All-Star Give And Go: Durant chases Wilt, Slam Dunk Contest predictions and more
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth. This week: A look ahead at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans.
1. Will Kevin Durant break Wilt Chamberlain’s single-game scoring record (42 points) at the 2014 All-Star Game?
Ben Golliver: No. The safe/conservative money is obviously on “no” here because this is such a high standard and it pains me a little bit not to go out on the limb. After all, just last week, I constructed my entire “All-Star Game Re-Draft Roster” around the idea of force-feeding Durant in an attempt to make history.
There are plenty of conditions working in his favor in real life. Durant is averaging 31.2 points on the season — not that far from the 42-point mark — and he’s shooting at career-high clips from the field and from three-point range. The timing couldn’t be better, as he’s averaging 34.7 points since Jan. 1. He’s a proven All-Star commodity, as he’s hit for at least 30 points in his last three appearances. The Thunder’s Scott Brooks will be coaching him, a nice advantage when it comes to ensuring big minutes and plenty of shots. He will be playing alongside Clippers point guard Chris Paul, the league’s premier set-up guy, who won the All-Star Game MVP last year and is likely to be in a giving mood. He will not be playing alongside Kobe Bryant, which is big because the Lakers’ guard has averaged 19.8 shots over his last five All-Star appearances, meaning more opportunities for Durant.
The ongoing “LeBron or Durant?” MVP debate could even help Durant’s cause; a mano-a-mano showdown between the two players, like the one we saw when the Thunder beat the Heat in January, would provide a little cover for some shameless ball-hogging. There’s no question that Durant has approached this season, from the moment he challenged Dwyane Wade in September, with a chip on his shoulder and statements to make.
Even with all of those favorable factors, I’ll play it safe and guess he comes up a bit short. He will need to contend with both James and Pacers forward Paul George when it comes to matchups, and the loaded West squad has no shortage of weapons (Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard) to compete with Durant for Paul’s attention. That said, my top All-Star Game hope is that Durant sets his mind to gunning for Chamberlain’s mark and we all get to enjoy the ride.
Rob Mahoney: Yes. The odds might be against KD, but I actually think he might really want this one. Durant came pretty close to breaking the record with his 36 points in 2012, and last year he went for 30. Between those two games Durant averaged 24.5 field goal attempts, a number he’ll likely have to top if he’s to surpass Chamberlain. That shouldn’t be a problem. Durant’s torrential scoring season — atop the fact that he’s the headlining star of the Western Conference — should give him all the opportunity he needs to put up shots. That Durant’s high-scoring tear was so public and so widely admired only helps matters as well; by making a pronounced run at this season’s MVP award, Durant has only further established himself as a star among stars, as well as the game’s natural foil for LeBron.
2. Blazers guard Damian Lillard is participating in a record five All-Star events. How many will he win?
Mahoney: Just two, I’ll guess, though Lillard has an honest shot at four. I’m essentially ruling out a dunk contest win. While Lillard already has some impressive in-game throwdowns on his résumé, I just think he’s a bit out of his depth with this field. Paul George and Terrence Ross will be tough acts to follow, and even among the point guards competing it’s hard to favor Lillard over a lanky leaper like John Wall.
The Three-Point Contest is more in line with Lillard’s talents, though the quality of competition could easily get the better of him. It’s hard to pick against a player like Curry, not to mention Kevin Love, Arron Afflalo or defending champion Kyrie Irving. I’d say this is Lillard’s best shot at adding a third win to his All-Star weekend, but I’ll still take the field.
All-Star Friday might also be a tough win for Lillard, as he was the first player picked in the Rising Stars Challenge but figures to play little due to his weekend workload. It’s common practice for those rookies or sophomores also selected as All-Stars to pull light duty on Friday. When Blake Griffin competed in both games in 2012, for example, he logged just 11 minutes in the Rising Stars Challenge. That puts Lillard’s team in a bind right off the bat, as the next ball handlers in line are Dion Waiters and Bradley Beal. How can Team Hill expect to run away victorious without a designated fast break leader/lob thrower?
That leaves only the main event and the Skills Challenge, both of which Lillard has a solid chance of winning. A victory in the former would be largely by proxy; Lillard isn’t likely to play a ton for a guard-heavy Western Conference team, though the depth of that roster should be enough to beat the top-heavy East and earn him a victory in some sense. The Skills Challenge, though, looks like an easy take for Lillard. He’s paired with Utah’s Trey Burke to compete in the new relay format, and the two will face their stiffest competition from the tandem of Phoenix’s Goran Dragic and Oklahoma City’s Reggie Jackson. I like Lillard’s chances to repeat given his balanced game and Burke’s quickness.
Golliver: Three. This is a tough one because so many of the competitions have new formats and because Lillard is so busy that it’s hard to keep track. Let’s go one-by-one: I see Lillard taking it fairly easy in Friday night’s Rising Stars Challenge, which is potentially a big problem because he’s the only point guard on Team Hill. Guards always dominate this event, and Team Webber has the three Rookie of the Year candidates — Michael Carter-Williams, Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo — who will all be looking to impress. That’s enough for me to pick against Team Hill, even if they are the more experienced and physically imposing bunch.
I see Lillard kicking off All-Star Saturday with a win in the Skills Challenge. He took home the title last year, and the new format — which includes two teams of two players from each conference — definitely favors the West, which is loaded with four point guards.
Next, I like Lillard’s chances in the Three-Point Contest far more than the oddsmakers, who put him at 6/1, behind Stephen Curry, Kevin Love, Arron Afflalo and Kyrie Irving. My top three, in some order, are Curry, Lillard and Spurs guard Marco Belinelli, who will eat each other alive in the opening round. Whoever emerges from the West — I’ll go with Lillard because he’s an excellent shooter, he has a quick shooting motion and he’s unlikely to be fazed by any misses — should be able to handle the East’s best (my guess is Arron Afflalo) in the final.
Conversely, I see the East running away with the Dunk Contest, with Lillard as possibly the weakest link on the West’s squad. Although he is likely to be a fan favorite because of his ubiquity across these events and because he will be the shortest competitor at 6-foot-3, his dunk repertoire just isn’t that deep (he has eight slams this season) and he doesn’t have the super-duper crazy vertical leap of guys like Steve Francis, Nate Robinson or Robert Pack. The new “Battle” format of the Dunk Contest — which will pit Lillard against Paul George, Terrence Ross or John Wall — looks pretty daunting, especially at the end of what will be a long night.
Finally, I like the West’s depth and quality to prevail during Sunday’s All-Star Game, with Durant leading the way. As the second-youngest player on the roster, Lillard isn’t likely receive major minutes, but that surely won’t spoil what will be a whirlwind 72 hours.
3. Does the retooled All-Star Saturday night excite you or disappoint you?
Golliver: I’m worried. To me, the only contest that really, truly matters is the Slam Dunk Contest. I’m definitely concerned that the major overhaul in the format could backfire. I laid out the pros and cons of the new format already, but there are a number of potential potholes that stem from my belief that the contest went too far in pitting the conferences against each other.
If the East team, which is superior on paper, does wind up dominating, the thing could be over lickety-split. I’m all for keeping a good pace and eliminating delays, but this is one of the most anticipated events on the NBA’s calendar and it should last for a fulfilling amount of time. Another concern: the two best dunkers wind up being from the same conference (George and Ross, perhaps), and we are robbed of a true head-to-head match-up to determine a legit champion. If that happens, it will be the ultimate disappointment considering the three decades of history preceding this year’s contest. I’m also really hoping the “Dunker of the Night” winds up being a member of the winning conference, otherwise the whole thing will look super messy.
Finally, I’m concerned that George’s popularity advantage over the other competitors — he received an astounding 1.2 million votes to land him an All-Star starting spot — will overwhelm the “Dunker of the Night” fan voting process. Of course, that’s not a new issue, as the fan vote is always a point of concern.
The Slam Dunk Contest is supposed to be fun, straightforward and easy. It shouldn’t be this stressful!
Mahoney: I may be the odd duck here, but I’m actually pretty excited about most of this year’s changes. Making the dunk and three-point contests a matter of East vs. West doesn’t really make sense to me, but within each event I think there are some smaller changes that could be a lot of fun.
The three-point contest is the most difficult to alter, as its an event largely defined by its simplicity. Adding a touch of strategy, though — as is the case with the new all-moneyball rack to be put in the location of the shooter’s choice — gives the event a fun wrinkle. One would think that most shooters would choose to max out on moneyballs in one of the corner spots, but selecting the first corner risks leaving points on the table in the process of warming up. Picking the final spot in the far corner, alternatively, could be problematic if time becomes an issue. That simple decision is thus wrapped in the dynamics of the game and each shooter’s personal preference — a combination that should enhance the contest without bogging it down.
As for the dunk contest, the freestyle round should help to squeeze out many of the problems associated with recent duds. The timing of the round may well be props prohibitive. A miss would only be a momentary distraction, as another dunk attempt would soon follow it. And ultimately, the start-and-stop rhythm of past contests would be replaced with a more fluid display: 90 seconds of dunk after dunk after dunk from a field worth looking forward to. The format may not please the contest purists (Hi, Ben!), but the content is sure to.
I’m a bit more lukewarm about the head-to-head round that follows, though its success will largely depend on how each dunker is matched up. It’s a bummer that the new team format rules out any possibility for dunkers like Terrence Ross and Paul George to go head-to-head, though I’ll reserve judgment until we see how things play out. If the competitors from the West (Lillard, Harrison Barnes, and Ben McLemore) bring their A-game, it could be a blast.
4. Who do you think will “win” the Dunk Contest? Will it be better than last year’s?
Mahoney: Eastern Conference; Terrence Ross. It’s tough to pick against Paul George, but I was wowed by how straightforward and powerful Ross was in his contest-winning performance last year. There weren’t elaborate setups or props in need of explanation; he just lined up and threw down, putting together an impressive reel. Ross walked a fine line in 2013: His dunks were crazy and creative, but none seemed as though it touched the upper limits of what Ross can accomplish in the air. I find that tantalizing and expect to see some fireworks from Ross in his second trip through the contest.
Golliver: Eastern Conference; Paul George. The East seems to have big advantages in experience (Ross has won it, George has participated), star power (George and Wall) and physical tools. It’s hard to envision a winning scenario for the West, unless perhaps Kings rookie Ben McLemore puts on an all-time classic performance (which could happen). I do expect that a strong field that includes three All-Stars will produce a better show than last year’s contest, which had its moments but wasn’t a classic.
I’ll pick George to bring home “Dunker of the Night” honors because he can go dunk-for-dunk with anyone in the format; if that happens, his popularity and profile should take care of the vote.
5. Who is your “sleeper pick” to steal the show at All-Star Weekend?
Golliver: Wizards guard John Wall. He just might surprise some folks in the Dunk Contest and he should get plenty of minutes and touches on Sunday given the East’s thin backcourt situation. His game is well-suited to the open court, up-and-down style, and he possesses the jaw-dropping athleticism to stand out every time he takes the court, even if surrounded by stars in every direction.
My second choice: Jazz guard Trey Burke. An early-season injury set Burke back a little bit as far as name recognition on the national stage, and Utah’s sub-.500 record isn’t doing him any favors either. In New Orleans, he’ll have two opportunities, the Rising Stars Challenge and the Skills Challenge, to raise his profile. Lillard faced a similar slate last year — he wasn’t injured, of course, but his smaller-market team was lottery-bound — and look at him now.
Mahoney: Kings guard Ben McLemore. The East looks to be the overwhelming favorite for the team win in the Dunk Contest, with George and Ross the odds-on individual favorites. McLemore, though, has the hang time and acrobatic potential to wreck the whole thing. There’s a raw, kinetic energy to his dunks that could give him a leg up, and early whispers of what dunks McLemore might try (a 720?!) have me optimistic about his upset chances.