Paul Pierce and J.R. Smith state their case (Getty Images)
Rajon Rondo’s torn right anterior cruciate ligament is an incredible downer. Not only does the injury deny us the chance to watch one of our favorite players at full strength until, perhaps, October of 2014, but it could hasten the demise (if not the dismantling) of a Boston Celtics team that has been a fixture in the championship picture since 2007.
[Related: NBA Power Rankings: Spurs are new No. 1]
The way around this gloom is to think of better things. The Celtics, provided they make no moves, should be the favorite to hold onto the final playoff spot in the East even without Rondo, as the Philadelphia 76ers have quite a bit to overcome in order to catch the C’s. If the playoff picture doesn’t change, then we’re going to have to look for other quirks to keep our mind off of a Rondo-less existence. And the first thing that pops up, no shame in this, is his absence on the Eastern All-Star squad. Rondo was voted in as a starter, and it’s likely that 21-year old wunderkind Kyrie Irving will take his place in the starting lineup. A deserving nod.
Who should get Kyrie’s spot on the Eastern bench, though? Let’s chew through some candidates, and forget that this entire weekend ever happened.
Coaches weirdly seem to use the All-Star game as a team honor, which makes no sense because wins and playoff appearances should be celebrated as a team honor, and individual awards should be treated as such. Coaches decided to award two small forwards in Chicago’s Luol Deng and Indiana Pacer wing Paul George with All-Star selections, passing over the just-as deserving West in the process. West remains an underrated defender, especially in Indiana’s league-best defensive system, and he often keeps the Pacers from dipping below the 45-point a night barrier with his effortless passing and all-around scoring skills. And though this shouldn’t be in consideration for a 2012-13 designation, it’s nice to note that West hasn’t missed a single game since tearing his ACL late in the 2011 season.
Smith swears that he remains unaffected by his latest All-Star snub, but the eye test during Friday night’s win over the Boston Celtics revealed that the Hawks forward was a little more growly than he usually is. Smith was preening a bit, and though it didn’t exactly work (17 points on 20 shots, 3-9 on free throws, 14 rebounds and seven assists; raw stats that may have been amplified by nearly 47 minutes of play) the Hawks did pull out the double-overtime win. Smith still frustrates his team, and he’s still nowhere near the player he should be due to his shot selection, but 16.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, four assists and 3.5 blocks/steals per game should not be dismissed.
Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
Horford is Smith’s more productive, more stable front court partner. He rebounds better than West both percentage and per-game wise, and scores nearly 16 points a game while staying on the court for far more minutes than Smith. Al still dishes 3.2 assists per game despite his reputation (and we heard this on Twitter last week) as a black hole offensively, and his length defensively does wonders for a Hawks team that is either caught taking chances or caught being way too slow on the perimeter.
Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics
Losing one Celtic and adding another wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, even if Pierce was on the fringes of an All-Star season. Pierce isn’t, though. His shooting percentages have dipped, something about Boston’s terrible offense, but he’s also managing 18.7 points in 33 minutes a game, with around 10 combined rebounds and assists. His defense in Boston’s scheme remains stout, and his overall play compares favorably with that of Luol Deng. I adore Luol, and his defense is all-world, but when considering the all-around production Pierce isn’t far off from Deng’s outstanding play.
J.R. Smith, New York Knicks
Hahahahah, seriously guys. Good on J.R. for his role on a fun Knicks team, but he’s also shooting less than 40 percent and firing up a ton of three-pointers (nearly five, for every 36 minutes played) despite shooting just 31 percent from long range. He’s not an All-Star. He’s just a very good player on a very good team, and he’s in the news quite a bit.
Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets
Brook Lopez should have been on the All-Star team to begin with. My appreciation for Luol Deng’s work was stated above, nothing should take away from what he’s given to the Bulls (and opposing small forwards, for that matter), but Lopez has enjoyed the better year despite Deng playing 427 more minutes than Lopez this season. Brook’s pick and roll work remains sub-standard, but he has improved overall defensively and his Net teammates have worked wonders in making his biggest weakness less glaring. This is far from an All-Star argument, but 18.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 52 percent shooting in just 29 minutes a game should drive it home.
Replacing a point guard with a center – the fourth center on the East’s roster, depending on what you think of Kevin Garnett’s role – isn’t a problem. We’re not picking sides. We’re not building a team, fantasy or otherwise. We’re picking the 12 best players in the Eastern conference, and if they all shift toward a certain position … who cares? This is an exhibition to be played for fun. At the end of a career we rank All-Star berths, and not “missed the team that year because they really needed help on the wing.”
Also, there’s this picture:
Do the right thing, David Stern. And help us forget that the East is down two point guards, this year.
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