By Rob Mahoney
Sunday's NBA All-Star Game promises to be -- as always -- a loose, flashy exhibition of the more decadent parts of the game. It brings the showy ball-handling, soaring dunks, and no-look passes without the intensity or strategy of standard NBA fare, thus distilling the NBA product down to its sugary, showy core. The final product may only vaguely resemble an actual NBA game as a result, but the athletes are fantastic enough (and typically, competitive enough; the fourth quarter is inevitably a point of contention) to bring intrigue to the game's pure spectacle. Here are five bits of that intrigue, derived largely from the players themselves, that are worth looking out for in tonight's game:
1. LeBron James.
LeBron has become possibly the most magnetic draw in the entire league, as every game brings the potential for him to do something that exceeds our wildest expectations. An All-Star setting is a bit different (efficiency, shot discretion, and great defense aren't typically All-Star Game hallmarks), but I suspect our fixation on James will remain -- and for good reason. James has made it abundantly clear that he's the best basketball player on the planet, capable of dominating games in a wholly unique way. He isn't being overhyped. He's simply that good and that magnetic. Sunday's action will inevitably revolve around LeBron in some way or another, and I'm certainly curious to see what he has in store for the nonexistent All-Star-Game-caliber defense once the game becomes a bit more competitive.
2. Missed connections.
The All-Star Game doesn't just give star players a chance to play off of one another, but also brings former teammates and friends back together in a trade retcon of sorts. For years we saw Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki use their reunion to call back to their Dallas days, and in a similar vein we'll see Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden share the court as teammates for the first time since the preseason. Their on-court chemistry may have been odd at times, but the friendship between those three players gave their bond an undeniable charisma that would give a perfect subplot to an otherwise routine series of highlight-reel plays.
3. Stylistic misfits.
The All-Star Game in itself may be a showcase of acrobatics and glitzy transition play, but selection to the team serves as a reward for a season well played, regardless of style. As such, a handful of players (primarily more deliberate big men) usually stick out from the game's fast-breaking procession, left to toss up a jumper or two or finish blandly inside with a basic dunk. This year, Kevin Garnett, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Brook Lopez, Chris Bosh, Zach Randolph, Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and David Lee will be among the most likely to fade to the All-Star Game's margins, though we can always hold out some hope that some big man or another will find unexpected relevance in a game like this. Maybe Noah will handle the ball a bit in the open court? Perhaps Lee will riff on his usual high-post facilitation to throw lobs for teammates? There's some potential here, for sure, but if nothing else we can appreciate the weirdness of players like Duncan or Garnett looking out of place in this bizarro basketball context.
4. Little concern for conventional positions.
Eastern Conference head coach Erik Spoelstra has opted to replace the injured Rajon Rondo in the starting lineup with another of his own players (in addition to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who were voted in by the fans as starters): big man Chris Bosh. It's an unconventional choice given that most coaches would select another guard to replace an injured one, but Spoelstra's Heat have championed positionless basketball over the last few seasons and positionless basketball ultimately championed the Heat through the 2012 NBA Finals. This is a coach and a team that rely on more creative positional orientations, thus making it all the more interesting that Spoelstra will likely eschew using a traditional point guard at various points in Sunday's game.
And with players like James, Wade, and even Carmelo Anthony on the wings, why shouldn't he? The Heat will have ball-handlers and playmakers aplenty, though Spo will undoubtedly still find time for more traditional point men Kyrie Irving and Jrue Holiday to do their thing.
5. James Harden, hometown hero. It's All-Star Game tradition for the competitors involved to enable players from the host city to look good in front of their home crowd, and the Western Conference All-Stars will undoubtedly go out of their way to feed first-timer James Harden as much as possible. Harden certainly has the high-scoring game necessary to have a terrific outing, though his approach is also a uniquely poor fit for an All-Star setting. He can pour in threes and surprise with his finishes at the rim, but the underpinning of Harden's game is his ability to draw fouls and finish after contact -- two elements of typical NBA basketball that really won't be all that beneficial in an All-Star context. Harden will get his chance to fill it up and likely will, but I'd suspect he'll put up a "quiet" 25 points as opposed to a more obviously dominant performance.