TORONTO — Thanks to an electric Slam Dunk Contest on Saturday, 2016 All-Star Weekend went from being a frigid and forgettable affair to a potential classic. Will Sunday’s All-Star Game—headlined by Kobe Bryant’s final appearance—keep the momentum going?
Here are five things to watch as Bryant, Stephen Curry, LeBron James and company take the Air Canada Centre court.
1. Kobe, Kobe, Kobe
The scene around Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has been truly remarkable this weekend. On Friday, he was swarmed by hundreds of media members at his first press conference. Some of the international media in attendance wore his jersey, while others brought goodbye gifts, including a painting of him as a Samurai. The gifting was just starting, however, as Friday night saw Michael Jordan and Jordan Brand give Bryant pairs of all of Jordan’s 30 signature shoes, in both white and black.
On Saturday, the scene repeated itself, with Bryant drawing significantly larger crowds than his fellow All-Stars, including MVP Stephen Curry and LeBron James. Bryant’s final All-Star go-around has prompted questions about his favorite All-Star Weekend—1997 in Cleveland, because it hosted the 50 Greatest Players ceremony—and his memories of everyone from Jordan to Allen Iverson to Ronda Rousey. This has been a true send-off, and Bryant has been in a giving mood with his memories.
“He’s a legend that had every passion and poured it out into the game that he loved,” said Bryant, when asked about Jordan, his childhood idol.
“I don’t think people realize how cold he was,” Bryant said when the subject turned to Iverson. He shook shaking his head at the memory of The Answer dropping 41 points on him back in 1999.
But Bryant shifted into “downplay” mode when the conversation shifted to Sunday. He told reporters Friday that he would “be good with 10” minutes of playing time and that he had “zero” intention of gunning for what would be his fifth All-Star Game MVP.
“I’ve never been one to really pull any punches,” Bryant said. “I’m really just enjoying this whole thing, being around these players and talking to them one more time. … Competitiveness in terms of me trying to establish or prove something, that’s gone.”
He followed that up on Saturday by relaying a conversation with Warriors guard Stephen Curry. According to Bryant, Curry told him that he planned to set up Bryant with some extra looks and that, in response, he told Curry to forget that plan and shoot away.
Nevertheless, the general sense is that everyone is hoping for one more vintage performance from Bryant, who has been selected to the All-Star Game every single year since 2000.
“It’s bittersweet that this is Kobe’s last All-Star Game,” LeBron James said. “I remember when I was a youngster, in the 10th or 11th grade, and I was watching [Michael Jordan’s] last All-Star Game. It has that same type of feeling.”
Kevin Durant, a longtime fan of Bryant, called it “exciting to be part of something special” and wondered whether Bryant would defer to his younger teammates, while Curry said that it would be a “cool story for him to go out” with an MVP.
Will Bryant find his stroke early and keep gunning or will he be content to play a supporting role for the loaded West roster? That’s Sunday’s No. 1 question.
2. The Warriors
The defending champions enter the weekend on the biggest roll ever thanks to a record-setting 48–4 start and another MVP-worthy season from Curry. Golden State is the only team with three All-Stars in Toronto—Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green—and the Warriors got off to a strong start on Saturday, with Thompson besting Curry to win the Three-Point Contest.
If there’s any lineup intrigue to watch on Sunday, it’s how exactly Spurs coach Gregg Popovich chooses to deploy the Warriors. How heavily does he lean on Curry, who has yet to win an All-Star Game MVP? Does he let the three Warriors play together for an extended stretch at the expense of the rest of his roster? Does he decide to throw out a lineup composed entirely of Warriors and Spurs (Curry, Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Green, LaMarcus Aldridge)? Does Popovich troll the entire NBA world by playing Kevin Durant, who has been linked in rumors to the Warriors in recent weeks, with Golden State’s three stars as a possible 2016–17 preview?
Given the presence of Bryant and the depth of quality on the West’s roster, Popovich will have his hands full balancing these various competing interests. Still, it’s a safe bet that Golden State’s regular-season dominance will seep into Sunday’s showcase.
3. O Canada
The NBA has been hosting All-Star Games since 1951, but 2016 marks the first time the game will be played outside of the USA. Despite sub-zero temperatures, Toronto has handled the responsibility well, relying on multiple venues and big-city infrastructure to pull things together.
The Air Canada Centre should be decked out in full Canadian style for Sunday’s main event, as the backdrop for All-Star Saturday included numerous Canadian flags and other memorabilia. Look for plenty of Canadian stars, including the rapper and courtside fixture Drake, to add to the show. “This is his weekend,” James said Saturday, when asked about Drake, who will provide the player introductions before the game.
Although Sting will headline the halftime show, it would hardly be surprising if members of the Canadian music scene supplemented the British rocker.
Photos: NBA All-Star Game musical performances through the years
4. Coaching Matchup
Thanks to some unusual circumstances, this year’s All-Star Game will feature a matchup between the NBA’s longest-tenured and shortest-tenured coaches.
San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, at 67 and with five championships to his name, will coach the Western Conference, even though the Spurs have the West’s second-best record. NBA rules dictate that the same coach can’t coach in the All-Star Game in two years, thereby lifting the responsibility from Golden State’s Steve Kerr, whose Warriors sit in first place. Kerr’s interim replacement this year, Luke Walton, was also freed from responsibility once Kerr returned to the bench in January.
Meanwhile, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, 38, will guide the Eastern Conference, even though he’s been on the job for less than a month after the firing of David Blatt. Lue, a former NBA player, has kept Cleveland atop the East standings, going 8-3 during his tenure so far. But the contrast with Popovich is stark.
The two coaches will enter Sunday night with Popovich having coached more than 140 times more games than Lue. Here’s a side-by-side comparison to reinforce the disparity in their levels of experience.
Although most of Sunday’s spotlight will go to Bryant, who is making his 18th appearance, there are four first-timers to welcome to the stage: Green, Leonard, Isaiah Thomas and Andre Drummond.
Of the four, Green is the odds on favorite to make the biggest impact. His chemistry with Curry and his bubbly, non-stop personality make him a perfect fit for this event.
Leonard might prove to be an awkward fit in this format. While he’s taken major steps forward as a scorer, he’s still working on asserting himself offensively and his lockdown defense is unlikely to be of much use in this setting.
Both Thomas and Drummond got an early taste of the All-Star experience on Saturday night, with the former advancing to the finals of the Skills Challenge and the latter bowing out early in a classic Dunk Contest. Both have the ability to make highlight plays—Thomas with his creative scoring ability off the dribble and Drummond with his forceful finishes—but both will likely be stuck toward the bottom of the East’s totem pole.