There is an alternate universe in which LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are once again teammates, where the Warriors’ star quartet is divided, and where players who very recently exchanged barbs must now share locker rooms.
Welcome to the world of the 2018 NBA All-Star Game, which sports a very different twist after Thursday’s inaugural draft in which team captains James and Stephen Curry selected their teammates. Here is what we know: James had the first pick, Curry the second, and so on, back and forth until the rosters were set. We do not know in what order the players were picked despite the valiant efforts of TNT’s Ernie Johnson.
The dust has settled and the rosters are set, with the line between East and West officially dissolved. The focus is squarely on players rather than conference. Here’s a look at the most intriguing takeaways after Thursday’s results:
Hello Old Friend
The offseason parting between LeBron James and Kyrie Irving was dramatically awkward, with the latter leaving the former in order to show his athletic independence. Irving has since proved capable of leading the Boston Celtics to contender status despite the opening-night loss of fellow All-Star swingman Gordon Hayward.
James, meanwhile, has been forced to do much of the heavy lifting while the rest of his teammates have either plateaued (Kevin Love), dropped off (J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson) or been unavailable (Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas). The Cavs have suffered as a result, posting one of the worst records in the league since the calendar flipped to 2018.
Could it be that James is hoping to recapture some of his old magic by temporarily reuniting with Irving? Or does he just miss/like the guy despite their on-court differences?
“To be able to team up back with Kyrie is always special, along with Kevin Love,” James said during a post-draft interview with TNT. “Just for us to have another weekend to bring some of the memories we had when we were all together. Kyrie was available on the draft board. He’s one of the best point guards we have in our league. So, it was an easy choice for me.”
Other reunions are scattered among Team LeBron’s roster. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant will enjoy an encore of their much publicized All-Star get-together last season. The Thunder guard will also play with his old college teammate, Kevin Love, for the first time since they both represented the Western Conference in the 2012 midseason classic.
Don’t forget, too, that Pacers guard Victor Oladipo is making his All-Star debut alongside Westbrook, the man many now think held back the former No. 2 overall pick in Oklahoma City. After putting up his worst numbers since his rookie year while playing alongside Westbrook, Oladipo is enjoying a career year while guiding the upstart Pacers to the middle of the playoff pack.
I Never Can Say Goodbye
Some teammates are just meant to stay together. Curry and James certainly struggled to separate several dynamic duos, including those from the Minnesota Timberwolves (Jimmy Butler/Karl-Anthony Towns), New Orleans Pelicans (Anthony Davis/DeMarcus Cousins), Washington Wizards (Bradley Beal/John Wall) and Toronto Raptors (Lowry/DeRozan).
The NBA teammates not sticking together are those from Golden State and Boston. James managed to chip away at the Warriors’ dominant quartet, selecting Kevin Durant for his squad before Curry made sure to keep Klay Thompson and Draymond Green on his own team. Curry also selected Al Horford, presumably at some point after James took Irving.
What Have You Done For Me Lately?
Most All-Stars already come with a bag full of accomplishments under their belts, and this year is no exception. How they are distributed, however, is interesting to note.
Everyone who made the team this year and has won an All-Star Most Valuable Player award in the past is on Team LeBron: Davis, Durant, Irving, James, Westbrook (who won it twice). Good luck guessing which one will make a push for a repeat at that honor (assuming someone new doesn’t beat them to the punch). Meanwhile, the majority of the gold medal-winning 2016 U.S. Olympic team resides on Team Stephen: Butler, DeRozan, Green, Kyle Lowry and Klay Thompson. Team LeBron sports three ’16 Olympians: Cousins, Durant and Irving.
One skill that surely matters on All-Star weekend is scoring. And wouldn’t you know it, Team Stephen sports two of the top three scorers in the league in Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Of course, Team LeBron carries the next four names from that scoring-leaders list (James, Davis, Durant, Cousins).
It’s Too Late to Apologize
Some words you can’t take back, and it would be difficult to see Westbrook or Portland guard Damian Lillard doing so after recent events. Oklahoma City’s star took exception to teammate Paul George not being voted in as an All-Star, proceeding to call out the Warriors for having four players so honored. Then he targeted another player, and though he didn’t use names, it seemed pretty clear that he was talking about Lillard when he referred to “guys complaining about being snubbed so they can get in.”
Lillard has been extremely vocal to the media and on social media about not making the last two All-Star teams despite both those seasons being two of his best yet. That was after making the All-Star team in ’14 and ’15.
The Trail Blazers guard seemed to pick up on the hint, and he responded directly to his Western Conference counterpart.
“I respect Russ a lot, so it was kind of disappointing to see him say that,” Lillard said prior to Wednesday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. “Because he’s played against me, he’s played against our team, he knows what I’ve accomplished. Not just this year, but over my career.”
Will the point guards clear the air, or will tension linger heading into the game?
Also worth monitoring: does James’ All-Star selection of Love mean all is well between the much-maligned forward and his team? Reports surfaced earlier this week that several Cavaliers expressed frustration with Love’s recent illness that caused him to miss most of a game and a practice. Perhaps “The King” and his stamp of approval will silence that once and for all. If it doesn’t, Charles Barkley will surely continue to defend Love’s case.