- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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OK. Now for the rest of the argument.
The fans have spoken. If you want to see Vince Carter and Grant Hill line up opposite Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett for the opening jump at the Pepsi Center on Feb. 20 ... it's your game.
Let's proceed to the next source of contention: All-Star reserves. On Tuesday, we'll learn the official identities of the seven East and West backups, but ESPN.com can't wait. So herewith are the Stein Line benches for each conference, following the same selection guidelines that the coaches get from the league.
That's two forwards, two guards, one center and two wild cards in each conference, with the coaches permitted to vote for players without being locked in to the positions they're listed at on the All-Star ballot.
... to debate?
The case: If you read my mythical All-Star ballot -- mythical because I don't believe in punching actual ballots, since they belong to the fans -- you know that Nash and Allen would have been my choices to start over Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady. As such, Nash and Allen are slam-dunk reserve choices, given that Phoenix and Seattle still rank as the biggest surprise teams in the league. West coaches won't need 10 seconds to fill these two spots.
The case: Kevin Garnett is so consumed by winning that I suspect even he didn't protest too loudly Tuesday night when he heard on ESPN2 that the NBA Nation crew would have voted for Nowitzki as the West's other starter at forward alongside Tim Duncan. That's because KG, like me, puts team success above all else. Yet there's no shame for Nowitzki losing out to Duncan and Garnett in the fan vote, as both are playing at their usual MVP standard and because every good forward in the West knows there isn't much chance of unseating one of those two in the balloting process. Nowitzki's success as the fast-emerging leader of the new Mavericks nonetheless makes him an obvious first choice in this category, and Webber beats out the typically deep field of frontcourt contenders for the second slot because the Kings, at 31-14 despite their thinned-out bench, have to have an All-Star. And Webber is the most sensible Kings choice, having maintained his effectiveness and versatility (as well as drastically improving his free-throw shooting) despite the physical limitations imposed on him by ongoing knee trouble.
Center: Amare Stoudemire
The case: Stoudemire prefers to be known as a forward, but he's a center by default for the Suns and thus an instant selection here. The coaches, remember, do not have to strictly follow the All-Star ballot when making their picks ... as long as the player in question really plays multiple positions. Stoudemire has been so impressive that he'll claim this spot in even fewer than 10 seconds, although Sacramento's Brad Miller deserves some kudos for making a nice late run.
The case: In this conference, which isn't as mighty as it used to be but is still teeming with parity, we lean heavily on the team-success tiebreaker for help. The Spurs, for example, have to have a second All-Star in our world, as the reigning title favorites approaching the All-Star break. As San Antonio's second-best player, statistically and intangibly, Ginobili thus beats out Tony Parker to join Duncan. Marion, meanwhile, makes it here because the Suns are right there record-wise with the Spurs, which gives them the rare justification to send a third All-Star to Denver after last season's 29-53 nightmare. It doesn't hurt that Marion's production is questionably All-Star caliber; he's averaging 19.4 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.4 blocks as a 6-7 power forward.
The leading snubees: Memphis' Pau Gasol is becoming a regular customer here, although it was tougher to exclude him this season after his role in the Grizzlies' turnaround from a 5-11 start. Seattle's Rashard Lewis was equally tough to snub, as you can argue that the Sonics deserve two All-Stars as much as Phoenix deserves three. The Clippers' ever-steady Elton Brand is bound to be excluded by the coaches again, even though he gets better every year, and Utah's Andrei Kirilenko was headed for certain Defensive Player of the Year honors -- and a second consecutive All-Star appearance -- before a knee injury sidelined him. Parker, Sacramento's Mike Bibby and Golden State's Jason Richardson (a stretch given the Warriors' struggles) are the only other guards on the radar. Yet the big disappointment, of course, is that the host Nuggets won't come close to getting anyone on the West roster. Not Kenyon Martin, and not Carmelo Anthony.
The case: The East is Land O' The Guards, but the individual brilliance of Wade and Arenas actually made these easy choices. As easy as it can be, that is, for us to exclude Stein Line favorite Michael Redd. But Redd is bound to be overlooked this time because of team-success statutes. (Actually, it's not all that easy excluding another SL favorite, either, but the time Jason Kidd missed at the start of the season and his gradual recovery from knee surgery forces our hand . . . although I wouldn't be shocked if the coaches pick him out of habit.)
The case: The East has always had problems generating worthy backup centers. Those problems have now spread to the rest of the frontcourt, where it's tough to find alternatives with Ron Artest (suspended) and Richard Jefferson (wrist surgery) out for the season. Pierce is listed on the ballot as a guard but plays more than enough forward to qualify, which helps the cause. Jamison is the obvious option; his role in Washington's surprising start should clinch a first All-Star appearance.
Center: Jermaine O'Neal.
The case: I know, I know. O'Neal is listed as a forward on the All-Star ballot, and Jeff Foster is officially Indiana's center. Well, too bad. I actually called the league Thursday and, pretending to be an East coach, asked if I could vote for O'Neal as the East's backup center. And I received permission from a league official, since O'Neal is essentially the Duncan of the East -- a 7-foot, back-to-basket player who insists on being known as a four-man even when everyone knows he plays down low. I just don't feel comfortable going with Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas or New York's Nazr Mohammed or even All-Star vet Ben Wallace of Detroit as Shaquille O'Neal's caddy. I hope the real East coaches do the same to make room for Jamison, Pierce and the wild cards below.
The case: Stevie New Franchise couldn't do it without Grant Hill's help, but he has been the best player on a better-than-expected Magic team. As for Okafor, don't even come back with all that rookie stuff. If you say you expected Okafor to average a double-double -- and expansion Charlotte to win 10 games before Valentine's Day -- you're flat-out lying. Those efforts have to be rewarded.
The leading snubees: The snubees here are more teams than players. The Pistons are the defending champs, and they've rallied from a sullen start to seize the lead in the Central Division, but they haven't dispelled the notion that they should be playing better. It was difficult, as a result, to find All-Star room for Wallace, Chauncey Billups or Detroit's best bet, Rip Hamilton. The Bulls, meanwhile, also figure high on the list of pleasant surprises, but Chicago's top two sparks -- point guard Kirk Hinrich and rookie sixth man Ben Gordon -- aren't quite ready for the big stage. Toronto's Chris Bosh also drew a look (and not just because he's a lefty) but will have to wait until next February.
5hMichael C. Wright