"Who belongs in the All-Star Game?"
It sounds so simple, but it's a more complex question than you think. Is it the 12 most valuable players so far this season? The 12 players who played the best when they were available? The 12 who contributed the most to winning teams?
That's what makes choosing a team so difficult -- the criteria is far from ironclad. But alas, it's time to make my picks, so I need something to fall back on. Here's what I always go back to: It's a game played for the fans so they can see the best players in the game.
"Best" in this case is hazily defined. I look at it in the big-picture kind of way -- not necessarily who is having the best season, although that's certainly important, but who are the best players, period. That, in turn produces a series of criteria for being on the team:
1. Small injuries don't matter. If Player A is better than Player B but missed 12 games in December with an ankle sprain, I don't care -- he's still better, he's still the one that belongs in a game designed to showcase the best players, and he's still the All-Star. With this rule comes two exceptions: (1) If it's part of a larger pattern of injuries for a given player, and (2) if the player missed such an insanely large chunk of the season that he can't possibly be chosen -- like Elton Brand, for an obvious example.
2. History matters. If Player A and Player B are having comparable seasons, but Player A is playing way better than he ever has before while Player B has played at this level the past three seasons, I'm taking Player B every time.
3. .500 is not a magical All-Star maker. Unlike the coaches, I'm not automatically rejecting players from teams with losing records. Check out the marginal All-Star players from the past few seasons and you'll find a big chunk of them were on teams that were just a game or two over .500 when the teams were named but almost none of them were on teams that were a couple games under that threshold. Of course, there is essentially no difference between 15-17 and 17-15 at this point in the season, but tell that to the people doing the voting.
4. Seriously, is this one of the 12 best players in the conference? You'd be amazed at how often people bypass this little crosscheck, which is how people like Dale Davis and Wally Szczerbiak have made the team in years past. Always a good rule of thumb to have in your back pocket.
Additionally, let me tell you about the one rule I definitely won't be using. Known as either The Parliament Argument or The Electoral College Argument, fans and columnists the world over reflexively use this one every year, and it drives me crazy.
What I mean is people will say, "Since Boston has the best record they have to have three All-Stars" or "Portland has to have representation on the All-Star team," like we're talking about an important block of voters or something. But we should be talking about the actual players instead of how many All-Stars their constituencies deserve or how a certain team needs representation.
OK, now that we've got that out of the way, it's time to name an actual team. I'll start in the East, where despite what you see on the news there are actually 15 franchises and not two.
To start, let's begin by filling out the five-man All-Star ballot as if I had the only vote. Or as if I were a nation of 1.2 billion people that could collectively outvote everyone else. Whichever one works for you: