When the NBA All Star Game reserves are announced on Thursday, there will be some snubs, as there always are. As many observers have pointed out, the All Star game rosters have had 12 players per conference since the days when the league had 18 teams. Now there are 30 teams, and the rosters are still 12 - there are bound to be some good players left home. Kobe Bryant's already in the game as a starting guard in the West, but five more LA players (Lakers Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum and Clippers Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon) deserve All Star consideration.
This season, more than any other in recent memory, there are way too many great players in the Western Conference to accommodate on one 12 man roster. The West could populate two 12 man squads with All Stars without reaching for any of the selections. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Eastern Conference. If a player who deserves to be an All Star who is not selected to the team is called a snub, we may need a new term for the opposite - the All Star who is selected despite not truly being deserving. Call that player a buns (the opposite of a snub).
The starters have already been selected, and happily there's really no quarrel there this year.
Of course Yao Ming was undeservedly selected to start despite being out for the season, but in this case those billion Chinese voters have actually done the game a service. Had Yao NOT been on the ballot, one of the 'true' centers in the Western Conference would have been voted to start. No offense to Bynum, Nene and Tyson Chandler, but Pau Gasol and Tim Duncan (who both play plenty of center, despite being listed as forwards on the ballot) are much more deserving and the West doesn't really need any undeserving players taking up spots.
No argument with the East starters either. That's a pretty amazing group right there. It's when you start talking about the reserves that it gets a little dicey.
When you look at the best players in the NBA, you immediately notice that there are just more great players in the Western Conference. For instance, if you rank the top players in the NBA by Player Efficiency Rating (PER), you get some pretty interesting results. (I realize that PER not a full proof metric, but it's a common means of ranking different players against each other.) Of the top 40 players who average at least 28 minutes per game, 28 of them are in the Western Conference. That's a fairly astounding 70%. And other than the top 4 (which contain James and Wade and Howard), the mix remains fairly consistent through the rankings: 6 of the top 10, 12 of the top 20 and 21 of the top 30 come from out West. In other words, to fill out a roster of 12 Eastern Conference players, you're choosing players who are comparable to the 25th or so best player in the West. You could indeed create two All Star teams from the West without lowering the standard set by the East.
So who is going to get snubbed in the West?
The coaches have already cast their votes for the reserves, and we are just awaiting Thursday's announcement. They vote for two guards, two forwards, one center and two wild cards, but happily they are given more leeway to be flexible on positions than the fans who fill out ballots. That means that coaches can choose to put Duncan or Gasol at center.
Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki are no-brainers among the Western Conference bigs. Deron Williams and Manu Ginobili are no brainers in the backcourt. There are a lot of other players that at first glance appear to be no brainers, but upon closer inspection might be left out in the squeeze of so many deserving candidates.
Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Duncan, Zach Randolph, David West, Paul Millsap and Lamar Odom all deserve serious consideration at the remaining forward spots. Unfortunately, that's eight names, and there are at most four spots (if you include both wild cards and Yao's center replacement). If Carmelo Anthony gets traded to the Eastern Conference between now and the game, that would open up one more spot.
Steve Nash, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Kevin Martin, Monta Ellis, Eric Gordon and Stephen Curry are all having All Star worthy seasons among the remaining Western Conference guards. Unfortunately, there are at most TWO spots available for those seven players, and that's only if both wild cards go to guards. In reality, it's likely that one wild card each will go to the guards and the forwards. The reality is that Martin, Ellis, Gordon and Curry have absolutely no chance of making the team - not playing for teams with losing records, not in the Western Conference this season. The extra backcourt spot will likely come down to Nash or Westbrook, and I'm guessing that Westbrook (who is having a monster season) will get the nod.
Back to the forwards, if we give one wild card spot to them, we're likely left with Love, Griffin and Duncan making the team, either as reserves or as Yao's replacement. Why do those three get in? Well, Love is having a season for the ages from a statistical standpoint. Players are rarely chosen from losing teams, but players are NEVER left off the roster when they're averaging 21.6 points and 15.6 rebounds. Love has to make it. Griffin will make it for several semi-obvious reasons: his numbers are undeniably great, the game is in Los Angeles, he's the most exciting and talked about player in the game today, and he was made for this spectacle. Even if Griffin isn't chosen by the coaches, David Stern will correct that mistake when he picks Yao's injury replacement. Duncan will make it because the Spurs have the best record in basketball, because he'll get lots of center votes, and because of his body of work.
Astoundingly, that leaves Nash (a two time MVP having perhaps he best season), Ellis (sixth in the NBA in scoring), Gordon (eighth in the NBA in scoring), Martin (with a shooting efficiency unparalleled in the NBA), Randolph (one of four players averaging 20-10) and Aldridge (carrying a Portland team that is still in the playoff hunt despite endless injuries) off the team, among many other terrific choices.
So no matter what happens, there are going to be some serious snubs in the West; there just aren't enough spots on the roster.
What about the bunses? Who is going to make the Eastern Conference team who doesn't really deserve to? There will likely be four Celtics selected as reserves: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen. Of those, Allen is arguably the least deserving, as he doesn't do a lot besides shoot - but golly can he shoot. (As an aside, if you compare Ray-Ray's shooting efficiency to Kevin Martin's you'll see that Martin has similar prowess, while scoring over 50% more on a per minute basis; if Allen is an All Star, Martin should certainly be one.) In addition, Chris Bosh will join his Miami superfriends, likely meaning that the East squad will take seven of their twelve players from two teams. Al Horford is having a terrific season, and certainly deserves a spot. That's eleven spots that seem pretty likely (depending on how you feel about Allen).
So what about the 12th spot? Here's where it gets dicey.
Carlos Boozer has better statistics than any other candidate, but he's missed 18 games this season, including all of October and November. Will the coaches vote for a player who has missed forty percent of the available games to this point? Beyond Boozer, what are the options? It may come down to choosing between a couple of Hawks: Joe Johnson and Josh Smith. Unfortunately, Johnson had a very sub par season going until only very recently; if he's chosen, it will be based on reputation more than anything. Meanwhile Smith is averaging 16 points and 9 rebounds per game; nice enough numbers I suppose, but they pale in comparison to some of the players who are certain to be left off the Western Conference roster. It tells you something about the poor choices available when Raymond Felton and Luol Deng (both good players, but far from the level of the available choices in the West) are being discussed as potential All Stars.
No matter what happens when the All Star replacements are announced Thursday, there are going to be ten or twelve snubs in the West; and a couple of bunses in the East.