I never thought the 1987 NBA All-Star Game could be topped. On its 20th anniversary, my retroactive running diary included this paragraph:
“For the love of God, LOOK at those lineups again. You had Magic and Bird in their absolute primes. You had MJ during the season when he won the dunk contest, averaged 37 a game and put himself on the map as The Next Great Guy. You had Barkley and Hakeem in their breakout seasons. You had Isiah, McHale, Parish, Worthy and Nique at their absolute peaks. You had Moses, Kareem, English, Cheeks and Walter Davis with something left in the tank. You had Doctor J in his final All-Star appearance. You had six guys who ended up making the NBA’s ‘Top 50’ list on the bench to start the game. You had John Stockton, Joe Dumars, Patrick Ewing, Fat Lever, Clyde Drexler, Terry Cummings, Sidney Moncrief and Karl Malone watching from home because THEY WEREN’T GOOD ENOUGH TO BE INVITED. Will we ever see anything approaching this again? I say no.”
Fast-forward 24 years: Thanks to a talent boon and modern science extending the primes of players who should have been more washed up than the “Fockers” franchise by now, next month’s All-Star Game will absolutely approach “this.” We won’t see three of the best five players ever at their peaks or soon-to-be-peaks, but put it this way: The great Tim Duncan is looming as the worst All-Star on a 2011 team. That’s when I’m forced to break one of my steadfast rules (“Never waste a column on All-Star selections”) and break this baby down.
Here we go
Q: You’re really wasting a column on this? When was the last time anyone truly cared about the NBA All-Star Game?
A: I’ve attended every All-Star Weekend since 2004 but skipped Sunday’s game three of those times. Why? I’m old enough to remember when the game mattered. I hate watching half-assed basketball. I hate seeing something potentially meaningful be squandered. Ideally, the game should showcase the league’s biggest stars, entertain its fans and take something of a snapshot of that specific season.
Who is that season’s alpha dog? Which players absolutely have to play at crunch time? Which young guys have vaulted into The Discussion? Which older guys are fading from The Discussion? Which guys have a game that translates into any situation, and conversely, which guys wouldn’t be that fun to play with?
So why hasn’t the game been doing that? Our last meaningful one happened in 2001, when a new generation of franchise guys tried to seize control of the post-Jordan era. All of them were looking for the upper hand like Marlo after Avon went to the clink. Kobe wanted to show that he wasn’t just riding Shaq’s coattails. Ex-teammates Vince and T-Mac wanted to prove they didn’t need each other. Duncan, C-Webb and Garnett were vying for the “Best Power Forward Alive” crown; same for Kidd and Payton and the “Best Point Guard Alive” title. Iverson wanted to show everyone that the league now belonged to him. Marbury and Allen wanted to prove they were franchise guys. Throw in the magic of Chocolate City (that year’s host), and everyone went hard. Iverson won the MVP; Kobe emerged as the West’s crunch-time alpha dog; and in the fourth quarter, the East erased a 21-point deficit and ended up winning thanks to two gigantic 3-pointers from (wait for it) Stephon Marbury!
Ten years later, the box score doubles as a snapshot of the ensuing decade: The West was almost comically loaded; the East had waaaaaaaaaay too much riding on Iverson, Marbury, McGrady, Allen and Jermaine O’Neal; and there just weren’t enough up-and-coming stars. It’s no wonder the league swooned from 2002 to 2007. The All-Star Game teaches us more than you’d think. This year, it’s going to teach us that the league is obscenely loaded right now.
Q: It’s looking like Dwight Howard, Amare Stoudemire, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose will start for the East. Is that the best starting five in All-Star history?
A: No, no, no, settle down. The ’63 West squad featured four of the best 15 all-time players in their primes or soon-to-be-primes: Wilt (averaged a 44-24 that year), Oscar (28-10-10), Elgin (34-14) and West (27 ppg), although Walt Bellamy was their fifth wheel (the guy George Kiseda once described as the “skeleton in the 20,000-point club”). We’ve also seen quintets like Bird-Isiah-Moses-Old Doc-Young MJ; Bird-Isiah-MJ-Nique-Slightly Aging Moses (’88 East); Mailman-Magic-Robinson-Mullin-KJ (’91 West); MJ-Isiah-Pippen-Barkley-Ewing (’92 East); Malone-Barkley-Stockton-Robinson-Drexler (’93 West); Shaq-Penny-Hill-MJ-Pippen (’96 East); GP-Young Kobe-Malone-Barkley-Shaq (’98 West); Shaq-KG-Duncan-Kobe-Kidd (’00 West); and even Howard-LeBron-Wade-KG-Washed-Up Iverson (’09 East).
Q: I will rephrase: Has there ever been a starting five in an All-Star Game quite like what the East will be offering next month?
A: Actually, no. Here’s what I want from any All-Star starting five, in no particular order
• Famousness: I know that’s not a word, but it works better than “fame” and I ran it by Emmitt Smith — he said “famousness” was totally fine. You want your All-Star starting five to feel famous. As they’re sauntering on the floor wearing the same uniforms, you want to be nudging your buddy and gulping, “Holy s—, I can’t believe those five guys are on the same team.” That would require the five-man unit to feature at least one obscenely famous superstar (I’d say LeBron qualifies post-Decision, and when you think about it, that might explain why he did The Decision in the first place), as well as a breathtaking physical specimen at center (Howard qualifies) and three other unquestionably recognizable stars. Your starting five should feel like Clooney teaming up with Damon and Pitt for “Ocean’s Eleven,” but if the other two leads had been Crowe and DiCaprio. Given the leap Rose has made, and given the way Amare legitimatized the downtrodden Knicks, I think that’s in play here. The league has eight signature box-office draws right now; those are five of them.
• The GOTH: Ideally, I want my All-Star starting five to include the GOTH (aka “The Greatest Of This Hour”), and I hate to break it to you but the GOTH is still LeBron James. If you don’t agree with me, look what happened to the 2010-11 Cavaliers — we’ve seen wrecking balls leave condemned arenas in better shape. If you still don’t agree with me, watch a clip of his performance in Portland earlier this month: 44 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and a jaw-dropping “Eff You” 3 in OT that included a WWE-style scamper around the court with his eyes bulging. Hey, at least he’s embracing it: We want him to be the villain, so he’s going to be the villain. Just don’t say he’s shrinking from the heat. No pun intended.
• Relevance In the Moment: LeBron’s best game is still better than anyone else’s best game; he’s now underrated, which seems impossible, but it’s true. (As witnessed by the fact that I will get incredulous e-mails about the previous paragraph.) Meanwhile, Derrick Rose has been this season’s most valuable player; Howard, LeBron and Amare are a semi-distant 2-3-4 in some order. That makes Dwyane Wade the least relevant Eastern starter. Read that sentence again.
• The Peak of The Powers Test: Every great player has a window of 12-15 years, with one extended peak somewhere in there. All five Eastern starters are within that peak; Amare, Rose and Howard have never played better. Three (Howard, LeBron and Rose) are the best guys at their positions; Wade is either No. 1 or No. 2 (depending on how you feel about him versus Kobe right now); and Amare is playing better than any other power forward. Historically, only the ’96 Eastern starters (Shaq-Penny-Hill-MJ-Pippen) could suggest, “We are catching all five guys within specifically crucial windows of specifically memorable careers.”
• Real-Life Teammates: A set of teammates becomes an advantage in glorified pickup games unless those teammates were Shaq and Kobe right after Shaq thought Kobe sold him out during a criminal investigation. Then, not so much. Even though the Wade/LeBron half-court offensive chemistry needs work (and that’s an understatement), their open-floor chemistry has been such a spectacularly spectacular spectacle that, after watching them for two months, I forgave both of them for carrying on that summer charade, insulting us, stringing various teams along and pretending they hadn’t decided to play together in Beijing two years earlier. We have seen memorable fast-break teams before — my four favorites: the ’77 Blazers, ’86 Celtics, ’05 Suns and every Magic Johnson season — but not generated by just two players. It reminds me of Pippen and MJ during the 72-win season, if they were playing on 9-foot rims and somebody had given them each 16 Red Bulls right before the game. Putting the Wade/LeBron show in an All-Star Game without anyone playing defense? Are you kidding me?
(Important note: You might feel betrayed that I folded my post-Decision principles so quickly just because of Wade and LeBron in the open floor. Here’s my defense: I am a whore for quality basketball. I will take it any way I can get it. Right now, there is NOTHING like Wade and LeBron in fifth gear well, except for Blake Griffin. Throw in Rose’s brilliance and the Superfreaks — Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, each of whom brings things to the table athletically that we haven’t seen on a basketball court before — the NBA has four “No, no, no, you have to see this in person, you can’t settle for seeing it on television” teams right now; five if you include Chris Andersen’s tattoos and six if you include watching Kevin Love rebound which are “yes and yes” for me. And by the way, none of those six teams are the Lakers, Celtics and Spurs, our three most likely 2011 Finals teams. Amazing season. As my friend Whitlock tweeted this week, the myth of the NBA regular season not mattering is total hogwash. Every night, there’s at least one great game. There’s too much talent right now. End of rant.)
• Backstage intrigue: As the story goes, Rose took it personally when Wade didn’t return two of his phone calls during the two weeks leading up to The Decision, then immediately shifted into “I’ll show those guys a decision!” mode and devoted the rest of his summer to destroying both of them. Even if this sounds like the makings of an Us Weekly cover — “ROSE TO WADE: YOU’RE A SELFISH BITCH!” — there were enough rumblings within NBA circles that I believe this one. So yeah, throwing Rose on the same team with LeBryane could be interesting — maybe not as rocky as Isiah allegedly freezing out MJ in 1985, but still pretty interesting.
• Best Pure Position Mix: Ideally, you want a true point guard, a true center, an alpha-dog scorer, two great all-around players and a ton of flexibility and if they fit the traditional “center, power forward, small forward, shooting guard, point guard” blueprint, even better. Maybe the ’96 East didn’t have a traditional power forward, but it had everything else and could play any style, run any offense, run the floor and defend anybody. And they had MJ in Permanent Eff You Mode. So that’s the gold standard for me.
Well, look at the 2011 East again: Howard (the best center for four years running), Stoudemire (playing the best of any power forward right now), LeBron (best small forward, two-time reigning MVP), Wade (either the best or second-best 2-guard alive) and Rose (best point guard) I mean, if you picked five guys to represent America in Bob Ryan’s “We have to play the aliens in a best-of-seven for the future of the universe” scenario, this could easily be the five. (I’d take Garnett over Amare and Kobe over Wade, but that’s me.) Maybe it’s not the most overpowering All-Star starting group ever (I’m still partial to the ’92 East and ’96 East) or the most entertaining (that’s the ’88 East or ’91 West for me), but it might be the best blend of both.
Q: Should we still stick with this “Q&A” gimmick? That section on the East starting five was longer than your book. And they made me check your paperback in the overhead compartment over the holidays.
A: Yeah, yeah, let’s keep going. Sorry about that. I was fired up.
Q: Can you defend the statement “four of the seven East reserves should be Celtics” without sounding like a total homer?
A: There are five locks for the reserves: Kevin Garnett (best player on the best team in the East), Paul Pierce (his most efficient season: 19.0 ppg, 51 percent FG, 41 percent 3FG, 86 percent FT), Rajon Rondo (his best season, even if Rose leapfrogged him); Chris Bosh (terrible November, really good since); and Al Horford (the most consistent Hawk — he gets Joakim Noah’s spot). The candidates for the last two spots:
Raymond Felton: Had the 11th spot locked until his post-holiday shooting swoon (just 36 percent FG) coincided with New York’s semi-swoon (4-7 since Dec. 28). Still, after all the fuss about the Knicks blowing that Brandon Jennings pick and the LeBron/Wade chase, they stumbled into a borderline All-Star who costs one-third of Joe Johnson and is playing better than Jennings. Funny how life works out.
Joe Johnson: Started miserably (November: 40 percent FG, 25 percent 3FG), missed nine games, then bounced back in January (27.6 ppg) for a quality Hawks team. This would be a reputation pick. Like when you start watching an Ed Norton movie you’ve never heard of on cable just because Ed Norton was starring in it. And if Ed Norton was making $120 million to be in the movie.
Ray Allen: Averaging 18 a game, flirting with a 50-50-90 season (52 percent FG, 48 percent 3FG and 88 percent FT) and supplying his usual potpourri of testicularly ample crunch-time shots (including three in Monday’s nail-biter victory over Orlando, then the winner Wednesday against Detroit). And he’s played every game. And he’s a future Hall of Famer. And he made it through the entire year without blaming someone for hacking his Twitter account.
Andrea Bargnani: Averaging 21.7 points and 5.8 rebounds a game. Giving up 48.3 points and 20.7 rebounds on the other end. (All numbers approximate.)
Danny Granger: He leaves me cold.
Andrew Bogut: I can’t vote for a non-playoff center shooting 48 percent from the field and 42 percent from the line, no matter how fun his Twitter account is. Sorry. Unrelated: What’s weirder — that two former All-Stars (Bogut and David Lee) had their careers indefinitely derailed by freak elbow injuries, or that five Blazers have had knee surgeries in the past three months?
Andray Blatche’s parole officer: His best season ever.
Anthony Randolph: Coming on like a freight train for the Knicks. At the very least, we’re seeing the guy everyone believed would someday be an All-Star.
(Note: The Knicks paid me $3 million and traded me their 2014 No. 2 pick to write that last paragraph. I knew you’d understand.)
Mike Miller: Notched 15 points and 28 rebounds as Miami’s fourth wheel. (Squinting.) Whoops, those are his totals for the season. Sorry about that.
As you can see, Felton and either Allen or Johnson are the best two options. Our non-MJ model for shooting guards aging gracefully was Reggie Miller: 18.9 ppg, 44 percent FG, 36 percent 3FG and 93 percent FT at age 35 (the 2000-01 season). Allen is killing that season: fourth in 3-pointers made, fourth in 3-point field goal percentage and eighth in true shooting percentage despite a comically low usage rate (Boston involves Allen in just 18.8 percent of its possessions when he plays, placing him 28th among all shooting guards behind Rudy Fernandez).
Yet he’s Boston’s best crunch-time guy, takes/makes more crunch-time shots than anyone else and operates as Boston’s cooler in the final 30 seconds (the guy who shoots every big free throw when you’re protecting a lead and the other team is fouling). Translation: He doesn’t need the ball for three quarters (so everyone else can get involved), but when you need him, he will come through more often than not. That makes him an NBA version of a baseball closer like Mariano Rivera. Really, there’s nobody else quite like him. He’s Reggie Miller 2.0. Would the best All-Star Game in 24 years be more memorable with Reggie Miller 2.0 or an overpaid Joe Johnson during an off year? You tell me.
Q: Does the East team have too many bad chemistry subplots? Won’t that affect how it plays together?
A: Not necessarily. Back in the 1980s, Parish, Bird and McHale (the original Big Three before Perry, Don and Mole) coexisted with Bill Laimbeer even though they probably would have run the Celtics’ bus over him under any other circumstances. It’s basketball — these guys have spent their entire lives playing with people they didn’t like. Does it look like an episode of “Bad Girls Club” on paper? Sure. You have bad blood with Rose and Wade/LeBron (covered earlier); Rose and Rondo (their rivalry started in the 2009 playoffs and festered over during the 2010 Team USA scrimmages, when it became so icily competitive that Coach K decided he couldn’t keep both); Garnett and Howard (no love lost); LeBron and Pierce/Garnett (ditto); and Amare and Garnett (a long and storied history of loathing one another). But as long as Doc Rivers doesn’t allow these guys to play Bourré in the locker room, we should be fine.
Q: Right now, Carmelo is one of the two leading vote-getters among Western Conference forwards. If he accepted this Nets prison sentence — er, trade — does that mean he’d automatically become an Eastern All-Star?
A: Amazingly, once you get traded, you can carry your votes from one conference to the other like it’s a skins game. If Carmelo had more votes than LeBron (no chance) or Amare (no chance), he’d become one of the Eastern starters. So no, he won’t be starting for the East unless Mikhail Prokhorov changes his mind on the trade, then rigs the East balloting like he rigged the Norilsk Nickel auction. The good news? If Denver accepts New York’s lowball offer of Wilson Chandler, Eddy Curry, Eddy Curry’s personal chef and a No. 2 pick in 2066, Allen/Johnson gets bumped and we’d suddenly have a second team of Garnett, Pierce, Carmelo, Rondo and Bosh. Good golly. I think that would help my “Best Game Since 1987” thesis.
Q: How is possible that, after everything we just covered, the West All-Stars are better than the East All-Stars?
A: I wouldn’t say better, but definitely deeper. Assuming Carmelo doesn’t get traded, he would start along with Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Kobe and Pau Gasol, the most logical replacement for Yao Ming
Q: Hold on a second — people are STILL voting for Yao Ming?
A: I know, I know. That should be the plot of the “24” movie — Jack Bauer goes to China to try to stop them from voting Yao into the All-Star Game. Anyway, that’s a pretty fun starting five: Gasol and Paul are both “That Guy Looks Like He’d Be Fun To Play With” Hall of Famers, and the Durant/Carmelo/Kobe trio represents three of the league’s best four pure scorers (with Wade being the other). But it’s the bench that makes the team special — maybe it’s not the greatest All-Star bench ever, but it’s definitely the most entertaining.
Dirk Nowitzki: Was moving into the Barkley/Malone big-picture historical discussion before an injury derailed his MVP campaign.
Manu Ginobili: Reclaimed “Only a few guys get better when it matters and he’s one” and “Night in, night out, it’s just hard to imagine anyone being more entertaining” status after bad ankles nearly derailed his career. Hey, here’s another fun 2011 subplot: the three best foreign players ever who didn’t play college ball in the U.S. (Dirk, Manu and Pau, in that order) playing on the same team.
Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams: I’m giving them the nod over Steve Nash, as much as it kills me. Yes, I just bumped a two-time MVP when he’s (A) having a quality season, (B) one of the most beloved players in the league, and (C) one of the most entertaining point guards ever to play in a game like this. I’m like Lt. Kaffee after the Code Red — I just weakened the country. Sweet dreams, son.
Kevin Love: I can’t blame him for playing on a crappy team. It’s not his fault that they needed a point guard even though Minnesota drafted two of them AND traded Ty Lawson in the same draft. If you’re averaging a 20-15, throwing up 30-30s and getting my dad to e-mail me after a Wolves-Celtics game just to say how much he enjoyed watching you rebound, you’re on the team.
Blake Griffin: The single most compelling player in this game and we mentioned 22 other players before we got to him. For the record, putting Blake Griffin and Chris Paul on the same All-Star team is like setting up Antonio Cromartie with Octomom.
Tim Duncan: Our 12th man. That’s right, the greatest power forward of all time is the D.J. Mbenga of the 2011 Western Conference All-Stars.
You know what’s really startling about that bench? The following guys didn’t make the cut: Nash (devastating to leave him off); Monta Ellis (third in scoring, fourth in tattoos); LaMarcus Aldridge (a blossoming star); Lamar Odom (a career year); Zach Randolph (a 20-13 guy); Eric Gordon (23.9 ppg and gives a crap on defense); Jason Kidd (doesn’t deserve it, but I’m the person who wrote once that Kidd should be grandfathered into the game until he’s 50); Greg Oden’s penis; Luis Scola (better stats than Bosh); and Tony Parker (ineligible for briefly turning the Spurs’ season into a “90210” episode).
Q: Will the West be the deepest All-Star team ever?
A: Nope. Check out the 1968 Eastern All-Stars: Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed, Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas and Dave Bing (starters); John Havlicek, Bill Russell, Hal Greer, Sam Jones, Dave DeBusschere, Gus Johnson and Dick Barnett off the bench. Eleven Hall of Famers in all! Eleven! Why wasn’t that the greatest All-Star Game ever? Check out the West: Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Lenny Wilkens and a bunch of no-names. The East won by 20. It’s unclear whether they covered.
Q: You’re the one who once wrote that NBA All-Star Games are only as good as the point guards. Where does this year rank on that scale?
A: Dizzyingly high, just not stupefyingly high. We’re in good hands with Rondo, Paul and Williams setting everyone up, but Rose worries me a little (he’s been more of a scorer than a distributor in Chicago). And without Nash, we can’t make a realistic run at the Pure Point Guard Nirvana Game (1982, with Magic, Tiny, Isiah, Gus Williams, Micheal Ray Richardson and Norm Nixon). Still, I’m most excited for Rondo — by gunning for the assists title all season, he’s been inadvertently honing his no-looks, kick-outs and alley-oops for LeBron, Wade, Howard and Amare. God created him for a game like this.
(That reminds me: I need to see a Paul-Westbrook-Durant-Griffin-Love lineup for four minutes. Just four. That’s all I ask. Let the young’uns loose! Run! RUN FREE, YOUNG’UNS!)
Q: Gasol and Duncan aren’t technically centers, even though we know they are. There’s not a chance the Western coaches would shoehorn Tyson Chandler onto the team as a “pure” center, then dump Griffin, right? I mean, there’s no way David Stern would allow that to get screwed up, right? Right?
A: (Afraid to say anything.)
A: I have given up trying to stop my favorite leagues from doing dumb things. But with all the subplots for this particular weekend, the fact that Griffin could hijack the weekend Saturday night (his dunk contest/coronation, which I will only be able to watch in person if the people in front of me are covered with that same protective fabric Tony Soprano used to cover his boat when they killed Big Pussy), then hijack it a second time with a 70-foot alley-oop during Sunday’s All-Star Game — and both of those possibilities are in play — has to rank as the looniest. There’s a 68 percent chance we’ll remember this as The Blake Griffin Weekend. Unless the NBA screws up and picks Chandler or someone else.
Q: Does Kevin Durant know you dumped him for Griffin yet?
A: We’ll always have 2008, ’09 and ’10. It was a great three years. People change. It wasn’t him, it was me. We’ll always be friends.
Q: This year’s game is being played in Los Angeles. Is there any current singer who could approach Marvin Gaye’s legendary national anthem before the 1983 game in L.A.?
A: How dare you?
Q: Will the location push the festivities to another level?
A: Yes and no. “Yes” because of the celebrities on hand; some of these guys (Kobe, Wade and LeBron, to name three) rise to another level when they see people like Jay-Z and Denzel in the stands, and when the place is loaded with stars on and off the court, the building has a different (and better) energy. “No” because these guys will have spent three straight days in Los Angeles and might be sunburned, drained, hung over and/or ducking the F-list celeb who’s been stalking them on Twitter since Friday night. Probably a wash.
Q: What’s the best possible crunch-time situation, and where does it rank among the best crunch times ever?
A: Yet another fascinating subplot. If Rivers is coaching the East, he’ll play LeBron, Wade, Rose, Howard and Garnett. Lock it down. That’s his best possible team on both ends. It gets trickier for the West: Its only guaranteed crunch-time guys are Kobe and Durant, and it’s hard to imagine Gregg Popovich sitting both of his Spurs. (Coaches love playing one of their own guys in crunch time — it’s like a dad grabbing the biggest piece of chicken at dinner.) My prediction: He dusts off Tim Duncan Harangody for the last five minutes — partly as an Eff You to Phil Jackson and the Lakers, partly because it’s a total chicken-leg move and partly because he could use Duncan’s defense against Howard. That leaves us with these matchups
PG: Rose versus Paul (battle for the point guard title)
SG: Wade versus Kobe (battle for “Best 2-Guard” status)
SF: LeBron versus Melo (’03 draft retro-rivalry)
PF: Garnett versus Durant (old school versus new school)
C: Howard versus Duncan (new school versus old school)
That’s a monster crunch time, my friends. Just for kicks, here was 1987’s crunch time:
PG: Isiah versus Magic
SG: Jordan versus Blackman
SF: Bird versus Worthy
PF: McHale versus Chambers
C: Moses versus Hakeem
Let’s be honest: Tom Chambers and Rolando Blackman would be fetching water for any of this season’s crunch-timers. So yeah, 2011 has a chance to “approach” 1987. We’ll see whether it happens. But with a calamitous lockout looming, it looks like we’re going out with a bang: great regular season, great playoffs, great All-Star Game. Call it a Viking funeral.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times No. 1 best-seller “The Book of Basketball,” now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy’s World or the BS Report page. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.
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