With the NBA All-Star Game less than a month away, the coaches deciding the seven bench spots in the Eastern and Western conferences will have to make some tough decisions. Every year, numerous deserving players are left out because there are only seven spots on each roster after fan voting names the starters.
This year is no different. In both conferences, you'll find plenty of examples of young players taking leaps forward, proud veterans putting up big seasons yet again and former bench players shining in bigger roles. Here's a look at six players who could find themselves on the bubble for the All-Star Game, with cases for and against their selections.
For: Orlando's offense is borderline abysmal, but Afflalo is registering a 113 offensive rating this season, via Basketball-Reference, and he is doing it with impressive efficiency, especially considering the players surrounding him. Afflalo is among the top 20 in the league in scoring, netting nearly 43 percent of his long range attempts and recording a true shooting percentage of nearly 59 percent. That combination of volume scoring and efficiency on an offense as pitiful as Orlando's is rare.
Against: Despite Afflalo's efforts, the Magic are still really bad, and that usually takes a hit on who some folks consider All-Stars. Afflalo's team is worse than any other guy's team on this list. What he's doing is impressive, but his team is awful and that's something a lot of people consider in these cases.
For: Lance Stephenson was once remembered as the guy who gave LeBron James the choke sign from the bench. Last year he filled in for the injured Danny Granger and made a name for himself as a gritty-yet-flashy ball of energy in the playoffs. This year he's leading the league in triple-doubles, filling stat sheets and giving a legitimate championship caliber team an edge on the court. He's in line for a huge payday this summer.
Against: Stephenson is having a breakout season, but he may still be just the fourth-best player on his team. There are stretches that Stephenson doesn't have to do much because his team is so loaded. His play has been impressive, yes, but is it really as impressive as other guys in the East who are tasked with so much more responsibility on a nightly basis?
For: Drummond rebounds at an incredibly high rate and is shooting over 60 percent from the floor. His sheer size and athleticism scares opponents from the lane, and that has led to a 21.4 PER in just his first year as a full-time starter. He is, somehow, only 20 years old and projects as one of the league's very best big men for the next decade. He doesn't score an incredible amount (12.7 points per game), but he is also stuck playing with shoot-first players like Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith.
Against: As big and athletic as he is, Drummond isn't quite there as an interior defender. This is nothing new for young big man--it usually takes years to learn NBA defensive schemes and rotations--but it kind of goes against what some people think of him. He is also an abysmal free-throw shooter, connecting on less than 40 percent of his freebies in both of his first two seasons. He'll get there eventually, but maybe now isn't his time yet.
For: Memphis' point guard has taken another small leap forward this season toward becoming an all-world point guard. Despite being burdened with a higher usage rate due largely to Marc Gasol's early injury, Conley is shooting 45.4 percent from the floor and is registering a career-high 20.7 PER and 50.4 effective field goal percentage. It's a miracle that the Grizzlies are still right in the playoff hunt--considering they were without last year's Defensive Player of the Year for two months--and Conley is a big reason why.
Against: The Western Conference is packed with guards. Stephen Curry and James Harden are locks. Chris Paul is a lock if he's healthy. From there, Conley will compete with Damian Lillard, Ty Lawson, Goran Dragic and Tony Parker. Conley is probably in the All-Star Game if Memphis played in the East, but it's going to earn a slot to play the West's crop of players.
For: Boogie is a load. At 6'11, 270 lbs, he is nearly impossible for defenders to stop. He's surprisingly nimble on his feet, has good touch out to 18 feet and is nearly unstoppable in the pick-and-roll. This season, Cousins is averaging career-highs in points (23.2), rebounds (11.8) and PER (26.2). In fact, that PER is the sixth-highest in the entire NBA. Some of that has to do with a sky-high usage rate, but Cousins is scoring efficiently and is unarguably one of best bigs in the league.
Against: Cousins' defense still leaves a lot to be desired, and there are personality issues that have nagged him his entire career. That shouldn't play a part in determining an All-Star, but one can imagine a scenario in which it swings a vote or two from him to, say, Anthony Davis or one of the other borderline All-Star bigs. Offensively, however, there's really no question. Cousins is very good on that end of the floor.
For: Lillard has built off his Rookie of the Year campaign, becoming one of the two best players on a team atop the Western Conference. He's getting to the free-throw line more often and he's hitting threes at an astronomical rate. Lillard is tied with Curry for three-pointers per game (3.2) and he's doing it on the league's no. 1 offense, via Basketball-Reference. Oddly, he's shooting better from behind the arc than he is inside the restricted area.
Against: It's tough to make a case against Lillard. Since he's one of the first two options for the league's best offensive team, it's highly likely that he makes the All-Star game. Like Conley, though, Lillard's competition is stout. Russell Westbrook and Kobe Bryant are out and Paul likely is too, but there's still a plethora of worthy guards in the West.