The Western Conference is absolutely loaded with talent. The balance between the top ten teams along with the number of star level players dispersed throughout has created possibly the most competitive conference in the last twenty years. While this creates for an entertaining season, it creates challenges in how to identify the conference’s top players.
The actual criterion used to select the reserves depends greatly on the coach or NBA “expert” questioned. How important is team success vs individual performance? How do you factor in missed time due to injury? How much should past performance count for long-time stars? In a conference as competitive as the West, these impossible-to-answer questions will be heavily debated across every media channel and in every sports bar for the next couple weeks. Finally the big game will be played, at which time we will forget all about it until the following season.
Western Conference starters:
Stephen Curry, PG (Golden State Warriors)
Kobe Bryant, SG (Los Angeles Lakers)
Anthony Davis, PF (New Orleans Pelicans)
Blake Griffin, PF (Los Angeles Clippers)
Marc Gasol, C (Memphis Grizzlies).
With Kobe Bryant likely missing the rest of the season following a rotator cuff injury, the West will need eight additional All-Star reserves and they should be (in order of most deserving):
Click here to see who should be 2015 NBA Eastern Conference All-Star Reserves.
1. James Harden, SG (Houston Rockets)
Few players in the league invite such strong reactions from their fans and detractors than James Harden. Rockets fans love his offensive repertoire, ability to draw fouls and his old-school smooth game. Others ridicule his tendency to take plays off on defense, his reliance on getting questionable calls and his inability to win in the postseason. Both sides still have ammunition for their arguments, but this season has been a career year for Harden, even on defense. His value and impact on an injury depleted Rockets squad is measured by his advanced stats (top five in PER and Win Shares), his raw numbers and in the team’s record. He has a guaranteed spot on the roster and will likely start.
2. LaMarcus Aldridge, PF (Portland Trail Blazers)
One of the few criticisms that have followed LaMarcus Aldridge’s career concerned his toughness and willingness to play through injury. He has missed a handful of contests each season and his game has never been built on mixing it up inside. With the Trailblazers off to a terrific start this season, Aldridge silenced many of those critics by opting to delay surgery on a torn ligament in his thumb. For as long as the thumb holds up, he will build on a terrific season while trying to position the Blazers for a longer run in the playoffs.
3. Damian Lillard, PG (Portland Trail Blazers)
The Yin to Aldridge’s Yang, Damian Lillard is the most clutch point guard (and possibly player) in the game. His willingness to take and ability to hit big baskets highlights his already deadly inside-outside offense. While he still won’t be mistaken for a strong defender, he has improved in that area and more than offsets any challenges there on the other side of the court. In a year of career bests and team success, he deserves a spot in a crowded Western backcourt.
4. Russell Westbrook , PG (Oklahoma City Thunder)
The Oklahoma City Thunder will present a real challenge to the coaches selecting the reserves. In a stacked Western Conference, does a team outside the playoff picture place one (and possibly two) players on the All-Star team, especially when both of those players have missed significant time due to injury? Spoiler alert. Yes, they do. Westbrook is the most physically dynamic guard in the NBA and his stats this season are fantasy gold. While his tendency to play out of control causes challenges for the team, his ability to control a game leads to many more wins.
5. DeMarcus Cousins, C (Sacramento Kings)
At what point do the coaches look past wins and losses to honor a terrific individual talent? For DeMarcus Cousins, perhaps it happened when that player has had to overcome challenges self-inflicted by a floundering front office. Cousins led the Kings to a surprising start to this season before being sidelined with a viral infection. As the team lost the superstar leading it, the front office made the bizarre decision to fire Mike Malone, a coach Cousins trusted, while suggesting style of play that seemed a poor match for his unique talents. Team troubles aside, Cousins is having a terrific season and is the best big man capable of imposing his will on a defense. His performance plus his improved maturity are deserving of a losing team selection.
6. Klay Thompson, SG (Golden State Warriors)
Thompson’s place on the team may have been solidified by his dominant performance earlier this month, when he poured in a record 37 points in one quarter, but he had already carved out a case for inclusion long before. As the second half of the league’s most impressive backcourt, Klay’s deadeye shooting and his steady defensive impact have earned him his first trip to the big game. His critics point to a perceived inability to create his own offense, but when you shoot 46% from three on the best offense in the game, does it really matter?
7. Chris Paul, PG (Los Angeles Clippers)
Somehow in the emergence of the new point guard crop, Chris Paul became underrated. He finally joined a team with more support and, as usual, elevated the play of his teammates yet a couple points and assists less per game has many overlooking him when it comes to the All-Star Game. Paul is still the best two-way point guard in the league and with the Clippers advancing on the top half of the Western Conference; he may have a chance to finally make a deeper post-season run. Over-, under- or properly rated, Paul deserves a spot.
8. Kevin Durant, SF (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Does a player who misses almost half the season deserve a spot on the All-Star team? It’s a fair question when it applies to the Thunder star. His resume in twenty games will be held up against the full season performances from a number of deserving candidates. What is clear is that Kevin Durant has been one of the ten best players in the league for the twenty-plus games he has played and that the Thunder will only go as far as he takes them (with all do respect to Russell).
The Western Conference selection discussion will be heated, with the usual questions inevitably debated and many players (and fans) left unsatisfied with the answers. Dallas and San Antonio are playoff teams that could be unrepresented which is a reflection of the star studded Western conference as well as the shared responsibilities of their teams. While Duncan has slowed down, he has anchored the Spurs defense and is still the centerpiece of a balanced offensive system. As an individual performer, however, he is simply a few steps behind some of his peers. Dirk is still a terrific offensive player whose shooting and high basketball IQ supports a terrific Mav’s offense, but his defense has never been strong and he lacks the star presence of his youth. While Monta Ellis has quieted many of his critics and has demonstrated his ability to score in a less-selfish fashion, there are simply too many dynamic guards in the West for him to be included. Finally, Mike Conley may be the most underrated point guard in the league and his role in both the offense and defense for the Grizzlies is key to their success. There would be ample justification should Conley finally be recognized in place of another PG star.
Bottom line, the Western Conference is brutal and a few of the best 24 players in the world are going to be watching the game from home.