Posted Apr 20 2012 9:36AM
The only way to make the All-Star team every year is with a strong start. Well, it doesn't hurt to be popular, either. Those who accomplish one or both are lumped among the best players in the game.
But what about those who raise their game in the second half of the season? You could argue it's more important for a player to finish strong than start strong. So much more is at stake: pushing his team toward the playoffs, gaining home court advantage, winning the division.
Really, who cares who was Mr. November through January?
So here we present the starting five for the East and West in the Second Half All-Star Game. These players and coaches have distinguished themselves the last few months -- and their teams are benefitting.
Josh Smith, Hawks. There's no truth to the rumor that the Hawks are asking all coaches to leave Smith off their All-Star list forever. But he has been a player possessed following the All-Star snub back in February. Smith averaged 23 and 10 in March and remains on a tear here in April. Some nights, Joe Johnson takes a backseat while Smith takes over for the Hawks. They've stayed in contention despite Al Horford's absence, and Smith's second half is a main reason, if not the reason.
Paul Pierce, Celtics. He's averaging roughly 22 points, six rebounds and four assists since the break and showing no signs of wearing down as the playoffs approach. The Celtics snatched the Atlantic Division title from the Sixers in a year in which many predicted they could finish third. Pierce's outside shooting has been a big help, given Ray Allen's frequent absences. If nothing else, Pierce has cemented his rank among the five greatest Celtics of all time.
Tyson Chandler, Knicks. He gets the big man nod here, just ahead of Dwight Howard, and only because Dwight pulled up lame lately. Still, that's hardly a knock against Chandler, who'll give Howard a run for the Defensive Player of the Year trophy. Chandler is averaging 13 points and almost 12 rebounds in April and symbolizes the Knicks' improvement on defense. And he's doing this despite a bum hand.
LeBron James, Heat. It was either LeBron or Carmelo Anthony for this spot but Melo's been hot since the start of April. LeBron hasn't let up since December. And right now he's in MVP overdrive, finishing strong so Dwyane Wade can get a breather. Obviously, the real judgment on LeBron will be in June. But for now, is he making a case for best player in the game and his third MVP? Absolutely.
Rajon Rondo, Celtics. The guy is an assist machine right now, racking up double digits since mid March, including 20 against the Hawks. His jumper remains about as pretty as a pimple, but when you dish the way Rondo has since the break, it rarely matters when his shot is off. His playmaking and ability to get easy shots for teammates is what drives the Celtics right now.
Mike Woodson, Knicks. Was Mike D'Antoni's grip on the Knicks this weak, or is Woodson this good? Maybe both, but we'll give a more generous nod in Woodson's direction for changing the culture quickly. Woodson's touch is evident in two areas: defense and Carmelo. Melo has been unleashed and finally playing like the wicked scorer he was meant to be. He's averaging over 32 points a game in April when, not so coincidently, the Knicks made their move into playoff position. You must like what Tom Thibodeau's done in Chicago without Derrick Rose, but Thibs is a strong Coach of the Year (emphasis on year) candidate. This is about the half-year. Special shout-out to Frank Vogel.
Kevin Durant, Thunder. OKC has had its hiccups the last few weeks, but none caused by Durant. The MVP campaign continues on a nightly basis; since mid-March he's had three games of 40-plus points (including a 40-point, 17-rebound game against Minny). OKC is still fighting for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs and you figure if there's a shot, their chances are good with Durant, the Player of the Month for February and March, rolling like this.
Tim Duncan, Spurs. Sure, he has taken a few games off, including one where he was deemed too "old" to play by his coach. Still, Duncan, who didn't make the All-Star Game, is finishing this season in fine form, where in the past, he pushed the cruise control button and waited for the playoffs. Here in the stretch run he grabbed 16 rebounds against the Celtics and Jazz and scored 28 against the Grizzlies. And he isn't even his team's first option.
Andrew Bynum, Lakers. Has he really been the best center in basketball since the break? Well, yes. That says something about the state of big men, but also about how far Bynum has come since an injury-filled start to his career. Putting aside, for a moment, his occasional lapse into immaturity, Bynum is playing beastly: 22 points and 11 rebounds over the last two months, with games of 36 points and 30 rebounds. Are the Lakers still unhappy the Magic didn't trade Dwight and his herniated disk for Bynum?
Chris Paul, Clippers. Vinny Del Negro is still employed largely because Paul recharged the Clippers before it was too late. They were 26-21 on March 22 following an embarrassing loss to the Hornets, and then Paul became the symbol of the turnaround. He's averaging 19 points, nine assists and almost three steals since the break and more than anything else is showing leadership skills. Here's something else to admire about Paul: He didn't nudge Del Negro when the coach was clearly standing on the edge of the plank. Regardless of how Paul feels about his coach, that was unusual in this day and age from superstars.
Kobe Bryant, Lakers. This is the toughest call of the second-half All-Star team, taking into account Kobe's stretch of resting and also the performance of Tony Parker, who has the Spurs humming along. But Kobe's February-through-early-April stretch is still convincing enough to put him in the starting five. Or maybe, seeing how Kobe can't seem to stay in his seat while wearing a suit, he would be a better fit as coach of this second-half team?
Gregg Popovich, Spurs. It takes guts to sit your starters during a stretch run where playoff home-court is up for grabs and still come out ahead. But that's Pop, masterfully navigating the Spurs and his aging core of players through a compressed schedule. Because of Pop, the Spurs are taking care of business during the regular season AND are fresh enough for a deep playoff run. Try pulling that off. Anyway, he has also given important roles to the supporting cast and those role players are brimming with confidence and coming up big. Given the competition, the schedule, the new faces and the challenge of keeping the Big Three fresh for the post-season, this might be Pop's best coaching effort ever.
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