NBA All-Star 2019

Media Day Notebook: Dirk appoints successor

Members of Team Giannis and Team LeBron talked to the media Saturday morning. Here are some highlights gleaned by writers.

Truthfully and officially, Dirk Nowitzki hasn’t announced that he’s retiring after this season, but the Mavericks’ legend is already appointing his successor in Dallas.

“He’s a guy who can get anything he wants almost whenever he wants,” said Nowitzki.

He’s talking of course about Luka Doncic, the front-runner for Rookie of the Year who has already taken over the Mavericks as a player and also a building block. For anyone who thinks Doncic might remind Nowitzki of his younger self, Dirk rejects that notion.

“He’s so much, much more prepared and better than I ever was as a rookie,” he said.

Nowitzki’s career actually began very humbly; he averaged only eight points and shot 40 percent, hardly the makings of a future all-time great. The next season he doubled that average, became the focal point and the rest was history.

Doncic is at 20.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.6 assists and plays three different positions on the floor for Dallas. At just 19 — he turns 20 in two weeks — he has taken the league by storm.

“With Luka we didn’t know what we were going to get but he has exceeded all of our expectations,” said Nowitzki. “He’s been unbelievable, a gamer. He wants the ball in his hands. He’s a great playmaker for himself and for others, a big shot maker. He’s been amazing and not even 20 years old.”

Nowitzki also has high hopes for Kristaps Porzingis, still on the mend from knee surgery last summer and a surprise pickup by Dallas in a midseason swap with the Knicks.

“The Kristaps deal came out of nowhere,” Nowitzki. “We were all kinda surprised by it, that the Knicks made him available. We’re obviously hoping to pair those two together for the next decade-plus. They’re both really young and amazing talents, franchise talents. We’re hoping Kristaps gets healthy enough to make that happen as soon as possible.”

And as for Nowitzki, who was made a special addition to the All-Star roster along with the retiring Dwyane Wade by commissioner Adam Silver?

“Well, right now it’s super emotional,” he said. “As a kid who came from nowhere in Germany 20 years ago and now getting standing ovations in opposing arenas, I’m humbled by it. This is something I’ll never forget.”

— Shaun Powell

Antetokounmpo still pinching himself

When Giannis Antetokounmpo was toiling in an obscure Greek league as a teenager, he wasn’t sure exactly where his basketball dreams were headed.

He knew he had the talent and the drive. But the NBA? It was a world away from where he was then. That’s what makes his rise from curiosity to MVP candidate (and perhaps frontrunner) all the more remarkable for the man living the dream.

Last week he was picking sides with LeBron James, putting together the rosters for Team Giannis, in advance of Sunday’s 68th All-Star Game.

He’s still pinching himself about the whirlwind nature of his rise, especially with the entire basketball world watching him go head-to-head with LeBron.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “Before I came into the league, I was looking up to him. Right now I was in the locker room, and I was sharing a meal with Team Giannis. Like I’m leading the All-Star team. You know, picking teams with LeBron James. If you told me that six years ago, I would never, never, never thought I would be in this position right now.”

With his Milwaukee Bucks in prime position atop the Eastern Conference standings at the break, Antetokounmpo hasn’t had much time to reflect on things. But he does understand that the opportunity to maximize the possibilities is now. And he knows his journey will serve as an inspiration for future stars who might not be on the radar right now.

It all goes back to his humble beginnings.

“Yeah, if I had to go back to my roots,” he said, “what I remember is those who helped me and helped my family for me to be in this position. There was a lot of people during my way to the NBA, from the time I started basketball. That’s one of the parts that I keep inside me, and always when I go out there, I’m not just representing my family, I represent, first of all, the people that helped my family and helped me to be in this seat right here that I’m sitting, and representing 13 million people also.”

Antetokounmpo also confirmed his intentions to play for Greece in the FIBA World Championships this summer. The 32-team tournament starts on Aug. 31 in China.

— Sekou Smith

Curry brothers make a family wager

The Curry brothers will have a lot on the line during tonight’s MTN DEW 3-Point Challenge after they placed a family-themed bet on who will win.

“Family is obviously big for us and our support. I kind of wanted to weave that into the bet,” Stephen Curry said on Saturday. “So whoever loses has to pick up the tab for all the tickets any time we play against each other for the rest of our careers, which the stakes are high, considering how many people show up for our games.”

Seth Curry should have a solid shot against his older brother. The younger Curry ranks third in the NBA in 3-point percentage this season at a clip of 46.5 percent. But Stephen isn’t far behind at 44.4 percent.

“I got to get the best of him tonight. I know he’s very confident, though.”

— Jonathan Hartzell

A Horse for the G.O.A.T

The celebration of Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan has been robust with the All-Star festivities in the legendary icon’s home state.

Toss in the fact that Jordan is celebrating his 56th birthday (Sunday) this weekend, and it’s no wonder players involved with the weekend were asked what sort of gift they’d get MJ.

“What do you get the man who already has everything?” said Hornets All-Star Kemba Waker. “I figure he’s good. He’s probably got everything he needs.”

That was a sentiment shared by most of the stars at Saturday’s practices for Team Giannis and Team Lebron.

Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, however, had a different idea.

When asked what birthday present he’d select for Jordan he said, “a horse.”

A horse? Why not a goat?

“Not a goat,” he said

— Sekou Smith

Bittersweet for LeBron, Wade

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have shared a special bond ever since they entered the league together in 2003. Now as Wade prepares for his final NBA All-Star game, James talked about how their brotherhood has become bigger than basketball.

“Every moment, every bit of time I get with him this weekend is going to be always cherished,” James said on Saturday. “We’ve been together almost 17 years now, since we met at the Combine in Chicago in 2003. From that moment, we just knew we were going to be together for a long time, and it hasn’t stopped.”

James and Wade teamed up to win two championships over four seasons with the Miami Heat from 2010-14. Last season, Wade played with James on the Cavaliers for 46 games before returning to the Heat. The pair will team up on the floor for a final time on Sunday night.

“To be here, for me to be able to choose him to be part of Team LeBron, for him to be here this weekend, it’s a bittersweet moment, obviously,” James said. “The bitter part of it, that this is his last weekend being in All-Star Weekend and knowing that his journey is coming to an end as far as a basketball player. But the sweet moment is that we’ve got so much more life to live together, and we will continue that.”

— Jonathan Hartzell

All-Stars adopting to Harden’s style

The Beard begat the Narrative, which at this point in James Harden’s season reads something like this:

Harden is a remarkably prolific offensive player, with an array of moves, a deft shooting touch and the strength to create space where none existed. But the way he pounds the ball, dribbling and probing until deep into the shot clock, makes him a player whose games aren’t that fun to watch and whose style might not attract teammates with talents and ambitions of their own.

“Go ask those guys how many of them would like to play with [Harden],” NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry said as All-Star Weekend started.

In what by design is a sport in which all players are available to touch the basketball, Harden’s Houston Rockets are a 1 + 4 proposition. The league’s leading scorer (36.6 ppg) also leads in usage rate (40.3), an estimated percentage of a team’s plays a player uses while on the floor. That’s second-highest since the advanced stat started to be tracked in 1977-78, behind only Russell Westbrook’s 41.65 two years ago.

Harden came into the schedule break with an active string of consecutive 30-point games that stretches back 31 games now. He leads the NBA in free throw attempts, which means more plays end with the ball in his hands when whistled than anyone else’s. And more than 300 of his league-high 561 field goals have come without assists, further evidence of limited ball movement.

As former 3-point marksman turned TNT broadcaster Dennis Scott wondered, “To play with a guy who dribbles 40 times a possession and has more than 300 baskets that weren’t assisted? That would be tough.

“They’re winning. Guys seem to be saying the right things. He and Chris Paul are doing the ‘your turn, my turn’ pick-and-roll. When you’re winning, things always seem better. But as a shooter, you’re thinking, ‘How do I get my rhythm if I touch the ball once or twice a quarter?’”

It said something about Harden’s game and how it might mesh with other great players that, in the televised All-Star Draft between captains LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Harden was picked seven of the eight available players. Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George all were picked by James or Antetokounmpo before the reigning MVP’s name came off the board.

Members of Team LeBron will get their chance to play with Harden Sunday (if they haven’t already had it) and weren’t inclined to be critical. Team Giannis players and others could be a bit more frank when asked: How would you have to adjust your game if you played all season with Harden?

“If that were the case, it would just be me playing off the ball,” said Mike Conley, the Memphis point guard who came to town for Saturday’s Taco Bell Skills Challenge. “We all know how effective he is with the ball, so I’d have to learn how to be more effective just as a shooter or getting the ball from somebody else, as opposed to being the primary ball handler.”

Would Conley enjoy that change in role? “I have no idea,” he said, laughing.

Said Detroit forward Blake Griffin, back at All-Star for the first time since 2014: “I’d probably just spot up in the corners, to be honest with you. He’s one of the best players in the world, so you just adapt to the way he plays.”

Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton already plays with a ball-centric teammate in Giannis Antetokounmpo, though the Greek Freak’s usage rate (31.9) represents 20 percent less ball dominance than Harden. Contrary to the Rockets star’s tempo, Antetokounmpo tends to attack the defense hard early in a possession, then find an open teammate on the perimeter. If the looks out there aren’t good, he’ll frequently get the ball back.

Pondering potential adjustments, Middleton said: “Hopefully not many. But I see the way some of those guys go there and play. It’s kind of just standing around, watching him and being ready to catch and shoot.”

— Steve Aschburner

D’Angelo Russell on the rise

Former No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell was a bit of a disappointment through his first three seasons in the league. After two years with the Los Angeles Lakers, he was shipped to Brooklyn to make room for another No. 2 pick (Lonzo Ball) at the point guard position. Russell didn’t make much of an impact in his first season with the Nets, in part because his missed 34 games to injury.

But in his second season in Brooklyn, Russell has taken a real step forward. Averaging a career-high 30.1 minutes per game and registering a career-high usage rate of 29.7 percent, Russell has shot better and scored more efficiently than he ever has, while also registering a career-high assist-turnover ratio.

The improvement has earned Russell a trip to the All-Star game and has helped the Nets rise from a rough three-year stretch (in which only the Phoenix Suns had a worse record) to sixth place in the Eastern Conference at the break.

Joe Harris has benefited from the development of Russell, who has a team-high 94 assists to the man who ranks second in the league in 3-point percentage. For Harris, the difference in Russell this season is about being comfortable in Brooklyn and playing under Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson.

“When you’re comfortable to that level, it just makes everything that much easier,” Harris said. “You’re seeing it in his game. He’s not overthinking things. He’s just playing. Things just flow much easier for him now, having that year under his belt with familiarity with Kenny, the system, all of that.”

— John Schuhmann

Hield’s shooting off dribble improved

Buddy Hield is having a breakout season for the surprisingly relevant Sacramento Kings, averaging 20.5 points and ranking fourth in the league in 3-point percentage at 44.9 percent.

Hield was already one of the league’s best catch-and-shoot guys. Last season, he shot 50.2 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, the best mark among 94 players who attempted at least 200. This year, Hield has made 47.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, the third best mark among 99 players who have attempted at least 150 through Thursday.

Where Hield has seen an improvement is in his shooting off the dribble. Last season, Hield shot 35.9 percent on 2.1 pull-up 3-point attempts per game, a mark which ranked 25th among 55 players who attempted at least 100 pull-up threes. This season, Hield has shot 40.3 percent on 2.6 pull-up 3-point attempts per game, and the only players who have shot better on at least 100 pull-up attempts are four All-Stars and Orlando’s Terrence Ross.

Being a 40-percent 3-point shooter off the dribble is what gets defenses to adjust their schemes. It can open other things up for both Hield and his teammates. It’s obviously something that Hield has worked on, and he’s also got more license to shoot quickly in the fast-paced offense that the Kings have been playing this season.

Hield said that the way the Kings are running is playing to the strengths of him and his teammates. But he’s not necessarily more comfortable shooting off the dribble than he was last season.

“You know what?,” he said, “I just missed last year.”

And it really is a make-or-miss league.

— John Schuhmann

Walker possible All-Star MVP?

By tradition, an All-Star player from the host city’s team has a good shot at claiming Most Valuable Player honors in Sunday’s game. That means Hornets guard Kemba Walker might be ready for his close-up.

Fifteen times in the 67 NBA All-Star Games — a success rate of 22.4 percent — a player performing on his home court has been named MVP. There’s the built-in advantage of familiar surroundings, including the floor, the rims and shooting backgrounds. A diverse group of fans, while not necessarily from Charlotte in this case, still look for easy hooks when it’s time to cheer. All-Star teammates often try to make the local guy look good, too.

As for Walker, this will be his third consecutive All-Star appearance, so he should be past any jitters. And this time he’s a starter, along with Giannis Antetokounmpo and four others on “Team Giannis.”

Walker, as you would have expected, was a popular target during media availability Saturday, with both the local media outlets and those seeking some local flavor. He did his duty as a goodwill ambassador for the city and the Hornets franchise, but he didn’t buy into any premature MVP predictions.

“I’m just going to go out there and have fun, man,” Walker said. “I know everybody expects me to go out there and steal the show. But I’m just going to go out and have fun.”

Walker, 28, is averaging a career-best 24.9 points for Charlotte. He said that just being selected as a starter in Eastern Conference balloting was “a very surreal moment,” so he’s not indulging any notions of being Sunday’s star of stars.

“Do I have plans for the MVP? No,” Walker said at Saturday’s media session at Bojangles Coliseum. “I don’t even know what’s going to happen. Somebody else might want to go out and win the MVP. But it’s not about that. I’m really just going to go out and enjoy myself and represent this city the right way.”

Just because Walker won’t tout himself as an MVP favorite doesn’t mean others can’t. Several fellow All-Stars had glowing things to say about the former UConn guard.

“The work that he puts in the offseason, you can see it every time the season starts,” Miami Dwyane Wade told reporters. “He’s hungry for greatness. I think a player like Kemba, similar to myself, [felt] the unknown of what the future will be, and once you got a little taste of it, he’s like, ‘Well, I could do all right.’ Then you got a little bit more and a little bit more and you continue to understand, and you’re like, ‘Wait, I could be great.’

“He’s one of the toughest covers in the game. He’s one of the best individual players from a standpoint of personality-wise in the game. So you’re just happy for his success.”

Houston’s James Harden, a top contender for the 2018-19 MVP, said of Walker: “The way he’s so crafty, his ball-handling, his shot-making ability. … Definitely one of those guys that gets overlooked.”

D’Angelo Russell, though a mere 22, echoed Harden’s assessment of Walker. “Kemba has always been that shifty guy that was kind of unguardable at times. You’ve seen him hit the three ball at a high clip as well. He’s one of those guys that you can definitely depend on day in and day out to … give you 50 or whatever it may be.”

Walker scored 41 points in the Hornets’ opening game this season against Milwaukee. A month later, he put up 60 points and 43 points in consecutive games against Philadelphia and Boston, so he has excelled against the best competition in the East.

If he stars Sunday, he’ll be doing it against the best competition in the world.

Working against Walker’s MVP chances, perhaps? The trend of host city All-Star MVPs has cooled, with only four players doing it in the past 26 years: Anthony Davis in New Orleans in 2017, Kobe Bryant in L.A. in 2011, Shaquille O’Neal (as co-MVP with Bryant) in Phoenix in 2009 and O’Neal in L.A. in 2004.

Also, betting odds out of Las Vegas favor Team LeBron to win the game by 5.5 points. And while Antetokounmpo is listed as a slight favorite over James for the MVP trophy, Walker and the Greek Freak both would have to buck a trend if the game’s line is accurate. There hasn’t been an All-Star MVP from the losing team since 1977, when Julius Erving won the award after the East’s defeat in Milwaukee.

— Steve Aschburner