In The Middle Of Nowhere: Why Being A Mid-level NBA Team Hardly Pays Off

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on March 21,2017

It’s the final stretch of the season. Teams have anywhere between 11-13 games left in their schedule.

The best teams are fairly secure: Golden State, San Antonio and Houston have secured playoff spots in the west, while out east Cleveland (secured playoff spot), Boston, Washington and Toronto have a comfortable cushion to securing their playoff spots in the coming weeks. Sure, there are valid arguments against a championship for at least five of them, but a few lucky breaks and/or untimely injuries can swing the race in anyone’s favor.

The worst teams are also sure of their lost season: Brooklyn is clearly out of playoff contention, with Orlando (reset mode), Philadelphia (add another year to “The Process”) and New York (but, but, Rose…sigh) closing in on an early summer, while out west, the Lakers are out of contention, with Phoenix (Eric Bledsoe done for the season), Sacramento (largely Randive’s doing) and Minnesota Timberwolves soon to join the pack. After all, tanking is in order for one of the best, and most important, drafts in recent history.

All this while, much like in the real world, the middle class, struggles.

Being a mid-level team in the NBA could mean several things, but for the purposes of this article, we will assume mid level to be a team that has less than 10% chance of landing a top-3 draft pick and has no home court advantage in any round the playoffs. History makes it a bit easier, with teams usually seeded 5 through 11 (at the time of going into the playoffs) usually meeting this criteria.

Going by the above definition we have fourteen mid-level teams:

  • WEST: LA Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, and New Orleans Hornets
  • EAST: Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets.

Assuming that making the playoffs and (increasing their chance of) winning a championship is a priority for an NBA team; we can divide the fourteen teams further into four categories:

The established contenders:

Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks’ brought in Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes to fortify the team in the twilight of Nowitzki’s illustrious career. They managed to snag Nerlens Noel in a trade-deadline deal. None of these moves have yielded more wins, with the Mavericks on pace to end up with the franchise’s worst record since 2000. They rely on Nowitzki, but the clock’s ticking on his brilliant career, which isn’t good news for a franchise that has a ton of money tied up with stars who are yet to bring the W’s.

LA Clippers

The LA Clippers’ Big Three have made the playoffs in each of their six seasons together. Injuries to Griffin in 2013, and Blake/Paul last season have derailed hopes of a Championship this far. Both Paul and Griffin are free to opt out of their contracts this season. Assuming, both Paul and Griffin re-sign with the team, the window of opportunity to win becomes narrow due to Chris Paul’s aging body. If they decide to leave, it gives Doc the opportunity to rebuild. Question is, rebuild around whom?

Memphis Grizzlies

Coach Fizdale’s masterstroke of getting Randolph off the bench to spearhead the second unit allowed Gasol to take over the first unit to average career-high numbers. Mike Conley is an All-Star when healthy. The problem is Chandler Parsons who isn’t the player the Grizzlies were hoping would solve their outside shooting woes. It also doesn’t help that he had a season-ending injury. Memphis could trade Parsons to stock up on younger wings that, or wait till he regains his form. Question is how long is the team willing to wait?

The solution:

No short term solution. All the teams are stacked with pricey contracts for established players. They can either blow up the current roster (highly unlikely), or make a few smaller moves (likely) and continue to pound away until a stroke of luck has them holding an NBA Championship.

The young guns:

Denver Nuggets

Denver has been blessed with the arrival of Nikola Jokic. It’s a treat to watch Jokic, just 22, to unleash mayhem at the offensive end as he slowly discovers himself. Suit him up with Gary Harris (22, improving y-o-y), and Emmanuel Mudiay (21, injured this season) and the Nuggets have a decent core around which to build a contender.

New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans now have the luxury of having at least one superstar on the floor for all 48 minutes. When Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins figure out how to play with each other, there will be no perceivable way to stop the Pelicans. Both are solid 3-point shooters, can put the ball on the floor like guards, and also possess old-school post-up moves. The Pelicons are also armed with a very competent point guard in Jrue Holiday, an upcoming role-player in Tim Fraizer, and a dead-eye shooter in Omri Casspi. Assuming this core stays intact, this is a championship contender in two seasons

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks have the most enviable young core of the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Greg Monroe and Khris Middleton. Fortunately for the Bucks, Middleton returned a few games after Parker went down. Their 12-6 record since the Parker injury (third best in the NBA) is enough of a tease for what is to come when this core plays a fully healthy season in the near future.

The solution:

All also have a their fair share of future stars, veterans both young (5-10 seasons) and established (10+ seasons), to go along with experienced coaches in Mike Malone, Alvin Gentry and Jason Kidd respectively. All that stands between them and an NBA championship is time and experience.

The alpha-dog teams:

Chicago Bulls

A looming Rondo trade/exit and a bigger roster thanks to the Gibson / McDermott trade, the Bulls are in position to trade for, or outright sign a big(ish) name to be Butler’s running mate. Jimmy Butler is hitting his peak which, unless you are LeBron James, only last for about 4-5 seasons. The Bulls would do well to move quick and smart and surround one of the League’s ten best players with a roster that can contend for a Championship.

Indiana Pacers

Paul George is still among the top-20 players in the League and that number climbs if you take into account his ability as a defender as well. However, even with the addition of Jeff Teague, the Pacers are just about mediocre. They are a perennial lock in the postseason as long as George is healthy, but the Pacers will have to dig in deep to find George a running mate who can complement him, before he decides to leave. Jeff Teague is not the answer.

Oklahoma City Thunder

This isn’t a championship team, yet. Much of that can be written off to Russell Westbrook’s quest to prove he can win it all by himself which, of course, he cannot. Westbrook is one of the league’s top-5 players, but isn’t fun to play with. They have interesting pieces in Andre Roberson, Enes Kanter, Steven Adams and of course Oladipo. Playing with a ball dominant alpha dog, however, significantly affects production numbers of those around him. Weak numbers lead to smaller contracts. Just how many of the current Thunder lot stay on with the team, is yet to be seen.

Portland Trail Blazers

Nurkic will eventually turn into a front-court mainstay, while Crabbe and Harkless have shown potential to be key rotation players. Yet, one cannot fight this nagging feeling that the Blazers are underperforming, even in a comparatively tougher Western Conference. Thankfully, the Blazers are stacked with assets to make the right moves in the coming offseason, giving Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum the supporting cast he deserves to turn the team into a contender.

The solution:

Trade, trade, trade. All four have get cracking to load up their teams. The Blazers have a core to build around, so it should be easier. The Thunder are banished to Westbrook-Ball Land for now. Until he comes around, there is no helping them. The Pacers and the Bulls have a roster full of players who aren’t indispensable. The clock’s ticking on all the four teams’ stars’ peaks. Trade, trade, trade.

The teams that need to hit the reset button:

Atlanta Hawks

They remain mediocre and don’t have too many trade assets with which to make the team a Championship contender. In related news, Paul Millsap turns 32, and isn’t a franchise player. The Spurs have shown that you do not need a “franchise player” to win a Championship. Hawks’ coach Mike Budenholzer knows that model; he was assistant coach on the Spurs. The Hawks have no choice, but to reset the roster, scout and recruit well at the Draft and build a contender from ground up.

Charlotte Hornets

They overachieved last season. They carried that confidence into this season. Kemba Walker, with a fairly competent roster, can take you to 40 wins. That is the ceiling, though. That is smack in the middle of the pack. If Charlotte wants to compete with the big guns, they would have to make their peace with the current roster, let them go, and go fishing in the Draft.

Detroit Pistons

Like the Hornets, the Pistons overachieved last season. Unlike the Hornets, they have Andre Drummond who has the potential to become the League’s best center. He cannot shoot free throws, though. How do you build around a potential franchise player, when he cannot be on the floor in a close game? Tobias Harris is an exciting prospect and along with Drummond could form the core of a potential East contender. A better roster, though, and a few years of experience can make them Championship contenders

Miami Heat

In Miami, hope is riding on Hassan Whiteside blossoming into one of league’s top-15 players (has the potential). Goran Dragic has risen into one of the league’s elite scoring point-guards. Dion Waiters’ remains one the league’s most polarizing players. Even with the growth of Tyler Johnson and return of Justise Winslow, the Heat are just a 45-win team (sixth-seed) in the East. The Heat have recruited well enough to have a roster of players that could either mature and turn them into a contender in a couple of seasons, or become trade pieces for an All-Star level player.

The solution:

Hit the “reset” button.

  1. Keep one (or two) core pieces: Hardaway / Schroder in Atlanta, Walker in Charlotte, Drummond / Harris in Detroit, Whiteside in Miami.
  2. Trade away older / valuable assets: Howard in Atlanta, Batum in Charlotte, Morris / Jackson in Detroit, Dragic / Waiters in Miami.
  3. Trade for younger legs and potential
  4. Trade for younger legs and potential
  5.   Tank for the high draft pick

There Will Never Be Another Dirk Nowitzki

The 38-year-old Dallas Mavericks legend became the first international player to breach the 30,000 point barrier.

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on March 16, 2017

Thirty thousand points. The holy grail of scorers. The mark of the greatest.

And then there were six.

Last Tuesday, Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks legend, became the sixth NBA player, and the first international player, to have breached the 30,000 point barrier.

The ones that have done it before him?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,

Karl Malone,

Michael Jordan,

Kobe Bryant, and

Wilt Chamberlain.

Not bad company.

The last of the players from the end of the Chicago-Jordan era, it took Nowitzki nineteen seasons to reach the milestone. A master of the step-back-fade away, it was poetic that he hit the mark in signature style, with a shot that he made his living on.

Dirk’s greatest contribution to the game of basketball would be his signature step-back fade away. The second greatest shot after Jabbar’s transcendent skyhook, Nowitzki’s fade away is unguardable. A shot that he loves to launch this from anywhere near the free throw line, his height combined with exceptional control over his centre of gravity, allows him to release the shot with his shooting hand nearly parallel to the ground. Simply put, when in form, the only way to stop Dirk is to hope he misses.

Greatness is determined by the defining moments in a player’s career. His legacy is crafted by his character both in times of adversity and success. Numbers matter. Champions, however, are rarely remembered by their numbers. Instead it’s the defining moments in their career that set them apart.

Dirk had two such moments.

The 2006-‘07 season

It was turning out to be Nowitzki’s swansong season. Coming off a career high (26.6 PPG) and a tough, controversial loss against the 2006 Miami Heat team led by Dwyane Wade and newly acquired Shaquille O’Neal, the Mavericks pulled together a third 60-win season in five years. They finished with the best record in the NBA (67-15) and set up a first round matchup with the feisty Golden State Warriors who held on to the eighth seed with a mediocre 42-40. This was to be a cakewalk for the blazing Mavericks who had League MVP Nowitzki, surrounded by a group of hard working talented professionals. This was undoubtedly the Mavericks title to lose. And they did just that.

The Warriors pulled off one of the greatest upsets in NBA history, beating the Mavericks in six games and cutting off the journey to what should have been Nowitzki’s first NBA championship. Add this devastating loss to the controversial loss to the Miami Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals and you have an empty handed Dirk Nowitzki after two 60-win seasons and career highs in nearly every statistical category.

While this may have crushed any other player, Nowitzki returned stronger, and kept pounding away, piling on 50-win seasons, averaging 25 PPG / 8.2 RPG, and making the Playoffs every season until…

The 2010-‘11 season

Also known as the season of The Decision, LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, and teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh turning the Miami Heat into instant title contenders. In the West, Nowitzki had become synonymous with the ability to show up in the Playoffs but not get anywhere.

He and his motley crew were the cute kids that showed up to play but always left the winning to the big kids. Not this time around. Leading the Mavericks to their 11th straight season with 50-wins and a playoff berth, the Mavericks began with a 4-2 win over the Portland Trailblazers in Round 1. Somewhere close by, the eighth seed Memphis Grizzlies topped the league leading San Antonio Spurs in six games.

The Mavericks, surprisingly, then proceeded to not only sweep Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, but also dismantle the young Oklahoma City Thunder (led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook), beating them 4-1 to set up a Finals clash with the Miami Heat.

Detractors doubted the Mavericks every step of the way, calling them old, or a fluke, awaiting what they believed was inevitable: a drubbing at the hands of the Big Three. Little did they know, the Mavericks had other plans.

After splitting the first four games at two-a-piece, the Mavericks led by a valiant 32-year Nowitzki and a resurrected 33-year old Jason Terry, took the fight to Miami at both ends of the floor. Defensively, they allowed LeBron to take as many open jump shots as he wanted, knowing it was his greatest weakness. Offensively they stayed efficient, never dropping below 40%, even from beyond the 3-point line. Nowitzki blitzed the disrespectful duo of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, by averaging 26 PPG / 9.7 RPG for the series. They rest as they say is history, as the Mavericks took games 5 and 6 to and carry home the 2011 NBA Championship.

The purest scorer

Drafted ninth in 1998, the seven-foot then-lanky German was relatively unknown amongst basketball experts. International scouting was still nascent and was usually treated as an indulgence. Teams were content with the talent available domestically.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, the country’s elite college athletics system, had more than its fair share of international players racking up valuable experience of the American style of play. This was important since European players were perceived to be physically inferior. Much of this perception was rooted in the European style of play that relied team play, passing and the ability to shoot. Hero-ball was scoffed at while passers and shooters and pure scorers were heralded.

And Dirk Nowitzki is the purest scorer of them all.

Expanding the range to include all players that have scored at least 20,000 points (41), only four players have shot better than 38% from 3-point range, three of whom were guards: Ray Allen (24,505, 40%) Reggie Miller (25,279, 39.4%), Mitch Richmond (20,297, 38.8%). Nowitzki, the European nobody, is the only forward to average more than 38% from the field AND have tallied at least 20,000 points.

The argument against these criteria is that the 38-year-old German is a forward and must be compared to his peers who made a living inside the 3-point line. Even there, only twelve players in NBA history have shot better (2-pt %) than Dirk’s 49.7%. Add the fact that Dirk’s career free throw percentage (the kryptonite of most forwards and centres) is currently 89.7% (ranked 15th All-Time) and you begin to understand why there isn’t a convincing argument against crowning Nowitzki the greatest scoring forward in NBA history.

There will never be another Dirk Nowitzki

The stat that sets Nowitzki apart from the rest, though, is that he scored every one of his points with the same team. An honour he only shares with another legend, Kobe Bryant.

The 38-year-old has already confirmed that he will return for the next season, a decision that would have been helped by the young nucleus that the Mavericks now boast off. They have a young core in Seth Curry, Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes, while getting lucky with the emergence of Yogi Ferrell and acquiring Nerlens Noel in arguably the best trade at the 2017 trade deadline. With Nowitzki playing the elderly statesme, the Mavericks, now just three games behind Denver for that eighth spot, have a few interesting pieces to surround this core and make a legit run at the playoffs.

Matthews, who is both older (30) and has had a serious injury, is the only, even if minor, concern for the Mavericks. If the Barnes-Curry-Ferrell-Noel core can make the right leaps, this will be a team that can contend for a spot in the NBA Finals next season. With that ceiling and a few lucky breaks in their favour, the Mavericks could very well send off the greatest scoring forward in NBA history with his second Championship ring.

If you are keeping score at home, Dirk Nowitzki is a 7-foot European sharp-shooter, who shoots 2’s with as much ease as he shoots 3’s, develops the second most unstoppable shot in NBA history, plays at least 20 seasons with the same team, scores over 30,000 points, wins regular season MVP and has at least one NBA championship.

See the pattern?

Yes, I am going there…

There will never be another Dirk Nowitzki.

JR’s 2017 NBA All-Star Picks: No Durant, No Curry

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on January 8, 2017.

Basketball purists scoff at its insignificance. Fans vote to watch all their favorite players on court at the same time. Coaches decide who makes the bench, but cannot vote for their own players. Players know it is entertainment and put on a show. Ah, the NBA All-Star Game is coming back.

Started in 1951, the NBA All-Star Game, which features the best players from the respective conferences, turns 65 this year. The annual extravaganza is undeniably the biggest marketing platform for the NBA, arguably bigger than the NBA Finals. Every year, hundreds of thousands of fans from both the USA and around the world descend upon the chosen venue city, all hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite players. Maybe even hoping to snap a last minute ticket, never mind if it were high up in the rafters.

Players, who often take this short break to catch their breath from the rigours of the first half of the season, usually give the fans what they came for. Audacious dunks, crazy layups, wild shots and cheeky passes, are all part of the three-hour entertainment bonanza. Admittedly, it isn’t as competitive as it used to be, but no one is really complaining.

While coaches and fans have always had a say, this year the NBA has included two more crucial stakeholders to the voting process. Players and journalists will get ballots to vote for each conference’s starters. And while I work towards earning that vote as a journalist, I placed my vote as a fan. Here are my starters for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game.

Eastern Conference

The Eastern Conference was comparatively easier. Superstars have clearly emerged, leading their teams from the front to enviable records. Stars such as John Wall and Carmelo Anthony do not make the cut since their teams aren’t even in the top 8. Emerging stars such as Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid, who have been exceptional this season, have yet to earn more wins for their teams. Ageing stars such as Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose (injuries have added years to his body) have not done enough. And legit stars such as Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker have been left out because I have only two guard spots. With that intro, here is my starting five for the Eastern Conference:

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, forward: At 32, in his 14th season and fresh off his third championship where he led the Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit, James has not lost a step. He is still averaging 26 ppg/8 rpg/8 apg, while shooting over 50% from the field. In fact, he has been so consistent over the years that every season henceforth will be a record-breaking one for him. He’s already passed Bob Cousy on the All-Time Career assists list, passed Moses Malone on the All-Time Career scoring list, and became the only player to tally 27,000 points, 7,000 rebounds and 7,000 assists.

Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls, forward: Yes, we’re playing small ball. Nothing small about Jimmy Butler’s season though. The 27-year-old guard continues to find ways to get better in the quest to create his own legacy. He has clearly become an All-Star, breaking the ceiling of the role-player defensive specialist that was thrust upon him when he entered the league. This season, he is averaging a career-high 25 ppg while steadying the streaky Chicago Bulls, who are currently jostling with the Washington Wizards for eighth place in the East.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks, forward: Giannis is shy. Only off the court though. On court, the Greek Freak is tearing up the stat sheets like a 10-year veteran. He is averaging 24 ppg/9 rpg/6 apg, leading his team in nearly every statistical category, and along with Jabari Parker (also deserving of an All-Star spot) is primed to lead the Milwaukee Bucks past the first round for the first time since 2001. Giannis’s freakish athletic ability coupled with the mentorship of Jason Kidd, one of the greatest hybrid guards in NBA history, is assuring fans world over that the sport’s future (and Milwaukee’s) is in good hands.

DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors, guard: Every season, fans get to watch a fringe star elevate himself to be counted among the best players in the league. DeRozan elevated himself to be counted among the greats. Like it did for Butler, the Rio OIympics did more than just put a gold medal around DeRozan’s neck. It allowed both players (both Olympic rookies) get up close and personal with the league’s other biggest stars, taking home valuable lessons on what it takes to be counted as one of the greats. DeRozan, averaging 27 ppg while helping the Raptors sit pretty with the No. 2 seed in the East, is undoubtedly one of the 10 best players in the NBA right now.

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics, guard: It’s a well known cliche that good things come in small packages. We’re sure no one imagined the package would be this good. While Westbrook and Harden run amok stuffing stat sheets, Isaiah Thomas continues to raise the ceiling for players not at least six-feet tall. He is the NBA’s most prolific and reliable scorer in the fourth quarter, which is saying a lot in a league that features the likes of LeBron, Harden, Westbrook, Durant and Curry. Thomas’s 28 ppg is fifth in the league and his 9.3 ppg in the fourth quarter trails only Westbrook’s 9.8.

Toughest Omissions: Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving

Western Conference

The Western Conference is loaded this year. So loaded that you could fill both teams with players from the Western Conference and no one would bat an eyelid. Personally, my votes have always gone to those who deserve to be on the starting five, and not the most popular player. I also avoid putting more than two players from a team (I sincerely believe this should be a rule). So that naturally left me with omissions that I still cannot come to terms with. How do Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, two of the five best players in the league, not make my starting five? How does the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and Tim Duncan’s heir-apparent, Kawhi Leonard, who leads the Spurs towards yet another (possibly deep) playoffs, not get to start in this annual celebration of the best? And how does Chris Paul, one of the greatest point guards of all time, still putting up All-Star numbers, not make the cut? I present my case(s):

DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings, forward: This is probably my most controversial choice. How does one go from claiming “small ball” and avoiding All-Stars whose teams are not yet playoff-bound in the Eastern Conference, to selecting a big man who has difficulty switching on defense and has yet to push his team into the top 8 in the West? That is simple…without DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings would not even be in playoff consideration. Cousins is averaging a career high 28.5 ppg and added a potent three-point shot, which he is knocking down at 37.3% from the field. But what is even more remarkable is that, for someone who has a reputation of being a head case, Cousins continues to push himself to improve every single season despite the gross instability his organisation has saddled him with in terms of teammates and coaches. Simply put, Cousins is a phenomenal basketball player. And that is all that matters at the All-Star.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans, forward: This is the second player in a row to make the list when his team isn’t in the running for the playoffs. In any other season, I’d concede my lack of consistency. But it is hard to overlook the fact Anthony Davis redefining the forward/centre position. He is near unguardable, blowing past bigger defenders and bangs up against the smaller ones. And when his outside shot is falling, he just shoots over everyone. His evolution is astounding, even more so when you consider that this kid is just 23. There are already comparisons to Davis mirroring Kevin Garnett’s career, a once-in-a-generational star whose team failed to assemble the right pieces for success around him. Barring an untimely injury, look for Davis to finish his career as one of the greatest ever.

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors, forward: Another tough choice. When the team has Kevin Durant, one of the purest scorers in NBA history, and Stephen Curry, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, and Klay Thompson, who dropped 60 points in a game, how does one ignore them all and pick Draymond Green. This is because without Green the Warriors aren’t well…the Warriors. His numbers may not show it, but his intangible worth to the team cannot be emphasised enough. Draymond is the catalyst that allows all the stars, rookies and role players to come together to create the juggernaut that is the Warriors. He fuels the team much like Steve Nash did with the Phoenix Suns in his MVP seasons. Make no mistake, while individually Durant, Curry, and Thompson are great, it is Green who is the Warriors’ most important and indispensable player.

James Harden, Houston Rockets, guard: What a joy it is to watch a happy James Harden wreck all kinds of havoc on the Rockets’ opponents this season. Not only Rocket GM Daryl Morey get him Mike D’Anotni, the coach most suited for Harden’s style of play, he also stocked up on two prolific shooters in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to compliment Harden’s drive and kick style. Harden’s numbers are deliriously close to Westbrook’s in terms of dishing the ball and getting to the line. And much like everyone on this starting line up, he is the sole reason for his team’s success this season.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder, guard: The Harden and Westbrook picks could not have been easier. Together, they altered the perception of what an NBA player ought to accomplish in a single game. Westbrook is still on pace to average the first triple-double season (31 ppg/11 rpg/10 apg) since Oscar Robertson did it in the 1961-’62 season. And despite the added workload (due to losing Kevin Durant) and the manic pace he is playing at, he is showing no signs of slowing down. There is the criticism that he has the ball way too much in his hands, but like Harden, he is the engine of this team. Without Westbrook, there would be no Thunder. Pun intended.

Toughest Omissions: Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol

Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler Wants To Create His Own NBA Legacy

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on December 25, 2016

Jimmy Butler is not interested in small talk. Which, depending on whom you speak with, makes him either the most difficult person to interview, or the most interesting. What he definitely is not, though, is boring; much like his 2016-’17 season.

The six-year veteran two-time All-Star forward will be playing in his sixth Christmas Day game when he leads Chicago Bulls against Kawhi Leonard’s San Antonio Spurs, who, ironically, have been struggling at home.

It is not far-fetched to compare the two mid to late first round picks in 2011, who came into the league with the ceiling of being effective role players at best. The two forwards, however, had other plans, becoming two-way threats (both at the offensive and defensive ends) and legitimate stars in the league.

“He’s (Leonard) a great player overall.” said Butler who made himself available to global media in the build up to the Christmas Day matchup. “He plays both sides of the ball extremely well and I just think that the amount of work that we both put into it in the summer and every single day, is the reason our careers have taken off the way that they have.”

While Butler’s resumé is not as colourful as Leonard’s, he will have none of the comparisons that fans and experts thrust upon the two stars. “I don’t compare myself to anybody else,” he clarified, “I have to play well and do whatever it takes for my team to win. It’s not who’s better than who…it’s all about the team winning the game.”

No beating around the bush

That team, the Chicago Bulls, came into the 2016-‘17 season with no one being able to make sense of their offseason moves. The Bulls faced much scepticism, most notably when trading away All-Star point guard and Chicago favourite, Derrick Rose. The No. 1 pick in the 2008 season and the 2011 Most Valuable Player carried the hopes of the Windy City for eight seasons.

Those hopes stood on shaky ground for four of those seasons (2012-‘2016) after Rose tore his ACL (anterior Cruciate Ligament) in the 2012 playoffs, never quite recovering to full health until last season. Sensing that his value could only drop, the Bulls pulled the trigger on a trade that saw five players and one draft pick change hands.

“I can’t say that I was surprised,” said the straight talking Butler, who often walks the fine line between the truth and diplomacy, “but I knew that it had to be one of us to tell you the truth.”

With Rose gone, the responsibility that ought to have shifted to Butler, the 2015 NBA Most Improved Player, who was coming off career highs in points (20.9), assists (4.8) and field goals made/attempted (7.0/15.4), was marginally threatened when three-time NBA Champion and 12-time NBA All-Star Dwyane Wade shockingly decided to bring “his talents” back to his hometown Chicago.

Any doubts, however, about whose team it was were immediately addressed by Wade in his introductory press conference.“This is Jimmy’s team,” Wade said. “It won’t be a tug and pull whose team it is.”

“He’s been amazing. He’s been great.” Butler remarked about his teammate and fellow Marquette alma mater, Dwyane Wade. “He knows what it takes to win a championship. The young guys and me, we are paying attention how he takes care of his body, because that’s how you get to play as many years as he’s played. Everybody knows him for the person and the basketball player that he is, but off the floor, with his family and his community, he gives so much love to everybody, just a great human being. He can then flip a switch and be a fierce competitor on the court. That’s what makes Dwayne Wade Dwayne Wade.”

Even 2008 NBA Champion Rajon Rondo, brought in to address the gaping hole at point guard left by the departure of Derrick Rose, echoed Wade’s sentiments when asked who the leader of the Bulls was.

Which brings us back to Butler, who is touching career highs in nearly every statistical category this season, some of those highs leading all Bulls players. Already an elite defender, Butler continues to grow as a scoring threat, scoring 24.4 points per game (10th in the NBA), trailing only Durant (25.9) among players who average 17 or fewer field goal attempts (shots) in a game.

He is, however, quick to caution, “I’m not perfect in any aspect of the game (and) continue to work on all aspects of my game. I want to be really, really, really good at everything, so the only way to go about that, is continue to work on everything as much you can.”

The work he’s put in, though, has not reaped favourable results for the team just yet. Chicago have been lurking in the middle of the Eastern Conference and at the time of writing this, are ninth behind the equally mediocre Indiana Pacers. “Some games, we come out flat.” said Butler about the team’s struggles. He’s optimistic though. “We’ve proven that we can win games even with just one 3-pointer in the whole game. For us, it’s all about on the defensive end. If we guard the way that we guard on the premier teams. I don’t think we’ll have a problem beating anybody.”

Creating his own legacy

His rumoured feud with coach Fred Hoiberg last season aside, Butler also does not mince his words when asked why how he feels about calling out his team that has faltered against younger, faster opponents this season.

“I think we’re all grown men within this locker room, so you know, if you criticise somebody, hopefully they take it for the right way. You got to do your job and play your role, but if you’re not doing that, somebody needs to tell you because if nobody does, you don’t know that you’re doing anything wrong. You’re a grown man. Nobody feels sorry for you, so we all got to go out there and do our job.”

And what about the responsibility that has fallen squarely upon Butler’s shoulders; the responsibility that the de facto leader of the Chicago Bulls has to give the city its first NBA Championship since a certain Michael Jordan brought home the trophy in 1998?

Butler stopped us right there. “I damned sure would never compare myself to Michael Jordan. I want to win a championship here for this city and we’re very capable of doing so, but I want to have my own legacy and write my own story. I want to be known for me winning games, not just being in the same organisation as Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, and Dennis Rodman. I’m trying to be the best version of myself that I can be.”

And in true Jimmy Butler style, he reminds us, “I’m not living in the MJ shadow.”

Ranking My Top Ten NBA All-Star Games

Fresh off the heels of the 2016 NBA All Star Game in the lovely city of Toronto, I decided do something I hate. Make a list. “Why?” you may ask. Short answer, “Hmmm…”. Long answer, the All Star Game is an exhibition bonanza to entertain the NBAs well wishers and sponsors. It is the NBA’s marquee event second only to The Finals, which aren’t nearly as elaborate, and unlike the NFLs marquee event the Superbowl, it does not hold any significance to the current season. It does reflect in a player’s career achievements, but ever since Yao Ming got voted to start at the 2011 NBA All Star Game without playing a minute that season, I stopped taking it seriously enough as a point of contention in the argument of the greatest players ever. So that makes the NBA All Star Game a mela. A multimillion dollar, everybody-who-is-anybody-needs-to-be-seen-there, let’s-not-play-defense-and-give-the-fans-what-they-came-for mela. And I don’t mind making lists about melas, because lists about melas ultimately do not matter in the grand scheme of things.

Number 10: 1951 NBA All Star Game, Boston Garden, Boston: The Beginning

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BOSTON – 1951: Ed Macauley #22 and Bob Cousy #14 of the Boston Celtics pose with Celtics’ owner Walter Brown in 1951 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2002 NBAE (Photo by Basketball Hall of Fame/NBAE/Getty Images)

The game that started it all. This may come as a surprise to the young twenty somethings, but basketball wasn’t popular in its early days. In fact it was quite unpopular as allegations of point shaving in college basketball were making headlines. Sensing the opportunity to turn things around in favor of the game, then NBA President Maurice Poldoff, NBA publicity director Haskell Cohen and Boston Celtics owner Walter Brown decided to hold an exhibition game featuring the league’s best players. Players were selected by sports journalists across the country without regard to position and the coaches were those whose teams had the best records in their respective conferences, a practice that continues to date. Brown was so convinced about its success that he agreed to bear all costs and losses, if any. He was right. The game drew a then record 10,094 fans in a league that averaged just 3,500 per game.

MVP: Ed “Easy Ed” Macauley who not only scored 20 pts but held the great George Mikan to just 4 pts.

Other Notable performances: Bob Cousy 8 pts, 9 rebs, 8 asts.

Number 9: 1964 NBA All Star Game, Boston Garden, Boston: The Strike (almost)

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Cincinnati Royals Oscar Robertson (14) in action vs Boston Celtics Sam Jones (24), Boston, MA 4/10/1963 (Photo by Rich Clarkson/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (SetNumber: X9146 TK1)

Any All Star moments list that omits the 1964 game is being disrespectful to the very principles the league has come to rest on in the years following the 1963-64 season. The players union, founded in 1954 by Bob Cousy, was saturated from ten years of expressing their concerns (Saturday night-Sunday noon back-to-back games, no pension / insurance, poor pay and terrible playing conditions among others) and presenting their demands to Commissioner Walter Kennedy, but not getting the ear, time or respect of the team owners and league officials. The 1964 NBA All Star Game was to be the first All Star game televised live, and sensing an opportunity the league’s biggest stars led by Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Tom Heinsohn and Jerry West (a huge deal in the midst of race tensions, especially in a city like Boston), threatened to strike by not playing if their demands were not met. Long story short, the league and owners could not risk giving up a potential a TV contract, especially since basketball was still a fringe sport, and gave in to the demands of the players. It signaled a shift in the attitude of the league and team owners towards the players, and brought NBA players the respect that is commonplace nowadays. Strangely enough yet understandably so, the recap of the game on the NBA site as well as Wikipedia barely mentions the strike. There are two fairly elaborate pieces describing the events of the 1964 NBA All Star Game here and here.

MVP: Oscar Robertson 26 pts, 14 rebs, 8 asts.

Other Notable Performances: Bill Russell 13 pts, 21 rebs; Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Petit with 19 pts each and 20 and 17 rebs respectively.

Number 8: 2016 NBA All Star Game, Air Canada Center, Toronto – Scoring Galore and The Black Mambas Last Hiss.

TORONTO, CANADA - FEBRUARY 14: Kobe Bryant of the West team in the locker room prior to the NBA All-Star Game as part of the 2016 NBA All-Star Weekend on February 14, 2016 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Charlie Lindsay/NBAE via Getty Images)
TORONTO, CANADA – FEBRUARY 14: Kobe Bryant of the West team in the locker room prior to the NBA All-Star Game as part of the 2016 NBA All-Star Weekend on February 14, 2016 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Charlie Lindsay/NBAE via Getty Images)

The only reason this game makes the list? The scoring. The first NBA All Star Game to travel outside the US, possibly encouraging talks for another team in Canada, was also Kobe’s last All Star game. Unlike MJ, Kobe did not bring anything close to his A-Game, and this turned out to be more a farewell for him. None of that characteristic competitiveness that Kobe brings to every game he plays, which was disappointing. What did happen though, was scoring. Lots of it. Tons of it. Both teams barely scratched the surface of what would be considered below average defense. The total number of blocks was two consequently resulting in an offensive display for the ages. The sheer quantum of points scored was staggering, 369 points between the two teams, with the leading scorers Paul George and Westbrook scoring 41 and 31 points respectively. This game was toying with being boring, because frankly no played defense. But competitive play from Paul George, MVP Westbrook, Chris Paul who had 16 assists and cannot turn off his competitive switch, DeRozan and Lowry who were playing in front their home crowd and in their first All Star, John Wall and Kevin Durant kept the game as interesting as it could be.

MVP: Russell Westbrook 31 pts, 8 rebs, 5 asts, 5 stls

Other notable performances: Paul George 41 pts, 5 rebs, Chris Paul

Number 7: 1986 NBA All Star Game, Reunion Arena, Dallas – Zeke Coming of Age; and 1987 NBA All Star Game, Kingdome, Seattle – Goodbye Doc, Hello MJ.

With 30 points, 10 assists and five steals in the 1986 All-Star Game, Isiah Thomas was named MVP. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

As hard as I tried, I could not find a way to feature both these games and still make sure the other nine stayed put. So I did what every confused All Star MVP Awards does, kept them both, tied at the 7th spot.

By his own admission, his performance in the 1986 game drove Isaiah Thomas to push his game to the next level and pursue championships. He was already one of the league’s premier point guards and well on his way to crafting an eventual Hall of Fame career. It was this game, however, that saw him mature into the leader that eventually led the Pistons to back-to-back titles in ’89 and ’90. Finishing with 30 points and 10 assists, K. C. Jones’ one guard offense ran amok and erupted for a 39 point quarter led by Thomas en route his 2nd NBA All Star MVP.

MVP: Isiah Thomas 30 pts, 10 asts, 5 stls.

Other notable performances: Larry Bird 23 pts, 8 rebs, 5 asts, 7 stls; Moses Malone 16 pts, 13 rebs; Magic Johnson 4 pts, 15 asts.

 

Tom Chambers was on fire in the 1987 All-Star Game, scoring 34 points as he was named MVP. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

It may be hard to fathom, but before the 70’s, basketball was a game largely played below the rim, with only bigs like Russell, Chamberlain, Petit and Baylor holding dominion above the rim. Dr. J changed all that paving the way for guards playing above the rim and the high flying NBA action we see as commonplace these days. He scored 22 points in his last All Star Game fittingly handing over the reins to a young phenom named Michael Jordan, who idolized Erving. But the story of the game was Tom Chambers, who made it into the game only thanks to a knee injury to Ralph Samson, and ending up crashing Dr. J’s party by scoring 34 pts, stealing the ball 4 times and leading the West to a win en route his against-all-odds MVP Trophy.

(against-all-odds) MVP: Tom Chambers with 34 pts, 4 stls.

Other notable performances: Moses Malone with 27 pts, 18 rebs; Magic Johnson with 9 pts, 13 asts, 7 rebs, 4 stls.

Number 6: 1962 NBA All Star Game, St. Louis Arena, St. Louis – The Record

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Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia (13), goes up high to snag a rebound in the NBA All-Star game, St Louis, Missouri, January 16, 1962. Below him are (l-r) Bob Cousey, Boston (14); Jerry West, Los Angeles (11); Tom Heinsohn, Boston (15); Bob Pettit, St Louis (9); Walt Bellamy, Chicago (8) and Elgin Baylor, Los Angeles (22). (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

I never liked Wilt Chamberlain. I still don’t. But we cannot deny that the physical presence he brought to the game was way ahead of his time. Chamberlain did set the record for most points scored in an All Star Game by dropping 42 on the West, and flirted with the record for most rebounds falling shy by just three to finish with 24 for the game (the record? Set in the same game by Petit with 27! Go figure.), but it was the West’s balanced attack with Baylor, Robertson, West, Petit and Bellamy that dominated the East that was no pushover with Russell, Cousy, Schayes and Heinsohn rounding up a stacked team. The West was devastatingly good, with all starters scoring 18 points or more and pulling down 79 rebounds, a record at the time. Petit deservingly took home MVP honors pouring in 25 points to go along with a monster 27 rebounds, a record that stands till date. Another significant fact about this game: It would be the last time Chamberlain and Russell would be on the same team.

MVP: Bob Petit with 25 pts, 27 rebs.

Other notable performances: Wilt Chamberlain 42 pts, 25 rebs; Elgin Baylor 32 pts, 9 rebs, Walt Bellamy 23 pts, 17 rebs.

Number 5: 1998 NBA All Star Game, Madison Square Garden, New York, and 2003 NBA All Star Game, Philips Arena, Atlanta, a.k.a. His Airness vs. The Black Mamba Part I & II.

NBA All-Star Game: Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant (8) and Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan (23) on court during All Star Weekend at Madison Square Garden. New York, NY 2/8/1998 CREDIT: Manny Millan (Photo by Manny Millan /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
NBA All-Star Game: Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant (8) and Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan (23) on court during All Star Weekend at Madison Square Garden. New York, NY 2/8/1998 CREDIT: Manny Millan (Photo by Manny Millan /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

I could harp about how MJ was so ill before the game, he allegedly would not be playing the game, let alone start it. I could harp about how he passed on the torch of greatness to a young rookie named Kobe Bryant, then the youngest rookie to start the NBA All Star Game. I could write about how Kobe was far from shoddy scoring 18 points and pulling down 6 rebounds to Jordan’s 23 points, 8 assists and third All Star MVP, just the third player since Oscar and Petit to do so. But since hindsight is 20:20, I’ll just leave some of the post game press quotes here:

Larry Bird, coaching his first NBA All Star Game: “Give it to Michael and get out of the way. That is the way it usually happens.”

Jordan: “I’ve been in bed for three days, basically. I didn’t really expect to come out here and win the MVP. I just wanted to fit in, to make sure Kobe didn’t dominate me. He came at me early, which I would have done if I were him. If you see someone who’s sick, or whatever, you’ve got to attack him. He attacked. I like his attitude.”

Kobe: “That’s all about competitive nature, I came out aggressive, he came back at me he hit those two turnarounds, and I was like ‘Cool, let’s get it on!”.

And my favorite…Bryant: “As far as carrying the torch for the years to come, I don’t know. I just want to be the best basketball player I can be. If that happens, that will be fine.”

Who woulda thunk! Hindsight is always 20:20.

MVP: Michael Jordan 23 pts, 8 asts, 6 rebs, 3 stls.

Other notable performances: Kobe Bryant 18 pts, 6 rebs, 2 stls.

ATLANTA - FEBRUARY 9: Kobe Bryant #8 of the Western Conference All Stars talks with Michael Jordan #23 of the Eastern conference All Stars during the 2003 NBA All-Star Game at the Phillips Arena on February 9, 2003 in Atlanta, Georgia. The West won 155-145 in the first ever double-overtime All-Star Game. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2003 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
ATLANTA – FEBRUARY 9: Kobe Bryant #8 of the Western Conference All Stars talks with Michael Jordan #23 of the Eastern conference All Stars during the 2003 NBA All-Star Game at the Phillips Arena on February 9, 2003 in Atlanta, Georgia. The West won 155-145 in the first ever double-overtime All-Star Game. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2003 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

Fast forward five years.

Kobe is now the alpha dog and halfway through the number of rings MJ has won. MJ, now 39, seems to (I repeat: “seems to”) be shadow of his former self. They get mic’d up for a video that has become a Youtube sensation since and will remain so forever. But nothing about the game stands out more than the second last play of overtime. With just over ten seconds left and the game tied, Jordan, guarded by the West’s best defender the 6’8” Shawn Marion who happens to have a 7’0” wingspan, receives a pass on the right wing, posts up Marion on his left, switches to his right, drives to the baseline and pulls up about midway between the 3pt line and the paint to unleash one of the deadliest shots in NBA history over the stretched-out-to-max hand of Marion, and sinks what could’ve been one of the greatest shots in the history of the All Star Game, and a reminder to Kobe of who’s his 40-yr old boss. Just imagine… a (nearly) 40 year old Jordan comes out of his second retirement, scores 20 points in the All Star game AND hits the game winning jumper with 5.2 seconds left! How is that NOT a fourth MVP for Jordan?! Alas, sadly we all know what happens next. Jermaine O’Neal has the idiotic audacity to foul a 3pt shooter, who just happened to be Kobe freakin’ Bryant!. Kobe calmly sinks two of three taking us to the first double overtime game in the history of the NBA All Star. Amongst all this madness, my favorite player of all time Kevin Garnett took home MVP honors, putting on an offensive clinic scoring 37 points on 71% shooting from the field! Add that to him filling every stat on the sheet except 3pt and you had one deserving MVP. If only Jermaine kept his freaking hands to himself!

MVP: Kevin Garnett 37 pts, 9 rebs, 3 asts, 1 blk, 5 stls and 71% FG%. Told ya…stat sheet stuffed and how!

Other notable performances: Allen Iverson 35 pts, 5 rebs, 7 asts, 5 stls (stat sheet stuffer alert!); Tracy McGrady 29 pts, 5 rebs; Kobe Bryant 22 pts, 7 rebs, 4 asts, 3 stls; Jordan 20 pts, 5 rebs, 2 stls.

Number 4: 2013 NBA All Star Game, Toyota Center, Houston. The Black Mamba bites The King

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 17: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat and the Eastern Conference drives on Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Western Conference during the 2013 NBA All-Star game at the Toyota Center on February 17, 2013 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX – FEBRUARY 17: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat and the Eastern Conference drives on Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Western Conference during the 2013 NBA All-Star game at the Toyota Center on February 17, 2013 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

This was special. Because I was there. But more on that later.

This, in my humble opinion, was the last ever competitive All Star Game.

As with every All Star Game, the media creates a storyline, and this time, fittingly so, it was Lebron vs. Kobe. Lebron and his Miami Heat were in the midst of what would become the second longest win streak in the history of the regular season. Appearing invincible, the media began to wonder if Lebron, who before the All Star Game became the 1st player to average 30+ points while shooting 60+ pct from the field in six consecutive games, was finally ready to take on the mantle from Kobe. (This seemed ridiculous, even at that time, not only because Lebron had won just one championship, but he did so leaving Cleveland and joining another alpha dog’s (Dwayne Wade) quest to win a few more rings. Something Kobe would’ve never done, no matter what the rumor wines said. Even Jordan chipped in, picking Kobe over Lebron because well…five is better than one). Kobe disagreed, and Kobe being Kobe decided to take it to Lebron and his budding legacy. While the numbers do not reflect this (Kobe 9 pts in 27 mins), the last 5 minutes of the game do. With 5:37 left in the game and the West up by 5, Kobe turned up the heat (pun intended) playing Lebron full court, and doesn’t let up for the rest of the game. But the drama begins in earnest around 2:57 when Kobe crosses Bosh over for a lay up finishing on the left of the rim.

2:42: West by 8. Kobe picks up Lebron full court, sticks with him and locks in at halfcourt. Lebron runs towards the Bosh screen, looking to come off the screen and pull up for a shot. Kobe goes over the screen and blocks his shot clean, leading to an open Durant layup.

2:30: West by 10. Kobe is still chasing Lebron around forcing him to give up the ball and stand around watching Wade, Anthony and Bosh play ball.

0:56.8: West by 6. Lebron brings the ball into the half, is hassled by Kobe as he reaches the top of the key, tries to split the screen but dribbles it off his leg into KD’s hands who passes it to the Griffin for the off the board slam.

0:47.7: Wesy by 8. Griffin gets in on the action and double teams Lebron receiving the inbound pass followed by Kobe chasing him full court. Lebron’s had enough and decides to take Kobe all the way to the rim. Kobe stays with him and blocks the shot! Reggie Miller says “Kobe’s making this personal”

0:40.9: West by 8. Both teams clear out as Lebron posts up Kobe on the right side. He spins right, thinks he’s lost Kobe and goes up for the shot, only to get swatted hard by Kobe. Foul. Two shots for Lebron. He makes the 1st, giving him his FIRST point of the 4th quarter. Kobe swings over to the West bench loudly proclaiming to Kerr “He can’t score on me!” Lebron misses the second.

0:33.2: West by 7. Harden gets the rebound off the miss and goes by Lebron, who has lost all will in this game. Visibly distressed that Kobe is coming at him so hard.

And that’s it.

None of the players currently in the NBA, except for maybe Chris Paul, will ever do this in the NBA All Star Game. None. I’d like to be proven wrong. I’d love it, actually. But I know I won’t be. As much as I dislike Kobe, he will always have my respect for being one of the most competitive players to have ever stepped on hardwood.

MVP: Michael Jordan: 40 pts, 8 rebs, 3 asts, 4 stls, 4 blks.

Other notable performances: Dominique Wilkins 29 pts, 5 rebs; Isaiah Thomas 8 pts, 15 asts; Magic Johnson 17 pts, 19 asts, 6 rebs, 2 stls, 2 blks, Karl Malone 22 pts, 10 rebs.

 

Number 3: 1992 NBA All Star Game, Orlando Arena, Orlando. The Magical Farewell.

There’s everything he did on court, and there’s everything he did off it. But nothing exemplifies the place Magic had in the hearts of fans more than being voted to start in the 1992 NBA All Star Game. Upon learning he contracted HIV, Magic decided that he needed to focus on treatment and hung up his jersey for good before the 1991-92 season began. Remember that this was a time when HIV was terribly misunderstood and the harshest judgments were reserved for those who contracted it, especially vile when it came the individual’s personal life. Magic was one of the biggest celebrities to come out openly about his condition. The media went nuts speculating, especially since the Lakers were known to indulge in the good life. Fans fed off the speculation for a while, fueled by Magic’s decision to retire just as he was coming off the peek of his career. But almost immediately, the fans felt a void. Magic was more than just basketball. He was a global ambassador of the game, and much unlike Jordan, he was just as brilliant off the court as he was on it. His mega watt smile, coupled with his magnetic personality had the fans pining for one last Showtime Show, voting him to start the NBA All Star Game that season. The League bent the rules, Magic complied to play, and what followed was a few of hours of pure blissful magic as the world was watched Earvin Johnson weave his “Magic” into the 1992 NBA All Star Game. He barely missed a step all game, and played his heart out, sky hooks here, no look passes there, 9 assists and 25 points on 75% shooting while being a perfect 3-for-3 from 3pt land, panting at half time interviews, knocking down threes in his good friend Zeke’s face. He closed out the game successfully defending Zeke and Jordan on consecutive possessions, and put an exclamation mark when with 16.3 secs left and Zeke guarding him he launched and awkward looking but fundamentally perfect three that touched only the bottom of the net going in. It was a blowout with the West winning 153-113 and Magic was the heart of that win, deservingly taking home MVP honors for the second and last time in his career.

MVP: Earvin “Magic” Johnson 25 pts, 9 assists, 2 stls, 75% FG%, 3-for-3 3PT

Other notable performances: Clyde Drexler 22 pts, 9 rebs, 6 asts; Michael Jordan 18 pts, 5 asts, 2 stls.

Number 2: 1988 NBA All Star Game, Chicago Stadium, Chicago. – His Airness Micheal Jordan arrives.

Having received the mantle from Dr. J the previous year, it was Jordan’s time to shine. And the NBA could not have chosen a better venue. Whether the move was strategic knowing Jordan’s draw on fans and his impending blowout game, we will never know. What we do know, and have as a memory for ever, is Jordan exploding for 40 pts in one of the best All Star Games ever played. Both the East and the West were stacked with Hall of Famers, and Jordan saw this as the perfect coming out party. He felt he was sidelined in the games from 85-87, hinting that the older players were threatened by his presence and his abilities, and gave him the cold shoulder. Jordan decided to take matters in his own hands and dominate the All Star Game like no one has ever done and will ever do. In just 29 minutes on court. Jordan single handedly kept the East in the Game pouring in 40 pts (impressively this did not include a single 3ptr) and filling nearly every stat on the sheet. His running mates included his dunk contest nemesis, Dominique Wilkins and two NBA Finals nemesis Isaiah Thomas, with Bird and (Moses) Malone rounding up the East. The West was just as stacked with Magic, (Karl) Malone, Olajuwon, Alex English and the incredibly talented but streaky Lafayette “Fat” Lever. The two teams battled furiously, and remember, this was when teams actually played defense and treated the All Star Game with the utmost respect. Jordan scored 16 points in the final 5:30, but had to share his thunder with Kareem, whose sky hook took his All Star Game points total to 247 points, a record at that time.

MVP: Michael Jordan: 40 pts, 8 rebs, 3 asts, 4 stls, 4 blks.

Other notable performances: Dominique Wilkins 29 pts, 5 rebs; Isaiah Thomas 8 pts, 15 asts; Magic Johnson 17 pts, 19 asts, 6 rebs, 2 stls, 2 blks, Karl Malone 22 pts, 10 rebs.

Number 1: 2001 NBA All Star Game, MCI Center, Washington D.C. – The Comeback

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The Game simply known as The Comeback.

My research for this article involved watching, pausing and re-watching All Star Game highlights and specials on Youtube. None though, gave me goosebumps the way the 2001 NBA All Star Game did.

I fell in love with basketball watching the 2000 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and the Blazers. So nearly everyone in the 2001 NBA All Star Game got me jumping out of my seat! “Damn! A young McGrady running with cuz Carter!”… “Look at that…Marbury when he actually played basketball and wasn’t eating jelly!!” “Holy crap Iverson was freakin insane!!!” … “ Ray Allen with the Bucks…young cats forget!!!” And my favorite “Holy Savior of the World…its Antonio McDyess!!!!”

Just so I could save my energy, I stood up and watched the whole video. Sitting down wasn’t an option. This was beyond incredible. These are the guys that got me hooked on to a game that has become the Purpose of my Life.

The East were almost puny in comparison to the giants of the West who, believe it or not, did not even have Shaq. This mismatch reflected in the score, with the West dominating just about every aspect of the game from the opening tip. Alley oops, rebound putbacks, dominating post play, incredible interior defense and just about everything you’d expect when a team as physically imposing as the West took on the comparatively puny East. Every one was in on the party…Kobe, Duncan, Garnett, Webber, MdDyess, while Iverson, Carter, Marbury and Allen tried to keep the East in the game.

So when they found themselves up by 21 with nine minutes left to go in the game, the West thought they had nothing to worry. Well, they were wrong.

The East, led by Iverson, suddenly caught fire and rallied to stage the biggest comeback win in the history of the NBA All  Star Game. The West looked lost and frazzled by the East’s feisty defense during this stretch. The look in Iverson’s eyes was unmistakable, he wanted no part of a loss, possibly due to the sorry state that the media cut of the East, claiming that they stood no chance against the bigger West lineup. Scoring 15 of his game-high 25 in the fourth quarter, Iverson willed the East back into the game and was helped by Marbury whose two late threes in response to Kobe’s baskets at the other end, sealed the deal.

We may indulge in a pointless debate of why this list isn’t right, and I may even let you change my mind on games from 2 – 10. But for its relevance in my life, and what it means to me till date, the 2001 NBA All Star Game will always be number one in my books. And you cannot convince me otherwise.

MVP: Allen Iverson 25 pts, 5 asts, 4 stls

Other notable performances: Dikembe Mutumbo 6 pts, 25 rebs; Kobe Bryant 19 pts, 7 asts, 4 rebs; Tim Duncan 14 pts, 14 rebs.

Before I finish:

The All Star Game, while still an exhibition, used to be fairly competitive when it started, picked up in intensity in the mid – late 80’s and early 90’s, and stayed fairly competitive till late 00’s. That’s all gone now, and the game has turned into a dunk and trickery fest. There were two block the entire game in 2016! And one was by Kyle Lowry!! While offense wins games, defense wins championships, making it a vital part of the game. That’s what sets basketball apart from other team games, in that you have to play both ends of the floor as a team at all times. As much as fans idolize these players, they also remember great performances and pay good money to watch these guys play a decent game of basketball. Instead, the highlight of the 2016 game for basketball purists was Popovich’s face every time the camera panned on him. He seemed like he did not want any part of the dunk fest. Or maybe that’s Pop just being his stoic self.

It is sad that the casual and new fans of basketball do not take the All Star Game more seriously. Actually most of us serious fans do not as well anymore. And there’s good reason… even the players themselves barely take it seriously.

When watching highlights and re-watching earlier games, three things stood out:

  1. The All Star game meant something. Starters played their best, because they felt they owed it to the fans who voted them in. Benchers played their best to prove to the coaches and journalists they made the right choice.
  1. Everyone played Defense. Plays were called on Offense. Yes, it was made fancier with slick passing and theatrical dunking. But they were still solid offensive set plays with a purpose of “beating” the other team. Not cruising for uncontested lay ups and dunks. That’s what the Dunk Contest is for.
  1. Teams played hard. They went at each other. Players wanted to show up their opponent. You went after your opponent, because you knew he was coming back the other way next possession. There has to be a winner and there will be a loser. None of that “everyone-is-a-winner” bullshit. That’s what the game of basketball is about.

I fear that with Kobe, the last of the legends that took the All Star Game fairly seriously has gone.

A final thought:

I spent every waking hour from 2000 till 2012 dreaming of one day attending an NBA Game and meeting with players who were demi-gods to me. The only basketball I had access to till then was two live games a week on TV (no highlights), highlights on Youtube (only from ‘06 onward), and the two of most important influences in my life, Scoop Jackson for SLAM Magazine and Bill Simmons also named the Sports Guy. I devoured every letter of every word of every article they wrote, including Simmons’ The Book of Basketball which I read once at the beginning of every year.

And then the 2013 NBA All Star happened. And I was there. (you can read my running blog here)

To have come this close to actually playing hoops with Simmons at a closed game for the media (Thank you for the media creds Akash Jain), to pass by Greg Popovich in the player tunnel and have him promise to come back around after the pregame press conference (he didn’t come back, but I ain’t mad…I shook his hand. Greg. Popovich’s. Hand.), to be the only media representative from India ask both David Stern and Adam Silver what plans they had for India, to try and meet Magic Johnson only to have his bodyguard palm my chest and say “No.”, to promise myself that one day Magic will know my name, to bring in my 30th birthday a day after His Airness brought in his 50th, to have spent an hour going absolutely nuts talking hoops with Scoop over beers, and the best part of the weekend…to stand two feet away from my all time favorite player Kevin Garnett asking him when does he plan to come to India again and hear him say “Soon, man. Soon”, is a feeling that cannot be expressed in words, no matter how eloquent my language. So yes, the All Star Game has turned into a bunch of grown men playing aimless basketball. Yes, the All Star Game is just about the NBA calling its big guns to impress the corporate world in the hopes of more sponsorship, partnerships and money. Yes, the All Star Game isn’t something serious basketball fans take seriously anymore and neither do the players. And yes, the All Star Game doesn’t count for anything in the argument of who is the greatest of all time after Jordan (see what I did there?).

But for a starry doe eyed dreamer so far away from the action, those four days meant the world. They meant everything. They make living worthwhile.