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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

All-Star Weekend Impressions

NBA All-Star Weekend is by far the best event of its kind--the comparable NFL, MLB and NHL talent showcases are not nearly as entertaining--but it is not as great as it used to be or as great as it could be. The best thing about NBA All-Star Weekend is that it provides a platform to show the world just how fast, strong and explosive NBA athletes are. I am not a big fan of the Rising Stars Challenge--mainly because the event is characterized by a serious lack of defensive intensity/competitiveness--but the game provides national exposure for some talented young players who are members of small market teams. The Shooting Stars competition enables current NBA players to compete with and against NBA legends and WNBA players. The Skills Challenge is fun to watch, though during a real game one does not need to master the "skill" of passing a ball into a barrel or dribbling through cones. The Three Point Contest is a pure demonstration of a fundamental basketball skill being executed at the highest level by some of the sport's top marksmen. The Slam Dunk Contest lets fans live vicariously through the exploits of some of the league's best gravity-defying leapers. Sunday's Legends Brunch pays tribute to the players who built the sport from the ground up and was my favorite event to attend during the six years that I covered All-Star Weekend.

Team Hill defeated Team Webber 142-136 in the Rising Stars Challenge. Detroit's Andre Drummond grabbed MVP honors, leading Team Hill with 30 points and a game-high/Rising Stars record 25 rebounds--but suffice it to say that video of this game will not be used at any basketball camps as an example of fundamentally sound basketball, particularly at the defensive end of the court. Chris Bosh won his second straight Shooting Stars event, leading Team Bosh (including Dominique Wilkins and Swin Cash) over Team Westbrook in the championship round. The problem with this event is that each team is required to make a half court shot in each round, which is much more a matter of luck than skill; I'd prefer that either the half court shot is scrapped or else the entire event is morphed into a HORSE contest, maybe pitting a retired player versus an active player (with no dunking allowed). Damian Lillard and Trey Burke won the Skills Challenge; it is the second such title in a row for Lillard, who took top honors last year when the Skills Challenge was a solo event. Journeyman Marco Bellinelli--who has played for five teams in his seven season NBA career--outgunned a host of All-Stars (including Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Joe Johnson, Damian Lillard and Kevin Love)--to win the Three Point Contest.

The Slam Dunk Contest is the crown jewel of All-Star Saturday night but I about fell out of my seat when I saw the TNT graphic touting the Slam Dunk Contest judges. Who is "Julius Irving"? How is it possible that one of the league's primary networks cannot properly spell the name of one of the sport's all-time greatest players? Magic Johnson and Dominique Wilkins joined Erving as judges. Team East (Paul George, Terrence Ross and John Wall) defeated Team West (Harrison Barnes, Damion Lillard and Ben McLemore) and Wall was selected by the fans (via online voting) as the Dunker of the Night. Wall's clinching dunk, a double pump after grabbing the ball out of the hands of the Wizards' mascot, was impressive but overall the event lacked star power, excitement and suspense. Almost every year, Kenny Smith, Magic Johnson and/or some other prominent figure proclaim that the Slam Dunk Contest is "back" and they once again said that after Wall's victory but I don't buy it. The reality is that there is not likely any way to make the Slam Dunk Contest as great now as it was in the 1980s. Back then, many of the league's brightest stars competed on an annual basis and a missed dunk all but eliminated a player from winning the contest; competing in the Slam Dunk Contest was like doing a trapeze act without a net but that did not deter all-time greats like Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Clyde Drexler from participating on multiple occasions. The two biggest problems now are that most of today's biggest stars don't participate and that the format removes suspense/anticipation by permitting players to miss multiple dunks without any penalty. During a recent "Open Court" program, Wilkins cut to the heart of the matter, declaring that today's players do not really want to find out who is the best dunker, because they might risk not earning that title. Erving amplified this excellent point, mentioning that players have agents and marketing advisers who tell them that the downside of not winning the contest outweighs the potential upside of emerging victorious.

Some people suggest that putting a million dollars--or some other similarly extravagant sum--on the line might motivate more stars to participate but that is ridiculous: these are highly paid professionals and if they don't want to test their skills against their peers while also entertaining the fans then that is really a shame. Erving participated in his final two Slam Dunk Contests when he was 34 and 35 years old; he did not win either event but he defied Father Time by proving that he could still take off from the foul line and dunk. There is no way that any 34 or 35 year old all-time great would compete in the Slam Dunk Contest today; even all-time greats who are in their prime--most notably, LeBron James--refuse to put their dunking reputations on the line.

In addition to being a Slam Dunk Contest judge, Erving also participated in a panel discussion honoring Bill Russell during Sunday's Legends Brunch. Erving described how much he looks up to Russell and how Russell has been providing sage advice to him since he was a student athlete at the University of Massachusetts; Russell told young Erving that the most important building on campus was not the gymnasium but rather the library and Russell told the then-50 year old Erving that as one ages one should pare down one's life to essential people and activities, focusing on what is most meaningful and letting go of that which is less meaningful.

Russell was not a great shooter, he did not possess the all-around skill set of Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson and he was not as statistically dominant as Wilt Chamberlain or Michael Jordan--but a strong case could be made that Russell is the greatest individual performer in team sports history; his teams won the championship in almost every season of his basketball career, extending from high school to college to the 1956 Olympics to the NBA, where he led the Boston Celtics to an unprecedented 11 titles in 13 seasons, including a record eight straight crowns (1959-66).

The All-Star Game itself was record-setting (most combined points, most points by one team, most combined three point field goals made, etc.) but watching it felt more like gorging on junk food as opposed to feasting on gourmet fare. The East's 163-155 victory over the West lacked competitive spirit. I know that this is an exhibition but I like what Kobe Bryant--who did not play due to injury--said during his in-game interview: "The fans want to see us do what we do best, which is compete hard, and to go up here and run up and down and just play the game in a silly way, I don't think that shows much respect to the basketball gods." All-Star Games are often high-scoring affairs just because both teams have so much offensive firepower but in the past players competed harder at the defensive end of the court. The previous highest scoring All-Star Game (the West's 154-149 overtime win over the East in 1987) featured a combined 63 fouls and 14 blocked shots, two indicators that the players played at least some defense; the 2014 All-Star Game included just 21 fouls and no blocked shots--that's right, in 48 minutes of action the sport's best players did not manage to block even one single shot! In 1987, the teams combined to shoot 6-17 from three point range; in 2014, the teams shot 30-100 from beyond the arc. At times, the 2014 All-Star Game looked like a very high level pickup game with players shooting uncontested three pointers and driving through the lane unimpeded, not a competition pitting the world's greatest athletes against each other.

The 2014 All-Star Game featured several outstanding individual performances, though the gaudy numbers would have meant more had they been posted against greater defensive resistance. Kyrie Irving had a fantastic game (31 points on 14-17 field goal shooting, plus a game-high 14 assists), winning MVP honors after leading the East to a come from behind win. Carmelo Anthony scored 30 points, set the All-Star single game three point field goals made record (eight) and he committed three fouls, including one to stop Blake Griffin from scoring in the open court (Anthony playing defense at any time, let alone an All-Star Game, may be a sign of impending apocalypse). LeBron James made a solid all-around contribution to the East's win (22 points, seven rebounds, seven assists). The West's Kevin Durant (38 points, 10 rebounds, six assists) and Blake Griffin (38 points on 19-23 field goal shooting) both made serious runs at Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star single game scoring record (42 points).

NBA All-Star Weekend is a lot of fun, whether one experiences it in person or just watches it on TV. If the league tweaks the Shooting Stars competition and the Slam Dunk Contest and encourages the All-Stars to elevate the competition level of Sunday's game then All-Star weekend will be even better.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:18 PM

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