Cancel your usual Saturday night plans. This week, the NBA has you covered.
Few things are as exciting as the NBA's All-Star Game, and State Farm's All-Star Saturday night is one of them. From the Taco Bell Skills Challenge to the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest to the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest, there is so much to watch and drool over. Oh, and there's the Sears Shooting Stars competition as well. We cannot forget about that.
As if that's not enough, this year features an array of twists and turns. The NBA has made changes to most of the events, making them even more interesting than before.
So don't think twice about skipping your weekly bar-hopping or The Honeymooners marathon (hey, I'm not here to judge), because this weekend is all about exhibition-style basketball, which, in some ways, is the best kind of basketball there is.
State Farm All-Star Saturday Night
When: Saturday, Feb. 15
Where: Smoothie King Center
TV: TNT coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.
Shooters always get to shine on All-Star Saturday night.
The Shooting Stars showcases NBA players of past and present along with current WNBA talents, in a game of accuracy and timing.
Here is how the contest is formatted this season, per NBA.com:
Shooting from 4 locations of increasing difficulty, teams attempt to make all 4 shots in numeric order in the fastest time.
Four numbered shooting spots will be placed on the floor to designate each shot location.
Prior to the event, each team chooses a specific order of shooting and follows that order throughout the event.
Each shot must be made (unlimited attempts) before the next player in the order begins shooting.
For Shot #4 (near half court), Player A must take the first shot - then all three players will rotate (in A,B,C order) until the shot is made, which stops the clock and gives the team their official time.
Since the shots are ordered in increasing difficulty, players step farther back on each attempt. The first is a 10-foot shot from the strong side; the second is a 19-foot, nine-inch shot from the top of the key; the third is a regular NBA three-point shot from the left wing; and the fourth comes from just inside half court, dead-center with the basket.
Teams are given 90 seconds to make every shot. In the event that they don't finish, their score is recorded as 90 seconds.
The team from either conference with the fastest time will move on to the championship round where the entire process repeats itself.
Got it? Good.
Family ties will dominate this portion of All-Star Weekend. For those teams that don't share a bloodline, well, there's always their mutual love for scoring.
Team 1: Tim Hardaway Jr. (New York Knicks); Tim Hardaway Sr. (Legend); Elena Delle Donne (Chicago Sky)
The Hardaway boys together again. How could you not love this?
I'm not sure how they'll fair, though, as it seems Tim Hardaway Jr. may have to hit both the three-point and half-court shot to give them the victory (no offense, Tim senior).
Team 2: Chris Bosh (Miami Heat); Dominique Wilkins (Legend); Swin Cash (Chicago Sky)
Chris Bosh, Dominique Wilkins and Swin Cash won this event last year, so most definitely don't count them out. Bosh tends to shine in the most obscure events (photobombing), after all.
Team 1: Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors); Dell Curry (Legend); Becky Hammon (San Antonio Stars)
Any team featuring Stephen and Dell Curry is in good shape. Add Becky Hammon to the fold, and these may be your Western Conference favorites...
Team 2: Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder); Karl Malone (Legend); Skylar Diggins (Tulsa Shock)
...unless Kevin Durant has anything to say about it.
Assuming Karl Malone can hit whatever shot he's asked to quickly (19-plus footer, I'd imagine), Skylar Diggins and Durant both seem like they can drill half-court heaves all day.
Don't ask me why, but I've got Durant, Malone and Diggins pulling this out.
Durant doesn't really miss anymore, and Malone was automatic on mid-range jumpers during his playing days. Part of me isn't so sure he doesn't hoist up a couple hundred of them a day still.
Their biggest challenge will be getting out of the Western Conference. The Curry boys are ruthless shooters. If they decide not to miss, well, then Durant, Malone and Diggins are in trouble.
For the Eastern Conference, I feel like Bosh, Wilkins and Cash will make a run at a repeat. That's what Bosh is used to doing, anyway.
But it doesn't really matter who comes out of the East. This contest will belong to one of the Western Conference triumvirates, both of which feature some heavy-hitting, distance-savvy shooters
Predicted Winners: Kevin Durant, Karl Malone and Skylar Diggins
I hope you're into teamwork.
In a detailed rules release, the NBA announced some changes to the Taco Bell Skills Challenge. The competition will now feature four teams comprising two players apiece.
Per the release, "The passing and the top of the key shooting challenges are considered completed (player can move on) when he either (1) successfully hits the target/makes the shot or (2) exhausts the corresponding rack of balls while attempting to make the target/basket." For the opening layup/dunk and final shot, though, a player must rebound his own ball until his attempt is made.
Teammates will run through an obstacle course that tests shooting, passing and ball-handling skills in relay format. Duos with the fastest times will move on.
In the first round, the two Western Conference teams will square off against one another while the two Eastern Conference squads go head-to-head. Winners of each battle will represent their respective conference in the championship round.
Nothing changes from there. The team with the slowest time from Round 1 goes first, followed by the remaining team. The twosome with the collective fastest time will be crowned 2014 Skills Challenge champions.
In the event of a tie in either round, teams would repeat the obstacle course.
If you were looking for your average list of participants, look elsewhere.
Point guards typically dominant the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, and while this year isn't necessarily different, there is a certain, lanky Greek Freak shaking things up.
Eastern Conference Team One
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Putting Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Skills Challenge is so unorthodox, it actually makes too much sense.
With a 7'3" wingspan, per NBA.com, he's not your typical participant for a contest that highlights precision and generally nimble-footed ball-handlers. But that's fine.
Merely seeing Antetokounmpo partake in this event is all we need, even if the NBA refuses to implement my proposed obstacle-course changes to reflect his presence, which, for the record, include:
Making players rescue kittens or small children from the top of the backboard without using a ladder.
Asking players to hug 25 people at once.
Seeing who comes closest to duplicating the final dunk from Space Jam
DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
How fitting is it that DeMar DeRozan and Antetokounmpo—the two most unconventional contestants—are on the same team?
DeRozan has developed into a crafty handler, but he's no point guard. It will be interesting to see how he and his fellow wild card fair together as they navigate an obstacle course still built for floor generals.
Eastern Conference Team Two
Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers
Michael Carter-Williams remains a virtual lock to win Rookie of the Year, and his dexterity makes him a good fit for this challenge.
My biggest fear for him is exhausting the ball racks during the obstacle course's shooting portion. He's shown he can catch fire, but when he's off, man, is he off.
Victor Oladipo might just be the perfect player for this.
If it wasn't for Carter-Williams, we would be talking a lot more about him and his ability to man either guard position. Like Carter-Williams, his shooting can be spotty, but his ball-handling and passing acumen should pay dividends.
Western Conference Team One
Trey Burke, Utah Jazz
Not enough is made of Trey Burke's rookie campaign. He's getting progressively better at tightening his handles, and though his shooting is a work in progress, his speed and athleticism are rivaled only by his teammate for Saturday night.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Bring it on.
Damian Lillard is the Skills Challenge's reigning champion, having won the competition last year as a rookie. As someone who can shoot, drive and dribble, and do those things both meticulously and on a dime, Lillard is the ideal player for this competition.
Western Conference Team Two
Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns
At least Goran Dragic makes the trip to New Orleans in some capacity, right?
Phoenix's point guard is having a career season. Aside from Lillard, he's the most well-balanced guard in the bunch, combining thread-the-needle vision with efficient shooting.
It's a good thing Dragic and Lillard aren't on the same team, otherwise the three other pairs wouldn't stand a chance.
Reggie Jackson, Oklahoma City Thunder
Reggie Jackson is balling right now, to the point where one can only hope that Thunder coach Scott Brooks is open to running plenty more Russell Westbrook-Jackson dual-point guard lineups upon the former's return.
Making shots from the top of the key in a timely fashion could be an issue for Jackson, but he has the ball-handling and acceleration chops to make up seconds—yes, seconds—in other areas.
Making the Skills Challenge into a glorified relay race should result in some unpredictable competition.
Participants are no longer relying on themselves. While one player's time could be spectacular, one misstep by his teammate could throw the competition.
Speaking candidly, I have a tough time imagining Antetokounmpo and DeRozan faring well in this thing. They'll certainly be entertaining to watch, and they both have speed comparable to that of a point guard's, but this obstacle course continues to favor true ball-handlers and lethal jump shooters.
Dragic and Lillard were made for this challenge, so their teams make for an interesting matchup during the conference round. In the end, you have to believe Lillard and Burke have the edge because of how all-around spectacular the former is.
From there, a championship matchup pitting Lillard and Burke against Carter-Williams and Oladipo also favors the Western Conference. Lillard and Burke appear to be the more well-rounded two-man combine, if only because I'm smitten by the absence of weaknesses in Lillard's offensive game.
Predicted Winners: Trey Burke and Damian Lillard
It's every player for himself in this one.
Unlike the Skills Challenge and—as you'll come to see—the Slam Dunk Contest, the NBA hasn't placed an emphasis on a team-building experience here, which is fine, because it's still awesome.
Here's a brief refresher on the long-ball competition's structure, courtesy of NBA.com:
The NBA's best from behind the arc will take part in the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest, with the eight players competing in a two-round competition. Each player will have one minute to shoot as many balls as he can. The highest scoring East and highest scoring West competitors from the First Round will advance to the Championship Round. Of the two finalists, the one with the lower individual score from the First Round will go first in the Championship Round. The player scoring the most points in the Championship Round will win the 2014 Foot Locker Three-Point Contest for his conference along with $100,000 for their Conference's charities.
Five different ball-rack stations will be set up behind the three-point line—one in either corner, one near each wing and one straight away from the basket.
On said racks, there will be five balls. The first four are worth one point each while the final "money ball" is worth a rack-defining two points.
Now for the twist.
This year, each player will be able to "switch one of the five shooting locations to a full rack of five money balls," each of which will still be worth two points.
Calling this a contest-changer would be an understatement. One rack from a player's sweet spot could change the course of the entire competition. Hit it big on your money ball-laden station, and you're in great shape.
Deadly shooters have become team staples, and those selected for this year's Foot Locker Three-Point Contest are some of the most lethal deep-ball draining machines out there.
Eastern Conference Participants
Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic
Three-point percentage: 42.5
Three-pointers attempted per game: 4.4
One of the league's biggest All-Star snubs gets a chance to showcase his outside prowess, for which we should all be grateful.
Arron Afflalo, who has been dominant from behind the rainbow this season, is probably one of the two biggest Eastern Conference threats in this competition.
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Three-point percentage: 43.0
Three-pointers attempted per game: 4.8
Bradley Beal is actually hitting on a higher percentage of his three-pointers than his two-pointers (40.7), so this should be fun—you know, as long as he's not tempted to step inside the arc for some long twos.
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
Three-point percentage: 36.9
Three-pointers attempted per game: 4.9
Hate on Kyrie Irving's defense all you want, the kid can shoot threes.
Irving isn't hitting on as many of his deep balls this season, but if he catches fire, there's no Eastern Conference opponent who's going to dethrone the reigning champ.
Joe Johnson, Brooklyn Nets
Three-point percentage: 39.3
Three-pointers attempted per game: 5.0
Joe Johnson is now a seven-time All-Star. Sorry, I just wanted to remind everyone.
Somewhat quietly, Johnson has been lighting it up from long distance this season. Head coach Jason Kidd has steadily devalued isolations and has Joe "Armadillo Cowboy" Johnson shooting threes like he's back in Atlanta, and it apparently suits him.
Western Conference Participants
Marco Belinelli, San Antonio Spurs
Three-point percentage: 44.8
Three-pointers attempted per game: 3.5
My god, the Spurs bring out the best in everyone.
Marco Belinelli has always been a deft shooter, but he's automatic in San Antonio. If his hot streak continues, and his release quickens without sacrificing form, he could do some serious damage here.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Three-point percentage: 41.5
Three-pointers attempted per game: 8.2
I'm pretty sure this contest was invented with Curry in mind, even though that's impossible.
Curry is already generating best-shooter-of-all-time buzz, and rightfully so. His lightning-quick release is paired with near-unmatchable accuracy, which is incredible. And awesome. And scary.
And perfect for this type of exhibition.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Three-point percentage: 40.4
Three-pointers attempted per game: 7.0
Lillard just won't get out of our faces, and I'm not complaining.
The sophomore has been lighting it up from downtown this season, and if he's not too exhausted from his previous exploits, he's a legitimate threat to win the whole thing.
Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves
Three-point percentage: 37.0
Three-pointers attempted per game: 6.2
Kevin Love has been here before. He won the competition in 2012, beating out Kevin Durant, before injuries kept him from defending his title last season.
Healthy as ever this year, Love has the chance to reclaim his 2012 title.
Look, I'm not going to lie, this could be the highlight of All-Star Saturday night.
The dunk contest is shaping up to be spectacular and the skills competition should be entertaining, but when you put so many on-cue shooters in one ring, things are bound to be exciting.
Irving is in good shape to make it out the Eastern Conference. None of the other three shooters feature particularly rapid releases. Of course, the other three—Johnson, Beal and Afflalo—have all been more accurate, so if Irving doesn't make good on his all-money-ball rack, it could get interesting.
For the Western Conference, I'm not sure how you pick one. All right, I lied. I'm rolling with Curry.
Golden State's point guard has had his fair share of slumps this season, but there are no defenders here. Curry is being asked to hit wide-open, essentially standstill threes. That, once again, should scare us all.
Don't be surprised if and when he wins the whole damn thing.
Predicted Winner: Stephen Curry
Changes are afoot for the dunk contest.
In a media release that named the six participants, the NBA announced changes to the competition's format, one of which includes a team-centric Freestyle Round:
This year's event will feature the participants competing as a team—three players representing the Eastern Conference and three players representing the Western Conference—in an above-the-rim two-round format. In a significant first in the event's history, the competition will tip off with a Freestyle Round where the dunkers for each conference will have 90 seconds to showcase as many dunks as they want. At the conclusion of the Freestyle Round, the panel of judges will then choose a winner by voting 'East' or 'West.' The winning conference will earn the advantage of deciding whether its dunkers will dunk first or second in the head-to-head battles that take place in the Battle Round.
In addition to the Freestyle Round, there will also be a Battle Round, where one Eastern Conference dunker goes up against another Western Conference dunker.
Judges will then determine the winner of each individual matchup. Losers of head-to-head battles are eliminated from the competition. The first conference to win three of those battles will be crowned 2014 Sprite Slam Dunk champions.
This represents a stark change from years past, when the dunk contest emphasized individual performances. It's all about team efforts this year.
Following the contest, though, an individual winner, or "Dunker of the Night," will be chosen by fans, who can vote on various media.
But enough about rules. Let's get to the good stuff.
For the last two years, the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest hasn't been what it was once cracked up to be, forcing spectators to watch as younger, lesser-known high-flyers trundled through dunks of moderate difficulty.
If there was ever a contestant field that could restore interest and hype in this competition, it's this year's crop of rim-rockers.
Paul George, Indiana Pacers
This is Paul George's second dunk competition. He participated in 2012, long before he was the household name he is now. It actually feels like forever ago.
This time around, George enters not as a rising star, but as an established luminary and in-game dunking machine. Jams like these bring fans to their feet and are just a preview of what we should expect when there are no defenders to impede his airborne attacks.
Terrence Ross, Toronto Raptors
Terrence Ross has his work cut out for him if he wishes to successfully defend his 2013 Slam Dunk title.
While not a star in the conventional sense, Toronto's sophomore is a patented dunker with insane reach and the kind of mid-air composure it takes to unite spins with between-the-legs handles. The height and explosion he generates upon lift off is simply ridiculous, too. Just ask Kenneth Faried.
John Wall, Washington Wizards
Scoop layups are more John Wall's speed, but when he wants to, the Wizards superstar can abuse rims at will.
Like I have written previously, give the agile Wall a "running start and a path clear of defenders, and he may just grab some quarters off the top of the backboard before putting one down."
Harrison Barnes, Golden State Warriors
Harrison Barnes is one of the more underrated in-game dunkers. Though he sometimes hesitates or stops short before completing what looks to be a rim attack, he's another explosive riser.
Put him on a platform like this, where there are no defenders and he doesn't have to worry about when or if he picks up his dribble, and there may just be some fancy backboard-rattling slams in his future.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Lillard will be everywhere over All-Star Weekend. Thankfully, "everywhere" includes the dunk contest.
Not even two years into his NBA tenure, Lillard is already separating himself from most floor generals. Athletically inclined point men like Derrick Rose and Westbrook don't have the Chris Paul-like finesse with which he moves.
Using his unique blend of explosion, precision and airborne guile, look for Lillard to be one of the more creative contest dunkers. That is, if he isn't exhausted from his previous workload.
Ben McLemore, Sacramento Kings
Ben McLemore's dunk contest debut was inevitable.
Touted for his shooting while in college, McLemore has some sick hops. He's even entertained the idea of attempting a 720-degree slam.
"I was thinking about that, nobody has put that up," McLemore told CLNS Radio. "But we’ll see.
Fingers crossed, everybody.
This is going to be fun.
The East vs. West concept is an interesting one, but it's the Freestyle Round that should have everyone abuzz.
With 90 seconds to attempt whatever dunks they please, there's honestly no telling what we'll see. It's the type of round that promotes risk-taking. There's a time limit, but they're not restricted to the number of attempts. Plus, 90 seconds is a lifetime.
If McLemore was going to attempt a 720-degree, it would be then—unless he's gutsy. Trying to pull one off in a head-to-head matchup would be absurd.
Looking at the rosters, the Eastern Conference has an overall advantage. George and Ross frequent rims as much as anyone, and they're both familiar with this competition. Barnes and McLemore, meanwhile, are two inexperienced guns who might shrink in the spotlight.
The same cannot be said of Lillard, who seems to thrive under pressure. He's not what you would call a habitual dunker, but he can get up when he needs to. But you have to wonder if he'll have the legs for this one after participating in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge, Taco Bell Skills Challenge and Foot Locker Three-Point Contest. A hectic All-Star schedule could work against him here.
Even if it doesn't, put your faith in the Eastern Conference trio headlined by George, who's poised to steal the show. I'm not just saying that because Roy Hibbert "heard" George would attempt a free-throw line, 360-degree windmill over the giant himself, either.
Predicted Winner: Eastern Conference
Predicted Dunker of the Night: Paul George