By Ben Golliver
HOUSTON -- While the NBA's organizers and major marketing partners promised an aeronautical theme to All-Star Weekend, this year's festivities were less of a rocket launch and more of a meandering hot-air balloon ride. The elements that made recent All-Star Weekends so frenetic -- labor negotiations and major free agency and trade rumors -- were nonexistent or muted this year.
The result was a quick, clean 72 hours that provided solid entertainment, compelling stories and new faces, but little drama. Let's take a look at the standout people, moments and events from the league's midseason showcase.
Best Arrival: Kyrie Irving
Nobody had a better weekend than the Cavaliers' sophomore sensation, who provided fireworks on back-to-back-to-back nights by virtue of his participation in the Rising Stars Challenge, Three-Point Shootout and the All-Star Game. Irving's talent level is off the charts and he oozes charisma, a combination that almost preordained his breakout weekend. Even though he's proved this season that he's one of the league's elite point guards, there's a captivating newness to him.
The fireworks began during Friday's Rising Stars Challenge, where he scored a team-high 32 points and added six assists and six rebounds. His output came in a loss of a game that lacked much discipline, but he still stole the show by making Pistons guard Brandon Knight's life miserable. Irving yanked Knight around with his quick, powerful dribbles and sturdy jukes, sending him to the floor on multiple occasions.
On Saturday, Irving won the Three-Point Contest in video-game fashion. He hit 17 of his first 18 shots in the final round, including three money balls, defeating Spurs forward Matt Bonner with room to spare.
His All-Star appearance Sunday was somehow the most entertaining of all. Irving stepped into the starting lineup in the second half, going head-to-head with MVP Chris Paul down the stretch of the fourth quarter. Irving, the youngest player in the game at 20, didn't have the night's flashiest highlights, but he did finish with 15 points (on 6-for-11 shooting), four assists and three rebounds. His most memorable play might have been a late tie-up on Paul when the Clippers' guard was trying to get deep into some dribble tricks. Irving wasn't shying away from the moment or backing down against the NBA's best point guard. Far from it.
"This weekend was just basically about earning everybody's respect and getting a chance for people to see me that don't usually see me," he said before the All-Star Game. "This weekend is to show my face to the fans and get everybody acclimated to my face in the league."
If you weren't already acclimated, you are now.
Most Captivating Relationship: LeBron James and Michael Jordan
Recipient Of The Most Awkward Question: Anthony Davis
The All-Star Weekend media horde seems to grow every year and the player availabilities on Friday inch closer and closer to Super Bowl Media Day status. There were all sorts of unusual queries but none stranger or less appropriate than when a Chinese reporter asked Hornets rookie forward Davis, "What kind of girls you like? Chinese girls?"
Davis chuckled but did not answer.
Snarkiest Prediction: Gregg Popovich
San Antonio's legendary coach was asked to assess Bonner's chances in the three-point contest on the day before the competition. Popovich seemed genuinely excited for his red-headed forward, but he couldn't resist a solid jab.
"He's a great kid, he's really excited to finally be in the contest," Popovich said, setting up the wisecrack. "Since he found out, he's been shooting day and night. He'll probably have an injury before the thing happens."
Best Shout-Out: Matt Bonner
Bonner made it through his practice sessions without injury and, as noted above, finished second to Irving. All this after his brother launched a "Let Bonner Shoot" social media campaign aimed at earning him a spot in the contest. Bonner did well to work in a name-check for the campaign during the event, validating not only his brother's work but also the efforts of any fans who participated.
This definitely felt like a sign of things to come. It's only a matter of time before hashtags and friend requests are somehow incorporated into dunk-contest jams. Mark my words.
Biggest "What Could Have Been" Moment: Gerald Green's double dunk
The weekend's best chance for a truly memorable moment came and went when Green wasn't quite able to execute a double dunk during the Slam Dunk Contest. The idea, which involved removing the net from the hoop and dunking the ball with his right hand into his left hand before dunking it again with his left, was wholly original. It would have joined his already deep catalogue of contest classics, which includes the Cupcake Dunk and the Socks Dunk. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. More on the dunk contest's misses here.
Biggest Trade Rumor: Kevin Garnett
There was talk, but Garnett did his best to defuse it.
Best Celebrity Sighting: Drake
All-Star Weekend organizers should consider issuing a restraining order on comedian Kevin Hart, who has played far, far too big of a role in Orlando in 2012 and in Houston this year. Hart isn't alone. The non-basketball celebrities run the risk of getting in the way more than they add to the allure of the event.
Drake, himself guilty of overexposure in the past, was a nice accoutrement on Saturday. The Canadian music sensation was cheering vociferously for the Raptors' Terrence Ross, who won the dunk contest. Drake helped the rookie celebrate the biggest moment of his basketball career by offering up his necklaces for a photo op.
The picture of the moment, to the right, is via @WordOnRd.
Grades for each dunk in the contest are here.
Worst Prediction: James White
"Flight" White, an Internet sensation for winning various dunk contests in recent years, spent a good portion of his Friday media availability talking up his chances in his first NBA contest. Granted, the 30-year-old Knicks forward started off by saying that he wasn't the favorite because he's "old," but he went on to say that he has posted "LeBron stats" in his dunk-contest career and that he had "six top-10 dunks of all time" in his arsenal.
"A lot of people haven't seen the stuff I do," he said. "Seeing stuff on YouTube [compared to] seeing it in person on this scale is totally different. I have stuff in the bag if need be."
Unfortunately, his bag was empty. He bombed out in the first round, completing only one of his two dunks after a number of missed tries on both attempts. He was by far the weekend's biggest disappointment.
Best Line To Make Michael Jordan Feel Old: Anthony Davis and Clyde Drexler (Tie)
Virtually everyone in attendance paid their respects. Garnett, often a man of few words, spoke at some length about Jordan's impact on the game. James gushed about how he viewed Jordan as a superhero growing up.
Anthony Davis, 19, was born in March 1993, after Jordan had already won two of his titles. By the time Davis was 10, Jordan was retired for the final time. Asked about missing out on Jordan because he was too young, Davis didn't dodge the reality.
"Not to get to see one of the greatest to ever play the game, it's very upsetting," he said. "Everybody talking about Mike in this game, Mike in that game. You're like, 'What game?' You haven't seen it before."
The consolation? Davis values Jordan, the sneaker.
"I still wear his shoes," the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft said. "He has the best shoes out."
If Davis' young view was enough to make all of us feel old, one of Jordan's prime rivals knows exactly what MJ is going through. Drexler, who battled with Jordan in 1980s dunk contests and the 1992 Finals, recently turned 50 himself. He alluded to a shared sanctuary, the golf course, to express his sympathies at the aging process.
"He's that old?" Drexler said. "Man, he's old. ... I hope he enjoys it, has fun and gets ready for the next 50. He's just making the turn. We've got to go to the back nine."
Best Strategy: Damian Lillard
The intensity level wavered throughout the weekend's events. The Rising Stars Challenge featured particularly loose play, as did the first three-and-a-half quarters of the All-Star Game. If there was a refreshing change of pace amid the care-free, going-through-the-motions vibe, it was Lillard's approach to the Skills Challenge.
The event is a timed obstacle course that requires dribbling through cones, passing through targets and making jumpers and layups. By far the most difficult segment is the passing portion. Really, it's the only difficult segment. For years and years we've seen participants mess up their times by failing to pass the ball through the target properly. Those mistakes often have been compounded by an extra delay as the players backtrack to the station once they realize their pass didn't hit the mark.
Lillard, the Trail Blazers' rookie point guard, said that he practiced the obstacle course before the competition and coached himself not to take off too early after executing his passes.
"I think the biggest thing for me was to try not to be too cool and speed through it, but take my time with the passes and shots," he explained. "And when I'm making a pass, I basically try not to run away before it goes in so I don't waste time."
It worked. Lillard posted the night's best time in his opening round and then won a head-to-heat final against Sixers guard Jrue Holiday to take home the title.
Most Foreboding David Stern Statement
“I don’t see any scenario in which both cities are happy here,” Stern said, after responding to a number of questions on the subject.
Those words hung for the rest of the weekend as no new, major developments in the story unfolded. With a final decision on the Kings' future still two months away, all that was left was the inevitability of heartache.
Toughest Realization: Kevin Durant
The Thunder's All-Star forward understands better than most what a replacement NBA team would mean for Seattle. Durant has said he misses playing in front of the crowd in KeyArena, where he spent his rookie season before the SuperSonics relocated to Oklahoma City.
Durant is one of the league's most popular and likable stars and he received the third-most All-Star votes in this year's balloting. Still, he holds no illusions: If the Kings do relocate to Seattle, he expects to receive a bitter welcome when the Thunder visit.
"I think they would boo us," he said of Seattle fans. "I think they would boo us, no doubt. But we had nothing to do with it, of course. We're just players. They told us where to go, we have to do it. I'm sure they would boo us with Oklahoma City on our jerseys."
Stickiest Situation: Billy Hunter's ouster
It's rare for such a prominent career to end this abruptly and this quietly. Hunter served as the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association since 1996. This weekend, he was silently terminated. The NBPA announced the move but refused to take questions, incensing some reporters who were present for the scheduled "press conference." NBPA president Derek Fisher, who negotiated alongside Hunter during the last lockout, and Stern, who sat across the table from Hunter during multiple labor negotiations, both declined substantive comment. The reason for the silence is said to be the fear of impending legal action; Hunter's actions are being investigated and he will reportedly seek to recover the more than $10 million remaining on his contract.
Most Unanswered Questions: Derek Fisher
Fisher, though, does owe the public one explanation, unrelated to Hunter. It was announced that he will remain as NBPA president even though he played only briefly for the Mavericks this season. Why is he staying? How did the NBPA determine he would continue? Did the rest of the executive board want him to keep the job? How long does he plan to serve? Does he plan to return to the NBA as a player? Those questions should have been addressed on Saturday.
Best Defense: Kobe Bryant
You're probably thinking that I mean the two times he blocked LeBron down the stretch of the All-Star Game to secure the win for the West. Wrong.
The best defense Bryant played all weekend came at his media availability on Friday, when he brought his young daughter with him to face the ravenous horde. What a brilliant game-changing move. Coming off an embarrassing loss to the Clippers, Bryant was heading straight into an endless slew of questions about the Lakers' disappointing season and Dwight Howard trade rumors.
The media crowd was large but not particularly rough. Who could really ask a man a tough question with his daughter sitting right next to him? Especially when the bow in her hair was on Cute Overload status.
"Hit the reset button," Bryant said of the Lakers' plans for the rest of this season. "Hit the reset button and hopefully the easy button."
This was a veteran move from a 15-time All-Star and a much-improved strategy from last year, when he skipped the media availability by calling in sick.
Best/Worst Russell Westbrook Outfit
Every Westbrook outfit is simultaneously great and horrible, depending on how seriously you take it. His All-Star Sunday get-up, highlighted by red suspenders and a red bow tie, didn't disappoint. Take a look at right via his Instagram.
Biggest Problems With the Dunk Contest
Best All-Star Game Player: Chris Paul
It was something to watch Paul, one of the smallest players on the court, dictate the action with the giants of the game surrounding him on all sides. More on Paul's big night here.
Best All-Star Game Highlight: Kevin Durant
On a dunk-filled night, Durant stood out with a very nice double-clutch in transition. Known more for his powerful tomahawks than for his technical skill, this was a beauty. (Video below via via YouTube user kobetonash.)
Adi Joseph of USA Today Sports did a great job of assembling the best All-Star Game highlights.
Most Passionate Campaigner: Clyde Drexler
Drexler, serving as an ambassador for the city of Houston throughout the week, saved some of his most passionate words for his University of Houston coach, Guy Lewis, who is a finalist for induction into the Hall of Fame. Drexler campaigned at length on the 90-year-old Lewis' behalf, calling it an "atrocity" that his coach hadn't already been elected.
"He's the father of modern-day basketball in the south," Drexler said. "You've got to get him in the Hall of Fame. ... I think that it's sad that he's had to wait so long, but we just want to make sure it does happen. This [stage] is the last two minutes of a full-court press. We want to get it done. I'd love to see it happen in his lifetime. It would be vindication, validation all of those things for a great man and a great coach."
Drexler, teamed up with fellow Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon on the University of Houston's famous Phi Slamma Jamma teams of the 1980s. Drexler said Lewis' candidacy isn't simply recognition of that high point but rather a well-deserved career achievement. Lewis' career record is 592-279 (.680). He was elected to the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.
Sweetest Uniform Touch: Shoulder Patches
The Adidas warm-up jackets had an awesome touch this year: personalized patches that signified the various accomplishments of each player. Check out Tim Duncan's patch to the right, which notes his 14 career All-Star appearances, four titles, two MVP awards and a Rookie of the Year award.
Best All-Star Memory Lane Trip: Gerald Green and David Stern (Tie)
All-Star Weekend is always a time for nostalgia and there were two particularly touching moments from two very different sources.
First: Green reflected on winning the 2007 dunk contest. A bit player for most of his career, Green recalled vaulting into superstardom, at least for one night.
"I remember feeling like Michael Jackson for six hours," he said. "I came into the hotel and I was bombarded. Never been like that before. I walk the streets at home and I don't get bombarded, but I couldn't get to my room. So many people wanted to take pictures. Honestly, I was so amazed by it. I never thought that would happen."
Second: Stern was asked to name his favorite All-Star moment during his time as commissioner, which dates to 1984. He didn't hesitate.
“My favorite moment actually compounded and growing to the present day is awarding Magic Johnson the MVP trophy in Orlando [in 1992]," he said.
Johnson had retired from the NBA after being diagnosed with HIV but came back to play the All-Star Game, hitting a dramatic shot to help seal a victory.
"Giving sweaty Magic Johnson a big hug right after he hit the last three and still being able to hug him, because he’s alive," Stern said. "That is at the top of the list and it will not easily be dislodged. Even though I do enjoy every All-Star, that one will resonate for the rest of my life.”
Happiest Media Members: The Basketball Jones
Nobody does All-Star Weekend as enthusiastically and wonderfully as The Basketball Jones, which was back at it again this year. Check out one of its video efforts.