All-Star Weekend is not only my favorite time of the NBA season, but one of the best examples of why the NBA is the greatest professional sports league. Other sports get one night, maybe two for their All-Star festivities, and just a handful of events between them. We get an entire f—king three-night weekend, with enough separate events and participants to nearly qualify as an Olympics of some sort. It’s all great, with every competition equally essential in its own way — with the notable exception of the Shooting Stars competition, of course, and even that is usually more fun to watch than you remember. It’s a total over-indulgence in NBA culture and consequence-free competition, and I wouldn’t change a minute of it. (Though the “loser wears short shorts the next season” idea for the game proper is a pretty great one.)
Anyway, though every All-Star Weekend is automatically great, every year packs a unique undercurrent of intrigue to give the proceedings just enough context to be specifically dramatic and important-seeming, even if in reality, what happens at All-Star Weekend generally stays at All-Star Weekend. It is, after all, a surreal three-day excursion where rivals become teammates, rewards are given for making the easiest shot in the NBA seem as difficult as possible, and being able to make a half-court shot is actually a skill of some importance. Here are the 10 subplots that should be giving this year’s festivities their punch.
1. Will the Slam Dunk Contest be “Back” or “Dead”? Every year it’s one of the two, with no in-between. Things are looking up for the Contest being “Back” this year, however. Not only are there six contestants that all seem like good selections and potential winners, but history is on this year’s side, with us due for a “Back” year. Consider:
2009: Back (Nate Rob over Dwight Howard)
2010: Dead (Nate Rob over who remembers)
2011: Back (Blake Griffin over a Kia)
2012: Dead (Jeremy Evans over Kevin Hart)
So looks like this year, we’re clearly on pace for a “Back” year. There also might be some correlation here with whether or not Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow on Groundhog Day, but I haven’t done the necessary research into that.
2. Will James White live up to expectation? I can’t remember the last time, if ever, a player as inconsequential to the league as Knicks forward James White was so hotly anticipated in his Slam Dunk Contest participation. Then again, it’s also been a while since the contest was so anticipated by a participating player. White’s enthusiasm for the contest stands in stark contrast to many of the dunkers of recent years, who seem begrudging about their involvement, and his giddiness can’t help but infect us a little by extension. But of course, it’s all for naught if he disappoints or underwhelms during his actual performance. Can James White justify the hype, the idea that his entire life in basketball was leading up to this moment? Oh, and while we’re at it…
3. Can Matt Bonner put his Money Ball where his mouth is? After campaigning more than “Lincoln” and “Argo” combined to get into All-Star Weekend, the Red Rocket finally has found his way into the Three-Point Shootout, with the support of pretty much the entire internet (and weirdly, the indie rock community) behind him. “I guarantee nobody in the history of the 3-point contest has been as excited as I am to be there,” Bonner has said, and we’re not gonna question him. But like many suddenly elected officials, Bonner now finds himself faced with the difficult task of living up to his promises of success and prosperity, and if he finishes anywhere but first, it will be an unqualified failure. The drama should make it one of the more (only?) suspenseful Shootouts in All-Star history, at the least.
4. Is this going to be the worst All-Star Celebrity Game ever? Regardless of what the haters may tell you, the All-Star Celebrity Game has always been essential viewing, producing in-game legends like Terrell Owens and Micheal “The Owens Stopper” Rappaport and featuring memorable cameos from celebrities like Justin Bieber and Arne “Secretary of Offense” Duncan. But this year, if there’s a reason to watch, I couldn’t tell you what it is. Well, that’s not totally true – watching Usain Bolt go from end-to-end on a fast break will certainly be a sight to behold, and might alone be worth the price of admission. But otherwise, it’s a collection of all our least favorite Celebrity All-Star reruns. I mean, Common and Ne-Yo again? Oh boy, Kevin Hart, what a pleasant surprise. Even the former All-Stars, with the exception of a potential Dikembe Mutombo finger wag, are a snoozer. Oh, and speaking of…
5. Can we contain Kevin Hart to the All-Star Celebrity Game? When and where Kevin Hart got carte blanche to just show up at whatever events he feels like at All-Star Weekend remains unknown to me, but last year he was more over-exposed at All-Star Weekend than hometown star Dwight Howard. He’ll definitely be infecting the All-Star Celebrity Game on Friday with his endlessly irritating brand of short guy comedy, but if we can keep him from spreading to Saturday and Sunday’s festivities as well, it’ll have to be seen as a success. Also of minor concern: Can we get Kenny Smith to sit down and shut up for the Dunk Contest this year?
6. Who will shine brighter in the Rookie-Sophomore game, Kyrie Irving or Damian Lillard? I miss the days of Rookies and Sophomores playing as separate teams in this one. By having an obvious favorite in the game, it actually created stakes of some sort, as the Rookies would have something to prove and the Sophs wouldn’t want to be embarrassed. (That’s the motivation I projected onto them, anyway.) But now that that’s been done away with, first- and second-year players like Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving can actually play as teammates, rather than going head-to-head. Still, I imagine only one of the two dynamic young scoring guards (and presumptive back to back Rookies of the Year) will stand out on Team Shaq, and with no obvious Team Chuck rival to either, the intra-team competition might be the most compelling.
7. Will Alicia Keys play “Girl on Fire”? Just kidding. Of course she will. The real question is “Will we ever have to hear this f—king song again after All-Star Weekend?” Or, alternately, “Could the NBA really not have done any better than Ne-Yo and Alicia Keys for their marquee entertainment event, why does the music industry hate the NBA so much?”
8. Who will be the first person/people to do the “Harlem Shake”? You know it’s going to make an appearance. It’s the thing right now and the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns already have made videos for the meme, though no one from either of those two teams is involved with this weekend, leaving the door open for just about anyone. I can’t shake the feeling that one of the Dunk Contest dunks will somehow attempt to integrate the Harlem Shake, though I haven’t for the life of me figured out how they’re going to do it. Maybe Baauer himself will be tossing Gerald Green alley-oops, who knows.
9. Which of the first-timers will separate from the pack in the All-Star Game? Assuming there are no further injury replacements, there will be seven first-time All-Stars in Houston this year, at least one of whom will likely put forth a concerted effort to prove they belong with the perennials. Six of those first-timers are in the East, but the odds-on favorite for Rookie of the Game honors might be the one guy in the West, hometown favorite and electric scorer James Harden. Don’t count out Kyrie Irving and Jrue Holiday in the East, though. Somebody’s gotta play point guard at some point for that team, right? Or is Erik Spoelstra gonna innovate the Five Bigs lineup just to prove that he hasn’t become reliant on small ball?
10. Can LeBron keep it rolling? At no point in his already Hall of Fame career has LeBron reached such a fever pitch of general acclaim than he has in the past week, as Miami has gone on a seven-game winning streak with LeBron setting his 30-point, 60 percent shooting streak “record” and most recently laying the hammer down on Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in last night’s marquee matchup against the one player and team thought to be a real challenger to LeBron and the Heat’s throne. Will LeBron stay historically hot through the All-Star Game? Will Durant or Kobe or someone else have something to say about it? Will we just decide to fold the second half of the NBA season and award the title, MVP and World’s Best Dad honors to LeBron right there and there? For better or worse, nothing is impossible with this guy.