Charlotte will be the center of the basketball universe this weekend, hosting All-Star weekend festivities for the first time since 1991.
Get ready for a lot of face-time for Hornets principal owner Michael Jordan and the team’s lone representative in Sunday’s game, point guard Kemba Walker, who was voted in as a starter and will suit up for Team Giannis.
The Eastern Conference no longer plays the West, as had been the case for every All-Star Game since the event began in 1951 prior to last February. LeBron James and Stephen Curry drafted teams from a pool of last year’s honorees and put on an exciting show at Staples in which James won MVP by leading his team to a 148-145 win over Team Stephen.
He moved to the Western Conference and was the leading vote-getter there, while Giannis Antetokounmpo replaced him as the top vote-getter in the East. They drafted teams live on a special show aired by TNT last week in which James appeared to get the better of his Greek counterpart by rounding out his roster with Kevin Durant, former teammate Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, reigning MVP James Harden and Anthony Davis.
Team Giannis will be led by its captain, Antetokounmpo, Curry, center Joel Embiid, Paul George, Walker and Russell Westbrook, who was acquired in the first All-Star “trade” in exchange for Ben Simmons.
While many are rolling their eyes at James assembling a team filled with marquee free agents to be and a number of guys represented by James’ friend and agent, Rich Paul, he appears to have the better group. Team LeBron won last year’s game in what was the lowest-scoring All-Star affair since 2013, failing to reach 300 combined points.
The 2017 game saw the West beat the East 192-182 in the highest-scoring contest ever, so last year was an anomaly of sorts in that each team topped 40 points in a quarter only once. Defense isn’t played in the All-Star Game until the final few minutes if the game is still competitive, so back a second straight ‘under’ at your own risk.
My parlay call is to ride Team LeBron and the over. The Westgate SuperBook opened with James’ team as a 2.5-point favorite and set the total at 340, essentially splitting the difference between what transpired in last season’s event and what went down two years ago.
Switching up the teams has provided a refreshing spin, especially since the league televised the draft this year, reversing its decision to do it in private in 2018 so the All-Stars that were picked last wouldn’t get their feelings hurt. It’s created a situation where the Splash Brothers will now take the court for different teams after remaining together last year.
We’ll see going forward if there are any issues that arise with this new format, but the initial results were positive, producing a fun, competitive contest.
Friday’s Rising Stars challenge pits players in their first and second seasons in the league against one another in a Team World vs. Team USA format, showcasing the globalization of the NBA game. Last year’s top rookie, Simmons, will play in both Sunday’s big event and Friday’s contest, representing his native Australia alongside Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen and top rookies Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton. The American team will be led by Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, L.A.’s Kyle Kuzma, Kings gems De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III and Hawks standouts John Collins and Trae Young.
The U.S. team is definitely deeper, but the International team has better shooters and the event’s most talented closer in Doncic. The Westgate opened with Team USA as a two-point favorite, so take the World plus the bucket and ride the over (296.5) for the in-game parlay.
All-Star Saturday night offers more opportunities to cash via the Skills Challenge, 3-point Shootout and Slam Dunk competition. Brooklyn guard Spencer Dinwiddie surprised everyone last season, defeating Markkanen in an event that now includes a lot of the NBA’s most gifted big men in addition to guards who are best equipped to complete the obstacle course with their speed, passing and shooting skills.
Sacramento’s Fox and Memphis guard Mike Conley are the fastest contestants in a field that also features rookies Doncic and Young in addition to forwards Kuzma and Tatum and centers Nikola Jokic and Nikola Vucevic. Fox is favored at 7-2, but Conley (6-1) is my choice to emerge as the winner by claiming all three heats in the event, which uses a bracket format.
Devin Booker is back to defend his 3-point shootout title but didn’t have to contend with Curry last season. The greatest shooter the world has ever seen will be playing in front of hometown fans who watched him play locally at Davidson and is my choice to prevail at 7-5 odds. If you’re looking for a bigger payday and want to take a shot, Walker (14-1) seems like a smart play.
Finally, the slam dunk contest features Atlanta’s Collins, New York’s Dennis Smith, Jr., Oklahoma City’s Hamidou Diallo, and my choice, Charlotte rookie Miles Bridges, who will benefit from a home-court advantage and should defeat Smith in the finals.
Last week: 2-0
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