This week, the NBA released the 2014 NBA All-Star ballot returns. Two Portland Trail Blazers -- LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard -- were among the Top 10 in the voting as frontcourt and backcourt players, respectively.
Obviously the All-Star Game voting isn't a perfect system for gauging the league's elite players. More than anything it's a popularity contest for fans to vote for their favorite players to be in the starting lineup of the league's midseason showcase. That said, the process provides an opportunity for analysts to see where players rank among the fans. Really, placement on any All-Star ballot is the sum of popularity and quality of play in the first half of the season.
In the most recent edition of the Blazer's Edge Videocast, one of the topics was whether Aldridge should be considered an MVP candidate. While the answer was a definitive "not as long as LeBron James is in the league," it did result in the idea that the Blazers' top frontcourt player is solidly in the tier right below James so far this year.
When taking a look at the All-Star ballot returns, there are some obvious whiffs if you consider any on-the-court production (Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade were tops in backcourt votes even though both have missed large parts of the season due to injury). However, the frontcourt positions are loaded with talent, especially in the West.
Aldridge is a player that is slowly becoming the ultimate "Man Crush" of present day Portland basketball. From the chants of "M-V-P" to a dynamic and dominant performance in a win over Houston on Thursday, LMA is now the GUY on this team.
With Aldridge being the darling of the city, it seemed appropriate to take a look at the way the other beloved frontcourt players were viewed by fans -- in this case SB Nation affiliates -- that were ahead of Aldridge in the All Star rankings.
In the end, these descriptions should give an idea of where LaMarcus should really fit into the All-Star rankings.
1. Kevin Durant (Affiliate: Welcome to Loud City)
A lot of the players on this list provide a certain amount of skepticism on why they're ranked so high (if thinking from a production point of view; from a popularity standpoint most of this makes sense). KD is not one of them. While it was widely noted that ESPN's Bill Simmons placed Aldridge ahead of Durant in his MVP rankings, it's no argument Durant is in the most elite category. Last week, Durant was given the "Danger Zone Award" by Craig Brenner of Welcome to Loud City. In Brenner's words, "This dude went insane this week on the court," shooting a cool 53% and a jaw-dropping 46% from distance, not to mention a block and steal per game sprinkled in. As unguardable as he is, it's difficult not to put Durant in this top spot.
(Note: If you're in need of a pick-me-up, the referenced Welcome to Loud City article has a Hasheem Thabeet selfie while he's at the dentist that's worth a look.)
2. Dwight Howard (Affiliate: The Dream Shake)
"James Harden and Dwight Howard had massive statistical games as the Rockets rolled past the Magic." - Patrick Harrel, The Dream Shake
This statement seems to display what Houston Rockets are: a team that creates "massive statistical games" for its players. The game being referenced is one against the Magic... without Nikola Vucevic in the lineup. As discussed at various points on Blazer's Edge (namely with the videocasts leading up to the nights against Houston), Howard simply isn't the defender he once was; the days of hedging-a-pick-then-following-the-roll-for-a-thunder-block-out-of-bounds are over. Grantland's basketball guru Zach Lowe had similar criticism, referencing Howard's "fading" skills.
That's not to say Howard isn't an elite player. If anything, Howard can be as great a 20-20 threat as Kevin Love (if he can regain his consistency). But on a team full of offensive weapons, Houston has certainly looked shaky at times. As the superstar, he takes some blame, whether it's deserved or not.
3. Blake Griffin (Affiliate: Clips Nation)
The Clippers interior play, which is in large part made up of Blake Griffin, is less than terrific. In fact, as Clips Nation points out, the team has taken the fewest shots inside of eight feet in the entire NBA. What really separates Aldridge from Griffin this season is his true inside-outside game. While Blake's outside jumper is certainly improving, the infamous Charles Barkley has consistently criticized Griffin for not having a post game. However, as we all know, the All-Star game is a showcase for the fans. Is there another player you want on the other side off an alley-oop than Griffin?
4. Kevin Love (Affiliate: Canis Hoopus)
Led by Kevin Love, the Timberwolves are an above-average offensive unit. His latest YouTube highlight reel of outlet passes can be found here. However, his team has been brutal defensively. Currently, as noted on Canis Hoopus, opponents have an effective field goal percentage of 52% against Minnesota, the highest of any team in the league. Additionally, the team is giving up the league's highest shooting percentage inside five feet. A lot of those statistics, specifically the shots inside five feet, fall on the frontcourt, Love included. While some people might give Love a break because of the amount of time he missed last season (plus the lack of time he's played with Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic for his whole career), it's tough to pass off how bad the defense has been in Minnesota.
5. Tim Duncan (Affiliate: Pounding the Rock)
Chris Itz said it best: "The most consistent player the NBA has ever seen had perhaps the longest shooting slump of his career this season..." The beginning of the 2013-14 campaign for Tim Duncan was completely miserable. As Itz also noted, "at one point he was in danger of being held under a 10 points-per-game average in a 10-game stretch for the first time in his career..." While that could be one of the most amazing stats of this early season, Duncan's last few games have been back on track. He's doing some things at his age that simply haven't been done, especially in a reduced role minutes-wise. For example, Duncan averaged a solid double-double, plus nearly 60% shooting in the six proceeding games after the slump... while only averaging 27 minutes a night.
Ranking fifth in the All-Star voting is really a nod to Timmy's longevity and consistency. Never averaging less than 10 points in a 10-game stretch for your entire career? Almost by default he is high on this list.
6. Anthony Davis (Affiliate: The Bird Writes)
The Pelicans were a team that went all-out this offseason, signing Tyreke Evans to an eight-figure yearly salary and trading two first-round picks (2013 pick Nerlans Noel and 2014) to nab 2013 All-Star Jrue Holiday. At the end of the day, though, this team's success revolved around the emergence of Davis as a legit go-to NBA player and budding superstar. Prior to the injury, Davis was making a statement to be a starter in the All-Star game. His injury has certainly hampered that opportunity. In part of a Sunday Shootaround piece about Davis, Paul Flannery deemed Davis' athleticism "jaw-dropping," becoming one of (if not the most) dominant two-way post player in the NBA. In time, Davis will bring his team along for the ride, much like Aldridge has done at the beginning of this season. In short, the argument for Davis being one of the three best post players to start the year is a strong one.
7. Paul Gasol (Affiliate: Silver Screen and Roll)
There was one headliner story that Lakers fans focused on for the entire offseason up until about a week ago: When was Kobe coming back? So, now that he is back, talk is swirling more around if his on-court play can keep the Lakers in a threatening position for a playoff run.
When it comes to Pau Gasol, as documented in a number of articles by Silver Screen and Roll, most of the talk never really seems to be about his statistical contributions. Instead, articles like "Pau discusses upcoming free agency" and "D'Antoni rips Gasol for not playing hard" are dominating the Gasol coverage. The 33-year-old is only averaging 14 points and less than 10 rebounds per game this year, albeit only playing 30 minutes a night (the lowest of his career). His 41.7% shooting from the field is also the worst of his career. Between the drama off the court and painful play on it, this has certainly been a year to forget for Gasol so far.
So, those are the names ahead of Aldridge. Thinking about the All-Star Game as both a combination of entertainment and recognition of quality play in the first half of the season, fairness is really in the eyes of the beholder (in this case, voting fans). Strictly on quality of play, LA deserves to be higher. Only time -- and possibly a few more wins -- will tell whether Aldridge can move past some of the seven players that precede him on the list.