By Michael Brumagin, CNN
(CNN) — Forget everything you once knew about the NBA All-Star Game and how it works.
If ever you’ve seen it before, this Sunday’s game is not going to be what you remember. Gone are the days of Eastern Conference stars facing off against their Western Conference foes.
The time when conference rivals like Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird teamed up against the likes of Magic Johnson, Karl Malone, and Hakeem Olajuwon some 30 years ago are gone.
Instead, the 2018 All-Star Game, which takes place at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, has implemented a draft to choose its teams.
A lot of us remember what it’s like to line up and wait as two team captains choose among us to determine who will join them in competition for a pickup game in the school gym, backyard or public park.
This year, the NBA All-Stars got comfortable with that process.
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James and the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, the fans’ top two vote-getters, played the role of team captains, selecting from their respective peers, regardless of conference, to build competing rosters.
On paper, the game looks like yet another lopsided contest, the very thing the league hoped a draft would help avoid. Team LeBron had the “sizable” advantage, touting versatile big men like Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Kristaps Porzingis, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love, with two-way guards like Russell Westbrook, Victor Oladipo and John Wall.
The team appeared to have plenty of height while maintaining a balance of offense and defense.
Then, “the curse” began. Or, to borrow a phrase from the late radio legend Casey Kasem, “the hits just keep on coming.”
First, New Orleans Pelicans big man Cousins went down with a ruptured left Achilles in the waning seconds of a victory over the Houston Rockets.
Two days later, James’ Cleveland teammate Love suffered a nondisplaced fracture of the fifth metacarpal in his left hand.
Two days after Love went down, news broke that Washington Wizards point guard Wall was having arthroscopic surgery to remove debris in his left knee that had been causing him pain.
Then, only 12 days before the All-Star Game, New York Knicks’ budding star center Porzingis tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while dunking on fellow All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo during a game at Madison Square Garden.
Finally, San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge will sit out of the All-Star Game to get treatment on his left knee during the break.
Talented replacements and extra incentive
The slew of injuries to Team LeBron might have you think that all favor had swung to Team Stephen. One might think the game could just be another uncompetitive rout.
But here’s the rub: James’ replacement players — Paul George, Andre Drummond, Goran Dragic and Kemba Walker — are all quite talented, and the NBA has sweetened the pot. To further encourage competitive play, winning players will receive $100,000, whereas players on the losing team will only get $25,000.
On Team Curry, expect a heavy dose of three-point shooting, as Steph drafted five of the top 10 shooters (including himself) based on three-point field goals per game. Curry leads the league at 4.2, but is followed closely by Houston Rockets guard James Harden (4.1), Warriors teammate Klay Thompson (3.2), Portland Blazers guard Damian Lillard (3.0), and Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, who rounds out the bunch tied for eighth in the league with 2.9 threes per game.
Expect an entertaining show from Team Curry’s first-time All-Star Joel Embiid, of the Philadelphia 76ers. Embiid has become a fan favorite for both his on-court play and hilarious trash talk, which frequently plays out on social media.
The game also has plenty of subplots worthy of attention, a few of which revolve around James, aka “The King.”
Perhaps despite the fact that former Cleveland-teammate-turned-Boston-Celtics-superstar Kyrie Irving requested to be traded away from James and the Cavaliers, James selected him to be the starting point guard on his team for Sunday’s game.
Similarly, thanks to James’ picks, this will be the second straight year to see estranged former teammates Durant and Westbrook wearing the same All-Star uniform.
Preview of future teammates?
Another intriguing subplot in the Team LeBron roster: Paul George.
The Oklahoma City Thunder forward, who was selected to replace Cousins in the All-Star Game, has long been rumored to be a free agent target for the Los Angeles Lakers alongside none other than James.
Lakers’ general manager Rob Pelinka struck a trade to acquire Isaiah Thomas from the Cavaliers, a move that will free up enough salary for Lakers President Magic Johnson to try to persuade both George and James to bring their talents to the West Coast this summer.
So, Sunday night’s All-Star contest could be a preview of two future teammates.
Conversely, George will be teammates with the man he replaced (via trade) on the Thunder roster: Victor Oladipo.
And while the actual All-Star draft was not televised, nor was the draft order released to the public, it’s not hard to presume that James used the first overall pick to select Durant, widely regarded as his successor as the best basketball player in the world.
Durant, of course, is Curry’s teammate on the defending champion Golden State Warriors, who defeated James’ Cavaliers four games to one in the 2017 NBA Finals — wherein Durant was named Finals’ MVP.
That proved to be a complete role-reversal from the previous time the top two players in the sport faced off in the championship round. James’ 2012 Miami Heat bested Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder four games to one, and James received the first of his three Finals MVP awards.
Now, for the first time, the world will get to see what it would look like to have the two irrefutably best basketball players of the modern era playing alongside one another.
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