Originally Published: February 3, 2012

1. Reserve Judgment: Stein's All-Star Benches

Stein By Marc Stein

Chris Bosh, Josh SmithScott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty ImagesCould we be looking at two Eastern Conference All-Star reserves in Josh Smith and Chris Bosh?

It will be recorded as one of the biggest differences between the lockout-shortened season of 1999 and the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12.

There wasn't enough time for a midseason classic in the 50-game scramble of '99. All-Star Weekend was canceled.

A lucky 13 years later? When TNT's Ernie Johnson announced the East and West starters to the nation Thursday night for the All-Star Game to be staged in Orlando on Feb. 26, none of the league's 30 teams had yet played its 25th game.

It's way early, in other words, for us to be feuding over All-Star nominations, but it's also too late to protest. As ragged as things were in a harried January -- with teams averaging 94.2 points per game in the NBA's lowest scoring month since a reading of 94.1 ppg in March 2004 -- coaches have received their annual email outlining the guidelines for choosing seven reserves in their respective conferences.

And their ballots, without voting for any of their own players, are due back to the league next week so the reserves can be announced Thursday night.

Each ballot must include two forwards, two guards, one center and two wild-card selections, with those picks ranked from one to seven to give each vote a point value for tiebreaking purposes. The coaches, though, are also invited to ignore the listings on the actual All-Star ballot if they feel a player can play multiple positions, allowing them to be creative with how they fill their seven slots as opposed to, say, forcing the selection of a backup center who might not have unquestioned All-Star credentials.

The starters in the West, as announced Thursday night, are Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin at forward, Andrew Bynum at center and Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant at guard. The East's starters are LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony at forward, Dwight Howard at center and Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose at guard.

Using the instructions outlined above, here's how ESPN.com's benches would look:

Eastern Conference reserves

Forwards: Josh Smith (Atlanta), Luol Deng (Chicago)

I swear: It's not the lefty thing with Smith. It's the combination of his all-around game and visions of how good he'd be flying around in an All-Star setting that made me want to take Josh over Joe Johnson as the Hawk to reward for Atlanta's ability (so far) to withstand the loss of All-Star center Al Horford.

And I offer up Deng with a wince, but only because he might not be able to accept his nomination thanks to the wrist injury that's held him out of Chicago's past seven games. Toronto's Andrea Bargnani (plagued by his own injury woes) was a legit candidate here for the first time, but Deng -- playing stifling perimeter D and quietly helping Derrick Rose keep the Bulls' offense moving better than ever -- was playing certifiable All-Star ball before he got hurt. I could see the East coaches voting him in and letting David Stern figure out who from the snubees should replace him.

I could also see Deng back on the floor as soon as this weekend to clinch his selection.

Center: Chris Bosh (Miami)

Indiana's Roy Hibbert and even young Greg Monroe, playing for the woebegone Pistons, have done some nice things in the first third of the shortened season, but I'm not prepared to go for either one as Dwight Howard's backup just yet. Amare Stoudemire, meanwhile, would have been a natural for this slot if he were playing up to his usual standards, but Thursday's 34 points and 11 boards against Chicago represent the first glimpse of old Amare for weeks. (It was just the sixth 30-point game for Amare as a Knick playing alongside Carmelo Anthony.)

So I'm asking Bosh to go to Orlando masquerading as a 5, taking advantage of the loophole that the league extends to the coaches by encouraging them not to force-feed a traditional center into this spot if they want to get more marquee names on the roster.

I've done that before and do it again here without apology. That option is especially handy this season, with Horford and Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut -- two presumed All-Star contenders -- potentially out for the season thanks to their respective labrum and ankle injuries.

Bosh, meanwhile, has fittingly been doing whatever's asked on a nightly basis, giving Miami what it needs as a third wheel when Dwyane Wade's healthy or stepping his game up suitably when Wade's been out to rank No. 14 in the league in scoring while shooting a tidy 52.1 percent from the floor. Had Bosh been voted in as an East starter at forward over Melo, I don't think you'd have heard too much chirping in protest.

Guards: Paul Pierce (Boston), Deron Williams (New Jersey)

Although Rajon Rondo is clearly Boston's best player nowadays, given how smoothly he runs the Celts' show and disrupts so many others, Rondo's recent injury woes (missing eight of Boston's 21 games with a wrist problem) could not be ignored. Ditto for the fact that Pierce's resurgence this month is really what got the Celts' season going with Rondo out. Dare I say one Celtic will be plenty for everyone in Orlando, after the East coaches put four on the 2011 East squad, but it's Pierce over Rondo here this time (and maybe for the last time).

D-Will, meanwhile, has gradually shaken loose from his inexplicably slow start to play closer to the level we all expected after he made the virtually unprecedented-for-stars decision to stay sharp during the lockout by playing in Europe. And it's easier than it'll ever be to dismiss the Nets' 8-15 record as a strike against him because (A) picking All-Stars so early based on such a small amount of in-game evidence, as we've been saying, is tricky by definition and (B) only seven teams in the East had winning records as of Friday morning.

Wild cards: Brandon Jennings (Milwaukee), Roy Hibbert (Indiana)

Philly fans will undoubtedly scream (or worse) when they don't see one of their guys on my list after a 16-6 start, but the charm of what the starless Sixers are achieving as an ensemble cast is somewhat lost if we try to wedge Andre Iguodala or Lou Williams in now when neither is really playing on an All-Star level.

It's far, far tougher to omit Kyrie Irving from this squad, given the offensive load he has quickly shouldered in dazzling Cleveland with its first taste of post-LeBron hope, but I can't deny that I still subscribe to the thinking that rookies have to be otherworldly to earn top-12 status in their conference. For more than 20 games, too.

So …

It's Jennings -- whether or not you love lefties as much as yours truly -- who snags one of the last two spots for keeping the Bucks in .500 range without Andrew Bogut by delivering his most potent mix yet of backcourt explosion and efficiency. And we ended up finding room for Hibbert anyway (over the long-suffering Danny Granger for the last spot) because Hibbert's trusty PER of 20.96 comfortably trumps Granger's 38.9 percent shooting from the field and makes him the more sensible rep for the 15-6 Pacers.

East snubs: Ray Allen (Boston), Andrea Bargnani (Toronto), Danny Granger (Indiana), Andre Iguodala (Philadelphia), Kyrie Irving (Cleveland), Joe Johnson (Atlanta), Rajon Rondo (Boston) and Amare Stoudemire (New York).

The Line's 1-7 East Order: 1. Bosh, 2. Pierce, 3. D-Will, 4. Smith, 5. Deng, 6. Jennings, 7. Hibbert.

Western Conference reserves

Forwards: Kevin Love (Minnesota) and LaMarcus Aldridge (Portland)

It gets no easier than typing (or scribbling) Love's name here. He's averaging nearly 25 points and 14 boards for the flirting-with-.500 Wolves and would not be out of place as a starter over Blake Griffin if the fans had voted that way. When it comes to picking All-Star reserves in 2012, Love puts the 'L' in l-o-c-k.

Aldridge, meanwhile, surely figured he'd have to settle for a wild-card slot at best when the season began, knowing that this is usually where Dirk Nowitzki parks. But Nowitzki's slowest start since his rookie season and the leaguewide spike in Aldridge's street cred -- as evidenced by his recent nomination to the list of 20 finalists for Team USA's Olympic adventure in London in the summer -- makes his selection (with a PER reading approaching 24) almost as inevitable as Love's.

Which is good news for those of you who enjoy the city of Portland. Who knows how angry the locals would be -- and what they might do -- if LMA is snubbed again like last February?

Center: Marc Gasol (Memphis)

Two Lakers in the starting lineup -- and one Gasol on the West roster -- are enough for me.

Translation: Marc Gasol is getting our nod to play behind Andrew Bynum over brother Pau.

The younger of the Gasol Bros. is not only living up to his new mega contract but also producing career-best numbers despite the absence of Zach Randolph, even though everyone came into the season thinking that what made the Grizzlies truly dynamic in last spring's first-round upset of mighty San Antonio was the ability of their two big men, Z-Bo and Gasol, to play off each other. So to do what he's doing without Randolph -- averaging nearly 15 points and 11 rebounds with 2.3 blocks per game -- adds up to a stronger All-Star case than Pau's for the first time.

Going as a center figured to be Pau's best shot of making it to All-Star Weekend in the drenched-in-4s West, but no one out there is pushing for three Lakers to get All-Star invites with Kobe and Co. at a mortal 13-9.

Guards: Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City) and Steve Nash (Phoenix)

The unflattering reviews of Westbrook's quarterback play from early in the season are gradually starting to fade. Like a lot of us, I'd still prefer to see Kevin Durant playing alongside a more pass-minded point guard, but Westbrook is inching away from his defiant approach and is back to being OKC's best player some nights. Which means his second straight selection to the West All-Stars is just a formality.

As for Nash, things are never really easy anymore playing for what's left of the Suns. But on a starting-over team that bears little resemblance to the high-octane outfit he QB'd from 2004-05 through the 2009-10 season, Nash is somehow still regularly playing textbook ball through the pain at age 37 and averaging 15.2 points and a shade under 10 assists on a team where he and Marcin Gortat are the only consistent scoring options.

You could certainly presume that Nash -- who turns 38 on Tuesday -- wouldn't mind having some time off during All-Star Weekend to recharge after dealing with the usual aches and ailments he deals with. But then it hits you that a weekend on the All-Star stage might be as good as it gets for Nash all season. So he needs to be there.

Wild cards: Tony Parker (San Antonio), Paul Millsap (Utah)

The dilemmas presented by the array of quality ballers in the hunt for the last two spots are almost too dizzying to list.

You could leave Nowitzki home in the midst of his worst production since he was 20 … but then the defending champs would have no All-Star representative.

You could decide that Danilo Gallinari doesn't hit the boards enough or that Nene's production isn't quite All-Star-caliber … but then the team with the second-best record in the conference (15-7) wouldn't have an All-Star rep, either.

You could reward Tony Parker for his steady play in the wake of Manu Ginobili's latest injury setback … but then that would leave Tim Duncan with virtually no hope of making his 14th consecutive All-Star appearance.

And you could spend a lot of time arguing with yourself about whether to back Paul Millsap or Al Jefferson as the most deserving All-Star from the upstarts in Utah … but then eventually you'll realize that there's a real possibility that neither one of them makes it.

In the end? I'm quite sure that the coaches will look past Nowitzki's 23-game nightmare and select him out of respect to both Nowitzki's résumé and the fact that his Mavs are the reigning champs, no matter how much he might enjoy the extra rest. I likewise wouldn't be surprised if same thing happens with Duncan, even though Timmy's not even playing 30 minutes per game.

My choices, though, are Parker and Millsap, with the shut-out Nuggets justifiably peeved but getting the exact same treatment from me as the Sixers. Denver really is the Philly of the West, riding too many key contributors in its ensemble cast to single out one even for a weekend.

West snubs: Tim Duncan (San Antonio), Monta Ellis (Golden State), Pau Gasol (Los Angeles Lakers), Danilo Gallinari (Denver), Rudy Gay (Memphis), James Harden (Oklahoma City), Al Jefferson (Utah), David Lee (Golden State), Kevin Martin (Houston) and Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas).

The Line's 1-7 West Order: 1. Love, 2. M. Gasol, 3. Westbrook, 4. Nash, 5. Aldridge, 6., Parker, 7. Millsap.

Dimes past: Jan. 19 | 20-21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27-28 | 29 | 30 | 31 | Feb. 1 | 2

2. Western Conference

The Nuggets are said to be fuming that the league's new labor agreement wouldn't allow them to sign-and-trade Kenyon Martin to his new team -- thereby positioning Martin to make a little more money in the deal and score an asset for Denver in the process -- but the Clippers' offer of $2.5 million for the rest of the season trumped all other suitors because of the role they can offer with it.

Word is that Martin prefers to play in the West because the proliferation of quality power forwards throughout the conference should translate to more playing time. That's especially true with the Clippers, who desperately need another big man to join Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Reggie Evans.

Miami ranked as the most attractive situation in the East for the 34-year-old, but the Heat could only offer him a prorated contract at the veteran minimum.

Sources close to the situation say that the Clippers initially wanted to make a run at shooting guard J.R. Smith as well but conceded that frontcourt depth is the bigger priority and have focused on Martin. It's the opposite approach to that taken by the Knicks, who also had interest in both ex-Nuggets but have a greater need for Smith's perimeter shooting than Martin's defensive know-how and are thus focused on trying to land Smith when he returns from China in the next month.

Some numbers of note in the West this week:

3: You know by now that we're always looking for any excuse to bring up the Buffalo Braves, so it should come as no surprise that we'd be passing along the Elias Sports Bureau note about how the Clippers' home date with Oklahoma City earlier this week marked just the third time since the franchise left Buffalo that the Clips were part of a game pitting teams in sole possession of first place in their respective divisions against each other this late in the season. The two previous such occurrences for the Clips, since the Braves did so while leading the Atlantic Division in January 1975, came on back-to-back days in 2005-06, when the Clippers defeated the Suns on Dec. 10 and lost to the Pistons on Dec. 11.

29: The Lob City Clippers, entering Wednesday's play, had completed a league-leading 29 alley-oops, four ahead of No. 2 New York and six more than No. 3 Miami.

6: The Clippers' Blake Griffin, no matter how you graded his posterization of Kendrick Perkins, is one of just six players in the league averaging at least 20 points per game (21.4 ppg to be exact) and shooting better than 50 percent from the field (.535). The others are Miami's LeBron James, Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, Miami's Chris Bosh and Orlando's Dwight Howard.

21: Minnesota's Ricky Rubio needed only 21 games in the NBA to record 10 double-figure assist games. The only other players in league history to do so that fast were Damon Stoudamire (19 games with Toronto in 1995-96) and Phil Ford (21 games with the Kansas City Kings in 1978).

6: Kobe Bryant on Sunday became the all-time leader in field goals made in Lakers history, passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during a win at Minnesota, where the franchise was anchored for its first 12 seasons. Bryant thus became the sixth player to hold that distinction for the Lakers, following George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Abdul-Jabbar. The only other active players to hold their team's career record for field goals made, besides Bryant, are San Antonio's Tim Duncan, Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki and Miami's Dwyane Wade.

The Lakers are indeed on the long list of teams interested in Cavs point guard Ramon Sessions, but sources say that Cleveland would expect at least one first-round draft pick from L.A. in exchange. Although the Lakers have their own first-round pick and Dallas' first-rounder in 2012, it's believed that L.A. prefers to hold off on using either of those picks or its $8.9 million trade exception (created by the deal that sent Lamar Odom to the Mavs) until Dwight Howard's situation plays out in Orlando. Meaning that the Lakers don't want to burn one (or more) of their limited trade assets and then find out that Orlando is suddenly ready to deal Dwight before the March 15 trading deadline ... The Grizzlies, sources say, were weighing the merits of calling up Greg Ostertag out of the D-League as a spot-minute addition to their tag team filling in for the injured Zach Randolph when the 38-year-old decided to end his comeback Jan. 19 because of unshakeable knee soreness.

3. Centers Of Attrition

The limbo that the Orlando Magic are locked into with Dwight Howard is far more draining, in a lot of ways, than it was with Shaquille O'Neal during the 1995-96 season.

Reason No. 1 for that: Media coverage is far more suffocating now than it was back then, meaning that reminders of the Magic's predicament with Howard -- trade him before the March 15 or risk losing him in the summer without compensation a la Shaq -- never really go away.

Another reason: Knowing that they'll ultimately have to try to replace Dwight, whose arrival in 2004 was a blessing beyond words less than 10 years after Shaq's departure, has to make sleep scarce at night.

Yet even if the messy end is near with Dwight in Orlando, either by trade during the next six weeks or via free agency in July, there will be at least one chapter in this increasingly sad saga that the Magic will have to look back on with fondness: Dwight's steely durability.

Four centers were taken No. 1 overall in the NBA draft in the 2000s. Only Dwight, of that quartet, has been able to avoid serious long-term health woes.

Persistent foot troubles forced Yao Ming to retire at age 30. Greg Oden has managed to play only 82 games in his first five pro seasons because of traumatic breakdowns in both of his knees and was forced to undergo yet another arthroscopic procedure Friday "to remove debris from his right knee." And Milwaukee's luckless Andrew Bogut recently suffered a fractured ankle when he landed on the foot of Houston's Samuel Dalembert in the lane, shelving him again while he was still trying to rebound fully from the after-effects of that infamous 2010 fall from the rim where he tried to soften an inevitably bad landing with his right arm and wound up absorbing significant trauma to his elbow, hand and wrist.

Howard, meanwhile, has missed only seven games since the Magic drafted him in 2004.


Which is one of the biggest reasons it'll be so hard for the Magic to see him walk.


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