The NBA has announced that the All Star ballot will now have only two categories. Since the inception of the public All Star ballot, fans have voted for two Guards, two Forwards and one Center, but this season they will vote for two Guards and three Frontcourt players.
This change has been a long time coming, and while it may not be completely necessary this year (depending on injuries and other issues, true centers Dwight Howard in the West and Andrew Bynum in the East are probably worthy starters even in a three big voting world) it would have solved some problems in the past, and will no doubt prove useful in the future as well. The simple fact is that Tim Duncan has long been San Antonio's largest starter and would by any reasonable definition be called their center, despite the team's insistence on listing him as a forward. Meanwhile, as the traditional center continues to disappear from the NBA landscape, Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh and others don't have to worry about how they will be categorized on the ballet -- they are simply "frontcourt" players now.
The irony is that this new system still fails to get the mix right. There are five positions on a basketball court, with lots of overlap of course. The problem with making the categories too granular on the ballot is that there simply may not be worthy candidates at a specific position any given year (which explains why Ben Wallace is a two time All Star Game starter). But if you really want to group basketball players into three positions in 2012, those three positions would be point guards, wings and bigs, not guards, forwards and centers. And if you want to group them into two categories, they are probably bigs and littles, with the point guards and wings sharing a category.
There's no ideal solution. You could always just let fans vote for five players and hope that the teams end up with some balance, but the risk there is that you could have a starting team of five power forwards (if indeed that's a problem at all -- who wouldn't love to watch Blake Griffin play point guard for a few possessions at the start of the All Star game before the coach subbed in a ballhandler). This year's approach is certainly better than having centers isolated, but it's still interesting that Paul Pierce will be listed as a front court player while Joe Johnson will be a backcourt player when they essentially play the same position and Johnson is actually taller than Pierce.
We spent some time on Griffin's contractual incentive to start in the All Star game this year, and frankly this doesn't affect that much. If Howard has a slow start it could conceivably help Griffin's chances of starting, but given Howard's name recognition, general popularity and the fact that he's on the Lakers, it's hard to imagine how poorly he'd have to play for him NOT to be chosen. Is there a second center in the West who could grab enough votes to push Griffin off the team? Not likely. Andrew Bogut is very good, but hasn't played in forever and has little name recognition, while Marc Gasol is stuck in small market Memphis without enough exposure to cause any waves on a fan ballot. So it seems inevitable that Howard will take one starting spot, leaving two for traditional forwards, just as it always has been with All Star voting.
An interesting worst case scenario with the new scheme is what happens if three small forwards happen to get voted in as the three front court players for a conference. It won't happen this year, but it's not too far-fetched to envision an Eastern Conference All Star team with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and, just as an example, Pierce. Of course, even that isn't a particular problem, since Anthony and James are both HUGE as small forwards go, but still it might be interesting to see one of them have to defend Howard in the post.
If Bynum struggles to return from his knee injury, or falters early in the season in Philadelphia, one does wonder who the third East frontcourt starter might be. James and Anthony, given their popularity and roles on their teams, are almost locks for two of the starting spots, but if Bynum isn't the third, who might it be? Bosh? Garnett? Al Horford?