Portland Trail Blazers sophomore point guard Damian Lillard will make history by competing in five NBA All-Star weekend events in 2014, but is the first-time All-Star the early favorite to win any of the competitions?
While the Slam Dunk Contest and Three-Point Shootout headline the events leading up to the actual All-Star Game, lesser attractions should still garner the fans' attention.
For example, the Shooting Stars competition will feature two father/son combos that include Dell Curry and Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, as well as Tim Hardaway and New York Knicks swingman Tim Hardaway Jr.
NBA legends Karl Malone and Dominique Wilkins will also take part in New Orleans.
The Skills Challenge, which presents contestants with an obstacle course that favors players with superior ball-handling skills, will highlight a variety of youngsters. The field includes four rookies: Michael Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo, Trey Burke and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Predicting winners of All-Star events is an inexact science, but please feel free to leave your own picks in the comments section below.
Team Webber: Anthony Davis, Michael Carter-Williams, Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke, Jared Sullinger, Mason Plumlee, Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams and Kelly Olynyk
Team Hill: Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond, Harrison Barnes, Terrence Jones, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jonas Valanciunas, Dion Waiters and Pero Antic
Prediction: Team Hill
Instead of simply pitting NBA rookies versus the more experienced sophomores in the Rising Stars Challenge, Turner Sports analysts Chris Webber and Grant Hill were able to draft their respective rosters for this game—which, for some odd reason, doesn’t include Phoenix Suns breakout sophomore Miles Plumlee.
Davis and Carter-Williams, as well as fellow Michigan standouts Hardaway Jr. and Burke, highlight Webber’s roster.
Hill, meanwhile, selected Lillard, Beal and Drummond with his first three picks.
These two squads are very even on paper, but my X-factor is Lillard.
NBA games highlight floor generals who can score points in bunches while also dishing off assists to teammates. That factor is merely exemplified in a friendly exhibition.
Although Webber has AD on his side, it’s difficult to pick against last season’s Rookie of the Year in Lillard.
If given the playing time, the Trail Blazers point guard has the experience needed to lead his team to victory. Since the offense will likely run through him at all times, Team Hill gets my nod.
Team Hardaway: Tim Hardaway Jr., Tim Hardaway and Elena Delle Donne
Team Bosh: Chris Bosh, Dominique Wilkins and Swin Cash
Team Durant: Kevin Durant, Karl Malone and Skylar Diggins
Team Curry: Stephen Curry, Dell Curry and Becky Hammon
Prediction: Team Hardaway
The Shooting Stars competition always winds down to which team can cash a difficult half-court shot to stop the clock. As a result, luck often plays a role in which team wins the competition.
I’m predicting a father/son combination to come away with the victory, but it may not be the combo you were expecting.
Instead of choosing the firepower of Stephen and Dell Curry, I’m going with Tim Hardaway, Tim Hardaway Jr. and WNBA star Delle Donne.
The 6’5” Delle Donne may ultimately be the X-factor. She averaged 18.1 points per game during her rookie year in the WNBA for the Chicago Sky, while shooting 43.8 percent from downtown.
This is a gut-feeling pick on my part, because, well, something has to go right for New York Knicks fans this season, right?
Contestants: Damian Lillard, Michael Carter-Williams, Goran Dragic, Victor Oladipo, Trey Burke, DeMar DeRozan, Reggie Jackson, Giannis Antetokounmpo
Prediction: Goran Dragic
The Skills Challenge presents plenty of obstacles for contestants.
They have to be quick, agile, accurate passers and knock-down shooters all at the same time. Someone who checks all of those boxes with relative ease is Phoenix Suns point guard Dragic.
Lillard may be seen as the favorite, having won the event last year as a rookie. However, I expect Dragic to compete with a chip on his shoulder after getting snubbed from the All-Star Game.
Despite the fact that Eric Bledsoe has been sidelined with a knee injury, Dragic has led the surprising Suns to a 29-20 record by averaging 20.1 points, six assists and 3.6 rebounds per game for a player efficiency rating of 22.4 (ranking him 15th in the NBA).
Former Suns point guard Steve Nash won the Skills Challenge twice for Phoenix (in 2005 and 2010). Look for "The Dragon” to follow in his footsteps and further prove that he deserved his first ever All-Star nod.
Contestants: Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, Bradley Beal, Kevin Love, Arron Afflalo, Damian Lillard, Joe Johnson, Marco Belinelli
Prediction: Stephen Curry
Golden State Warriors sharpshooter Curry posted a score of 17 in last year’s Three-Point Shootout, which tied him for the second-lowest mark of the round with Steve Novak.
He went 0-of-5 on his second rack, which doomed his chances.
“The second rack killed me,” Curry said, per CSN’s Nate Stuhlbarg. “I was (disappointed) at first, I mean, you want to win. It’s a competition and you want to have a good showing. But 17 was a good number for me. Can’t be mad at that.”
Good, but not enough to reach the finals. That’s where Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star Kyrie Irving shined to the tune of a 23-point round, earning him the trophy.
Despite last year’s disappointment, Curry is still one of the best shooters in the game. In fact, if you ask Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant, he’s the “best shooter to ever play.”
While that moniker is certainly up for debate, I think Curry will be out for redemption in 2014. Having a year of Three-Point Shootout experience under his belt should help him remain calm and simply do what he does best—shoot.
Prediction: John Wall
Toronto Raptors youngster Ross won the 2013 Slam Dunk Contest by displaying feats of terrific athleticism, but he’ll have his hands full with this year’s lineup.
Joining Ross will be George, Wall, Barnes, McLemore and, of course, Lillard.
Ross is the favorite until proven otherwise. Even if he wasn't the defending dunk champion, he should be the majority's pick simply based on this monster dunk over Faried of the Denver Nuggets. It's an early contender for dunk of the year.
With that said, Wall of the Washington Wizards is my choice.
Even though Ross is a great dunker, he's at a disadvantage because he already showed off his best dunks in last year's competition. He'll be forced to up his performance from a year ago, whereas Wall will be showing fresh material in his first ever Slam Dunk Contest.
You may recall that Wall threw down a behind-the-back slam during garbage time of the 2012 Rising Stars Challenge (ignore the egregious travel).
Ross threw down a behind-the-back dunk of his own during the 2013 contest, so Wall has at least shown that he can match the skill level of the Raptors’ highflier.
Also, Wall is trying to build up his brand and make a name for himself as a bona fide star in the NBA. As a result, he may show added motivation to win this contest as a means of putting the league on notice.
The Wizards floor general may not have the raw leaping ability of Ross, but he’s still a serious contender to take home the trophy this year.
The Western Conference has come away victorious in the last three All-Star matchups dating back to 2011. I don’t expect that to change in 2014.
The Eastern Conference has been the butt of jokes in NBA circles for its historically poor showing during the first half of the 2013-14 season. Aside from the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers sitting atop the conference, only the upstart Toronto Raptors and gritty Atlanta Hawks have a record better than .500.
The East has three first-time All-Stars: Millsap, Wall and DeRozan. The West, meanwhile, sports two players making their first appearance: Curry (starting) and Lillard.
Guard play usually makes the difference in All-Star games, and it’s hard to pick against guys like Curry, Lillard, Paul (last year's All-Star Game MVP), Parker and Harden.
The Western Conference also has a distinct size advantage with Griffin, Love, Howard, Aldridge and Nowitzki.
At the end of the day, those two strengths will propel the West to victory for the fourth straight year.