Kobe Bryant appreciated greatness.
He recognized the power of perception and the ability to take ownership of his own legacy.
“It’s the one thing you can control. You are responsible for how people remember you—or don’t. So don’t take it lightly. If you do it right, your game will live on in others. You’ll be imitated and emulated by those you played with, those you played against and those who never saw you play at all. So leave everything on the court. Leave the game better than you found it. And when it comes time for you to leave, leave a legend.”
All-Star weekend provides the backdrop to celebrate the life and everlasting impact of a legend who will go down as one of the most influential athletes of all-time.
With tragedy comes space to consider those traits we collectively take for granted. And as the NBA community gets set to reflect upon Kobe Bryant’s greatness throughout All-Star weekend, we’re afforded the chance to appreciate the greatness inherent in each of this year’s All-Stars.
“I Promise You I'll Continue Your Legacy.”
LeBron James stands today as one of the handful in the history of the game who can actually utter those words and deliver.
Someone who exceeded the loftiest of expectations, who challenged limits, who intelligently and thoughtfully spoke his mind, who created his own rules, who dared to be great, who refused to be identified as a basketball player and instead decided to go for much more.
He’s pledged to send thousands of kids to college. He’s opened a public school for at-risk children, providing meals, transportation and support for parents. He’s actively involved not only in his own community but those around the country. He’s invested in franchises and started a production company. He’s actively engaged in being a parent.
He’s the man able to stand vulnerable with the world watching, to pour out his heart for all to see, to help heal the wounds and restore some semblance of normalcy to a basketball world shaken by tragedy.
It’s almost incomprehensible to imagine the circumstances and yet everything LeBron James has accomplished up until this point has prepared him for this very moment and those sure to follow.
There is one – ONE – player that’s made the Eastern Conference All-Star team each of the last six years.
The championship last June cemented and validated what so many have said for years: Lowry is a winner.
There are bigger names in the Eastern Conference. Players who score more, who assist more, who deliver more highlights, who sell more jerseys, who resonate more on social media.
But there’s nobody that does more to win games. Lowry is captain of the “do whatever it takes on either end of the floor to win, regardless of whether or not it shows up in the box score” first team. It took a championship for wide acceptance but there’s no denying that the Raptors’ floor general has no shortage of championship DNA.
Not since Wilt Chamberlain has a player broken basketball quite like this.
James Harden is threatening to become the first guard ever to average over 35 points per game in back-to-back seasons and he’s doing so with an array of efficient one-on-one scoring that’s simply on a different level than anyone else.
Over the last two seasons, he’s averaging over three times as many points per game in isolation as anyone else, while doing so more efficiently than anyone in the entire NBA. He drains step back 3s, he gets to the line where he’s automatic, he draws double teams upon crossing half court, he holds up physically while shouldering an unthinkable burden.
If it was a product of the era, then someone else would be doing it. And yet Harden stands alone. Facts are facts... we're witnessing arguably the greatest individual one-on-one scorer in the history of the game.
Let’s play word association. What are the first words that come to mind when you hear the following names:
- Stephen Curry
- Kevin Durant
- Dirk Nowitzki
- Larry Bird
Those are the only four players in NBA history to ever average over 20 points per game while hitting the exclusive 50-40-90 benchmarks… 50 percent shooting overall, 40 percent from 3 and 90 percent from the free throw line.
Middleton is well on his way to becoming the fifth.
There’s a reason why he’s the first Milwaukee Buck to get called out here and it’s because he’s been every bit of an All-Star on his own merit.
From peddling sunglasses and watches on the streets of Athens to making helpless defenders chaotically back pedal on the court in Milwaukee.
The NBA is full of rags to riches stories but perhaps none more unique than Antetokounmpo who was born in Athens in 1994 after his parents migrated from Nigeria. Sleeping three and four to a bed, scraping for food and even sharing shoes with his brother during basketball games, nothing in Antetokounmpo’s upbringing suggested that he would someday rise to prominence as an NBA MVP and global icon.
And yet here he is, leading the charge along with Middleton for a Bucks team threatening to win 70 games. If it feels like there’s never been anyone quite like him it’s because there’s never been anyone quite like him, both in terms of the product on the floor and his journey to even get to this point.
He plays all five positions, has gotten better every year and works tirelessly to eliminate any weaknesses in his game. That same work ethic which kept food on the table as a young boy in Athens drives Antetokounmpo to the verge of unprecedented heights in the NBA.
As the NBA continue to evolve into a global sport, there’s no better ambassador than the Greek Freak.
Any list of the most respected voices in the sport includes Damian Lillard. Voted prior to the start of the season by general managers as the best leader in the NBA, Lillard takes immense pride in his ability to inspire and connect with teammates.
"Every time I've ever needed him, he's been there for me. Even if I call him in the middle of the night, he's always there."
He organizes team trips. He shuttles undrafted rookies to and from the gym for late-night workouts. He spends entire flights reviewing film and pumping up new teammates after subpar showings. He tweets out praise for little known players who finally get the call of a lifetime.
Once an unheralded 2-star recruit who went on to play at Weber State before ultimately making his way to the NBA, Lillard has earned every bit the hard way. Toss in his recent scorching play in which he became the first player in NBA history to average 45 points and 10 assists over any six-game stretch and it’s plain to see why Lillard has become one of the game’s most respected superstars.
Before Kawhi Leonard hit the shot… you know, THAT shot… Jimmy Butler made a play that would soon be forgotten but nevertheless breathtaking.
Four bounces on the other end courtesy of Kawhi Leonard ultimately rendered that bucket meaningless yet it’s a play that so perfectly articulates Butler’s insatiable will to attack with a game in the balance. One of the NBA’s best two-way closers, there’s no player in the entire league who draws more fouls and gets to the line more down the stretch of close games than Butler.
Always audacious and never afraid to muck it up, Butler attacks big moments with a heightened sense of aggression that screams “I will never settle, I will never surrender.”
The only person who can stop Joel Embid on the block is Joel Embiid.
In an era trending smaller with the need for speed and shooting at an all-time premium, Embiid is the ultimate counter to which there is no true answer. Moreso than any other player in the entire league, Embiid sends shivers down the spines of size-craved teams. The mere prospect of facing Embiid forces teams to reconsider their rosters in ways no other player does.
Similar to Harden’s isolation play, Embiid’s post play is brutally efficient. He’s next to impossible to guard straight up and he’s a killer free throw shooter which renders Hack-A-Shaq utterly useless. As the league continues to evolve, there will be fewer true battering rams which makes Embiid all the more worth watching.
What’s the reason anyone picks up a basketball in the first place?
It’s not to make it to the NBA. It’s not to play in the All-Star game. It’s not play in front of millions across the world.
It’s because of one word: fun.
Basketball is fun. It spreads joy. It brings out laughter and all sorts of smiles. And there’s no other sport where the pure joy of competition is so easily discerned on the faces of the very best in the world.
Luka Doncic is the personification of having fun on the basketball court. Catch the Mavericks for any split second and he’s bound to be smiling. When it comes to the 20-year-old All-Star, it’s easy to get caught up in the comparisons and projections and stats while losing sight of the fact that Doncic represents the core reason why anyone even bothers picking up a round ball in the first place.
The next time he plays, forget wondering if he’s the best 20-year-old ever or if he’ll win an MVP or where he fits in among the other great players in today’s game. Instead, hone in on that infectious smile and appreciate the youthful exuberance. Do that and you might just find yourself smiling.
When the legendary Arvydas Sabonis finally made it to the NBA in 1995, he was already on the wrong side of 30. One of the greatest European players of all-time and a dominant force in international competition, Sabonis threaded passes nobody else saw, ran the floor with abandon and made a living on the elbows.
Although he’s in the Hall of Fame, Sabonis never made an NBA All-Star team. He simply made it over too late.
But now Domantas is on the biggest stage, fulfilling the legacy of his father and doing it in similar fashion. Born two days after his father dropped 25-13-4 in a playoff game, the 23-year-old lefty is providing a modern take on his father and making “Sabonis” a household name within NBA circles.
Relentless [ri-LENT-lis] - adjective
There’s a raw forcefulness to Westbrook’s game that is unlike anything else. The speed, the power, the tenacity... all of it adds up to a relentless mentality that’s somewhat of a cousin to the Mamba mentality.
Russell Westbrook dictates the rules of engagement and operates with an aggressive, unrelenting attitude that is unyielding in all of its glory for better and worse. He’s comfortable in his own skin and plays with an exhausting style that makes others uncomfortable.
There’s never been someone quite like Westbrook who embodies every ounce of what it means to be relentless.
For my money the best nickname in today’s game and one that perfectly encapsulates the plane within which Mitchell operates. A nickname that’s become so widely accepted that it’s actually an official entry on Dictionary.com.
Mitchell got the nickname because of his love for dunking, his prodigious bounce and propensity to hang on the rim. It’s a trait Mitchell used to springboard to the slam dunk crown as a rookie at the 2018 All-Star weekend in Los Angeles at the STAPLES Center.
Beyond the dynamic aerial displays, Mitchell is a certified web-slinger of the highest order, capable of firing off shots from all angles at any time against any defender.
There’s far too much chatter about what Simmons can’t do and not nearly enough about what he can do. Namely, guard anyone.
Far and away the league leader in steals, the 23-year-old Aussie has blossomed into the prototypical elite defender capable of legitimately guarding all five positions. In an increasingly positionless era in which versatility is perhaps the single most coveted trait, Simmons is breaking every preconceived notion about what it means to defend at a high level.
With the speed to chase, the size to hold firm and the length to disrupt, Simmons has become unto himself an entire defensive system capable of disarming and thwarting nearly every possible angle of attack. Blessed with immense basketball IQ to match his limitless physical ability, Simmons has every opportunity to evolve into a transcendent defensive stopper.
There’s an unassuming, unsuspecting, endearing aura of nonchalantlessness about Denver’s star big man that sets him apart from every other superstar.
The casual off-balance game-winners.
The deft no-look touch passes.
The glacial brooding post moves.
Nikola Jokic dominates the best athletes in the world in the same way that your childhood friend’s dad playfully takes on all comers in the shallow end at the neighborhood pool party, casually tossing up a routine 24-13-7 without a care in the world, #DadBod and all. He makes it look easy in a way that nobody else makes it look easy.
Is Chris Paul the last of his kind?
A pure point guard in every sense of the term, CP3 checks every box of the traditional point guard. A clutch scorer capable of dominating a game without taking more than a handful of shots. A surgical playmaker capable of extracting every ounce from his teammates. An in-the-pocket defender capable of mucking it up and making life miserable. A cerebral floor general capable of exploiting any weakness offered by an opponent.
The brightest of today’s and tomorrow’s perimeter stars are those who effortlessly shoot from 30 feet out, who leap and finish over skyscrapers, who go end-to-end with blinding speed.
Tomorrow’s traditional point guard will look nothing like yesterday’s traditional point guard which makes CP3 a throwback in the truest of senses.
Trae Young gives the people what they want.
A showman of the highest magnitude, everything that Young does on the floor resonates with fans of the youngest generations who are into deeps 3s and killer crossover and “he just did what?!” dimes.
Case in point? His proclivity to put it between the legs of defenders.
There’s a reason the fans voted him in! He’s excitement personified and tailor made for the All-Star Game.
It’s been nothing short of a meteoric rise for Siakam.
In the span of 24 months, he’s gone from a fringe rotation player averaging 7.3 points per game with an incredibly limited offensive skill set to an All-Star starter now capable of banging pull-up 3s and punishing all sorts of players off the bounce.
After winning Most Improved Player last season, you could make the argument that he should win it again as he’s once again completely reinvented himself as a number 1 option for the second-best team in the Eastern Conference.
Think of it this way.
Entering last season, there was still some debate about whether or not he would start or come off the bench. Even after earning a starting nod, Siakam was seen as mostly a defensive specialist, someone who could do a few things with the ball and make open shots but whose true value came on the other end of the floor.
Today? He ranks third among all bigs behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Karl-Anthony Towns in offensive real plus-minus meaning in less than a year and a half he’s transformed from a limited contributor to a no-doubt-about-it, certifiable bucket getter.
Even crazier? He’s only been playing organized basketball for eight years.
There’s investing in a community and then there’s Kemba Walker.
Although he’s now a member of the Boston Celtics, it bears repeating the impact he had on the Charlotte community during his eight years with the Hornets.
Everyone knows about the tribute videos and the standing ovations and chants from a thankful and gracious crowd. That’s what makes the news and highlight shows, but it’s an organic byproduct of the effort put into making the world a better place.
One such example?
Walker was a regular volunteer with Big Brothers, Big Sisters in Charlotte where he mentored four kids. He’d take them out to dinner, regularly catch up on all things life and provide encouragement with school, among others. His impact was such that prior to his return to Charlotte earlier this season, former teammate Cody Zeller reached out to the four kids for their help in designing custom shoes made especially for Walker’s first game back.
Kemba had legendary success on the court during his 8 years in Charlotte, but I hope people also realize the impact that he had in the community! I reached out to 4 of the kids that he personally mentored through @bbbscc and asked for help designing these custom #KicksforKids pic.twitter.com/1ISVkaTEon— Cody Zeller (@CodyZeller) November 7, 2019
There’s little doubt that in due time Walker will make the same impact in Boston but for now, it’s worth giving some more shine to one of the good guys.
Is there anyone that makes dominance look easier?
Thanks to an eight inch growth spurt within 18 months in high school, Davis is the rare big who actually has the natural skills and coordination of a guard. It makes everything he does on the floor seem graceful.
The in and out dribbles, the change of pace, the ability to drive with either hand, the spin moves over either shoulder… there’s little he can’t do with the ball in his hands.
That same measured gracefulness seeps through on the other end of the floor as well where he effortlessly covers the whole floor in the blink of an eye. Just as comfortable trading blow inside as he is side shuffling 25 feet from the basket, Davis can dominate without breaking a sweat.
Nothing about what Davis does is easy and yet he makes calculus look like 1+1.
Of the nine first-time All-Stars suiting up in Chicago, none is more deserving than Rudy Gobert who has been fueled for years by a general sense of underappreciation.
While it’s not rare for a player to win Defensive Player of the Year and not make the All-Star team, it had never happened twice to the same player… until Gobert in back-to-back years.
Long regarded as one of the NBA’s truly elite rim protectors, it’s Gobert’s finishing that’s become criminally underrated. One year after leading the NBA in field goal percentage at 66.9%, he’s flirting with 70% which has only been done by Wilt Chamberlain and DeAndre Jordan.
Here’s a scary thought: the reigning Finals MVP is currently averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists.
Here’s an even scarier thought: he’s only going to get better.
Kawhi’s uncanny ability to get better in the playoffs every year with no exceptions stands out among even the biggest of names. There is of course far more to elevating play than getting buckets but did you know that his scoring average has gone up from the regular season to the playoffs every single year he’s made it?
Michael Jordan can’t say that.
Neither can LeBron James.
Or Kevin Durant.
Or Wilt Chamberlain.
Or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Or Larry Bird.
Or Kobe Bryant.
It happened with the Spurs. It happened with the Raptors. And it’s a good bet to expect more of the same with the Clippers as Leonard eyes the home stretch to the part of the season where he turns it up like no other.
Imagine doing something so great and profound as a one-year-old that it stays with you for the entirety of your life.
That’s exactly what happened to Edrice Adebayo.
Back in 2015, Adebayo - then still a high school prospect in North Carolina - told USA Today that his mother started calling him ‘Bam Bam’ as a baby. While they were watching the Flintstones, the one-year-old picked up a coffee table, she thought the name ‘Bam Bam’ from the show fit and the rest is history.
Little did she know that 21 years later Bam would be wreaking havoc all the same but in a much different manner en route to making the first of what could be many All-Star games.
For Jayson Tatum, appreciating greatness means studying the habits of his favourite players.
And his favourite among all of them? Kobe.
Back in 2018, Bryant broke down Tatum’s game on an episode of ‘Detail’, his analytical series for ESPN. Later that year when appearing on The Bill Simmons Podcast, Tatum admitted watching it “like 70 times.”
He would go on to workout with Bryant later that year and recalled Bryant’s dedication to perfecting his craft.
“When we were working out, his thing was just trying to break the game down and make it as simple as possible. He said the year he averaged 35, all he worked on in the summertime was pivot foot, trying to play off both pivots. He said, 'That’s all I did for the entire summer.’”
Here’s Tatum earlier this season in a game against the Wizards. Remind you of anyone?
He’s always been smooth. He’s always had great footwork. The more he continues to evolve into a legitimate, bonafide volume scorer, the more Tatum’s footwork will become part of his overall image.
Last March, Brandon Ingram’s basketball future was in doubt to the point where the 2020 All-Star Game seemed like the last thing on anyone’s mind.
What began as tightness and soreness in his right shoulder later turned into a pinch which prevented him from raising his arm about his shoulder. Then came the diagnosis: Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT), more commonly known as blood clots. Ingram underwent season-ending surgery and though caught soon enough to expect a full recovery, the initial shock introduced some level of doubt.
Though not an apples-to-apples comparison, one couldn’t help but draw the parallels to Chris Bosh whose career was cut short due to blood clots. Bosh was 31 years old when halfway through the 2015-16 season he was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism caused by a dislodged blood clot. In the midst of his 11th straight All-Star season, Bosh never played another game in the NBA.
“Without basketball, I have no idea what to do,” Ingram told the OC Register while recovering. “Just brings a little motivation. Added motivation. I just don’t take things for granted.”
Ingram not only made a full recovery but is now enjoying a breakout season that’s earned him a trip to the All-Star Game and has him in the running for Most Improved Player. What could have derailed a promising career instead served as a jumping off point for one of the NBA’s best stories, a gifted scorer that’s now a foundational piece on an exciting up-and-coming New Orleans Pelicans team.
With tragedy often comes the opportunity for reflection. As the NBA world gathers in Chicago to celebrate the accomplishments of today’s current stars and pay homage to the legacy of an icon, the collective and unifying goal should be simple...