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New Names And New Stars...

What's in a name? A name brings to mind a face, that face to moments, those moments equal a tradition.

The NBA, and more importantly its stars, are in a period of transition. Tradition is on the verge of change, similar to the theme uttered in politics this campaign season.  

The household names of Nash, Kidd, Shaq, Duncan, Iverson, and Garnett are all in the second halves of their Hall of Fame careers. There is little doubt that these players will have seasons that will make them All-Star worthy and keep their respective teams in the thick of the playoff mix for a few more seasons.

Although their salaries could fix the struggling economy, their names are also uttered with a hint of uncertainty as to how much longer they will be uttered at all. This season a new breed of elite NBA stars are hoping to make the public aware of them by singular name alone.

Atlantic Division Campaign for Change:
The Candidate: Jose Calderon, PG, Toronto Raptors
Key Opposition: Ray Allen, Boston.

Candidate?s Platform: Toronto?s Jose Calderon might just be the best point guard in the Eastern Conference. The 27-year-old had the league?s best assist to turnover ratio last season at 5.4 to 1. And now that T.J. Ford has been traded to Indiana for Jermaine O?Neal, Calderon is left unchallenged as the starting point guard for the Raptors.  

Calderon has been democratic and professional in his role on the Raptors. When asked to be a backup he performed admirably after Ford was first acquired, when asked to be the starter when Ford was injured he then put up All-Star numbers, he was then asked to come off the bench again when Ford returned from injury and made no fuss whatsoever.  

It can be said that he abandoned his democratic approach when he stated in his blog summarizing last season, "I want to be a starter and to be in a team that aspires for everything." Poor English aside, who can blame him? In the 56 games he started last season Calderon averaged 13 points, 9.1 assists and 3.2 rebounds while shooting 91% from the free throw line and 45.3% from three-point land. If Calderon?s game could be described in one word, EFFICIENT would be best.

In these hard times who couldn?t use a little more efficiency?  

Prediction: Incumbent All-Star guard Jason Kidd is now in the Western Conference. Ray Allen was a fill-in due to Caron Butler?s injury last February and probably didn?t deserve the spot over Hedo Turkoglu anyway. Calderon should easily make the All-Star team this season as a reserve.

Central Division Campaign for Change:
The Candidate: Danny Granger, SF, Indiana Pacers
Key Opposition: Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, Detroit.

Candidate?s Platform: Is Danny Granger is ready to lead? With the Pacers looking to rebuild their image Trailblazer style, they have named Danny Granger the face of their franchise. Jermaine O?Neal and Shawne Williams have already been shipped out of town, and the Pacers have said that they will let Jamaal Tinsley sit at home if they aren?t able to work out a trade involving him.

Granger is an unassuming, clean-cut, young man that has already done great work in the local and national communities. Philanthropy will not make him a potential All-Star, but averages of 19.6 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.2 steals and one block with 40% shooting from three-point land sure make a good case. Throw in his 85% free throw percentage along with the mindset of being the undisputed go-to-guy, and you can see why the Pacers aren?t afraid to make him their leader.

One question remains going into the season, and that is when are the Pacers going to pay Granger face-of-the-franchise type money? Granger has improved steadily in every major statistical category over his brief three-year career and the Pacers are more than aware of this. A deal is likely to get done, but it is scary to think of the type of numbers Granger will put up if he has the incentive of playing for a contract this season.

Prediction: Granger?s numbers will definitely make him an All-Star candidate, but he is going to have hard time making the team. He will be aided by his likeable character, but given the propensity of the coaches to keep elite teams with representation on the All-Star team at least two Pistons are going to make it. Jamison and Butler will have great years if they stay healthy in the absence of Gilbert Arenas.  Josh Smith did not make the team last year, but provides across the board numbers just like Granger with higher blocks and steals, but lower percentages. Granger will have to wait till next year to make the All-Star team barring injury to a competitor.

Southeast Division Campaign for Change:
The Candidate: Josh Smith, SF, Atlanta Hawks
Key Opposition: Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, Washington.

Candidate?s Platform: Josh Smith believes in the power of veto and having a strong defense. At 6'9" Smith vetoed shots to the tune of 2.8 blocks per game last season, finishing second only to Marcus Camby. He also finished 16th in steals with 1.52.

Smith has a slight chip on his shoulder and is criticized for his bad-shot selection and low-shooting percentage. However, he is one of the most uniquely talented players in the league and talent can only be denied for so long. He was key in keeping the Hawks' playoff hopes alive during last season?s campaign and is the anchor of their defense. Smith just signed a new contract this summer and is fresh of his first playoff appearance.

During the Hawks' improbable seven-game series with Boston, Smith was spectacular during Atlanta?s home games. He averaged 22 points, 7 rebounds, 3.6 blocks and shot a blistering 54% from the field. Smith is primed for an All-Star caliber season and wants his name to be known league-wide. Smith has the confidence and the ability to average a double-double and over 3 blocks a game this season. Especially if the rumors of his improved jump shot prove to be true.

Prediction: If Smith is averaging a double-double going into the All-Star break, the coaches will have no choice but to give him a spot on the roster. If he duplicates his numbers from last season, it will not be enough to warrant him a spot in the forward-heavy conference. With that said, Smith should do enough to be an All-Star reserve this season.

Northwest Division Campaign for Change:
The Candidate: Al Jefferson, PF, Minnesota Timberwolves
Key Opposition: Carlos Boozer, Utah. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City.

Candidate?s Platform: Not many 20/10 guys are left off the All-Star team without that player, the media, and fans making deafening noise about it. So goes the life of Al Jefferson, the big man in a small market with a monster game.

What makes his game so spectacular is his Usher-like footwork in the paint and workman-like attitude towards the game. Having Kevin McHale as a teacher definitely helps, although having him as a GM is another story. Jefferson is trying to create his own legacy in Minnesota after he and four others were acquired in exchange for the beloved Kevin Garnett. If last season?s averages of 21 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.45 blocks and a 50% field goal percentage are any indication of what is to come, Minnesota will be very happy over the next few years.

One of the best things about Jefferson is that he is extremely coachable. Doc Rivers was visibly emotional when Jefferson and company were traded for Garnett. Rivers talked about all the work he had done with Jefferson and how he truly wished him well in Minnesota. Jefferson is ready for the prime time, but a lack-luster supporting cast will keep the Timberwolves from making much noise out West, thus keeping Jefferson?s performance on the hush for the most part.

Prediction: The forwards in the West are something serious, especially since Amare Stoudamire will now likely qualify at forward instead of center.  If Jefferson qualifies at center, he will have a better chance at making the team as he will again be at 20/10 when February comes around. As a center he is in, but if he has to rely on beating out David West and Carlos Boozer - both of whom are on title contenders - at the forward spot, he will have to wait until next year.

Pacific Division Campaign for Change:
The Candidate: Kevin Martin, SG, Sacramento Kings
Key Opposition: Steve Nash, Phoenix.

Candidate?s Platform: Kevin Martin is not much of a secret. NBA teams prepare for him just as much as any other 20-plus per game scorer in the league. What is going to be different this season is he is the only go-to-guy with a proven history of being able to score on the Kings. Ron Artest and Mike Bibby are both gone. So, Martin will have to improve on his 23.7-point average (good enough for 6th in the league last season) to keep the Kings competitive this season.

That?s right Bibby and Artest, although more recognizable for various reasons, were not the Kings' leaders last season. Martin was. He is more than up to the task of taking on a larger role and does not like people who doubt his game and competitiveness. Martin scores efficiently but doesn't have a whole lot of flare to his game. He can score by attacking the basket, pulling up for jumpers and from three.

He is also a marksman at the free throw line where he made 87% of his shots last season, with the 5th most attempts per game in the league at 9.5. He is marginal on defense and rebounds more or less like a two-guard and should at between four-and-five per game.  Unfortunately for him, not many outside of the league know he?s actually as good as he is. This is the season when he can truly make a statement. As if being the league?s sixth leading scorer was not enough.

Prediction: It is not inconceivable to think that Martin could finish as high as third or fourth in scoring this season. That will not be enough out West, though. Even if Nash were to fall from his perennial spot, Deron Williams is next in line. Brandon Roy only seems to be getting better and will have higher rebound and assist numbers and will be on a much-improved Portland team making it tough for Martin to crack the All-Star squad this season. It is hard to believe, but he is probably still a year away from All-Star consideration.

Southwest Division Campaign for Change:
The Candidate: Rudy Gay, SF, Memphis Grizzlies
Key Opposition: Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas. David West, New Orleans.

Candidate?s Platform: It was only two years ago that people said Rudy Gay had slipped in the draft. Critics said he was not strong enough, nor was he assertive enough. Maybe they thought his name was too happy-sounding. However, after last season, when Gay racked up highlight dunk after highlight dunk, knocked down a few game winners, and nearly doubled his scoring average from 10.8 in his rookie season to 20.1 last season, those critics have become fans.

Chants of Rudy could soon be heard, almost like he was starring in the Disney Movie of the same name. He is yet another individual who will benefit from the subtraction of more-established players this season. Mike Miller is now in Minnesota, and Gay is the elder statesmen who has free reign on the team. He will have the help of Rookie of the Year candidate O.J. Mayo, but it is clearly Gay?s team to do with what he pleases. Gay does impress with eye-popping dunks, and he averaged 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks with 1.65 three pointers per game to boot.

Gay is versatile in every sense with the ability to play the 2, 3, and 4 positions. Will all this translate into more wins in Memphis? Probably not. However, Rudy Gay is the present and future for the Grizzles. He and Mayo have their work cut out for them, but look for Gay to again increase his averages to somewhere around 25 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists, while keeping his steal and block averages about the same.

Prediction: Gay might be headed down the path of another Memphis/Vancouver great, Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Although Abdur-Rahim was able to sneak in an All-Star Game one year, great players on bad teams don?t get a whole lot of credit in today?s NBA. Gay has an outside shot to make the team this year if the coaches decide they have seen enough of Nowitzki. Otherwise, he won?t be able to beat out West or Boozer for a spot.

Gay is still not All-Star worthy by most accounts, but like the rest mentioned above, people are going to know his name by the time this season is over.


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