The NBA is hoping the new All-Star format produces more intrigue for what has become a stale game.
Years ago, the All-Stars played a flashy, no-defense style until the fourth quarter, when they got serious. That’s when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would go at Moses Malone, Larry Bird would face up against Alvin Robertson, and John Stockton and Isiah Thomas would go toe-to-toe.
As years passed, the real competition would begin later in the fourth quarter, then the final six minutes, then the final three. And then Anthony Davis broke an All-Star record with 52 points against virtually no defense last season in New Orleans, and changes were needed.
This year’s All-Star teams are named after LeBron James and Stephen Curry, the leading vote-getters in each conference. The 10 starters were the first to be selected, and then James and Curry filled out their 12-man rosters with reserves chosen by the coaches.
Team LeBron features James, Kyrie Irving (we’ll get to that later), DeMarcus Cousins (though he ruptured his Achilles’ Friday night), Davis, and Kevin Durant as starters. The reserves are Bradley Beal, LaMarcus Aldridge, John Wall, Kevin Love, Victor Oladipo, Kristaps Porzingis, and Russell Westbrook. Paul George was named as Cousins’s roster replacement Saturday.
This is perhaps the best All-Star team in 20 years, considering the reigning league MVP is coming off the bench, James and Durant are in the same lineup, with the dazzling ballhandling of Irving, and the all-around game of Davis.
The fact that James chose Irving will be one of the bigger stories of All-Star Weekend. It would have been no surprise if James had passed on Irving, his former teammate, after Irving asked to be, and was, traded from the Cavaliers last offseason.
Irving respected his relationship with James, but he didn’t appreciate the big brother-little brother dynamic James tried to create. Irving wanted to be asked about league-wide issues, as James is. He wanted more responsibility in the Cavaliers’ offense.
But James/Irving isn’t the only former teammate story line on this team. Durant and Westbrook are reunited on Team LeBron, and the two still have a simmering feud after Durant’s departure from Oklahoma City to Golden State.
During last season’s All-Star Game, Durant and Westbrook were cordial but talked little during timeouts, when most of their other teammates were bonding. Team LeBron’s bench is loaded with young talent in Beal, Porzingis, Oladipo, and Wall. And despite the supposed beef between Love and his teammates after he left the Cavaliers’ recent loss to the Thunder because of an illness, he was still picked by James.
Team Stephen is loaded with offense in the starting lineup with Curry, DeMar DeRozan, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and James Harden. The reserves have more of a defensive flavor with Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Al Horford, along with scoring point guards Kyle Lowry and Damian Lillard, and Karl-Anthony Towns, the lone legitimate center.
Not as much intrigue between teammates on Team Stephen. Curry chose two of his Golden State teammates, and then added scoring machine Harden and a wild card in Antetokounmpo. Would Team Stephen coach Mike D’Antoni use a lineup that featured those four top defenders off the bench along with Antetokounmpo?
The league would love a more competitive game, and even some chippiness. The All-Star Game had turned into merely a league celebration, with less emphasis placed on actual competition. It was fascinating to see players go all out during the regular season in an effort to be named to the All-Star Game, and then would participate in the game but not give 100 percent.
“I would like it to be [more competitive]. That’s the hope,” Irving said. “But we’re all great competitors and also great friends, and I think prior to the All-Star Games that happened over the past couple of years there’s been some bad blood going into All-Star Games and some matchups that people want to see. It’s just the excitement of the weekend, and hopefully this new format can give us the competitive drive because I know some people want to see some matchups and some teams, everyone’s hope of who they want to see go against one another. So I’m pretty sure as we get closer to the weekend, we’ll put on a show better than it was last year, in terms of being the high-scoring pace that it was.”
Injuries haven’t stopped Clippers
Clippers coach Doc Rivers has had to answer questions about why his scoring guard Lou Williams wasn’t named an All-Star despite averaging 23.6 points per game, mostly as a reserve. Williams tweeted “LOL” (laugh out loud) when the All-Star reserves were selected by the coaches.
“I wasn’t surprised, [but] I thought he deserved it,” Rivers said. “Numbers-wise it was a no-brainer that he should have been on it. The All-Star team is tough, the name recognition goes a long way. He’s an All-Star as far as the way he played and I still think there should be at least 14 guys on the All-Star [rosters], maybe 15.
“With the new format, which I don’t understand because I don’t pay much attention to it, if you’re not going to have an East-West team, then why can’t we just vote for whoever? It should be whoever the 24 best players.”
Said Celtics coach Brad Stevens: “[The Clippers] had two guys who could have been All-Stars [Blake Griffin and Williams] and probably split votes. That probably ultimately hurt them. I was thinking about it from a coach’s voting perspective. I’m sure that a lot of people look and say the Clippers are having a good year, I’d like to put one of those guys on, and you look at Griffin’s stats and Williams’s stats are about the same, so you had about six votes each and that probably hurt them.”
The Clippers have boosted themselves back into playoff contention despite myriad injuries that have affected most of their frontline players. Griffin missed 16 games with a concussion and a knee injury, high-priced summer acquisition Danilo Gallinari has missed 37 games with a gluteus injury, and point guard Patrick Beverley played just 11 games before requiring season-ending knee surgery.
In two games back since missing five with an ankle injury, center DeAndre Jordan has combined for 30 points and 23 rebounds. The Clippers are a more imposing defensive team with Jordan on the floor, and he has boosted his offensive rating by become a better free throw shooter.
“Clearly he’s one of the better defensive players in the league,” Rivers said. “He affects our offense more than people think as well because of his ability to get behind the defense. You miss [Jordan] when he’s not out there on the floor. There’s no doubt. We won a couple of games without him, but it’s hard. This group is used to playing without guys, so it’s not like they flinch.”
Griffin is averaging a career-high 5.4 assists, which Rivers attributes to his underrated passing ability, and the expanding of the offense with point guard Chris Paul now in Houston.
“He’s always done it, but obviously when you lose a Chris Paul, you put the ball in his hands more,” Rivers said of Griffin. “You really put the ball in everybody’s hands more. Our ball movement has been better and Blake has been a better passer. When I took this job, the first thing somebody told me is you’re going to be shocked by Blake’s passing. The statement shocked me because you didn’t see it as much, but he has the ability to see the floor. We’ve gone to a motion offense, the ball’s in his hands a lot.”
Serbian point guard Milos Teodosic, who missed 27 games with plantar fasciitis, has also returned, and the Clippers are 14-7 with him in the lineup. He is having defensive issues, such as last Wednesday when the Celtics repeatedly fed the ball to the player guarded by Teodosic. He struggled in that situation, especially against Jayson Tatum.
“He’s a great passer and he has great feel. It’s still his first year in the NBA and defensively it’s tough for him,” Rivers said of Teodosic. “He’s never played against athletes and guys with this speed, and so we’re trying to put him on the right guys. He’s also never played more than 30 minutes a night, so you have to be careful with that as well. He’s just a great guy to have on your team, not only just basketball-wise but he’s just got a great spirit. He’s one of those guys you just like being around.
“A lot of guys are missed when they’re not playing. We’ve had so many guys out. But he’s important for our ball movement, it’s infectious. There’s certain guys who are like that. They pass so much that everybody wants to join in.”
Magic in another disappearing act
The Magic walked into TD Garden last Sunday and beat up the Celtics in one of their better performances of the season. It’s been a disappointing season for coach Frank Vogel, whose team was one of the league’s early surprises with a 6-2 start.
The Magic then went 8-31 in their next 39 games, taking themselves out of playoff contention. They’ll be in the draft lottery for the sixth consecutive season, and could get the No. 1 pick. Vogel is not yet on the hot seat, but Orlando may make changes as one of the league’s more disappointing organizations.
Those recent lottery picks have not resulted in success. Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis were traded away. Mario Hezonja has not reached his potential. Rookie Jonathan Isaac has been hurt most of this season.
The Magic still have considerable talent in Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton, and Terrence Ross. But they have been besieged by injuries and inconsistency. Last offseason they added Jonathon Simmons and former Brad Stevens pupil Shelvin Mack to help the offense, but the Magic rank 28th in scoring defense at a whopping 110.3 points per game.
They have scorers but very few premium defenders, and the Magic lose a lot of shootouts. But Vogel, in his second year with Orlando after a successful stint with the Pacers, is trying to keep his team positive for the second half of the season.
The Magic entered Friday 10½ games out of a playoff spot, so Vogel is doing more encouraging and motivating.
“The schedule and injuries, we played a stretch of 12 out of 13 teams that were playoff teams last year and most of them on the road, right around the same time we got decimated with injuries,” he said. “Our guys have been competing and fighting and trying to hang in there, just trying to improve every day.”
Vogel has to hope his team doesn’t quit down the stretch, when it will play more desperate teams looking to reach the postseason. There could be a summer of serious changes in Orlando if the team bottoms out. The Magic are one of the league’s sleeping giants, waiting for the right recipe.
“It’s a long season and there is a bigger picture here,” Vogel said. “We’re trying to build a winning program. It’s not about one more [game] or one stretch of games, but building winning habits and hanging on to the belief that our best basketball is ahead of us.”
Vogel is holding on to hopes that Isaac, the sixth overall pick last June, can turn into a star. Vogel sees the upside in the 6-foot-10-inch forward.
“He’s got great potential,” the coach said. “We’re very, very high on that young man. I look at [Jaylen] Brown and [Jayson] Tatum and I get a little bit jealous because of their length and athleticism they have out there, and it’s just I have in the back of my mind — we have a guy like that. Even longer actually than both of those guys. We’re just excited to get him back in there at the right time.”
Isaac hasn’t played since Dec. 26 because of an ankle injury. He’s averaging 5.3 points and 3.7 rebounds per game and the Magic are hoping he can emerge as a defensive presence who can also shoot from the perimeter.
Celtics guard Kyrie Irving participated in a series of television advertisements in China to help celebrate Chinese New Year. The NBA will broadcast 93 games in Greater China from Feb. 2 to March 3. The NBA has dramatically increased its attention on China in the past few years. Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs and Anthony Davis of the Pelicans also appeared in the ads . . . Former No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett remains with Maine of the G-League and is averaging 12.9 points and 7.4 rebounds in eight games. Bennett is not under contract with the Celtics and can be signed by any team. Kadeem Allen, a second-round pick of the Celtics last June who’s known more for his defensive prowess, scored 46 points in a 120-111 win over Long Island last Tuesday. Allen converted 16 of his 29 field goals, including 5 of 9 on 3-pointers . . . Former Celtic Dana Barros recently opened the Dana Barros Basketball Club in Stoughton. The building features five full-size courts and is also available for volleyball training . . . The Cavaliers decided to make a change in their starting lineup, and it sent former Celtic Jae Crowder to the bench. It’s been a difficult season for Crowder, who is averaging 8.7 points, shooting 41.5 percent from the field, and 32.4 percent from the 3-point line. Those numbers were 13.9, 46.3, and 39.8 last season with the Celtics. Crowder’s defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions with him on the floor) was 102 two years ago in Boston. That number is 114 now as Cleveland has one of the league’s worst defenses. Crowder has two more years on the five-year, $35 million extension he signed with the Celtics. His salary is below market value, so unless the Cavaliers need to include his salary to facilitate a trade, it may not be worth it for Cleveland to move Crowder. Crowder had issues with the Celtics acquiring another small forward in Gordon Hayward and welcomed a new opportunity elsewhere, but the fit in Cleveland has been uncomfortable at best, and now he must question where he will fit into the rotation with reduced playing time.