Writer: Caleb Akpan
NBA All-Star Weekend has arrived in Los Angeles and while Friday offers fun events like the Celebrity Game and Rising Stars Challenge, most start watching on Saturday night with the Slam Dunk and Three-Point Contests, and of course on Sunday, with the All-Star Game itself. This year’s Saturday night fields are excellent and with a new All-Star Game format, this weekend is the most interesting the event has had in quite some time.
Before any slamming and swishing occurs, the Skills Challenge will kickoff Saturday night festivities. The contest typically has contestants run through an obstacle course centered around the fundamentals of the game, like the pinpoint pass mastered by legends like Steve Nash, a two-time champion of the event (2005, 2010) and dribbling courses mirroring the in and outs of crossover artists like Stephen Curry, who won in 2011. This year, Curry will not be competing, but the field still presents eight players who should have an interesting competition.
Keeping with a theme followed the past couple of years, the Skills Challenge will mix guards and bigs showcasing the skills of players of all sizes. The guard lineup includes Lou Williams, Buddy Hield, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jamal Murray, while the three bigs competing are All-Stars Joel Embiid and Andre Drummond and rookie Lauri Markkanen.
The three bigs feel a bit like outsiders with Markkanen being more of a perimeter-centric player and Drummond and Embiid lacking the speed and dribbling skills needed in the timed event. Among the guards, an easy pick for favorite seems to be Lou Williams, who comes into All-Star Weekend feeling snubbed from Sunday’s game after coaches did not pick him as a reserve on multiple occasions. Saturday gives him a chance to put his stamp on the weekend and it’d be shocking if he didn’t take it.
After the Skills Challenge, the real fun begins with the Three Point Contest. This year’s field features a few superstars headlined by Golden State’s Klay Thompson, a couple more All-Stars on top of that, including Washington’s Bradley Beal, and some of the best shooters in the league like defending champion Eric Gordon to fill out the eight-man roster.
On paper, Thompson seems like the easy favorite to win, as many consider him to be one of the greatest shooters the league has ever seen period, but the shooters he’s up against could easily provide an upset. Eric Gordon one for a reason last season, and his shot can get as automatic as Klay’s at times. He’ll be fighting hard to keep his title and it wouldn’t be surprising if he was able to hold off any competition.
Don’t be surprised if an even bigger upset occurs though, as a dark horse could just as easily win the competition. Devin Booker seems to be on the bubble of NBA stardom and an amazing three-point performance could make that bubble burst. The contest has helped add to the legend of greats like Larry Bird, the winner of the first three competitions, and Dirk Nowitzki, who’s competed five times. Booker already has 70-point game on his resume, and it’d probably take a record-breaking performance to beat guys like Thompson and Gordon, this is the perfect opportunity for Booker to once again shock the world.
The main event of Saturday Night will most definitely be the Slam Dunk Contest. A staple of All-Star Weekend for almost 35 years, the slam dunk contest is responsible for some of the greatest moments in NBA history, provided by likes of players like Vince Carter, who’s 2000 performance is still talked about to this day, and many say it was the beginning of one Michael Jeffrey Jordan’s rise to cultural icon. With a very young field of great dunkers this year, maybe one of the 2018 competitors will get to do the same.
It’s tough to pick a favorite for the slam dunk knowing what each contest can do. Rookies Dennis Smith Jr. and Donovan Mitchell have quickly shown up as some of the best dunkers in the league, but they might not be ready to step onto the Staples Center stage solo. Indiana’s Victor Oladipo has some experience in the competition, once completing a 540 degree dunk in 2015, but maybe he’ll be distracted with his first All-Star game appearance coming on Sunday.
Larry Nance Jr. might have the best chances to win, as he was a Laker just a few days ago and has dunking running in his blood, with his father winning the inaugural slam dunk contest in 1984, but the contest really seems to be anybody’s to win.
Sunday will introduce a new format for the All-Star game itself, with two teams of a mix of stars from both conferences all playing together under the leadership of LeBron James and Stephen Curry. The two drafted the teams earlier in the year after they received the most votes to start in the All-Star game within their respective conferences.
The league hopes that this new format will introduce a bit more competition to the game, which has seen scores getting scarily close to 200 in recent years. With many watching for the change, the players will probably take things down a bit this year, but it’s likely too much to ask for the game to be truly competitive, with the All-Stars really just looking for a break from basketball with the weekend.
Even if the game isn’t too competitive, it’s guaranteed that a few players will be going for the MVP, especially with the many California ties to the game. Former UCLA Bruin Russell Westbrook will be back around his old stomping grounds, but with an MVP now under his belt and a playoff push on his to-do-list, it’s unlikely he’ll try too hard. Former USC Trojan DeMar DeRozan is in the same boat with the Toronto Raptors looking the best they ever have, he likely has a possible NBA Finals appearance on his mind more than an All-Star game MVP.
The one California-born player who seems like they definitely care is Oakland native Damian Lillard, who seems to have a permanent chip on his shoulder from snubs in past years for the All-Star game and US Olympic team. Lillard caught some flack for saying that he deserved to be on the team from fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook and will likely be trying to prove to him and everyone else that he deserves to be an All-Star and more.
No matter who wins what, this weekend should be a lot of fun. More stars will be out than usual with the festivities taking place in Hollywood, and that should hopefully motivate players to put in a bit more effort than they usually would, especially on Sunday night. If not, then we all know there’s a great end to the season to look forward to, it’s back to work in just a couple of days the grind of the season continues.