The vast talent divide that separates the NBA's Eastern and Western Conferences only seems to be growing, and the 2014 All-Star Game is going to make that fact more obvious than ever.
Most of the discourse surrounding conference inequality focuses on how the East is likely going to send as many as six teams to the playoffs that wouldn't rank among the top 10 out West. That's patently unfair, and you can bet that Adam Silver is going to address it when he takes over the reins from David Stern.
More immediately, we're about to see a handful of All-Star-worthy players miss out on a trip to New Orleans in February—just because they happen to play in the wrong conference.
It doesn't have to be that way, though.
To illustrate that point, we've eliminated conferences and picked All-Star rosters based solely on merit. As a starting point, we'll split up LeBron James and Kevin Durant. From there, all we have to do is divide the talent evenly until we've filled out two rosters with 12 players each.
We'll keep the same positional rules that the league uses: two backcourt starters, three frontcourt starters, two backcourt reserves, three frontcourt reserves and two wild cards. Other than that, it's a free-for-all. Conferences don't matter, and the best 24 players in the league will be All-Stars.
Now we'll really see who deserves a trip to the Big Easy.
We start out with a pair of guards from the West, one of whom—Chris Paul—was actually voted in as a starter in real life. There's some doubt as to whether CP3's shoulder will be healthy enough to let him suit up for the game, but he sounds like he's ready to do everything possible to give it a go.
Per Arash Markazi of ESPN, Paul said:
If I can play, I'm going to play, I love to play that much. The All-Star Game is in New Orleans and that's part of me. That's where I played my very first All-Star Game at. Anytime you have that opportunity, I'm not going to pass that up because it's not guaranteed to happen next year.
I don't think we need to delve too deeply into Paul's credentials. He's the best point guard alive and is probably the third-best player in the league.
James Harden earns the second backcourt spot on the strength of his overall offensive efficiency. His shooting numbers are down this year, especially from long distance, but he gets to the line so frequently that he still grades out as one of the best scorers in the NBA.
Team LeBron is off to a strong start.
How's this for a scary frontcourt trio?
Even if we dispense with that fiction, Hibbert is a deserving member of this team. He's been nearly as valuable to the front-running Indiana Pacers as his more heralded teammate Paul George.
Note that of the five players we've named so far, three of them hail from the West. And all of them are near locks to make the real All-Star Game. In other words, we haven't yet seen much change from what the eventual rosters might look like.
Don't worry, though—we'll see a West-heavy slant from here on out.
Damian Lillard is our first instance of a player who is on the bubble for the real All-Star Game but is be a shoo-in here. The West is crowded with great guards, but since we've gotten rid of conferences, he has some room to breathe.
He's been an integral part of the Portland Trail Blazers' league-best offense, might come close to matching the record for most threes made in a season and has picked up his defense since his rookie year. That's more than enough to warrant a spot here.
Kyle Lowry has been good enough to deserve a starting gig by many measures, but he'll have to settle for a backup role on this team because, well, he's stuck behind CP3 and "The Beard." There's no shame in that.
His aggression on offense and penchant for creating chaos on D have helped make him the Toronto Raptors' best player this season.
Team LeBron's frontcourt is loaded, thanks to the addition of a pair of terrific scorers in Dirk Nowitzki and Carmelo Anthony and a defensive stud in Anthony Davis on the bench.
Nowitzki is flirting with a 50-40-90 season on offense and isn't showing any signs of slowing down at age 35.
Despite a rough year for his New York Knicks, 'Melo is still putting up excellent numbers. Even though he plays in the inferior conference, he clearly belongs on any All-Star team.
The case for Davis is a little tough, largely because his New Orleans Pelicans are one of the worst defensive teams in the league and have slipped nearly to the bottom of the Western Conference. But he's not the reason for their awful D, and as the only viable nominee from the team that plays in the host city, he's deserving of a spot.
We round out Team LeBron with two more entries from the West.
Both Tony Parker and Serge Ibaka might wind up as snubs in the real All-Star Game, but because we can steal a couple of spots from less-deserving Eastern Conference players, they make the cut here.
In truth, it'd be crazy to exclude Parker from this or any other collection of the league's best players. He's the most important piece of a San Antonio Spurs team that has managed to stay among the NBA's elite despite an ongoing epidemic of injuries.
Thanks to their point guard's flawless execution and dynamic leadership, the Spurs are as dangerous as ever.
As for Ibaka, it's probably time that we acknowledge Kevin Durant isn't the only reason why the Oklahoma City Thunder have survived without Russell Westbrook for such a large portion of the year. The big man has gone from a player whose blocked shots created the illusion of good overall defense to one of the most genuinely impactful stoppers in the league.
He might not be one of the best 12 players in the West and therefore has long odds to make the real All-Star team. But he's one of the top 24 players in the league. That's good enough to earn a selection on this squad.
We kick off Team Durant with a true no-brainer.
Stephen Curry is one of the deadliest shooters in the league and has drastically improved as a facilitator, ranking second in the NBA in assists per game.
It would be nice if he cut down on the turnovers (he leads the league in that category), but that's what happens when the Golden State Warriors ask him to create almost everything on the offensive end. Despite that wart, he'll be a starter in New Orleans.
Wall is arguably a better player than Irving right now, but what's not debatable is that the Washington Wizards are enjoying a heck of a lot more success than the Cleveland Cavaliers. That has to count for something.
At some point, Irving has to be held accountable for his team's poor play, his increasingly unhappy demeanor and his still-absent leadership. Based on his exclusion from these two rosters, I guess "some point" means "right now."
Wall deserves this nod more than Irving does.
In addition to the team captain, Paul George and Dwight Howard round out the frontcourt of a squad that's starting to look dangerous.
There's scoring aplenty between Curry and Wall in the backcourt and KD up front. And by adding George and D12 to the mix, we have a balanced, frighteningly skilled group that will match up nicely with Team LeBron .
Maybe I'm being a little too old school, but I like the idea of having Howard square off with Hibbert, while a bunch of freakishly athletic players mill around the perimeter.
Somebody get Adam Silver on the line: Getting rid of conferences makes this whole process way more fun. He'll probably want to know that.
Dwyane Wade has missed 13 games this year, which nearly disqualifies him from making the roster. His efficiency numbers make him an excellent player when he's on the court, but his repeated absences cut into his overall value.
Still, it's difficult to exclude a guy who, when healthy, is probably the best shooting guard alive.
Goran Dragic, like Lillard before him, might wind up missing out on a trip to New Orleans this year. The West is just too loaded with great guards.
Here, though, he gets a spot because he's not stuck competing against Paul, Curry, Harden, Lillard, Mike Conley, Kobe Bryant and Tony Parker for one of just six available spots. All Dragic had to do to make this roster was be one of the dozen best guards in the NBA.
He's easily in that class, which he has shown by leading the Phoenix Suns into playoff position, despite the absence of Eric Bledsoe and a roster filled with castoffs and inexperienced players.
Dragic has a player efficiency rating north of 20.0, defends better than most give him credit for and presents a nightmare for defenses in transition. Best of all, his contract contains a $1 million bonus for making the All-Star team, according to Paul Coro of AZCentral.com.
That's right—Dragic is cashing in.
Ready to be blown away? Good, because we're about to run through an unbelievably strong cast of reserve frontcourt players.
In Kevin Love, DeMarcus Cousins and LaMarcus Aldridge, we have three players who rank in the top eight in PER, per Basketball-Reference.com. Aldridge deserves the lion's share of the credit for making the Blazers a fringe championship contender, while Love's Minnesota Timberwolves have the statistical profile (if not the luck) of a clear playoff team.
Cousins is a harder sell because of his team's lack of success. But he's been a revelation this year on offense, scoring inside and finally using his size to bully opponents in the paint. DMC still isn't much of a defender, but his overall statistics are too good to ignore.
Let's face it: Conley isn't going to be a part of the festivities in New Orleans as long as teams are divided by conference. Here, though, he's in.
Best of all, he totally deserves it.
Conley has been a rock in assuming a larger role than ever before and steadying the Grizz during Marc Gasol’s absence. Memphis ranked 14th in points per possession while Gasol recovered from a knee injury. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a freaking miracle for this team, and Conley deserves most of the credit.
Chris Bosh might be a somewhat controversial selection. Detractors argue one of two things: Either he benefits from the lack of attention that defenses can afford to pay him because of his star teammates, or his overall numbers just aren't strong enough to make the cut.
Well, there's not much he can do about how opponents treat him, and his remarkable spike in efficiency (especially from three-point land) makes his statistics All-Star-worthy in my book.
Team LeBron Starters: Chris Paul, James Harden, LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Roy Hibbert
Team LeBron Reserves: Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki, Anthony Davis, Tony Parker, Serge Ibaka
Team Durant Starters: John Wall, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Dwight Howard
Team Durant Reserves: Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMarcus Cousins, Chris Bosh, Mike Conley
If it was hard to keep track over the course of 10 slides and 24 players, here's the final roster breakdown. Spoiler alert: The Western Conference is well-represented.
Eliminating conferences leaves us with a whopping 16 players from the West and just eight representatives from the East. If that seems at all unfair, I'd encourage you to consult the league standings. There, you'll find four Eastern Conference teams with positive per-game point differentials.
The Western Conference boasts 11 such squads.
The chasm between the quality of teams in the East and the West isn't an accident. It's not some kind of fluke. Instead, it's caused by the West's obvious talent advantage. If anything, the East is lucky to have half as many All-Star entrants as the West.
The All-Star Game is all about giving the fans what they want. If the league is seriously committed to that goal, maybe we'll eventually see the best players represented, regardless of conference.