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The bizarre dichotomy of the NBA All-Star Game

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Sunday night, 24 players will amble into the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. Many of them will be hungover, sleep-deprived, or both from a night of partying at all the hot spots during the biggest nightlife year for the NBA universe. They will casually go through the media requirements, slowly get dressed, do some casual shooting, talk with a lot of friends and acquaintances.

They will play a game, of sorts. There will be no defense. There will be very little effort. There will be some ooh and ahh moments, a few dunks, some neat passes, and a general giggly sort of feel to the day. It will be presented with lots of flash and pageantry and have no effect on anything, nor should it. It shouldn’t decide homecourt advantage in the Finals, it shouldn’t impact playoff seedings, it’s an exhibition and should mean absolutely nothing.

Those players were elected to play in the game either by fan vote, the same fan vote which routinely ignores any and all evidence to who has been good or not good throughout the season and is primarily decided based on either the presence of an overwhelming voting block (in the case of Yao Ming), or the player’s station as a member of one of the big three teams (Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls), or by coaches’ decision, which is often done using impact from assistants or video editors and which can often be attributed to recognition of a lifetime event or influence from what they “should do.”

To sum up, today’s NBA All-Star Game is a completely meaningless exhibition in which you will barely remember anything outside of who wins MVP and who was on roster, and was constructed using completely meaningless, bogus, and largely flawed methods of election. Saying the All-Star game is stupid isn’t really a stretch, even if it’s a bit much for something that’s just supposed to be fun for fans. Fun things can be meaningless, like cartoons for your four-year-old or appletinis (say hey, LBJ).  There’s no harm in that. This is not advocacy for eliminating the All-Star Game. The Game is a tradition, a nice PR tool for the league, and a fun experience, if exhausting and boring for players after about their third time.

No, what this is is a study in contrasts. Because while this game is constructed nearly without meaning, entirely arbitrarily, its relevance expands beyond this day, this season, this year and into a much greater context. That’s the real dichotomy of the All-Star Game. It’s both meaningless and crucial.

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When evaluating the resumes of players listed for the Hall of Fame, the criteria is complex, but it’s like any other resume. When you list your resume to an employer, are you able to encapsulate on a 1-2 page document why that job you were at less than six months didn’t work out? Can you describe the thriving success you experienced at the position you were at for four years without a promotion? Can you give context to why one award granted meant a lot and was well-earned while the other was simply the result of your relationship with the awarding board? No. You just fill in the lines. I can do X, I have done X,  I want to do X. That’s it.

The All-Star resumes are no different. Stats, a specific anecdote, perhaps, championships most importantly, and then there’s that which is most often the first thing listed.

X-Time NBA All-Star.

That line holds relevance in history. When we debate the relative merits of a player for inclusion in the Hall (and don’t get me wrong, we can say a lot of the same things about the Hall of Fame that we say about the All-Star Game; in fact, the Hall is probably a bigger disaster than a game which is voted for online), that measure is used to distinguish. Being a six-time NBA All-Star? That’s more than a half-decade of being one of the elite players in the NBA!

Some six-time All-Stars in the Hall of Fame: Tiny Archibald, Adrian Dantley, Joe Dumars, Artis Gilmore, Tommy Heinsohn, Jack Twyman.

Pretty impressive, right? Some active six-time All-Stars: Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Joe Johnson.

Joe Johnson is a six-time All-Star.

(Note: I’m one of the few people left on the planet who doesn’t punish Johnson for his contract relative to his performance. The Hawks have made the playoffs each year since 2008, haven’t been an abject embarrassment in them outside of the Bucks series which they won, and gave Atlanta a run. Johnson, for all his moderate efficiency, is a huge part of that and is constantly underrated for his defensive work. My point is more about how we look at things now versus how we will look at things later.)

When we look back at Johnson’s career, the contextual stuff about the disgust over his selection or the mockery of his production relative to his contract will get lost. Someone’s going to be perusing Basketball-Reference in ten year who has never seen Joe Johnson play a second of basketball, look at his per-game stats during his peak, look at that six-time All-Star streak, find the YouTube of his work in the Boston series 2008, and think of him as a pretty great player, when currently, he may be the most derided All-Star selected, and Chris Bosh is on the team for crying out loud (again, I don’t have an issue with Bosh, he’s actually been great this year, but for the most part people hate him).

My point is, this stuff matters.

Going to the All-Star game means nothing, but it means more than the All-NBA teams, which receive so much less scrutiny and criticism. Being an All-Star means something to your career. It puts you into that level. When people in non-NBA contexts introduce you, they introduce you as “NBA All-Star.” It’s a designation that represents being something greater, not just currently, but within the massive flow of players that ebb in and out of the league. Stars rise and die in weeks in this league (take heed, Jeremy Lin), and these players selected are above. Paul Pierce is a nine-time All-Star. Nine. He’s probably going to wind up with a decade of All-Star appearances.

Jermaine O’Neal is a footnote in the NBA, and he’s pretty much only mentioned in reference to how slow he is or his injury issues.

The guy is a six-time All-Star!

And there are certainly debates about the quality of stars in the league relative to these eras. But they’re only mentioned in relatively recent context. We ignore how many fewer teams there were in 1980 and before, when some of the biggest legends exist. And no, no one’s going to be talking about Joe Johnson or Jermaine O’Neal as all-time greats, but there is a fondness that develops as a man’s career passes, a remembrance of when he was best that comes to overshadow the fading years of age. The same will happen with Jason Kidd, with Kevin Garnett, the same has already happened with Gary Payton.

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So today is a day for lazy skip passes, a few off-the-backboard alley-oops. Kobe will shoot a lot and if he’s feeling it will score a lot and make everyone shake their head, grin and go “Oh, Kobe.” LeBron may have one of those days… you know what, no, James has never taken this event seriously, probably never will. Blake Griffin will do some stuff. But none of it means anything, and the process of their respective assemblies is obviously flawed, subjective, invalid and largely a joke. But the fact that they are there (or in Joe Johnson’s case, there in spirit) does resonate. It does reflect something about their position in the context of this game, of sports, of culture.

Having been an All-Star means something, even if being one doesn’t.

Mike Conley does not crush Knicks free agent dreams, says everything on table

Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (11) gestures after making a 3-point basket in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets, Friday, Nov. 20, 2015, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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When you talk about the most underrated players in the NBA, especially with the casual fan, Mike Conley is at the top of the list. The Grizzlies’ point guard has played at an All-Star level for a few seasons now but hasn’t gotten the recognition, in part because it’s Memphis and in part because the West is stacked with quality point guards.

The New York Knicks desperately need an upgrade at the point.

Which has led to the latest fantasy of seemingly every Knick fan (and talking head in the city) — the free agent Conley coming to New York this summer. When asked about it Friday before the Grizzlies and Knicks squared off, Conley didn’t kill the rumors (which in New York is like throwing gasoline on them). Here are his quotes, via Ian Begley of ESPN.

“I think everything will be on the table when that time comes,” Conley said Friday morning after the Grizzlies’ shootaround at Madison Square Garden. “I haven’t committed to anything…

“They’ve got talent, obviously,” he said. “I think [Kristaps] Porzingis surprised a lot of people. He’s going to be very, very good in this league. He already is pretty good. But he’s going to grow each year, and they already have one of the best small forward in Melo [Carmelo Anthony]. They’ve got a young team, so they’ve got a lot of room to improve.”

The smart money is on Conley staying in Memphis, the only NBA team he has ever played for. Conley was very active last summer in recruiting Marc Gasol to remain in Memphis, and has said it would be very difficult to leave him. Plus the Grizzlies can offer more money — one more guaranteed year plus larger raises.

The Knicks will need to lose some salary before July 1 just to offer Conley a max, which likely starts around $24 million (depends on the final salary cap number). What the Knicks can offer is a larger stage for his brand and the chance to bring that brand out of the shade of Gasol and Zach Randolph.

Conley — who is averaging 14.6 points and 6.1 assists per game, is shooting 35 percent from three, is good on the pick-and-roll, plus is one of the best defensive point guards in the game — will have plenty of other suitors as well. He’s one of the best players on the free agent market this summer.

NBA GM: Warriors ‘leaders in the clubhouse’ for Kevin Durant

Oklahoma City Thunder Kevin Durant, left, drives the ball against Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green (23) and Andre Iguodala (9) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
AP Photo/Ben Margot
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Kevin Durant to the Warriors is having a moment, but even the most recent and most credible report linking the Thunder star to Golden State contained an important caveat:

Make no mistake: Durant isn’t close to gone in Oklahoma City – no decision, no leaning, sources said

Nobody has credibly reported Durant is leaning toward leaving the Thunder. The issue at hand is where Durant would go IF he leaves Oklahoma City.

Except one NBA general manager has gone a step further.

Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago:

General managers know a lot of things we don’t, but like anyone, they can also be prone to repeating gossip and hearsay. Does this general manager have inside info, or is he just participating the echo chamber? Impossible to say, but the possibility of the former raises the level of intrigue.

Of course, the Warriors can’t be the leaders in the clubhouse, because they’re not in the clubhouse. Free agency doesn’t begin until July. Nobody has made their final pitch, not even the Thunder.

It’s fun to make bold predictions now, and this general manager has a chance of looking genius. But sometimes the desire for that designation causes people to get ahead of themselves.

Report: Clippers quickly rebuffed interest after Nuggets called about Blake Griffin

Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) gets tied up near the basket by Denver Nuggets forward J.J. Hickson (7) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, April 13, 2015, in Los Angeles. The Clippers won 110-103. (Michael Goulding/The Orange County Register via AP)   MAGS OUT; LOS ANGELES TIMES OUT
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Here was my gut feel on a report that the Clippers had talked to the Nuggets about trading Blake Griffin to Denver:

1. Nuggets calling Clippers about Griffin

2. Clippers saying they’re not interested

3. Nuggets leaking the fact that Griffin trade talks happened with the Clippers – technically true! – to excite their fan base and potential free agents considering whether or not to take Denver seriously

Dan Woike of The Orange County Register:

https://twitter.com/DanWoikeSports/status/695691007053070336

Woike is the more reliable source of information here. I believe that’s all this was.

The Clippers probably shouldn’t sell low on Griffin now. But if the Nuggets made a truly reasonable offer based on Griffin’s peak value – and I doubt they did – it also wouldn’t hurt to consider it.

LeBron James wants to leave Hack-a-Shaq rules as they are

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) drives on Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (0) in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Auburn Hills, Mich., Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015.  (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he increasingly believes the league should change its Hack-a-Shaq rules this offseason.

LeBron James – who has the commissioner’s ear on a number of issues – disagreed.

LeBron, via Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com:

“I don’t really see a problem with it,” James said at shootaround Friday in preparation for the Celtics. “At the end of the day, it’s a strategy of the game and whatever it takes to win. If that’s a part of the game, and you have a guy that is a bad free-throw shooter and you put him on the line, that’s a part of strategy.”

“That’s no different from a guy that can’t shoot well from the outside and you try to make him shoot bad from outside, or if a guy is turnover-prone and you put pressure on him. It’s all part of strategy. It’s no different,” he said.

There is a difference – a big one.

Hacking someone takes no basketball skill.

I could intentionally foul DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond. I could not keep a bad NBA outside shooter from getting into the paint. I could not force a turnover-prone NBA player into coughing up the ball.

There’s nothing wrong with exploiting an opponent’s weakness, but with the exception of hacking, that takes ability of your own.

Hacking is an outlier strategy, and as a result, it deserves special treatment in the rulebook.