Hawks complete greatest month in NBA history


VIDEO: Hawks soar past Sixers for 19th straight win

So what was your New Year’s resolution?

Drop a few pounds? Quit smoking?

Can’t touch those Hawks.

All the NBA’s hottest team has done since ringing in 2015 is shed its reputation for being bland and gave up losing altogether.

Now with their 91-85 victory over the 76ers on Saturday night, the Hawks stretched their team record winning streak to 19 games and just so happened to cap off the single greatest month in NBA history.

17-0 for Atlanta in January.

Move aside, Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich. The Hawks topped the 16-0 mark by the Lakers in December 1971 on the way to their NBA record 33-game win streak.

Slide on down, future Hall of Famers LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Heat went 17-1 in March 2013 during their 27-game win streak, which ranks second-best of all time.

Nobody has yet mentioned enshrinement for Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague – the three players chosen for the 2015 NBA All-Star Game — but along with Kyle Korver, Dennis Schroeder and the rest, the Hawks keeping right on soaring with a 33-2 record since Thanksgiving.

Not that things came easy this weekend. The Hawks had to come from five down in the fourth quarter to beat the Trail Blazers on Friday night and then got an unexpected push from the lowly Sixers on Saturday. After building a 21-point lead in the first, the Hawks found themselves down 83-81 with less than three minutes to play before Horford rose up to carry them home and into the history books with the greatest month in NBA history.

Just remember, those 1972 Lakers and 2013 Heat teams both went on to win the championship. The fun might only be starting.

Rondo out after taking knee to head


VIDEO: Rondo takes inadvertent knee to face

As if losing four of their past five games wasn’t painful enough, the Mavericks lost point guard Rajon Rondo when he suffered a head injury in the first quarter Saturday night at Orlando.

Rondo was on the floor when teammate Richard Jefferson started to run down the court on a fast break and caught him squarely in the face with a knee. Rondo remained on the floor with blood gushing from his nose and was eventually helped to the locker room by members of the Mavericks’ staff.

Team doctors will do further examination on Rondo when the team returns home following tonight’s game, the last in a three-game road trip.

The Mavericks also played without starting forward Chandler Parsons, who was out for a second straight night with an illness.

Morning shootaround — Jan. 31


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING

January fuels belief in Hawks | Love ready for rough return to Minnesota | Pistons players, fans bracing for Josh Smith’s return | Be careful what you say about DeMarcus Cousins

No. 1: January fuels belief in Hawks — The franchise-record 18 straight wins did it. Finally, the belief in the Atlanta Hawks has officially taken over the city. It’s inspired memories of a great times in Atlanta sports history — yes, there have been great times — a generation ago in another sport (baseball), when the imagination of an entire city became fans of a team that captured its fan base. It feels like 1991 all over again in Atlanta, according to longtime Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist Mark Bradley:

Ten years from now, we may recall this January the way we do the summer of 1991, when a team none of us had paid much heed grabbed us by our collars and made us watch. Ten years from now, we may remember these Hawks growing into a colossus – what other word fits an aggregation that’s 32-2 since Thanksgiving? – the way we beheld the Braves’s ascent from worst to first.

Ten years from now, we may look back on games like Friday’s in the manner we pressed that September series against the hated Dodgers into our memory books. Ten years from now, we could point to Friday as one of the moments when we knew – knew, as opposed to hoped – that all things were really and truly possible.

For the first time in 33 days and 17 games, the Hawks faced a fourth-quarter deficit. (That’s among the astonishing stats of this or any millennium.) Nothing was coming easy against an excellent Portland team, and matters were getting more difficult by the minute.

The splendid forward LaMarcus Aldridge was en route to scoring 37 points. The Hawks were missing free throws. DeMarre Carroll, their best perimeter defender, was too sore to play. Thabo Sefolosha, his replacement in the starting five, lasted 141 seconds before tweaking a hamstring. A team that has become a beautiful machine had developed a cough, and you couldn’t see all of the above and not think, “This could be the night the streak ends.”

But no. Five points down after three quarters, the Hawks won 105-99. Over those final 12 minutes, they outscored the Trail Blazers 15 baskets to seven, outshot them 71.4 percent to 30.4 percent. In their stiffest test since MLK Day, the Hawks played their best offense and their best defense in the fourth quarter, which is the time to do it.

We’ve spent the past month trying to identify the reasons the Hawks have done nothing but win, and here’s another: They trust themselves and their system. They know Mike Budenholzer’s offense will avail them of good shots if only they go where they’re supposed to go. They know they’re good enough shooters to make those shots. They also know – here’s the part that’s different from last season – that they can guard the opposition better than they’re being guarded.

There’s power in such faith. There’s the power that flows from believing you’re going to get better looks over 48 minutes than the other team, that you pass and shoot and defend too well to be cornered for long. At halftime the Blazers had made 55.1 percent of their shots to the Hawks’ 44.4 percent – and Portland’s lead was a skinny point. By game’s end the Hawks had shot the better percentage and driven the ball often enough to earn twice as many free throws. (Not a small consideration on a night when you miss eight of 22.)

Down to cases. On the first possession of the fourth quarter, Dennis Schroder drove for a layup. The 21-year-old had some moments when he looked his age, but he changed the game when it needed changing. He found Mike Scott on the left wing for the tying 3-pointer and found Kyle Korver at the top for the trey that made it 81-76. The Blazers would never lead again.


VIDEO: Kent Bazemore stepped up in a major way for the Hawks as they snagged their franchise-record 18th straight win

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Lillard calls All-Star snub ‘disrespect’


VIDEO: Lillard feels disrespected

HANG TIME BIG CITY — Last season, Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard made his first All-Star Game. He followed that up by leading the Blazers into the postseason and showing just how clutch he could be even on the biggest stages.

This season, Lillard continued his growth, averaging 21.8 points, 6.2 assists, and 4.6 rebounds for the 32-14 Blazers. But it apparently wasn’t good enough to earn an All-Star selection from the Western Conference coaches, who voted in Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul ahead of Lillard. This caused some outrage in Portland, to the point where the Portland Police Department tweeted that they may have to look into the perceived robbery …

Earlier today, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that to replace the injured Kobe Bryant he was appointing Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins. (According to ESPN’s Marc Stein, Cousins was ahead of Lillard in the voting of the coaches.)

With the Blazers in Atlanta to take on the red-hot Hawks tonight, Lillard spoke to the media about his All-Star non-selection, and promised to use it as fuel to continue his season.

“I’m definitely going to take it personal,” Lillard said. “I said I’d be pissed off about it. And I am. I just felt disrespected. Because I play the game the right way, I play unselfishly, I play for my team to win games and I produce at a high level. I think what I bring to the game as a person, my makeup mentally, how I am toward my teammates, how I am toward the media, how I am toward fans; I think what an All-Star represents in this league, and what you would want people to look at as an All-Star, I think I make up all those things. For me to be having the type of season that I’m having, which is better than any one that I’ve had before, and my team to be third in the Western Conference, I just see it as disrespect. I’m not one of those guys that’s going to say, ‘Oh, I should be in over this guy or that guy.’ I’m not a hater. I’ve got respect for each guy that made the roster. And I think they deserve to (make the team). But at the same time, I feel really disrespected, and that’s just honestly how I feel.”

Cousins to replace injured Bryant on West’s All-Star roster

cousins

DeMarcus Cousins is averaging career highs in both points (23.8) and rebounds (12.3). (NBAE via Getty Images)

HANG TIME BIG CITY — The Western Conference All-Stars just got a boost of Boogie.

With Kobe Bryant out for the rest of the season following shoulder surgery, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced Friday that Bryant will be replaced on the Western Conference All-Star team roster by Sacramento Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins. The announcement comes just hours after the All-Star reserves were announced, a list that did not include Cousins.

In his fifth NBA season, Cousins is averaging 23.8 points along with 12.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, career highs across the board. Over the last 20 years, only five players — David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Kevin Love — have averaged at least 23 points and 12 rebounds in a season. Cousins is the first Kings’ All-Star since 2004. He also played a key role on last summer’s USA Basketball championship team at the FIBA Basketball World Cup, and seems to have curbed his enthusiasm for picking up technical fouls, with just five so far this season after racking up 16 last season.

The 64th NBA All-Star Game will tip off Sunday, Feb. 15, at Madison Square Garden. The game will be seen by fans in 215 countries and territories and will be heard in 47 languages. TNT will televise the All-Star Game for the 13th consecutive year, marking Turner Sports’ 30th year of NBA All-Star coverage.

Pacers could take advantage of rough Eastern Conference


VIDEO: Recap: Rodney Stuckey scores 22 points as the Pacers defeat the Knicks

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – In the Western Conference, the Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder are fighting for the final playoff spot. And, unless the Dallas Mavericks continue to slide, two of those teams will miss the postseason.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, we’re going to have two playoff teams out of a group that includes …

  • The 20-25 Miami Heat, who are missing Dwyane Wade for the next 2-3 weeks.
  • The 19-27 Charlotte Bobcats, who have the league’s worst offense outside of Philadelphia and are without Kemba Walker until at least mid-March.
  • The 18-27 Brooklyn Nets, who are looking to trade their three highest paid players and are 3-17 against teams currently over .500.
  • The 16-28 Boston Celtics, who have already traded two of their three highest paid players and just lost to the 8-37 Minnesota Timberwolves.
  • The 17-30 Detroit Pistons, who are 0-3 with a 20-point loss to the Sixers since losing Brandon Jennings for the season.
  • The 17-31 Indiana Pacers, who rank 28th offensively and are 2-8 in their last 10 games, with losses to the Sixers, Wolves, and Hornets.

Oof.

The good thing about the East is that there’s some fresh blood at the top. The top six teams in the standings won a total of one playoff series last year, so we’re going to have a lot of new faces in the conference semifinals.

But who will take those last two playoff spots? The numbers could help us with the forecast.

First, with apologies to Bill Parcells, let’s accept the notion that the standings don’t tell us everything about how well or how poorly a team has played.

Point differential is a better predictor of future success than wins and losses. And there’s a formula to calculate how many wins a team should have (“expected wins”) based on their point differential. That formula says that both the Pacers and Celtics should have about three more wins than they do.

20150130_expected_wins

Indiana has a better NetRtg (point differential per 100 possessions) than Brooklyn, but is 2 1/2 games behind the Nets in the standings, in part because the Pacers are 11-18 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, and the Nets are 11-11.

The Celtics, meanwhile, have the eighth best NetRtg in the East (just a hair behind the Heat), but are 8-16 in close games.

Among the group of teams listed above, the Pistons, Heat and Hornets have played the toughest schedule thus far. But the Celtics aren’t fare behind. And going forward, the schedule favors the Pacers.

Indiana actually has more games remaining vs. teams that are currently at or above .500 than vs. teams that are below. But they have six more home games than road games and have 13 games left against teams that are playing the second night of a back-to-back.

When you adjust for those situations, the Pacers have the easiest schedule of the six teams that have between 17 and 20 wins in the East …

20150130_future_sched

Of course, the Pacers are just 9-12 at home and just 4-7 against teams on the second night of back-to-back. As noted above, they’ve lost to both the Wolves and Sixers this month.

But when you take into account some bad luck in close games and a favorable future schedule, they have a decent chance of moving up from 12th to seventh or eighth.

Morning shootaround — Jan. 30


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 29

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Kobe aiming for September return | Report: Howard could miss ‘extended time’ | Report: Vaughn on thin ice in Orlando | Shaw blasts Nuggets’ effort

No. 1: Kobe targeting September return; Kupchak still back Bryant — The torn rotator cuff in Kobe Bryant’s right should was officially surgically repaired on Wednesday. With that out of the way, most are wondering when (or if) he’ll be back on the court for the L.A. Lakers. According to a report from ESPN.com, Bryant is aiming to play again in September and, per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, Bryant still has the full support of GM Mitch Kupchack.

Here’s ESPN.com’s report on Bryant’s shoulder:

Kobe Bryant addressed his expectations a day after shoulder surgery Thursday night in a brief interview with ESPN, saying he planned on being ready to play come September for the Los Angeles Lakers’ training camp.

“Yeah, that’s the plan,” Bryant said.

Bryant said his rehab over the next couple of months will involve “a lot of patience.”

“Sore, but it’s OK,”  Bryant said of his shoulder.

Bryant said media opinion on whether he should return for a 20th season or retire wouldn’t affect his decision.

“I don’t really listen much to what people have to say to be honest with you,” Bryant said.

Bryant was back at the Staples Center for a brief visit with former teammate Pau Gasol before the Lakers faced the Chicago Bulls.

The former teammates spoke privately before Bryant left. Bryant said he wasn’t feeling well enough, 31 hours after the operation, to go on the court.

Bryant is expected to need nine months to recover from his third straight season-ending injury, a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder suffered last week that he had surgically repaired Wednesday.

If Bryant meets that timetable, he could return to basketball shortly before the start of the 2015-16 season, the final year of his contract with the Lakers.

Bryant, who will be 37 this summer, is the NBA’s highest-paid player at $23.5 million this season. He is under contract for $25 million next year.

And here’s Bresnahan on Kupchack talking about the Lakers’ future with Kobe and beyond:

Kobe Bryant was all smiles when he talked about his $48.5-million contract extension in November 2013, saying he would “run through a wall” for the Lakers to prove they were right and everybody who doubted them was wrong.

But were they right?

It’s a simple question that goes directly to the center of a struggling franchise and its rapidly aging megastar.

“One hundred percent. We have no regrets at all,” Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said Thursday.

Why?

“Because he’s worth every penny of it.”

Kupchak acknowledged that the Lakers, who ended a nine-game losing streak Thursday and are foundering with a 13-34 record, would need a talent upgrade next season. The catch: They have room for only one maximum-salaried player.

“To me, a big part of Kobe’s contribution next year is if we can improve this team during the off-season,” Kupchak said.

“Our coaches and players have been instructed to win games. Maybe I used the wrong word. I don’t have to ‘instruct’ the players to win games and try to win games. I don’t have to instruct [Coach] Byron [Scott]. That’s why they’re here.”

One player Kupchak expected to return next season was Bryant. It would be his 20th, all with the Lakers.

“I don’t think he’s retiring,” Kupchak said. “I spoke to him [Thursday] morning. The doctor’s prognosis was released yesterday and [Bryant] said he was looking forward to training camp. That’s what we expect.”


VIDEO: Mitch Kupchack addresses Kobe Bryant’s comeback trail and more

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Report: Howard could miss extended time

VIDEO: The Inside guys talk about West All-Star snubs

Having a string of eight consecutive All-Star Game appearances snapped was the least of Dwight Howard’s concerns.

The Rockets center, who has already missed 14 games this season, could miss “extended time,” according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.

Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard will get a second opinion on his injured right knee and could miss extended time, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

As the Rockets embarked on a two-game Eastern Conference trip to Boston and Detroit on Thursday, Howard traveled elsewhere to get further evaluation on his swollen knee, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

The Rockets announced late Wednesday night that Howard has an edema — build-up of fluid –in his knee. He was sidelined for 11 games earlier this season with a strain in the same knee.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and head athletic trainer Keith Jones both ruled out a microfracture to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

Howard is averaging 16.3 points and 11 rebounds this season, but was not voted by the fans as a starter and not added to the Western Conference team reserves by the coaches. With Kobe Bryant of the Lakers out for the season following rotator cuff surgery, Howard could be added as a substitute, but the current injury now makes that less likely.

The latest scenario just makes us wonder what James Harden can do next to improve stating his case for MVP? Even without Howard, Harden has been spectacular, leading the NBA in scoring at 27.7 points per game and was added to the West All-Star team himself by the coaches after the fans gave their sentimental backing to Bryant.

Harden’s play has enabled the Rockets (32-14) to remain in a three-way tie with the Trail Blazers and Clippers for the No. 3 playoff seed in the West.

Playing without their big man, the Rockets have posted a 10-4 record this season, but another lengthy loss of Howard could eventually take its toll in the tightly-packed race.

Wade hopes to return from hamstring injury in 2-3 weeks


VIDEO: Wade selected as All-Star reserve for East

Dwyane Wade received the good news that he was selected to his 11th NBA All-Star team on Thursday, but the question now is whether he’ll be able to play in it.

The Heat guard, who left Tuesday night’s game against the Bucks with a hamstring injury, is likely on the shelf for at least two to three weeks.

From Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald:

Calling a sudden news conference Thursday at AmericanAirlines Arena, Wade told reporters, “I won’t be seeing y’all for a little while, so take a good look at this face.”

The Heat shooting guard strained his right hamstring in Tuesday night’s loss to Milwaukee, and he said the best-case scenario for his return would be two to three weeks. That means Wade would miss the All-Star Game (he was selected as a reserve Thursday) and also miss Miami’s road game against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 11.

“You can’t put a time on it,” Wade said. “You can’t look at the hamstring and say you’re going to be out this amount of games. Like many muscle strains, you’ve got to go day by day.”

This is Wade’s third leg injury of the season. He strained his left hamstring Nov. 12 against Indiana and missed seven games. He then tweaked the back of his left leg again Jan. 13 against the Lakers and missed two games. He has missed 10 of the Heat’s 45 games this season. Wade missed 28 games last season due to various injuries.

“Where this thing has me frustrated and where I stand I have no idea,” Wade said. “It’s just the second day of a pulled hamstring.”

The loss of Wade for an extended period of time will make the Heat’s precarious hold on a playoff spot even more shaky. At 20-25, Miami is currently the No. 7 seed in the East.

Wade and teammate Chris Bosh became the first set of teammates to make five straight All-Star teams together since Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Lakers.

If Wade cannot play, it will open the door for the Hawks’ Kyle Korver or the Bucks’ Brandon Knight to be named as All-Star replacements.

Harden, trio of Hawks and first-timer Thompson highlight All-Star reserves


VIDEO: Trio of Hawks headline All-Star reserves for East

HANG TIME BIG CITY — The 2015 All-Star Game will definitely have star power.

Boldfaced names like Chris Bosh, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook headline the list of players selected by coaches to be reserves for the 64th All-Star Game, which will take place Sunday, February 15, and televised exclusively on TNT.

NBA All-Star 2015The list of players chosen for the game seems to suggest that the coaches voting for the reserves valued familiarity — 11 of the 14 have previous All-Star experience. Meanwhile, a team that prides itself on succeeding without stars also made a mark. The Atlanta Hawks ended up having a trio of players — Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague — named reserves for the Eastern Conference team, which will be helmed by Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer. But while the Hawks are 38-8 and hold a commanding seven-game lead over the rest of the conference, this apparently wasn’t enough to secure a spot for Atlanta’s fourth All-Star candidate, shooting guard Kyle Korver.

Still, the Hawks lead all teams with three players in the All-Star Game. Chicago, Cleveland, Golden State, the Clippers, Miami and Oklahoma City all had two players each. The last time the Hawks had three players in an All-Star Game was 35 years ago, when they sent John Drew, Eddie Johnson and Dan Roundfield.

While the willing can argue around most of the selections, it’s worth remembering that the All-Star reserves were selected by opposing coaches. So those who made the cut were probably chosen as some vague combination of mutual respect, lifetime achievement and time spent worrying about playing against them.

Perhaps the most surprising selection was in the Western Conference, where coaches chose Oklahoma City’s Durant. Although Durant was last season’s MVP and a “star” by any definition, he has played in less than half of Oklahoma City’s 46 games this season, while averaging 25.6 points in those games he has played.

The 64th NBA All-Star Game will be exclusively televised on TNT live from New York City’s iconic Madison Square Garden on Sunday, February 15, 2015.

Eastern Conference

Chris Bosh, Heat — With LeBron James gone, Bosh has assumed a larger role, averaging 21.3 points his highest total since the 2009-10 season, and posting a 28.7 usage rate, tying his career high. This is Bosh’s 10th consecutive All-Star Game.

Jimmy Butler, Bulls — Made himself into a genuine offensive threat for Chicago to go along with his already terrific defense. Averaging a career-high 20.1 points. This is his first All-Star Game.

Al Horford, Hawks — While Horford’s numbers are nothing spectacular — 15.3 points and 6.8 rebounds — his return from two pectoral injuries has anchored the Hawks’ interior and provided a paint presence. This will be Horford’s third All-Star Game, following selections in 2010 and ’11.

Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers — After being voted as a starter for last year’s All-Star Game, Irving messed around and won the game’s MVP award with 31 points and 14 assists. This season he’s struggled to be comfortable alongside LeBron James and Kevin Love, although last night’s 55-point explosion would seem to suggest he’s found his way.

Paul Millsap, Hawks — Maybe the best post player in the Eastern Conference. After making last year’s All-Star Game, his first, Millsap has added 3-point range this season and frequently bails out the Hawks at the end of shot clocks when Atlanta’s pace-and-space offense breaks down.

Jeff Teague, Hawks — The straw that stirs the drink for the Hawks. In his sixth season, has developed into an elite point guard with a complete game, and has managed to find the consistency he lacked earlier in his career. Averaging 17 points and 7.5 assists, both career highs.

Dwyane Wade, Heat — A 10-time All-Star, Wade has played in 35 of Miami’s 45 games, averaging 21.4 points and 5.4 assists, and has the highest PER (22.55) of any shooting guard in the Eastern Conference. Wade’s availability for the All-Star Game may be in question after injuring his right hamstring on Tuesday.

The Lowdown — Things are a bit more cut-and-dried in the Eastern Conference than the West. Korver stands out by his absence, apparently a victim of his teammates’ success. It’s hard to justify omitting a player with the highest 3-point shooting percentage in the history of the NBA, but it’s equally difficult to defend giving four of the Eastern Conference’s roster slots to players from one team. Milwaukee’s Brandon Knight has also drawn acclaim as the Bucks have bounced back from last year’s disastrous season and are in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Orlando center Nikola Vucevic is averaging a double-double, 19.5 points and 11.2 rebounds, and despite his team’s 15-33 record, an argument can be made for his inclusion.


VIDEO: First-timer Thompson headlines All-Star reserves for West

Western Conference

LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers — Portland’s big man is averaging a career-high 23.6 points as he attempts to play through a torn thumb ligament. This will be his fourth consecutive All-Star Game.

Tim Duncan, Spurs — The Big Fundamental’s numbers aren’t eye-popping, at least not for him — 14.7 points, 10.1 rebounds. But Duncan is a 14-time All-Star and has been the most consistent player during the first half of the season for the reigning NBA champions. Hard to leave the 38-year-old home in what may be one of his final campaigns.

Kevin Durant, Thunder — A five-time All-Star, when healthy Durant is arguably the best player in the NBA. The issue this season has been health, as Durant has nursed a broken foot and a sprained toe, missing 25 of Oklahoma City’s 46 games this season.

James Harden, Rockets — A no-brainer for the coaches, and the player most likely to get the injured Kobe Bryant‘s starting spot, although that choice ultimately belongs to Western Conference coach Steve Kerr. Harden is currently leading the NBA in scoring at 27.3 points and, with the Rockets rolling at 32-14, a legitimate MVP candidate.

Chris Paul, Clippers — CP3 has long been one of the best all-around point guards in the NBA, as evidenced by seven All-Star appearances in nine seasons. Paul leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio and has the Clippers firmly in the Western Conference playoff race.

Klay Thompson, Warriors — Thompson is perhaps the best two-way guard in the league, and has teamed with Curry to make the Warriors the best team in the NBA this season. Thompson is averaging a career-high 23 points, and his 52-point game last week probably didn’t hurt his case. This will be his All-Star debut.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder — Westbrook is one of the most dynamic players in the NBA, and after a few injury-plagued seasons (and a broken hand earlier this year) has bounced back to lead the Thunder while Durant has been out. Westbrook is averaging a career-high 25.2 points this season for the 23-23 Thunder.

The Lowdown — Unlike in the East, the competitive Western Conference provides more opportunities for debate. (Also, it’s worth noting that with Kobe Bryant out, NBA commissioner Adam Silver will be adding at least one player to the roster.) With Paul and Westbrook on the team, a few deserving point guards find themselves looking in from the outside. Last year, Portland’s Damian Lillard made his first All-Star Game, but despite averaging a career-high 21.8 points, didn’t make the cut this season. Memphis point guard Mike Conley has directed the Grizzlies to a 33-12 record, behind only Golden State in the West. And in Phoenix, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe could each make a case for a New York visit. Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki has made a dozen All-Star Games, but will be staying home this year, along with his teammate Monta Ellis. And Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins has had a big season, averaging 23.8 points and 12.3 rebounds, both career highs. Great numbers, but apparently not good enough in the Western Conference.