Moore’s NBA All-Star Weekend 2020 Diary: Thoughts on Kobe, Zion, Picks & More
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Zion Williamson
CHICAGO, IL — Highs and lows.
That’s been the story of NBA All-Star Weekend. The league’s premier in-season event is often judged as a barometer for how things are going. In a season where so much has seemingly turned against the league’s momentum, All-Star Weekend in Chicago felt like a reflection of those ongoing struggles and the promise of what lies ahead, all at once. Every failure was laced with optimism, and every success felt tinged with disappointment.
Some scattered thoughts from the NBA’s somber but hopeful All-Star Weekend…
Kobe Is Everywhere
Sunday marks the big finale of tributes to Bryant, with commissioner Adam Silver announcing Saturday that the All-Star MVP Award would be re-named after the late Laker legend.
But from Downtown’s giant billboard promoting the “Mamba On Three” Fund, to Silver’s opening remarks, to watching a son take photos of his father with a jersey and shoes from one of Bryant’s All-Star Weekends at the Crossover event, the shadow of Bryant loomed over everything.
After the tragic, super-emotional week following the death of Bryant and his daughter, Gigi, three weeks ago, there had been a feeling that the league was beginning the painful process of moving on. The last week has mostly been about the games, the incredible young talent, the slow ramp-up towards the playoffs.
But the recency of Bryant’s death requires proper tribute. And the enormity of it means that trying to slide those moments into the sponsor-stuffed pomp and pageantry makes for difficult transitions.
Pau Gasol spoke to the crowd before the Rising Stars Challenge. Struggling through his emotions, he said Bryant would have wanted us to enjoy the weekend. Gasol knew Bryant better than most ever would, calling him his Big Brother.
And yet, “Kobe would have wanted us to enjoy Rising Stars” just felt…off. In his career, Bryant made a habit of owning All-Star Weekend, winning MVP four times. But these days, so much of the weekend is, according to the players, about fun, or rest and relaxation — and none of those things embody Bryant’s impact on the game.
Renaming the award after Bryant has some meaning, not only for his victories in the game, but also for the simple fact that trying to win when no one else is comes much closer to Bryant’s ethos than anything else.
Sunday will be another painful, emotional experience for the players and fans among the tributes for Bryant. The only real moment to provide catharsis and closure may come in the form of the public memorial set to take place at Staples Center on Feb. 24.
The league had to honor Bryant, and has done the best it could given the still-reverberating shock of his passing. Complicated legacy and all, Kobe represents a loss of basketball community so massive that attempts to place his shadow in neat, tidy boxes are as difficult as it was to defend him on the court.
Kudos to LeBron James for declining questions about Bryant during his All-Star availability. James is perhaps the most effective player in league history at controlling his own message and narrative, and the awareness and confidence he displayed by rejecting efforts to solicit a cheap moment of emotion from him at the All-Star media day circus was a welcome respite.
James is willing to spread positive messages in such moments, and tries to communicate the things he wants broadcast throughout the world. In 2012, following his bitter defeat in the NBA Finals, he further pushed his “Kid from Akron” message, and those don’t feel out of place.
But Bryant had apparently become a close friend to James, and the two had shared a relationship that is rare: the first-hand understanding of what it means and takes to be a legend in the sport. James’ decision not to slide in a quote about how hard Bryant’s death has been for him in between desperate international media members begging him to say hi to his fans in their home country, or asking him what he had for dinner last night, was a rare moment of sanity amid the event’s lunacy.
First-Time All Stars Are the Best Kind of All-Stars
I’m always drawn in by first-time All-Stars. Guys who have done it 10 times are just going through the motions. Even some guys in their second or third year are subdued as they look to escape their media and sponsor demands.
But then there are the first-timers. Guys like Donovan Mitchell, who is just so excited to be here. For guys like Mitchell, this moment is about the realization of accomplishing a life-long dream.
Despite having squared off against now-fellow All-Stars night after night, the experience still inspires awe for players who are there for the first time. I caught Mitchell shouting out Kyle Lowry as he walked by, then taking a second to bask in the fact that this was his real life.
Joel Embiid Was Ringmaster of the Media’s Circus
Media availability is a circus zoo, a post-apocalyptic media horde mixed with mutant social media influencers, international media members with zero qualms about anything, and grizzled beat writers longing for the sweet quiet of a road shootaround in Milwaukee. The league’s decision to (of course) monetize the event by selling tickets to fans in the stands has only made it more insane. But this isn’t a criticism. If you want to do serious journalism, go elsewhere. This is a fun event for silly questions, and everyone does the best that they can.
That said, one of the highlights of the weekend was when Joel Embiid was placed on the Jumbotron during his media availability, only to start talking about (not) going to strip clubs as ears perked and heads jerked.
For more from availability, check out my exploration with World Wide Wob of what the NBA All-Stars love about Haters.
Chicago Won, the Bulls…Not So Much
Chicago is such a great basketball town. That was a big takeaway for me this weekend: Seeing how excited everyone out here was. The league has gotten rid of the more gimmicky NBA Jam event in favor of a smaller installation called Crossover this year. It had virtual pop-a-shot, interviews with current and former players, and, of course, partner and vendor booths. (Get that money, NBA!) But it also had art installations, such as a collection of Bulls heads, a la Chicago’s logo, painted by local graffiti artists. And there was also a media installation produced by James Harden that focused on the entrance walk to an arena. And slow-motion, black-and-white installation focused on the slam dunk. At times, it felt powerful and resonant, which is rare. It’s the coolest installation I’ve ever seen at an NBA All-Star weekend.
Laced within the thread of how great the town of Chicago is as a basketball city is what a disappointment the Bulls are. They have no All-Stars, and the team is likely to miss the postseason again. Bulls guard Zach LaVine declined the dunk contest out of spite over not being selected an All-Star, and then he was eliminated in the first round of the 3-point contest. I have been on this for a while, but it continues to absolutely stun me that the league felt the need to interfere with the Sixers during the process, while Jerry Reinsdorf and James Dolan keep two of its most popular, big-market franchises bound to the pits of the league by the gravity of their failures in Chicago and New York, respectively.
I’ll spare you the cliched sportswriter complaining about the weather; it’s cold in Chicago, and that’s what happens, as it does in most other parts of the country. Most of us in media understand this, and complaints are more so about finding humor in the shared experience than genuine frustration with the frigid air coming off the lake.
I was not at All-Star weekend in Toronto, which remains the “coldest All-Star ever” by most accounts, but Chicago doesn’t even beat out New York a few years ago, when I felt like I was living out The Day After Tomorrow.
The only reason this matters is as a reflection of the overall tone. It’s a weekend for parties and celebrations, but it’s hard to have that spirit when you’re bundled at all times and constantly begging for the ride share to turn the corner so you can get out of the cold.
Ultimately, the weather hasn’t impeded any events, though it has resolutely cemented the media’s belief (including that of this reporter) that the league would do well to hold its festivities in warm-weather cities. If you ask me, I’d say put it in New Orleans annually. It has the hotel capacity, ease of transportation, cultural representation, and the climate to accommodate the league’s parameters. I’ve never heard anyone say they had a bad time in New Orleans at All-Star.
Zion Williamson’s Star Has Risen
Rising Stars on Friday night was the best one I’ve been to in person. I was at home for the fabled Kyrie Irving-Brandon Knight duel a few years ago, but this brought so many more moments.Ja Morant tossing lobs to Zion Williamson. Luka Doncic pulling up from halfcourt after prodding from Trae Young. Williamson bending the goal — not the rim, the entire goal.
There’s something different about the NBA’s current crop of youngsters, both last year’s and this year’s. There isn’t a LeBron James, but there are legit future legends in this group that are going to be battling it out for the next decade.
The Dunk Contest Was Epic
All-Star Saturday Night was one of the better ones I’ve seen as well. The lasting memory will be of how Aaron Gordon was robbed in the dunk contest, potentially by a crooked vote from Dwyane Wade. Gordon was visibly pissed off after the event, saying “that’s a wrap” on him competing again after coming up short twice.
But he lost to one of the best dunkers ever in LaVine in 2016, and then to a spectacular Derrick Jones Jr. performance this year. The most impressive thing to me about Jones Jr.’s performance was that he nailed almost every dunk on the first try. We still don’t give enough credit for completing moves like that without having to go multiple times. Jones was spectacular, and his between-the-legs 360 “East Bay Funk Dunk”-esque tornado jam is one of the best I’ve seen. Gordon was spectacular, too, and may have deserved to win. If Shaquille O’Neal doesn’t chicken out and he dunks over Shaq instead of trying to make it over 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall, he might have won it outright.
But Jones Jr. was great, and it’s not like we will all of a sudden forget Gordon is perhaps the best dunker of his generation despite not having a trophy to show for it.
Buddy Hield Wasn’t the Only One Who Won at the 3-Point Contest
The 3-point contest continues to be awesome, even missing the star power this year. And those of us who told you Hield should be the play get to feel extra good about it. I’m just mad I got 6-1 odds instead of the 7-1 some sports books were offering.
Side note: I watched the 3-point contest with Wob. If you ever happen to get a chance to watch All-Star Weekend with him, I highly recommend it. Watching with him was the most enjoyable All-Star experience I’ve had in 12 years of consuming the event professionally. It’s even better if you’ve bet on the guy in the 3-point finals who is competing against his pick.
About the Skills Competition…
The Skills Competition needs to be either revamped or done away with. I actually think it’s time to bring back Shooting Stars. It was a fun competition that included legends and the WNBA. Bring that back.
The NBA botched the inclusion of the WNBA, which had almost zero visibility. The Team USA event wasn’t even listed on media bulletins. The WNBA is growing in popularity, has real stars, just had a wild free agency period, has marketable personalities, and is buzzing on social media. The NBA let its sister league slip through the cracks too much this year.
Conversations with Execs
NBA executives are increasingly harder to find during All-Star weekend now that is has been moved to after the trade deadline.
But among those who I did get a chance to speak to, a few things were often repeated:
- There doesn’t seem like there’s an unbeatable team, but everyone has their eyes on the Clippers to fill that gap.
- There’s confidence in the Grizzlies holding off the Blazers for the eighth seed in the West in the wake of Damian Lillard’s injury, but the Pelicans also have a real shot.
- No one in the East is truly scared of the Bucks, but no one wants to pick against them, either.
- The downturn in the salary cap isn’t expected to hinder anyone’s summer plans.
Adam Silver’s Press Conference
Silver gave a muted press conference. For instance, Silver will usually lace his answers with meaningful information amid the corporate speak, but outside of sharing an estimate of a $400 million loss in revenue to the in-season tournament concept that he said was essentially so popular teams wanted a more permanent solution (pause for me skeptically raise my eyebrows), Silver didn’t provide much insight of note.
The sheer amount of questions on China meant that he couldn’t really provide much — it’s mostly out of his hands — though he did give a few long and eloquent homages to what late former commissioner David Stern meant to him, as well as the loss of Bryant. It’s a difficult time for Silver as he tries to navigate choppy waters from the ratings discussion to China to the league’s future in a post-LeBron world.
I’m giving the weekend an A-minus, because the energy and joy was abundant amid the sadness, and Chicago still provided the right feel.
My 2020 NBA All-Star Game Picks
And I like Team Giannis +6 and under 303.5. Team Giannis has guys that will actually defend, and the bookmakers I spoke with said that the under is getting movement due to the rules changes.