by Russ Bengtson

What does it mean to be an NBA All-Star? This is a serious question that doesn’t have a simple answer. It’s obvious that many NBA watchers consider it a noteable achievement—the most popular descriptive for a player who’s been traded, signed or arrested is “X-time All-Star.” For example, “On Sunday, the Chicago Bulls completed a 37-player, eight-team deal that finally brought nine-time All-Star Kobe Bryant to the Windy City.” That’s just the way things have always worked.

But why? For as long as I can remember, the fans have selected the All-Star starters, which means it’s essentially a popularity contest. Do we really want to give so much credit to achievements based on a stupid system better suited to selecting the winner of American Idol or the next Presidential election? (All kidding aside, NBA All-Star voting is much worse than that—if Presidential elections worked the same way, Hillary Clinton would just vote for herself 27.9 billion times and win in a landslide.) What does being an All-Star even mean? Does it, in fact, mean anything at all?

Things get even more confusing when the coaches select the reserves. Because, it’s assumed, those players are being picked on merit. And, without fail, every year there’s a starter or three whose numbers are inferior to a guy that’s left off the team entirely. Is this fair? Does this make sense?

Let’s agree to agree on two things: Number one, the All-Star game is an exhibition game strictly meant to entertain. That’s all. It’s more of a popularity contest than a performance-based accolade. Which leads us to number two. If you want to show how great a player is, cite how many times they’ve been All-NBA. Sure, there’s an element of popularity in that as well, but it means a hell of a lot more than an All-Star selection. (And an aside—if we ARE going to continue to use “All-Star” as an adjective, can there PLEASE be a statute of limitations? Jamaal Magloire, for example, should NEVER be referred to as “All-Star center Jamaal Magloire” anymore.)

It’s incredible how liberating those two little changes could be for All-Star weekend. Once you stop worrying about legacies and reputations, and start worrying more about how to make the game as entertaining as possible, isn’t it easier? Of course you take Shaq as the backup center in the East. Allen Iverson is a lock out West. Jason Kidd and Steve Nash get perennial invites. And never again do you see guys like Antonio Davis or (sorry) Jamaal Magloire on an All-Star roster.

Not to mention it would be a chance to inject the rosters with some fresh blood. The following 10 players—five from each conference—have played five seasons or more without ever being named to an All-Star team. Each of them deserves a chance on the big stage, for different reasons. Let’s see it happen.

EAST

ANDRE MILLER, Sixers — The classic All-Star point guard, capable of setting up everyone and just staying the hell out of the way. Why complicate things? It’s an exhibition game. If you’re going to have a home-run hitting contest, you don’t make the hitters face Johan Santana. Dre would enhance the All-Star experience for everyone else while fitting in just fine himself. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

JAMAL CRAWFORD, Knicks — If anyone was born to play in an All-Star game, it’s Jamal Crawford. Circus shots, check. Unspeakably filthy handle, check. Unlimited range, check. Dunk contest hops, check. He can even break off the “toss the ball off the backboard to myself” self-oop, and has done it in real, live NBA games. He’s a natural.

TAYSHAUN PRINCE, Pistons — While defense might win championships, it doesn’t generally go to All-Star games (Dikembe Mutombo and Theo Ratliff excepted, but those guys only went because the East needed SOMEONE to play center). That said, Prince not only has some offensive skills, he’d be the perfect rabbit for a greyhound like Kobe Bryant. You don’t think Kobe would play 10 times harder against someone like Prince? Then you don’t know Kobe.

GERALD WALLACE, Bobcats — Seems to me like Gerald Wallace is one of those guys who would turn his game up to 11 in an All-Star setting. You know how Allen Iverson always says that he plays like each game might be his last? Wallace is one of those guys who plays like he WANTS every game to be his last.

EDDY CURRY, Knicks — Yes, I understand that if two Knicks made the All-Star team, the apocalypse would immediately follow. But look at what Eddy Curry brings to the table: He’s a dunk-happy offensive force who either can’t or won’t play a lick of defense. You know what that says to me? ALL-STAR. I’m sure the Western Conference centers would agree.

WEST

MIKE BIBBY, Kings — Mike Bibby seems destined to wind up as his generation’s Rod Strickland—the guy you look back on after his career’s up and say ‘he was NEVER an All-Star?’ A victim of some bad teams, bad injuries (although in the four seasons before this one he missed just two games) and a deep point guard pool out West, it seems unfair that a guy with Bibby’s bona fides (killer in the clutch since his days at Arizona, money shooter when it matters) can’t get some February love.

STEPHEN JACKSON, Warriors — Who wouldn’t want to see Stack Jack at All-Star? He’s gonna be there for the parties anyway, may as well let him play in the game, too. Dude’s a winner, a loose cannon, and would be a hit at the interview sessions. Not to mention he’d fit perfectly in the fast-breaking All-Star format.

TRAVIS OUTLAW, Blazers — In just his fifth NBA season, the Blazers sixth man has only started 14 games in his career, none this year. Yet he’s proven himself as a game-winner and superfreak athlete. He doesn’t want to enter the dunk contest? That’s fine—get him in the game.

LAMAR ODOM, Lakers — All-Star games were made for guys like Lamar Odom. A point guard in a power forward’s body, Odom could handle the rock, shoot treys, do all the things that would get him benched in L.A. Remember when he was supposed to be the next Magic? This is where you’d get to see that. (Alternate choice for the same reasons, Al Harrington.)

MARCUS CAMBY, Nuggets — I could have SWORN Marcus Camby was an All-Star once. It’s absolutely inconceivable to me that a guy like, yes, Jamaal Magloire could have been an All-Star and Marcus freaking Camby hasn’t. The guy barely gets plays run for him, he’s the only Nugget that cares about playing defense, and he accidentally bloodied his own coach once while trying to punch out Danny Ferry. Get this guy a ticket to New Orleans!