Thomas: Reserves should be winners, but Granger belongs

By Vincent Thomas, for
Posted Jan 29 2009 3:11PM

I talked to Larry Bird in mid-January, a couple days after Danny Granger beasted on Golden State for 42 points, a game the Pacers lost, 120-117. Prior to our conversation, Granger was on a January tear. He'd been averaging about 33 points during a seven-game stretch in which the Pacers lost more games than they won. Their record was 13-25 when we spoke and I could sense that Bird was unsure, maybe even a bit pessimistic, about the chances of his young stud repping the franchise in Phoenix the next month.

"To be honest, I'd rather see him on the 2012 Olympic team," said Bird. "That's what I want for him more than an All-Star berth."

I thought to myself, "That's all good and I'm sure he'll be there, but London is three years away, Mr. Legend." It seemed like Bird was preparing himself, Granger and Pacers' fans for disappointment. Bird knows a lot about All-Star invites. He went to all but one All-Star game during his career -- and had it not been for those bone spurs in his heels, we can bet he'd have been at the Astrodome in Houston in 1989, too. Bird knows that All-Star teams are like elite fraternities or exclusive Boys Clubs. It's tough to get in. With Indiana's current record, Granger might not be coming from the right "family," so to speak.

Thursday night, the NBA will reveal who the coaches have picked as All-Star reserves. Every year, this incites foaming-at-the-mouth outrage about "snubs." Who's deserving? Who's not? Fans get irate and players catch feelings. Perhaps nothing is more abstract and circumstantial than the idea of What Makes An All-Star.

Minnesota's Al Jefferson, by any statistical measure, is outballing the Lakers' Pau Gasol. Same goes for Devin Harris' seemingly more-deserved candidacy compared to Mo Williams. Granger is the fourth-leading scorer in the league and in the top three for fourth-quarter scoring. Yet, if it came down to Granger and Paul Pierce -- who's having a sub-par statistical season -- it wouldn't surprise Bird if Pauly got the nod. The guys that pick the reserves (the coaches) like to reward the players on winning teams, even if their production is dwarfed by a peer playing for a cellar-dweller. This is especially true when the players at risk of getting snubbed are youngsters that don't know the secret handshake yet. There's a reason why Toronto's Chris Bosh, the star of this season's most disappointing team, is a lock to get an invite. If you've been there once, coaches are more apt to send you again. This ain't new.

The first All-Star game I can remember was the 1985 fastbreak-fest, the one where Ralph Sampson won the MVP. It seemed like a Sampson dunk was the end result of each of Magic's 15 assists. You know who wasn't invited that season? Dominique Wilkins ... even though 'Nique was close to leading the league in scoring. Terry Cummings made it, getting his first invite before 'Nique, his '83 Draft classmate, got his. Cummings averaged 23.6 points and nine boards. 'Nique was turning in 27 points, seven boards and about five highlights per game. The difference was that Cummings played for the Central division-leading Bucks, whereas the Hawks were barely in playoff contention.

That same year, Bernard King (pummeling the league for the lowly Knicks) and Norm Nixon (playing solid ball for the no-Playoff Clippers) both got invites -- not their firsts. 'Nique didn't break into the Boys Club until 1986, when his Hawks were on their way to 50 wins. 'Nique's situation is shared by the bulk of his peers. Alex English, Patrick Ewing, Antawn Jamison, Chris Webber, Jamal Mashburn -- they didn't make an All-Star squad until their production was bolstered by their teams' success. Purvis Short averaged 28 and then 26 for the lowly Golden State Warriors in the mid-80s and got snubbed. We've yet to see Zach Randolph rocking an All-Star jersey.

That's what Granger and Jefferson and Harris are up against. With their All-Star cherry un-burst, they're competing against players that either have the "perennial All-Star" tag or first-time candidates that happen to be playing important roles on important teams. Mo Williams of the Cavs and Orlando's Jameer Nelson have been nowhere near as prolific as Harris, but they've played outstanding, entertaining and essential basketball for teams that carry far more import than Harris' inconsequential New Jersey Nets. Gasol's numbers are productive but semi-modest by typical All-Star standards. Meanwhile, Big Al is going berserk on his competition. Problem is, until this month, that wasn't resulting in Ws for the Timberwolves.

We gotta add Granger to the historical list of exceptions (like Joe Johnson in 2007 or Michael Adams in 1992). The young dude is playing at such an elite level (only the LeBron-Kobe-DWade trio is performing better) that his performance completely outweighs his team's middling record. As for the other hopeful first-timers, I'm sorry. Do you reward the dudes playing at high level for super-achieving squads or the guys playing at a slightly higher level (statistically, at least) for mediocre or bad teams? I'm rollin' with the winners.

Vincent Thomas is an NBA columnist for SLAM Magazine and a contributing commentator for ESPN.