With the selections of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge for the NBA All-Star Game last season, the Portland Trail Blazers duo pushed the team into the rarefied air of having two All-Stars. Many teams are lucky to have one, but the great teams often have three – think LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh in Miami, or Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen in Boston.
While the Western Conference is loaded with talent, and selections are never a given, assume for a moment that both Aldridge and Lillard earn All-Star honors again next season. A question that is worth asking, then, is if the Trail Blazers have the potential to reach that even more elite tier of having three All-Stars.
While certainly an enormous stretch, if it were to happen, such a feat would have to come down to Wesley Matthews or Nicolas Batum. The Trail Blazers’ final starter, Robin Lopez, would need to make massive strides in order to be in the neighborhood of even being mentioned, and unfortunately most of his effort and grit-centric contributions fly under the radar during All-Star talk. He is also hindered by the fact that the NBA changed selection requirements, so that the “center” position is no longer given its own slot.
Speaking of the potential slots, the selections are now as follows for both East and West: two guards and three frontcourt players as starters (selected by fans), and two guards, three frontcourt players, and two wild cards as reserves (selected by the coaches).
At first blush, Matthews’ case seems stronger, as the shooting guard position has become notoriously weak in recent years. Other than James Harden and Kobe Bryant (who will most likely be voted into the game as long as he is still in the league), there is not a lot of top-talent shooting guard material in the West, especially with Manu Ginobili on limited minutes and games.
Matthews’ case takes a strong hit, however, when keeping in mind that shooting guards are not selected separately from point guard – guards are merely treated as guards. For as much of a dearth of shooting guards as there is in the West, there is glut of elite point guards – from Stephen Curry to Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook to Tony Parker to the Trail Blazers’ own Lillard. With only four spots directly allotted to guards, it is quite cramped. To think that one of the Bryant / Harden / Curry / Paul / Westbrook group might have to become an All-Star through a wild card bid is pretty crazy already.
In a similar fashion, Batum gets a bit of a raw deal in terms of position as well. Considered a forward, and thus a part of the frontcourt, he gets lumped in with true small forwards, power forwards, and even centers. If the selection were to look directly at small forwards in the West, other than Kevin Durant, there isn’t exactly a clear hierarchy. Kawhi Leonard is cementing himself as an excellent player, Rudy Gay played well at the end of the season in Sacramento, and Tyreke Evans came on strong, but there is a definite drop-off after Durant. Batum lies somewhere in the Western mess near Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward.
But, and there is always a but, once again, Batum wouldn’t just be ranked against small forwards – he would be fighting for a spot against everyone from Durant to Blake Griffin to Anthony Davis to Dwight Howard, as well as his own teammate, Aldridge. Batum’s game is also predicated on being well-rounded, so he does not have the gaudy scoring numbers that often draw All-Star attention. Trail Blazers fans are quite well-versed in how tough he can be on the boards and how well he is able to initiate the team’s offense, but these skills often slip through the cracks when determining All-Star status.
In addition to everything above, both Matthews and Batum are stalwarts on the defensive end, which, to the Trail Blazers, is just as important as their offensive contributions. Unfortunately for them, the All-Star Game largely ignores the defensive half of the game. It’s a high scoring affair based on offense, with defense largely pushed to the side.
If there is one small sliver of hope for either a Matthews or Batum All-Star appearance, it would be that it is the coaches, not the fans who select the reserves. Coaches are far more knowledgeable about what makes a good basketball player than fans are, and may (may) be willing to give more credit to the duo’s defense and their other, non-scoring contributions.
This is certainly a happy thought, but the reality of the situation is that there just aren’t enough slots for either to have much of a chance. They are both hurt by the lack of distinct positions in the nomination process, likely their biggest hindrance. Both are quite talented, but the logistics hit at a certain point.
It was a fun train of thought, but ultimately neither Matthews nor Batum seem likely to become All-Stars next season. This is not due to their talent or lack thereof, but rather the stiff competition they face in the West. However; this is the NBA, and anything can happen. With some injuries and an immense leap from either, they just might be able to force their way into the conversation. Barring such a fortuitous(?) turn of events, though, Portland’s potential representation in the All-Star Game will likely come down to just Lillard and Aldridge for the foreseeable future.