Commentary

PER Diem: Jan. 22, 2009

Who's worthy of being a starter for the 2009 All-Star Game?

Updated: January 26, 2009, 5:21 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

LeBron James and Kobe Bryant Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesObviously can't argue with fans selecting Kobe and LeBron as All-Star Game starters.
It's that time of year again. In three weeks, the league's best and brightest will descend upon Phoenix for All-Star Weekend, and as always it's our job to divine which 24 players should get the invitation.

The first phase is selecting the starters, a chore that wraps up later Thursday when the league announces results of the fan voting for the chosen quintet from each conference.

But let's look at another question instead: Who should be going? In anticipation of today's announcement, it's my turn to tell everyone the 10 players I think are worthy of the honor.

As always, it's important to go over the ground rules before we get down to the nitty-gritty. For starters, I'm using the same ballot everyone else did. That means Tim Duncan and Pau Gasol are forwards, Manu Ginobili and Tracy McGrady are guards, etc. There's no switching allowed for me -- after all, it's pretty silly of me to complain about the fan vote unless I'm explaining what they ought to have done.

With that out of the way, let's get to the selections. We'll start in the West, where things are a bit more cut-and-dried, before turning to some messier situations in the East:

Western Conference


Point guard: Chris Paul, Hornets
This is one of the easiest picks on the ballot. Paul is the premier point guard in the game, leading the league in steals and assists and, halfway through the season, posting the best Player Efficiency Rating mark of any point guard in history.

Paul's 30.13 PER through Wednesday's games is MVP-caliber, as is his stat line of 21.2 points, 11.1 assists and 49.9 percent shooting. So is the fact the Hornets are in the West's top four at the halfway point despite having only one other player above the league average in PER.


Shooting guard: Kobe Bryant, Lakers
The Lakers star does more with eight fingers than almost anyone else does with 10, shrugging off last season's broken pinkie and Monday's finger dislocation. He is the league's third-leading scorer and has put L.A. far ahead of the pack in the Western Conference.

Bryant ranks seventh in PER and has dialed up his effort at the defensive end. Always a fourth-quarter force on D, his focus in the first three quarters has been notable as well this season -- it is one of many reasons the Lakers are much improved overall at that end.


Small forward: Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks
If you wanted to be real technical and pick an actual small forward from the West, you'd be awfully disappointed. The best small forward in the conference this season has probably been either Kevin Durant or Andrei Kirilenko, neither of whom has any business being in Phoenix this February. And if not constrained by ballot restrictions, Brandon Roy would be a fine choice here to complement Kobe on the wings.

But we're limited by the ballot, and a quick glance at the available forwards reveals Nowitzki as the best candidate to slide down to the 3. Though the Mavs have been a disappointment, Dirk has taken care of business, with the second-highest 40-minute scoring rate of his career and the league's ninth-best PER. And it's easy to forget that "disappointment" is a relative term (especially after Wednesday night's 34-point loss to the Bucks) -- the Mavs are 24-18, which ain't chopped liver.


Power forward: Tim Duncan, Spurs
OK, time for my annual rant on position semantics: We have to start differentiating between what teams call a player and where he actually plays on the floor. If the Spurs want to call Duncan a forward or the Knicks want to call Jared Jeffries a center they're more than welcome, but that doesn't mean we have to follow along like sheep. Duncan guards centers, centers guard him and he plays the spot on the floor normally occupied by centers. For every purpose of interest to a fan or an analyst, he's a center.

Nonetheless, he's on the ballot as a forward, and at either position he's a home-run selection to be in the West's starting five. Duncan has quietly been the backbone of San Antonio's D more than ever this season, as the Spurs have left him as the lone shot-blocker on the front line. And he also took on a major early-season workload to keep the Spurs afloat while Tony Parker and Ginobili were out.

Duncan is a quiet fifth in the NBA in PER, and the Spurs are an equally quiet second in the West. Duncan sports career highs in shooting percentage (51.4 percent) and assist ratio, as well as his highest scoring average in five years at 20.4.


Center: Yao Ming, Rockets
So much for the idea that he can't stay healthy. With teammates dropping like flies around him, the sharpshooting giant has played 42 of 43 games for Houston to keep the Rockets near the leaders in the West at 27-16.

Speaking of offense, Yao's 54.4 percent shooting from the field and 86.7 percent mark from the line are both career highs, giving him the highest true shooting percentage of any player in the top 35 in PER. But that tells only part of the story. He's using his size to impact games on the defensive end nearly as much as he does on offense.

Eastern Conference


Point guard: Devin Harris, Nets
Allen Iverson will be the choice of fandom instead of the far more deserving Harris.

One can also argue for Orlando's Jameer Nelson here -- certainly he has had a lot more success on the team level -- but Harris' greyhound routine has turned an expected laughingstock into a playoff hopeful at the season's midway point. He's 12th overall and second only to Chris Paul among point guards with a 23.16 PER, and his average of more than nine free throw attempts a game is absurd for a point guard. In addition, it's hard to give too much weight to Nelson's W's without also taking note of the several last-second shots that Harris has made to lead the Nets to a win.


Shooting guard: Dwyane Wade, Heat
If the NBA still gave out its Comeback Player of the Year Award, Wade would be a shoo-in to win it. After an injury-ravaged 2007-08 season had all of us wondering whether we would ever see the Wade from the 2006 Finals again, he has provided an emphatic answer in the affirmative.

On a Heat team with few other threats to command attention, Wade is leading the league in scoring and is third in PER. And he has Miami poised to make the playoffs after finishing with the league's worst record last season. It's all quite a turnaround for a player who limped through 51 games each of the past two seasons -- he hasn't missed a single outing so far in 2008-09.


Small forward: LeBron James, Cavs
The easiest position to fill on the ballot, as James is threatening to break the record for PER and his Cavs are vying for the best record in the East.

I won't dwell here since I just got done lauding him a few hours ago, but suffice it to say that anyone leaving this oval blank on his or her ballot has some serious explaining to do.


Power forward: Kevin Garnett, Celtics
Most of the choices on this list were relatively easy; this is the one exception. Splitting hairs among Garnett and Chris Bosh is tough, especially when both are birds of a feather as long, lean power forwards who like to play away from the basket.

Bosh's numbers are superior in most respects. He has a better PER (23.27 to 21.34); he has played substantially more minutes (38.6 to 32.6); and his team's inferior win-loss record is easily explained away by comparing the people that surround them.

But Garnett is the ultimate choice for the simple reason that his intensity at the defensive end still percolates through the rest of the roster, allowing the Celtics to be among the league's elite teams at that end even while taking opponents' best shot every night. In the end, their numbers are close enough that the D puts KG over the top.


Center: Dwight Howard, Magic
A no-brainer given that (A) he's the best player on the team with the best record at 33-8, and (B) the East doesn't have a single other credible All-Star at the center position.

In continuing his ascension to superstardom, Howard is fourth in PER and leads the league in both blocks and rebounds. He's a strong threat to win the Defensive Player of the Year award and figures to be in the top five in the MVP vote as well.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.