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Narrowing the Star search

The starters for the All-Star Game, to be played two weeks from tonight at the Toyota Center in Houston, have been announced. The fans have spoken -- and, for the most part, with intelligence.

The intrigue and arguments always come when the coaches select the seven reserves for each team. Those fortunate fellows -- the players, not the coaches -- will be announced Thursday on TNT but, as always, we are here to offer some guidance in advance. (They might need it; how the assistants could leave Delonte West off the second-year team and include a third-year player, T.J. Ford, is mystifying.)

The coaches vote for two guards, two forwards, one center, and two others who play any position. Additionally, coaches aren't locked into a position. Paul Pierce, for instance, could be seen as a guard or a forward, even though he was listed as a forward on the ballot. But you can't vote for someone on your own team.

We'll start with the conference nearest and dearest to our heart, the Eastern Conference. It's home to the NBA's best team, although no one from that team, the Pistons, was voted in as a starter.

Eastern Conference starters: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal, Allen Iverson, and Jermaine O'Neal.

Comment: The only mild surprise is that Vince Carter didn't get voted in by the fans; he usually posts numbers like Papa Doc used to get in Haiti. Commissioner David Stern will pick the replacement for Jermaine O'Neal, who is out with a groin injury. Stern will make the selection after the coaches make theirs. Now the fun starts.

Eastern Conference reserves: Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Gilbert Arenas, Carter, Ben Wallace, Dwight Howard, Paul Pierce.

Comment: You could make a case for four Pistons. Billups is getting serious MVP consideration, justifiably, and he and Hamilton are long overdue for their first All-Star Game. Carter carried the Nets during their streak to the top of the Atlantic Division, although you can always make the case that Jason Kidd is more valuable. But who would you rather see in a glorified Dunk-o-Rama? Howard may be the best power forward in the conference; he's a nightly double-double and he is the only true power forward among the reserves. Even though the Celtics' record is terrible, Pierce is playing as well as he has ever played. Arenas gets the final spot, mainly because he has held Washington together and the Wizards, as bad as they are, still have a better record than the Celtics. Plus, Arenas is putting up All-Star numbers.

Toughest omissions: Rasheed Wallace, Chris Bosh, Michael Redd, and Kidd. One of these four (Bosh?) should get a call from the commish to replace Jermaine O'Neal. Sheed probably has no desire to play, and Kidd has been there, done that. Bosh is going to be a regular sooner than later, but, like Pierce, his team is brutal. Redd has lived up to (well, sort of) his huge contract, and the Bucks are a playoff contender in large part because of his play.

Western Conference starters: Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, Tim Duncan.

Comment: Two starters from a team (Houston) that, as of Thursday, had the worst record in the conference? That has to be a first. Individually, however, there's no major injustice here, although someone worthy is going to get left out.

Western Conference reserves: Kevin Garnett, Elton Brand, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion.

Comment: It's pretty hard to argue with the forwards, although the uninspiring play of Minnesota makes it harder to automatically punch the Big Ticket. Brand has been a beast for the Clippers and Nowitzki the same for the Mavericks. Dirk, frankly, should be starting. Parker may be the Spurs' best player, day in and day out (plus, he can bring Eva Longoria). Paul has been the catalyst behind the Hornets' surprising season and, rookie or no rookie, deserves to be there. Marion has been a terrific wingman to Nash while Gasol has been a deserving candidate for years and, well, someone needs to break the ice for the Grizzlies.

Toughest omissions: Memhet Okur, Marcus Camby, Carmelo Anthony, Ray Allen, Mike Bibby. Camby was headed to Houston until he -- surprise! -- got hurt. Anthony falls victim to the staggering number of forward candidates in the conference; we didn't even mention the ultra-versatile Andrei Kirilenko. Allen and/or Bibby may get in, but their teams stink. Okur might be the No. 2 center in the conference, but with Utah below .500, whose place does he take?

It all revolves around this Sun

Having just watched the incomparable Steve Nash lead the Suns to their victory over the Celtics, the thought (as raised by commissioner Bob Ryan) occurs: I could get 10 if I played for the Suns. Nash is that good.

He's making a strong case to be the first repeat MVP winner for a guard since Michael Jordan. I mean, look at his teammates. Outside of Shawn Marion, is there anyone there who remotely scares you?

The Suns are challenging for the best record in the West not only without Amare Stoudemire, but with the following playing regular and critical roles: Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, James Jones, Leandro Barbosa, Eddie House, and Kurt Thomas. It's all possible because of one guy: Nash.

''The way they play is so free and easy," marveled the Celtics' Raef LaFrentz, who was a teammate of Nash's in Dallas. ''They just spread the floor with shooters and let him create. He dribbles and dribbles and finds the open man.

''In Dallas, he didn't quite have the amount of freedom that he has now. He could push it up and improvise. But a lot of times, Nellie [then-coach Don Nelson] would make a call. He pretty much made a call every time down the floor for us. We'd put Dirk [Nowitzki] and Mike [Finley] on the elbow and Steve would get us into sets. But when the game was on the line, he could improvise."

In other words, in Dallas, Nash had the freedom to audible. In Phoenix, he calls his own plays.

Being a Bobcat can be hazardous to your health

In discussing the Eastern Conference and the playoff picture the other day, Celtics coach Doc Rivers noted -- in jest, we think -- that the Charlotte Bobcats couldn't be ruled out of the picture. Well, yes, they can. And Rivers knows why. The injury-ravaged Bobcats are fielding a team only their owner could love.

''I don't think I've ever seen anything like that in sports," Rivers said. ''They have six or seven guys who can't play. You talk about bad luck."

It has, indeed, been a run of Biblical misfortune for the second-year Bobcats. Emeka Okafor has appeared in only 21 games and is out for another five to seven weeks with a right ankle sprain. Sean May's next action will likely be in Summer League; his rookie season (23 games) was cut short by knee surgery. Gerald Wallace (32 games) is likely out for another two to four weeks with a knee bruise, as is Keith Bogans (sprained knee). Those guys account for more than 47 percent of the Bobcats' points and more than 61 percent of their rebounds.

Additionally, Melvin Ely and Kareem Rush have been out, though they returned, and Brevin Knight recently missed a game with a concussion.

It's gotten so bad in Charlotte that the team mascot, Rufus, broke his hand a week ago.

The Bobcats have gone through 18 starting lineups, second only to the revolving-door (but not because of injury) Knicks. Charlotte coach Bernie Bickerstaff's preferred starting five has started 11 games (although the record in those games is 3-8). Rookie Raymond Felton is the only Bobcat to have yet to miss a game.

In no small part because of the aforementioned maladies, the Bobcats lost 13 in a row (and 17 out of 18) before beating the Lakers Friday night. Their longest losing streak during their maiden season a year ago was a mere 10 games. Last year, they lost 315 player-games because of injury, tied with New Orleans for the league lead.

Etc.

An appealing option
A report on FIBA's website indicated that the head of the basketball federation in Puerto Rico is interested in locating a team from the island nation's professional league in Orlando, Fla. (Insert your favorite Magic joke here.) There was one Puerto Rican game scheduled for Orlando already and, according to the FIBA report, well, someone had better recheck the figures on just how big and Hispanic the Orlando area is. According to the 2004 census, Orlando has a population of nearly 206,000. The 2000 census reports that 18.8 percent of the population of Orange County (pop: near 1 million) is Hispanic. The report said, ''Orlando is estimated to have 500,000 inhabitants of Latin origin, with 250,000 believed to be Puerto Rican." Nonetheless, just the thought of the great Piculin, Jose Ortiz, playing in Orlando should be sufficient to pack the TD Waterhouse Centre.

Bloom off Rose
The train wreck that has become the New York Knicks (how fitting that they play in a building connected to a railroad station) got even sillier Friday with the news that hoops el jefe Isiah Thomas has struck again. He decided to take on an additional $16 million in salary for next season by bringing in Jalen Rose. New Raptors boss Wayne Embry wasted little time doing what his beleaguered predecessor, Rob Babcock, seemed disinclined or uninterested in doing: shedding Rose. Yes, the move cost the Raptors a first-round pick, but it also will free up room for them to re-sign Chris Bosh and sign potential free agents, should any of them decide they want to stay in what Kenny Anderson called ''a foreign country." (That will be Embry's real challenge. The Raptors couldn't persuade Tracy McGrady to stay, and Vince Carter bailed on them.) Antonio Davis played four seasons in Toronto; the Pacers dealt him there for the draft pick (No. 5 overall in 1999) that produced Jonathan Bender. This is his third team this season -- he started the year in Chicago, but went to New York as part of the Eddy Curry trade. Rose, meanwhile, has the distinction of playing for both Larry Brown and Thomas in Indiana (as well as Larry Bird). The hapless, helpless, some might say hopeless Knicks had lost nine of 10 when they made the deal, with players making no secret of their dislike for Brown's methods. Thomas, meanwhile, not only has a bad basketball team, he also is fighting a sexual harassment lawsuit from a dismissed Madison Square Garden employee.

Starring role
The Portland Trail Blazers make their only visit of the season to Boston Friday, and second-year guard Sebastian Telfair has more on his plate than just a game. On Thursday, a widely acclaimed documentary about Telfair's days as a New York City high school hoops legend, ''Through the Fire," will open in Boston and three other cities (New York, Los Angeles, Portland). The 103-minute film follows Telfair through his senior year at Lincoln High School and his decision to declare immediately for the NBA Draft. The decision proved a wise one financially, as he landed a humongous shoe deal in addition to a three-year guaranteed contract as the No. 13 pick in the 2004 draft (two slots before the Celtics took Al Jefferson). ''Through the Fire" won the 2005 Audience Award at the American Film Institute Festival and also won best documentary at the Urbanworld Film Festival. It is being shown locally at the Coolidge Corner Theater. In addition to the documentary, Telfair, who turned 20 last June, also is the subject of the book ''The Jump" by Ian O'Connor. The Blazers, by the way, had a long break over Super Bowl weekend and asked the league for permission to attend tonight's big game in Detroit. (Blazers owner Paul Allen also owns the Seahawks.) But the NBA rejected the request. The league frowns on such things, as it demonstrated earlier in the season when it fined the Rockets for taking an unscheduled trip to Las Vegas. Now Vegas, that can be construed as giving a team an unfair advantage for any number of reasons. But Detroit in February?

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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