So, the NBA All-Star game is actually happening this year. In a country gripped by a pandemic and a league already struggling with scheduling and player absences, heck player sickness, due to COVID-19, assembling the biggest basketball stars on the planet in Atlanta this weekend seems questionable. But hey, the league pulled off the ‘bubble’ in Orlando last year so maybe this won’t be a complete shitshow.
A number of players, not least, LeBron James, have already voiced their opposition to the game, citing a packed schedule, player fatigue and absence of fans. “I have zero energy and zero excitement about an All-Star Game this year,” James said last month, going on to call the league’s decision to go ahead with the game a “slap in the face”.
You can see where ‘The King’ is coming from. The Lakers had less than three months off after last season’s championship and have already lost star big man Anthony Davis to an Achilles injury. The last thing James needs now is an injury in a game that means nothing.
Well, not nothing. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver defended the league’s decision to go ahead with the showcase, pointing to the fact that over 100 million votes were cast by fans for All-Star starters. “It’s the largest factor, the amount of engagement we get from our fans,” Silver told the Associated Press. The game’s global reach certainly can’t be denied either, with the league expecting over 1 billion video views on social media.
The question is how much will the players actually try? Last year’s game was something of a revelation due to some nifty rule changes introduced to try and boost player engagement. Firstly, the players now pick teams. Yep, it’s like they’re back in the school yard. Naturally, this creates plenty of petty gossip and speculation for fans and analysts to pick over, hinting at who gets along and who’s got beef . . . just like kickball back in grade 3, right.
Already this year, fans are wondering if LeBron, a team captain, deliberately shaded Utah Jazz players Donovan Mitchell and defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert, who were picked last. The Jazz boast the league’s best record going into the break and loom as potential final contenders for James’ Lakers. Could LeBron, a master at mind games, be throwing some subtle psychological fire? Gobert, you can kind of understand – defence is historically lacking in All-Star games - more on that later.
LeBron used his first pick to select last year’s opposing captain and reigning league MVP, Giannis ‘Greek Freak’ Antetokounmpo. Given the ‘Freak’ is the player most experts believe is likely to take LeBron’s crown as the best player in the league, this could be a case of keeping your enemies close. The rest of his starting five included Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic.
Meanwhile Kevin Durant, the opposing captain, chose Brooklyn Nets teammate Kyrie Irving with his first pick - don’t piss off your friends being the lesson there. The rest of his starting five included MVP favourite Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, Bradley Beal and young gun Jason Tatum, who replaces the injured Durant in the starting five.
Last year’s game was interesting for another reason: the players actually played defence. Historically, most All-Star games have featured turnstile and table-ushering displays of D, resulting in 2K-level scoring. But the introduction of the playground-like ‘Elam Ending’ scoring system (in the fourth quarter a target score is set and the clock turned off) injected some much-needed drama into proceedings. Suddenly players were contesting shots, diving for loose balls and sticking hands in faces as the game approached play-off level intensity. Amazing what happens when your pride is on the line, isn’t it?
Will we see a repeat of that intensity this year? Given the aforementioned concerns about injury, scheduling and load management, it’s difficult to see it happening, but perhaps some of the younger players, like Aussie star Ben Simmons, will turn it on under the bright lights.
After a slow start, Simmons is having perhaps the best all-round season of his career, registering 16, 8 and 8. Those are close to his career numbers but in the last month he’s been playing with a noticeably more attacking mindset, knocking down 21ppg in February. "Honestly, I've been working on my mentality, my mental [game], a lot these past few weeks," Simmons said via Espn.com.au, after a 42-point outburst against the Jazz. "I think my mindset ... it's not easy to do that, to change the way you play or certain things in the game that come natural to certain people.”
More importantly, he’s staking a claim for the Defensive Player of the Year Award, defending all five positions and locking up some of the league’s greatest offensive talents. His recent dismantling of Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic was a defensive masterclass. If anyone can be counted on to play D this weekend, it’s Simmons.
Other players to watch include scoring leader Bradley Beal, who’s earned his first All Star birth after being snubbed last year. And don’t rule out the possibility of the league’s two best 3-point marksmen, Steph Curry and Damian Lillard, both on team Lebron, engaging in a long-range shoot-out. Expect some attempts from the logo from these two.
Finally, New Orleans Pelicans’ force of nature, Zion Williamson, is playing in his first All-Star game. After being given the keys to the offence recently by Pelicans’ coach Stan Van Gundy, Williamson has been on an absolute tear, averaging 25.6 ppg, with a player efficiency rating of 26.8 – for reference, Michael Jordan’s career PER was 27.91, the highest ever – rare air indeed. At 201cm and weighing 129 kg, Williamson boasts a ridiculous 114cm vertical leap.
Believe me, if Zion gets the ball in the lane, nobody, not even Simmons, will be getting in his way.
Prediction: Team Lebron. The Greek Freak and The King on the same team? Say no more.
Participants: Devin Booker, Jaylen Brown, Steph Curry, Zach LaVine, Donovan Mitchell, Jason Tatum
Prediction: Steph Curry. Widely regarded as the greatest three-point shooter of all time, surprisingly Curry has only won this title once before. You know he wants another one.
Participants: Robert Covington, Luka Doncic, Chris Paul, Julius Randle, Domantas Sabonis, Nikola Vucevic
Prediction: Chris Paul. The veteran point guard will want to show the young guys he’s still got it.
Participants: Anfernee Simons, Cassius Stanley, Obi Toppin
Prediction: Take your pick, they’re all great athletes and it often comes down to who puts on the best show. In 2019 Stanley broke Zion’s Duke University vertical-leap record so we’ll go with him.
The NBA All-Star game is on Monday March 8, AEST.