[Image via Kent Smith / NBAE]
FEATURE: The Half Cloth NBA All-Stars – Eastern Conference
by Chad Jewett
The concept of the NBA All-Star Game has always seemed a bit off to me. I certainly understand the urge to compile and curate a list of any season’s best and brightest stars – trust me, I run a music blog and December brings both Christmas and Album of the Year rankings, and I look forward to both with equal joy. But the game itself strikes me as a meal consisting of only dessert, which only sounds fun and delicious. We get ample opportunity every year to be dazzled by LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, et al. I generally look forward to the actual game only to see the players that made it there for having exceptional years – guys like Jeff Teague and Jimmy Butler who simply made some kind of leap or are finally getting their due. Really, I’d love to see a game focused on those players. Growing up, I always loved the good-to-great (but not All-Star great) role-players: Kendall Gill, Walter McCarty, Travis Best, Jalen Rose. It’s likely the same impulse that makes you passionate enough about say, the underrated nature of Saves The Day’s In Reverie to want to write 2,000 words about it. Give me that game. The game where Terrence Ross and Dion Waiters and Jared Sullinger are the headliners. I’ve seen Dwayne Wade and Carmello Anthony in this spotlight. But I’ve also loved the second and third option players that don’t get enough credit, but do help us form our identity as fans, and do make the game the most interesting, creatively vibrant, and aesthetically compelling professional sport. While my friends growing up fought over Kobe Bryant cards, I slowly amassed Rasheed Wallace collections (before he was an All-Star, thank you very much). Part of the fun is finding the players whose gifts and games are more subtle, but just as valuable and entertaining in their own unique way. With all of that in mind, here are my picks
Kemba Walker, Point Guard, Charlotte Hornets
Before you interject “But Kemba’s out for another six weeks with a knee injury!”, just remind yourself that Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade were both voted in. Moving on: Kemba Walker has just about single-handedly forced the Charlotte Hornets to live up to their pre-season potential (they could now conceivably land in the 6 spot in the East) despite a very, very, very bad first quarter of the season, wherein Al Jefferson got hurt and only two-thirds of Lance Stephenson made the trip from Indiana. Kemba instantly justified his 4 year/$48 million deal by doing Kemba Walker things: upping his PPG average to 19 while maintain a solid 5 assists, 4 rebounds a game; crossing over Nikola Mirotic and Chris Paul into the future (that Mirotic one will be on every end-of-the-season clip compilation, trust me); winning games the Hornets should have lost with that step back that haunts Pittsburgh’s dreams, etc… etc…. Let’s say the East is down two with about three seconds to go. I for one, want Cardiac Kemba with the ball in his hands.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Forward, Milwaukee Bucks
Brandon Knight, Point Guard, Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks are currently 6th in the Eastern Conference, despite losing their Rookie-of-the-Year lock and hope-for-the-future Jabari Parker. Two players deserve credit for this, both of whom are playing excellent basketball, showing remarkable improvement, and are improbably making the Milwaukee Bucks the squad everyone wished was one of their League Pass teams: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brandon Knight. Giannis, at seven feet tall, can actually play every position, to the point that Jason Kidd sometimes runs the offense through him, and at twenty years old (younger than a lot next year’s rookies), shows the kind of potential and athleticism that will haunt the dreams of every GM that chose someone not named Victor Oladipo or Trey Burke in the 2013 draft (I’m looking at you Danny Ainge, Ernie Grunfeld, and Michael Jordan). Brandon Knight, for his part, made a difficult leap strikingly similar to that of Kemba, upping his points (18) and rebounds (4) per game in his third year while moving into the “Top 10 Point Guards in the League” conversation. Knight’s the conductor of this season’s most fun team (besides the Warriors), and I can’t imagine a scenario where the All-Star game wouldn’t be better with a Knight-Antetokounmpo cameo.
Greg Monroe, Center, Detroit Pistons
Again, it’s hard to see how filling the frontcourt spots with guys like Pau Gasol and Carmello Anthony, who are both having typically good if unremarkable seasons, is more fun than rewarding a guy like Greg Monroe, who, along with the injured (and also deserving) Brandon Jennings, has helped buoy a Detroit Pistons team that has improbably kept itself in the playoff race. Monroe is having a career year in points and rebounds and is one of very few remaining old-school big men (for instance, contrast Monroe with Josh Smith, who spent most of his time in Detroit fifteen feet from where power forwards normally play). Frankly, the NBA is evolving into a league where four-guard/one-big lineups are actually starting to thrive (I love watching the Celtics in Smart-Bradley-Turner-Young-Sullinger mode), making the three frontcourt/two backcourt set-up of the All-Star game seem pretty antiquated. But surely, even with a rearranged allotment of positions, a sturdy, consistent, prototypical frontcourt player like Monroe deserves his spot.
DeMar DeRozan, Shooting Guard, Torono Raptors
Here’s an underrated facet of the NBA All-Star game: whenever dynamic duos from specific teams end up on the floor at the same time. It was exciting to see Jordan and Pippen, or Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, or Karl Malone and John Stockton in the lineup together, even if the magic they’d produce is more routine than, say, Russell Westbrook dishing to LeMarcus Aldridge. For some reason it’s still captivating and fun in its familiarity, like Bruce Springsteen sneaking a few bars of an old Sam Cooke song into the bridge of “Backstreets” (I’m not positive this ever happened, but it really sounds like it could have). Oftentimes the greatness of individual players has a lot to do with these combinations. Which brings me to DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors shooting guard and Kyle Lowry running mate who made the All-Star team last year, but has actually improved in every statistical category this year. DeRozan has been hurt, but he’s been very good since his return in mid-January (including a 26 point game versus Brooklyn a week ago). And as Dr. Alan Grant once helpfully taught us, Raptors hunt in packs.