The Extra Pass: 2013-14 Western Conference All-Star reserve picks; plus Sunday’s recaps

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After selecting the Eastern Conference All-Star reserves on Friday, it’s time to tackle the Western Conference. Once again, we’ll defer to the last ballot returns for our starters, which are decided solely by fan vote. Here’s the projected Western Conference starters:

West Starters (Fan Vote)

Backcourt: Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry

Frontcourt: Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin

We’ll know if this holds up very soon, as the starters will be named on January 23rd.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the format, the reserve picks include two backcourt players, three frontcourt players and two wildcards to fill the 12-man roster. On to the picks:

West Reserves

Backcourt: Chris Paul and James Harden

Curry was last season’s most notable snub, fans appear to have corrected that oversight by making him a starter over Chris Paul (the two were close in the vote after the last round, although with CP3 out injured it seems unlikely he slides back into the start spot with last minute votes). Paul is an easy and obvious choice here — 19.6 points and 11.2 assists a game, true shooting percentage of 57,8%, PER of 27.4, shooting 35.6 percent from three. Whether he is healthy enough to play remains to be seen, but he should get the nod.

Harden’s stock has gone down a bit since the focus shifted to the flaws in his game (particularly on the defensive end), but he’s still unquestionably one of the league’s most dynamic scorers.  Harden is averaging a 24-5-5 line for the season, and no player who has ever done that has been left off the All-Star team.

Frontcourt: Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan

It’s a murderer’s row out West, but Love is averaging 25 points, 13 rebounds and 4 assists a night. No player in NBA history who has averaged those numbers has ever been left off the All-Star team, and Love won’t be the first.

The days of Aldridge being on the cusp of All-Star bids are over. This season he’s averaging career highs in points per game (24.1), rebounds per game (11.3), assists (2.9) and PER (23.2), and even if that wasn’t enough for some reason, Portland’s spectacular first-half pushes him way over the top.

Duncan is having a down year by his lofty standards, but his per 36 minute averages of 18.1 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 3.8 AST and 2.4 BLK are plenty deserving. Duncan is still the best player on one of the conference’s best teams, and no coach is going to snub one of the league’s greatest players ever in what could be his final season.

Wildcards: Dirk Nowitzki, Damian Lillard

You may think Nowitzki is here based on reputation, but his production has been unreal yet again this season. Nowitzki’s points per 36, PER, true shooting percentage, assists and steals are all above his career averages — an incredible feat for a 35-year-old forward. It’s scary, but this first half of the season could be the best shooting performance of Nowtizki’s career. Dallas would be completely lost without him, and it’s hard to see the conference’s coaches leaving him off.

Now here’s the tough one. All of the reserves listed above are plenty deserving, but the last wildcard spot is going to be a free-for-all. It’s incredibly close, but I’m giving the nod to Damian Lillard over the other contenders. Portland deserves plenty of representation, and all of Lillard’s game-winning shots have to be factored in along with his solid per game averages of 21.4 PPG, 5.8 APG and 3.8 RPG.

Just Missed The Cut

Tony Parker is probably Lillard’s toughest competition for the last wildcard spot, and it would be somewhat surprising if the coaches didn’t defer to the veteran when the numbers are so close. While it’s hard to be too upset either way, Lillard has been the more prolific and efficient scorer this season of the two, and he’s had more memorable moments. Ultimately, this might not matter much, as whoever gets left off will almost certainly be an injury replacement for Kobe Bryant.

DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis should both be All-Stars every year for many years to come, but it’s just too tough of a team to crack this year. Cousins is hurt by the quality of his team, as per usual, while Davis has the double-whammy of missed games and a non-playoff team holding him back. If the West’s frontcourt wasn’t so deep and the backcourt wasn’t so banged up, Cousins would have a legitimate argument for the wildcard spot. That’s just not the case, though.

If Russell Westbrook had played in more than just 25 games and wasn’t projected to be out until the All-Star break, he’d be a lock with averages of 21 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds a game. Again, like Cousins and Davis, this may be the last All-Star game Westbrook misses for a long, long time.

D.J. Foster

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Lakers 112, Raptors 106: Nick Young returned after his one-game suspension to lead the Lakers in scoring with 29 points on 13 shots in just over 30 minutes of action, over a Raptors team that had been playing better lately since trading Rudy Gay to the Kings. Young scored 15 of his points over the final 12 minutes, and for Toronto, this game will go down as a missed opportunity — the team led by 19 points in the second quarter before they lost focus and slowly let L.A. back into the game.

Magic 93, Celtics 91: Someone had to win a game between two teams that couldn’t possibly seem less interested in winning, and on Sunday, it was the Magic. Orlando hadn’t yet won in 2014, and the win over the Celtics snapped a 10-game losing streak. Boston, meanwhile, has now lost 11 of 12. Arron Afflalo led the Magic with 20 points, 13 rebounds and six assists.

Thunder 108, Kings 93: Kevin Durant followed up Friday’s 54-point effort with a more subdued but just as deadly 30 points, nine assists, six rebounds, four steals and two blocked shots in 32 minutes of action. OKC led by as many as 24 points in this one, and since it wasn’t much of a game, go read Sam Amick’s piece on DeMarcus Cousins which details how the Kings franchise is stuck with covering for his continued pattern of deplorable behavior.

Spurs 110, Bucks 82: Gregg Popovich told reporters before tip-off that he expected his team to play as if they were facing the defending champion Heat instead of the league’s worst team in the Milwaukee Bucks. The Spurs largely did that, outrebounding their opponent by 18, shooting 56.6 percent from the field, and getting out to a lead of 13 points in the first quarter to remove all doubt as to how this one would turn out as soon as was reasonably possible.

Suns 117, Nuggets 103: The frustrating thing for the Nuggets on this night was the fact that they were beaten by the Suns from top to bottom. Not only did Phoenix’s starters get off to a fast start in scoring 34 first quarter points, but the reserves finished the job by putting 33 on the scoreboard over the game’s final 12 minutes. Four of the Suns’ five starters sat the entire fourth period, while Channing Frye, who led all scorers with 30 points on 12-of-16 shooting, appeared in the fourth for just two and a half minutes.

Kevin Durant gets into Twitter debate with reporter over White House comments

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Kevin Durant became the latest Warrior — joining Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, that we know of — to say he would not visit President Donald Trump’s White House as NBA champion. Which is all kind of moot because it’s unlikely the White House invites them and outspoken Trump critic/Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his players any way. (The White House’s biggest concern should be that Kerr accepts the invitation and uses that platform to challenge the president’s policies and style in front of him.)

Durant’s comments led to plenty of talk on sports talk radio and around the sports world online about whether a player or team should decline an invitation from the president. It’s not a new debate, Tom Brady denied that politics is why he didn’t visit Barack Obama’s White House (although I’m not sure many believed him), but KD’s on a big stage now so it became a talking point.

Former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry questioned a player not visiting the White House, and Durant responded, leading to a little Twitter back-and-forth.

Durant had previously Tweeted in response “by doing the opposite, I am inspiring more people” but that Tweet was deleted.

There is no one correct way to protest a person/policy/action, McHenry may see things differently, but Durant has chosen to stay away. That’s valid — traditionally these “champions to the White House” things are tedious photo ops with a few bad jokes thrown in. Having a hoops fan/player in Obama in the White House made the NBA visits more entertaining the past eight years, there was some trash talk, but still, they are largely just a public relations moment. If KD doesn’t want to play the PR game with Trump, that’s a legitimate response.

This has all been a tempest in a teapot. Until/unless the White House actually invites the Warriors to come, it’s all kind of moot.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.