Monday, January 26, 2009

In the Rotation: NBA Week 13

By Scott Shepherd

Last Thursday, the starters for the All-Star Game in Phoenix on February 15th were announced. The starters for the Western Conference team are Yao Ming, Tim Duncan, Amar'e Stoudemire, Kobe Bryant, and Chris Paul.

For the Eastern Conference team, they are Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Allen Iverson.

The all-star reserves will be announced on Thursday of this week.

During the Lakers and Spurs game on Sunday afternoon, ABC's Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson each picked the seven players that they'd choose as reserves for the all-star game on February 15th in Phoenix.

Jackson and Van Gundy, paired with play-by-play guy Mike Breen, make up the most likable and knowledgeable announcing team in basketball. That being said, their criteria for choosing all-stars are extremely flawed.

Both men seemed to agree that playing on a winning team is the most important factor when deciding who should fill out the remaining roster spots on the all-star teams.

My question to them is: why?

Why does playing average basketball on a good team make you more worthy to play among the greatest in the world than playing great basketball on a lousy team?

Two things are true about Kendrick Perkins: he is the starting center for the defending champs and he averages 8.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. How does either of those things qualify him to be an all-star?

Yet Mark Jackson had him as a reserve on his list.

I'm going to steal Mark Jackson's own catchphrase to sum up this one: you're better than that.

I agree that team record should be a factor when considering reserves, but one that should really only be used in a tiebreaker type situation.

In my opinion, the NBA playoffs is a three-month event to showcase the players and teams that have had the most success during the season.

The All-Star Game should be the one night in the year that features the greatest basketball players in the world, regardless of their team's record. Good players on great teams will have their moment to shine this spring. For great players on bad teams, February's All-Star Game is their one and only chance to show the world what they can do under the bright lights.

In today's Starting Five, we throw out the notion that all-star reserves need to come from winning teams take a look at five players having all-star worthy seasons while playing for exceptionally bad teams.

Starting Five

1. Kevin Durant

To me, Durant not being named an all-star would be the biggest snub of the season. The only thing that could even remotely hinder his chances of being on the West all-star team is the fact that the Thunder are a putrid 9-35 entering this week.

That's certainly not Durant's fault.

Durant's 24.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 86% free throw shooting by itself should be enough to make him an all-star. But his season averages don't begin to tell the whole story of how good Durant has been.

In his last game, Durant scored 46 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, had 5 assists, made a franchise-record 24 free throws (on 26 attempts), and even added 2 steals and a block for good measure.

Guess what? The Thunder lost to the Clippers 107-104 in that game.

I ask you: is it because Kevin Durant isn't playing at an all-star level that the Thunder struggle, or is it because he has no help?

You'd have to be blind, dumb, or both to not see that the trouble in OKC is the supporting cast, and Durant shouldn't be punished for that. He deserves to be an all-star, regardless of what his team's record is.

2. Danny Granger

Granger's season has played out very similar to how Durant's season has played out: gaudy numbers for a terrible team.

But there has been one notable exception for Danny Granger: he hits big shots. Lots of them.

Not only has Granger been an absolute scoring machine for the Pacers (his 26.1 points per game has him fourth in the league), he's also been one of the most clutch shooters in the league this season.

His ability to come through in big spots was on full display on MLK Day as his three-pointer with 2.5 seconds left tied the game (he was trumped by Chris Paul moments later hitting a three of his own) and just added to his already lengthy resume of clutch shots.

The Pacers may only have 16 wins this season, but without the fourth leading scorer and one of the best clutch shooters in the NBA this season, that total would be much, much lower.

Based on that, Granger sounds like a no-brainer for the all-star team to me.

3. Emeka Okafor

Based on the rule that says that you have to take a backup center, Okafor is really the only option in my opinion for the Eastern Conference all-star team. Now, if the coaches get creative and decide to use Chris Bosh as their choice for backup center, I don't think anyone will complain. He deserves to be an all-star, and if it opens the door for another deserving forward to claim a spot (Granger for example), I'm all for it.

However, if the coaches decide to go by the book and vote for only true centers, you almost have to go with Emeka Okafor.

Okafor is second among Eastern Conference centers in points and rebounds behind Dwight Howard, leads East centers in field goal percentage, and is third in blocks (behind Howard and Brook Lopez).

However, as I mentioned earlier, Mark Jackson gave this roster spot to Kendrick Perkins based on the fact that the Celtics have the best record in the east.

In no way does it make any sense to me to reward the fifth best player on his team because the other four starters are good enough to beat opposing teams.

If the best reason you can find to keep Emeka Okafor off the all-star team is because he doesn't play alongside three Hall of Famers, then it probably means that Emeka Okafor should be an all-star.

4. Al Jefferson

Shaquille O'Neal will almost certainly get the nod as the backup center in the West, whether it'll be a sort of lifetime achievement award or not is debatable, but I fully expect him to make the team. The game is in his home city, the idea of reuniting Shaq, Kobe Bryant, and Phil Jackson is too enticing, and everyone loves Shaq.

The good news about Shaq being named the backup center in the West: the chances of seeing someone wear a ridiculous fedora to All-Star Saturday will increase exponentially.

The bad news: someone more deserving of an all-star spot will be left off.

In this case, that more deserving player is Al Jefferson.

Jefferson enters the week as the NBA's ninth leading scorer, seventh leading rebounder, and 15th-best shot blocker. He is the only player in the league that is in the top 15 in all three of those categories.

However, Minnesota's 14-27 start has Jefferson's monster season going virtually unnoticed. Even though the T'Wolves are 8-2 since Kevin McHale took over as head coach, their record will ultimately be the deciding factor that will most likely have Jefferson watching the all-star festivities from home again this year.

5. David Lee

Lee may be the most the player least likely to make the all-star team on this list, but consider this: there are only 10 players in the league that are averaging a double-double right now and Lee is one of them.

Lee is fourth in the league in rebounding at 11.5 per game and has been the most consistent player on the Knicks, achieving a double-double in 32 of the 43 games he has played this season.

And while the Knicks' 18-25 record isn't going to help Lee gain any votes from the coaches, the Knicks sit just 2.5 games back of Milwaukee for the eighth and final playoff spot in the east.

He may not be the flashiest player on the floor, but Lee's hard work and consistency night in and night out is far more valuable to his team than he gets credit for, and it would be a nice surprise to see someone awarded a spot on the all-star team for his work ethic and grit rather than for his marketability.

In the Rotation: Chris Paul

Paul doesn't make the rotation this week for doing anything other than being himself. A late push in the voting has CP3 now starting (rightfully so) at guard in the West as opposed to the undeserving Tracy McGrady.

It's important that Paul starts the game for two reasons. First, the All-Star Game is only as good as the point guards who control them, and no one is better at controlling a game from that position than Chris Paul. If McGrady had won the second starting guard spot, the West would have no true ball handler starting the game and the quality of play would have definitely suffered.

Secondly, T-Mac has no business being on the team in the first place. He's averaging just 15.4 points per game and has played in only 29 of the Rockets 43 games. He's been a solid contributor for the Rockets when he actually plays, but in a conference that features so many superstars (more specifically superstar guards), there is no place for a solid contributor on the all-star team.

Out of the Rotation: Fan Voting

This isn't the first time that fan voting has been out of the rotation, but I have a feeling it might be the last.

The fans already screwed up by voting Allen Iverson as one of the starting guards for the East, but things could have been a whole lot worse. At least Iverson is a Hall of Famer with great star power, even if his 2009 stats aren't worthy of an all-star appearance.

Yi Jianlian finished third in the voting for East forwards, and Bruce Bowen finished third in the West. It would have been an absolute disgrace if either of these role players were to even make the team, let alone start.

After such close calls, I would be shocked if David Stern didn't alter the voting process starting next season to ensure that we never have a situation arise where someone completely undeserving makes the all-star team simply because they have a big international following.

The All-Star Game is the league's best showcase of how freakishly athletic and gifted the best players in the NBA truly are. It'd be a shame if instead of watching these athletes we got stuck with a below-average player stealing a spot form someone more deserving, and I have a feeling David Stern will use this season as a wakeup call to ensure that it never happens.

Inactive List: ESPNNEWS' Magic/Phil interview

For a piece that aired during halftime of the Lakers and Spurs game Sunday, ABC had Lakers legend and Hall of Famer Magic Johnson interview Lakers Hall of Fame Head Coach Phil Jackson. What transpired was a lot of coachspeak and vague answers that we've come to expect from Jackson over the years.

But you wouldn't know it if you didn't actually watch the interview.

In what I am assuming was an attempt to promote both the interview and the game, ESPNNEWS ran this line at the bottom of the screen late Friday night: "Breaking News: Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson to retire after 2009-2010 season."

Here is the interview in its entirety.

At exactly what point does Uncle Phil say that he is retiring? The exact quote Jackson makes about his future is, "I have one more year after this year with the Lakers. Dr. Buss has insinuated that he'd like me to coach longer, but I said let's just do one year at a time right now, so that's what we're doing."

I'll ask it again: when does Jackson say he's retiring? Are ESPN and ABC that desperate for ratings that they'll intentionally mislead viewers, or did someone at ESPN watch that clip and honestly believe that Phil Jackson was using that interview to announce his retirement?

Either way, for their complete irresponsibility in reporting the story, the worldwide leader joins the disrespected few that have been "lucky" enough to find themselves on the inactive list this season.

Be sure to check back at Sports Central every Monday to see who cracks Scott Shepherd's rotation as he breaks down what is going on around the NBA.

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