Kobe Bryant separated himself from Jerry West, Karl Malone and Shaquille O’Neal lasst week when he set a new record with his 15th consecutive all-star selection. But what few remember is that when Bryant was elected to his first all-star game in 1998, that wiry 19-year-old with the huge Afro – who famously challenged Michael Jordan to a one-on-one duel – didn’t start for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Bryant pulled off the rare feat of being an all-star starter while playing for the Lakers as a backup to Eddie Jones, who made the team as a reserve. Since then, no bench player has been elected by the fans or selected by the coaches to participate in the NBA’s annual celebration of the game’s best.
But this season, Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers and J.R. Smith of the New York Knicks have long-shot chances of ending the streak and becoming all-star reserves while primarily serving as reserves for their respective teams. Both players have excelled in their roles as designated gunners this season – and the Clippers and Knicks wouldn’t be experiencing special seasons or considered legitimate title contenders without their contributions.
Coaches will turn in their choices for all-star reserves this week. Fans have already chosen Bryant and Dwight Howard of the Lakers, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, and the Clippers’ Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in the Western Conference and Miami’s LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, New York forward Carmelo Anthony and Boston’s Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo in the Eastern Conference.
Players who don’t start for their teams are rarely selected among the 12 best in their respective conferences, but there have been notable exceptions. John Havlicek, who revolutionized the sixth-man role with the Celtics, made six of his 13 all-star appearances as a backup. Kevin McHale made it three times (1984, 1990 and 1991), Dan Majerle made it twice (1995 and 1992), while Chris Gatling (1997), Ricky Pierce (1991), Dennis Rodman (1990), Bobby Jones (1981), John Drew (1976) and Paul Silas (1975) all made it once as bench players.
Manu Ginobili, a backup for almost half of his career in San Antonio, made his only two all-star appearances – in 2004 and 2011, when he started for the Spurs.
San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, Golden State’s David Lee and Memphis’s Zach Randolph have played well enough to secure forward selections in the Western Conference, James Harden, the former sixth man of the year turned focal point in Houston, and point guards Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker seem to have three of the guard spots secured. That would leave Crawford vying for the final position with Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge, Memphis center Marc Gasol, Oklahoma City forward Serge Ibaka and Golden State guard Stephen Curry, who is currently out indefinitely because of a troublesome, twice surgically-repaired right ankle.
Crawford has had better statistical seasons, averaging at least 19 points in two seasons in New York and Golden State, and was sixth man of the year when he averaged 18 points with Atlanta in 2010. But he has arguably been as important as Paul and Griffin in helping the Clippers get off to their best start in franchise history.
The Clippers are 12-3 when Crawford scores at least 20 points and 12-1 when he leads the team in scoring. He has been the ringleader of one of the NBA’s most fearsome benches and recently proved his worth during a three-game stretch without Paul, scoring a season-high 30 points in a road win in Houston.
Smith has always possessed enviable talent and infuriating inconsistency, driving former coaches Bryon Scott and George Karl – and even Knicks Coach Mike Woodson – insane with his maddening shot selection and aversion to defense. Woodson has gotten Smith to tone down some his questionable behavior on the court and Smith has also bought into playing more team ball this season.
Anthony’s more well-rounded game has certainly propelled the Knicks to the second-best record in the East. But Smith has done his part by matching Crawford with the most points of any reserve through his first 38 games and helping New York stay afloat in games without Anthony. Smith has scored at least 20 points 12 times and made game-winning jumpers on the road against Charlotte and Phoenix.
But Smith faces a more difficult challenge than Crawford, with coaches rarely rewarding players for half a season of good behavior. Smith’s teammate, Tyson Chandler, could take a spot if coaches decide to select two Knicks. Miami’s Chris Bosh has earned his eighth appearance and at least one member of Chicago’s trio of Luol Deng, Joakim Noah or Carlos Boozer will make the team given the Bulls’ success without Derrick Rose.
Atlanta’s Josh Smith may have squandered his all-star selection with a recent one-game suspension for getting kicked out of practice, opening opportunities for Indiana’s Paul George and an old reliable, Paul Pierce of Boston. Even if coaches decide to pass over the all-star caliber production of Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday and Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving because of their team’s poor records, Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis will get consideration, along with perennial all-stars Deron Williams and/or Joe Johnson in Brooklyn.