Examining early-season All-Star candidates in both conferences

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Examining early-season All-Star candidates in both conferences

With at least a 30-game sample size to evaluate the play of the leagues elite talents, as well as the NBA announcing the latest results of voter balloting Thursday, now is as a good a time as ever to start predicting who could play in Februarys All-Star Game.

Barring injury, the fans control who will start the annual contest currently, Bostons Rajon Rondo and Miamis Dwyane Wade comprise the Eastern Conferences backcourt, with New Yorks Carmelo Anthony, the Heats LeBron James and Kevin Garnett of the Celtics making up the frontcourt, while the West is dominated by players in Los Angeles, as Oklahoma Citys Kevin Durant is joined by the Clippers duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, along with Lakers tandem Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant as top vote-getters but the coaches select the reserves in both conferences.

In the East, a case has already been made in this space for Luol Deng to make his second All-Star appearance, with Bulls teammate Joakim Noah making the trip to Houston with him for his first crack at the annual game. However, it gets a bit murky after that.

RELATED: Deng, Noah making early cases for All-Star consideration

New Yorks Tyson Chandler should be a lock, given the Knicks record and his impact on their defense and overall interior game, which would probably push Clevelands Anderson Varejao, despite his gaudy numbers, out of the equation, as its highly unlikely that three true centers, regardless of their versatility, will come off the bench, especially considering their similar defensive-oriented games.

Miamis Chris Bosh, more of a natural power forward, is another shoo-in and while he doesnt have a lot of name recognition nationally, so is emerging Philadelphia point guard Jrue Holiday. That leaves three spots remaining.

With the success of the Hawks, Josh Smith should finally get the nod after getting snubbed last season and because of the lack of great guard play in the East this season Derrick Rose being sidelined doesnt help it says here that second-year Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving makes his first appearance, partially to compensate for Varejaos probable absence, but also because of backlash, conscious or not, toward Brooklyns Deron Williams, whos had a subpar campaign and is now deemed a coach killer following ex-Nets head coach Avery Johnsons dismissal after Jerry Sloans dismissal in Utah coincided with his reported behind-the-scenes grousing.

For the final spot, if not Williams, maybe one of Milwaukees undersized scorers Brandon Jennings or Monta Ellis makes an inaugural appearance, though Bostons Paul Pierce could garner a lifetime-achievement spot. As muddled as the East is, the West is no easier.

Assuming Jeremy Lin isnt voted in the Rockets point guards popularity in China cant be discounted, after Yao Ming, before truly blossoming as a player, made the All-Star team early in his career over Paul, the Clippers league MVP candidate who holds a semi-tenuous lead at the moment, his Houston teammate, James Harden, as well as fellow Southwest Division guards Russell Westbrook of the Thunder and San Antonios Tony Parker, will probably make the team.

Golden States Stephen Curry has been tremendous for the surprising Warriors and even with all of the talented big men in the West, its tough to name a more deserving guard in the conference, aside from the aforementioned named players.

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At the moment, its also hard to make an argument against Tim Duncan of the Spurs, as the future Hall of Famer is having a bit of a renaissance year and San Antonio is winning, as always. The same goes for Zach Randolph of the Grizzlies, the leagues double-double champ and a big reason Memphis appears to some observers to be a legit NBA Finals contender.

After that is where it gets tricky, but for the final spot in the West, another Warrior, David Lee, looks like he fits the bill, as hes finally putting up meaningful numbers now that Golden State is winning games.

One could make cases for other big men such as Oklahoma Citys Serge Ibaka (not enough of a consistent factor offensively), Minnesotas Kevin Love (missed too much time with injuries), Portlands LaMarcus Aldridge (lack of team success), Memphis Marc Gasol (hard to justify two teammates being on the All-Star team when theyre both big men, unless one is voted on by the fans or the team is just that dominant) and Houstons Omer Asik (like Ibaka, not yet a nightly scoring threat and the Rockets are still just a fringe playoff team) but the oft-maligned power forward is having an individually successful campaign on a winner.

Theres room for debate and still plenty of time before everything is settled, but heres an early look at how things might shake out. Obviously some people wont agree, but as the old adage goes, thats why they play the games.

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott wasn’t exactly hunting for his first shot, but the first time he touched the ball in an NBA game in nearly a month wasn’t the optimal situation for him to let one fly.

It wasn’t in transition where he runs to an opening behind the 3-point line, nor was it a drive-and-kick situation where the help defense collapsed and left him open. It was a regular, simple, pass to the perimeter and McDermott’s defender was in reasonable proximity with 3:23 left in the first quarter.

He launched and the crowd soon roared its approval as his sweet jumper was sorely missed by the Bulls bench brigade—and moments later when he ran the floor for a fearless layup that caused Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to call a timeout, McDermott showed he missed the United Center crowd too, calling for more noise on his way to the bench.

“Anytime you have a guy like Doug, he comes back and makes his first 3, that’s hard to do,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He stepped up with confidence on that first shot. I’m sure he had a lot of nerves getting back out there.”

Missing 12 games and suffering two concussions, McDermott looked right at home in 25 minutes of run Thursday as the Bulls were able to rely on their reserves in some form in their 95-91 win over the previously perfect road warriors known as the Spurs.

“We defended and kept them off the foul line,” McDermott said. “Coach (Jim) Boylen was with them, so we feel we know them and I think all this time they were missing my defense.”

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The last statement was certainly tongue-in-cheek, but the Bulls’ bench production was certainly missing in action while he was out with the concussion protocol. So much so that his return prompted the Bulls’ coaching staff to call out the reserves in the morning shootaround, demanding more.

“It’s definitely Dwyane (Wade) and Jimmy (Butler) and (Rajon) Rondo (but) the coaching staff kinda called out our bench like, we gotta have you tonight, bench,” McDermott said. “We took that to heart, we were really locked in.”

Seemingly his presence aided the Bulls’ spirits and production, as the Bulls’ bench had the least effective scoring bench in the NBA since Nov. 13, the day after McDermott hit the unforgiving floor against the Wizards for his second concussion this season.

Their net rating ranks ahead of only the Wizards, Mavericks and Nets, who are a combined 17-45 this season. Their effective field goal percentage, which takes into account 3-pointers, is worst in the league in that span (42.3 percent).

When McDermott was healthy for that smaller sample size, the Bulls’ bench ranked fifth in offensive efficiency, seventh in net rating, and fifth in efficient field goal percentage. Whether McDermott – and his absence – was directly related to those numbers, it’s clear the Bulls are better when they have their best reserve – and only true floor spacers on the second unit – on the court.

“We’re all professionals and we want to help the guys who are busting their butts in the first unit to get us the leads,” McDermott said. “Tonight we did a great job of sustaining it. We take it personal when teams come back on us.”

[MORE: Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls]

Nikola Mirotic was four of eight from the field, and Cristiano Felicio seems to be back in Fred Hoiberg’s good graces as he’s carved out a rotation spot for himself with nine points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes.

It seems as if Hoiberg will stick with this rotation of players, at least for a little while until Michael Carter-Williams returns from his injuries. If McDermott is the mark of the Bulls’ bench going from bottom feeder to adequate, it should show this month.

“When he’s out there on the floor and we get him coming off screens, it forces the defense to shift as another person they need to be aware of,” Hoiberg said. “It opens up driving lanes for our guys. It was great to have Doug back with us.”

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

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