B/R's Staff Predictions for All-Star WeekendFebruary 16, 2018
B/R's Staff Predictions for All-Star Weekend
The NBA needs a timeout. Between players beefing, devastating injuries and a hectic trade deadline, the league is more than ready for a week of downtime and basketball without consequence.
With All-Star Weekend upon us, Bleacher Report turns to nine NBA writers to offer thoughts and predictions. Who will show out in the Rising Stars Challenge? Can Team LeBron full of replacement players take down Team Steph?
And, of course: Who's going to own social media with more time than usual on their Twitter Fingers hands?
The festivities tip off Friday at 7 p.m. ET with the Celebrity Game and go through the All-Star Game on Sunday, which begins at 8 p.m. ET.
Will the New All-Star Game Format, Incentives Make Players Try Harder?
Lets stipulate this from the top: The All-Star Game is a meaningless exhibition. Ergo, we can't expect the world's best players to treat it like Game 7.
But we can—and we should—expect the All-Stars to at least compete, to try to win, to care about the result. When the best play the best, there should be some pride involved. Right?
Otherwise, why watch at all?
Chris Paul and Adam Silver had the same concern, and so this All-Star Game will look slightly different. The rosters were shuffled, breaking down the old East-West paradigm. Team captains Steph Curry and LeBron James picked their own teams, playground style (even if the NBA blew it by failing to #televisethedraft). Each team is now playing for charity: Team LeBron for After-School All-Stars Los Angeles, Team Steph for Brotherhood Crusade. (The winning team's charity gets $350,000; the losing team's charity gets $150,000.) The NBA also doubled the bonus for the winning team, to $100,000 per player.
So there's more incentive now and perhaps a little more pride on the line.
Is it enough to make the game compelling? I'm skeptical.
The roster shuffling is comically irrelevant. No one will be playing harder because they woke up as a member of "Team Steph" instead of "West." The charity wrinkle is good—it means there are real stakes now. The increased bonus seems like the right idea, but I'm not sure an extra $50,000 means much when the average player salary exceeds $8 million. (The lowest-salaried All-Star this year is Joel Embiid—who's earning $6.1 million.)
Really, the stars have been treating this game as a joke for so long, I'm not sure what could move them.
Ultimately, this is about simple professionalism. The world's best players should strive to give us their best, even in an exhibition, because that's why we watch.
Players don't need to go all-out or risk injury. No one's asking for 100 percent. But 80 percent would be nice. Compete just a little harder. Play some defense. Pretend it matters.
Heck, if all we wanted was a flurry of uncontested threes and pretty dunks, we'd just watch the Saturday night events and call it a wrap.
Who Will Win the Slam Dunk Contest?
I'll go with Donovan Mitchell because, among other justifications, it just kind of feels like he's fated to wow crowds and win fans this year. It is very much the Season of Donovan Mitchell.
If you're not sold on predestination, that's fine. Mitchell has enough bounce and creativity to be the favorite on merit. I like a two-foot dunker in contest formats, and he can finish at altitude with one or two hands. Plus, he has that rare recoil move that adds so much flair to a good jam. (After throwing the ball through the rim, Mitchell immediately flings his hands away from the cylinder—as if touching a lit burner on a stove. It increases the violence of the act in a way that works aesthetically. It also helps that he's generally eye-level (slight exaggeration) with the rim when he does this.)
Dennis Smith Jr. is tough to bet against. He's springy to the umpteenth degree, and smaller guys tend to fare well because their dunks look more impressive.
But I just can't get away from Mitchell. He's too nasty.
Who Will Win the Three-Point Contest?
Eric Gordon and Klay Thompson have each taken home this award, but the field is wide open. Shooting with volume and accuracy isn't a strange concept to any of these players, as even Wayne Ellington—arguably the least known of the eight participants—is lofting 7.6 triples per game and connecting at a 38.7 percent clip. They're all capable of catching fire and singeing the nets during multiple routes before hoisting the coveted trophy.
And yet, Thompson should remain the favorite.
Not only does he have the history at this particular contest (2016 champion), but he ticks all the boxes during the 2017-18 campaign. He's statistically emerged as the league's deadliest sharpshooter, even outpacing his fellow Splash Brother who won't be competing in this showdown. The Golden State Warriors 2-guard is one of just 14 qualified marksmen taking at least seven three-point attempts per contest (joined by everyone else in this competition other than Bradley Beal and Tobias Harris), but he's easily the most accurate of that group at 45.5 percent. Only Paul George (43.2) and Stephen Curry (41.3) even join him in the plus-40 club.
Pair that with remarkable proficiency in the spot-up game (85.7 percentile for points per possession) and a knack for replicating his motion out of myriad shooting slots, and he should validate his status as a historically accurate sniper by winning the contest again.
Who Will Shine Brightest in the Rising Stars Challenge?
The primary Rookie of the Year candidates were both built for the Rising Stars Challenge.
Except for the inevitable three-pointer Ben Simmons will take after getting bored of dunking, he might not miss a shot Friday night. His open-floor ball-handling and athleticism will translate to easy baskets at the rim all evening.
Nobody else on the World roster averages over 3.2 assists, either. Simmons could have 10 dimes by halftime, assuming he's initiating most of his team's offensive possessions and the defense doesn't pick up until the final 20 minutes.
Mark Simmons down for his easiest triple-double of the year season against USA.
Meanwhile, bank on Donovan Mitchell being the game's leading scorer. We already know what he can do with a green light from the Utah Jazz coaches—imagine what he'll be capable of in an All-Star setting with no limitations on his shot selection.
Mitchell's explosive leaping and tough shot-making will both be on full display in Los Angeles. He'll create highlights and liven up the crowd with dunk contest teasers and heat-check jump-shooting.
Prepare for Mitchell and Simmons to go back and forth and enhance the debate about who will be the Rookie of the Year and better long-term player.
Who Will Lord over Social Media This Weekend?
So this is an easy answer as the answer to any question about an NBA playing "winning" social media is, almost always, Joel Embiid. The question here is how not if, as in: How will Joel Embiid be the social media MVP of the weekend? Will he tweet at Rihanna from the bench during Sunday night's game? Will he troll a dunk contest loser with a #TrustTheProcess hashtag? How many #BurnerAccount hashtags will he work in? Embiid's one of the funniest and sharpest professional athletes in the world—and he's all for embracing the WWE-aspect of the NBA. His first All Star Weekend should provide him with plenty of material.
Who Takes the Skills Competition?
Spencer Dinwiddie is no doubt one of the least popular picks for the Skills Challenge. He's hardly a household name, even with his improvement making the rounds on NBA Twitter, and he pilots a Brooklyn Nets offense that just barely staves off bottom-five status.
Dinwiddie isn't on the same plane as all of the past winners. Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Stephen Curry, and even Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns have won the competition. But so have the likes of Patrick Beverley and Trey Burke. (Burke's victory came alongside Damian Lillard.)
Dinwiddie is a low-turnover point man with smooth handles and a knack for ducking in and out of traffic. And he won't be fazed by the speed aspect; Brooklyn prides itself on getting up and down the floor before opposing defenses have time to set up.
Pretty much everyone not named Andre Drummond has a genuine chance of stealing Saturday's gauntlet of sleight, but Dinwiddie's case should be likened to those from Beverley and Parker—rooted in composure and collectiveness in a way that sneaks up on everyone, his competition included.
Who Steals the Show in the Celebrity Game?
The NBA Celebrity Game. It's the first sign that the big weekend is officially upon us—but it's also an opportunity to sit back and enjoy hoops for the fun, sloppy, semi-athletic sport most of us human-built, LA Fitness-beings know it to be.
In this year's edition, Tracy McGrady and Paul Pierce will face off. That's fun, but it's not exactly 1998. Justin Bieber was recently added to the game, but it wasn't that long ago we saw him moving on the court pretty despacito.
In this competition, someone is about to steal your heart who, quite frankly, has already stolen it. Brandon Armstrong is last year's MVP. He's the league's best superstar impersonator. He even managed to snag the spotlight in one of the 2017-18 season's early on-court skirmishes.
Armstrong is a real-life basketball talent who also has personality. That's crucial for this event.
But if we're being real here (and we mean no disrespect to Armstrong, who not many know was a former college player at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee): Can we start a movement where the fans vote in the celebrities instead of voting in All-Stars? Who wouldn't want to watch Drake do (or not do) his best DeMar DeRozan impression? Can we get Lil B The Based God blessing everyone on the court en route to his own MVP?
Could we get No. 44 himself, Barack Obama, to swear into the starting lineup? (Maybe 2020...We see you, Chicago.)
Until then, Armstrong is your guy. Expect impersonations of James Harden and Russell Westbrook to LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
But also...expect some decent basketball.
Who Wins: Team Steph or Team LeBron?
Team LeBron is seriously loaded, which must be a treat for LeBron, since half his team just had to be traded 50 games into the season because it wasn't good enough. Even with DeMarcus Cousins injured, I'd take my chances with LeBron, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis four-on-five against almost any five you could come up with on the other side.
Maybe LeBron is onto something with his desire to own a team someday. Drafting an All-Star team from a pool of the best players in the league is entirely different than building one from scratch, but LBJ did a solid job here. Who's guarding KD and AD from the three-point line to the rim...while cutting off Kyrie's driving lanes...AND handling LeBron in transition and in the paint?
Having said that, Team Steph is deeper on paper. Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Kyle Lowry and Karl-Anthony Towns all coming off the bench? Goodness. Then again, Russell Westbrook, who's won two of the last three All-Star MVPs, doesn't even start for Team LeBron. And in the end, the All-Star Game is about star power. Team LeBron accounts for five of the last six All-Star Game MVPs. My guess is, make it six out of seven.