All-Star Weekend in Cleveland ultimately may be remembered for the events around the main events. In between a reshuffled Rising Stars Challenge, a lackluster dunk contest, and Sunday’s big game, we got a tour-de-force of pointed comments from LeBron James, a major injury to the best player on the NBA’s best team, and a Michael Jordan sighting. Our staff looks back at all the big moments, before looking ahead to the second half of the 2021-22 season.
1. The All-Star Game was ___________.
Dan Devine: Fine. Steph hit a bajillion 3s; Ja, LaMelo, and Dejounte Murray did some cool shit; the crowd at the arena popped when the hometown guys did stuff; and nobody got hurt. I don’t know how much more I’d be willing to ask for.
Matt Dollinger: A weekend saver. A 50-bomb by Steph Curry and a game-winner from LeBron are almost enough for me to forget that the final round of the Skills Challenge was just a bunch of guys shooting half-court shots.
Rob Mahoney: Exactly what it should be: A showcase for the league; a highlight reel in the making; a roving spotlight for the game’s biggest stars; a celebration of where the sport has been and where it’s going; and a competitive game with a satisfying conclusion.
J. Kyle Mann: Pretty fun. My interest level in this game has plummeted over the years, but we got fresh faces announcing their fearless presence and we got legends showing they still had it.
Logan Murdock: Iconic. A competitive game with all the game’s biggest stars past and present watching. Oh yeah, then the face of the league drains the game-winning bucket near his hometown. This game is in the top five all-time. Easy.
Seerat Sohi: Sloppy. I’d like my glorified lob-throwing contests to feature more accurately placed passes in the future.
Justin Verrier: Entertaining at the end. The unnecessarily complicated Elam formula once again made for a compelling fourth quarter. Until then, the highlights came primarily from the many sideswipes on the Inside the NBA broadcast.
2. What was the best 75th Anniversary team–related moment?
Murdock: Michael Jordan and LeBron James embracing, if only because we haven’t seen that much during James’s career. We’ve been so caught up in how James’s legacy compares to Jordan’s that we forget how much respect they have for one another.
I got a big laugh out of Larry Bird joyfully waving and pretending to look up at the crowd like he was Afterlife Chubbs from Happy Gilmore. Worst moment was the realization that we weren’t going to get an updated version of the hideous leather jackets for each player that we saw at the 50th anniversary. I’d be pissed if I made this team.
Dollinger: Reggie Miller just laughing when the telecast showed John Stockton.
Devine: I think it’s the degree to which today’s superstars—these $200 million men, the captains of industry and titans of the sport—seemed to feel legitimate awe and wonder at sharing the stage with their heroes, the players who paved the way for them:
It would be easy for these guys, especially the younger ones who haven’t yet gotten the chance to evolve into students of the game, to just sort of roll their eyes at the old folks and move on with the branding exercises. Getting everyone together like this, though, helps grow, expand, and safeguard the game, not only for today’s fans, but for those who’ve still got a long way to go.
Sohi: Dennis Rodman throwing a blazer over his sweatsuit like he was just playing in the game.
Verrier: LeBron shoehorning his game-winning jumper into the narrative of the evening like a longform journalist.
Mahoney: It’s gotta be Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce cold-shouldering Ray Allen during the ceremony. Or is it the opposite? I don’t even know, but if you’re going to be as monumentally petty as all of the above have been since Allen left the Celtics to sign (and win) with the Heat almost 10 years ago, the least they can do is carry that grudge for the long haul.
3. Is the Saturday night lineup of events broken?
Jonathan Tjarks: The very concept of All-Star Weekend is a little out of date. It’s not like people are excited about the MLB All-Star Game or the Pro Bowl, either. There’s only so much any of these sports leagues can do to get people into events that were designed in a world before cable TV, much less the internet and social media. I would be interested in watching a one-on-one tournament, though. It’s definitely worth a shot.
Chris Ryan: Yes, but it’s not even in the top 20 of things I’d like to tweak about the NBA.
Sohi: In the afterglow of Curry scoring 48 of his 50 points in the All-Star Game from beyond the arc, it’s tempting to theorize about the 3-point contest being the real Saturday night headliner in the modern NBA, but it’s all about personnel, and more specifically, star power.
It’s hard to go from Karl-Anthony Towns and Trae Young matching long ball against long ball to watching a bunch of guys who most casual fans would have to Google take three tries to finish dunks we’ve seen before. The real question is why stars—who are already there—just won’t participate.
Mahoney: Deeply. I wouldn’t mind if the NBA just burned All-Star Saturday to the ground and started fresh. The Skills Challenge already has been reworked to the point that even the participants don’t understand the rules. The 3-point contest is fine, but not beyond a complete overhaul. And so long as the dunk contest exists, it will most likely slot in as the grand finale of the night, based largely on its history and dramatic potential. So let’s just scrap it all.
I’d be much more interested to see some kind of one-on-one format. It’s familiar, it’s easily legible, and it has the potential to actually set the stage for the All-Star Game instead of working solely as a sideshow. There’s some risk of players just mailing it in during a one-on-one tournament, but personally, I like the prospects of pitting the best players in the game against one another and essentially daring them not to get competitive. For as cool as some of the veteran All-Stars might want to play it, could they really resist?
Devine: I honestly don’t know.
The Skills Challenge feels like an impossible thing to gauge interest/excitement in, in part because it’s basically slime-less Double Dare for millionaire adults, and in part because it seems like they change the rules every other goddamn year. It kind of feels like this year’s problems would be solved by picking players who are good at shooting, and teaching them the rules of the competitions at some point before the start of the competition. The 3-point contest is fine, although I don’t know that the easiest-to-understand-and-evaluate event of the weekend required a trip to the fuckin’ Dew Zone.
And after watching Juan Toscano-Anderson throw down …
… a dunk from the Vince Carter performance that pretty much everybody considers to be the Apex Mountain of the form …
… and have the announcers and the judges just kind of shrug the whole thing off, I found myself wondering whether, at this point, there’s any way to have the dunk contest just be fine.
Like, yes, sure: When Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon completely revolutionize the proceedings, everyone’s justifiably beside themselves. But if the contestants either (a) do incredible things … that we’ve already seen before or (b) do unbelievable things … that they don’t land on the first try, or throw down with something less than 100 percent ferocity, will that ever be good enough for the general commentariat?
Seriously: Obi Toppin went behind the back over a dude, and did a dunk I’ve literally never seen before, and everyone’s bummed. Maybe Saturday’s not broken. Maybe we are.
(Or maybe you are. I’m fine.)
Zach Kram: It’s not broken—the 3-point shootout remains a consistent delight. But at the same time that the NBA is searching for the best way to incentivize full competitiveness in the long-discussed midseason tournament, it should also devote more energy to recruiting brighter stars for the dunk contest. Also: Bring back the old shooting contest with a current NBA player, NBA legend, and WNBA player from each city. That was fun!
Mann: We just can’t continue as is. A telling sign of a bad dunk contest is when the props and the narratives overshadow the technique of the dunks themselves. Have narrative dunks ever really moved the needle? We’re bored, and when I say “we” I don’t mean the audience, I mean “we” as a species. This is a plateaued art form. The vocabulary is established, the judges don’t seem to know whether to credit or discredit players based on their size, and the live TV element makes it hard to experiment. The obvious answer (that many have suggested) is to take the main event pressure off of this contest; the 3-point competition is fluid and doesn’t suffer from the same stoppages or sloppy misfires.
Murdock: Not necessarily. Since its inception, All-Star Saturday night has had its ebbs and flows. For every legendary Jordan-Nique matchup in the dunk contest, there’s Chris “Birdman” Andersen taking 98 attempts to make a mediocre dunk. To the league’s credit, it’s been creative in how it puts on its events and has gotten star power into the less-heralded ones (thanks, Giannis!). This year didn’t pop, but it doesn’t mean that we need to reformat the lineup for the umpteenth time.
Verrier: The dunk contest isn’t so much broken as it is diminished by the lack of star power. No one is going to care until the league finds a way to incentivize (or force) actual All-Stars, or even the higher-profile players from the Rising Stars Challenge, to participate. The weekend as a whole could also use a good edit; there’s about two hours of good content being stretched out over three days.
Dollinger: No tweak besides “an obscene amount of money” is going to fix All-Star Weekend. What kind of serious NBA player needs All-Star Saturday to raise their Q rating? The biggest names don’t even show up anymore, let alone compete. Put $10 million on the line, have 70 percent fewer concerts, and I guarantee you the dunk contest works itself out.
4. What do you make of LeBron’s whirlwind press tour in Cleveland, in which he (a) left the door open to a Cavs return; (b) reiterated that he’ll play his final season with his son; and (c) pointedly praised other GMs?
Mann: I let out an earth-shakingly deep sigh, if I’m being totally honest.
Mahoney: We’re familiar enough with LeBron’s public relations philosophy at this point to know that this sort of flirtation with another team isn’t just an empty gesture. It seems completely plausible that he could be back in Cleveland at some point—whether as a returning star or maybe just a hometown kid coming back someday to retire as a Cavalier in more of an honorary capacity. Personally, I’d bet on the former; a few stars will need to align between now and then, but there’s almost too much history between LeBron and northeast Ohio for him to pass on the chance to close out his story there.
As for the rest: I see LeBron borrowing a bit from Kobe. Over the course of his career, Bryant became deeply invested in storytelling—to the point that he basically became the primary author of his own mythology. Everything was framed and spun and, in a sense, understood on his terms. LeBron is obviously no stranger to shaping his own narrative, but this weekend he took things a step further. Was it damage control? Was it prophecy? Maybe all of the above, but it sure as hell grabbed the NBA world’s attention.
Tjarks: ESPN has Bronny James rated as a four-star recruit and the 43rd-ranked player in the Class of 2023. That means he has a chance at the NBA, but it’s no guarantee he’ll make it, let alone be a one-and-done. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There are plenty of players who need a couple of years in college before coming to the NBA and end up having long and successful careers. All that is to say maybe Bronny should be developed on his own timeline and not shoehorned into his father’s.
Murdock: That LeBron sees the writing on the wall in Los Angeles. The Lakers roster, mostly made up his preferences, isn’t close to elite. Anthony Davis hasn’t taken the baton in the way James expected, and the trade for Russell Westbrook all but seals the Lakers’ ceiling as a perpetual play-in team. But this weekend is yet another example of what LeBron covets more than anything, including championships: power. He still wields it better than anyone else in league history. He knows that any team will put his son Bronny on an active roster just for the chance to employ LeBron, no matter how old he is. He knows that teams are already shedding salary just for the chance for him to say no. And he knows he’s worth all the trouble caused in the process.
Verrier: After a few years of attempting to sell you luggage with the inspirational quotes your mom puts on her Facebook wall, the king is back to show the younger generation how to passive-aggressively leverage your franchise.
Ryan: I loved it. On one hand, it felt almost sweetly naive the way LeBron held court on all these topics, as if the headlines his musings created wouldn’t overshadow the … skills competition or something? On the other hand, he knew exactly what he was doing: successfully decoupling the LeBron Narrative (the lion in winter, reflective, generous, perceptive, a Josh Giddey fan) from the Lakers Narrative (totally fucked!), putting the league, Rob Pelinka, and Lauri Markkanen on edge/notice that there will be one more decision before he goes.
Dollinger: I don’t think LeBron forces his way to Cleveland anytime soon, not with the prime-aged Bucks, 76ers, and Nets lurking in the East. I do think he’s paving the way for a pretty abrupt exit from L.A., though. The narrative is there that the Lakers front office didn’t do enough to keep him around and he’s stoking the flames. I can’t wait to see him in a Suns or Warriors jersey next season.
Kram: The Lakers are in ninth place in the West with a losing record, and Anthony Davis is out for a while with a foot sprain. LeBron should be thinking about the future beyond this season.
Sohi: I just want to know what he really thinks about the value of draft picks. On one end, he’s praising Sam Presti, whose Thunder have 38 draft picks through the 2028 draft. On the other, he’s appluading Rams GM Les Snead’s “fuck your picks” shirt. Which is it, LeBron? At the end of the day, we all learn from copying the greats. I think it’s great that after making some regrettable moves this offseason, James is paying closer attention to how successful front office executives operate.
Devine: I think everyone likes to look pretty. Especially when you’re in the midst of an ugly season.
(I’m also really interested to find out whether there’s a small-market team willing to call LeBron’s bluff and drop, like, the eighth pick in the draft on Bronny in expectation of getting 40-year-old LeBron for a year. Please, God, let Vivek Ranadivé put all his chips down on this one.)
5. What’s the biggest ripple effect of Chris Paul’s surprise thumb injury (and decision to play in the All-Star Game with said surprise thumb injury)?
Murdock: In the short term, I don’t think there will be any effect. Phoenix has the deepest roster in the league and a big enough lead in the standings (6.5 games) to keep the no. 1 seed in the West for another two months. Devin Booker is a bona fide star and can carry the offensive load while Paul’s hand heals. Long term, it can be dicey. Paul already has a lengthy injury history, and at 36, it’s not inconceivable that his body won’t hold up when he comes back. For Phoenix and the rest of the league, Paul’s injury is a reminder of how fickle the road to a title is.
Ryan: You only live once so let’s just go with: Ladies and gentlemen, your no. 1 seed in the Western Conference, the Memphis Grizzlies. Ja and Co. have the third-easiest schedule for the rest of the season, and you have to assume the Warriors and Suns are going to prioritize getting/staying healthy with Draymond and now CP3 missing time. It’s the perfect opportunity for Memphis to definitively put its stamp on the season, and sets up a delicious possible Grizz-Lakers first-round matchup, which will end with LeBron losing and promptly expressing his admiration for everything Zach Kleiman (the real MVP!) and Memphis have built.
Verrier: We’ll get to see whether Deandre Ayton really is a max player.
Dollinger: The NBA title race is going to be unusually wide-open with two East juggernauts undergoing franchise-altering makeovers at the trade deadline and the West’s top two seeds, the Suns (Paul) and Warriors (Draymond Green), potentially missing key players until the start of the postseason.
Sohi: Well, it’s a good thing they traded for Aaron Holiday at the deadline. The 1-seed Suns have depth, one of the weakest remaining schedules in the league, and a 6.5-game cushion on the 2-seed Warriors. With the Dubs tending to their own injuries, I don’t think losing Paul will mess with the standings too much, but his recovery time meshes dangerously with the beginning of the postseason. Paul had an ailing hand in the first round of last year’s playoffs against the Lakers. He recently joked that they didn’t need to guard his jumpers in the first two games, an admission that might now actually come to matter if a rematch occurs.
Mann: The Aaron Holiday believers will have their day. We’ve been lying in wait.
Devine: I think it’s just the question of whether the Suns can withstand the single largest disruption yet on their vengeance tour.
Losing Paul for six to eight weeks doesn’t scuttle their championship hopes by any means. For one thing, the Suns enter the homestretch with a 6.5-game lead on second-place Golden State, and an eight-game lead over third-place Memphis, for the top spot in the West. With one of the softest schedules in the league remaining, it seems unlikely that the Suns will slip enough to allow one of those teams to supplant them atop the West—particularly because there’s plenty of quality on Phoenix’s roster. It’s reasonable to trust head coach Monty Williams to find the right ways to mix and match it: Suns lineups featuring Devin Booker without CP3 have outscored opponents by just under four points per 100 possessions, and lineups without both All-Stars have outscored them by nearly 4.5 points-per-100, according to PBP Stats.
I can absolutely buy Phoenix figuring things out for long enough to allow Paul to come back fully healthy heading into the playoffs. Asking the 36-year-old to get up to speed quickly enough to shoulder the playmaking burden in a postseason series, though? That remains to be seen.
Mahoney: It’s never explicitly a good thing for one of your best players to be out of the lineup for six to eight weeks … but for the Suns, is it really so bad that a 36-year-old point guard with a worrisome injury history will be downshifting for a month or two leading into the playoffs? Phoenix has played a commanding season to this point—so much so that we probably don’t need to worry about how the Suns will survive without Paul or how they’ll hold up in the standings in general. The best thing the Western Conference favorites can do right now is to steel themselves for the games that matter. If they can maintain their focus from now until April, they could well roll into the playoffs with the best record in the league, a straight line to the Finals, and a refreshed lead guard.
Tjarks: The Suns are such a well-oiled machine that they were just killing time until the playoffs anyway. It will be interesting to see some of their younger players elevated into bigger roles over the next few months. What will Devin Booker look like when given the keys to the offense? He’s not just a scorer; he averaged 6.5 assists per game in the season before CP3 got to Phoenix. They also have two guys playing for new contracts in Deandre Ayton and Cam Johnson who won’t mind getting up more shots.
Kram: If Paul misses any playoff time, then of course it’s a huge deal for the best team in the league to lose its most important player. Yet with a 6.5-game lead, the Suns should still claim the West’s top seed in the regular season, so assuming a full recovery for Paul by the playoffs, is it possible that this is something of a silver lining to let the 36-year-old guard enter the playoffs fresh, à la LeBron in the bubble postseason?
6. Who won the weekend?
Ryan: Casamigos/Ja Morant.
Mahoney: All of us, for living to see the day that a dude got so freaking hot in the All-Star Game that the best players in the world had to start face-guarding him. Seriously: Defenders actively left Giannis and LeBron to double Steph at half court. What perfect insanity.
Devine: LeBron. He flew back into Cleveland as the face of a sub-.500 catastrophe, and he flew out of it as the guy the arena exploded for, the guy who hit the game-winning shot, and the centerpiece of a shitload of fantasy booking for the next couple of seasons.
(Really, though: Jarrett Allen, who went from someone casual NBA fans didn’t give a fuck about to someone whose clothes made him a trending topic and who, in defiance of God’s will, played crunch time in the All-Star Game.)
Mann: The center position. Seeing the generations interact, seeing Karl-Anthony Towns post a bonkers performance in the 3-point contest or Embiid casually windmill in traffic and even Rudy Gobert nonchalantly doing a 360 had me thinking about how far we’ve come. Can you imagine Patrick Ewing, Hakeem, or Shaq doing any of these things in 1993? They were gods, and the answer is decidedly “no.” What a time to be alive, seriously.
Tjarks: The Cavs. They hosted the All-Star Game and look like a franchise on the rise. They have two All-Stars and their most promising player wasn’t even in it. And LeBron couldn’t have opened the door wider for him to come back one last time.
Verrier: LeBron. I already forgot what happened this weekend and have written three thinkpieces about his next move.
Dollinger: Literally everybody but this guy:
Murdock: Juan Toscano-Anderson. I don’t care that he came in second place in the dunk contest. I don’t care that he missed the dunk in the J-Rich jersey. He’s from East Oakland and his jersey should already be in the rafters in Cleveland.
Kram: Steph Curry, because of his incredibly engaging, not-at-all-forced-or-awkward-or-out-of-place promotional event for Ayesha’s HBO show between events on Saturday night. What, did he also do something notable on Sunday?
Sohi: LeBron. He hit another game-winner in The Land, and he finally got to play with a superteam this season.
7. What’s the most intriguing second-half story line?
Devine: The MVP race. There’s a better-than-decent chance that the choice between Jokic, Embiid, Giannis, DeMar, Steph, Luka, Ja, and whichever Suns guard happens to be healthiest changes literally every day, depending on what happened the night before. We have a fucking crazy amount of talent at the top of the card these days.
Dollinger: Will the Lakers miss the play-in? With Anthony Davis expected to be out a month, there’s an incredible amount of pressure on Frank Vogel and Russell Westbrook to make something out of nothing. You heard LeBron.
Kram: The top eight teams in the East are all crowded within seven games of each other. Only six can avoid the play-in. We’ll see meaningful games between competitors almost every night.
Mahoney: Frankly, it’s all about the stars who didn’t appear in this game: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Ben Simmons in Brooklyn, and former Net James Harden as he starts his career in Philadelphia. Two massive basketball experiments are about to get underway with just 48 days left in the regular season, and it’s not a stretch in the slightest to say that the title hangs in the balance. That’s not because either late-emerging superteam should be expected to win outright—just that both project as perfect spoilers for any other team with championship aspirations. Milwaukee, Miami, Chicago, and Cleveland have all dutifully weathered injuries and absences only to see the top of their conference descend into absolute chaos.
Mann: Has to be the chaos of the overall seeding shuffle. I can’t remember another season when this many title-swaying variables were very much in play heading into March. The Lakers fucking around and still somehow hovering at the 9-spot; the Sixers and Nets potentially putting it together and being terrific; Phoenix being without the Point God; Boston surging to win nine of its past 10; Atlanta lying in the weeds.
Murdock: Can the Grizzlies make it to the Finals? Nah, I’m serious. Phoenix is hobbled, and the Grizz have shown they’re not scared of Golden State. Plus, Ja Morant has played like a top-5 player this season. This team gives me big 2011 Oklahoma City vibes. They have the star, supporting cast, and energy from a city dying to get to the big show. Think about how turnt Beale Street would be if Memphis won the West at FedEx Forum. Sign me up.
Will Harden be the first person who got in shape after moving to Philadelphia?
Tjarks: Who is going to win the NCAA tournament and who will emerge as the front-runner for the no. 1 pick? It’s pretty wide open at this point. Let’s be honest about the NBA’s second half: The only goal is staying healthy and getting ready for the playoffs.
Verrier: How the Harden trade impacts Joel Embiid’s MVP candidacy. Embiid has led the Sixers to one of the East’s best records while putting up prime-Shaq numbers, all with a Ben Simmons–sized placeholder on the roster. But will Harden’s many, many stepbacks eat into Embiid’s monster scoring totals? Will playing with a recent MVP winner muddle Embiid’s sales pitch of being the guy with the least amount of help? Will the Sixers be more cautious with Embiid’s minutes or games played? And will any of this affect the already-delicate, on-the-fly chemistry experiment between two ball-dominant, highly opinionated superstars?