- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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OK, then. On we go to the rest of the argument.
The annual debate about who should and shouldn't be starting in the NBA All-Star Game gives way now to an even more contentious debate. Namely, who deserves to be an All-Star reserve.
Coaches in both conferences will receive a memo from the league office Friday with voting instructions, with the seven-man East and West benches to be announced next Thursday. Since ESPN.com can't wait another week, these are the benches as selected at Stein Line HQ, based on the same voting guidelines that the coaches must follow.
Those guidelines require the selection of two forwards, two guards, one center and two wild cards ... but the coaches are not locked into voting for players based on the positions at which they're listed on the All-Star ballot. West coaches, in other words, are given the freedom to choose a deserving power forward to spell Yao Ming if they like that option better than picking a more traditional center.
THE CASE: The fans nailed the starters: Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant. Their backups seem just as obvious to me, because Parker has been the Spurs' best player (yes, better than Tim Duncan) and because Paul is the obvious choice from a Hornets team that has been too surprising and resilient to go without an All-Star. Because coaches tend to shy away from rookies in their voting, there's a chance that Seattle's Ray Allen (or perhaps Golden State's Baron Davis or Sacramento's Mike Bibby) will wind up bumping Paul. But that would be an injustice. Rookie of the Year isn't a sufficient reward for the impact Paul has had on the Hornets. He clearly deserves an All-Star nod, too.
THE CASE: You know by now that we lean heavily on the team-success tiebreaker in tough spots, and where is there more congestion than the West frontcourt? The competition is such that Kevin Garnett, for the first time in years, is not an automatic choice for me or the fans, who went with Tracy McGrady and Duncan as their starters. Nowitzki has been the only every-night constant for a Mavericks team that (as no one predicted coming into the season) has kept up with Detroit and San Antonio. Marion is quietly playing the best ball of his life as the other big reason (besides Nash) that Phoenix is winning the Pacific Division without the injured Amare Stoudemire. Garnett will land somewhere on the West's roster, but Minnesota's struggles -- compared to the impact in the standings that Nowitzki and Marion are having -- and the public's decision to vote in McGrady (who, in his defense, has played well over half of Houston's games) drop KG to fifth on my list of West forwards.
CENTER: Pau Gasol
THE CASE: The coaches, remember, are instructed by the league to vote based on what they think best serves the respective West and East squads . . . without strict adherence to the positions where players are listed on the ballot. Expect the West's coaches, then, to tab Nowitzki, Garnett or Gasol as a center because they're all 7-foot forwards who a) occasionally masquerade as a five man and b) must be on the team. I always leave the actual ballot-punching to the fans, but had I punched one, Marcus Camby would have been my choice over Yao Ming at center. Yet Camby, as good as he was before getting hurt in late December, has missed too much time for me to install him as a reserve when it's already so tough to make room for all the forwards out West. I settled on Gasol here because he plays as much in the post now as any other forward.
WILD CARDS: Garnett and Elton Brand
THE CASE: It's a safe bet that the coaches will vote for Garnett as a reserve forward, make Nowitzki their backup center and install Gasol as a wild card. That's fine. The details don't really matter so long as the Grizz are represented with their first All-Star ever, which is a must based on their first-half success. The Clippers, likewise, have to have an All-Star and it has to be Brand, who's in the midst of his career year. Even though Sam Cassell is arguably more responsible for ridding Clipperland of its suffocating loser mentality, Brand has been the production rock for a franchise that hasn't been this far over .500 since its (glorious) Buffalo days.
Carmelo Anthony is No. 1. I really wanted to make room for him, too, but at whose expense? On this scorecard, it comes down to Anthony vs. Garnett or Brand. Can't see how he beats out either one, even after 'Melo's magnificent January. And even if the coaches show KG more veteran respect than I have, it'll probably come down to Anthony vs. Gasol. Not liking 'Melo's chances there, either. The Nuggets have had a frightful run of injuries, true, but Memphis has been a top-five team for most of the season, with Pau as the catalyst. Which means Denver ('Melo and Camby) and Utah (Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur) are both likely to get shut out despite fielding two worthy candidates each.
THE CASE: I'm not ready to embrace Doc Rivers' Vote For Every Piston idea. But if you're going to bang the team-success drum as much as I do, you have to have at least three Pistons on the East squad, starting with both halves of their backcourt. Billups is a top-three MVP candidate on my scorecard and likely to be a top-five MVP candidate on pretty much every voter's list if the Pistons maintain their current 71-11 pace. He should be starting in this game; over Dwyane Wade and Allen Iverson. Hamilton, meanwhile, falls a bit shy of Michael Redd's numbers on the list of Flat-Out Scoring Twos, but Rip edges Redd here because of his efficiency (shooting nearly 50 percent beyond and inside the 3-point line) and his role in Detroit's overwhelming success.
THE CASE: The two best young big men in the game not named Amare have been so good that I can look past the fact that neither plays for a team with a winning record. Given how much time Grant Hill has missed in Orlando, and considering Toronto's more-than-decent play (15-15) since a 1-15 start, Howard and Bosh are irresistible. Especially in an Eastern Conference that, Detroit aside, has been wholly disappointing. I have a bigger problem with the Nets sitting at a mere two games over .500 (injuries only explain so much) than I have with rewarding Howard and Bosh. The only disclaimer here is that going with the kiddies, as backups to starters LeBron James and Jermaine O'Neal, means that I'll have to exclude Paul Pierce or Vince Carter.
CENTER: Ben Wallace
THE CASE: I was thinking about moving Howard or Bosh here to open up a forward slot, but my third Piston is Ben Wallace, not Rasheed Wallace. And this is where Big Ben belongs if the fans prefer Shaquille O'Neal in the first five.
WILD CARDS: Redd and Carter.
THE CASE: The Bucks' injury list has been longer than most and Redd's role in keeping Milwaukee above .500 earns him a return to All-Star Weekend ... a position I'd take even if you throw out my not-so-secret fondness for the best lefty shooter in the game. The toughest call -- right there with any decision in the West, believe it or not -- is figuring out who gets that last spot in the East, with two Nets (Carter and Jason Kidd), Pierce, Gilbert Arenas and, yes, 'Sheed all legit contenders for a Houston invite. In the end, my disappointment with the Wiz and Boston's way-under-.500 record work against Arenas and Pierce and point me to Vince. The Nets deserve one representative even if you're not satisfied with their first half.
LEADING SNUBEES: Pierce and Arenas share top billing here. Kidd and 'Sheed are up there as well, with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Chris Webber further back. Don't forget, though, that Commissioner Stern will be selecting a player to replace the injured Jermaine O'Neal after the reserves are chosen. East coach Flip Saunders will decide who actually starts in O'Neal's place, but Le Commish has the final say when it comes to filling out the roster.
So if the coaches go the veteran route and select, say, Pierce over Bosh as a reserve, don't be surprised if Stern goes for Bosh to ensure some Canadian interest. Don't be surprised, furthermore, if Stern ignores everyone else and nominates 'Sheed in a bow to Detroit's dominance.
In that event, how could any of us argue? I'm more comfortable with three Pistons, but if any team can justify four All-Stars, it's this Detroit team in this storybook half-season, leading its nearest East pursuers (Miami) by 11 games. Agreed?
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
The starters have been announced. Now Marc Stein makes the case for who should fill out the 2006 All-Star rosters.