For the past decade, the lesson of All-Star Weekend was that unless you’re on the ground at Michael Jordan’s invite-only, denim-only party (dress code: the wider the leg, the better), the events are rather uneventful. The league knew that the game itself had been trending toward irrelevance for a while, so last year it changed the format. Now, instead of the classic East-vs.-West scrimmage, the All-Star Game resembles a YMCA pickup game, only with freak athletes. Two captains, one from each conference, pick the teams. The modification was small, but vital. Anything to prevent the All-Star Game from becoming unwatchable, or worse, the Pro Bowl on hardwood.
While the NBA had to tweak the formula to make the main game more attractive, the rest of the weekend’s events became more interesting on their own. Over the past three years, Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon, and Donovan Mitchell have single-leggedly rebirthed the dunk contest. (That that event—a chance to see gravity suspended over and over again live—needed CPR in the first place spoke to the state of All-Star festivities.) As teams rely more on the deep ball, the 3-point contest has become better and more relevant than ever. And the skills challenge is a chance to see Nikola Jokic sprint as fast as he can.
And that’s just what to look forward to on the court. The greatest attraction is the players’ proximity to one another. For three days, the top 24 players (give or take) in the NBA will be fraternizing over Carolina barbecue. It’s Big Brother, but with all the plotting and alliances formed for free-agency purposes. Or so we hope.
Here are the five things we’re most looking forward to this All-Star Weekend.
1. Overanalyzing Every Interaction LeBron James Has
Watching the Lakers flirt with tampering has gotten sadder as the season has gone on. They went from chatting up the best-looking person in the bar at the beginning of the night to realizing their last resort gave them a fake number—all very publicly. There’s been much speculation about James’s involvement throughout the process; his agent Rich Paul’s failure to secure a trade for client Anthony Davis was linked back to James and the Lakers at every step. James’s motives were even laughed about during the live All-Star draft. He selected Davis (and five other upcoming free agents) for teammates. Ernie Johnson asked whether he “was sure” he wanted Davis on his team, and James smirked and said, “I’m very sure of that.” Giannis Antetokounmpo, captain for the East, joked that it was tampering. “Tampering rules do not apply on All-Star Weekend,” James replied. Every conversation James has—whether it be with Davis; soon-to-be free agents Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant; any young player who can shoot better than Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma’s collective 45.7 percent from the field; or a newly retired player willing to bend the knee as a potential coach—will be scrutinized.
2. Team Giannis’s Playing Three Centers at the Same Time
Antetokounmpo drafted Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Nikola Vucevic, and Dirk Nowitzki with the full knowledge that he also needs to play somewhere on this team. That’s four 7-footers and Antetokounmpo, who, at 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, can pass. He copied Milwaukee’s strategy from recent years to draft for length, which is working for the Bucks but won’t for Team Giannis—the only big on that list who’s shooting over 31 percent from 3 this season is Vucevic, who was a late pick and won’t get many minutes over a legend like Dirk. The paint will be a mosh pit, Embiid will eventually begin taking 3s he has no business taking, and this roster will be remembered as the only stain on Giannis’s first MVP season.
3. The Mass Realization That John Collins Exists
The dunk contest provides an opportunity for low-exposure players to get some love. Just look at 2017, when Glenn Robinson III beat Derrick Jones Jr. when the former was averaging 6.1 points for the Pacers and the latter was on a two-way contract. This year, the contestants are Dennis Smith Jr., rookies Miles Bridges and Hamidou Diallo, and John Collins. Except for maybe Smith, those aren’t household names. Collins opened as the favorite to win even though he’s the only big man in the field; a frontcourt player hasn’t won since Blake Griffin jumped over a Kia in 2011. But even if he falls flat, a little name recognition for him is a win. (Last year, Collins played in the Rising Stars challenge, which was the only time he was on national television all season.) The Hawks sophomore has had the benefit of growing up in the shadows, but now that he’s averaging 19.4 points and 9.7 rebounds, it comes with the disadvantage that few people appreciate his development.
4. Seth vs. Steph
Klay Thompson leaves his 3-point trophy in his junk drawer. He’s built a career off shooting, and the proof that he does it as well as anyone is resting somewhere among paper clips and hot sauce packets. There’s just no creativity in the 3-point contest. In fact, the most perfectly repetitive person wins. The 3 is the most coveted shot in basketball right now, and players have never been better at it, but hitting four of them in a row will never get the same reaction as Zach LaVine did when he floated to the rim.
Andrew Wiggins looks pissed at gravity for playing favorites, Kyle Lowry looks scared for his son, and John Wall looks like his entire life is flashing before his eyes. True story: Karl-Anthony Towns’s mouth would end up being stuck open like that for two years. The only person who isn’t glued to LaVine in this picture is the woman in the fur vest in the top left, and I can guarantee you one thing she isn’t thinking about is the 3-point contest.
Yet this year, the 3-point contest has something the dunk contest has never had: sibling rivalry. Stephen Curry, the older and more successful of the Curry brothers, is facing Seth Curry in a field that also includes Dirk Nowitzki, Kemba Walker, and reigning champ Devin Booker. Steph, in addition to having an extra letter in his name, is a three-time NBA champion, a two-time MVP, and a five-time All-NBA selection, while Seth is a backup point guard in Portland. However, Seth is shooting 46.5 percent from 3, third best in the league among qualified players, and Steph is shooting 44.4 percent, a lowly … sixth. Seth takes far fewer per game, but he’s also given less of an opportunity. Because there isn’t room for variation or outside factors in the 3-point contest, it’s the perfect event for two brothers to square up.
5. A Constellation of Niche League Pass Stars
The Rising Stars game might lose half its potential audience to whatever movie is on AMC on Friday night, sure, but it’s a hipster basketball fan’s dream. This year’s Team World is a compilation of young niche players we’ll later brag about knowing “back before they made it big.” (This excludes Luka Doncic, who graduated from hipster fan favorite to mainstream fan favorite the moment he was drafted.) Come for Doncic and OG Anunoby; stay for the rest of Team World, Cedi Osman, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Rodions Kurucs.