It's hard to get excited about NBA All-Star festivities when the players themselves have presented such strong opposition. But, as we've seen with sports across the globe during the past year, once the whistle blows or the first pitch is thrown, we tend to put all of the stress and concern aside for a couple of hours to enjoy the spirit of competition between the planet's greatest athletes.
That will again be the case on Sunday, when the Skills Challenge, 3-Point Contest, Slam Dunk Contest and All-Star Game will all take place in a compressed schedule to promote the safety of those involved. Despite the players' initial confusion and disapproval of holding an All-Star Game in the first place, most have expressed joy and gratitude for being selected, and none -- to this point -- has declined the invite.
It sets the stage for a star-studded evening that might have everyone clamoring to do this in one night for the rest of time. Here are five bold predictions from what could be the strangest All-Star "weekend" we'll ever see.
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1. Donovan Mitchell will win All-Star Game MVP
Players like Mitchell -- who has now earned multiple All-Star selections as a 6-foot shooting guard after being selected No. 13 overall -- are fueled by disrespect, and the level of perceived slights pointed toward him and the Jazz's direction is at an all-time high. Just this week, Mitchell has been fined $25,000 for publicly criticizing the refs for not giving Utah calls that other big market teams get ( that the numbers don't exactly support that assertion). The rant about the refs was followed almost immediately by LeBron James and Kevin Durant selecting Mitchell and his Jazz teammate Rudy Gobert with the last two picks in the All-Star draft, with James providing the fact that he never played with John Stockton and Karl Malone in video games as a bewildering reason for his choice.
All of this is a recipe for Mitchell to go hog wild on Sunday. He has a great skill set for the All-Star Game, hitting step-back 3s as effortlessly as he throws down highlight dunks. The fact that he'll be playing against Team LeBron only makes him more likely to put in the extra effort to prove he deserves more respect from the national audience. And if LeBron is standing under the basket at any point when Mitchell has a runway to the paint, James will probably have a business decision to make to avoid getting dunked on, both literally and figuratively.
2. Bradley Beal's conversations with fellow All-Stars will be blown way out of proportion
It's almost become an All-Star Weekend tradition. A player on the trade block has a conversation or exchanges knowing glances with another superstar, and suddenly the rumors swirl. This season's marquee transaction-related name is Bradley Beal, whom the Washington Wizards insist is not going to be traded, but is by far the most attractive potentially available star on the market. The interactions between All-Stars will be limited due to the compressed schedule, but surely Beal will share a conversation with someone like Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid and/or Jayson Tatum that will inevitably lead to rampant, irresponsible speculation.
Unfortunately, we can't disparage the rumor-mongers too much -- the last two notable times this happened, once between Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, and also between Anthony Davis and LeBron James, the stars actually did end up teaming up together. So maybe keeping an eye on Beal's tete-a-tetes on Sunday is a worthwhile activity, after all.
3. Cassius Stanley will make a name for himself in the Dunk Contest
Stanley is my favorite to win the Dunk Contest but recent history dictates that the judges don't always pick the player with the best dunks as the winner (*cough* Dwyane Wade *cough*). But I've been infatuated with Stanley's athleticism ever since I saw him hit his head on the backboard while throwing down an alley-oop in the California high school championship game as a freshman. He became somewhat of a prep legend because of his bounce and continued to show it off in his only season at Duke last year.
This is eyeballs-at-the-rim stuff, and he looks to jump equally high off of one foot or two, which should increase the variety of dunks he's able to attempt. Stanley has played exactly 23 minutes this season, so even Indiana Pacers fans may not know who he is at this point. That will change on Sunday with his dunk contest performance, which should at least give him a fighting chance with Shaquille O'Neal during the next round of "Who He Play For?"
4. The Elam Ending will once again make us think
The 2020 All-Star Game was the best we'd seen in years, and that was largely due to the implementation of the Elam Ending, where the clock is shut off in the final four minutes and instead teams play to a target score -- usually by adding eight points to the score of the winning team. It eliminates the need for incessant end-of-game fouling that unrelentingly drags out every even semi-close game, and, like baseball, it provides the losing team with the sense that they're never truly out of it.
Because of last year's success, the NBA has decided to run back the Elam Ending for Sunday's game, which will hopefully lead to another hotly contested, thrilling finish. If it works again, it will lead to many questioning why we don't use the Elam Ending for every basketball game, a topic that our James Herbert recently discussed with Nick Elam himself. The ending just makes so much more sense than what we currently do at pretty much every level of basketball, so it will be interesting to see if another usage of it in the All-Star Game causes the league to contemplate shirking tradition and implementing the Elam Ending on a full-time basis at some point.
5. The 3-Point Contest will be more exciting than the Dunk Contest
The main event of All-Star Saturday night has always been the Slam Dunk Contest, with mixed results over the last couple of decades. We've gotten epic showdowns between Dwight Howard and Nate Robinson, and 2016's masterpiece from Aaron Gordon and Zach Lavine. But we've also had some unmitigated disasters, like Chris "Birdman" Andersen taking about 25 minutes to complete one of his dunks.
This year's Dunk Contest has a couple of things working against it. First, the list of contestants -- my affinity for Cassius Stanley notwithstanding -- doesn't exactly get the blood boiling. Second, the contest is at halftime of the All-Star Game, like a scrimmage between 9-year-olds played in the background while fans get refills on nachos and 64-ounce soft drinks.
The 3-Point Contest, by contrast, is comprised entirely of All-Stars, including Stephen Curry. Even with Devin Booker pulling out of the festivities, you're getting another All-Star as his replacement in Mike Conley. The 3-point shot has become paramount in the modern NBA, and the league will continue the wrinkle it threw in last year by adding two shots from six feet behind the 3-point line, in keeping with the distance from which most of the participants regularly launch during games.
There's almost always drama heading into the last rack of pretty much every round, and these are participants we actually care about, so it's safe to say the 3-Point Contest will be more entertaining than the Dunk Contest.