Who Will Break These NBA All-Star Game Records?
LeBron’s mad at his team, the New York Knicks are weighing a number of absurd trades, and Lance Stephenson is on a roster. That can only mean one thing: It’s February in the NBA and everybody could use a break.
Fortunately, we’ve made it to All-Star Weekend! While it’s a bummer to have to survive a few days without real, competitive basketball, All-Star Weekend gives us the chance to take a breather, take stock of the season, and see the NBA’s biggest stars in a looser environment.
The highlight of this weekend, of course, will be the NBA All-Star Game, now in it’s 66th year of existence. The event and the league have both come a long way from 1951, when George Mikan went 4–17 as the West fell to the East 111–94.
So, to get ready for Sunday night, we’re going to take a look back at a few NBA All-Star Game records. Some of these have stood for decades while others were just set in the last few years. And for each one, I’ll identify a couple of players who just might manage to break them this year.
Let’s start with the most iconic record in All-Star Game history. Wilt’s 42-point performance has stood for over half a century as the high water mark for All-Star domination
Part of me hopes the record never falls. The symmetry of the man who scored 100 also holding the All-Star scoring record is pretty attractive. Yet, as scoring continues to rise (last year’s All-Stars combined for 369 points and the East, who lost by over 20, still outscored every other All-Star team from 1951–2015), it seems like it’s only a matter of time before someone usurps Wilt.
In fact, in each of the previous two years, a player came within a point of the record. Last year, it was Paul George who dropped 41, including 27 points on three-pointers.
George will be back, but my money is on the man who came a point away in 2015: Russell Westbrook. Westbrook has won back-to-back All Star Game MVP awards, and the game itself seems perfectly suited to his reckless, no-holds-barred style.
Sharing the floor with Kevin Durant for the first time since his former teammate left the Oklahoma City Thunder to team up with the Golden State Warriors would provide enough motivation for Westbrook on it’s own, but there’s the added wrinkle of this year’s All-Star Voting. Despite the fact that Westbrook and James Harden are the clear frontrunners for the NBA MVP Award, the voters chose to pair Harden with Stephen Curry in the starting backcourt instead.
Not only will Westbrook be entering the game he’s excelled at in the past with a massive chip on his shoulder, he’s also had plenty of experience taking over games this season. Westbrook is on pace to be the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double over the course of a season, and his Usage Rate of 41.8% would blow away the current single-season record of 38.74% (which was set, of course, by Kobe Bryant).
Westbrook has been a one-man wrecking crew for NBA records this year and, since he’s already on pace to grab the triple-double mantle from Oscar and the usage record from Kobe, it only makes sense that he’d make a run at seizing a scoring title from Wilt.
Westbrook already took down one record, when his 28 shots in 2015 broke the mark first set by Rick Barry in 1967. However, with the game continuing to trend towards a fast-paced, all-offense shotfest, it’s easy to see someone surpassing Russ and, perhaps, even taking 30 shots this year.
While Westbrook himself may seem like the most likely candidate, there are plenty of other strong possibilities, especially among his teammates on the West. Stephen Curry, of course, is an unrepentant gunner who’s in range for a shot once he passes the halfcourt mark. In an exhibition game like this, it would be a disappointment if Curry doesn’t hoist at least a couple of shots from 30+ feet, and if he gets hot, he could just keep shooting.
By the same mark, Harden is the only player this year who’s been shouldering a similar amount of responsibility as Westbrook (his 34.3% usage rate is a career high). However, I’ve got my eye on a pair of big men for this mark: Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.
Davis, a starter, seems to have a major advantage in that the Eastern Conference starters lack a true center. While Giannis Antetokounmpo is listed at the same height as Davis (6'11"), AD has a 30-pound advantage on the Greek Freak. In a real game, Western Conference coach Steve Kerr would most likely have his team ready to feed AD to exploit the strength mismatch inside. But, in an exhibition like this, it’s tough to see a team making and adhering to any kind of intricate strategy.
But the Western Conference bigs will still have a big advantage this year. Aside from the starting frontcourt of Giannis, LeBron James, and Jimmy Butler, the only other bigs on the East’s roster are Kevin Love and Paul Millsap, the former not being known for his defensive prowess (aside from one very big shot) and the latter standing at just 6'8".
The Western Conference bigs will get theirs, and I wonder if the real beneficiary might not end up being Boogie. The Sacramento Kings’ polarizing big man is in the midst of a season that’s somewhat unprecedented.
While Boogie has been racking up the numbers on a Kings team without much talent, he’s also not the most…conscientious teammate. And there’s simply nobody on the East who can stop him if he gets going. It honestly wouldn’t be a surprise to see Boogie take the game over.
Magic holding the assists record is like Wilt holding the scoring record; it just feels right. But while no one’s come especially close to break it lately, assist numbers are rising. Chris Paul, in particular, has had two 15-assist games and a 16-assist game in the last four years.
The Point God will be sitting out this year, but there are still two people who I think could challenge Magic for the record. One is the aforementioned James Harden. While Harden’s usage numbers are quite high this year, the change that’s truly jettisoned him back to an MVP level this year has been his improvement as a playmaker.
Prior to this season, Harden’s highest assist rate in a season was 35.4%, a solid number but not one you’d associate with the upper eschelon of NBA distributors. This year, it’s up to an eye-popping 51.0%, which would put Harden’s 2016–17 in the top 15 playmaking seasons in the history of the stat (which starts in 1973, the first year we can calculate per possession stats).
All told, Harden leads the NBA with 11.4 assists per game, which is pretty good for a guy who, until this year, didn’t really play point guard. However, there’s someone else who’s having a season that can only be described as Magic-esque: LeBron James.
It’s flown a little under-the-radar as the dialogue around LeBron has been more concerned with his frustrations with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ front office and his ongoing rivalry with the Golden State Warriors, but LeBron has quietly retooled his game his game. While he’s averaging over 25 points per game for the 13th year (an unprecedented number in NBA history), his scoring is actually at the lowest it’s been on a per-minute basis since 2006–07.
Instead, LeBron’s refashioned himself into a playmaker, glass-cleaner, and all-around contributor, even more so than usual. And, when taken in tandem with his height, the only forebear for the kind of role that LeBron currently fills for his team is…well, you probably already guessed it:
That’s every player since 1973 to post a 40% assist rate while being 6'8" or above, a list that currently just has two names.
While the East may not have the knock-down shooters it takes for LeBron to break Magic’s assist record, LeBron himself can certainly take a run at it if he’s so inclined.
George seized this record last year from Carmelo Anthony, whose reign lasted a brief two years. And, as league-wide three-point rates continue to swell, it’s only a matter of time before someone else grabs the title from George.
There’s no shortage of gunners on this year’s All-Star roster, from Curry to Harden to Durant. However, I’d like to highlight one under-the-radar challenger to George’s throne: Kyle Lowry. Lowry ranks third in three-pointers this year; he’s hit more than Harden, Klay Thompson, or Kyrie Irving, to name a few more famous shooters. And unlike three-point leader Curry (and second place Eric Gordon), he’s done it without the benefit of a teammate who’s equally lethal from three.
While Lowry is shooting 41.6% from behind the arc while averaging nearly eight threes per game, his running mate, All-Star starter DeMar DeRozan, is playing like a throwback to a totally different era. Just 7% of DeRozan’s shots are three-pointers, compared to 55% from mid-range (10 ft to the three-point line).
If the mid-range game is dead in the NBA, somebody forgot to tell DeRozan. But, for Lowry, this means he’ll enter the All-Star Game with plenty of experience of having to work for that extra space from behind the arc. That’s good because unlike the West, which is loaded with three-point snipers, the East has lots of players who lack that sort of range.
Three of this year’s Eastern Conference starts (DeRozan, Butler, and Giannis) are shooting under 35% from three, and two are under 30. Add in the fact that LeBron’s stroke tends to come and go, and it’s possible that the East will have to work a little harder for spacing (at least, relatively; it’s not like they’ll be facing a Tom Thibodeau style lockdown defensive scheme), and it could be up to someone with Lowry’s experience to get buckets.
Pettit’s record is probably the most unbreakable one on this list. Pettit was playing in a time when 30 and 40 rebound nights weren’t unusual and, in order to claim the top spot on the rebounds per game leaderboard, you had to pull in over 25 per night.
While this season has seen it’s share of 20-rebound nights, most of this year’s top rebounders won’t be at the All-Star Game. Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside, two of three players to pull down 25 in a game, are both missing, as are Andre Drummond and Dwight Howard, who join Gobert and Whiteside in the Top 5 for rebounds this season.
The only top-five rebounder in the game is DeAndre Jordan, who also happens to be the third man with a 25-board game this season. But I’m skeptical that Jordan will be in the game long enough to break even double-digits for rebounding, given how stacked the West is at center. And will there even be 27 missed shots this year? (I’m kidding…kind of)
As much as I’ve joked about the lack of defense at the All-Star Game, I really don’t have much of a problem with it. It’s an exhibition game for fun and there’s nothing less fun than watching an 80–77 game. Plus, I don’t think anyone wants to see a superstar miss significant time because he hurt himself going to hard on defense in the All-Star Game.
That said, I do think this block record will eventually end up being passed. One reason: blocks are rad. Unlike rebounds, blocks make for an awesome highlight, and a killer block in an All-Star Game could be a signature moment.
Another reason is that this year’s game is filled with a lot of accomplished shot blockers. While Gobert’s not in the game, AD and the Greek Freak are each averaging two blocks per game and each should be seeing a starter’s worth of playing time. If Giannis, at 6'11", ends up switching onto some of the West’s more ball-dominant guards on the pick-and-roll, we could see quite a show.
Most All-Star Games, Career: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 18
Lastly, here’s a record that has a 0% chance of falling this year. Still, it’s worth keeping an eye on as LeBron prepares for the 13th All-Star Game of his career. This year, King James will tie Michael Jordan, Bob Cousy, Wilt Chamberlain, Dirk Nowitzki, and John Havlicek for the 5th most All-Star appearances of all-time. Only Kareem, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, and Kobe Bryant still stand ahead of LeBron.
Can he pass Kareem? He’s absolutely on track. LeBron will reach his 13th All-Star game appearance in his age-32 season, something that only Kobe did before him. Kareem was 35 before hitting number thirteen, but his unusual longevity kept him in the game until age-41. LeBron, in contrast, could be playing in his 18th ASG at age-37, if he makes every game between now and then.
The list of 37-year-old All-Stars is short, but not non-existent. 10 players have been named to an All-Star team at that age or older and, given the improvements in sports science and the ways that teams make more of an effort to keep players rested and protected from the rigors of overuse, it’s certainly easy to imagine LeBron maintaining an All-Star level of production at that age. Even more so if Adam Silver makes good on his rhetoric about reducing back-to-backs.
LeBron will need to keep producing at that level if he wants to get in, because the changes to the voting process have made it tougher for someone to get in on reputation alone. Superstar players like Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, who are still beloved by fans but lack the sort of numbers you’d expect from an All-Star, failed to make the cut this year, as players and the media had more of a say in the process.
If LeBron wants 18, he’s going to have to earn it. Fortunately, he’s had no problem doing that so far.
While Basketball-Reference doesn’t have 5-man lineup data for All-Star Games, I wanted to use my soapbox to take a moment and implore Eastern Conference head coach Brad Stevens not to miss the opportunity to unleash some of the funkiest lineups in All-Star Game history.
While the West’s roster is pretty conventional, the East features only two big men, neither of whom have logged very much time at center. A traditionalist would play Paul Millsap heavy minutes or shift Giannis’ role to something closer to the traditional big man that the Bucks occasionally used to experiment with him playing.
Nonesense, I say. Nothing’s at stake here, so let’s have some fun. Why not roll out a LeBron-George-Butler-Giannis-DeRozan lineup and try to fulfill Mike D’Antoni’s vision of a team where everyone’s 6'8" and crazy-athletic. Or, in honor of the East’s big year for point guards, what about an all PG lineup of Isaiah Thomas, Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Kemba Walker, and Giannis. Sure, they’ll get crushed on the boards, but on the other hand, it’s something none of us has ever seen in a basketball game before.
All-Star Weekend Odds and Ends
Of course, while the All-Star Game is the big draw, it’s hardly the only exciting event happening on All-Star Weekend. All-Star Saturday has, in it’s own way, become just as big an event. After an electrifying night last year, it’ll be exciting to see how this year’s Dunk Contest, Skills Competition, and Three Point Shootout can measure up.
In the Dunk Contest, Aaron Gordon is looking to become the first player to follow up a defeat with a win in the competition since Dwight Howard in 2008. That would be fitting since Gordon would also be the first member of the Orlando Magic to win the award since Howard.
Klay Thompson is looking to become the first back-to-back Three Point Shootout winner since Jason Kapono. Other back-to-back winners? Peja Stojakovic, Jeff Hornacek, Mark Price, Craig Hodges, and Larry Bird, with the latter two each winning three-in-a-row.
Last year, Karl-Anthony Towns became the first big man to win the Skills Challenge. However, he’s sparked a fire in the NBA big man community, as Kristaps Porzingis, Joel Embiid, and DeMarcus Cousins are participting this year. While Cousins shoulders a huge load on offense for his team, my money would be on one of the unicorns, specifically The Process. Embiid’s incredibly skilled and has stated his desire to someday become a point guard. What better place to start than by winning the same contest that, in the past, crowned Jason Kidd and Steve Nash as champions.
Lastly, while the big attraction in Friday’s Rising Stars Game will be the head-to-head showdown between Towns and Embiid, I’d like to highlight a couple of other rookies and sophomores who’ve been flying under the radar.
One is Malcolm Brogdon who’s been having quite a year for any rookie, let along the 36th overall pick in the NBA Draft. Brogdon currently leads all 2016 Draftees in both traditional stats like points per game and more advanced ones like Value Over Replacement Player.
And, while it’s hard to say he’s flown under-the-radar, Nikola Jokic has been putting up some truly eye-popping numbers.
That’s all for our preview of the 2017 NBA All-Star Game. Don’t forget that you can check All-Star Game records and results, as well as the history of competitions like the Dunk Contest and Rising Stars game, at any time on Basketball-Reference’s All-Star section.