HANG TIME, Texas — Every year when the first batch of NBA All-Star vote totals is announced, it is often reminiscent of one of Capt. Renault’s famous lines from “Casablanca”: Round up the usual suspects.
We could pretty much count on LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony being in the starting lineups on Feb. 17 in Houston even before the first online ballot was ever cast.
There are other questions, of course. Will the resurgent Tim Duncan make a return to the Western Conference team after his 12-year streak was broken last season? How many votes will Derrick Rose get, even though he’s been rehabbing his knee and hasn’t played a single game? Will a groundswell of “Linsanity” put Jeremy Lin onto his home court in Houston?
But the most interesting question — and the hottest debates — usually come down to the players that are trying to break out under the All-Star Game spotlight for the very first time.
So, we present a six-pack of the most deserving candidates to take their All-Star debuts this season:
Stephen Curry, Warriors — Nobody’s writing him off as being too fragile anymore, worried that the ankles just won’t hold up. Now in his fourth season, the sweet shooting guard is having his best year. He’s averaging career highs of 20 points, 6.5 rebounds — numbers among point guards that are eclipsed only by OKC’s Russell Westbrook. Perhaps most significant, he’s playing 37.2 minutes a night, having not missed a game. He’s showing the quick release and the accuracy from 3-point range that everyone predicted coming into the league and, now that he’s finally healthy, Curry is playing the role of leader on a 14-7 Golden State team that has been virtually without center Andrew Bogut.
James Harden, Rockets — The Beard exploded into the headlines by scoring 37 and 45 points in his first two games for the Rockets almost before he learned the names of his teammates. It was widely acknowledged that Harden had been sacrificing a big piece of his game and potential stardom by coming off the bench for the Thunder. But did everyone think it was a piece the size of Greenland? At 24.7 a game, he is fifth in the league in scoring, trailing only Bryant, Anthony, Durant and James. He also kicks in 5.6 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game and, quite frankly, does about anything he wants in the Houston offense, raining in 3-pointers or getting all the way to the rim off the dribble. Just by pulling on the uniform, he’s made the Rockets relevant again.
O.J. Mayo, Mavericks — Who would have predicted this when the Grizzlies held the door open and told him not to let it him on the way out last summer? The Mavericks may have struck out in their bids for the high profile names in Howard and Deron Williams, but likely scooped up the free agent bargain of the offseason in Mayo. He ranks 10th in scoring at 20.8 per game, a career best. He’s also shooting at a 48.7 clip, including a sizzling 53 percent from behind the 3-point line. With Dirk Nowitzki sidelined while recovering knee surgery, the Mavs were desperate for someone who could fill up the basket every night and be able to make the big shots down the stretch every night. With a consistency and a concentration of focus that always eluded him in Memphis, Mayo has done it all.
Joakim Noah, Bulls — It might have been easy for the Bulls to simply resign themselves and tread water while waiting for the return of Rose. But Noah is a splasher and he’s responded along with teammate Luol Deng by tirelessly attacking every game as coach Tom Thibodeau has significantly raised his playing time and the level of expectation. Noah ranks seventh in the league in rebounding (10.8), seventh in blocked shot (2.3) and also averages 1.4 steals, all of which has helped give the Bulls the most efficient defense in the NBA and has to put him high in the early conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. He’s also averaging 13.6 points and 4.3 assists at the other end of the floor.
Josh Smith, Hawks — He’s flown beneath the radar for so long that it has somehow become acceptable to take what he’s done for granted through eight seasons and counting. By the time this one is over, J-Smoove will likely have 10,000 points, 5,000 rebounds, 2,000 assists and 1,000 blocked shots with the same team. That will put him on a select list with Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Julius Erving, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett. All but Ewing have at least one MVP award to their name and Smith is the only one who has never appeared in the All-Star Game. It took him a little while to get rolling this season, but Smith now has things in gear. He was just named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for averaging a double-double (21 points, 12 rebounds) in leading the Hawks to a 3-0 record. He is their leading scorer in a 12-6 season that has Atlanta No. 3 in the East standings.
Anderson Varejao, Cavaliers — How is it that the best center in the Eastern Conference could be on the trading block? It has to do more with the Cavs’ miserable 5-17 record rather than any of what Varejao has brought to the table. He’s averaging a career-high 14.8 points and leading the league with 14.9 rebounds per game. Varejao is tied with Memphis’ Zach Randolph for the league lead in double-doubles with 15, and for the 11 games when Kyrie Irving was injured and on the shelf, he might have been the only reason to watch the Cavs. Of course, every G.M. in the league has been watching and with Cleveland in full rebuilding mode, seeking draft picks and young players, there’s a good chance he’ll change uniforms twice this season. That is, of course, assuming he’ll switch into an All-Star jersey for the first time in Houston.