LOS ANGELES (AP) — The NBA All-Star Game added spice to its 67th edition by allowing the captains to pick their teams. Team LeBron vs. Team Steph has replaced the traditional East-West format, shuffling allegiances and turning antagonists into uneasy teammates.
But with the world’s best basketball players all converging on Los Angeles, the hungry fans of the hometown Lakers are eager to pick their own dream team as well.
For instance, a gathering of a few hundred fans at media day in the Los Angeles Convention Center on Saturday caught sight of Paul George, Oklahoma City’s All-Star scorer and a Southern California native.
The pro-Lakers crowd immediately launched into a chant of “We want Paul! We want Paul!” at the smiling George, who can be a free agent this summer.
From his podium elsewhere in the room, Russell Westbrook — the Thunder’s other All-Star and LA native — snarled with sarcastic anger: “That’s out! He ain’t going nowhere!”
The game is never really the thing at the NBA’s All-Star weekend, and that’s particularly true while the show is in Hollywood for the record sixth time.
Aside from the new team format in the Sunday showcase, many of the NBA’s biggest stars are returning home, since they already make their summer homes in LA. Lakers fans are most interested in the potential 2018 free agents who could immediately resurrect the 16-time champion franchise, which is currently stumbling toward its unprecedented fifth consecutive non-playoff season.
Lakers fans want George, but they also want LeBron James — and they’ll let both stars know it at Staples Center.
James dismissed free agency questions Saturday, just as he has done all season, but his palatial house in Los Angeles is among the reasons Lakers fans believe they’ve got a chance to create their own All-Star team in a few months.
But before that, James and Stephen Curry will lead two talent-laden teams at Staples Center for the annual showcase of the NBA’s best.
Both captains are cautiously optimistic that this tweaked format will pay off with better play than in other All-Star games, which often turn into pickup games with a fraction of the entertainment value of even the Drew League, the famed pro-am circuit in which many stars participate every summer in South Central LA.
“It should be a little bit more competitive, a little bit more intense on the court,” said Curry, the Golden State Warriors’ shooting star. “It means a little more when it’s Team LeBron and Team Steph.”
The team selection process wasn’t made public, but the results will be very visible. The decision to keep the draft private disappointed fans — and even a few All-Stars.
“I thought it was going to be televised,” Team LeBron center Andre Drummond said. “I thought it would be a cool spinoff: Live, LeBron and Curry picking guys. But hopefully next year they do it.”
Curry picked his Golden State teammates Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, but lost Kevin Durant to James. LeBron also tantalizingly picked Kyrie Irving, the Boston guard who campaigned to leave James’ side in Cleveland last summer.
Irving said it was “pretty awesome” to be James’ teammate again: “It’s normal. Sorry, I know that sounds like not a lot, but it’s just normal.”
And everybody will be curious about what happens when Westbrook reteams with Durant, who ditched him in Oklahoma City in 2016 to win a championship in Oakland last year.
James’ original roster has been dramatically altered by injuries to DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Kristaps Porzingis and Kevin Love, who all won’t play.
But LeBron and Toronto coach Dwane Casey could still roll out a nightmarish lineup featuring, for instance, New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and James alongside Durant, Westbrook and George.
Curry and Houston coach Mike D’Antoni could counter with a galaxy of shooting stars including James Harden, Damian Lillard, Thompson, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Curry himself.
“I think it’s exciting,” said Harden, the product of nearby Artesia High School in Lakewood. “The All-Star Game, there are a lot of highlights, but we’re trying to win, and we’re going to go out there and prove that we’re trying to win.”
Westbrook says this novel game format will “definitely” be more competitive than past editions of the midseason showcase.
“My experience, my record with the West, we don’t lose much,” said Westbrook, who came out of Leuzinger High School and UCLA. “So I’m just saying. We usually win. Just saying.”
More AP basketball: www.apnews.com/tags/NBAbasketball