Reaching for the Stars

Picking the All-Star starters is easy. Most NBA fans could probably identify them before the season starts.

Picking the All-Star reserves is where the rubber meets the road. And on Thursday night, when the Conference reserves are officially named, there’s bound to be some hard feelings. With only seven spots available, several snubs are inevitable.

A case can be made for a pair of Cavaliers making the trip to Orlando for the 2012 All-Star Game – Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao.

Irving has been drawing rave reviews throughout his rookie campaign and his case is quite compelling. But it’s tough for rookies to crack the All-Star roster. And regardless of whether he’s selected as a reserve or not, the precocious point guard will be appearing in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night.

Irving was the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft and, luckily for Cavs fans, looks like he could making the mid-season classic for the next decade.

Varejao, on the other hand, would be an unlikely All-Star. He’s not a high-flyer or a household name. He wasn’t in the top six in voting among Eastern Conference centers and is viewed by most players around the league, including Paul Pierce, as a “pain in the butt.” (Although that last part was meant as a compliment.)

All these factors make the Wild Thing a longshot to make it to the All-Star Game. But anyone who’s watched Andy’s development from a skinny, offensively-challenged rookie in 2004 to the perpetual motion machine he’s become in 2012, know that Varejao’s all about beating the odds.

Yes, there are plenty of factors that can keep Anderson Varejao out of the All-Star Game. Here are four factors that should put him in …

1. Numbers Don’t Lie – It’s been said many times that numbers don’t fully explain Varejao’s game, and they don’t. But he’s putting up some digits in 2011-12 that are hard to ignore.

Just 22 games into the season, he’s already topped his career-high with 13 double-doubles. He’s the league’s leading offensive rebounder at 4.5 per contest. He’s No. 4 in the NBA (second in the East only behind Dwight Howard) in overall rebounding, at 11.8 rpg. Even his scoring is up – averaging 10.8 ppg, almost two points more than his previous career-best.

He’s had some amazingly productive (and incredibly symmetrical) games in recent weeks and against some strong competition. He went off for 20 points and 20 boards against Boston, 17 points and 17 boards against Dallas and 11 and 11 against Miami.

Over his last four games heading into Wednesday’s contest against the Clippers, Andy is averaging 15.0 points on .551 shooting and 15.8 rebounds – including 5.3 off the offensive glass.

2. Peer Pressure – Coach Byron Scott has been lobbying for Anderson’s All-Star selection all season long – although he recently said he doesn’t make calls or send videos, insisting that “the way … Andy has played speaks for itself. My lobbying is telling the truth.”

Naturally, Varjejao’s teammates think he’s All-Star worthy. But he’s also been recognized by some of the top players and coaches in the NBA, including …

Celtics coach Doc Rivers: “Varejao’s always an All-Star as far as I’m concerned. I think they should keep a spot for a role player. That’s what he does, he plays his role…He had 20 points and they didn’t run one (offensive) set for him.”

Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki: “He’s an animal. We knew that coming in and he’s just great. He’s relentless…He’s got a great nose for the ball and he just keeps coming. (There are plays) when you think two guys have it and he just gets in there, tips it and someone comes up with it…He’s very active. I don’t think we’re the only team he’s done it to.”

Celtics forward Paul Pierce: “Varejao is just a pain in the butt with his offensive rebounding, the way he knocks down shots and keeps (loose) balls alive. He’s probably one of the more underrated players in the NBA with how much energy he gives this ball club…He has a knack of somehow coming up with the ball all the time.”

Heat forward LeBron James: “There’s not many players in the Eastern Conference playing good ball like he’s playing. If he does get an opportunity, it will be well-deserved. I know how hard he works.”

Heat guard Dwyane Wade: “You have to game-plan for him. He’s not one of those guys you can say, ‘Just box him out.’ You’ve got to do other things. That’s the kind of player you look for. I heard something about role-player slots in the All-Star Game. He would be high on the list.”

3. The Peyton Manning Factor – There was a common sentiment in the NFL this past season that Indianapolis Colts QB Peyton Manning should have won the MVP award based on how bad this season’s Colts were without him.

Cavalier fans have heard Austin Carr call Varejao “Priceless” on several occasions, meaning you can’t put a price on what his presence does to help the team – or what his absence does to harm it.

When the Wine and Gold lost Anderson in the previous season, they went on the longest losing streak in pro sports history. With a healthy Andy in 2011-12, virtually the same team – plus a pair of skilled rookies – has been competitive night-in and night-out and is even flirting with a playoff spot.

It’s inarguable that the Cavaliers are a completely different team with and without the Wild Thing. He’s been the squad’s starting center since Shaq and his close friend Zydrunas Ilgauskas departed two seasons ago and he's playing at an All-Star level – despite the fact that center is not his natural position.

4. The Game Itself – Some NBA fans have been turned off by the NBA All-Star game over the years. At its worst, it features preening superstars who shelve their competitive side until the final two minutes of the contest.

Varejao knows only one speed – and he’ll go at that speed, regardless of the competition or venue, for every second he’s on the floor. His fellow All-Stars might not dig the Wild Thing diving for loose balls and taking charges in the mid-season classic, but there’s no way to stop it.

Andy’s made his share of ballplayers look bad when they can’t match his intensity. Doing so in front of millions of basketball fans worldwide would make this year’s contest immensely entertaining.

This fall’s work stoppage was a PR disaster for the NBA. One way to regain favor with the fans would be to reward a player who’s short on skill but long on heart and hustle – an overachiever who busts his tail every night and gives everything he’s got to get his team the win. Plus, it's not like the guy isn't fun to watch.

Is the All-Star Game a popularity contest? A dunk contest? Or is it a display of the best of what the NBA has to offer?

If it’s more the latter than the former, Eastern Conference coaches can make a statement and make Anderson Varejao an All-Star.