The latest All-Star voting returns are in. The starting five is as good as locked in, but who deserves to be named reserves?

We are two weeks away from the 2014 NBA All-Star Game starters being announced, three weeks from learning the reserves and five weeks from All-Star weekend itself.

On Wednesday, the latest returns for All-Star voting were released. In a complete and total shock, the two best players in the league - LeBron James and Kevin Durant - led all vote-getters.

Those two are locks to start the game. They will be joined in New Orleans by eight other starters and 14 reserves. Which players are going to take those spots? Let's take a closer look.

Eastern Conference

As I said, LeBron James is leading the East - and the entire NBA - in voting. Paul George and Carmelo Anthony are running away with the second and third frontcourt spots. Those three will be starting in the East.

In the backcourt, it's pretty clear cut as well with Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving way ahead of third place Derrick Rose (who is out for the season anyway).

Irving-Wade-George-James-Anthony. That is your starting five in the East and it doesn't really matter how any of them are playing.

That leaves three frontcourt, two backcourt and two wild card spots. Looking over rosters, my shortlist for reserves in the East includes Roy Hibbert, Chris Bosh, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Paul Millsap, Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond, Al Jefferson, Nikola Vucevic, Thaddeus Young, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Lance StephensonJeff Teague, John Wall, Brandon Jennings, Kemba Walker, Arron Afflalo, and Michael Carter-Williams.


Josh Smith: 15 points, seven rebounds and 40 percent shooting. No. Greg Monroe (15 points, nine rebounds, 50 percent shooting) and Andre Drummond (13 points, 13 rebounds, 60 percent shooting) are playing well, but Smith's (and Brandon Jennings') chuckiness plus the team's poor record hurts their case.

Vucevic is having a nice season (13 and 11) but Orlando is awful. Al Jefferson is himself, putting up 17 and 10, but Charlotte isn't very good either. Thaddeus Young is putting up 18 and seven but he might not even still be in the Eastern Conference by the All-Star break.

That leaves five players from my list.

Chris Bosh is putting up solid numbers on very good shooting percentages and he's only playing 30 minutes per game (per 36 he is at 19 and eight). Chris Bosh is an All-Star yet again.

Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah are both doing what they always do. Hibbert is the anchor of the best defense in the NBA, while Noah is putting up a double-double in addition to dishing out almost four assists per game. Both of these guys are All-Stars.

So the three frontcourt reserves are Chris Bosh, Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah. We'll take another look at Luol Deng and Paul Millsap when we get to the wildcards.


Can we just give the Eastern reserve guard spots to the West please? No Rose, no Rondo, Deron Williams is a shell of himself... So who makes it?

Kemba Walker, Brandon Jennings and Michael Carter-Williams are all putting up big numbers, but their teams are awful and their efficiency numbers are almost as bad.

That leaves six players on the list.

Jeff Teague is putting up great numbers, but his advanced stats and efficiency numbers are more in line with the guys I already eliminated than the others below.

Lance Stephenson is having a great year for the Pacers and he's doing a lot of things. 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists is a pretty nice stat-line. He belongs in the discussion, but I don't think he's an All-Star.

John Wall is perhaps the last of the freakishly athletic point guards that is still healthy now that Eric Bledsoe has followed Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook into the injury list. This kind of exhibition is made for him. After a slow start, Wall has picked it up and is putting up 19 points and nine assists per game and has his Wizards fighting for a home playoff series. He's an All-Star.

Kyle Lowry's name has been tossed around in trade speculation, but he's having a terrific season and has been even better since Rudy Gay was shipped out. His teammate DeMar DeRozan has been pretty darn good as well, averaging 21 points per game. If only one of these guys were to make it, I'd probably lean Lowry as he does more things for his team. And if you hadn't noticed, the Raptors have been pretty good lately with him leading the charge.

Few people have probably realized it as he's wasting away in obscurity down in Orlando, but Aaron Afflalo has been unbelievable this year. He's posting a 20-4-4 stat line on 47 percent from the field and 42 percent from deep. There's a possibility Orlando trades him before the All-Star break, but if he's still in the Eastern Conference he deserves to make the All-Star team. Orlando may be awful, but that definitely isn't his fault and I don't think this is just a case of putting up big numbers on a bad team.

I'm going with John Wall and Aaron Afflalo as my back-up guards.


This is where it gets tough. Two spots left, and there are three guys I think deserve to make it.

Deng is having a 19-7-4 season in addition to the work he does defensively. However, he just got traded to Cleveland and we will have to see how he adjusts to his new team. If his numbers fall off or he can't stay healthy, I'd leave him off my team. However, if he's able to help that Cleveland team start to win, it would be hard not to send him to New Orleans.

As I wrote above, Lowry is leading the resurgent Raptors to within a game of third place in the East. His advanced stats are ridiculous (his offensive rating is 120!). As I also wrote above, Lowry is their best player ahead of DeRozan so he is out of the running.

The Raptors are a game out of third place, but the Atlanta Hawks are currently in third and Paul Millsap has been a big reason for that. Now that Al Horford (who would have made this team if he were healthy) is out for the season, Millsap has had to step up alongside Teague as the team's go-to guys.

I did a bit of crowdsourcing on Twitter, and every response I got was for Lowry and Millsap. Therefore, those two get the final two spots on my All-Star team. Deng is first injury alternate.

My Team

There you have it. My Eastern Conference All-Star team.

G: Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Kyle Lowry

G: Dwyane Wade, Arron Afflalo

F: Paul George, Paul Millsap

F: LeBron James, Chris Bosh

F: Carmelo Anthony, Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah

How does it look? Did I miss the mark on some players? Did I snub someone more deserving? Let me know.

Stay tuned for part two next week to see how Goran Dragic stacks up in the more talented and wild, wild Western Conference.

The Grizzlies have had the Suns number this season. Now it's time for the Suns to get their number (103). Can the Suns force Memphis into a fast and frenetic tempo, or is Phoenix headed for another grisly fate?

When: Friday January 10, 2014, 6:00 PM local time (8:00 EST)

Where: FedExForum, Memphis, Tennessee

Watch/Listen: TV: Fox Sports AZ Radio: 620 KTAR


Last Meeting:

The Suns lost at home 99-91 to Memphis just eight days ago (January 2nd) in a bruising game where the Grizzlies controlled the style and pace. The Suns were actually ahead going into the fourth quarter (73-69) by virtue of outscoring the Grizz 32-16 in the third (including an 18-0 run), but quickly surrendered the lead and went down by six. Goran Dragic hit a three to cut the lead to three (84-81), but Jerryd Bayless, who scored 11 in the fourth, incited a 10-3 run with a jumper and concluded it with a three pointer. The Suns never closed to less than seven in the final four minutes.

Zach Randolph (20 points, 15 rebounds) and Ed Davis (16 points, 11 rebounds) combined to torment the Suns in the interior game. Dragic had a career high 33 points to go with seven assists, but his valorous effort was squandered in the defeat. Check out the full recap here if you're a masochist.

Memphis leads the season series 2-0. The Grizzlies won the first game between the teams this season 110-91 at the FedExForum. Phoenix leads the all-time head-to-head series 48-21.


Team Bios:

Memphis Grizzlies: 15-19

Points per game: 96.1 (22)     Points allowed: 97.4 (6)

ORtg: 105.8 (14)     DRtg: 107.2 (20)

Full team statistics.

Well, the Suns won't have to worry about getting razed by Jerryd Bayless in tonight's game. He has taken his repugnance skills to Boston. Coming back to Memphis in the exchange is Courtney Lee, who is shooting 44% from three point range on the season. Lee scored 12 points in his first game as a Grizzly, but the team fell to the San Antonio Spurs in an excruciating overtime loss by a score of 110-108. Memphis had appeared to be in for a drubbing, but made a vehement charge to come back from a 91-75 deficit with 4:58 left to force the extra session. Ultimately, though, a Manu Ginobili layup with 1.8 seconds in overtime was the death knell. Mike Conley scored 30 points in the loss.

Memphis is trying to weather a protracted and tempestuous stretch without All-NBA center Marc Gasol, who has been out since November 22nd with a knee sprain. Gasol is back to light court work, with a return to game action in the near future likely. Mike Conley (17.6 points, 6.3 assists) and Zach Randolph (17.1 points, 10.3 rebounds) have done their best to hold down the fort. Overall, the Grizz are 8-13 without Gasol in the lineup (8-14 including the game he was injured).

Memphis is still playing the same grinding, methodical pace they did last season, but their defensive rating has plummeted from second in the league last season all the way to 20th this season. Kind of an easy way to illustrate Gasol's impact. Memphis is still rebounding well this campaign, as they stand third overall in total team rebounding %.


Phoenix Suns: 21-13

Points per game: 103.2 (9)     Points allowed: 100.3 (14)

ORtg: 107.7 (10)     DRtg: 104.7 (12)

Full team statistics.

The luster of an exciting game winner by Gerald (trampoline) Green was sullied by reports less than 24 hours later that Eric Bledsoe would require surgery on his right knee due to a meniscus tear. Bledsoe had successful surgery on the knee today and there is hope he might return at some point in the second half of the season. As high as Green got off the ground on that jumper this terrible news would be better represented by an entity of a more chthonic variety. Some people have embraced a defeatist and disconsolate attitude, claiming that the Suns will miss the playoffs or maybe just squeak in... or worse, end up 13th or 14th in the no man's land of the lottery. Expectations have been tempered and doubt has escalated... Remember how that worked out at the beginning of the season?

Goran is still beasting, averaging 23.8 points and six assists in the four games since Bledsoe's injury, as he continues to build a solid All-Star resumé. Channing Frye has also been exceptional over this span and has hit 16 of 32 three pointers. Green appears (to me) more engaged in a starting role and has averaged 15.5 points per game during this stretch. Unfortunately, the Morrii have only put up an average of 15.3 points combined over this same period.

While Phoenix's 104-103 win over Minnesota didn't seem well played as a whole there were still some standout performances. Goran Dragic had game highs in points (26) and assists (9) while also puling down six rebounds. Maybe most impressive was Frye, though, who scored 22 points (hitting five threes) while his rebarbative defense confounded Kevin Love into shooting just 4-20 from the field. Not a lot of us were expecting Channing to win that one-on-one matchup. Meanwhile, Green resurrected a fairly pedestrian game with that dagger from the corner. Leandro Barbosa also made his (return) debut and had three points, three assists and three rebounds in 13 minutes. The team is surely hoping he can become acclimated and contribute to a weakened backcourt.


What To Watch For:

Tempo - The Suns have been deluded into playing Memphis style basketball in the previous two games. They've been discomfited by a Grizzlies defense that hasn't been all that stalwart overall. In each of the two games the Suns managed just 91 points, over 12 points below their season average. Gonna have to do better than that.

Interior Presence - In the last game the teams played the trio of Randolph, Ed Davis and Kosta Koufos combined for 46 points and 35 rebounds.  Miles Plumlee and the Morrii managed just a measly 20 points and 18 rebounds. These disparate performances helped contribute to Memphis outrebounding Phoenix 59-40, including +6 on offensive rebounds. Gonna have to do better than that.

From Way Downtown - After a calamitous 7-29 performance from three point range back on December 3rd in Memphis the Suns went 8-30 from deep in their curtain call last Thursday. Gonna have to do better than that.


For What it's Worth:

Remember 103?  When I broached this subject before the season Hornacek was optimistic that the team could hit, or surpass, that scoring mark in the upcoming campaign. Some scoffed at this notion. Right now they're at 103.2 per game.  The significance of 103 lately... The Suns have won 11 straight games when they've scored at least 103 points.

The Suns are 5-5 when playing with Dragic and without Bledsoe. The Suns are 2-1 when playing with Bledsoe and without Dragic. Three games isn't a very big sample size. If Dragic had missed one more game and they lost it would have been 2-2. .500 ball. If the Suns win tonight they will be one game over .500 without Bledsoe... just like they are without Dragic. I'm just not ready to concede that the team is better sans Dragic than it is without Bledsoe. Remember, when Dragic was out for three games Markieff Morris was downright filthy in garnering Player of the Week honors. In the two losses to the Kings he combined for five points and three rebounds... Just something to ruminate over.


The Final Word(s):

A win tonight would be Brobdingnagian to help the team build confidence in the wake of Bledsoe's injury update and the indefinite timeline for his return. Memphis has given the Suns fits, but the Detroit Pistons (tomorrow's opponent) have lost eight of their last nine and will also be on a back-to-back since they play at Philadelphia tonight. How good would a three game road win streak feel going into that Knicks, who have won four of five and dispatched the Heat last night, game on Monday?

Eric Bledsoe had arthroscopic surgery on his torn meniscus today, and the Phoenix Suns are optimistic he will return to action this season.

The surgery on Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe's knee was successful today.

The surgery was performed in Phoenix by renowned Suns team doctor and knee surgeon Thomas Carter. Bledsoe will immediately begin a recovery and rehabilitation program and will pursue a possible return to action during the second half of this NBA season.

The key on the surgery for Bledsoe was a likelihood that he could play again this season.

While no details of the surgery were shared, a source close to the team expressed optimism to me that Bledsoe will indeed return in the second half of the season.

More details will follow, but for now his agent Rich Paul has not shared any details on the surgery either.

Lost amid the Eric Bledsoe hoopla: For the fourth consecutive year, Phoenix Suns point guard Goran Dragic is exceeding expectations and raising the ceiling of his career. He is now knocking on the door of an All-Star berth.

Over the past five years, Phoenix Suns fans have witnessed the growth of a true NBA talent from his infancy to the verge of an All-Star berth.

Lost amid the Eric Bledsoe hoopla, the Phoenix Suns still have their heart and soul running the point guard position. After this season, as he witnesses players dropping like flies around him, we may have to give Goran Dragic a new nickname: The Iron Dragon.

Five years ago, the Suns had a "deer in the headlights" 22-year old rookie named Goran Dragic playing ineffective spot minutes behind All-Star Steve Nash. For context, that's three yrs older than Archie Goodwin and two years older than Alex Len are right now. Dragic couldn't dribble the basketball out of a paper bag, couldn't shoot well, and couldn't finish at the rim. And as the point guard, he couldn't generate many points for the team, couldn't use his off hand for anything, shot just 39% from the field and had nearly as many turnovers as assists.

But he flashed some moxie despite the Opie looks. When a player (Jamaal Tinsley, I believe) passed the ball between Dragic's legs, Goran returned the favor on the next play. When a Kings player stole the ball in open court from Dragic, the Slovenian ran him down to take the ball back. There were flashes, but they were few and far between. A noted columnist from ESPN famously (infamously?) wrote that "Goran Tragic* is the worst player in the NBA".

*could this nickname be the source of career-long mispronunciation of Drah-gitch's name?

A year later, during the 2009-10 season, Dragic improved. He became a viable backup to Nash, and even carried the team through occasional stretches of brilliance during their 28-7 late season run to the playoffs. And when the playoffs came - Dragic's one and only playoff experience to date - he was a darling of the nation. To this day, his most memorable national moment was that fourth Q against San Antonio. You know the one.

In the span of one season, our little Slovenian's nickname changed from "Tragic" to "The Dragon".

After a dismal start to the 2010-11 season and a bad trade to Houston, the Dragon got his first chance to run a team in the final weeks of the season when Kyle Lowry got hurt. He #killedit to the tune of a triple-double capper, but Houston came up just short of the playoffs.

I thought Dragic had reached his ceiling - a good backup point guard who could flash brilliance on occasion, but never become a full-time starter.

I was wrong.

In 2012, Dragic's 4th NBA season, he got an even bigger chance for Houston when Lowry missed most of the second half to injury. In 28 starts, Dragic averaged 18 points and 8.4 assists in 36 minutes per game. He nearly single-handedly carried the short-handed Rockets to the playoffs, starting the last 26 games of that season and missing the playoffs in the final week.

As Dragic hit free agency, I once again thought he'd reached a new, but distinct, ceiling - a quality starting point guard who had probably played a tiny bit over his head in Houston. He still wasn't a consistent shooter or great set-up passer like his former mentor, Nash. I also thought Dragic's balls-out style might not last a full season of wear and tear. In terms of league rankings, Dragic was maybe the 15th best point guard in the league. Not great. Not bad either.

Again, I was wrong.

He lasted the whole season as the starter in Phoenix and became the epitome of what Suns fans wanted from their team - consistent effort, all game long, and a winning attitude. Dragic put up strong numbers considering the lack of talent around him, even setting a career high in all major categories.

And for the fourth year in a row, Dragic was even better in the second half of the season. He averaged 16.1 points and 9.5 assists per game in 26 post-ASG starts, up from 14 and 6.3 before the break. And this was under Hunter and amid a youth movement.

Again, I thought Goran had hit his ceiling. How much better can you be than 16 and 9? When the Suns acquired Eric Bledsoe in the offseason, I figured that Dragic would get more space to operate, but would handle the ball less and overall cap out at his numbers - 15 points and 5 assists or so a night, while Bledsoe stole the spotlight.

Now, in his sixth NBA season, Goran Dragic is once again reaching for a new ceiling. He is now knocking on the doorstep of an All-Star berth, thanks only to the chance that a number of better players will miss the game to injury, such as Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook.

In 29 first-half starts, Dragic has blown away his prior numbers. He's putting up a career high 19 points per game along with 6 assists, despite sharing time with Bledsoe as expected. The extra 4.5 points per game over last year may not seem like much, but it's the difference between go-to scorer and supporting player.

And we haven't even hit the second half of the season!

To recap, Goran Dragic has been better every single year of his career in the second half of the season. Check out the splits. Despite playing for his country every summer, "The Dragon" gains power as the season wears on.

Can the Suns survive without Eric Bledsoe for a time? If you read articles and fan reaction, the clear answer is no. Without Bledsoe, the Suns will "Bled" out, they say.

But I say different.

I say that the Suns will continue to rise on the fire breathed by The Dragon. His career trajectory is still rising, despite the ceilings I have imposed on his career.

The kid who arrived in the NBA as a deer-in-the-headlights PG despite already being 22 years old may now be busting down the door of an All-Star berth in his sixth NBA season.

Eric Bledsoe will be missed. But if Leandro Barbosa, Gerald Green, Channing Frye and P.J. Tucker can continue to space the floor by making a solid chunk of their three-pointers, and if Barbosa and Ish Smith can handle some of the PG load while Dragic gets a breather, there's every reason to think Dragic can carry this team to the playoffs. A mere .500 record from now on will get the Suns 45 wins, which should be good enough to make it.

Dragic has experienced the postseason only once in his career. In three of the other four seasons, he's come up just short in the final week.

He gets better in the second half, every single season. Despite missing Bledsoe, he's still surrounded by better talent than he's had since 2010. He's got a coach channeling his own former playing days - days that included an All-Star berth - into the Slovenian guard built just like he was in both temper and talent.

This Suns team is fueled by Fire, not Bled.

Goran Dragic will continue to improve. He just needs the rest of the team to deliver the way they have all season.

Ryan McDonough and team have done an amazing job of putting together a winning team on a shoestring budget. But does that help or hurt the Suns in trying to acquire better players in the trade market?

The tried and true maxim of making money through investments is to buy low and sell high. In theory, the goal is to find some undervalued asset, invest, and then watch as it increases in value, selling it at the top of the market. It works for almost everything. But does it work for an NBA roster? Is it possible to be too good at finding undervalued assets?

I wanted to quantify how much the Suns were paying for their wins this season and see how good of a bargain this team really is. Here's a chart showing each NBA team and how much they are paying per win so far this season.


As you can see, the Suns are a hell of a bargain, relatively speaking. It's no surprise that the teams with best records end up being the best deals, but look how much those other teams in the top 10 are paying! Only the Hawks are spending less on total salary. In the top 5, the next closest team to the Suns is spending an additional $5,000,000. Not too shabby. And think about this: that number includes Emeka Okafor's $15,000,000 contract. If you subtract that, the Suns are far and away the best deal going in the NBA right now.

So what does this tell us? First of all, that Lon Babby, Ryan McDonough and Jeff Hornacek have done a bang up job of A) assessing and acquiring undervalued talent, and B) getting the most out of that talent on the basketball court. Most of us knew this without the data and the rest of the NBA is finding out every time they say, "Who?" when Miles Plumlee dunks on them, PJ Tucker snares a rebound or Gerald Green hits a game winner.

This is good news, right? We've got a front office that, after several years of misses and instability, is not only good at picking talent, they're good at picking cheap talent! It's the best of both worlds: lots of wins coming in, not a lot of money going out. Except we all know one thing: this roster probably isn't a championship contender just yet. The Suns need to get the vaunted "missing piece" that's the subject of so much speculation in comment threads. They need to acquire someone to put them over the top and in the same breath as the Heat, Thunder and Pacers.

Here's where the Suns' success in the bargain bin becomes a little more troublesome. Below is a chart of each Suns player and their value to the Suns expressed in Dollars Per Win Share. For the uninitiated, Win Shares are like PER in that they are a single value measurement of a players' on-court contributions, except instead of "efficiency", they try to value how many wins a player has contributed to the team. Head over to for a full explanation.


Due to space, I can't show you how this compares to the rest of the league, but suffice to say, the Suns' rotation players as a whole are smokin' deals. All of the Suns' regular rotation players are in the top half of the league in terms of dollars per win share. Even the Suns' two "worst" deals, Channing Frye and Dionte Christmas, are great deals by this measure. By way of quick comparison, Jared Dudley clocks in at $2.8M/WS, Marcin Gortat at just over $3M/WS, and Luis Scola at $3.4M/WS. The Suns clearly got a whole lot more bang for their buck in the off-season.

The problem with this becomes: how on earth do the Suns get equivalent value for any of the players on their roster? And how well do these players' value translate to potential trade partners?

In a hypothetical trade for just Kevin Love in order to make salaries match, the Suns would have to send either A) Emeka Okafor and a combination of players making less than $3.8M or B) some other combination of players making about $12-$18M (and of course, draft picks). If you're the Suns, option B is clearly out of the question as it would entirely decimate the roster. But if you're Minnesota, how is option A appealing without a lottery pick? "Hey, season ticket holders, in place of your top 10 power forward, here's some, um... efficiency! And some picks, that may or may not pan out." (They can't even get both Morris twins because the money doesn't work.)

And, then let's assume for a second that the Suns are looking at options outside of trading for a player on a max deal. Let's take Thaddeus Young since we're all about the power forwards around here these days. Now, if the Sixers are willing to accept Channing Frye, maybe a Markieff Morris and a draft pick, then I feel like that deal gets done. But what if they don't want Channing Frye? How do the Suns hit that $6-$10M window to make the salaries work without giving up Goran Dragic? Is a Thad Young worth a Goran Dragic? Is anyone?

Now I know there are ways around some of this. Minnesota could include another player to make a potential deal work or I may be undervaluing Channing Frye in the eyes of the 76ers.

But I also think that the Suns' asset situation isn't as rosy as one might think. No doubt, McDonough and company have done an excellent job in putting together a valuable roster on the cheap. But those deals might be so good that flipping that value for something "equivalent" in both the eyes of the Suns and potential trade partners may be more difficult than one thinks.

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