Making a case for deserving stars

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By Sam Smith | 1.27.2015 | 7:15 a.m. CT

The All-Star game starters were named last Thursday. They are, for the Eastern Conference, Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Pau Gasol. For the Western Conference, it’s Stephen Curry, Kobe Bryant, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin and Marc Gasol. Bryant is now out for the season with a rotator cuff injury. The commissioner selects the replacement while the coach—Steve Kerr for the West and Mike Budenholzer for the East—replaces the starter. So James Harden, a certain reserve selection, likely would start.

The coaches select the reserves, who will be announced Thursday evening on TNT. It’s a vote by all the coaches by conference with coaches only unable to vote for their own players. There’ll be more screaming in the Western Conference, though it helps that Bryant is being replaced. So here’s a look at who I believe should make it, which is hardly who will make it. It will be easier in the Eastern Conference because there are only six teams with winning records. Coaches usually lean toward players on winning teams.

Eastern Conference

Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls: He’s faded some this month as Derrick Rose has come on and in the last month been the team’s dominant scorer. But Butler’s first two months were spectacular and he deserves to be an All-Star for the first time.

Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks: He’s been the most consistent for the surprise team of the league amidst the group of castoffs and never thought they’d bes. The larger question for the coaches will be picking three or four Hawks players. If winning is the criterion, then it may be four. The unheralded Pistons of 2004 got four, though the season after they won. But this first half was amazing for Atlanta and truly no one stands out that much. So bring ‘em all. Not that there would be any great slights in the Eastern Conference.

Chris Bosh, Miami Heat: There’ll be sentiment for Dwyane Wade. You can make the case and it wouldn’t be a sentimental vote. But it’s difficult to justify given they’ve been well under .500 the first half with Bosh having an All-Star season and Luol Deng playing well. Wade is scoring, though not often influencing the game as much. Bosh has been deserving as their best player.

Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks: Most of the attention in the comeback story was for Rose. Though that’s also the nature of Horford and the Hawks. And their fans until recently. Lots of under the radar stuff. But he’s been an All-Star. And while he doesn’t put up huge numbers, he makes an impact and is a tough matchup for centers with his shooting while he also defends.

Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks: He’s that engine driving the sports car, and all that stuff. He began to break out in last season’s playoffs and has continued his trajectory as an underappreciated guard who is difficult to contain.

Kyle Korver, Atlanta Hawks: This would be the fourth one, but I’d have him ahead of Horford if it were three. He impacts the game with few shots more than anyone in the NBA. He’s having an historic shooting season and no matter how much defensive attention he gets from the league’s best defenders, he’s making multiple threes, which are crucial in the Hawks’ game.

Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic: I know we are not supposed to reward losing, but it’s not his fault. He hovers around 20/10 with a unique offensive game and playing at an All-Star level against the top big men in the game. OK, not a great defender, but it’s the All-Star game. I leave out Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love as they’ve been disappointments when LeBron was out and still looking to get theirs to score. Bradley Beal just doesn’t get enough shots; he should get more. Maybe you make a case for Kemba Walker, though he is now out six weeks. Brandon Jennings was making a case before being injured and Brandon Knight with the surprising Bucks, who maybe deserve an All-Star given being in the East playoffs thus far.

Western Conference

James Harden, Houston Rockets: I had him as my first half league MVP, which makes it rare for not starting an All-Star game, which he now may. But fans wanted to see Kobe and I’m with the fan vote on this one. The media makes poor votes and the coaches are worse. Did you ever see that general manager survey? You know they don’t watch basketball. The All-Star game is for the fans. They should vote for the starters. The NBA has it right. You’re not being left off if you are deserving, and if you can’t make the top 12 you’re not really a true star.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers: I didn’t see him making it preseason given all the guard talent in the west. But he’s an amazing big time shot maker for one of the best teams.

LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers: He was going to be off, but decided to play through his left hand injury much like Luol Deng did in 2012. He’s been the anchor of their team and an MVP caliber player.

Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors: If only to see he and Curry in the backcourt in the All-Star game. He probably would have made it, but likely clinched it with that 37-point quarter last week. He’s the best shooting shooting guard off the dribble. Had to qualify that to separate him from Korver.

Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder: C’mon, we’re not leaving him off the All-Star team. I know he’s only played about half the games. But he’s a true star and a player you want to see in the All-Star game and deserving. I’d leave out Russell Westbrook. He was out injured, though not as much as Durant. But in a close race with so many deserving candidates he’s just a little too erratic, though you wouldn’t argue if he were added.

Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies: The coaches should know. When you play them, he’s going to not only make the big shot, but be called upon to take it. He’s probably this season’s most underrated, and it could cost him an All-Star pick. But he deserves it as the most vital player on one of the best teams.

Monta Ellis, Dallas Mavericks: It would be fine to see Dirk again and you can make a case, but Ellis takes the big shots for them. And makes most. He’s been the highest scoring player in the league never to make an All-Star team and what he’s done this season for them makes him long overdue. So the omissions: Obviously, Chris Paul and no Spurs. Tony Parker has been out and not at his prior level while you can make the case for Tim Duncan. No one will argue. Paul also is a legitimate choice, but so are the other point guards and you have to pick someone. I break ties with the guys who don’t get as much publicity and, frankly, have done more for their teams this season than Paul as the Clippers have been erratic. DeMarcus Cousins will get support on great numbers, but he still plays like a loser, giving up when things go bad and still out of control. He needs a great coach and then he’ll be an All-Star. Dwight Howard has been out too much and not as dominant and, really, scorers like Rudy Gay, Gordon Hayward and a Suns guard are not quite in that class.

Times Square of rumors

The latest trade talk, of course, involves Nets, who are following the Knicks again, though for different reasons. The balance sheet for sale looks much better without those contracts. And if Billy King can trade Joe Johnson and his $25 million for next season, maybe he gets executive of the year. Of course, King took on Johnson and even gave up some draft rights. Ouch. Anyway, take my Net, please. But how much difference do mid season trades and pickups actually make? It’s still early, but here’s a look at the records since the big trades: Mavericks after Rajon Rondo, 11-7; Grizzlies after Jeff Green, 5-1; Houston after Josh Smith, 11-7; Thunder after Dion Waiters, 5-4. It’s tough to tell with the Cavs on Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith as they’re basically two over with them but losing basically all their games until LeBron returned…The Nets, meanwhile, like the Knicks, are doing it the right way, unlike the 76ers. They tried to compete and found they could not. OK, then you go to plan B. The 76ers are the only ones tanking because they started with Plan B. The next team to watch is the Nuggets, who have basically fallen out of contention. Arron Afflalo is certain to be traded since he’s a rental with an opt out he’ll exercise. So how much can you give up? And you have to match $7.5 million in salary. They say they’ll keep Wilson Chandler, but we’ll see. Things change fast. Also, you wonder about Detroit now with Brandon Jennings down. It seems likely Greg Monroe leaves. Maybe get something? The Celtics have Brandon Bass, Gerald Wallace and Evan Turner to move. The Timberwolves have Mo Williams, Thaddeus Young and Kevin Martin, though Martin has a long contract. You wonder about the Suns if they slip with Goran Dragic, who seems very open to moving on. There’s always a King or two on the move, like Jason Thompson, which seems likely. There’s some wacky stuff going on now with the Lakers as Jeremy Lin got a DNP and you figure they’d love to move him. One interesting player to watch is the talented Enes Kanter of Utah. It seems like the team has been trying to work in Rudy Gobert, who has come on defensively. Kanter is restricted and after having paid Hayward and Derrick Favors, Kanter could be the odd man out. He’d be a heck of a pickup for someone as a young scoring center. And with the Pelicans on the verge and an ownership family fight going on who knows what happens there. All-Star in New York City just before the trading deadline? It’s going to be a Times Square of rumors.

Mr. Cub's influence

Ernie Banks influenced a lot of people in his amazing life, including a Bulls legend and Basketball Hall of Famer. “I’m saddened by his passing,” said Chet Walker. “He was a good friend of mine. He came to my high school (Benton Harbor, MI) when I was a senior and it had a great impact on me. I got his autograph and it’s the only autograph I ever got in my life. It’s the only one I ever got and kept. He’d come to games and we’d go out to dinner. He lived out here (Los Angeles) a while. I used to tell him he should be manager of the Cubs. Great ball player, special man. He was one of a kind." ... Is former Bulls assistant the coach whisperer? Adams is the top defensive assistant to first time coach Steve Kerr, the fourth consecutive first time coach for whom Adams has been a top assistant after Scott Brooks, Tom Thibodeau and Brad Stevens. Thibodeau was Coach of the Year as a rookie and Kerr is considered a top contender this season. Plus in Adams’ first season with Thibodeau, the Bulls had the league’s best record. And the Thunder turned around when Brooks was hired and Adams joined his staff shortly after a slow start ... The Raptors have slumped some even with DeMar DeRozan back and moving a better-shooting Patrick Patterson in with less mobile Jonas Valanciunas has been considered ... The Pacers play slowly, last week scoring 71 points in an overtime game. But without Paul George, they’ve seen scorers like James Harden, Klay Thompson and Mo Williams with 52 all have 40-point games against them. Teammates say George is looking terrific in workouts and even doing dunking drills. But do you risk bringing him back in this sort of season? You’d think not.

NBA news and notes

Is D.J. Augustin saving another season? After rescuing the Bulls last season, the overlooked, undersized point guard had a career high 35 replacing the injured Brandon Jennings. Too bad for Jennings, having a career resurrection and just off a 24/21 game, which for him previously would have meant 24 shots and 21 misses (the 21 was assists) ... The NBA has filed trademark applications for Stan Van Gundy’s demand to “form a bleepin’ wall” in a last shot situation against the Spurs. Anything to deny Pat Riley a chance to make more money, eh? Riley, of course, patented threepeat ... In the six seasons before going to Atlanta, Kyle Korver started six games. He’s another great example of opportunity as the Hawks made him a starter and he could become an All-Star. He will be in the three-point shooting contest “A couple of years ago, people really didn’t think I was a starter in the NBA,” Korver told the Atlanta Constitution. “We are all benefitting from each other, from the system, from coach‘s style. I remember watching the Suns play and Steve Nash was winning MVPs and I was like ‘Man, if I could be on that team, I could really do something.’ I’m sure there are a lot of guys looking at this team now and thinking ‘Man, if I could be on that team.’ As a shooter, it’s perfect. I think I’m the product of a lot of things. I think more or less, it’s a lot of things that have come together.” ... Michael Jordan didn’t cry when he got inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, but he did come to tears recently in receiving the Charlotte Business Journal’s Business Person of the Year. In his speech, Jordan said: “I’ve been criticized in a lot of different areas from a business standpoint, but I take pride in the ideas and concepts and views that come out of this organization to build the type of basketball program that the city of Charlotte can be proud of.” Or maybe it’s having Lance Stephenson.

Was it more the new NBA when the Hawks last week beat the star-driven Thunder? Five nobodies better than two somebodies? Is the NBA’s star marketing system soon to end? First the Spurs and now the Hawks. If they meet in the Finals, will it go back to tape delay? “They’re a good team,” said Kevin Durant after the loss in Atlanta. “They’re second in the league in assists. They move the basketball. And they’re home crowd has gotten better. They jumped on the bandwagon now. The crowd was great tonight and that helped them out.” Wonder why he mentioned the assist total playing with Russell Westbrook? ... Even the languid Jacque Vaughn erupted (as much as he can) after the again fading Magic lost to the Knicks. “The defensive end needs to be a premium,” Vaughn said after the game. “Instead of worrying about scoring the basketball as soon as you step on the floor, worry about defending the basketball. That’ll help.” You wonder if Scott Skiles, the most popular player in Magic history as voted by the fans, could be in the wings if the Magic continue to stumble. Similarly, eyes will be on the disappointing Pelicans after being swept—astonishingly—in the Eastern uneven triangle of the Knicks, Celtics and 76ers, basically none of whom are trying to win. And losing three in a row to them? Wow! ... Pretty interesting move last week when Jeff Hornacek, tired of the arguing, told his players he’d bench anyone who received a technical. Star guard Goran Dragic did and was benched. The Rockets then won making a winner over replacement Isaiah Thomas, who is much smaller. And that was just before Dragic said he liked the Suns but was open to all free agent suitors this summer ... Though the Thunder won that game in Washington—where they are counting on free agent Durant coming home in 2016 and local media have taken to interviewing his mother for clues—it’s still head scratching to watch the Thunder play. Westbrook, who we always have to note is great, drives down and shoots twice. Misses as regulation ending. Timeout. They have Durant bring the ball up all the way because apparently they knew Westbrook wouldn’t pass. Westbrook goes to the left corner and stands hands by his side like a diva receiver out of a play as Durant, no John Stockton himself, winds up for a miss. The Thunder wins in overtime. And now Serge Ibaka is throwing up threes at a career high pace. Maybe the league’s most talented team. How about the Warriors going through this season and then opening the playoffs against them? That last week of the season if the Thunder is around seven or eight there may be some interesting lineups.