The starters for the 2013 NBA All-Star Game in Houston, a lineup decided purely by fan votes, will be announced Jan. 17 on TNT. No member of the Portland Trail Blazers will hear his name called. That's life in a small market.
After the fans have their say, the head coaches decide which players will fill out the rest of the roster, and there's a good chance you'll have someone from Portland to root for. LaMarcus Aldridge
, after being named to his first All-Star team in 2012, is Portland's best hope to make the team in 2013. And Damian Lillard
, who is a lock to play in whatever contest they're having rookies and sophomores compete in these days, has an outside chance to make the big game thanks to ample buzz and injuries to some of the standard Western Conference point guards.
But as the Trail Blazers vastly outpace expectations at 20-15, good for seventh in the Western Conference, it's time to consider Nicolas Batum's
All-Star credentials. While Aldridge has the pedigree from his previous selection and Lillard has the pub that comes with being the season's best rookie, it's Batum who might actually have the strongest case as one of the best small forwards in the Western Conference, a case that was bolstered by a 28-point, seven-rebound, five-assist, two-steal and a block performance in a nationally-televised victory against the HEAT.
"He's been bigtime for us making plays," said Lillard of Batum. "At the beginning of the season he was scoring a lot of points, but now he's stealing the ball, defending, he's rebounding, he's playmaking, getting a lot of assists. Tonight he blew up and scored a bunch of points and led us to a win."
Granted, every wing in the Western Conference is fighting for second place behind Kevin Durant, but there's a compelling argument to be made that after KD, Batum has been the best small forward out west. He's second behind Durant among small forwards in scoring per game (16.3), minutes played (38.5) and free throw percentage (88 percent). He's third among Western Conference small forwards in steals per game (1.48) and blocks per game (1.18) and fourth in PER (17.9). And when it comes to made three-pointers, one of the keys to Portland's success this season under head coach Terry Stotts, Batum is first among all small forwards.
Much of that success is due to Batum's increased consistency. The knock on Nic was always that he that he could take over a game one night, then be completely invisible the next. That no longer seems to be the case. Even on night's when he's not scoring (something he was probably focused a bit too much on through the initial weeks of the 2012-13 season) Batum is finding way to be make difference.
"The thing is, when I've struggled with my shot, I've found a way to effect the game in different ways," said Batum. "That's where I've improved a lot this year. I don't stop when I don't make shots. That's why I've been more consistent even when i'm not consistent with my shot."
Despite mounting evidence that Batum should be given serious consideration as one of the best wings in the Western Conference, the Frenchman isn't interested in politicking to improve his chances of being selected as a reserve. When asked which small forwards in the West were better, he instantly offered up Durant and then Rudy Gay, though with far less conviction.
But when pressed for another name, Batum thought for a moment, then said nothing, almost as if he was realizing for the first time that he belonged in the conversation.
"You know me, I'm not like that," said Batum of trying to rank himself against his peers. "I'm not like 'Yeah, I'm better than him.' KD is just up there. He's up there, but me, you never know. We'll see."