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ORLANDO, Fla. -- They're trying. They're really, really trying.
That's the genuinely good news from this year's All-Star Weekend, where the league has taken some steps to freshen up a few events that had become very stale. In all likelihood, some of them will work and a few won't, but let's spare harsh criticisms for the failures. The alternative was only more shark-jumping (or, more accurately, Kia-jumping) moments that threatened to upend the most purely fun weekend on the NBA calendar.
Friday night's Rising Stars Challenge is a perfect example: After several years of watching the rookies and sophomores more or less embarrass the game in a series of five-on-one fast-break dunks, the league shook things up and had Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal draft teams from a pool of 16 participants. It may not have worked out perfectly, but at least they're trying.
With that in mind, let's look ahead at Saturday's competitions and see what my crystal ball has in store for them:
The one event they got right from the beginning, this year's contest features Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, Orlando's Ryan Anderson, Miami's Mario Chalmers, New Jersey's Anthony Morrow, Minnesota's Kevin Love and defending champion James Jones of Miami.
A lot of people will install Durant as the favorite, but the two guys I'm watching are Morrow and Anderson (aka The Grenade Launcher). Morrow has some of the best career shooting numbers in NBA history (43.9 percent on 3s and 89.5 percent on free throws). Anderson, meanwhile, leads the NBA in 3-point makes this season on 43.4 percent accuracy, and his easy set-shot stroke should be well-suited to the competition format.
I'm a little worried that Morrow's form won't translate quite as well, and that's why I'm picking Anderson by a nose in this one. Anderson is also going to have home-court advantage, which may help more because of the familiar shooting background than the extra fan support.
Jones is a legit threat, too, having already won last year, and I think he'll join Morrow and Anderson as finalists. But I'm not as upbeat about the hopes of the others. Chalmers has made a high percentage of 3s this season but isn't on par with these other players as a pure shooter; ditto for Love. As for Durant, his bouncy step-in to his shot may prove problematic when taking balls off a rack.
The pick: Ryan Anderson
Last year's event had a lot of highlights, but the biggest problem was the judging, not the dunks themselves. (JaVale McGee's two-basket dunk, for instance, is probably the most difficult feat I've ever seen completed in this event, but McGee finished second to Blake Griffin.)
Apparently the NBA did, too. This year, the league will shake things up by soullessly pushing George Gervin and Julius Erving to the unemployment line; instead, the dunker will be judged based solely on a fan vote. I'm worried how that will work out (thank goodness fan favorite Jeremy Lin isn't competing, let's put it that way), but I do like the change in format, which now features one round with three dunks. Too many times in the past, players had great first-round dunks that didn't count once they got to the final round; as a result, dunkers began to calculate whether to use their best stuff to get to the final or save it for later.
This year's field includes Houston's Chase Budinger, Indiana's Paul George, Utah's Jeremy Evans and Minnesota's Derrick Williams. Smaller players typically have the advantage in this competition, because their dunks just look more spectacular, but all four of these guys are about the same size.
The dark horse here is Evans, a little-used string-bean forward who has the best springs of the group but may lack the coordination to complete more difficult feats. Budinger and Williams are the favorites. Budinger's volleyball experience should help him here, since a lot of the dunks require you to "set" yourself, and his in-game dunk résumé is probably the best of this group, too. I'll say Budinger wins, with Williams second, Evans third and George fourth.
The pick: Chase Budinger
This mildly interesting event involves six point guards dribbling through an obstacle course and taking a couple of shots. History tells us that successfully completing the bounce pass is the toughest one. Defending champion Stephen Curry had to bail because of an injury, leaving a field of Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Tony Parker, Deron Williams and John Wall to fight it out. There are two rounds, with the top two scores from the first round competing in the final.
Rondo and Wall may need seven or eight tries on the jump shot portion, so cross them out as potential winners. The same shot upended Westbrook in this event last year, so I'd say he's an unlikely winner too.
That leaves Parker, Irving and Williams. I like Parker's ability to make the dash up the court a half-second faster than the other two, so I'll pick the fleet Frenchman to beat out Williams in the final.
The pick: Tony Parker
As an Atlanta resident, I'm really sick of Hawks fans lording it over everyone else that they won this event last year. All that bragging gets put on the line when the Atlanta team of Steve Smith, Jerry Stackhouse and Lindsey Harding goes up against rosters from New York, Texas and Orlando.
That Stackhouse, who has played a grand total of 132 minutes in the past two years, was selected as Joe Johnson's replacement was basically a giant neon admission from the league that this event is irrelevant even by the standards of an exhibition game. (The only reason they have it is because it's a lame way to promote the WNBA.) The fact that "Texas" -- not Dallas or Houston or San Antonio -- is one of the teams is another clue.
But enough about that. Teams composed of one NBA player, one former star and one WNBA player will compete to make shots from six different shots on the floor.
The smart money on this event is on Orlando (that is, if there can be smart money on an event like this; if you're betting on this, seek help immediately). Orlando's team consists of legendary marksman Dennis Scott, Magic point guard Jameer Nelson and the WNBA's Marie Ferdinand-Harris ... who plays for Phoenix. Ferdinand-Harris' only apparent connection to Orlando is that she's from Miami, which is in Florida, which makes it sort of like Orlando.
Team New York (Allan Houston, Landry Fields and Cappie Poindexter) should put up a good fight, too, while I suspect the team from Texas (Kenny Smith, Houston's Chandler Parsons and Sophia Young of the San Antonio Silver Stars) and Atlanta will bring up the rear.
The pick: Team Orlando