On November 5th of last season, I wrote an absurdly premature post concerning Chris Kaman's chances of being selected to the NBA Western Conference All Star team. At the time, Kaman had opened the season on a tear, averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds in the first 5 games. Not to be outdone in terms of prematurity, this year I'm going to broach the subject before he's played a single game.
Last year of course, it turned into a great story. A few days after my All Star post, Kaman was named the Western Conference Player of the Week. The day after receiving that honor, he received the slap of being actually left off the All Star ballot, an absurdity that remains hard to fathom a year later. But he continued to produce, and was eventually named to the team by Commissioner David Stern as a replacement for the injured Brandon Roy. I won't get into the details of exactly how deserving he may or may not have been, nor of whether the honor is diminished by the replacement asterisk. The simple fact is he gets to say that he was an All Star, and no one can take that away from him.
Clearly, his big season came at a good time for his chances of making the team. Yao Ming, the perennial starter at center, was out the entire season, and Shaquille O'Neal, an All Star reserve in 2009, had been traded to the Eastern Conference in the off season. In a conference loaded in talent at guard and forward, you can argue that Chris Kaman wasn't one of the 15 best players, but even his biggest critics would have to admit he was among the very best true centers in the Western Conference.
If anything, the competition at center has gotten even thinner this season. Yao is returning from his injury, but is on a strict minutes limitation this season (of course that won't keep him from making the team, but I'll get back to that point in a bit). Last season's starter at center, Amare Stoudemire (not really a center, but whatever) has now been shipped East along with Shaq. With Mehmut Okur also recovering from a serious injury, the list of uninjured former All Star centers in the Western Conference consists of one and only one name: Chris Kaman.
The list of West Centers currently hampered by injury doesn't end with former All Stars Yao and Okur either. Two of the brightest young bigs in the conference, Greg Oden and Andrew Bynum, will miss the beginning of the season as they recover from their latest injuries. And yet I wouldn't say that there is a dearth of talented bigs in the West at present - just a window created by the confluence of several injuries and the fact that some of the younger players won't reach their full potential for a few more years.
Robin Lopez played well enough in the NBA playoffs last May to earn himself an invitation to compete for a spot on Team USA this summer (an invitation that was probably hasty, but an invitation nonetheless). DeMarcus Cousins was the fifth pick in the draft, has a world of talent, and will see considerable playing time in Sacramento. Emeka Okafor is an underrated player for New Orleans, and with a healthy Chris Paul throwing him lobs, he could have a good season. I've always been a big fan of Nene in Denver, and if he were a more selfish player he'd probably get more All Star consideration, but he just doesn't take a lot of shots. Marc Gasol is the one West C who could claim to have had a better year last season than Kaman. And let's not forget about our old friend Marcus Camby - getting all the minutes for a good team in Portland will put him squarely on the radar, assuming he can continue to defy his age with his productivity. So there are certainly other candidates out there, defections and injuries notwithstanding.
Still, it'd be tough not to choose Kaman as the best center in the West at this stage of the game (are we even at a stage of the game? maybe it's a pre-stage). First and foremost, it must be noted that based on his pre-season performance, Chris looks to be as good or better than he was last season. His per 36 numbers for the pre-season were 21.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, compared with 19.4 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks during his All Star season. But if it seems like he's been putting up those numbers more efficiently, it's because it's true - he shot 56% in the pre-season, compared to 49% last year. (It should be noted that Kaman started last season stronger than he finished it, so his early season numbers were quite impressive last year.) The mid range game that he unleashed last season appears deadlier than ever, and his moves to the basket seem more decisive. He's in shape, he seems focused, he's even married for FSM's sake - in short, he has looked damn good in pre-season.
So what are his chances of repeating as an All Star? Let's break it down:
All Star Starter
You have to remember that the fans vote for the starters in the All Star Game. As obvious a choice as Kaman might seem, there's basically no way he'll be named the starter. If he were to lead the league in scoring and rebounding through January, he wouldn't win the fan vote. Think of it this way: the fan vote is a beauty contest, and Chris Kaman ain't winning any beauty contests.
OK, that was a bit of a cheap shot, but I couldn't resist. It's not like the guy who will win is any better looking than Kaman, but to his billion countrymen voting on the web, Yao Ming is beautiful indeed. So it doesn't matter if Yao is a shell of his former self (and truthfully, in his 75 pre-season minutes his numbers look pretty good), if his name is on the ballot, he's the starter. Period. After the Allen Iverson debacle last season, you might think the NBA would be concerned with trying to fix this process, but they're evidently too busy handing out technicals fouls to realize it's broken.
With Kaman's new, higher profile, it will be an interesting academic exercise to watch how many votes he gets in fan balloting. He was left off the ballot altogether last season, and clearly that's not happening again. Will he at least garner enough respect and attention to finish in the top three of fan voting? We'll see.
All Star Reserves
It is very easy to imagine a Western Conference where Chris Kaman is statistically the best true center between now and February. Unfortunately for him, with Yao all but assured of taking the first spot in the popular vote, Kaman won't be competing with true centers for a spot on the team. The coaches who choose the reserves are allowed to fudge the positions in ways the fans cannot. They vote for two guards, two forwards, one center and two wild cards, but the position can be anything that the player plays, and not necessarily their primary position. This opens the field up to the likes of Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol and others who will likely be listed as forwards on the ballot.
Actually, one of the more interesting subplots of this story will play out when the ballot is released. Duncan and Gasol will no doubt be listed as forwards as they always have been, although they both play a great deal as the biggest player on their team. But Al Jefferson of the Jazz and David Lee of the Warriors are sleepers in this field. At least until Okur comes back, Jefferson will be playing center in Utah. Meanwhile, Andris Biedrins starts in Oakland, but if Keith Smart is anything like Don Nelson, you can assume that for long stretches Lee will be manning the Warriors post. Will those guys be listed as forwards or as centers? Ultimately that won't matter because Yao will start, and they'll both be competing with Kaman and everybody else for a reserve spot.
In addition to Stoudemire, one other All Star big moved from West to East in Carlos Boozer. However, that move is balanced by Lee's Westward journey, a 2010 All Star himself. At any rate, the Western Conference is still absolutely loaded with quality forwards, especially if Carmelo Anthony stays put. Melo, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Duncan and Pau are all more or less locks to join Yao in the front court barring unforesen circumstances. It's a little annoying to realize that Kevin Durant is the only player to crash this party in years (oh, and Pau, who was somehow discovered when he moved from Memphis to the Lakers, as if he wasn't that good before). The rest of those guys are simply fixtures and have been forever. So barring injuries/trades/disastrously bad performances, the six spots on the team dedicated to front court spots will already have been spoken for, and Kaman will find himself competing with everyone, including guards, for a wild card spot. Oh, and don't forget that one of the players he could very well be competing with is his teammate, Blake Griffin.
The final piece to this puzzle is of course team record. Stern essentially broke an unwritten rule by selecting Kaman last year, while the Clippers stood at 21-29 on February 8th. Teams with losing records almost never get All Star representation, and Stern's faux pas notwithstanding, you can expect that rule to hold true this season. So if the Clippers are competitive into January when the coaches vote, then his chances skyrocket. If not, you can forget about it.
One interesting side note in all of this is that it's far from clear to me that Kaman was better in 2009-2010 when he made the All Star team than he was in 2007-2008 when he was completely ignored. Through January that season, he was averaging 17 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. His offensive arsenal is clearly better today than it was then, and that gets him noticed, but his rebounding and shot blocking were elite level in 07-08. If the addition of Blake Griffin allows Kaman to focus a little more on the defensive end this season than he was able to last season, it might cost Chris some all star votes, but it will make him a better player.