With the starters already set for the 2014 NBA All-Star Game, it's time to get down to the ugly business of predicting which reserves will make the cut to join them in New Orleans.
What could possibly be unpleasant about predicting which stars will be honored with reserve nominations?
Well, the snubs, of course.
More than any year in recent memory, 2014 features a glut of deserving candidates out West. And it's going to be impossible to avoid slighting some legitimately worthy players. Even the inferior East has a handful of too-close-to-call races which, of course, we'll go ahead and call anyway.
As a refresher, NBA coaches select the reserves and are required to pick two backcourt players, three frontcourt players and a pair of "wild cards" from any position they like. It's a tough task to predict how the panel of coaches will vote, but making those actual selections is going to be even tougher.
The lesson here? There's nothing easy about being a head coach in the NBA—even when it comes to parts of the job that have nothing to do with coaching.
The official reserves will be named Thursday, Jan. 30 on TNT. With the announcement drawing near, it's time to make final predictions as to which players will wind up in New Orleans and which ones will be nursing a serious case of the snubs.
It's hard to find a pair of guards in the East who have meant more to their teams than John Wall and Kyle Lowry. In fact, it's not a stretch to argue they've both done more to deserve starting nods than Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving, two players who'll be on the floor for the opening tip.
Wall is enjoying the best season of his career, thanks to an improved jumper and a better grasp on the concept that he doesn't have to do everything at 200 miles per hour. As he's matured, Wall has slowed down, improved his court vision and become a much better facilitator.
His immense value to the Washington Wizards is especially obvious when you look at how the team's offense completely disappears without its dynamic point guard running the show. Per NBA.com, Washington's offensive rating is a solid 104.6 when Wall is on the floor. Without him, that figure plummets to 91.0.
That's akin to going from an offense that scores like the Golden State Warriors to one that produces points at a level far below the league-worst mark of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Don't worry, though; for all of Wall's subtle growth and statistical value he's still among the league's fastest end-to-end threats. When he turns the burners on, it's a sight to see—provided your eyes are quick enough to follow him up the floor.
Lowry has been the most impactful player on a Toronto Raptors team that came to life after trading Rudy Gay. His aggression toggle switch is usually stuck somewhere between the "rabid" and "murderous" settings, which makes him an absolute nightmare for opposing guards who aren't up to the challenge of his physical attacks.
He may have a reputation as being difficult to coach, but it's going to be nearly impossible to deny him the honor of a reserve spot this year.
They couldn't find favor with the fans, but centers are going to strike back by dominating the reserve nominations in the frontcourt.
Joakim Noah has been on an absolute tear over the past month, holding the Chicago Bulls together on both ends. He's the anchor of a defense that remains solid and is pretty much the only skilled facilitator for an offense that lacks intuitive passers.
Chris Bosh might not be an actual center, but he plays the role admirably for the Miami Heat. In the middle of his best season since coming to South Beach, the floor-stretching big is burying threes at a 37 percent clip while doing battle with much larger opponents on the other end.
He's vital to Miami's success, and the coaches who spend sleepless nights trying to figure out how to cover him are going to find it hard to avoid naming him to the reserves.
If the All-Star starters earned their positions by merit and not popular vote, Roy Hibbert would have been on the first unit easily. He's on a very short list of NBA players who are capable of dominating a game without scoring, and he deserves the lion's share of credit for what the Indiana Pacers are doing this year.
The Pacers are set for a historic defensive season, and while Hibbert has help through George’s top-tier wing defense, sturdy coverage options at every position and the guidance of coach Frank Vogel, it’s his unique abilities as a rim protector that make it all possible.
Indy is the league's best team because Hibbert captains a historically good defense. That's worth a reserve spot.
Lance Stephenson's big step forward has been well documented this season. Now sharing ball-handling duties with George Hill in the backcourt, he's functioning as an integral piece of Indy's half-court offense. At the same time, the raw aggression that has always made him a dangerous player in transition remains undiluted.
He's a terror on defense as well, which is something of a prerequisite in Indiana.
As much as anything, though, I'm guessing the coaches will want to reward the Pacers' immense success this year by giving it the same number of All-Star representatives as Miami in this year's exhibition. The Heat's star trio is likely to be in New Orleans, so it's only fair that the team ahead of them in the standings also gets three nods.
Stephenson has a great chance to join Hibbert and Paul George.
Paul Millsap is a tougher sell here, largely because his team hasn't had nearly the same amount of success as Stephenson's. But the Atlanta Hawks are arguably the third-best team in the conference, and Millsap has done more to keep them afloat without Al Horford than anybody else.
He's tough, he plays extremely hard and he's added a reliable three-point shot to his arsenal. And despite the increased burden of carrying a team without its biggest star, Millsap's efficiency hasn't taken much of a hit.
Chris Paul is the best guard on the planet, which is a pretty good place to start when listing his credentials as a Western Conference reserve.
It's possible that the Los Angeles Clippers' impressive record since he went down with a shoulder injury might diminish his value in the eyes of some fans, but the coaches voting on these spots know full well how terrifyingly effective he is.
The aforementioned shoulder injury has Paul's availability somewhat up in the air, but it definitely won't keep the coaches from naming him to the roster.
James Harden's numbers are slightly down across the board this season. He's struggling from long distance and his poor defensive play has met with serious scrutiny for the first time in his career.
Despite all that, The Beard will most likely wind up among the West reserves. He's still a devastating scorer whose relentless drives into the lane create havoc for interior defenders. Nobody keeps Harden out of the paint, and nobody can avoid fouling him when he gets there.
It'd be nice if Harden was a respectable defender, but he wouldn't be the first All-Star to warrant a position on the strength of his offensive contributions alone.
Don't feel bad about Dwight Howard losing his starting spot to Kevin Love after a last-minute voting surge vaulted the Minnesota Timberwolves forward into the first unit. D12 will still find his way to New Orleans.
The West is going to need him, too. Conventional centers may have fallen out of fashion a bit, but the East still projects to have a couple of big boys on the roster. So Howard's size is going to be a valuable commodity.
Expect Howard to be joined by second-year superstar Anthony Davis, the hometown favorite in the Big Easy and a deserving All-Star regardless of the game's location. His terrifying mix of defensive versatility and offensive polish has made him one of the only bright spots for an injury-riddled, defensively inept New Orleans Pelicans squad this year.
Davis is probably slated for at least a dozen trips to the All-Star Game in his career. Might as well get started now.
It's easy to make the case for LaMarcus Aldridge as an All-Star reserve. He's having a career year on the West's most surprising team, anchors an offense that has ranked at or near the top of the league all season long and seems to play his best against the elite forwards in the conference.
Those are all fine arguments, but Aldridge might have made the best one himself after learning of his starting snub. He dropped 44 points on the Denver Nuggets in his very next game. Despite the outburst, he remained calm about his exclusion from the starting five.
Per Ben Golliver of Blazer's Edge, Aldridge said:
I've kind of gotten used to those things happening. Everybody around me was more upset than me. I came in tonight and [Nicolas Batum] was pretty fired up about it. My mom was pretty heated about it. Me, I was like, 'OK, this is happening again.'
I think I definitely should have been a starter. But it's over with now, basically.
Aldridge won't be a starter, but he'll definitely be among the Western Conference reserves.
Flip a coin. Draw straws. Play rock, paper, scissors.
Any of those methods seems preferable to actually picking between the ridiculous number of deserving candidates for the West's final two spots. No matter whom you select, there'll still be plenty of guys among the excluded with viable claims to a reserve slot.
We'll get into those players momentarily, but we'll set the scene by predicting that veterans Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker will round out the roster.
The Diggler is quietly having a season on par with some of his very best. His shooting efficiency remains elite, he's the offensive focal point of a team currently in playoff position and his arsenal of off-balance leaners remains as deadly as ever.
Per Grantland's Zach Lowe: "I’ve seen some All-Star lists omit Nowitzki. Hi, welcome to reality. He’s eighth in PER, and he’s not far from another 50-40-90 season at age 35. Madness."
I'm not sure the coaches will view Dirk's credentials as being clearly superior to those of his competition. But he's got the reputation and production to warrant a spot.
Finally, you've probably noticed that the San Antonio Spurs don't have an All-Star starter and haven't had anybody from their roster mentioned so far. The coaches voting on the final spot will likely notice that too, which is why Parker is in line to snag the final position.
There's just no way San Antonio gets shut out of the All-Star Game. It's not possible.
You could make the argument that things like culture, consistency and overall scheme are the real reasons behind the Spurs' continued dominance. But that overlooks the fact that Parker is the man who makes this team function on offense.
There are plenty of other deserving options here, but none of them play such a major role for such a terrific team.
Parker and Dirk are in. Score two for the old dogs.
The overall level of play in the East is substantially lower than what we've seen from the West this year, but that doesn't change the fact that there are a handful of players who'll be disappointed come Jan. 30.
Based on the preceding predictions, the most notable East snub this year could be DeRozan. He's played nearly as well as his teammate Lowry, and has done so for a Raptors team that could wind up entering the playoffs as the No. 3 seed.
Afflalo has a strong case, too. He's been the Orlando Magic's best player this season and has been remarkably productive across the board. An ugly team record makes it a bit easier to exclude him, though.
Where to begin?
Cousins has been a statistical beast this season, but will probably suffer because of his team's horrible record and his reputation among coaches. Lee and Duncan are key pieces on a pair of the West's best teams, Ibaka has made strides on both ends and Conley kept the Memphis Grizzlies afloat when Marc Gasol went down.
And then there's Lillard, on pace for a historically prolific season from long distance and running the point for a top-notch offense. It'll be painful to leave him out, too.
But Dragic is the man with the most to lose. If he doesn't make it, the Phoenix Suns will be the only Western Conference playoff team without a representative and he'll miss out on a $1 million bonus in his contract. Double ouch.
Fortunately, Kobe Bryant is likely to skip the festivities and Paul's status is uncertain. That means the commissioner will get to make as many as two replacement selections.
If any of these guys suffer a dip in performance over the next few weeks, it'll be because they're finding it hard to play with their fingers crossed.
Eastern Conference Starters: Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George
Eastern Conference Reserves: John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah, Chris Bosh, Lance Stephenson, Paul Millsap
Western Conference Reserves: Chris Paul, James Harden, Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis, Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki