Weekly Countdown: My unofficial All-Star ballot has a few surprises
Hawks' Josh Smith and Bobcats' Gerald Wallace are among my All-Star selections
A March 2009 shooting seems to have liberated the career of Rockets' Carl Landry
More thoughts on Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin and Michael Redd's second surgery
5 Surprising All-Stars
Next week, the NBA will announce the starters for the Feb. 14 All-Star Game. I've made an early run through my own unofficial ballot, and to my surprise find these five names on it.
Josh Smith, Hawks. I'm starting with the biggest surprise of all. In previous years, a silhouette of Smith launching a poorly aimed three-pointer had been the logo for much of what was wrong with the league in the preexisting era of AAU phenoms drafted straight out of high school. But Smith definitely belongs on the All-Star team now. Simply connect the power forward's numbers -- 14.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 3.8 assists -- to Atlanta's eminence as the No. 4 contender in the East on track for a 54-win season.
"That kid has grown up immensely, and I'm stunned," an NBA pro personnel scout said. "I will tell you I hated him -- his body language, his physical displays and immaturity on the floor. But this year I've seen him sit on the bench and not get playing time in the fourth quarter because the lineup is doing well, and they call him in to get the tip to win the game. And he's not mad. In fact, he's up like he's their best cheerleader. I don't know what award he should get, but he should get something for making the most emotional growth."
After going to Atlanta as the No. 17 pick in 2004 from Oak Hill Academy, the 6-foot-9 Smith won the slam dunk contest as a 19-year-old rookie and was typecast as an athlete who valued show over substance. He was asked to mature in public view while playing roughly 30 minutes per game over his first five seasons, and his insistence on attempting threes -- hoisting up as many as 152 in a season despite his career 26.8 percent rate from that distance -- was infuriating to watch. But this year he has shot three of them, which is a telling symptom of what has gone right for Smith and the Hawks.
"I came a long way as an athlete, as a player," Smith said. "Just understanding the strong points of my game and being able to help my teammates the most is by not shooting threes.
"I think I've come a long way, but I really think the media have come a long way, too, by being open-minded. Because they were very narrow-minded with me; they maybe listened to a lot of stuff that was untrue, and they just labeled me as being an athlete that had a [short] fuse on him or was uncoachable. I think they've grown and they really took time to see the player and understand the player instead of just judging me."
Having made the painful investment to develop him over the last five years, the Hawks deserve every benefit of Smith's strong play. At 24, he could become one of the league's dominant defenders as a hyperactive shot-blocker who controls the boards. And as his post moves continue to improve, his athleticism could make him unguardable in the paint. Best of all, he is showing qualities that win games, especially in the playoffs.
"What he does now is play to his strength -- blocking shots, rebounding, bringing energy -- and he's an excellent teammate," the scout said. "He has a certain flair, and if he got in [as an All-Star this year], he might be able to stay in the mix for another three or four years or more. He could be a special player, and I really can't believe I'm saying this, because I really didn't like him before this year."
Gerald Wallace, Bobcats. While going through my ballot, I couldn't believe how unimpressive the East team has become. So few of the big-name stars are having All-Star-worthy years, with Kevin Garnett either being hurt or recovering from injury, Shaquille O'Neal playing fewer than 23 minutes per game and Gilbert Arenas attempting career suicide with unloaded weapons. It appears a sure bet Rajon Rondo will make his All-Star debut, while Vince Carter or Ray Allen might make the team by default, even though their numbers are down.
There are so many bad teams in the East that don't deserve to send an All-Star to Dallas. Andre Iguodala (listed at forward on the ballot) is putting up strong numbers, but what difference are they making for the lousy Sixers, who are 12-26? The same goes for everyone associated with the Pacers, Pistons, Wizards and, especially, the 3-35 Nets.
The last spot on my ballot comes down to David Lee or Wallace, who has shown elite versatility as a 6-7 small forward -- 17.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.0 blocks to go with 1.9 assists. He is another player showing team-first discipline: Since Larry Brown arrived in Charlotte, Wallace has been attempting half as many threes as he did in 2007-08, when he made 32.1 percent of them.
"Larry has helped tighten his game," the scout said. "His rebounding is off the hook. I've never seen a more fearless player. He's gotten rid of the three-ball, so everything he does now is to the rim. Think about his versatility: In [2005-06] he led the league in steals, he could possibly lead the league in rebounds at some point and I bet he's up there as far as taking charges."
On the question of whether to go with Lee or Wallace, I sought out the opinions of an Eastern GM and two pro personnel scouts (one from each conference). The GM and one of the scouts suggested that Lee's impressive numbers -- 19.0 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists -- are inflated by Mike D'Antoni's offense.
"A lot of us in the league right away discount the stats because of the number of possessions and the pace [the Knicks create], which may or may not be fair," the scout said. "People who have worked with Lee say no way is that fair, and the [coaches] in New York love him, but I think a lot of us feel he pads his rebounding numbers by not getting the tough rebounds so much as the free-throw rebounds and the loose-ball rebounds. He's one of the bigger enigmas in the league."
"I completely disagree," the other personnel scout responded. "They say Lee benefits because Mike runs up and down? Well, they don't run up and down anymore. Look at the stats."
It's true their offense has slowed down. The Knicks are attempting three fewer field goals than last year, and they rank a middling 11th in scoring.
"I completely disagree it's because of the system," the scout said. "David Lee was a double-double guy for Isiah [Thomas] and now for D'Antoni. You're telling me those systems were the same?"
I'm leaning toward Wallace based on Charlotte's superior record and his all-out style of play. The East coaches, who select the reserves, should recognize Wallace in order to set an example for their own players to emulate. But Lee should not be dismissed as a candidate.
Zach Randolph, Grizzlies. He has helped lead one of the NBA's most surprising teams by averaging 20.4 points and 11.4 rebounds while shooting 50.2 percent -- Randolph's best in his seven years as a starter. But I don't know anyone who thinks the 6-9 power forward will be recognized as a Western All-Star. "If it was fair, he'd make it," a Western GM said. "But the coaches won't vote for him."
"Zach has surprised everybody this year," a Western personnel scout said. "But people are going to resist believing in what he's doing because a zebra doesn't change its stripes."
Randolph developed his negative reputation over a number of years, and it looks as if he'll need more than a half-season to work it off. If he maintains this high level one year from now, maybe then he'll be awarded a place among All-Stars.
At the moment, I'm listing him on my ballot, with the understanding that the Western coaches will ignore Randolph in favor of a reliable frontcourt performer such as New Orleans' David West or a newcomer like the Lakers' Andrew Bynum.
Chris Kaman, Clippers. He's averaging 20.4 points and 9.4 rebounds, with the latter stat diminished by sharing the frontcourt with Marcus Camby, who is averaging 11.7 boards. I'm listing Kaman as the No. 2 center in the West behind Amar'e Stoudemire. "Before he got hurt," a Western scout said of Kaman's injuries over the previous two seasons, "people would say this guy is a top five-six-seven center. How many guys can score like he can -- left-handed, right-handed? He has the complete arsenal."
Al Horford, Hawks. Who would have guessed that Atlanta's undersized power forward-center combination of Smith and Horford would be All-Stars this year? But compare Horford's numbers to his rivals'. With 13.4 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks, his only meaningful competition (from a winning team) to become the No. 2 center in the East is Boston's Kendrick Perkins.
"I love Horford, primarily because he's an incredible locker-room guy," the Western scout said. "He instantly became a leader, which is astounding. His value is greater than his numbers, and he is contributing to a very good team."
NBA Truth & Rumors