's hard to argue with getting a redux of last February.
Backcourt: Dwyane Wade (SG, Miami Heat)
2013-14 Stats: 18.9 PPG, 4.8 RPG 4.7 APG, .580 TS%, 21.9 PER
This spot was about as preordained as you can get. Wade plays on the most-covered team on the planet, is coming off two straight championship rings and is one of the league's most recognizable players.
It also helps that, when healthy, Wade still probably holds onto his crowd as the best 2-guard in the world. Playing alongside his MVP-winning teammate, Wade has toned down his usage and ramped up his efficiency for the third straight season. He's hitting a career-high 54 percent of his shots, has had more than a few "Vintage Wade" games and seems determined to make sure he's healthy for the postseason.
The latter point is most salient—because Wade has been saving himself, italics required. Wade will miss his fourth straight and 13th overall game of the season on Thursday against the Lakers. Only twice all season has he appeared in the second game of a back-to-back, a move meant to curb wear and tear on his bothersome knees.
Thirteen games represent more than 30 percent of the Heat's season. As Grantland's Zach Lowe pointed out, LeBron James has actually played more minutes without Wade than with this season. In that way, one could argue that a Wall is more deserving. And, of course, it remains to be seen whether Wade will even suit up in the mid-February classic.
But in the throes of the decrepit East, Wade is still a pretty solid selection.
Frontcourt: Paul George (SF, Indiana Pacers)
2013-14 Stats: 23.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 3.4 APG, .590 TS%, 22.5 PER
No. Complaints. Here.
It's easy to forget that a little more than a year ago, folks were concerned about George's ability to handle "superstar" status. The Pacers got off to a slow start without Danny Granger, George struggled mightily with the ball-handling aspect of his new duties and the team didn't have enough of a scoring punch to compete. Even when Indiana righted the ship with George finishing the season as a third team All-NBA selection, he was a "star" but not that type of star.
George has squashed any lingering doubts this season. He's arguably moved behind LeBron and Kevin Durant as the third-best player in basketball (Chris Paul is also in the conversation), doubling down on his scoring efforts while rising his efficiency. At age 23, George is averaging a career-high scoring output and still upped his true shot percentage by nearly six points.
The increased confidence is apparent in George's free-throw attempts. He's averaging 5.6 per game, a solid but not great number that is still two more than he had a year ago. Teams could fluster him a bit last season by pressing on the ball and forcing turnovers, but while he still has a propensity for ball-handling gaffes, it's clear he's more comfortable in traffic and it shows in all the numbers.
George is also one of the handful of best perimeter defenders in the league. That also helps.
George was appreciative of the fan support after finding out the news via the Associated Press:
It means a lot because that means the fans are really watching us as a team. For us to have the No. 1 record in the league, and playing at a high level, I think the fans are starting to follow us as a whole and I think that's the biggest thing with me being a starter.
Frontcourt: LeBron James (SF, Miami Heat)
2013-14 Stats: 26.2 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 6.5 APG, .661 TS%, 28.9 PER
If this is coasting (and it kind of is), George and the rest of the Eastern Conference better look out come May and June. LeBron isn't the MVP at the season's midpoint—that distinction goes to Durant—but we're still watching one of the 10 best players in history hone his craft to near-flawless levels.
Once a poor, frustratingly flawed jump shooter, James is hitting an above-average rate from beyond the arc from a second straight season—though not quite as proficiently as his 40.6 percent last year. Once a talented but frustratingly unwilling post player, James is now arguably the best post force in the entire league. His 1.197 points per possession on post ups is the best figure in the league for a player with at least 50 possessions, per Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Every single plaudit foisted on James feels earned, which makes it all the bigger testament to Durant that he's pulled ahead in the MVP race. It's become common to criticize LeBron for waltzing his way through the regular season unmotivated, and in some ways that's fair. He, along with the rest of his teammates, is making too many defensive mistakes—specifically his Wadeian propensity for complaining to officials after a missed call.
But the flaws in this man's game are minimal, and he's been working to make those even smaller. Something tells me by the time the playoffs roll around, we'll forget about any "coasting" that may or may not have happened in January.
Frontcourt: Carmelo Anthony (SF, New York Knicks)
2013-14 Stats: 26.1 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 3.1 APG, .542 TS%, 23.5 PER
There are many people to blame for the Knicks' nightmare season. Carmelo Anthony is not one of those people.
While the face of the franchise rightfully takes the brunt of criticism when a team disappoints, Anthony has been who he's always been: a lethal scorer with the propensity to get in his own way sometimes. Anthony isn't a great defender (though he can body up 4s more than we give him credit), he'll get you lost in an iso vortex at times and his body language is usually terrible.
But the man is almost 30 years old. At what point should folks stop deluding themselves into thinking he is or can become something he is not? Anthony isn't the player who can lead you to 50 wins himself, nor is he likely the best player on a championship team—much less this dumpster fire of misfits in New York.
Anthony is an elite scorer, able to hit shots at impossible angles better than probably anyone else in the game. He's also quietly been working his tail off this season. His nine boards a night are by far the best of his career, he's averaging almost 40 minutes per night and he now has to be considered an elite three-point threat.
Maybe none of us would pay the $130 million he'll be due in an extension this summer. Just don't let that obscure the fact he's still a very, very good NBA player.
Backcourt: Stephen Curry (PG, Golden State Warriors)
2013-14 Stats: 23.5 PPG, 9.2 APG, 4.6 RPG, .576 TS%, 22.3 PER
Curry's inclusion comes at the expense of Clippers guard Chris Paul, who owes his absence on this list to his real-life absence in Los Angeles. Fully healthy, there is no right or just world in which Curry starts over Paul—no matter how much his shooting hysterics attempt to break Twitter once a week.
Still, considering the other backcourt starter, it's safe to say Curry is not an egregious choice in the least. He's draining three-pointers in his sleep again—though he's not quite as unconscious this year as last—and may be the most fun point guard in the entire league.
Improvement-wise, Curry's leap as a passer sticks out—both in the numbers and on film. His 9.2 assists per game dwarf anything he's done in previous years; he'd never even hit seven a night before this season. And although the assist uptick has coincided with a career-high 4.0 turnovers per game, the good far outweighs the bad with Curry on the floor.
Case in point: The Warriors average 109.7 points per 100 possessions when Curry is on the floor. League-wide that would be good for second, behind only the Blazers. When Curry sits, however, Golden State averages 87.5 points per 100 possessions. Meaning they would probably have more success fast-balling it off each other's heads and hoping it bounces in the hoop than actually trying to score.
Defense is still an issue—and a big one at that—but it's hard to get too fussy considering his offensive load.
Backcourt: Kobe Bryant (SG, Los Angeles Lakers)
2013-14 Stats: 13.8 PPG, 6.3 APG, 4.3 RPG, .505 TS%, 11.3 PER
This is the one that everyone will get all fussy about, and it's hard to blame them. Bryant 100 percent owes his All-Star status to his overseas popularity and Lakers Nation. He played in six games after coming back from his Achilles tear before fracturing his knee. In those six games, he looked every bit like a 35-year-old dude working to get his sea legs back after possibly the most devastating injury a basketball player can suffer.
And this is somehow considered kosher in a conference that features Tony Parker, Damian Lillard, James Harden, et al. If you want to get angry your favorite player wasn't an All-Star starter, Bryant's name will be the most common complaint. Same for those heavily invested in getting the vote out of the fans' hands.
Here's the thing, though: It won't matter. Bryant is still out with his knee injury and probably still will be by the All-Star break. Dave McMenamin of ESPN noted that Bryant will be re-evaluated next week, and I guess it's possible that he makes it back in time to suit up in New Orleans.
Considering how meticulous Bryant is about his body and how the Lakers' season has gone, it just seems unlikely. Plus, again, this is an exhibition. Is it something he is going to want to put his body through?
We'll see, but odds are this slot goes to someone more deserving come next month.
Frontcourt: Kevin Durant (SF, Oklahoma City Thunder)
2013-14 Stats: 31.0 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 5.1 APG, .640 TS%, 30.7 PER
What can possibly be said about Durant that hasn't already been plastered all over the Internet? He's averaging 36.9 points per game this month while shooting 52.4 percent. Russell Westbrook's latest knee injury hasn't suddenly dipped his efficiency and forced him into Melodom—it's unleashed a beast who is perhaps our most gifted natural scorer since Michael Jeffery Jordan.
It's probable that this version of Durant—the chest-beating, smack-talking, out-of-this-world confident behemoth—has always existed. We saw it somewhat at the University of Texas. But what he has done the last month has taken every good thing about his game and injected it with a cold-bloodedness that's made him captivating to watch.
Kevin Durant. Is. Not. Nice. And it is awesome.
He's unquestionably the league's MVP at the midpoint, and it's tough to see anything changing that barring a long-term injury. That can't be ruled out with the way this season has gone, so let's just knock on every piece of wood available and hope it doesn't happen.
Because if this is what Durant does in the regular season, I can't wait to see the show he puts on in New Orleans.
Blake Griffin (PF, Los Angeles Clippers)
2013-14 Stats: 22.6 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 3.5 APG, .581 TS%, 22.4 PER
Maybe now would be a good time for all of the unfair criticisms of Griffin to dissipate.
No? OK, then. Go ahead being wrong, I guess.
While the mainstream opinion of Griffin continues to be that he's a one-trick pony—"all he does is dunk"—those who have watched his game over the past couple years know that's a misnomer. Griffin has developed into one of the preeminent offensive bigs in the league, equipped with an array of post moves, elite passing ability and a vastly improved outside shot.
The latter has been especially apparent this season. Griffin is knocking down a solid enough 38 percent from mid-range at the season's midpoint, a three-point improvement over a season ago and indicative of the subtle improvements everywhere in his game. The improved shooting touch also shows up in Griffin's free-throw percentage, which is more than eight points better than his career average of 63 percent at 71.5 percent.
The Clippers have also shown no atrophy defensively with Griffin on the floor, a year after the team cratered compared to bench-heavy units. Griffin is improving as a post defender and has vastly improved his pick-and-roll coverage in Doc Rivers' system. At the very least, the questions about the Griffin-DeAndre Jordan front line have slowed down a bit.
Frontcourt: Kevin Love (PF, Minnesota Timberwolves)
2013-14 Stats: 25.0 PPG, 13.0 RPG, 4.1 APG, .586 TS%, 27.2 PER
In a bit of a surprise from the last released results, Love eclipsed Dwight Howard to move into the starting lineup for the first time in his career. While Howard has returned to form in Houston and the widespread criticisms of his game have calmed down, one has to wonder just how much his nightmare Lakers season played a factor in the fan vote.
More deserving of an All-Star berth?
Nonetheless, it's hard to argue that any big man on the planet has better numbers than Love. He would be the first 25-13-4 player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975-76 if the season ended today, and he'd be just the fifth player in league history to put up those numbers. Following a campaign lost to multiple hand injuries, Love has reclaimed his status as the best stretch 4 in basketball and it's been fun to watch.
Minnesota has been a disappointment as a team, and some of the focus has rested on Love's fit alongside Nikola Pekovic on the defensive end. Both players struggle with rim protection, ranking among the bottom tier in opponent field goal percentage, per the NBA's SportVU data.
Seeing as this isn't a team award but an individual one, though, we'll go ahead and say a historic offensive season obscures his poor rim protection.
Love talked about his selection via the Associated Press:
I was hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, and knowing the worst was I was going to still probably end up in the All-Star Game (as a coach's pick) and represent the West and the Wolves and the Twin Cities. Right now, I'm very happy.
It means a lot. It doesn't go unnoticed. The fans have been so great this year not only to me, but to the rest of the team. Everybody's had my back and had the team's back so much. It really means a lot.
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