NEW YORK -- The basketball world has converged on the Big Apple in advance of Sunday's All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden (8:30 p.m. ET on TNT). Here's a look at five of the biggest storylines heading into All-Star Weekend's showcase event.
1. Juggled Rosters
Absolutely everything at All-Star Weekend has a corporate sponsor -- except the All-Star Game itself. There's State Farm All-Star Saturday night, the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest, the Foot Locker Three-Point Shootout, the Sprint Pregame Concert, the D-League All-Star Game presented by Kumho Tire (seriously) and on and on. There are so many All-Stars sidelined this year due to injury that Sunday's game might as well be sponsored by the Red Cross.
Let's tally up the damage. In the West, three of the starters voted in by fans -- Kobe Bryant (shoulder), Anthony Davis (shoulder), and Blake Griffin (elbow) -- will not be playing. DeMarcus Cousins, Damian Lillard and Dirk Nowitzki have been named as injury replacements, with Klay Thompson and James Harden claiming spots in the starting lineup. In the East, only reserve Dwyane Wade (knee) is a scratch -- Kyle Korver will replace him on the roster -- but Carmelo Anthony (knee) and Jimmy Butler (shoulder) are also nursing injuries.
The All-Star signage at the 42nd Street subway station nicely illustrates the roster mayhem. Bryant, Griffin and Anthony all grace tall posters, even though they are either out or limited, and non-invites like Dwight Howard, Kevin Love and Joe Johnson appear nearby too. This really isn't the game the league and its fans were expecting. Hopefully all the fresh faces make the most of their newfound opportunities: Butler, Cousins, Korver, Thompson, Kyle Lowry and Jeff Teague are all first-time selections.
2. Wide Open MVP Race?
The All-Star Game MVP race is always tricky to handicap simply because predicting who tries the hardest in an exhibition is more or less like drawing straws. Guards and forwards that can put up lots of points dominate this award, as Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan are the only centers to win All-Star Game MVP during the last 25 years.
According to Bovada.LV, this year's top five MVP favorites are:
- Stephen Curry (West): 13/4
- LeBron James (East): 7/2
- Kevin Durant (West): 7/2
- James Harden (West): 11/2
- Carmelo Anthony (East): 6/1
Curry is a logical front-runner: His Warriors have the league's best record, he's the early favorite to win the regular-season MVP award, he will have the ball in his hands a lot on Sunday, and he's an excellent shooter prone to scorching streaks. Perhaps most importantly, Warriors coach Steve Kerr will be manning the sideline, encouraging Curry to push the tempo, giving him the ultimate green light and giving him as many minutes as he desires.
Over the last month, Cleveland has been on a mission to prove that it belongs in the conversation about the East's best teams. Perhaps James decides takes a similar approach on Sunday and attempts to reestablish his individual supremacy after months of early-season questions. Ditto all of that for Durant too, as the Thunder have slowly but surely worked their way back towards relevance in the West.
Two other names to watch: Harden and Russell Westbrook. Harden has all the makings of an All-Star MVP: he's the NBA's leading scorer, he can bomb from deep and finish above the rim, and he loves to put on a show with the ball in his hands. Westbrook's pure athleticism must be accounted for in such a free-flowing format.
3. The Host With The Most
The host city always plays a major role during All-Star Weekend, but it shouldn't come as any surprise that New York City is featuring extra prominently this year. The league has conducted charity events in all five boroughs, it has split the events between Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center, it has lined up NYC legends like Walt Frazier, Bernard King and Chris Mullin to be Dunk Contest judges, and it commissioned a comprehensive map of the city's basketball greats that is breathtaking in its scope.
You couldn't go two seconds without hearing phrases like "The Mecca" and "The biggest stage in basketball" during Friday's All-Star media availability, and Wade even pointed out how long it's been since the country's largest city has hosted the event. The last New York City All-Star Game was in 1998, two lockouts ago, with Michael Jordan taking home MVP honors during his sixth title season with the Bulls. In all, New York has played host to four previous All-Star Games, but this is only the second time that the new MSG has hosted the event. Look for Spike Lee to have plenty of A-list company courtside.
4. Hawks Everywhere
Atlanta's unexpectedly brilliant season (43-11, best in the East) has paid major dividends: coach Mike Budenholzer is coaching in his first All-Star Game in just his second season as a head coach, four Hawks were named to the East's All-Star roster (Teague, Korver, Paul Millsap and Al Horford), Korver will take his league-leading shooting stroke into a deep Three-Point Contest field, Teague will compete in the Skills Challenge, and reserve guard Dennis Schroder is getting a chance to show his stuff in both the Rising Stars Challenge and the Skills Challenge. Heck, even legendary Hawks player Dominique Wilkins, the team's television color commentator, will make a cameo in the Shooting Stars competition with Millsap. In short, you won't be able to turn a corner or enter an alleyway in New York City without stumbling upon a Hawk.
So, how will Budenholzer manage the minutes? For what it's worth, the last team to land four players on the same All-Star team was the 2011 Celtics (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo). Boston coach Doc Rivers was the East's coach that year, and he elected to play his four guys -- who were all selected as reserves -- a total of a reasonable 55 minutes. However, Rivers had the luxury of severely limiting the minutes given to Garnett and Pierce, two veterans who had been through the process numerous times already.
Budenholzer doesn't have the luxury of an easy opt out because Teague and Korver are both first-time All-Stars, Millsap made his first All-Star Game last year and played just 14 minutes, and Horford is making just his third appearance. Korver is the old man of the bunch at 33, but he's not exactly slowing down. Will Budenholzer respect the fans' wishes by playing his starters the bulk of the minutes? How many minutes will he play Teague relative to the other point guards (Kyle Lowry, John Wall and Kyrie Irving) on his roster? Will he loosen things up and play all four of his guys at once? Though these aren't exactly heart-stopping queries, they're worth keeping an eye on.
5. The Brothers Gasol
Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol will become the first pair of brothers in NBA history to start in the same All-Star Game. Remarkably, the two brothers have made five combined All-Star appearances before this year (four previous appearances for Pau, one for Marc), but this is the first time they will appear in the same game. That both Spaniards were selected as starters by a fan vote is a testament to the growing global popularity of the game: The Gasols are the first ever international players to be selected as All-Star starters and a record 534 international media members (more than double last year's total) are covering this year's event.
The sibling showdown theoretically opens the door for a little trash talk, but both Pau and Marc diplomatically took the high road. "Sometimes he wins, sometimes I win," Pau said. "We're both very talented players."
Although Marc wasn't exactly shooting off any fireworks either, he did intimate that both brothers are pushing hard for the victory -- and the bragging rights that go with it -- beneath their calm exteriors. "I don't think it matters who wins it," he said. "I know we both will go for it whatever we say right now."