Scratching out a column every January to advise East and West coaches on the All-Star reserves they should pick is an annual tradition here at Stein Line HQ.
Choosing five starters and filling out an actual All-Star ballot?
Can't remember the last time we actually did that. Probably not since my teenage years.
So, yeah, it feels strange. It will take some getting used to.
Speaking strictly for myself, it's not because casting one ballot's worth of All-Star votes presents some sort of huge moral quandary, since the reality is that many of us covering this league often unknowingly have a tangible impact on NBA proceedings with so many things we write and say. In this brain, I simply always imagined that the All-Star starters were strictly the fans' domain and should/would remain so.
But I get it.
In the electronic age, when intricate voting campaigns can be waged on behalf of undeserving All-Star candidates, adding the league's nearly 450 active players and a panel of media members to the voting process to short-circuit such shenanigans is a natural counter. It also gives the guys on the court, who've wanted more of a voice in these matters for a long time, what they've been seeking.
So here we are. Our unofficial reserve selections are coming next Friday after the starters are announced, as always, but let's first share our first-ever formal picks for the starters in each conference, with all balloting (for fans, players and the press) scheduled to end Monday night at 11:59 p.m. ET:
It's hard to imagine Stephen Curry finishing anywhere but No. 1 among West guards in fan balloting. But Harden and Westbrook are widely regarded as the league's top two MVP candidates at the season's halfway point, which figures to make them both pretty automatic with the media.
Harden is in the midst of a revolutionary season as a full-time point guard for the first time, meshing with new coach Mike D'Antoni and the retooled roster around him to such a positive degree that the Rockets are on pace to jump from last season's 41 wins to 62.
Westbrook, meanwhile, has a 50 percent chance of becoming just the second player in league history to average a triple-double for an entire season, according to the latest calculations from ESPN's tireless Kevin Pelton.
Our firm belief is that Curry's supposed drop-off is really more of a scaling back from last season's historic production, which was probably inevitable with the arrival of Kevin Durant and the equally inevitable adjustment phase for all involved.
He'll likely have to surrender his starting spot once the player and media votes are factored in, but Curry has nothing to worry about here. He's an All-Star lock, too.
The pool of worthy candidates for just three available spots is seriously deep.
Davis and DeMarcus Cousins jump out as two names from losing teams that you suspect will do well in voting by their on-court peers, which is bound to make things interesting.
Yet there are realistically two locks no matter how you look at things.
Durant has not only made a highly efficient start to life in the Bay Area, but has also played bigger and with more consistent force as a defender than we've ever seen.
Down in San Antonio, Leonard's reputation as one of the game's foremost two-way stars only grows, thanks to the additional offensive responsibility he has taken on in his first season post-Tim Duncan, on top of his well-chronicled work as a perimeter stopper that opposing teams strain to avoid.
So those are your gimmes: KD and Kawhi. The toughest call among West starters, assuming you're casting these votes on merit, is trying to narrow down a starry quartet of deserving choices -- Draymond Green and Marc Gasol in addition to Davis and Cousins -- for one remaining slot in the West frontcourt.
As often as Warriors coach Steve Kerr calls Green "in some ways our most important player," Draymond's case is a strong one on that basis alone, given that the 34-6 Warriors -- for all the things they're purportedly still trying to iron out -- sport the league's best record.
Gasol gave us plenty to think about too, having overcome an 11-game injury absence for Mike Conley in December, as well as the intermittent availability of Chandler Parsons, to help keep Memphis among the league's top three defenses and, until recently, on a 50-win pace. Big Spain also gets some extra credit here not for the questionable Conor McGregor imitations but for expanding his game offensively to become a 3-point threat.
Ultimately, though, it’s Davis who has the edge – with the game in New Orleans -- as he tries to drag the Pelicans to the postseason in the wake of an 0-8 start. We haven’t seen that sort of recovery in the NBA since Chicago did it in 2004-05.
Both Davis and Cousins have their teams close enough to the No. 8 spot in the West to get a pass from this stubborn media mainstreamer who can't resist throwing that trusty team-success card on the table. I'd frankly be good with either one of them starting.
Remember when I mentioned how strange this assignment feels?
It didn't get any more comfortable when I got to this section, with only two open spots for five players who could inspire a daylong debate when you try to separate them.
Irving, of course, is the runaway No. 1 choice in the fan vote and, truth be told, presumably would be No. 1 on most anyone's list if the assignment were simply drafting the standout from the five players mentioned. But our aim here is to reward the best seasons we've seen to this point. I don't think Irving, on an individual basis, can claim he has had a stronger start to 2016-17 than Wall, Thomas or the Toronto duo.
Yet that still leaves plenty of work to do. Thomas or Wall? DeRozan or Lowry? The two Raptors together? Some other combination?
Tempting as it was to choose both DeRozan and Lowry, I only managed to make room for one of them. And that's DeRozan, who won bonus points here for those 19 days in a row in November when he stood as the league's leading scorer, helping Toronto get off to a fine start and, just as crucially, taking the early pressure off Lowry as his fellow Olympian eased into the season without the same splash.
Lowry is rolling now, but DeRozan -- No. 5 in the East in player efficiency rating as of Friday morning -- couldn't have come back from Rio more ready.
Wall vs. Thomas is another coin flip. You can't go wrong with either. I know Wall has won many admirers for the way he sparked Washington's turnaround from a 6-12 start, but we're giving the edge to the little lefty because of Thomas' consistency, his fourth-quarter excellence and the way he kept the Celtics afloat while Al Horford was missing all those games in November.
In stark contrast to the point guard overflow that complicates backcourt selections in the East, this is a frontcourt trio that essentially picks itself.
I realize that the latest returns from the fan vote, released Thursday, have Kevin Love in a starting spot, but I suspect that the overwhelming majority of media ballots will look like this one, with Antetokounmpo and Butler joining LeBron in the first five.
It's not like Love would be out of place as a starter, but there's a convincing argument to be made that The Greek Freak and Butler -- like LeBron -- have been top-10 players league-wide in terms of impact this season.
The Rise of Giannis as one of the leading vote-getters, having never been an All-Star before and playing out of humble Milwaukee, also happens to be one of the stories of the season.
There can be no dispute, at worst, that Antetokounmpo and Butler have been top-5 players in the East to this point, which we anticipate will force the likes of Love and Paul George to rely on East coaches to secure a reserve spot.
(One quick footnote on the prospect of LeBron, Kyrie and Love all starting for the East: 1989-90 is the last time three starters from one team -- -- Magic Johnson, James Worthy and A.C. Green of the Lakers -- were voted in by the fans. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all started the 2013 All-Star Game for the East, but Bosh was starting in place of the injured Rajon Rondo.)
The Rockets, according to league sources, were among the teams that looked into acquiring Mike Dunleavy last week when Atlanta was initially searching for a third team to get involved in the Kyle Korver trade with Cleveland.
Sources say Houston is not currently itching to make a move -- why would you want to change much at 31-10? -- but these are still the uber-aggressive Rockets. So count on them to stay on the lookout for an extra shooter or one more big man as the Feb. 23 trade deadline draws near.
Sources say, furthermore, that swingman K.J. McDaniels has emerged as the most likely Rocket to move this trade season ... more likely now than Corey Brewer. Our own Zach Lowe reported recently that the Rockets were gauging Brewer's trade value, but Brewer has since moved back ahead of McDaniels in D'Antoni's rotation.
The Cavs might not necessarily be done with trades for the season.
LeBron James still wants a certified backup point guard to ease Irving's regular-season burden -- as you might have heard -- and Cleveland still has $4.4 million left of its Anderson Varejao trade exception to use post-Korver to take in additional salary before the exception expires Feb. 20.
Stan Van Gundy has openly scoffed at the suggestion that Detroit is looking to trade Reggie Jackson amid the disappointing Pistons' 18-23 struggles. Yet there's a growing impression around the league that, at the very least, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has moved past Jackson onto Detroit's short list of untouchables, alongside Andre Drummond.
It remains to be seen whether Portland proves to be as active in the trade market as many league observers expected coming into the season, but here's a pertinent bookkeeping note: Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard all finally become eligible to be traded Sunday after the big deals all three signed over the summer.
Horford will play his first game as an Atlanta visitor Friday night when the Hawks entertain Horford's Celtics.
And here’s a quick history lesson to commemorate the occasion: Seven different players appeared in 200 or more games alongside Horford in the ATL. But after last week's trade that sent Korver to Cleveland, none of those seven is still with the club.