J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez discuss the storylines to watch heading into All-Star Weekend.
Israel: Not to cross platforms here, J.A., but this past weekend on "Sports Reporters" I spent time lauding Damian Lillard's upcoming attempt at All-Star Weekend history and mentioned that we thankfully haven't spent any time lamenting LeBron James' absence from the dunk contest. Umm, that has changed since Sunday. There are still those -- no one's surprised, I'm sure -- who want LeBron to do more, which means the dunk contest.
But before we go headfirst into the LeBron rabbit hole, let me ask the question this way: What are you most looking forward to this All-Star Weekend, and what has you most irritated? I'll allow the LeBron void in the dunk contest as an answer because, apparently, that discussion will last as long as King James has working legs.
J.A.: At this point I don't care if LeBron ever enters the dunk contest. Why even bother to get your hopes up if you know the answer will be no? It's like sending a Valentine to someone who's turned you down 10 times.
At this point I don't care if LeBron ever enters the dunk contest. Why even bother to get your hopes up if you know the answer will be no? It's like sending a Valentine to someone who's turned you down 10 times." -- J.A. Adande
The dunk contest doesn't need the biggest stars. And it certainly doesn't need this new team format that no one understands. It needs great dunks and creativity. I'll include props in the creativity discussion. I still believe Gerald Green's birthday cake dunk was underrated. And for those who think Blake Griffin's dunk that launched a thousand Kia commercials is overrated, if you were in the building, heard the gospel choir singing and saw Baron Davis pop out of the sunroof, you'd appreciate how grand the moment was. The dunk itself was average. But Griffin deserved a 50 for the showmanship.
As for Lillard, the story gets much more interesting if we ask him to do more than just show up. Can he win every event? (Including capturing the MVP in both the Rising Stars Challenge and All-Star Game?) Let's pump up the weekend with a Michael Phelps-like narrative. Lillard's best odds have to be in the Rising Stars game. He'll have the ball in his hands a lot during a guard-dominated event. If he gets that trophy, the rest of the weekend suddenly gets a lot more interesting.
Israel: That should definitely be his motivation, as it should be for a handful of his Rising Stars teammates (particularly any sophomore teammates who've played in this game already) because it does add to the interest level for the weekend. And following that, he'll have the Skills Challenge, which he's already won once. The challenge there is putting pressure on himself. Normally that event is all about who wants to actually win it. But if Lillard wants to win it too much, he might rush through it and make some costly mistakes. And that, right there, is the most I've ever thought about the Skills Challenge.
So let's be real here for a second, even if he just pulls a double and wins both the 3-point and dunk contests, it will still make for one of the more memorable Saturdays in All-Star history. Although it's going to be difficult to be labeled a "winner" in that one. The new rules have a winning "team" and then the title of "dunker of the night" is voted on by fans. I'm not sure I like this format. I mean, since when is dunking a team sport?
J.A.: Watching a player throw a lob or serve as a human obstacle to leap is all the teamwork we need to see in the dunk contest. If we want to see teamwork, we'll watch the Shooting Stars -- which I'm actually going to watch this year thanks to the father-son combos of Dell Curry, Steph Curry and the Tim Hardaways. What a brilliant idea. I'm sure the Currys (with Becky Hammon) will shatter the record for this event. But I'm hoping Team Hardaway wins (Elena Delle Donne helps their chances a lot) so Tim Sr. can drop another "I got skeeelz." See, there's so much potential with this All-Star Weekend. Things just need to break the right way.
OK, back to Lillard. Which event do you think will be his toughest challenge Saturday night?
Israel: That's kind of a trick question. If you're asking can he be dunker of the night, I'm saying that'll be his toughest challenge. He's got the little-guy benefit, but he's not short enough (6-3) to make people marvel at him. I'd say the favorites in that one are Terrence Ross, Paul George and Harrison Barnes. Unless Ben McLemore does a 720, as has been rumored. Then it's his to lose. So, you see how it would be difficult for Lillard to pull that off. But if you consider his "team" winning a victory in that contest, then I'd go to the 3-point shooting contest as his toughest gig. I mean, I don't know how you pick against Steph Curry in that one (why isn't Kyle Korver in this, by the way?).
On that note, given his game winner against the Warriors, his hot shooting to start this season and his regular defeats of Ray Allen in shooting games after practice, I'm a tad surprised no one is demanding LeBron pull a Lillard and go for the double. I mean, why not, we already ask the world of this guy?
J.A.: See, there you go, making this about LeBron when it really should be about Lillard. Lillard said he's going to surprise people in the dunk contest because he's so small. His height can actually benefit him, because it makes it easy to surpass expectations (think Spud Webb in 1986 and Nate Robinson in 2009 and '10). Winning the All-Star Game MVP will be Lillard's toughest challenge. A first-time All-Star hasn't won the award since Tom Chambers in 1987 (and that was with Magic Johnson spoon-feeding the local boy in Seattle).
LeBron put together a show after practice in Phoenix. We were all entertained. He's scared? Come on, now. If you could jump like that, what's there to be scared of, other than hitting your head on the rim? By the way, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen both have dunk contest Ls on their resume. Anybody ever bring that up (other than me just now)?" -- Israel Gutierrez
If Lillard doesn't win it, it better go to LeBron. It feels as though LeBron should have more than two of them, just as it feels as though he should have more than two championships. If we counted his reluctance to shoot at the end of the 2012 game against him in the "LeBron's not clutch" narrative, then it's fair to include All-Star achievements as he builds his Mount Rushmore case.
Israel: To me, All-Star Weekend tends to show off who you really are as a player. That's why I don't have a huge problem with his reluctance to shoot at the end in 2012. It's part of who he is, always looking to facilitate. That leads me into the idea that LeBron "needs to do more." The way the All-Star Game should and normally does work, in my opinion, is letting this flesh out naturally. If you have a hot hand, that person should probably take MVP. If you've got the best player in the game playing his normal game, he often ends up being the MVP. When you force it, it's a bit too obvious (perhaps that's what Philadelphia fans were thinking as they booed Kobe Bryant while winning the MVP award there in 2002). So LeBron will get his share of All-Star MVPs just by being himself.
As for the dunk contest, people who say that's a gap in his résumé look/sound pretty silly. Magic Johnson is on most people's Mount Rushmore of NBA greats. How many dunk contests or 3-point contests did he enter/win? Is that a stain on his résumé? If Paul George wins this dunk contest, finishes his career with a résumé close to but not quite at LeBron's level, can we say "my dunk contest title scoots me ahead of LeBron?" Of course not.
The dunk contest is there for entertainment value. LeBron put together a show after practice in Phoenix. We were all entertained. He's scared? Come on, now. If you could jump like that, what's there to be scared of, other than hitting your head on the rim? By the way, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen both have dunk contest Ls on their résumé. Anybody ever bring that up (other than me just now)?
Let's not make this All-Star Weekend about what LeBron isn't doing. I say we look for Lillard to win 'em all and then tell LeBron, "I'm the best basketball player in the world!" Now that would be a challenge.
J.A.: You know what's going to be a challenge? Keeping that All-Star MVP award out of Kevin Durant's hands. It might turn out that the same guy we're talking about at the end of the weekend is the same guy we'll be talking about at the end of the season.