ATLANTA — Welcome to NBA All-Star weekend, the scrunched edition. This is where the annual midseason basketball carnival is retrofitted to slide snuggly inside a Chevy Volt with legroom to spare. Hey, isn’t the game being overtaken by smaller players anyway? It seems the All-Star weekend is merely catching up to the size trend.
Actually: This is a one-time-only, one-day affair (fingers crossed), given that society remains in the stretch run (fingers crossed) of a global health crisis and therefore the NBA is wisely playing this as safe and scaled-down as possible. The “weekend” normally runs Friday through Sunday. But the 2021 spectacle will last roughly six hours, starting in the afternoon with the Taco Bell Skills Challenge and AT&T Slam Dunk and MTN DEW 3-Point Contest all serving as same-day appetizers to the Game itself, which means not long after church is out Sunday, basketball fans can continue their worshipping at the NBA altar.
Maybe you’ve heard a few All-Star players voicing concerns about the game, but that was weeks ago, and there have been crickets ever since. If anything, all the slander is now being directed at the league-leading Utah Jazz, courtesy of team captains LeBron James and Kevin Durant, who (playfully) explained why they kept Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert sitting in the green room of the All-Star Game draft, long after everyone else was chosen and went to sleep for the night. And in keeping with the last-one theme, Mike Conley was chosen as a late injury replacement for Devin Booker.
Once the game draws near, and especially when the ball goes up, players play. (Unfortunately, however, 76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will not play in the All-Star Game after they were in contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.) Every single active member of Team LeBron and Team Durant, and every single player who wasn’t selected for the All-Star Game, are at this level because of their love for the game. And that doesn’t change a bit, even when there are challenges. That love conquers all.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver probably sensed this when he and Turner, which holds broadcast rights, decided to move forward with the All-Star Game. All the necessary precautionary measures are being taken to insure, as much as possible, safety for everyone involved. Yes, of course, the league made a business decision here, but also there’s the task of continuing the All-Star tradition for the 70th time while stoking the basketball appetite of the customers, who cannot attend the game but need to keep the game on the brain during this week-long midseason break.
This was originally scheduled for Indianapolis, but the plug was pulled on those plans almost a year ago for contractual reasons. In a pinch, State Farm Arena was not only available, but a hotel (the Omni) is attached to the building and therefore the setup makes for a safe and seamless entryway for all participants. The Weekend, much like last year’s playoffs, is being bubble-ized.
So, what to expect?
For starters, the league is paying homage to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, better known as HBCUs. Atlanta is the hub for HBCUs, with Morehouse and Spelman and Clark Atlanta colleges located just a 3-point shot away from the arena. And in this racially-uplifting climate, it seems proper and progressive to lend support for colleges and students who historically have been marginalized in the larger scheme.
Additionally, the players, many of whom are Black, are all-in for the HBCUs. (Full disclosure: Only one active NBA player, Robert Covington of the Trail Blazers, actually attended an HBCU. But the other 99.999% of the players are aligned with HBCUs in spirit this weekend and therefore qualify as “honorary graduates.”)
The artsy All-Star Game court was designed with the cooperation of HBCU alums, and the NBA and its partners are committed to an initial donation of $3 million to the schools (the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and UNCF are the big beneficiaries). The three referees working the game all attended HBCUs. There will be 1,500 front line workers, community partners, HBCU alums and students and faculty in the stands. The entertainment, sauced up by the fraternities and sororities, will be courtesy of HBCUs. The entire day will feel like an HBCU homecoming — without the football game, obviously.
As for the event itself, it’s possible the MTN DEW 3-Point Contest could steal the night. The lineup is solid: Steph Curry, Conley, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Zach LaVine and Mitchell. Curry is the natural draw and the favorite, especially given the noticeable last-minute loss of Booker, also a former 3-Point Contest champ. Still, LaVine and Mitchell are vying to become the first player to win the Slam Dunk and 3-Point competitions.
Speaking of the AT&T Slam Dunk: The big names aren’t here, and this contest was perhaps affected more than the others because of the compacted weekend — and also because it’ll be held at halftime of the All-Star Game. Still, a young contestant has the chance to earn 15 minutes of dunk fame, whether that proves to be Obi Toppin of the Knicks, Anfernee Simons of the Blazers or the Pacers’ Cassius Stanley.
The Taco Bell Skills Challenge gets Paul, Covington, Julius Randle, Domantas Sabonis, Nikola Vucevic and Luka Doncic, and the curiosity will focus on the big men to see if they can even begin to compete with the likes of supreme ballhandlers Paul and Doncic.
Once again the All-Star Game will typically feature the league elite, and speaking of that, this event is unofficially the guaranteed extra game on the schedule for LeBron. That’s because, with the exception of his rookie season, he’s played ‘em all. This will be his 17th start, extending his NBA record — no other player has started more than 13 — and only Kobe Bryant (18) has played in more consecutive games. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 19 career games is the most in NBA history, but that’s in serious jeopardy of being tied next season when the game becomes the 83rd on the schedule for LeBron.
James’ Sunday teammate, Chris Paul, has been an All-Star with four teams: New Orleans, the Clippers, OKC and now the Suns. Only Moses Malone and Shaquille O’Neal, who also represented four teams, spread as much All-Star love around.
On the other end are five first-timers: Conley, LaVine, Julius Randle, Jaylen Brown and the youngest, Zion Williamson, who becomes the first All-Star born in the 2000s. (Yes, that makes you feel old.) Zion will be 20 years and 244 days at tipoff, making him the fourth-youngest All-Star in history after Kobe, LeBron and Magic Johnson. Those three went on to have stellar careers, as you know, and in the case of LeBron, his is still in progress.
There’s also a record nine international players, and five voted as starters, proof that the game’s global reach is digging even deeper. You can trace the roots of the international invasion back three decades and to Arvydas Sabonis, who happens to be the proud father of Domantas.
So that’s the general makeup of the game, which will have five players who’ve combined to win 10 of the last 12 regular-season MVPs (Curry, LeBron, Durant, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo), and three who’ve combined to win eight of the last nine NBA Finals MVPs (LeBron, Durant and Kawhi Leonard).
Maybe Team LeBron is the favorite, if only because Giannis is a believer. He said: “It’s over guys. Me, LeBron, Luka, Jokic and Steph? Man, that’s a good starting five.”
There was a chance that none of this would happen, given the pandemic and the unusual challenges just to play regular-season games without calling for a cancellation. But the league was determined to pull this off, and once a system was put in place with health as the priority, the ball will be tossed around 8 ET on Sunday.
If it’s successful and all goes without incident, it will qualify as yet another accomplishment by the NBA, which held an issue-free postseason on the Disney campus in Orlando last fall. An issue-free All-Star Sunday would be worth celebrating, at least until the regular season resumes Wednesday and the challenges start all over again.
And when the second half of the season starts, the Jazz and their three All-Stars will put all the playful slander behind them. Utah, you see, owns the NBA’s best record at the All-Star break for the first time in franchise history. Which means, Mitchell, Gobert and Conley aren’t pulling up the rear when it comes to what’s most important.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.