With the start of the 2012-13 NBA regular season nearing, You Only Blog Once is previewing the season with a series of "countdown" posts.
Tuesday: 7 storylines to watch for this season
Wednesday: 6 players on a ring-quest
Thursday: 5 League Pass Choice teams
Today: 4 potential first-time All-Stars
As the NBA's talented players have become consolidated on a select group of teams, it's made the All-Star Game an even more limited-access affair than it previously was. In the East, it's possible that 10 of the 12 spots will be taken up by Miami, Boston and the two New York teams, leaving very little opening for the rest of the conference. The situation is even more crowded in the West, where you could make a 12-man L.A. (times 2)-San Antonio-Oklahoma City All-Star team and have a reasonable argument that you've picked the 12 best All-Stars.
But things don't always break down so cleanly. It's entirely possible one of Miami or Boston's big three doesn't make it. Voters might not want to put all four Lakers stars on the team. Maybe the Spurs big three has its minutes held back just enough to create an opening for someone else.
With that in mind, here are four players who haven't been All Stars previously (two from each conference) who will make it this year. Feel free to bookmark this and laugh at me when none of these guys are playing in Houston in February.
Kyrie Irving, G, Cleveland Cavaliers
By many accounts, Kyrie Irving should've been an All-Star last year. Here's how he stacked up against the guards selected as reserves for the game, plus questionable forward selection Luol Deng (apologies for the poorly aligned table).
Irving was essentially penalized for the Cavaliers holding his minutes down early in the season and for being a rookie. Since the draft lottery was instituted in 1985, only eight rookies have been All-Stars. Two of them -- Blake Griffin and David Robinson -- were separated from their true rookie class. Three others -- Yao Ming, Shaquille O'Neal and Grant Hill -- were voted in as starters. So that leaves just Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo and Tim Duncan as true rookies to be selected by coaches.
The good news for Irving is he's not a rookie anymore. And the mindset on him going into the season is "how high will he rise" rather than "can he prove himself". In a league where perception can often be reality, that makes a huge difference. Which is why, barring a disaster, Kyrie can book his ticket to Houston.
Paul George, G/F, Indiana Pacers
This one is a little more out on a limb, but George has the potential to take a big leap forward this year. George's scoring average went up significantly from his first to second year, but that was mostly due to an increase in minutes. The good news is he's still got room for another increase in minutes, after averaging just 29.7 per game last season.
Most advanced projections have George improving again, but not quite to All-Star level. But I'm going with my gut and saying that George will take a bigger leap than that, as Danny Granger continues to level off. As a rookie, George shot 47% from 10-15 feet and 43% from 16-23 feet, but just 29.7% from three. Last year, his 3-point percentage was up to 38.5%, but his mid-range game dropped to 35.8% and 31.0%. Part of the problem was George cut his assisted rate of mid-range jumpers in half, meaning he was spending too much time going one-on-one. If he can get his mid-range numbers back up to his rookie levels -- or even halfway between what they were last year and the year before -- while maintaining his 3-point shooting, he could be the productive scoring threat his athleticism hints at.
George should also benefit from the removal of "Center" from the NBA's All-Star ballot. The East's back-up center spot has long been the home of the most dubious All-Star selections, and if that isn't going to be filled this year (or filled by someone who otherwise would've been voted in as a starter), then that opens a spot for another forward. And if the Pacers are truly the second-best team in the East -- and I'm not entirely convinced they are -- then George could be in line for that "well, someone from the Pacers has to be an All-Star and Danny Granger bores me" vote.
Jeremy Lin, G, Houston Rockets
No one knows if Jeremy Lin will have All-Star caliber numbers. He certainly did for a few weeks last year, to the point that if Linsanity had happened two weeks earlier he might've been voted in by the coaches. But unlike with Irving, George or the next guy on my list, this isn't about his numbers. It's about his popularity.
Lin became a national phenomenon last year, and while his injury and move to Houston took some of the shine off of that, he's still among the league's most well-known players. It remains to be seen just how much of the influential China vote Lin will pull in this season -- remember, he's Asian-American with Taiwanese heritage, not a Chinese native like Yao Ming was -- but it's safe to say he'll get a boost from it. It helps that he's in Houston, Yao's former team and one that many Chinese NBA fans are already familiar with.
If Lin does get voted in as a starter, does it come at the expense of Chris Paul or Kobe Bryant (the latter of which would INFURIATE Lakers fans)? And then in the trickle-down effect, which of the West's super-talented point guards gets bumped off the roster entirely? Could you imagine if Lin getting voted in meant Kobe didn't start AND Steve Nash didn't make the team? Holy crap. Now I super want this to happen.
Serge Ibaka, F/C, Oklahoma City Thunder
At the top of this entry you may have noticed that I casually assumed a trio of Oklahoma City All-Stars, when the reality is the Thunder only have two players on the roster who've made an All-Star team: Kevin Durant (three times) and Russell Westbrook (twice). While James Harden would seem to be the natural choice to join them this season, I'm going with Serge Ibaka as Oklahoma City's third All-Star.
First, people love blocked shots, to the point that Ibaka, an average overall defender, finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Ibaka is one of the best shot blockers in the league, and the fact is when you're "one of the best" at a specific skill, it's easier to become an All-Star, because it becomes harder to argue your exclusion. If anyone asks "how the hell is Serge Ibaka an All-Star", the obvious answer is "he's one of the best shot-blockers in the league". For James Harden, the obvious answer is "well, he's not as good as Westbrook or Durant, but he's still pretty good, I guess..." and sometimes that isn't good enough.
But Ibaka isn't just a shot blocker. He's evolving as an offensive player as well. Last year, among players who played at least 20 minutes a game, Ibaka ranked in the top 15 in the NBA in field goal percentage on shots 16-23 feet from the basket. As good as that is, it'd be better if Ibaka was taking those shots from a step back, beyond the three-point line. If preseason is any indication, Ibaka has worked on that, making him a serious floor-spacing threat in Oklahoma City's offense. Last season Ibaka averaged 12.1 points, 10 rebounds and 4.8 blocks per 36 minutes. If he can slightly bump up the points while maintaining the rebounds and blocks -- and receiving a necessary bump in minutes -- he'll be an All-Star.