With the frenzy of the trade deadline now firmly in the rearview mirror, the NBA world turns its collective attention to Cleveland: home to a damn good team, and the site where basketball’s best and brightest will soon strut their stuff at 2022 All-Star Weekend. Here are a handful of things to keep an eye on as we get set for three days of frivolity, brand activations, and sure-to-be-spirited exhibition play in Northeast Ohio:
Will anything memorable happen in the celebrity game?
As a cultural tastemaker who is completely plugged into the zeitgeist, and who is not at all a stone-washed 39-year-old father of two, I of course am extremely familiar with every celebrity, influencer, extreme sports athlete, reality show star, and Peloton instructor on both celebrity game rosters. My pick for MVP? I put down $10,000 on both Curbes Lurb and Colton Burpo, just to be safe.
Past notable happenings at the celebrity game include, but are not limited to, Justin Bieber doing push-ups, a kid from Stranger Things doing the splits, secretary of education Arne Duncan unleashing all manner of high-socked old-man game, and Win Butler from Arcade Fire talking electoral politics with Sage Steele. Which is to say: It typically has precious little to do with basketball, and shit can get weird. Some potential noteworthy things we could see this year:
- Las Vegas Aces dynamo Dearica Hamby just punishing Jack Harlow on the block. I’m talking repeated deep seals, mean-spirited backdowns, and just straight up putting Tyler Herro’s main dude in the basket.
- Browns All-Pro Myles Garrett briefly forgetting what he signed up for and simply bull-rushing the fuck out of Machine Gun Kelly.
- Cleveland mayor Justin Bibb being forced to resign in disgrace once Woj breaks the news that event sponsor Ruffles paid him to shave points.
- Skateboard legend Nyjah Huston spending the entire second quarter teaching Cavs legend Daniel “Booby” Gibson—yes, of course he’s a legend, it says so right there on the press release—how to ollie over a prone Moondog.
- Bill Walton coming out of the evening with two new best friends: Quavo and Anderson Varejao.
Who will be the breakout star of the Rising Stars tournament?
There’s a chance that the rebooted Rising Stars event winds up being the coolest aspect of All-Star Weekend.
Gone are the Rookies vs. Sophomores and U.S. vs. the World frameworks of years past. In their place: a new format that features 28 players—12 rookies, 12 sophomores, and four members of the G League Ignite developmental program—split into four seven-person teams coached by Hall of Famers for a three-game tournament. Isiah Thomas’s team will take on James Worthy’s team, and Rick Barry’s team will face Gary Payton’s, with the two winning sides squaring off in the finale.
I have no idea how seriously anybody’s planning to take these showcases. I kind of like the idea, though, of a mixture of young talent on each roster, the loose pickup vibe of the proceedings, and the injection of the G Leaguers—three of whom (Jaden Hardy, Dyson Daniels, and MarJon Beauchamp) are projected to be first-round picks in the 2022 draft—lending itself to some real attempts at statement-making play.
I think everyone’s dying to see the fourth Ignite player in the mix: Scoot Henderson, who signed a two-year contract worth $1 million to jump to the G League after his junior year of high school, who averaged 14-5-4 in 24 minutes per game at the G League Showcase as a 17-year-old, and who appears to be a natural bucker-getter who has goddamn rocket boosters in his calves.
Henderson’s on Team Payton. His point guard will be LaMelo Ball. Expect thunder.
Ball enters the tourney as the rightful star of the show, the reigning Rookie of the Year and the lone true-blue All-Star in the group. That doesn’t mean someone can’t steal it from him, though. Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton, Cade Cunningham, Tyrese Maxey, Jalen Green, Cole Anthony—there’s a lot of dudes here who have ample reason to believe they’re the best of this bunch, and who may well relish the chance to show up, show out, and show the basketball-watching world that they’re the ones who’ll be playing in Sunday’s main event soon enough.
Can the dunk contest get its swagger back?
I do this for a living, and I actually had to look up who won the 2021 dunk contest. It was Anfernee Simons! He won by kind-of-sort-of-almost kissing the rim after Obi Toppin needed a couple of tries to throw down a big-step-inside-the-free-throw-line East Bay. It was … fine.
In fairness, “fine” was probably about all anyone could reasonably expect from a kludged-together event with three dunkers held in an arena without fans at halftime of a postponed game that didn’t necessarily generate a ton of enthusiasm. But last year’s edition continued a run of underwhelming contests and diminishing returns since Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon’s 2016 duel, which ranks alongside MJ vs. ’Nique in ’88 and Vince in 2000 as the greatest contest performances ever.
What was once the crown jewel of All-Star Saturday has more frequently fizzled than flashed in recent years, with the 3-point contest often boasting more famous faces and fireworks. (I’m very bullish on the prospects of this year’s shoot-out turning into a thrilling shit-talk jamboree, with Trae Young, Fred VanVleet, Desmond Bane, and CJ McCollum, among others, in the mix.) Can this year’s dunk contest turn that tide?
Without bona fide present-tense All-Stars in the field—my heart breaks every time I consider the possibility that we’ve already missed the window in which Ja and Anthony Edwards might participate—the vibe restoration will have to come via fresh legs and ingenuity. It ought to be fun to see no. 2 draft pick Jalen Green showcase the springs he’s used to throw down more than a few competition-level dunks in the past, and to take flight with the Rockets this season:
And while I tend to think of him more as a ball-mover and hard-charging defender than a dunker, Warriors delight Juan Toscano-Anderson can get up there:
This would also seem like an ideal opportunity for Cole Anthony to demand respect from a basketball-viewing public that, much to the chagrin of The Ringer’s own Kevin Clark, often overlooks the Orlando Magic. The sophomore has mostly worked below the rim as a pro, with just 16 dunks through his first two seasons thus far, but the former prep standout has more than enough bounce to play above it, too:
Toppin’s back for another crack at the crown, and while it would be fun to see the Knicks power forward/transition gazelle flex his muscles en route to dunk contest glory …
… honestly, at this point, I’d probably be fine with him just using his allotted court time to handle the ball, dribble into pull-up jumpers and floaters, and generally just enjoy the feeling of security that Tom Thibodeau won’t be yanking him out after five minutes to let Taj Gibson dunk in his place.
Oh, well. Let’s keep our expectations low but our hopes high, and remember that dunking is like pizza; even when it’s not great, it’s still pretty good.
One thing to keep an eye on: The last time the All-Star Game was in Cleveland, an 18-year-old rookie representing the Lakers won the dunk contest. I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone try to pull off some sort of tribute to Kobe Bryant on Saturday night.
What kind of ridiculous stuff will Ja Morant and LaMelo Ball try to pull off in their All-Star debuts?
Please allow me to remind you of the kind of shit they do in games that actually count:
I shudder to think what Morant and Ball—two of the NBA’s most scintillating talents, as well as two of its brashest and most freewheeling young highlight-seekers—might get up to when they know they’re free to just explore the studio space.
(I am crossing my fingers that they convince everybody to just sort of turn this into a “can you top this?”–style passing competition. Who would argue with Ja, LaMelo, CP, Luka, LeBron, Trae, and Jokic just all trying to top one another with ludicrous oop after ludicrous oop?)
What would you like to see happen that absolutely, positively won’t happen?
Years ago, Paul Millsap promised me streetball shit, only to leave me hanging with 13 minutes of five-point, five-rebound, three-assist, all-part-of-your-balanced-breakfast-ass play. Nuts to that! I want to see a normcore nutritionist, the kind of dude whose game is typically bound by the established conventions of Playing the Right Way, seize the opportunity to get weird.
Bust out a windmill, Nikola Jokic. Lemme see that logo 3 or Rik Smits–style behind-the-back feed on the break, Jarrett Allen. Unleash your inner Hot Sauce, Khris Middleton. Please, for the love of all that’s decent, Rudy Gobert, give me one (1) iso from 30, and show us what it looks like when a medieval trebuchet tries to cross fools up. This is an exhibition aimed at entertainment, so, y’know … exhibit and entertain.
Who’ll be on the court in crunch time of the All-Star Game?
It’s not a hard-and-fast confirmation of annual excellence in the same way an All-NBA selection is at season’s end, or a perfect encapsulation of who’s in the running for the crown of Best in the World at any given moment. Injuries, illnesses, and other impediments to availability all factor into the decision-making calculus.
But as a thumbnail sketch of who matters, you could do worse than noting which 10 dudes are on the court when the All-Star Game turns into a legitimate contest that proud athletes want to win. And Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, heading up the team chosen by Kevin Durant, and Phoenix’s Monty Williams, coaching the squad selected by LeBron James, will have plenty of choices at their disposal.
Team LeBron boasts four league MVPs: LeBron (duh), Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Nikola Jokic. (Well, technically, five: James Harden’s on the roster, though LeBron didn’t really pick him so much as accept him while smiling behind a clipboard, but he isn’t playing.) The King’s court also includes DeMar DeRozan, in the midst of a career season at age 32 and the NBA’s leading fourth-quarter scorer; Luka Doncic, who’s averaging a shade under 29-10-10 in 2022 and once again looking like a top-five player in the world; and a pair of famously competitive junkyard dogs in Chris Paul and Jimmy Butler, to say nothing of bright young things Donovan Mitchell, Fred VanVleet, and hometown heroes Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen. An embarrassment of riches!
Kevin Durant and Draymond Green would be pretty good crunch-time choices for Team Durant, but they’re both already out of the running, taking a couple of clubs out of Coach Spo’s bag. Even so, though, choosing only five of Joel Embiid, Ja Morant, Trae Young, Jayson Tatum, Devin Booker, Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns, and LaMelo Ball is no picnic. I also wouldn’t rule out the possibility of injury replacement Dejounte Murray seizing the opportunity to inform a national audience that he kicks maximum ass and deserves a seat at the grown-ups table.
If the vets decide to slow-play things, getting only a token few minutes of run before declaring themselves done for the night, the choices might not wind up being all that revelatory. But if the game’s in the balance, there are some bragging rights on the line, those competitive juices start flowing, and LeBron decides he feels like getting himself another high-profile W in Cleveland, we might get a refreshed look at how the league’s pecking order shakes out—and whether we’ve got any new arrivals to prepare for and celebrate.
How funny would it be if Andrew Wiggins just goes off and wins MVP?
After all the shit everyone talked about how he didn’t deserve to be there? Very. Very funny.