Ah, January. The calendar has flipped over to a new year, and with it, all preconceived notions of the season-to-be. The NBA’s dog days – where players, columnists, and fans all experience fatigue in various forms – are still over a month away. And, for added measure, we’re only a month away from that delightfully irrelevant bit of defenceless theatre that is the NBA All-Star game.
Now, the merits of the All-Star game as spectacle probably depends on your level of NBA fandom – and, if you’re reading this site, chances are you’ll be tuning in on February 16th. However, the funnest – and longest – part of the entire All-Star process is the rampant speculation that precedes it. Deciding on the 12 players that will represent each conference is an odd, flawed process (the fans pick recognizable names for the starting five, winning teams are prioritized over losing ones, players sharing the same position results in odd lineups, etc.), but it’s entertaining as all hell for basketball fans, and you’re sure to see myriad mock All-Star teams over the next few weeks.
Historically, for Raptor fans, this is where we tune out. The Raptors have only had two players selected to the Eastern Conference All-Stars in their history (three if you count injury-replacement Antonio Davis), none since Chris Bosh left the team in 2010. That aforementioned Davis year (2001), is the only time the Raps have ever been represented by two players at the same game.
But this year is a weird year.
As you all know, the Eastern Conference is in shambles. The surprising Raps currently sit 4th in the standings with a 17-17 record, due in part to some surprisingly effective (and very impressive) team play and, in part to the collapse of some poorly constructed would-be contenders (Brooklyn, New York, Cleveland), and, in part, to a number of injuries to the stars of some of the East’s biggest names, including Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Al Horford, and Brook Lopez. All things considered, the Raptors are the feel-good story of the East right now – a sort of Trail Blazers-lite, if you will.
Of course, with increased prominence in the standings comes increased attention from the media below the border. I’m sure you’ve seen some of the glowing articles written by U.S. media about the Raps in recent months – the Raptors are a great story, and an excellent departure for a basketball mediasphere dying to write about something positive with the rash of injuries and struggling big-market teams.
Now, I’m sure you know where I’m going with this. One fun off-shoot of increased attention from the league, combined with a host of injured stars and solid team play? All-Star speculation.
For the Raptors, this speculation has focused on a few players: DeMar DeRozan has had the most sustained push, mostly due to an uptick in his numbers pre-Gay trade and some increasingly unselfish play post-Gay trade; Kyle Lowry, who is having a career season and is likely the most important cog in what has been an extremely well-oiled machine over the last month and a bit; and Amir Johnson, who Raptor fans love (for good reason), but who doesn’t have the numbers nor the attention of NBA coaches and media to merit a spot.
As I see it (and I look forward to being proven wrong in the comments), the Raptors have two legitimate threats to make the All-Star game this season: DeRozan and Lowry. I’m speculating on speculation, here, but expect to see roughly 1,000 columns from Canadian media outlets over the next month debating the merits of the two players, and, ultimately, which one deserves to be named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team over the other.
However, I’m going to pre-emptively get out of the mire and offer another option: could both players be selected this season?
To properly answer this question, there are two factors that need to be addressed: the selection process, and the relative position of the contenders for the backcourt spots that Lowry and DeRozan would inhabit. First, the selection: for those who don’t know, NBA All-Star starters are chosen by a fan vote, and the remaining positions are then selected through a poll of NBA head coaches. Fans are responsible for choosing two guards and three forwards to represent each conference, while the coaches select two more guards, three more frontcourt players, and two “wild cards.”
The NBA’s just released their third returns for the starting spots, and, for the East, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of suspense: barring injury, Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving will start in the backcourt, while LeBron James, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony occupy the forward spots. These players – plus Pacers centre Roy Hibbert – are the only ones that can rightfully be considered All-Star “locks” at this point of the season, leaving an incredible 6 spots up for debate, and no clear favourites among the pack.
Assuming Hibbert takes a frontcourt spot off the East’s bench, the remaining All-Star selections will be comprised of two guards, two frontcourt players, and two “wild cards” – leaving four potential spots for DeRozan and/or Lowry to fight for amidst a pool of contenders, including:
- John Wall: name recognition and one of the highest PERs amidst players in the conference. Out of this entire group, it’d be the most surprising if he weren’t included, particularly with the lack of star power expected in the East’s lineup this year.
- Arron Afflalo: His numbers are comparable, if not better, than DeMar’s over the course of the year. Loses points for playing on a very poor Magic squad.
- Kemba Walker: He’s had a breakout season for a surprisingly competent Charlotte team – however, I just can’t see him making this team without a significant push from the media. Charlotte, like Toronto, tends to get forgotten about in the big picture.
- Lance Stephenson: You’d almost hope the coaches pick him so he can play alongside Dwyane Wade. His triple-doubles are impressive, and the coaches may choose to reward a Pacer team that’s been dominant thus far with a third spot.
- Jeff Teague: Averaging 8 assists per game for a Hawks team that’s saved the East from some “worst conference ever” discussion. I’d imagine his candidacy will come down to how well the team stays together in the next month following Al Horford’s injury.
- Michael Carter-Williams: For some reason, I haven’t read his name in many All-Star speculation pieces yet, but his numbers are supremely impressive. That said, rookies don’t typically make the All-Star game, unless they’re playing out of their minds, and he’s missed a third of the season.
- Deron Williams: Hey, don’t discount the fact that he plays for a New York team and people know who he is. That said, I have more faith in the coaches than that.
- D.J. Augustin: Just kidding.
So, by my count, that’s 9 players (including DeRozan and Lowry) up for what are potentially four, but probably three All-Star spots (assuming one “wild card” is a forward/centre). It’s hard to not expect Wall to get one of those available spots, which makes the chance of adding two Raptors to the squad extremely low with all other things being equal. The most likely outcome, here, is that the coaches choose to reward the Raptors by giving one of DeRozan and Lowry a spot, with the other being spurned.
But wait. What if?
- What if, after Andre Drummond and Chris Bosh, the coaches decide to take another guard, rather than an uninspiring choice like Al Jefferson or a fourth small forward like Luol Deng?
- What if the league chooses to consider team records and Afflalo is eliminated from consideration; or – as has been rumoured recently – he’s traded to the West? (Insider link).
- What if the Hawks struggle and Teague falls from the conversation?
- What if Carter-Williams and Deron Williams are discounted for being a rookie on a poor team – and, in the case of Deron, simply not being very good?
- And, perhaps most importantly: what if the Raptors continue to win?
Now, I agree, that’s a lot of what ifs. But look through that list again – it’s not like any of those things are pie-in-the-sky fantasies: all are legitimate possibilities that very well could happen in the month to come. And, if they do, the decision would come down to Lowry, DeRozan, Walker, and Stephenson for three spots. Now, all of a sudden, we’re having a conversation: one in which the two Raptors may just be the best choices. Of my crazy hypothetical above, I’d think that Teague and Afflalo are the most likely players to remain in the discussion, and most likely to supplant one of the two Raptor choices – take one of their two paths out of the italics, if it makes the entire thing more realistic to you. Is it probable? No. Is it possible?
Hell yes, it is.
Listen: I’m not saying the Raptors will have two All-Stars this season. I’m just saying they could. And, for Raptor fans starved for any representation in the NBA’s February showcase, that’s music to our ears.