2021 NBA All-Star Draft: 5 key takeaways
With the 2021 All-Star Draft complete, the focus turns to potential pairings on the court and intrigue as Sunday's All-Star Game approaches.
Ever since the NBA appointed the two players with the most fan votes in the East and West as All-Star Game captains and allowed them to choose their sides, the intrigue became gripping and tense. Everyone in the basketball world, it seemed, braced for the big moment:
Who’s the last pick?
Well, it seems LeBron James and Kevin Durant aren’t terribly big believers in the team currently holding the best record in the league. And in his explanation, LeBron turned the knife it a bit further, playfully, we might add:
“There’s no slander to the Utah Jazz. Just like in video games growing up, we never played with Utah. Even as great as Karl Malone and John Stockton was, we never picked those guys in video games.”
So there you have it. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, in that order, were the final two players off the board in Thursday’s 2021 All-Star Draft. It’s comparable to being left in the green room on draft night, though on a much less frightening scale.
The Jazz used a strong February to soar upward in the West standings, helped generously by their two All-Stars, and will obviously be armed with fresh bulletin-board ammo — should they feel it’s worth using. Mitchell and Gobert can prove everyone wrong; Malone and Stockton, on the other hand, can only watch from their sofa.
The LeBron-KD draft otherwise proved somewhat predictable. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the first selection among the starters, to Team LeBron; James Harden was the first selection among the reserves, to Team Durant.
LeBron did choose Paul George of the Clippers, with a disclaimer: “It’s the only time I’ll root for this guy and his team.”
Anyway, the dispersal of players has created some interesting situations and matchups and team-ups for Sunday’s game, which we analyze here:
Point guard advantage, Team LeBron
If creativity in All-Star Games is mainly produced by point guards — makes sense, they have the ball and tend to dictate what happens next — then Team LeBron is the heavy favorite to win most of the style points. And as you know, style points count almost as much as actual points in an All-Star format.
Team LeBron has five point guards, six if you count LeBron (and you know he counts himself as one), compared to only one natural point guard in Kyrie Irving on Team Durant (two if you include Harden, who won’t go into the Hall of Fame one day listed at the 1).
Chris Paul, Steph Curry, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard and Ben Simmons will each trigger more than a few fast breaks and lob passes and how-did-he-do-that passes headed straight for YouTube. Team LeBron therefore ranks as Sunday’s likely leader in video starts.
Durant wisely and slickly kept Brooklyn’s Notorious B.I.G. Three intact, which would’ve been even more beneficial if Durant was actually able to play. If nothing else, Durant did good to keep Irving and Harden together so they can groom their Nets chemistry even more, this time at the expense of the All-Star Game. Do Jayson Tatum and Joel Embiid, who could see the resurgent Nets in the playoffs, know they’re being set up by their All-Star captain?
Truce, or consequences
The tastiest subplot is the pairing of Lillard and George, which means someone on Team LeBron must serve as peacemaker to what, on the surface, is a tenuous if not uncomfortable situation.
To jar your memory: Last fall in the bubble, George mocked Dame on social media for missing free throws late in a game, which triggered a back-and-forth between the two stars. Dame calmly reminded everyone how he “sent him home” from the playoffs a few years ago with the iconic puppet-wave buzzer-beater from 35 feet. When George subsequently struggled later in the bubble, he was roasted on social media by folks who squarely sided with Dame.
While time has a way of healing, if not soothing, any anger, Dame is one of the league’s more prideful players and also subscribes to a conspiracy theory that he’s being shortchanged when it comes to respect. Remember, Doncic, and not Dame, was voted by fans to start in the All-Star Game, the latest dagger to Dame’s ego.
Four years ago, Durant and Russell Westbrook were teammates in the All-Star Game and it wasn’t a pretty sight. The former Oklahoma City teammates saw their relationship fracture when KD left for the Warriors, and were famously feuding through the midseason classic. They didn’t speak at All-Star team functions, also keeping their distance in the locker room and on the bench (Harden, who is friendly with both, played peacemaker that weekend), only casually acknowledging each other during the game.
So, who’ll be appointed peacemaker for Dame-PG? The most obvious candidate is LeBron, because that’s what captains are for, right?
LeBron and Curry, teammates at last
They share a mutual respect and, not too long ago, lots of big moments where they each got the better of the other in the postseason (Curry more than LeBron, if titles are the ultimate scoreboard). So it’ll be refreshing to see them sharing the same uniform for once. This game deserves that. And they deserve that.
LeBron and Giannis, teammates at last
They were captains last year, but that’s just one reason why this will be an interesting pairing. The other? Giannis won the last two Kia MVP awards, and last season’s came at the expense of LeBron, who finished runner-up and complained about his number of first-place votes.
They won’t require a mediator like Dame and PG will, though, so there’s that.
The best two centers square off
Isn’t it great that Nikola Jokic and Embiid will face each other, as opposed to being teammates? This is how it ought to be, especially this season, where both big men are in the hunt for the MVP awards because of fantastic seasons.
Embiid is dominant at both ends of the floor in ways not seen from a center since Hakeem Olajuwon. Meanwhile, Jokic is collecting triple-doubles at a nearly unprecedented rate for a center and showing that size isn’t a deterrent for running a team, or at least having the offense go through you.
So those are the sideshows to the big show. LeBron is on a three-game winning streak as captain, and by not playing, there’s nothing KD can do personally to stop that.
The bigger picture is this: Nobody’s complaining about the game any more. And the Historically Black Colleges and Universities will be honored and funded as a result of the game being played in Atlanta, and Sunday will be all for fun.
Even the Jazz will enjoy it.
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