Shaquille O'Neal is a distant second behind Yao Ming in All-Star voting among Western Conference centers, and there's virtually no chance that he'll catch him before the final results are revealed on January 22nd. But unlike last season, when Shaq's streak of 14 consecutive All-Star appearances came to an end largely because he was battling through injuries (and also because frankly, he just wasn't playing very well), the voters won't be able to keep him out of the game this time.
Shaq is having a resurgence of sorts, playing at a level we've not seen from him in years. Friday night against the Dallas Mavericks, for example, he was dominant from the very start, and put on a show that was reminiscent of his days in Los Angeles.
Not only did Shaq put up 25 points in just 27 minutes of playing time, but he did so by hitting nine of his 15 field goal attempts, and -- get this -- all seven of his free throws. The last time Shaq was perfect from the line? April of 2001, when he was a member of the Lakers. And somewhat incredibly, the streak continued yesterday against the Clippers, when O'Neal hit all five of his foul shots.
Shaq's numbers have been stellar, but there's likely only one All-Star spot available at the center position. Does anyone else have a shot to be voted in by the coaches and keep O'Neal out of the game for the second straight year? Let's take a look at his competition.
Marcus Camby: Incredibly, Camby has never been selected to an All-Star team. This season (along with many in the past), Camby is playing at an All-Star level, but is doing it mostly on the defensive end. He's currently tied with Dwight Howard for the league lead in rebounds per game at 13.8, and is second in the league behind Howard in blocked shots per game. The problem? He plays for the Clippers, who (largely due to injuries) have lost 11 games in a row. With his team being terrible and his skills coming mostly on defense, it's hard to imagine coaches passing on Shaq for Camby.
Andris Biedrins: Biedrins is having his best season statistically, but is it enough to be considered for the All-Star team? He's averaging 14 points and 12 rebounds per game, but considering the fact that Golden State leads the league in possessions per game at 100.6, I would argue that his numbers should actually be much higher when you look at the system he's playing in. Especially when he's on the court for 32 minutes a night. But again, he plays for the Warriors: one of the bottom feeders in the Western Conference, which it will make it tough for him to get in.
Al Jefferson: Now, we're finally talking about someone who might give Shaq a run for his money. Jefferson might not exactly be a household name due to the fact that he plays in the NBA's version of Siberia, but if the team ever improves, he'll start to be known as more than just the guy who the T'Wolves got in return for Kevin Garnett. Jefferson averages more than 22 points and 10 rebounds per game; statistically better than Shaq in both categories for the season. If you want to argue that Jefferson belongs on the All-Star squad more than Shaq does, well then, as the kids say, I ain't mad at ya. But will it happen?
It all depends on what the coaches determine that the All-Star game is about. If they're going on pure talent and who deserves the spot, Jefferson might be the better choice by a slim magin over O'Neal. But the All-Star game isn't always about who deserves to go, it's about giving fans the opportunity to see their favorite stars and personalities together in one spot for the weekend's exhibition -- the whole "voting for the starters" thing proves as much. The league is going to have a difficult time passing on Shaq I think, given the fact that his numbers are right there, the game's in Phoenix, and he'd be reunited with Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson on the Western Conference squad.
Given all of these factors, it would be a pretty big surprise at this point if the league somehow doesn't make sure that Shaq ends up in the game. And you know what? That's fine, because unlike some of the starters, he actually deserves to go.