Best Players Not Always on Best Team

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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 7, 2006; 3:33 PM

There once was a time when being an elite player meant being on an elite team, or at least lifting your team to elite status. But take a look at the 10 starters for the NBA All-Star Game in Houston next weekend. Half of them are playing on teams that are either well below .500 (Houston's Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady), dead even (Philadelphia's Allen Iverson) or within one game from having a .500 record (the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant and Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal). Miami's Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal, Phoenix's Steve Nash and San Antonio's Tim Duncan are the only players from teams that are currently leading their division. LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers are nine games above .500 but they trail the Eastern Conference-leading Detroit Pistons by 11 ½ games in the Central Division (the Pistons, by the way, don't have any players elected to start -- although one will likely be thrown in to replace the injured O'Neal).

Does this mean that the fans got it wrong? Absolutely not. Regardless of what people say about how fans make mistakes in all-star voting, the All-Star Game is for them -- not coaches, players are so-called media experts -- and they should get who they want. So, if the fan voting for the all-star game says anything, it's that the fans don't care about wins and losses because they want to be entertained. And, unfortunately, the NBA's best showmen this season have been stuck on average or lousy teams.

All-star reserves will be announced on Thursday, giving the coaches the opportunity to balance the scales between the players the fans want to see and the players who have earned an invitation for performing well enough to lift their teams. With the Pistons off to a 70-win pace, some, including Knicks Coach Larry Brown and Celtics Coach Doc Rivers, have suggested that all five starters should be headed to Houston. That may be a little extreme. But here is a list of players the coaches should have on their ballots:

Western Reserves

Forwards (2)

Elton Brand and Dirk Nowitzki

This was an easy call because Brand and Nowitzki have been the two best forwards in the Western Conference in the first half of the season. Brand has been a solid performer his entire career, making an all-star berth as an injury replacement for Shaquille O'Neal in 2002, but he has earned a legitimate invitation for averaging a career-high 25.1 points with 10.3 rebounds and lifting the Los Angeles Clippers to 11 games above .500 for the first time in more than 30 years. Brand has solidified his all-star status in recent weeks, helping the Clippers win eight of their last nine games and scoring at least 30 points in five of the past six games. The Mavericks are one of the deepest teams in the league and playing better defense than they have in recent seasons, which has little to do with Nowitzki, but he has been the best player (Nowitzki averages 25.4 points) on a team that has been battling with defending champion San Antonio for the best record in the Western Conference.

Guards (2)

Chris Paul and Tony Parker

The New Orleans Hornets won 18 games last season yet, if the season ended today, they would be the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Paul hasn't been the sole reason for the turnaround, but the leading candidate for rookie of the year deserves most of the credit after averaging 16.3 points and 7.8 assists. Paul has proven his toughness by quickly returning from a wrist injury in his shooting hand and he has led the Hornets to wins against San Antonio, Miami and the Los Angeles Clippers. Parker has had a remarkable season, averaging a career-high 19.4 points with 5.7 assists and shooting 54.8 percent from the floor -- more than 7 percent higher than his career average. And, when he isn't chilling on Oprah's couch with girlfriend Eva Longoria, Parker is has been carrying the Spurs -- not Duncan -- as the team battles through injuries to Manu Ginobili and Michael Finley, among others.

Center (1)

Kevin Garnett

This should've been Marcus Camby. Camby surely was playing at an all-star level before breaking a finger in his shooting hand in December, but he wasn't around when the Denver Nuggets finally started clicking in January. The team has struggled to find its chemistry since Camby returned. But since the West is loaded with forwards and the center position is relatively weak in the West, coaches should just throw one of the conference's tallest forwards on the ballot at the position. This was a tough call between Garnett and Pau Gasol. Gasol has been the best player on the Memphis Grizzlies, but the Grizzlies haven't won on the back of one man. This was a shaky pick because Garnett has had a disappointing season and Minnesota has been sliding despite a huge trade that was meant to turn around the situation, but it is difficult to imagine an all-star game without the Big Ticket.


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