Now that the NBA All-Star starters have officially been announced, the real jockeying begins. Coaches have a few days to vote for seven additions to their own conference's All-Star team, with the results to be announced Thursday, Feburary 3. Coaches have to pick one center, two forwards, two guards and two players of any position. They, of course, cannot vote for their own players.
The East seems fairly straightforward, especially considering fans didn't vote a single member of the conference's best team into starting five. The coaches can and should rectify that. But out West, it's a big whole mess with one heavy question at the end: is Blake Griffin an All-Star?
Here's what my ballot would look like.
Center: Al Horford, Hawks. Horford switches between forward and center depending on the opponent, but most of the time, he's at center. And most of the time, he's incredible, the best player on a team 12 games above .500. Horford's defensive rebounding is superlative, and he's shooting the lights out (57 percent) while carrying a heavier load than ever. He's a definite All-Star.
Forwards: Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, Celtics. Garnett wasn't far behind Amar'e Stoudemire for a starting spot, and if not for an injury that cost The Ticket nine games around Christmas, he might be in there already. KG has been one of the league's most impactful defenders and he remains a very solid scorer and passer. Pierce has played in every one of the Celtics' 45 games, and while leading Boston in scoring is having a career high in terms of efficiency.
Guards: Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen, Celtics. You sense a theme here? Rondo has became the game's most prolific passer, averaging 12.7 assists per game. He doesn't shoot often, but when he does, he makes it an efficient shot. He also happens to be one of the top three defenders at the position in the league. What's not to love? Allen, meanwhile, shoots plenty, and well. It's absurd for a jump-shooting guard to have a field goal percentage over 50 percent. Yet there Ray is, at 50.4 percent. Absurd!
Wild card No. 1: Chris Bosh, Heat. Miami's performance since Bosh's injury indicate that, yes, even Dwyane Wade and LeBron James need some help down low. For all the lumps he's taken, some deserved, Bosh has been one of the 12 best players in the East this season.
Wild card No. 2: Josh Smith, Hawks. The Bulls deserve two All-Stars before the Hawks do, but quotas went out of style in the '90s, y'all. Smith has been as Smith-y as ever, taking and missing long jumpers with regularity, but providing ace defense at multiple positions, scoring plenty around the hoop and rebounding like a beast.
Next in line: In case of injury, Luol Deng deserves consideration based on defense alone. (Sadly, Deng's candidacy wouldn't exist if you didn't base it on defense.) Carlos Boozer has also been back long enough that an injury replacement wouldn't be terrible. I would take Joe Johnson over Raymond Felton, but I'd really prefer to take neither.
And now, where it gets really sticky.
Center: Pau Gasol, Lakers. Gasol was on the ballot as a forward, but Western Conference coaches got swag. They'll do it. They'll put him in there as center. It only makes sense, since Gregg Popovich, who will coach the West All-Stars, will likely make Pau the starter in place of injured Yao Ming, whether Gasol is added as a center or forward. If the NBA is a stickler about this, Denver's Nene is the right option.
Guard No. 1: Manu Ginobili, Spurs. Other than Pau and Dirk Nowitzki, Manu is the one player who simply must be on every ballot. Coaches (other than Pop) who don't put Manu on their ballot should face court martial.
Guard No. 2: Deron Williams, Jazz. Utah's engine would be my next guard pick from among the multitudes of options. Williams is averaging 22 points and nine assists for a really good (if slumping) team. You can't ignore numbers like that.
Forward No. 1: Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks. Dirk is a no-brainer here; you wonder if the Mavs might seek to pull Nowitzki out of the game, which would require missing an actual game before or after All-Star break. Dirk hasn't been the same since his injury last month, but he was good enough before to erase any doubt that he remains one of the league's very best.
Forward No. 2: Tim Duncan, Spurs. Duncan is playing more frequently with multiple scorers than ever before, and is also playing fewer minutes than ever. So understandably, his scoring numbers are down. But in every other facet of the game, he's performing to his (lofty) career standard, and he's one of the few players keeping San Antonio's defense respectable in this new world order of fast break Spurs basketball.
Wild card No. 1: Kevin Love, Wolves. You average 20 points and 15 rebounds a game, you get an All-Star berth. I don't care what team you play on. Love has been one of the league's very best players this season, and his team's quality (or lack thereof) doesn't diminish his performance enough to ignore that.
Wild card No. 2: Russell Westbrook, Thunder. Westbrook is having a tremendous season, though it's cooled off as the year has progressed. The Thunder are legit, and Westbrook's leap is the biggest reason why. If not for Kevin Durant's presence, Westbrook might very well have stolen some of that early MVP swag from Derrick Rose. Westbrook has essentially done the same thing Rose has.
Yao's injury replacement: Blake Griffin, Clippers. There are arguments to be made for David West, LaMarcus Aldridge, Lamar Odom, Tyson Chandler and Nene. But Griffin has not only the incredible numbers (22 and 11), he has the momentum of a basketball-loving world behind him. Also, David Stern is always looking for some good press. Commanding the Western Conference coaches to take Blake to All-Star is a nice triumph.
Next in line: Aldridge would be my next frontcourt choice, in case of injury or a Carmelo Anthony trade. West and Odom would follow, in that order. If there's a backcourt opening, Steve Nash has dibs, followed by Tony Parker, Kevin Martin and Monta Ellis.