The Warriors haven’t had an All-Star on the roster since 1997, when Latrell Sprewell was named a reserve and subsequently choked coach PJ Carlesimo nine months later, beginning this organization’s decade-long tailspin before “We Believe” briefly ended it a few years ago. It’s seemingly over now, of course, with Golden State sitting pretty at 25-15 and fifth in the West as we’ve reached the season’s midway point, and for that bigger-than-should-be accomplishment the All-Star drought in the Bay will end.
Stephen Curry and David Lee have certainly played like All-Stars this season, leading the Warriors to that surprising record without Andrew Bogut on the strength of better-than-ever offense and improved play on the other end that belies reputation. As expected, neither was voted a starter by the fans and neither really deserved it. Dwight Howard aside, any qualms with the fans’ selections of Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and Blake Griffin is picking nits.
Nevertheless, each deserves major consideration as a reserve and it likely helps their cases that coaches select the ASG backups. Curry and Lee’s raw per game numbers are stellar but hardly jump-off-the-page, and the coaches – or whichever proxy they delegate the task – understand better than casual fans the challenges each present offensively and just how important they are to Golden State’s attack. The same logic applies to rewarding the Warriors for their start; team personnel understands how well they’ve been playing better than the NBA public and just how unexpected it is given Bogut’s absence.
The All-Star reserves will be announced on Thursday, and it’s basically a given Golden State will be getting good news; one of Curry or Lee will almost certainly be selected by the coaches. The question now is which Warrior the coaches deem most worthy, and whether or not this 16-year ASG drought will end with both being selected.
Let’s talk it out, bearing in mind the coaches select two players from the backcourt, three from the frontcourt, and two “wild cards” – whatever remaining players, regardless of postion, they deem most worthy.
Russell Westbrook and James Harden are virtual locks to be selected ahead of Curry by the coaches. After a shooting slump to start the season, Westbrook’s come on strong of late and is playing the best floor game he ever has in quarterbacking Oklahoma City’s historic offensive attack. Plus, the team with the league’s best record is always assured of multiple All-Stars, and he’s clearly second in the Thunder’s pecking order behind Kevin Durant. OKC has been so good, in fact, it wouldn’t shock if they were awarded a third player, but more on that later.
As for Harden, he came out in his new role as alpha-dog absolutely gangbusters but has cooled of late especially. Nevertheless, there’s an argument that he’s worthy of a starting spot in a loaded West backcourt for leading upstart Houston to a likely playoff birth and producing across the board at legitimate superstar levels. While that may be a stretch, Harden’s place in the game is assured this season and for man years to come.
With Westbrook and Harden clearly ahead of the pack in the reserve guard hierarchy and slotted in both available spots, it means Curry will be considered for one of two wild card entries. So he’s not only up against a pack of “smalls” led by Tony Parker, but also a group of big men headlined by Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph, LaMarcus Aldridge, Serge Ibaka, and – in a bit of twisted fate – Lee.
Parker isn’t the lock Westbrook and Harden are, but his names is being etched in stone as we speak. Not only has he performed as well if not better than his career campaign last season, but (like the Thunder) San Antonio – at 33-11 and a potential top overall playoff seed – is guaranteed another participant along with Duncan. Whether Parker deserves the nod ahead of Curry is debatable, but the coaches love rewarding top teams and are notoriously wary of first-time All-Stars, two feathers in Parker’s cap.
Basically, then, Curry is competing for the last wild card spot with several noteworthy big men. Gasol, Randolph, or maybe even both will be selected for one of three available reserve spots in the frontcourt. Let’s assume only Gasol is chosen for now, though, and also that Aldridge – despite some overlooked regression to his game this season – is selected to honor Portland’s much stronger than expected first-half.
Here is where Lee’s case is stronger than Curry’s, though that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s had the better season thus far or is more important to the Warriors. Rather, the competition at his position isn’t what it is in the backcourt. Lee’s role is far bigger and yields far more production than Ibaka’s, he’s a more varied and efficient scorer than Randolph, and he’s simply a superior player on a superior team to fringe candidates like Al Jefferson, Andrei Kirilenko, or Nicolas Batum.
And if not for the fans voting the supremely underwhelming Howard in as a starter, Lee’s case would be even stronger. Other than Duncan, Griffin, and perhaps Gasol, there isn’t a frontcourt player with a better All-Star resume than Lee. He has the second most double-doubles in the NBA, has made major strides on defense for a team that’s overachieved on that end, and is the only player in the league to average at least 19 points, 10 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game. Plus, Lee was an All-Star in 2010 and won’t suffer from the first-year bias that could plague Curry. Barring a small surprise, he’s in, ending Golden State’s amazing streak of 15 seasons without a participant.
Now we’re back to Curry with a single wild card spot left, and his main competition for it – Randolph – faces similar circumstances. But before getting to that let’s cross the remaining candidates off the list. Ibaka has improved considerably on offense while maintaining his flashy defensive prowess, but still doesn’t shoulder enough offensive responsibility to warrant selection this season. Batum and Kirilenko are two of the most versatile defenders in the league, but don’t impact the game the way Curry and Randolph do on the other end; their teams aren’t as good as Golden State or Memphis, either. And finally, Jefferson has actually underwhelmed compared to 2012 and his team has done the same relative to big (misplaced?) preseason expectations.
Curry and Randolph, though opposites in style and position and so many other basketball aspects, present All-Star cases that mirror one another’s. The Warriors are 25-15, the Grizzlies are 26-14. Both (for this study, at least) already have a teammate on the roster, and both can stake claim to being their team’s best player. Curry leads the league in three-point shooting, Randolph leads the league in double-doubles. Each is the national face of their respective organization.
It’s a toss-up, there’s no wrong answer, and there’s no right answer, either. Both Curry and Randolph are deserving of the honor, but fan voting, positional overlap, and shoddy selection biases have rued their ugly heads. If one had to guess, Randolph is the safe bet; he’s been an All-Star before (2010), is on the downside of his career (meaning fewer future opportunities for selection), and Memphis has been a hair better than Golden State this season.
Those factors could be enough to sway things in the favor of Randolph and Memphis, and deny the Warriors a second All-Star. But Curry’s selection would hardly surprise, either, a fact indicative of just how far Golden State has come in 2013′s first 40 games.