Starting 5 - All Star Edition
Last year’s All Star Game in Chicago seems like an eternity ago. All the emotions and dedications following Kobe’s death, the new scoring format, and 18k plus in one place enjoying a game together.
It’s debatable whether there should be a game at all this season, considering the health and safety protocols, condensed season and putting ALL 30 of your best players at risk! Different story for a different time.
Today we take a look back as we head into Sunday's game and festivities with my 5 greatest All Star teams. For the sake of this conversation, two caveats - first, we’re starting from 1990 onwards and second, we’re reviewing teams as is on game day, so excluding injured players from the official roster in review. I’ve also broken things down into a couple categories to help digest things:
Peak Powers - Players playing at their peak that specific year, some will have sustained peaks over a number of years or different iterations of their peaks (see, Lebron & Kobe).
On The Verge - Players who were selected but still had their best years ahead of them.
Winding Down - Players who were ‘legacy picks’ at the end of their career (Nowitzki and Wade ‘19), was their lone All Star selection, or we didn’t know it was near the end (Grant Hill and Penny).
Closing 5 - Who I would pick to close out the game against other years. For the sake of this argument, we will have lineups that traditionally make sense versus MJ or Kobe with 4 centers.
To be clear, I know there are no fluke All Star selections. For some, it may not matter in the moment, but along with All-NBA teams at the end of the year, I believe it means a lot. To think of some kid today writing a piece 30 years from now debating the same thing I am today would consider these teams as true snapshots and a foundation of what conclusion they come to. That’s why players get mad when they don’t make and why those selecting (hopefully) do their due diligence and take it just as seriously. It’s also why that same kid may look up highlights of D’Angelo Russell the same way I did for Fat Lever.
Let’s dive in.
On The Verge:
‘Dream’ All Star roster. Nine players played on the 1992 ‘Dream Team’ with another nine either added or returning for the 1996 team. Isiah, Dumars, and Rodman were in the middle of their back-to-back championships and were revered as the NBA’s Bad Boys. MJ, Pippen, Ewing, and Barkley were all waiting and vying to take the throne behind them.
This was such a golden era of talent, much like we have now in the league. The biggest difference is that it was pre-expansion, so every night you found yourself watching a battle of a game. By 1996, the league added Minnesota, Vancouver, and Toronto. Three teams doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s upwards of 40 NBA ready talent dispersed amongst the league.
The run from 1980-1993 propelled the league to new heights globally, led by most of the stars in this one game alone.
What a time. Peak Powers:
On The Verge:
1996 marked MJ’s first ASG after his first comeback with a number of newcomers to welcome him - most notably Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway, and Jason Kidd. Kidd would have his best years ahead of him in New Jersey, leading the Nets to multiple NBA Finals trips. Unfortunately, we all couldn’t have predicted that this would be the peak of Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway. Watching the highlights of this game over, it's clear that if not for injuries, both would have been legends in their own right and both have games that transcend any era with their size, skill, and athleticism … such a shame.
Hakeem, Clyde and the Rockets had just defeated Penny, Shaq and the Magic in the Finals the previous year, all of whom were playing elite basketball. Stockton and Malone were perennial locks of the weekend by this point, but their greatest team success would be in the two years that followed.
The prized possessions for me in 1996… Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. My goodness - prime Kemp especially jumped off the screen. Payton was every bit the dog you expected him to be in ‘96, playing with such ferocity and really improved his jumper after many were skeptical his first couple years in the league. They really should have made 2, maybe 3 Finals appearances, but they did get their shot that year against the Bulls.
On The Verge:
You may be telling yourself that he’s crazy for putting a team with Antonio Davis and Anthony Mason in the starting lineup on this list and you would absolutely correct! In my opinion, this is unequivocally the greatest All Star game ever played spearheaded by two fierce competitors in Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant. The other reason I picked this team is for the West squad alone - in 2001 we had never considered rolling out a lineup like Jason Kidd with Duncan, Webber, Garnett and Rasheed Wallace and thought it could work. If the 90’s had its peak of Centers (Ewing, Olajuwan, Robinson, Shaq), the turn of the century introduced a new breed of big men that would pave the way for the likes of Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns.
So yes, this pick is an ode to the game, no doubt, but give me that closing five, 10 times out 10.
Kobe had just won his first title and was about to meet AI in the Finals that year. This game had such an impact that the Sixers, #1 in the East at the break traded their own All Star, Theo Ratliff (injured) for Dikembe Mutombo because of their chemistry on the court from this game alone.
Vince, TMAC, Marbury, were at the top of their games. Sprewell and Allan Houston repped for New York with the latter turning his All Star season into the biggest contract in NBA history at the time ($100M). Ray Allen was scratching the surface of his peak, which he would find in Seattle and Vlade Divac was selected for his all star appearance.
On The Verge:
As I type this out, I now realize that this year has possibly the most overlap of players peaking at once. In the surrounding five year span around this game:
Definitely an underrated era. We knew that KG, Paul and Ray were entering different stages of their careers, but we didn’t know that Amare’s would fall short so suddenly.
One note, whilst I’m not the biggest of fans, it can’t be understated how dominant a force Dwight Howard was at this time. He was the best center in the league for five straight years which can’t be glossed over. We’re a decade removed from those times (crazy), but he truly owned the center position and his Magic teams were at the forefront of spreading the floor with shooters because of him.
On The Verge:
When analyzing any ‘greatest of …’ conversation, it's often so easy to take the current options for granted. Look at these teams! Lebron’s starting lineup is as lethal a lineup you will ever see. There are unique talents like Giannis, Davis, Embiid and Jokic. And your new school gunners in Steph, Dame, Klay, and Beal.
The NBA literally added two legacy slots to honour Nowitzki and Wade’s final ASG. Injuries have sadly derailed Blake’s career at this point and the jury is still out if we’ll see D’Angelo Russell back at the main event.
If we’ve learned anything in walking across the past 31 years of All Star games, don’t take things for granted. Before they start writing books, hosting podcasts, commentating on TV, or enjoy their well deserved retirement in silence - enjoy it! Enjoy watching Lebron meet every expectation, every Steph shimmy, every Dame game-winner, every single Kyrie cross, Harden stepback, KD pull-up or Kawhi facial expression. It’s all in good fun and what the All Star weekend and game is all about. Grown men, playing a child’s game. We can all still be critical and take it easy at the same time.
Best Team - 2011
I didn’t think I would land here, at all! But to the point around almost everyone peaking at the same time and the overall collection of talent… i’ve scrolled up and down the rosters many many times... this is what I’m going with and I stand by it.
Best Starting Lineups - 2019
Stacked, top to bottom. If it weren’t for fan voting with the game in Charlotte, I would personally swap Kemba for Dame, but nonetheless, I appreciate that squad because they’re a boiling pot of all the stars before them.
Best Closing 5 - 1996
Ha! Imagine that closing 5. Everyone is 6’6 and above, MJ on the perimeter, Shaq and Hakeem down low, Penny and Scottie facilitating … and this squad on defense? Game over.
Who you got?