It’s been 17 years since the NBA All-Star Game was in New York City. At the time, Rudy Giuliani was mayor, Seinfeld was in its final season, and Complex was still a few years away from conception. But as much as things change they stay the same. While 1998 marked the All-Star Game debut of Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, the two veterans—who now have a combined 10 titles and three MVPs under their belts—made this year’s roster as well. There’s always next year, KG.
But All-Star Weekend isn’t just about the big game. Friday night’s Rising Stars Challenge in the new USA vs. World format has us more excited than ever, while All-Star Saturday Night’s Three-Point Contest has everyone but Ray Allen and Reggie Miller involved. Can we get a 10-day please? And we’d pay money to see 1998’s champ (and current Phoenix Suns head coach) Jeff Hornacek take on the winner.
So sit back, relax, and scroll on as we break down all the weekend’s action.
Rising Stars Challenge
New year, new format. Gone are the rookie-only invites, superstar NBA players serving as coaches, and any notion that conferences matter. Adam Silver may not have abolished conferences for the playoffs’ sake yet, but he has rid the Rising Stars Challenge of them. Instead of East vs. West or Team Chuck vs. Team Shaq, for the first time this year, the Rising Stars Challenge will pit the NBA’s best international rookies and sophomores against their best American counterparts.
The crop is looking strong this season, too. Although this year’s rookie class has been decimated by injuries, Andrew Wiggins and Nerlens Noel have made the grade alongside standout second-year stars Victor Oladipo and Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s the only time fans will get to see teammates like the World’s Dante Exum and the USA’s Trey Burke battle against each other. For the NBA junkie-in-training, this is the first step. This game is overflowing with lottery picks, pedigree, and prospective superstar talent. There’s a future MVP or Defensive Player of the Year here, somewhere. For a peek into the NBA’s future, be sure to catch the Rising Stars Challenge live at Barclays Center and on TNT at 9 p.m. EST.
Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic
Position: Guard Hometown: Upper Marlboro, Md.
Victor Oladipo may end up as the best player from the Class of 2013. The second-year man has been a starting guard in the league for over 82 games now, and has impressive vitals to show for it: Averaging 14.8 points per game on 43.3 percent shooting, along with 4.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists for his career, is a line that any rotation player would make tens of millions off of. Oladipo, however, is a former No. 2 overall pick, and is expected to develop All-Star end-to-end numbers. Moving forward, Oladipo will continue to look for a balance between his attacking tendencies and the need for him to be a distributor for the Magic. In the Rising Stars Challenge though, expect him to shine by stealing the ball and scoring at will. He’s the most refined player out there, and should carry himself as such.
Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers
Position: Guard Hometown: Hamilton, Mass.
MCW is the reigning Rookie of the Year, but at what cost? As one of the only players on Philadelphia’s roster who arguably should be in the NBA, he’s had to be the best player on basketball’s worst team for two years running. His stats are nice and stuffy this season (15 points, 7.4 assists, 6.2 rebounds), but he’s shooting only 38 percent from the field, and his turnovers have spiked to 4.2 per game. There’s some fear that having to do it all for a losing team has cost Carter-Williams dearly in his development—too many losses and too many bad habits will add up on any talented baller—but we’re excited to see how he fares against his similarly-aged contemporaries in this game.
Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers
Position: Center Hometown: Everett, Mass.
Over/under on the number of stocks (steals + blocks) Nerlens Noel will have on Friday? If Las Vegas had a number on such a thing, Noel’s could be as high as five. As a rookie, he’s currently averaging 1.7 blocks and 1.6 steals per game coming off a torn ACL—the same injury that caused him to slip from the prospective No. 1 pick to No. 6 in the 2013 Draft. Noel will show some explosion off the roll on offense, and on the other end, he’ll make Kelly Olynyk's life miserable. Observe how a potential Defensive Player of the Year goes about his craft.
Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic
Position: Guard Hometown: Gretna, La.
Elfrid Payton’s hair makes him look like he’s about that SremmLife, but really, he’s about that point guard life. Drafted No. 10 overall in 2014, Payton was an early favorite for Rookie of the Year. He’s helped out Oladipo with his passing duties, but Payton’s total inability to shoot the ball with confidence has buried those post-season honors. Still, he’s averaging 2.4 assists for every turnover, which is a damned solid clip for a first-year point guard. He and Oladipo should link up and do some damage for Team USA.
Shabazz Muhammad, Minnesota Timberwolves
Position: Guard/Forward Hometown: Long Beach, Calif.
It’s taken some time, but Shabazz Muhammad’s basketball career may be rounding into form. Rated as the best high school player in America upon going to UCLA in 2012, he’s been surrounded by more chatter about his off-court situations than any praise for his basketball production. 2014 has been his regeneration year. After being called up from the D-League last February, he returned in a big way for the T-Wolves this season, averaging a steady 13.7 points on under 24 minutes a night. Expect big points totals with expanded minutes for Shabazz in the Rising Stars Challenge.
Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
Position: Guard/Forward Distance from home: 342 miles from Toronto, Canada
It should be easy to spot Andrew Wiggins on Friday. The son of former NBA player Mitchell Wiggins and former Olympic sprinter Marita Payne-Wiggins, Andrew’s God-given jump-out-the-gym athleticism—his two brothers also play Division I basketball—separates him from the rest of his Rising Stars comrades. But while his bounce will be tested in the Dunk Contest, Wiggins’ skills (watch for his signature baseline spin move) and competitive fire will be pushed against Team USA. As the key piece in the Kevin Love trade to Cleveland, the 2014 Draft’s No. 1 pick will be the game’s biggest talking point. With half a season of NBA ball under his belt, he’s already putting up 15.5 points as a rookie (just 1.4 ppg behind Love’s season average, FWIW) and racking up Drake co-signs (see: “Draft Day”). The sky’s the limit for the Rising Star Challenge’s main man, as all eyes are on him.
Dennis Schröder, Atlanta Hawks
Position: Guard Distance from home: 3,869 miles from Braunschweig, Germany
The Atlanta Hawks proudly own the distinction of having the only two players in NBA history with umlauts. The immortal Finnish baller Hanno Möttölä played in the ATL from 2000-2002, a full 11 years before a 19-year-old Dennis Schröder came over from das Vaterland. Now 21 and underway with his sophomore campaign, Schröder is putting in quality minutes as Jeff Teague’s understudy with the Hawks. Although the NBA doesn’t add umlauts to jerseys, know that Schröder draws his European powers from the legacy of Möttölä and those cool dots. Look for his long, slender arms and Rajon Rondo-like flow to give Team USA’s backcourt all it can handle.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Position: Forward Distance from home: 4,928 miles from Sepolia, Greece
He’s 20 years old, stands tall at 6-11, and is famously “still growing.” Aside from “Giannis Antetokounmpo” leading NBA writer rankings in uses of ⌘+C and ⌘+V (it’s pronounced [YAHN-is anh-teh-toe-KUHN-po]), he’s also one of the league’s most humble individuals. Although he’s set to make well over $1 million, he lives on a budget of $190 a day, choosing to save the difference and send much of it back home to Greece, where he grew up as an Athens street vendor to help feed his family. While many 20-year-old males would count video games, cars, and peanut butter as three divine things in their lives, Giannis didn’t experience any of those things until his rookie year in the States. He’s averaging 11.4 points and 6.3 rebounds in his follow-up season, and his growth will only continue as he takes on New York for an entire weekend.
Nikola Mirotić, Chicago Bulls
Position: Forward Distance from home: 4,558 miles from Podgorica, Montenegro
If Nikola Mirotić has his sights properly aligned on Friday, Team USA will have a huge matchup problem. Drafted in 2011, the Bulls finally brought the 6-10 Serbian rookie across the Atlantic from Spain, where he played for Real Madrid for nine years. Like other talented European bigs before him, Mirotić’s size hasn’t dictated the type of player he is. His frame may suggest that he’d be better off playing closer to the rim, but that’s just so basic. Mirotić isn’t going to post-up and clean the glass like a traditional power forward—he’s far too skilled to be confined to that old school stuff. The 23-year-old won Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in December, averaging 9.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 41 percent from three. His handles and long-range shot makes him a dangerous stretch forward. He’s struggled with his shot as of late, but if he finds some rhythm in Brooklyn, Mirotić won’t show any mercy from behind the arc.
Dante Exum, Utah Jazz
Position: Guard Distance from home: 10,371 miles from Melbourne, Australia
Dante Exum vs. Trey Burke could be the best matchup of this game. The young pair share the point guard duties in Utah, and they’ve each been selected to the Rising Star Challenge. Exum and Burke have been running the gauntlet out West—as a 19-year-old with no experience outside of Australia, Exum’s been—and will continue to be—tasked with playing against the likes of Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo, and Goran Dragic on a nightly basis. That’ll cause some peach fuzz to pop up on your face. The West is stacked at point guard, and even against the conference’s backups, Exum’s just trying to fit in without sinking at this point. Being a 6-6 point guard and having jets for feet gives him a tremendous physical advantage over the competition, and this game will give him a rare opportunity to shine against similarly inexperienced guards.
NBA All-Star Celebrity Game
Going into the 13th NBA All-Star Celebrity Game, there’s one clear challenge for all its participants: Toppling Kevin Hart, who’s going for his fourth-straight MVP award this year. Although he owns game averages of only 6.6 points, 3.6 assists, and 1.0 rebound, he puts up enough energy and fight—and more than a few circus shots—to win over the crowd.
Annual “you da real MVP” Education Secretary Arne Duncan won’t be around to play like the civilian version of Tim Duncan this year, but Hart’s still got real competition. Not only will real ballers like Skylar Diggins, Chris Mullin, and Allan Houston be suiting up, but the likes of Common (a five-time Celebrity All-Star) and Mo’ne Davis (already a varsity basketball player as an 8th grader) will also be giving the MVP trophy a chase. Between the talent and star power of Diggins and Davis, this could be this year where the Celebrity Game sees its first female MVP. Catch all the action live at Madison Square Garden and on ESPN at 7 p.m. EST.
Slam Dunk Contest
Last year’s dunk contest was one of the most confusing dunk contests ever. There was a Freestyle Round, a Battle Round, and…wait, what? John Wall won even though it was technically a team event? It was huge disaster. So thankfully, the NBA has done away with the team format that they experimented with in 2014 and gone back to a much simpler contest that will feature two rounds. The first round will feature all four players in the contest throwing down two dunks a piece. Then, two players will advance to the second and final round where they’ll get to throw down two more dunks to determine who wins. And while it’s probably not going to be one of the best dunk contests of all time—it doesn’t feature enough star power—we can pretty much guarantee that it’ll be better than last year. For all the highlights, be sure to catch All-Star Saturday Night live from Barclays Center, or as coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. EST on TNT.
Unless you’ve got NBA League Pass and a lot of extra time of your hands, you probably don’t get to watch the Bucks. But at 6-11, “The Greek Freak” has a ton of athleticism and the hops to take off from just about anywhere on the floor in order to throw down dunks. Look for him to pull out something extra special with the entire country watching him for the first time.
For the most part, we like the format of the dunk contest this year. Giving guys more than two dunks per round seems excessive. That is, unless you’re talking about LaVine, the Timberwolves guard who is all over YouTube thanks to the memorable dunks that he’s thrown down over the years. Is there anyway we can just scrap the whole contest and watch him throw down sick dunks for an hour instead?
During a game against the Rockets earlier this month, the Magic guard threw down a 360 dunk. Yeah, he did it at the end of the game with his team leading comfortably, but still—doing a 360 during a game takes some skill. We expect Oladipo to rely heavily on the 360 in the first round. And if he manages to make it to the finals, well, he might as well just go with what got him there, right?
When we first heard that the Nets forward was going to take part in the dunk contest, we thought, “Huh?” Sure, he can dunk but…really, NBA? This is how you’re going to try to get us to tune in? But then we saw a video of Plumlee dunking three balls during a practice back in high school. If he thinks outside of the box and comes up with something crazy like that, he could actually make some noise and win this thing in front of his home crowd in Brooklyn.
Once upon a time, the Slam Dunk Contest was the crown jewel of All-Star Saturday Night. The biggest and brightest stars in the league took part in it and everyone watched. But over the last few years, the Three-Point Contest has evolved into the must-see event of the night. And if we’re being honest here, there’s a good chance that this year’s shootout will end up being the best event of the entire weekend—All-Star Game included. Get ready to see these guys shoot the lights out.
Will the third time be the charm for the Warriors’ sharpshooter? He participated in the contest in 2010 and 2013 and came up short both times. But he recently revealed that he’s not going to stop participating until he wins. “I’m doing that until I win it,” he said when asked about never winning the event. “I’m salty about that.”
Thompson has been absolutely on fire over the last few weeks. During a game against the Kings in late January, he went 9-for-9 from beyond the three-point line while dropping 37 points in a single quarter. So can you even imagine what he’ll do without a defender’s hand in his face during the contest? Yeesh.
Odds are, one of the Splash Brothers are going to win the Three-Point Contest this season, right? Wrong. While those guys have been unbelievable so far this season, we have to make Korver the favorite in the contest this year. He’s shooting more than 50 percent from behind the three-point line and is one of the reasons the Hawks have been so difficult to defend through the first half of the season.
Believe it or not, the Clippers guard—who has made a living off his ability to hit deep shots—has never taken part in the contest before. But he’s watched it in the past and thinks that this year is going to be better than some of the recent shootouts. “I’ve watched a couple years at home and, um, it’s not the best field,” he said recently. “You have non-shooters winning. But I think the NBA put together a great field this year. Hopefully everybody shoots well and it’s a good show.”
The Trail Blazers guard might not be a household name like most of the other players in the contest this year, but he made 201 three-pointers last season—good for fifth overall in the entire NBA—and is currently on pace to make more than 250 this year. So he’s not going to be afraid to let it fly against some of the league’s other great shooters in an attempt to win the trophy. “Ain’t no point in going if you ain’t trying to bring it home,” he said recently. Our sentiments exactly.
After winning the contest back in 2013, Irving’s three-point shooting percentage dipped last season. He shot just 35.8 percent from behind the three-point line during the 2013-14 season after shooting 39.1 percent during the 2012-13 season. But his percentage has skyrocketed back up to about 40 percent so far this season. It’s why Damian Lillard was so complimentary of Irving’s shooting after he dropped 55 points against the Trail Blazers late last month. “He has an all-around game, but he can shoot the ball,” Lillard said. “He doesn’t get a lot of credit for that aspect of his game, but he can stroke it.” And he’ll get the chance to prove it again during All-Star Weekend.
Just when you thought the contest couldn’t get any more exciting than it already was, Harden got added to the mix at the 11th hour. He currently ranks in the top 10 in the NBA in three-pointers made per game, and has made about 39 percent of the three-pointers he’s taken. But he’s also been getting up plenty of extra shots in the gym, which means he’s going to be ready to go. “I’ve been working out back in the gym at night time, putting up extra shots,” he said recently. “It’s a grind. It doesn’t stop. I enjoy the journey.” Will that journey end with him raising a trophy during All-Star Weekend? He has his work cut out for him.
We know what you’re thinking: “When Belinelli shoots, I’m good to take a bathroom break, right?” He’s easily the least exciting player in the contest this year, but it’s worth noting that he’s made about 38 percent of the threes he’s taken this season, and more importantly, that he won the contest in 2014. So who knows? While you’re focused on all of the other guys, the Spurs sharpshooter just might surprise you.
Sadly, Damian Lillard isn't going to defend the back-to-back Skills Challenge titles that he won over the last two seasons. He was originally snubbed from the All-Star Game (he has since been added to replace the injured Blake Griffin) so he decided not to take part in the event. But don’t worry: There will still be plenty of talented guards who will be more than willing to take the crown from Lillard. Kyle Lowry, Dennis Schröder, Jeff Teague, Elfrid Payton, Brandon Knight, Isaiah Thomas, Patrick Beverley, and Trey Burke (he won the title alongside Lillard in 2014) have all agreed to compete for it. And for the first time ever, the challenge will feature a head-to-head, bracket-style format, which should make it even more exciting than usual. Look for Lowry or Teague to steal the show.
Can anyone beat Team Bosh? Last February, Chris Bosh’s squad—which consists of Bosh, Swin Cash, and Dominique Wilkins—won the Shooting Stars competition for the second year in a row, making them the first back-to-back champions in the competition’s 11-year history. But the great part about this event, which requires teams to hit four shots—including one from half-court—is that anyone can win it. So don’t be surprised if one of the other teams involved in it—led by Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Paul Millsap—comes through and steals the crown from Bosh & Co. this year.
NBA ALL-STAR GAME
At this point in the 2014-15 season, it’s painfully obvious which NBA conference is better than the other. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the West is going to reign supreme during the NBA All-Star Game this year. In fact, just last season, the West actually lost to the East 163-155 thanks to an impressive 31-point, 14-assist performance from the game’s MVP, Kyrie Irving. And while we wouldn’t bet against the West coming back and knocking off the East this season, there will be no shortage of talented players out on the court for both teams trying to rep their conference to the fullest during the game. Here are the players that we’ll have our eyes on when the 2015 NBA All-Star Game tips off at Madison Square Garden and TNT at 8 p.m. EST.
Last year, the Raptors guard got snubbed. He was more than worthy of making the All-Star team but didn’t get selected by the fans or the coaches, so he’s a guy who won’t be messing around on the court when the game starts. While other players might lollygag while their team gets back on defense or throw lazy passes that get intercepted, Lowry is likely going to be giving it his all for the entire game. It’s why we wouldn’t be surprised if, like Kyrie Irving last year, he ends up putting up more than 20 points and 10 assists.
With all due respect to guys like Langston Galloway and Cleanthony Early, the Knicks star hasn’t been surrounded by much talent this year. So it’ll be nice to see him spend one night playing with guys who are on his level. Carmelo has played in seven All-Star Games in the past. But considering everything that he’s been through so far this season, this one is probably going to be extra special and, for one night, remind him why he loves basketball so much.
Outside of the starting five, the Wizards point guard was the only player on the Eastern Conference to score double-digit points in the All-Star Game last year. And it was Wall’s first trip, which means that he’ll likely show improvement in the game this year. Plus, he’s going to be the one running the show this season since he was voted to be the starting PG for the East. He could very well go off like Irving did last year if he’s given the chance, and it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for him to win the MVP award.
Even though he’s averaging more than 20 points per game this season, there are still some people who don’t believe in the Bulls young star yet. So what better way for Butler to prove those people wrong than to shine in the All-Star Game? As a reserve, we don’t necessarily expect to see a lot of Butler. And the guy plays a ton of minutes for Chicago, so that’s probably for the best. But he’s one of the most improved players in the NBA this season, if not the most improved player in the league, and that’ll be on full display during the All-Star Game.
Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Paul Millsap, and Kyle Korver
None of these guys are household names. And even diehard NBA fans would probably struggle to tell you much about them. But the Hawks have been the biggest surprise in the entire league this season, and these four players have a lot to do with it. It’s unlikely that any of them are going to go off and drop 30 in the All-Star Game. It’s also unlikely that they’ll win MVP. But they’ve won a lot of games together this season—including a 19-0 clip at one point—and propelled Atlanta to the top of the Eastern Conference. So we’re looking forward to seeing how the four-man package does when it takes the court at MSG.
Part of us was really hoping that Lillard wouldn't be named to the All-Star team this season. Sure, we're looking forward to watching him in the game, but late last month he promised that he was going to go off during the second half of the season if he got snubbed. "If I don't [make it], I'm going to be pissed off and you'll see a re-energized Damian Lillard after the break," he said. "I'll be re-energized anyway, but if I don't make it, you'll see it even more." It's a shame we won't get to see a Lillard on tilt, but we'll settle for seeing him pull out his best moves against the best players in the world during the All-Star Game.
Even though he’s an MVP candidate this season, NBA fans chose not to vote the Rockets guard into the starting lineup of the All-Star Game. And can you really blame them? Last year, Harden got the start for the Western Conference after Kobe was forced to sit out of the game with an injury, and he didn’t really show up for it. In almost 24 minutes of action, he only managed to score eight points and dish out five assists. Harden is playing at a much higher level this season, though, so it’ll be interesting to see if he comes out and tries to redeem himself.
We are so sad to see Kobe Bryant and Blake Griffin sidelined this year, but do you know what will help us get over it? Watching Westbrook try to score 60 in the All-Star Game. The guy doesn’t know how to ease up off the gas pedal and is always in go, go, go mode. And that will likely continue during the ASG. It’s the one and only time we won’t mind seeing him look off Kevin Durant in order to get buckets, and we fully expect that he’ll be looking to destroy the Eastern Conference once the game tips off.
Much has been made about Cousins’ struggles to make the All-Star team in recent years. But in early 2015, he let everyone know that he wasn’t that concerned about getting snubbed again this season. “It is what it is,” he said. “If I make it, I make it. If I don’t, I don’t.” Fortunately for him—and for us!—he finally made it and now the world gets to see what he can do. Well, technically, he already showed the world what he can do during the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup last year. But now, he’ll get to do it against a collection of the best basketball players on the planet. And we’re betting that Cousins will more than hold his own against them.
Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson
The Splash Brothers are the most exciting scoring duo in the entire NBA, so they’re fun to watch when they’re playing with the Warriors. But they’re going to be even more fun to watch when they’re playing alongside some of their fellow superstars. The Eastern Conference won’t be able to double-team them or limit the numbers of shots that they get up during the game. So it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see them combine to score 40, 50, or even 60 points (!). The East better make sure they get a hand up when these two start firing up shots. Or else…