By Rob Peterson, NBA.com
Posted Jan 8 2009 2:25PM
With a mere three-and-half games separating the Nuggets, the West's No. 2 seed, and the ninth-seeded Jazz, the standings in the Western Conference are tight.
That's nothing compared to the tightening race among West forwards in the fourth All-Star returns announced Thursday. No position in the NBA has been deeper in the last decade than forward in the West. This year's voting reflects it.
With 1,454,918 votes, San Antonio's Tim Duncan appears to be a lock to start at one forward for the West in Phoenix. Yet the jostling for that other starting spot continues as Denver's Carmelo Anthony has passed Phoenix's Amar'e Stoudemire to move into second place. With the exception of Philadelphia's Samuel Dalembert (who trails Orlando's Dwight Howard by nearly two million votes for Eastern Conference center), Anthony's 905,121 votes are the fewest for any player in second place. His 10,431-vote lead over Stoudemire is also the slimmest margin between any second- and third-place vote-getters.
If Anthony hangs on to the starting spot, it would be with one hand. Anthony broke his right (shooting) hand on Monday against Indiana and will miss 3-4 weeks. If he were to come back four weeks from today, he would return on Feb. 10 in Miami.
If Anthony manages to keep his slim lead, but he isn't ready in time for the All-Star Game on Feb. 15, NBA Commissioner David Stern would name another forward to start in Anthony's place.
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But with 11 days remaining until voting closes on Jan. 19, 10,000 votes isn't a huge deficit to for Stoudemire to overcome. Neither is the 14,000 votes and change Houston's Ron Artest would need to drum up to pass Anthony. Artest, who was fifth with 662,510 votes after the third balloting returns, surged ahead of Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki into fourth place with 890,992 votes. Artest, known for his in-your-face defense, is breathing down Stoudemire's neck for third place, trailing the Suns power forward by a 3,698-vote margin.
Artest's may be reaping the benefits of being a Rocket. Teammate Yao Ming leads Phoenix's Shaquille O'Neal by more than 700,000 votes among Western Conference centers and the Rockets' Tracy McGrady is second among West guards, 157,000 votes ahead of the far more deserving Chris Paul of the Hornets.
A case could be made for Artest to start in Phoenix, but it wouldn't be a strong one. At 16 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game, Artest's numbers pale in comparison to Anthony's (21.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3.6 apg), Stoudemire's (21.8-8.6-2.2) and Nowitzki's (26.2-8.5-2.6). One also cannot discount the contributions the Lakers' Pau Gasol and the Jazz's Paul Millsap have made to their respective teams.
In the East, Allen Iverson may not be having an All-Star season, but it looks as if he will be a starting guard in Phoenix.
Iverson is second among East guards and leads New Jersey's Vince Carter by more than 422,000 votes. Carter and his teammate Devin Harris have kept the Nets afloat in the East. It would take a miracle to get the deserving Harris into the starting lineup. Harris, ninth in the league in scoring at 23.1 ppg and a candidate for Most Improved Player, trails Iverson by more than 800,000 votes.
Another Net, however, may make some noise as voting winds down. Milwaukee forward Yi Jianlian trails Boston's Kevin Garnett by 159,000 votes. While it's a far more significant margin than the Anthony-Stoudemire gap, it's not completely insurmountable. It will be interesting to see whether Yi can make a significant push.
Voting ends Jan. 19. Starters will be announced Thursday, Jan. 22 on TNT.
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