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Thursday, January 25, 2007

NBA All-Star Starters Announced, Charles Barkley Offers His "Unique" Choices

TNT devoted an hour "Tip Off" pregame show largely to announcing who the 2007 NBA All-Star starters will be--and debating who the seven reserve players in each conference should be. The starters are selected by the fans, who cast their votes at the games or online. Of course, since fan balloting seemingly starts about a minute and a half after the season begins the choices do not necessarily reflect which players have performed the best in the first half of the season. Fans vote for their hometown players or their favorite players or players who have played well in previous seasons. Some people decry this and say that voting privileges should be taken away from the fans so that the most deserving players are selected but the fact is that everyone has some kind of bias and the fans, in general, do not do a such a bad job. Plus, the All-Star Game is an exhibition for the fans, so they should have some say in who gets to play--and the coaches select the reserves, so any glaring omissions can be corrected. Over the years, some players have even said that it is more meaningful or significant to be selected by the coaches.

In case you missed it, here are the starters:

Eastern Conference
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F LeBron James
F Chris Bosh
C Shaquille O'Neal
G Dwyane Wade
G Gilbert Arenas

Western Conference
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F Tim Duncan
F Kevin Garnett
C Yao Ming
G Kobe Bryant
G Tracy McGrady

Note: Yao will not likely be healthy enough to play in the All-Star Game, so Commissioner David Stern will have to select a replacement.

Four of the five Eastern Conference picks look pretty solid. James, Wade and Arenas are legitimate MVP candidates and Bosh is having an excellent season for an improved Toronto team. Of course, Shaquille O'Neal does not "deserve" to be the starting center. He has only played in a handful of games due to injury--and has been less than dominant when he did play. Again, his selection is a product of the voting starting early and of fans voting for someone who has been great for his whole career (and won a fourth championship last summer).

The Western Conference selections are very interesting. Conspicuously absent are Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, both of whom are generally considered to be among the leading MVP candidates this season. Yet the players chosen over them are also having great years. Bryant and Duncan are also viable MVP candidates. Garnett always puts up good numbers, win or lose (usually lose...) but Nowitzki is having a better season individually and, obviously, his Dallas Mavericks are doing a lot better than Garnett's Timberwolves; the fans messed this one up, but Nowitzki will surely be picked as a reserve. Bryant clearly deserves to be a starter but what about the choice of McGrady over Nash? McGrady outperforms Nash in scoring, rebounding and steals, while Nash shoots better and leads the league in assists. Nash receives a lot of credit for making his teammates better and the Suns are having a tremendous year--but McGrady also makes his teammates better. Check out this graphic that TNT showed:

Houston's 2007 Record
---------------------

Yao and T-Mac both play: 14-6
Without T-Mac: 2-5
Without Yao: 10-4
Without both: 0-1
Total: 26-16

Granted, this is a small sample size and does not factor in strength of opposition, home versus road, etc.--but, as I noted in my previous post, this pattern held true last year as well: the Rockets are a very strong team with T-Mac--even without Yao--and much less strong without T-Mac, even if Yao plays. However one slices and dices the statistics, the win-loss numbers shout T-Mac's value. Nash plays alongside two great players--Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion--and a host of good players. T-Mac only has Yao--who has been out of the lineup since December--and a cast of role players. T-Mac is worthy of being an All-Star starter and Nash, like his buddy and former teammate Nowitzki, will be a reserve, so in the big picture he will not be snubbed.

After announcing who the All-Star starters are, one might think that TNT's show would be over. No, the fun was just beginning. First, Ernie Johnson and studio analysts Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller and Kenny Smith interviewed Gilbert Arenas. Arenas is thrilled to be voted in by the fans this year. Asked if he has vented all of his anger from not making Team USA's final roster last summer, Arenas replied, in a stage whisper, "Portland here I come" (Portland Coach Nate McMillan was an assistant coach on Team USA). Barkley got right to the point and told Arenas that he is skeptical about how well the Washington Wizards can do in the playoffs because of their porous defense. Arenas answered with a question of his own, asking how many titles did the Showtime Lakers win. Barkley stuck to his guns, saying that those Lakers were one of the greatest defensive teams of all-time, mentioning Michael Cooper, Byron Scott and Magic Johnson (who was a better team defender than one on one defender, like Larry Bird). Arenas conceded that Washington must improve in this area but said that there are still a lot of games left in the season.

Watching Arenas play or listening to him talk is always entertaining but the amusement factor went to another level when Barkley, Miller and Smith discussed who they think the coaches should select as All-Star reserves. The seven reserves consist of two guards, two forwards, one center and two wild cards (any position). There was no debate about who the Western Conference guards should be: Steve Nash and Allen Iverson. There are several good Western Conference guards (Ray Allen, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Deron Williams to name four) but none who should be taken over Nash and Iverson. All three analysts also chose Amare Stoudemire at center and Nowitzki at one forward. At the other forward, Barkley and Smith picked Carlos Boozer, while Miller likes Carmelo Anthony. Smith has Anthony as a wild card, along with Shawn Marion. Barkley's wild cards are Marion and Josh Howard, while Miller's are Howard and Boozer. Basically, Nowitzki and Boozer are consensus picks, while Howard, Marion and Melo vie for the last spot. Barkley stated flatly that he left Melo out because he was suspended for 15 games; he didn't make it clear if he thought that Melo should be punished for his conduct or simply because missing all of those games reduced his impact on his team's success. Miller said that Howard and Marion are toss-ups in his book, with the deciding factor in his mind being that Dallas has the best record so the Mavericks deserve two All-Stars; otherwise, Phoenix would have three and Dallas just one. Barkley and Smith argued that even though Dallas has a better record Phoenix has the better top three players, while Dallas has more depth. I'd take Iverson, Nash, Amare, Dirk, Marion and Howard without question. The last wild card spot is tough. Melo is leading the league in scoring but he hurt his team by getting suspended for 15 games and is a subpar rebounder and defender. Six-time All-Star Ray Allen is averaging a career-high 26.1 ppg but Seattle has one of the league's worst records. Tony Parker is having another excellent season. Boozer is having the best season of his career and his Jazz are in first place, even if they have been somewhat mediocre recently. My choice would be Boozer but I would not have a problem if any of the other guys I just mentioned get the nod.

The discussion about the Eastern Conference was interesting, to say the least. Jason Kidd was a consensus pick at guard. No problem there. Miller and Smith chose Kidd's teammate Vince Carter for the other guard spot. Barkley picked "nobody," eliciting howls of derision from the others. What about Carter or Rip Hamilton? "I ain't giving out no lifetime achievement awards," Barkley declared--about 15 times. Johnson, Miller and Smith tried, in vain, to point out that Carter and Hamilton are both having very good seasons but Barkley would not budge. Even when they mentioned that you have to fill each roster spot, Barkley refused to pick another guard, explaining that he was asked to list which players have had All-Star caliber seasons this year and that Kidd is the only guard he would pick. Moving on to forward, Caron Butler was a consensus pick. Miller and Smith took Jermaine O'Neal at the other forward, while Barkley chose Dwight Howard--who is actually a center. Barkley took New York's Eddy Curry at center even though he previously said that Carter was not worthy in part because of New Jersey's poor record (New York's record is worse). Miller and Smith correctly put Howard at center and each selected Rip Hamilton as a wild card. Miller's other wild card was Alonzo Mourning, while Smith's was Ben Gordon. Barkley completely went off the deep end, nominating Brian Hill and Sam Mitchell--the coaches of Orlando and Toronto respectively; Barkley's reserves thus consisted of three players, two coaches, one "nobody" and one player assigned to a position that he does not actually play. Johnson, Miller and Smith spent the rest of the segment trying to bring Barkley back to reality, pointing out the approximately 200 inaccuracies and inconsistencies in his selections, but no dice (yes, that's a Vegas reference). I'd take Kidd, Carter, Butler, O'Neal, Howard and Hamilton pretty quickly. Once again, the last wild card choice is the toughest. Paul Pierce has played very well but he has missed a lot of games due to injury and the Celtics are terrible (with or without him in the lineup). Michael Redd is having a great year but Milwaukee's record is poor. The Bulls are right in the thick of the fight for the best record in the East, so they probably deserve to have a representative but Gordon is one dimensional and nobody else's numbers stand out. Ben Wallace's numbers are only slightly worse than they were last year when he was an All-Star, his new team has improved over last year and his former team has gotten worse; working against him are the high expectations that were placed on him in the wake of his signing a huge contract and the fact that, as the Chicago Tribune's Sam Smith would put it, no one really wants to see a defensive specialist in an All-Star game. Chauncey Billups has been banged up a little bit but is having a good season. The wraps have come off of Andre Iguodala's game since Iverson was traded to Denver and, although his numbers may be borderline All-Star material at the moment, he seems poised to have a breakthrough second half of the season; that may not be a good reason to pick him but when people look back on this season and see his final numbers they probably will wonder why he didn't make the team. So, who would I take? I'd choose Ben Wallace. He's basically the same player that he was last year when he was the heart and soul of the Pistons, so I am not swayed by the "controversy" surrounding him in terms of the headband or how many good seasons he may have left in the tank. I think that the Bulls could replace Gordon's scoring more readily than they could Wallace's defense and rebounding. Really, though, looking at the season as whole, the West deserves to have about 16 All-Stars and the East should have about 8; maybe Barkley's offbeat choices weren't so crazy after all, at least as a "protest vote" of sorts against the East's overall mediocrity.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:26 PM

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