2017 NBA All-Star Preview: Storylines To Watch

The long shadows cast by Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour during the 2016 All-Star Weekend are now gone, setting up the NBA’s 2017 midseason showcase for a whole new batch of rich storylines.

With that in mind, here are 10 burning questions to track as the NBA world gathers in New Orleans this weekend.

1. How will Russell Westbrook coexist with Kevin Durant and the Warriors?

The Warriors have scored three routine wins in their clashes with the Thunder this season, but not without triggering plenty of bad blood and subliminal shots. Tensions boiled over in Oklahoma City on Saturday, when Kevin Durant made his first return visit to Oklahoma City and was greeted by angry mobs in “Cupcake” t-shirts and an exchange of words with Russell Westbrook. While Durant’s new team had the last laugh, stomping all over the Thunder and then co-opting the t-shirts for their post-game interviews, Westbrook at least succeeded in maintaining his unblemished and defiant lack of forgiveness towards Durant.

All-Star Weekend should give Westbrook the perfect opportunity to take his delightful pettiness to new heights. First, he’s one of the few A-listers who takes this game somewhat seriously, claiming back-to-back All-Star Game MVPs in 2015 and 2016. Second, he will be surrounded by the enemy: Warriors coach Steve Kerr will coach the Western Conference, whose roster includes four of his players in Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Third, Westbrook will have nowhere to hide and he knows it. The NBA’s triple-double leader will need to go through press sessions, team photographs, practices and the game itself with the Golden State squad, not to mention the courtside guffawing that usually takes place on Saturday night. Fourth, and perhaps most crucially, he is sure to be hammered with question after question about his relationship with Durant, which apparently is still not on speaking terms.

How will Kerr play this? Will he lean into the drama and put Westbrook on the court with his four stars? Will he play Westbrook, who was bumped to the West’s bench in favor of Curry due to the fan vote, enough to facilitate another run at the MVP award? Will he showcase Durant to make a statement? Then, how will Westbrook respond? Will he freeze out Durant if they share the court? Will he surprise everyone and play nice? Will he get angry and shut down questions? Will he find a creative way to sabotage the team picture?

The answers are only days away.

2. Will anyone play defense?

All-Star Games are meant to be free and open expressions of basketball brilliance, but let’s just say things have gotten a little too free and a little too open in recent years. The following chart shows the drastic uptick in All-Star Game scoring over the last decade, which culminated in the West’s 196-173 win last year.

The 2016 game was a ridiculous and nearly unwatchable blowout that set all-time All-Star Game records for most combined points (369), most points by one team (196), most combined three-pointers (51) and least defensive effort (none). “There were some good games [in the past], very competitive,” Bulls guard Dwyane Wade told ESPN.com last month. “My first couple years… we had some barnburners. At some point it just changed and it became a dunk show.” Will 2017 see a much-needed course correction or will one of the two teams become the first to crack 200 points?

3. Will the addition of some new blood help?

Perhaps fewer aging stars and a lack of legacy picks will help produce a more intense All-Star Game product. Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett all retired last summer. Over-30 stars like Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul and Chris Bosh did not earn selections. Undeserving former All-Stars like Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo, who have polled well in recent years, had no shot in the redesigned voting process. This year’s oldest player is Carmelo Anthony, 32, who only made it as Kevin Love’s injury replacement. The other “elder statesmen” include LeBron James, Marc Gasol and Paul Millsap, three stars who are still fully deserving of All-NBA status.

The vast majority of this year’s rosters, then, are under-30 stars. That includes five first-timers—Isaiah Thomas, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kemba Walker, DeAndre Jordan and Gordon Hayward—who are all 28 or under. While no one is expecting someone like Thomas to lead a defensive revolution, youth and a general desire to make the most of the showcase environment could help return a little excitement and tension to Sunday’s festivities. Then again, the All-Star Game will be played just a few miles from French Quarter, so all bets are off.  

4. Will trade talk overshadow the proceedings?

NBA reporters were so close to avoiding the worst of the annual trade rumor mill. While All-Stars like DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Paul Millsap have all had their names surface in trade rumors this season, there hasn’t been much recent momentum around any of them. Sacramento has apparently pledged to keep (and re-sign) Cousins. Chicago would be up a creek without Butler. Ditto for Indiana and George. And Atlanta has repeatedly said that Millsap, a natural target given his upcoming free agency, will remain in town. 

But just when it looked like the trade deadline talk might hold off until early next week, NBA commissioner Adam Silver named Anthony as Kevin Love’s injury replacement. While trading Anthony is difficult given his desire to remain in New York, his no-trade clause and his contract’s trade kicker, the Knicks’ nonstop drama and president Phil Jackson’s repeated jabs at his forward are sure to receive blanket coverage during Anthony’s media sessions. This is nothing new, of course, as Anthony has been the subject of trade or free agency speculation at All-Star Weekend dating back to his time in Denver.

Anthony aside, teams like the Celtics, Wizards, Rockets and Clippers continue to look like logical buyers in the wake of the Raptors’ move to gear up for the playoffs by landing Serge Ibaka. Meanwhile, the Pistons, Blazers, Mavericks and Kings, among others, fall into the “Might as well do something to do something” camp. Even if none of the biggest names move, there should be plenty of chatter to track.

5. Can the Slam Dunk Contest live up to last year’s classic?

Don’t dwell on the fact that back-to-back defending champion Zach LaVine opted not to pursue a three-peat before he suffered a season-ending knee injury. The LaVine-less field—2016 runner-up Aaron Gordon, 2017 All-Star DeAndre Jordan, Glenn Robinson III and Derrick Jones Jr.—remains loaded with talent and well-balanced stylistically. 

Click here for SI.com’s full preview of this year’s Slam Dunk Contest. 

6. Who will prevail in a loaded Three-Point Contest field?

One major advantage of the NBA’s current pace-and-space era? It’s getting easier and easier to field excellent Three-Point Contest fields. Yes, Stephen Curry is sitting out this year, but his Warriors teammate Klay Thompson is back to defend his 2016 crown. Joining Thompson are three other 2017 All-Stars—Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry and Kemba Walker—plus 2016 Most Improved Player CJ McCollum, 2017 Sixth Man of the Year favorite Eric Gordon and the NBA’s consensus Most Swaggy Player, Nick Young.

Through Wednesday, all eight players were shooting at least 38.7% on threes and ranked in the top 22 in three-point attempts. This group possesses starpower and charisma, sports two past champions in Thompson and Irving, and has zero weak links. 

7. Did Adam Silver put the Dolan/Oakley saga to bed?

NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s annual All-Star press conference will be his first major appearance since announcing a new labor deal with the National Basketball Players Association back in December. In addition to questions about the new Collective Bargaining Agreement and its implications, Silver is likely to address longstanding points of concern, like the league’s approach to intentional fouling, competitive balance (or imbalance), the pace of games, and instant replay review tweaks.

However, Silver can also expect to be grilled on his recent sit down with Knicks owner James Dolan and Charles Oakley, who exchanged harsh words publicly last week after Oakley was hauled out of Madison Square Garden by security during a nationally-televised game and subsequently arrested. Silver’s statement on the apparent truce, which also included Hornets owner Michael Jordan, indicated that both sides were “apologetic” following the episode and that Oakley would not be “banned” from returning to MSG for games.

But the situation drew concerns from NBPA executives and prominent players like LeBron James and Chris Paul, while also raising questions about Silver’s role in governing the behavior of the NBA’s owners. While Silver succeeded in getting out in front of major controversy regarding Dolan and Oakley, he’s not out of the woods yet.  

8. Can the guards get revenge in the Skills Challenge?

The NBA finally hit on a successful formula for the Skills Challenge by pitting guards versus big men last year. With talented bigs like Karl-Anthony Towns and DeMarcus Cousins in the mix, the oft-overlooked event was one of 2016’s pleasant surprises. Who could have predicted the sheer joy that followed Towns’s contest-sealing three-pointer to top Boston’s Isaiah Thomas?

This year’s field is loaded with All-Stars and future All-Stars: Anthony Davis, Cousins, Nikola Jokic and Kristaps Porzingis will represent the bigs while Thomas, Gordon Hayward, John Wall and Devin Booker will hold it down for the guards. The only disappointment? Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, the odds-on favorite for 2017 Rookie of the Year, was a late scratch. Surely “The Process” would have found a way to steal the show if not for a minor knee injury. 

9. Who wants to gush over the young bigs in the Rising Stars Challenge?

Although Embiid’s absence will also be felt in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night, there are plenty of other headliners to help cover for him. Let’s start with Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic and Kristaps Porzingis who, along with Embiid, constantly find themselves in the “Who’s the next great big man?” conversation.

The Rising Stars game pits a US team led by Towns, Myles Turner, Devin Booker and Lakers lottery picks D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram against a World Team that features Jokic, Porzingis and 2016 lottery picks Jamal Murray, Buddy Hield and Domantas Sabonis. Look for Towns, Booker, Jokic and Porzingis to make early cases for 2018 All-Star selections.  

10. Will Trump talk seep into the proceedings?

With hundreds of media members from around the world set to converge on New Orleans this weekend, there’s little doubt that President Trump’s opening month, complete with his polarizing immigration policies and unconventional approach to international relations, will be a topic of discussion.

Will any All-Stars or other players in attendance, many of whom hail from outside the USA and some of whom publicly backed Hillary Clinton, take the opportunity to share their political beliefs? Will any of the major basketball-related brands tackle the subject in ads or other campaigns? How will Silver handle the inevitable Trump questions? While those are tricky topics to predict, it’s hard to imagine the first post-Obama All-Star Weekend operating in a politics-free bubble.

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