Dirk's lead evaporated in final weeks

If only Tim Duncan would follow Kevin Garnett to the Eastern Conference, or just take his four championship rings and retire, maybe then Dirk Nowitzki could finally start a darn All-Star Game.

Duncan and Garnett -- who both might have been centers instead of forwards in a different era -- have continually kept Nowitzki coming off the All-Star bench, not that there's any shame in that. But this time around it all seemed to be coming together for the Mavs' 7-footer.

The NBA's showcase weekend is back in North Texas for the first time in 24 years. Nowitzki is in the midst of a tremendous season, posting MVP-type numbers: 25.5 points and 7.9 rebounds in an iron-man-like 38.1 minutes a game. He's the only Mavs player who can consistently create his own shot, and he has carried Dallas to the Western Conference's No. 2 seed. A week ago he joined the league's exclusive 20,000-point club, a virtual pass into the Hall of Fame.

It seemed NBA fans had taken notice. As ridiculous as fan voting can be (see Allen Iverson and the exiled Tracy McGrady, who finally succumbed in fan voting to Steve Nash), the votes for the Western Conference starting forwards for the game at Cowboys Stadium made sense.

Throughout the voting process, Nowitzki maintained a hold on second place. He'd never catch Denver's Carmelo Anthony, and although his lead on Duncan continually shrunk with each periodical tally, Nowitzki took a 49,905-vote lead into the final two-week stretch of voting.

So when final tabulations Thursday evening revealed a massive swing of more than 113,000 votes had catapulted Duncan (1,156,696) beyond Nowitzki (1,093,005) and into the starting lineup by 63,691 votes, dropped jaws swept through the Mavericks' organization.

Owner Mark Cuban instantly took to his Twitter account: "No Dirk as a starter? Time to change the rules for voting." (More on that in a moment.)

Nowitzki and the Mavs had an off night Thursday in Philadelphia before playing the 76ers on Friday. Nowitzki was not available for comment. Coach Rick Carlisle tried to speak for him.

"Dirk's unaffected," Carlisle said by phone. "These kinds of things don't define who he is as a person or a player. Knowing Dirk the last year-and-a-half, he's probably more disappointed because he knows how great it would have made Mark feel if he'd been voted a starter."

To be sure, Cuban isn't arguing that Duncan doesn't deserve the start. Duncan has had a terrific season, averaging 19.8 points and 10.4 rebounds, albeit for an underachieving Spurs team that might be in big trouble if not for Duncan's steadiness.

The questions is, why such a strong late surge? Did singularly focused Spurs fans stuff ballot boxes and go click-crazy on Internet voting in the final two weeks?

"No, I don't think Spurs fans stuff the ballots. Not at all," Cuban said Thursday evening via e-mail. "I think it has nothing to do with Duncan or Dirk. What I think happens is that fans vote for their favorite players on their favorite teams, maybe one other favorite like a LeBron. But, after that, could care less about most of the other players they vote for and probably try to choose anyone but who they think could replace their favorite player."

Count votes from people who attend the games and vote in arenas twice as much as Internet votes. We should reward our customers for their commitment to the NBA.

-- Mavericks owner Mark Cuban

Cuban would like to see the voting rules revamped. He believes Internet voting can, and does, skew outcomes. That's clear in the case of McGrady, a fan favorite among an engaged and ever-growing bloc of Chinese voters a half a world away.

Presumably, domestically cast Internet votes fueled Duncan's late takeover. Is Duncan, with those four rings, simply a convenient pick for Eastern Conference fans -- and really most fans outside of North Texas and San Antonio -- who are electronically casting multiple ballots as the deadline approaches? Would Duncan have zipped past Nowitzki if votes cast in NBA arenas counted more than Internet votes?
Cuban said he would like to find out.

"Count votes from people who attend the games and vote in arenas twice as much as Internet votes," Cuban said. "We should reward our customers for their commitment to the NBA."

Tabulating votes is one issue. The traditional position-by-position voting is another. Positions are no longer as clear-cut as they used to be. Lines are blurred, especially at the center position, where the true center of a generation ago barely exists.

In 2007, the committee that selects players to be included on the All-Star ballot listed Duncan as a center even though he had appeared as a forward in years past. The Spurs lobbied successfully to get Duncan -- whose low-post game mimics centers of old more than almost any player in the game today -- moved back to forward.

The Spurs feared that Yao Ming's huge popularity in his homeland of China would end Duncan's streak of All-Star starts. In 2005, Yao accumulated the highest total of votes in history.

Had Duncan been listed as a center this year, it's conceivable that he could have challenged Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire (1.8 million votes; Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum was second, with fewer than 1 million) as the West's starting center, opening the possibility for Nowitzki to start at forward.

To further illustrate the problem of using traditional positions in today's game, Stoudemire doesn't even play center. He starts at power forward. Channing Frye starts at center for the Suns.

So Nowitzki will just have to be happy making his ninth All-Star appearance as a reserve once again. Of course, if the Mavs maintain their hold on the No. 2 seed through Jan. 31, Carlisle will coach the West team. You can bet he'll make Nowitzki his sixth man, ensuring Nowitzki gets his proper introduction in front of a heavily local crowd that will be part of an anticipated record attendance in excess of 80,000.

"Whoever coaches," Carlisle said, "I'll be surprised if Dirk isn't the sixth man."

As for ever starting in one of these things, it seems Nowitzki might just have to wait for Duncan to hang 'em up.

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.