NBA All-Star Game: LeBron's eyes on the prize even on All-Star Weekend
The All-Star Weekend gives everybody a chance to take it easy and throw up big scores, but LeBron James can do some valuable work for the Lakers during his time off, writes Mark Kirwan....
"Three of the other four starters on Team LeBron have contracts expiring in 2020. Kawhi Leonard might be a one-year rental in Toronto after being traded from San Antonio last summer. Kyrie Irving is keeping Celtics fans waiting on what he's going to do, while Kevin Durant is almost certainly leaving Golden State after collecting a few championships. And guess who's looking for a new team-mate?"
All-Star Weekend a stage for more player move intrigue
Team LeBron v Team Giannis
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The NBA's hit on a great formula for its annual celebration of the league's best talents, though some front offices won't be the biggest the fans after this season's event. With the two teams selected by captains - the two players who polled best in voting - what the game has lost in Conference rivalry (as if there ever was much), it's gained in elevating, and even escalating, the league's increasing tendency towards superstar soap opera.
Last year, the first All-Star Game with this format, no one had the obvious idea to televise the playground-style shenanigans of team selection. They put that right this year, so we got to see LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo pick their favourites from the remaining best players on the planet.
Add in the fact that the trade deadline was moved to before the season's break, and there are a host of top-level talents in fascinating contract situations, and the whole process has been charged with a buzz that other league's all-star games can only dream of - hello Pro Bowl.
LeBron laying Lakers groundwork
As with every public action James performs, there's plenty of speculation around his true intentions following the draw. To some, his selections look to be as much about skilful political manoeuvring as they are talent - though there's plenty of that too.
Three of the other four starters on Team LeBron have contracts expiring in 2020. Kawhi Leonard might be a one-year rental in Toronto after being traded from San Antonio last summer. Kyrie Irving is keeping Celtics fans waiting on what he's going to do, while Kevin Durant is almost certainly leaving Golden State after collecting a few championships.
And guess who's looking for a new team-mate?
Despite offering everything and the Staples Center's sinks for Anthony Davis to the Pelicans prior to the trade deadline, LeBron's Lakers failed to get a Robin for James' Batman. He picked Davis as one of his reserves for this weekend's game, but he's clearly keeping his options open if his choice of team is anything to go by.
Not that he's had to compromise on talent to open up tampering opportunities. 36-points-per-game James Harden rounds out his starting five. That means Team LeBron has four of the league's top five in field-goals-made per game this season on the roster - only Giannis splits Harden, Davis, James and Durant on that stat, with Kawhi ranked eighth.
So it looks like LeBron's balanced Lakers recruitment opportunities with his chances of winning perfectly. Throw in the additional shooting of Klay Thompson, Bradley Beal and Damian Lillard's scoring and Ben Simmons playmaking from the bench and you can understand why LeBron's team is -5.5 favourites for this.
Giannis playing the long game
There was a strategic element to Antetokounmpo's choices too - though it mainly seemed to be focused on winding people up. He joked during the live draft about playing mind-games with his selections. Taking Ben Simmons to mess with LeBron, the captains then traded Russell Westbrook for the Aussie after the draw because Giannis wanted to pair the Thunder star with Joel Embiid after they clashed last month.
Clearly, the Greek Freak wasn't quite playing this as straight as his opposite number.
While James tied up a lot of the league's top shooters, Giannis nabbed the number one three-point threat, Steph Curry, with his first selection. In Paul George and Embiid he has two players who, if you were trying to build a team for a championship season rather than a one-off scoring-fest, you'd be very happy with, though whether their play will show up best in this contest isn't so clear.
Rounding out his starters is Kemba Walker on home court, with seven-foot Nikolas Jokic and Vucevic and a 6ft 10 Blake Griffin showing the inch-taller Antetokounmpo put a premium on length, apparently. Khris Middleton, his fellow Milwaukee Buck, is also on-hand to offer support and shooting.
LeBron's team is a strong favourite. Even though his fitness is still in doubt after an extended recent injury layoff, the shooting assembled around him looks primed to put up a huge score in this defence-light affair. His opponent has picked a big team, and in a game that usually features plenty of fast-breaks and speed, that 's been read as an error by the market. 5.5 is a lot of confidence though in a contest where there is little form to go on, so by default I feel compelled to take Team Giannis with the points.
On the total, last year's game was the first in five to see the over fail to land and I'd think it's worth betting on a return to form this season, even at 310.5. Given how scoring seems to have gone nuts across the league, it'd seem unlikely for this game to go against the trend.
The playing time and effort of players is obviously a question mark in a game like this, but, with lax defence, you could look at any number of scorers. Steph Curry's line has been set at 19.5 points. He made just 3-of-11 three-point efforts in last season's game when he was captain, so you'd fancy he won't be as bad this time around and If he can make a couple more then 20 points look well within reach at even money.