Posted January 11, 2013

James Harden, Joakim Noah among those deserving first All-Star nod

Ben Golliver, Brook Lopez, Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, James Harden, Joakim Noah, Josh Smith, Kyrie Irving, Nicolas Batum, Paul George, Serge Ibaka, Stephen Curry, Tyson Chandler
James Harden

Guard James Harden is averaging 26.5 points for the surprising Rockets. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

By Ben Golliver

The last seven All-Star Games have featured an average of five first-time selections, including a number of players who made the cut only as injury replacements. Only once in that stretch have the fans voted a first-timer an All-Star starter (Andrew Bynum started at center for the Western Conference last season).

This year, all 10 expected starters for the Feb. 17 midseason showcase — Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Garnett in the East and Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard in the West — will be repeat All-Stars. That means any player hoping for his first All-Star berth will need the coaches to select him as one of seven reserves in each conference. Long-term injuries to 2012 All-Stars Bynum, Derrick Rose, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Love and Steve Nash could open the door a bit more than usual for first-timers in a process that tends to work against all but the very best of the up-and-comers.

Here’s a rundown of the 10 players most deserving of first-time All-Star recognition and a look at how easy or difficult their respective paths to Houston will be. (All stats and records are through Jan. 10.)

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Numbers: 26.5 points per game, 5.3 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 1.9 steals, 45.4 percent shooting, 23.6 Player Efficiency Rating (PER)

Record: 21-15, No. 6 in the Western Conference

Analysis: This one is as good as booked. Harden’s All-Star credentials are bulletproof and surrounding circumstances have played out ideally in favor of his candidacy. Harden, the NBA’s fourth-leading scorer, has evolved from super-sub to 38-minutes-per-game franchise player exactly as expected when the Thunder traded him in October. He’s supplemented his outstanding scoring numbers with solid contributions across the board, but his league-leading 10.1 free-throw attempts per game and his 29 percent usage rate help explain exactly how important he is to the Rockets’ explosive offense. Harden’s exact placement among top West guards — along with Bryant, Paul, Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker — is debatable, but he’s no worse than fifth. Importantly, he’s above two-time All-Star Manu Ginobili in terms of numbers, playing time and because two other Spurs, Parker and Tim Duncan, are surefire selections this year.

The Rockets’ emergence as one of the biggest surprise teams and Houston’s role as the host city only further solidify his open-and-shut case. Also not up for debate: Harden will easily lead the league in parties hosted during All-Star Weekend.

2. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls

Numbers: 12.6 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.0 blocks, 1.3 steals, 47.2 percent shooting, 17.1 PER

Record: 19-14, No. 5 in the East

Analysis: Noah’s breakout this season might not be as obvious as Harden’s, but it’s been much-needed for the Bulls as they await Rose’s return. Omer Asik’s departure has pushed Noah’s playing time from 30.4 minutes last season to 38.9 minutes this year and he’s scaled his production, posting career highs in points, assists, steals and blocks. Despite a host of offseason moves, Chicago has the NBA’s No. 4 defense after ranking No. 1 in 2011 and 2012; coach Tom Thibodeau’s system is as proven as it gets, but Noah and forward Luol Deng, who was named to his first All-Star team last year, deserve the bulk of the credit, and Noah’s activity and awareness made him my pick for Defensive Player of the Year at the season’s quarter mark. His playmaking has also stood out, highlighted by a triple-double with a career-high-tying 10 assists against Boston last month.

The Nos. 3-8 seeds in the East are separated by just 3½ games. The logjam makes it difficult to handicap which teams in that mix will have the best record, often an unofficial tiebreaker in determining which team gets multiple All-Star representatives. Indiana has two legitimate candidates in David West and Paul George; Atlanta could have two candidates in Al Horford and Josh Smith; Brooklyn has two perennial All-Stars in Deron Williams and Joe Johnson and a third candidate in Brook Lopez; Boston is expected to have two starters, Rondo and Garnett, and Paul Pierce as a reserve candidate. With Rose out, the coaches must choose whether to take Noah, Deng, both or neither. The crowded field could mean only one spot for Chicago, and while Deng’s stats are virtually identical to those he posted last season, Noah deserves the shine.

One last X-factor: The East starting lineup will not include a traditional center under the new ballot that allows for two “backcourt” players and three “frontcourt” players. Garnett, who regularly plays center but has been listed as a forward on past ballots, is expected to start. If the coaches seek some positional balance — and they should considering the quality of the field — it’s possible that multiple centers are selected as reserves.

Kyrie Irving

Point guard Kyrie Irving is poised to become an All-Star in only his second season. (Mark Duncan/AP)

3. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

Numbers: 23.5 points, 5.6 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 46.7 percent shooting, 22.1 PER

Record: 9-28, No. 14 in the East

Analysis: It takes a truly sensational player to merit All-Star recognition when his team has the second-worst record in the league. Irving is that player. He won’t turn 21 until more than a month after the All-Star Game, but his standing among the league’s best at his position is already taken as fact. Ranking No. 4 in PER among point guards behind only Paul, Westbrook and Parker, Irving is close to the total package: He can score, he can create, he can shoot (43.1 percent on three-pointers!), he can lead and he can defend (the defense, though, is still very much a work in progress). His aggressiveness, creativity and confidence in late-game situations have helped him develop the “closer” reputation. Other than persistent problems with fluky injuries, Irving seems on a fairly clear track to greatness.

Losing big man Anderson Varejao to knee surgery was a huge blow to Cleveland’s prospects for winning this season, as he was a playing like a candidate for his first All-Star appearance, too. Not that it’s any consolation to Cavaliers fans, but Varejao’s absence does make the All-Star selection process easier for Irving. Coaches now won’t need to pick between Irving and Varejao or talk themselves into taking two players from a last-place team. Now, it’s Irving all the way. He was a fringe All-Star candidate as a rookie last season, but there just wasn’t room with Rose, Rondo and Williams. With Rose out and Williams having a down year, there should be hell to pay if the coaches can’t squeeze him on this time around.

4. Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks

Numbers: 12.7 points, 10.6 rebounds, 68.6 percent shooting, 21.8 PER

Record: 23-12, No. 2 in the East

Analysis: Chandler is riding a wave of recognition after spending a few quality years in the overlooked/underappreciated vortex. The 2011 title, 2012 Defensive Player of the Year award and last summer’s Olympic gold medal have put Chandler in a position to earn the first All-Star nod of his 12-year career. His impact is well-known by now: The 7-1 Chandler is a long, agile big man who specializes in protecting the rim, finishing alley-oops and manning the glass. The Knicks are below average in points allowed per possession after finishing fifth in that category last season, but Chandler’s double-double average, league-leading shooting percentage (it’s hard to miss dunks) and excellent PER should be more than enough to send him to Houston.

Under the old ballot rules, if players had been listed at the same positions as last year, Chandler would have been in line to be an East starter by virtue of leading all centers in the fan vote. Instead, as noted above, Garnett is set to get the nod after the elimination of the center designation on the ballot. The coaches should do the right thing and make up for the ballot-induced snub. The Knicks’ strong start gives them a good chance for a second All-Star to join Anthony, who will be voted in as a starter. The available options are Chandler and J.R. Smith, whose case rests on his career-high scoring (17.1 points), multiple game-winning shots and improved rebounding. Is it possible that Chandler and Smith both make the cut? Yes, but the East logjam will likely prevent that, and Smith’s 41.5 percent shooting and reserve role work against him, too. If the Knicks get just one reserve, Chandler is the most deserving.

5. Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder

Numbers: 14.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.9 blocks, 57.1 percent shooting, 20.0 PER

Record: 27-8, No. 2 in the West

Analysis: Ibaka, like Harden before him, might never get his proper respect as the No. 3 guy behind two perennial All-NBA performers in Durant and Westbrook. His play this season, though, suggests that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get noticed. Asked to play more minutes and expand his offensive game, Ibaka has risen to the task with career highs in scoring, rebounding and shooting — the last an impressive feat considering he is attempting 3.1 more shots this season than he ever has before and trying more long jumpers. Taking on a larger offensive burden and performing more efficiently is no easy task. Ibaka, the league’s top shot-blocker, is a key reason why the Thunder, generally known as an offensive juggernaut, rank sixth in defensive efficiency.

While a very worthy All-Star candidate, Ibaka falls victim to two sets of circumstances. First, he’s competing against a loaded West frontcourt field that includes Durant, Griffin, Howard, Duncan, David Lee, Zach Randolph, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol. Second, he’ll face the question of whether the Thunder are deserving of three All-Stars, given Durant’s and Westbrook’s assured selection. Outside of the Heat’s Big Three, the Thunder’s case to land a third All-Star is as strong as any team’s. But the combination of the two factors — i.e., the coaches would prefer to take Lee and Randolph or Gasol as their respective team’s sole representatives rather than Ibaka as the Thunder’s third — could wind up keeping him out. If this season winds up being a developing year for future All-Star bids for Ibaka, that’s not the end of the world.

Paul George

Paul George is blossoming into a star on both ends of the floor. (Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

6. Paul George, Indiana Pacers

Numbers: 16.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 42.2 percent shooting, 16.7 PER

Record: 22-14, No. 3 in the East

Analysis: If you’ve watched the Pacers play recently, perhaps on Thursday night’s nationally televised game against the Knicks, you probably caught yourself thinking that George is better than you thought. That’s because he is, and he has been for a solid five or six weeks now. George’s raw numbers are good. His advanced numbers aren’t spectacular, but his impact is enormous. It’s not just home-team hyperbole when his coach, Frank Vogel, calls him the best defensive wing in the league. George accepts the biggest challenges and plays with both fundamentals and aggressiveness. He does it all while carrying a significantly larger load on offense this season because of Danny Granger’s absence. He is, to put it plainly, the best defensive player on the NBA’s top-ranked defense.

The Pacers will need at least one All-Star representative given their solid record. We know, for sure, that 2012 first-time selection Roy Hibbert won’t be back for the sequel. That leaves George and West, who is having a solid season as well in averaging 16.4 points and 7.9 rebounds. A two-time All-Star with the Hornets, West has the name recognition and veteran credibility that are so important with the coaches. It’s understandable why some skeptics would want to see this level of play from George for a longer period of time to make him “prove it,” especially after he started the season slowly as he adapted to his enhanced role. The best answer to those voices is that George, at 22, is just scratching the surface. George’s career highs virtually across the board, his 37.2 percent three-point shooting and his big-time games against the likes of the Heat and Knicks should be enough to get him on the radar.

7. Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks

Numbers: 16.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.4 blocks, 1.4 steals, 44.5 percent shooting, 18.4 PER

Record: 20-14, No. 4 in the East

Analysis: For some reason, it seems like no one can ever get as excited about Smith’s All-Star prospects as Smith himself. Last year, he memorably made a bit of a stink after he was snubbed yet again, saying that “politics” kept him off the East squad. Politics, sure, but the presence of teammates Horford and Johnson, both selected multiple times, had something to do with it, too. On the new-look Hawks — who traded Johnson to the Nets and Marvin Williams to the Jazz — Smith has pretty much been the same old guy. In fact, his scoring, rebound and shooting numbers are all a bit off compared to last year.  While his shot-selection issues are likely to stick with him throughout his career, Smith is still posting a PER that puts him among the East frontcourt leaders. On the other end, he’s a key piece on the NBA’s eighth-ranked defense.

We’ve now reached the point of the list where these guys likely won’t make the cut for the All-Star rosters unless they are named as injury replacements. Smith should fall below Garnett, Anthony, James, Chris Bosh, Pierce, Noah and Chandler, pushing him to the outskirts of the discussion. Will the coaches remember his comments from last season? It seems to be a safe assumption that the coaches will again favor Horford — who is averaging 15.8 points and 9.6 rebounds and shooting 53.1 percent — and decide to spread the love around rather than give the Hawks a second representative.

8. Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets

Numbers: 18.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 52.5 percent shooting, 25.6 PER

Record: 20-15, No. 6 in the East

Analysis: Lopez makes this list for his efficiency, not for aesthetic reasons. As it turns out, you don’t need to be a ballerina to post the No. 1 PER among centers. The Nets, with their midseason coaching change and down seasons from Deron Williams and Johnson, are a tough team to handicap this early, both in terms of playoff positioning and All-Star nods. Lopez serves as the alternative to the backcourt chuckers by maintaining his solid scoring numbers from past seasons for a winning team and by bumping up his rebounding stats a bit. The fact that he’s performing well coming off a lost, injury-ravaged season and after signing a big-dollar deal that drew questions brings a little flair to his candidacy, but that’s akin to adding sprinkles on a bran muffin.

Lopez should be below both Noah and Chandler in the pecking order of traditional centers, and it seems unlikely that the East would need three true centers for an exhibition. He’s also facing real competition from his own teammates. Williams has made the last three All-Star Games; Johnson has made the last six. Inertia has a way of prevailing in these cases, and it’s not guaranteed that the Nets will even land both of their incumbents.

Stephen Curry

Stephen Curry is averaging career highs in points, assists and rebounds. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

9. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Numbers: 20.2 points, 6.4 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 43.6 percent shooting, 18.9 PER

Record: 22-12, No. 5 in the West

Analysis: Health clearly has been the key for Curry, who has experienced repeated ankle problems in his career. On the court and playing huge minutes, he’s showing just how deadly a 45.2 percent three-pointer shooter who expertly runs the pick-and-roll can be. He’s averaging career highs in points, assists and rebounds and, along with Lee, he’s been a steadying force on a team that’s dealt with injuries to Andrew Bogut and Brandon Rush. His play has been so good that he’s made Monta Ellis a forgotten man.

The issue for Curry is that, as great as he’s been and as well as he’s shot the ball, there’s just no way he’s cracking the West’s top-five guards (Bryant, Paul, Westbrook, Parker and Harden). Further, he’s competing with Lee, a 2010 All-Star who is averaging 18.9 points and 10.4 rebounds. While Golden State has vastly exceeded expectations, it’s going to be hard for two Warriors to get selected if at least two Thunder players (Durant and Westbrook), at least two Lakers (Bryant and Howard), at least two Clippers (Paul and Griffin) and at least two Spurs (Parker and Duncan) are on the books. The Grizzlies, Rockets and Blazers will all rightfully feel like they should have at least one guy before the Warriors get two.

10. Nicolas Batum, Portland Trail Blazers

Numbers: 16.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 1.2 blocks, 42.8 percent shooting, 18.3 PER

Record: 20-15, No. 7 in the West

Analysis: Given how loaded the West’s power forward position is every year, it’s a bit strange that the conference’s small forward position right now amounts to Durant and then everyone else. Batum and Timberwolves forward Andrei Kirilenko, an All-Star in 2004 with the Jazz, are the best candidates for second-best small forward in the West. Like Kirilenko, Batum is a talented two-way player who uses his length to wreak havoc on defense and doesn’t shy away from the tough matchups. Batum used to be known mostly as a catch-and-shoot specialist on offense, but he’s been given increased freedom to create his own shot and be distributor under coach Terry Stotts’ share-friendly system. His shooting percentages have predictably taken a hit, but his expanded role and monster minutes (more than 38 a game) have led to career highs in points, rebounds and assists. If there’s been a knock on his game, it’s that he’s been loose with the ball, turning it over 2.5 times per game.

Batum is a real long shot for the All-Star Game. The Blazers, like the Warriors, are unlikely to get two representatives, and Aldridge is the more worthy candidate. While Aldridge’s shooting has dropped from 51.2 percent last season to 46.4 percent this season, he’s averaging 20.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and more than a block and a steal per game, similar numbers to his 2011-12 All-Star season. Tellingly, Stotts is already campaigning on Aldridge’s behalf. After signing a four-year, $46.1 million contract over the summer, Batum’s growth this season puts him in the mix for more serious consideration in future years. Of course, it’s possible he will be facing off against both Aldridge and rookie point guard Damian Lillard for All-Star honors soon enough.

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): Ryan Anderson (Hornets), Jamal Crawford (Clippers), Kenneth Faried (Nuggets), Rudy Gay (Grizzlies), Jrue Holiday (76ers), Al Jefferson (Jazz), Brandon Jennings (Bucks), Paul Millsap (Jazz), Nikola Pekovic (Timberwolves), J.R Smith (Knicks).


Detroit's Greg Monroe is twice the player Noah is.  Give him some love.


good list........Id question Josh Smith.....after nine years he still a deeply flawed player (and still shoot 50% free throws). Id not have Lopez either. Sorry, he's better, but still a stiff on defense. A big yes to chandler and to Paul George. Im not sure ibaka deserves this, because really Larry Sanders and Ken Faried are both having much better seasons.


 @jsteppling 100% agree with Josh Smith, Lopez is iffy... agree hes better but defensively hes just not there. Chandler and George, yes...  Larry Sanders? keep dreaming, the only thing the guy is good for is some boards and blocks... Ibaka has double the points, 10 less blocks, better FG%, can actually shoot the ball, and has hit 3's this year... hes a complete player. Faried is just a rebounding machine, yes hes averaging a double double with points and rebs but he does nothing else... so i'm not sure how they are both having better seasons... just look at their stats... Rudy Gay needs to be on there


 @uncledrew  @jsteppling We can argue about Sanders. He's on a bad team so its hard to evaluate, but Faried you're wrong about. There seems to be this utter and total confusion and misconception about Faried. "Just a rebounding machine"....wait, then you say, oh, and double doubles every night. AND he's actually become a decent defender and if you dont think so, watch the last game against the clippers. Faried makes that team better. He dominates the glass. DOMINATES it, almost every game. So he does plenty. COmpare ibaka's stats and faried. Faried is averaging 12 pts a game, 10 boards and is shooting 54% and a  little over a steal per game.......Ibaka 14 pts a game,  56% shooting. And 8 boards a game. Ibaka has 2.8 blocks a game but almost no steals. Faried has 1.4 blocks a game. So thats pretty close all told. As for Sanders.......8 pts a game, 8 and a half boards and 3.4 blocks. So thats a notch lower, but again, on a really bad team. I agree Gay should be on there at 17 pts a game. Ive not understood why Gay gets so little love. Also...for the record, Ibaka plays four minutes more a game and is on a very different kind of team. Thats the problem with stats. But Id go to the mat that Faried deserves to be an all star.


 @rotosportsbook  @uncledrew  @jsteppling I would also have to side with Ibaka. Ibaka's game is far more expanded than Faried's. The only thing I would give Faried over Ibaka is rebounding and hi desire to never give up on anything. Dudes motor is very insane lol. And I would have to agree with Book, that Gay is not good enough to make that All-Star ballot and I think he is a overrated player. 


 @uncledrew  @jsteppling Interesting discussion.  I am not sure why Ibaka gets penalized for being on a good team, especially when the Nuggets are also a good team.  Faried is a good player but he is worse than Ibaka in all aspects of the game save for rebounding.  He is also less efficient with lower volume, which is not insignificant.  No question stats can be misleading, but for no one are they moreso than Rudy Gay.  17 pts per game on 16.6 shots is terrible.  15.00 PER.  Should not be in the discussion.



 @jsteppling go on youtube, watch me, uncle drew pepsi commercial 1 and 2... you'll understand youngblood... nowhere does it say 1.4 for blocks anywhere, thats his TO. its okay was just stating whats fact and whats not, no worries at all. Mcghee on the otherhand... barely plays, so hes not getting all the blocks he should as he just doesnt get the minutes to fully produce and Karl never starts him... its sad because i'm a huge supporter of mcghee and i love the nuggets and the way they play. paul george is way more deserving than david west, hes put that team on his back with Granger out... crossing my fingers that curry gets the nod but who knows if he will. Cousins should make it too with the numbers hes been putting up but probably wont with all the off/on court issues.


 @uncledrew "youngblood2? Where do you live? Actually I suspect Im older than you. I like Ibaka, dont get me wrong, but he plays for an elite team. This is the problem with stats, in fact. Faried contributes probably more to Denver than ibaka to OKC. But at this point its subjective and fans tend to always defer to guys on winning teams. Its the Stern era and thats how it works. If those two guys traded places the stats would change. I dont see how that can be argued. Id support Curry too, but again, its not a big market team so he'll get slighted. Sanders in fact does a lot for the Bucks...a LOT......but it doesnt show up in stats. And look, he's far from a perfect player. But Id take any of these guys over josh smith. As for stats, I read 1.4 but i cant find where. I see on SI thats 0.9 blocks. But see, again, he plays next to McGhee, and thats who gets the blocks. Thats his job. The perfect example of skewed stats is David West on Indiana......another deserving guy. 16 pts a game...47% shooting and 7.5 boards, and one block. He does all the dirty work for a team with a very soft center. He clears out, he bangs and he's a top end defender. None of that shows up. Plus Indiana is not a media market team. Thats just the reality. But i will agree gay for sure, and curry, and lose Lopez and smith.


 @jsteppling Ibaka is more deserving, and is a more complete player than either of those 2 players. where are you seeing Faried with 1.4 blocks per game?? i'll answer that for you, NO WHERE... get your stats straight youngblood because thats his TO's... Ibaka's overall game has increased more than Faried has from last year. mins, FG%, FT%, REBS, PTS all increased with blocks taking a a slight dip but still averaging the 2nd most in the entire league. now for Faried, FG%, FT%, BPG down... mins, reb, points with slight increases.


As for Gay, 100% agree with you the guy deserves more love that he gets, especially over Lopez. Curry needs to be higher on this list.