When Yao Ming was lost for the season and Shaquille O'Neal was traded to Cleveland this summer, the Western Conference lost their two most visible centers. Yao had been the West's starting center in the All Star Game since Al Gore invented the internet thanks to a billion online Chinese fans, and Shaq was the back up in last year's, where all he did was win the MVP. But with those two stalwarts out of the Western Conference picture, suddenly the question of an All Star center in the West is wide open.
As early as July, citizen ClipperPride was calling this a golden opportunity for Chris Kaman to step into the void. Little did any one know that Kaman would open the season averaging over 22 points and 10 rebounds a game, while shooting 60%. So now the question seems completely reasonable - can Chris Kaman be an All Star?
Boilerplate caveats - it's early, I'm probably jinxing him, your mileage may vary, void where prohibited, side effects include painful gas. It's crazy early in the season to even be talking about something like this, after just five games, but Milph have been talking about it right out loud, so it seems like it's fair game.
Does He Have a Case?
Absolutely. Obviously the season has just started, but if Kaman can keep up anything close to this level of productivity, he's certainly got a solid case on paper. His scoring average of 22.6 points per game is better than any center in the league, with Andrew Bynum of the Lakers second at 20.8. Kaman is also averaging over 10 rebounds, shooting 60% from the field, 77% from the line, and has blocked 9 shots in 5 games. His numbers stack up with anybody.
But while we're on the subject of numbers, it must be said that a few other guys have had fast starts to the season as well. I'll talk about Bynum in a moment - he's the likely ASG starter, for reasons other than his performance, which has been great so far. In addition to Bynum and Kaman, Marc Gasol of the Grizzlies has had an incredible start to the season. In fewer minutes (at a faster pace), he is averaging 19 points and 12.3 rebounds per game, while shooting even better than Kaman from the field (65%!). He's been a free throw machine so far this season, going to the line almost twice as much as he did as a rookie. If you want to pick a Western Conference center after a week, Gasol might in fact be the guy. One presumes that he'll level off soon enough, but of course the same could be said of Kaman.
Meanwhile Emeka Okafor, newly arrived in the west, has had a nice start to his New Orleans Hornets' career. He's currently playing 10 fewer minutes per game than Kaman which hurts his raw numbers, but his per 36 averages stack up well at 17 points and 12.6 rebounds. He's also blocking a lot of shots.
Other centers will no doubt insert themselves into the conversation as the season progresses. Nene had a great season last year, and could certainly put up some impressive stats in Denver. Mehmut Okur has been hurt early, but he's a former All Star capable of putting points on the board, which gets noticed. And while he's not a traditional center, Al Jefferson plays the position for the Timberwolves, and one assumes he'll have a productive season as he works his way back into shape following last year's knee surgery.
So while there are plenty of candidates, right now Kaman is as good as any of them.
Other Considerations - Fan Balloting
Of course no two people look at statistics the same way. More importantly, the All Star starters are determined by fan balloting, and I'm not convinced they look at much of anything. Hopefully the NBA will remember to remove Yao's name from the ballot when it is issued, because if he's on there, I would not be surprised if he wins the voting. Assuming that indeed Yao's name is missing, Andrew Bynum is pretty close to a lock as the starter, assuming he plays even reasonably well.
Why? Given that the fan balloting is essentially a popularity contest, exposure is the key. The Lakers are on national TV more than any other team in the league, so more casual fans know who Andrew Bynum is. Some random fan in Miami, punching out his vote for Dwyane Wade, has Western Conference players to vote for as well. That fan is simply not going to vote for Chris Kaman (or Marc Gasol for that matter) because they probably don't even know those names. The thinking goes something like this: "Bynum plays with Kobe Bryant, so I'll vote for Bynum."
Happily, Bynum is playing well and might actually deserve the honor that he'll likely receive whether he earns it or not. Hopefully this won't be like A.C. Green in 1990 or B.J. Armstrong in 1994 where completely mediocre players rode the coattails of superstar teammates and media overexposure into ludicrous ASG starts.
Kaman has almost no chance at being selected by the fans because his profile is too low. Bynum is the obvious favorite, but regardless, for Kaman to make it to Dallas it will have to be as an All Star reserve.
Other Considerations - All Star Reserves
The Western Conference coaches choose the All Star reserves. Unlike the fans, they are not given a list of names in specific positions. The coaches are allowed to use their discretion to choose a player at any position, provided that player plays the position. They do have to vote by position - two guards, two forwards, one center and two wild cards - but they have the leeway to move players around some to get the best players in the game.
This is a major consideration in the west, where Tim Duncan is essentially the top center in the conference despite being listed as a power forward on the ASG ballot. Duncan is the obvious crossover from the four position, but it's entirely possible that seven footers Pau Gasol or even Dirk Nowitzki could be given center votes by some coaches.
Amare Stoudemire also presents a problem here. If he is listed as a center on the actual ballot, he is the one player who will have a chance to displace Bynum. If he is listed as a forward, he will certainly get center votes as a reserve if he plays well.
So in fighting for a reserve spot on the team, Kaman will be up against not just the depleted centers of the conference, but also the very deep pool of power forwards out west. If Carlos Boozer and Duncan and Stoudemire and Nowitzki and David West and LaMarcus Aldridge are all having great seasons, it would not be at all unusual for several coaches to slide Duncan or Stoudemire over to the center spot on their ballots.
Other Considerations - Team Record
Finally, it is a fact of All Star game voting, particularly for the reserves, that the team record is taken into consideration. In that sense, it's not the All Star game so much as the All Star game for players from teams with winning records. Essentially, if you play for a losing team, it doesn't matter how great you are, you will not be on the All Star team - not as a reserve.
So if Kaman wants to have a chance, the first order of business is winning some games. (Marc Gasol has the same issue, perhaps even worse, since he's on a losing team from a small market.) It won't matter how strong his stats are if the Clippers are 10-25 on January 1.
The bottom line is that Kaman will probably be hunting and fishing in Michigan in February, not playing basketball in a football stadium in Dallas. If the team starts to play well, and is in the mix for a playoff spot in January, that will increase his chances significantly. If not, even Kaman 4.0 wouldn't be an All Star.