The Western conference has an abundance of talent, meaning the final cuts for the All-Star team are going to be incredibly difficult. Which players deserve consideration the most?
We are now officially one week away from learning who will be starting in the 2014 NBA All-Star Game and two weeks away from learning the reserves.
Last week's voting returns painted two very different pictures. The East starting five is all but wrapped up, with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Dwyane Wade, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony running away with the vote.
However, outside of Kevin Durant (second leading vote-getter, locked into the starting five), the other four spots are very much up for grabs.
Right now, Kobe Bryant is leading the backcourt vote in the West. As Seth Pollack recently ranted, Bryant will probably come back in time for the All-Star Game and take away a spot from one of the many deserving young guards in the West. If he doesn't play in the game, however, that leaves an injury spot that needs to be filled. The third leading vote-getter guard is Chris Paul, who is also out with injury. That leaves Stephen Curry (who passed Paul in last week's returns) as a voted-in starter and Kobe's spot to be filled later.
In the frontcourt, it's a tight race with players two through six within 125,000 votes of each other. Dwight Howard is second and Blake Griffin is third, but Kevin Love is withing striking distance and LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan aren't out of the picture.
I'll pencil in a Curry-____-Durant-Griffin-Howard starting lineup for the West.
Now we have to fill out the seven bench spots, then pick one more player to replace Bryant. Even with players like Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook out with injuries, the West is still absolutely stacked with All-Star caliber talent. Here's my shortlist: LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Ty Lawson, Kevin Love, Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic, Klay Thompson, David Lee, Goran Dragic, DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, Tony Parker, James Harden, Chandler Parson, Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, Anthony Davis.
The remaining bigs are Aldridge, Love, Pekovic, Lee, Cousins, Dirk, Randolph, and Davis, and every single one of them deserves strong consideration. Just look at the numbers.
We can eliminate Randolph right away. 17 and 10 is a nice stat line, but Z-Bo is starting to get up there and just isn't the same guy. Memphis' struggles also hurt his case.
Dirk Nowitzki is having a very nice season as a scorer, averaging 21 points. However, while Nowitzki has never been known as a great rebounder, this season is his worst season on the boards since his rookie year. Dallas is hanging onto a playoff spot thanks to Nowitzki, but it's not quite enough to crack my team. Many people disagree with me on this point but this is my column.
Kevin Love is putting up 25 and 13. All-Star, easy pick.
Love's teammate Nikola Pekovic is having a tremendous season himself, but 18 and nine isn't quite enough out West. David Lee is doing a little bit more with 19 and 10, but that still isn't enough.
LaMarcus Aldridge is leading the Portland Trailblazers to a top four seed in the playoffs, and his play has even drawn some MVP consideration. He's putting up career highs in points and rebounds. However, his advanced stats - while still good - aren't quite as impressive. The problem with Aldridge (as Bryan Gibberman has pointed out on Twitter) is that his game doesn't produce 3-pointers or a large amount of free throws. It is all post-ups and mid-range jumpers, and that puts a ceiling on how efficient he can be. Even so, 24 and 11 and the third best record in the NBA means he definitely gets a spot.
Now it gets interesting. DeMarcus Cousins is actually putting up slightly better numbers per 36 than Kevin Love is (and is also leading Aldridge in almost every category). Cousins is having a monster year, his best by far. The Kings are still terrible, but Cousins is showing the organization it was right to pay him. While team success is a factor, I'm not one that simply gives all the All-Star spots to players from the best teams. Cousins takes the third frontcourt spot.
That leaves Anthony Davis as the first man out. The top pick of last year's draft has already taken tremendous strides forward in just his second year and is putting up 20, 10 and 3 blocks. Davis is going to be soooooo good.
Love, Aldridge and Cousins get the three frontcourt spots.
As many good big men as there are in the West, there are even more guards even without Paul and Bryant. James Harden, Klay Thompson, Kevin Martin, Monta Ellis, Damian Lillard, Ty Lawson, Mike Conley, Tony Parker, Isaiah Thomas and of course Goran Dragic. That's 10 names for two spots. How the heck am I supposed to only pick two?
Let's start with the shooting guards.
Monta Ellis is having one of if not the best year of his career. He certainly deserves a mention here. However, advanced still do not like his game. He's a scorer with an offensive rating of just 105 and he's a below average player according to win shares. He'd have a stronger case in the East, but in the West he doesn't make the cut for me.
Martin and Thompson are both having spectacular seasons. Thompson has gotten plenty of buzz as one half of Golden State's Splash Brothers, but Martin has actually been just a little bit better almost across the board offensively. Both are putting up 19 points per game and both are shooting very well from deep. But I feel like the point guards all do a bit more and have better arguments than these two.
That leaves James Harden, and he'll be the only shooting guard to make the cut in the West.
Now it gets difficult. On to the point guards, and I only get to choose one for this spot.
Parker is having a very good season and the Spurs continue to win a lot of games. However, Parker is over 30 now and has been there and done that. Leave the All-Star games to the young guys. Also, he's fallen off a bit from his amazing 2012-13 season and is back closer to his career numbers this year, which is too say he's still one of the best point guards in the league but not necessarily a step above like he was last year.
Mike Conley has been really solid for Memphis, running the offense and taking care of the ball. The Grizzlies are starting to win some games now too. The Grizz have had some significant injury problems, most notably to Marc Gasol, and Conley has had to step it up without him. He's also an absolute pest defensively.
Over the last couple years, Ty Lawson has been a guy who has been about as close as you can get to playing like an All-Star without ever getting serious consideration for making the team, and this year he has stepped it up even more. He's putting up career highs up and down the stat sheet and is leading a resurgent Nuggets team without Andre Iguodala or Danilo Gallinari. His shooting percentage has gone down, but there aren't many players capable of putting up 18 and nine like he is.
Isaiah Thomas has been phenomenal this season and has really asserted himself since Greivis Vasquez was traded away. He's not a big name but his numbers are on par with the rest of these guys. Honestly, Thomas might have the best stat-line of the entire group, all things considered.
Damian Lillard has become even more of a sensation this season than he was last year as the Rookie of the Year. Lillard hasn't been much of a passer, averaging less than six assists per game, but Portland's system doesn't require that from him. What they want him to do is bomb away, and that is certainly what he is doing with 21.5 points and over seven 3-point attempts per game at a 44.4 percent clip. Lillard still needs to become a more efficient scorer inside the arc (barely over 40 percent on 2-pointers), but he's a huge part of why the Blazers are doing so well this year.
Finally, Goran Dragic. Pretty much everyone reading this knows how well Dragic has played this year. He's averaging over 19 points and six assists, and his overall season numbers don't even do justice to what we know he can do as he's really stepped up his game during the two stretches without Eric Bledsoe. He's one of the best guard finishers in the league, shooting a higher percentage inside the arc than even Tony Parker, the gold standard for point guard finishers. He's brought his 3-point percentage up from where it was early in the year as well, hovering around 37 percent. He's shooting 49 percent from the field and 80 percent from the free-throw line. He trails only Lillard among these six point guards in win shares. And he's doing all of this with an incredibly heavy workload as he is the Suns' best distributor as well as their best finisher, and it can't be easy to balance those two roles, especially with the amount of defensive focus he sees without Bledsoe on the court. Nearly everyone on the team is having a career year, an as most of them are shooters, a lot of that has to be credited to Dragic as the one creating many of those open looks. Goran Dragic has been outstanding and is worthy of being named an All-Star. But is he the most worthy?
I have one spot to hand out in this section. Each of these guys deserves it, but I'm going to have to give it to Lillard. Leading scorer, leader in win shares and a key cog on the second best team in the West. I also need to name a Bryant replacement, and for that I will go with Ty Lawson.
Harden and Lillard are my reserve guards, with Lawson making the team as well.
Two spots left. Time for the final cuts. I'm giving one to a big and one to a guard.
First, my final frontcourt All-Star is Anthony Davis. He does so many things for that Pelicans squad and is seemingly getting better every day. He makes a big impact on the scoreboard, on the glass and on defense as well. He's the total package and he'd be a heckuva lot of fun to watch in an All-Star game.
One spot left, and yes, I'm going with Goran Dragic. I spelled out his case above, so I'm not going to repeat it. Sorry Mike, Tony and Isaiah, but this is a Suns blog.
G: Curry, Lillard, Lawson
G: Harden, Dragic
F: Durant, Davis
F: Griffin, Love, Aldridge
F: Howard, Cousins
How does this team compare to my Eastern Conference team?
I reserve the right to change my mind whenever I feel like it. In fact, I'm already reconsidering my Lawson pick and thinking I should put Parker in instead. Or Conley.
The one thing I hope you take away from this is how many good players - and more importantly - how many good point guards there are in the West. There is a very real possibility (and perhaps it is the most likely outcome) that Dragic does not make the team. And there is nothing wrong with that. With so many good players, it simply comes down to preference. Each and every one of these guys has a really strong argument, so don't take offense if Goran misses out. All that means is there are more All-Stars in the West than there are spots on the team.