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How much is too much?

Coaches have to decide if injured players merit berths

Posted: Tuesday January 18, 2005 11:56AM; Updated: Thursday January 20, 2005 11:08AM
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Larry Hughes
Is this man an All-Star? His broken thumb makes it a complicated question.
AP

Here's a dilemma to consider in the build-up to next month's All-Star Game: How many games can a player miss due to injury before he can't be considered for the midseason classic?

This year, more than ever, coaches must weigh their answers to that question when choosing the reserves. They'll have to judge the merits of at least four All-Star caliber players -- Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal, Utah's Andrei Kirilenko, Washington's Larry Hughes and New Orleans' Baron Davis -- who've suffered prolonged absences.

Their fate is left to the coaches because the fans have already had their say. Normally, we'd have to wait until the voting concludes on Feb. 3 to learn whom the starters will be, but this year the vote at every position is such a landslide that of the 10 positions, only one -- Eastern Conference forward -- has even a remote chance of changing between now and the close of balloting (O'Neal could pass Orlando's Grant Hill).

Thus, we have three weeks to ponder whether Davis, Hughes, Kirilenko and O'Neal have done enough to merit a free trip to Denver. Which brings up the bigger question of what we want the All-Star Game to represent. Is it solely for the most valuable players of the first half of the season, or more generally for the players who we consider the best in the game?

To me, it clearly should be the latter. Meaning, if somebody obviously is one of the best players in the game and happens to be hurt for part of the first half, he's still an All-Star. With the best players, the precedent is well-established; if a Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett spent five weeks on the shelf, the coaches wouldn't hold it against them.

Where it gets trickier is with the second-tier stars -- the guys such as the quartet above. I have two ground rules to help us decide:

1. Did he play enough to make a dent?

The length of the absence matters. At the very least, we should ask an All-Star to play in half his team's games by the time the All-Star Game tips off. Since it's around the 50-game mark for most teams, that would be about 25 games. Also, it goes without saying that in those 25 games he still needs to play at his usual All-Star level, which Davis, Hughes, Kirilenko and O'Neal all have done.

2. Will he take the spot of somebody just as good?

This is the big problem for Kirilenko and Davis especially, because there are so many deserving players in the West. If Kirilenko plays 25 games and somebody else plays 50 games with the same effectiveness, then Kirilenko has no case. The standard should be that the injured guy has to be demonstrably better than whoever's spot he'd take.

Hollinger's All-Stars
EAST
G Gilbert Arenas Wizards
G Steve Francis Magic
G Allen Iverson 76ers
G LeBron James Cavs
G Stephon Marbury Knicks
G Dwyane Wade Heat
F Vince Carter* Nets
F Grant Hill Magic
F Jermaine O'Neal Pacers
F Paul Pierce Celtics
C Shaquille O'Neal Heat
C Ben Wallace Pistons
WEST
G Ray Allen Sonics
G Kobe Bryant Lakers
G Tracy McGrady Rockets
G Steve Nash Suns
F Tim Duncan Spurs
F Pau Gasol Grizzlies
F Kevin Garnett T'wolves
F Andrei Kirilenko Jazz
F Shawn Marion Suns
F Dirk Nowitzki Mavs
C Yao Ming Rockets
C Amare Stoudemire Suns
* - Undeserving, voted in by fans

With that in mind, we can evaluate whom of our quartet belongs, as well as the composition of the rest of this year's All-Star squads.

Let's start in the East, because it's easier. The conference is so weak that only 12 players in the East can make a credible case for belonging on the All-Star team. The rest are either All-Star caliber players suffering off years (Michael Redd, Chauncey Billups), guys who are having career years but have no business being in an All-Star game (Drew Gooden, Nazr Mohammed), or guys who are suspended for the rest of the season for going into the stands to slap around a beer-chucking spectator.

One grossly undeserving player will slip through in the fan voting, however, as small forward/motivational speaker Vince Carter will be awarded a starting slot. That would seem to leave us with a problem -- 11 remaining spots for 12 deserving players. Fortunately, a solution almost immediately presented itself when Hughes broke his thumb this weekend. Based on the second rule above, selecting Hughes would keep somebody out of the game who was nearly as good -- his Washington teammate, Gilbert Arenas. Thus, it's a tough break for Hughes in more ways than one.

On the other hand, O'Neal has a strong case because his presence doesn't keep out another deserving forward, let alone one who has played as well as he has.

So, our Eastern team is set. Shaquille O'Neal gets voted in as the starting center, and Detroit's Ben Wallace is the only defensible choice for a backup. Hill and Carter are the starting forwards, with O'Neal and Boston's Paul Pierce as the reserves. In the backcourt, fan choices Allen Iverson and LeBron James start, with Dwyane Wade, Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis and Arenas as subs.

That wasn't too hard. Unfortunately, now there's the West. As a much more competitive conference, by my count there are at least 18 players who can make a legitimate All-Star claim.

Let's start with the obvious. The fans votes will be Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady at guard, Yao Ming at center, and Duncan and Garnett at forward. Add to that list three guys who are getting MVP mentions that no sane person would leave off the team: Steve Nash at guard, Dirk Nowitzki at forward and Amare Stoudemire at center.

That leaves four spots remaining, two of which are fairly clear. The first is Shawn Marion of Phoenix, the forgotten third key to the Suns' amazing start and the only of the Phoenician trio who defends as well as he scores. The second is a player with nearly identical stats -- Memphis's Pau Gasol. He's the one who righted the Grizzlies' wobbly ship early in the season, and after many near misses he's long overdue for the honor.

Two open slots are left, one of which must be a guard. The guards to consider are Davis, Seattle's Ray Allen and San Antonio's Manu Ginobili. Here's where Davis fails the "taking the spot of somebody just as good" test: Allen has been at least as effective and his team has about five times as many wins. Ginobili also has an argument, but he's played 300 fewer minutes than Allen and is far enough above his career norms to have me suspicious about whether he can keep it up.

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For the final All-Star bid, we have a wealth of deserving candidates: Ginobili, Davis, Seattle's Rashard Lewis, Sacramento's Chris Webber and Brad Miller, and annual All-Star shaftee Elton Brand of the Clippers. I wouldn't be terribly upset if any one of them made it.

But Kirilenko should be there instead. He's missed a ton of time with injury so coaches are going to forget about him, but he passes both tests. He'll have missed 26 games when he comes back this Saturday, which is an awful lot, but considering that he'll have played in half his team's 52 games by the time the game comes around he just slips past. More important, he passes the second test with flying colors -- he's played spectacularly when on the court, cementing his niche as the game's most unorthodox superstar by dominating games without scoring. No GM in the league would consider, even briefly, taking any of the other players I listed ahead of Kirilenko. Utah's struggles in his absence provide yet another marker of his value.

The coaches may look at this differently, of course -- they usually stick at least one jaw-dropper in their All-Star selections (Wally World, anyone?) -- but the key to their voting is the same as in my exercise: The hard choices they face with Davis, Hughes, Kirilenko and O'Neal. I say O'Neal and Kirilenko get in and the two guards stay home. In a few weeks, we'll see if the coaches agree.

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