CHICAGO — Frank Vogel’s contract inarguably calls for the Los Angeles Lakers head coach to be Team LeBron.
On Sunday, the New Jersey-born Vogel admits to being in unfamiliar territory when he coaches LeBron James and the All-Stars chosen by James to represent Team LeBron vs. Team Giannis in the 69th edition of the NBA All-Star Game.
“My competitive spirit side says my guys are going to play the entire game so we can win,” Vogel said at All-Star Media Day at Wintrust Arena on Saturday morning. “My other side says LeBron can do the jump ball and then come out of the game and rest. We will see how it plays out.”
James drafted a team loaded with Western Conference talent, including Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, Houston Rockets guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook and Lakers teammate Anthony Davis. James also took Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, but a groin injury Wednesday has Lillard in Chicago only as an observer.
“It’s going to be a great experience,” Doncic said Saturday, of being drafted by his favorite player, James, for Sunday’s game. “When I was watching the (All-Star) draft, I was hoping he was going to pick me. It’s going to be special.”
Team Giannis, led by Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, includes Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who reflected Saturday on what will be an emotional evening during the All-Star Game full of tributes to Kobe Bryant. An 18-time All-Star, Bryant died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26.
“He was my idol. Not just my idol, the whole generation’s idol,” Antetokounmpo said. “He was our Michael Jordan. He gave back to the game. A lot of people when they’re so great don’t do that. Talent is worthless if you don’t share it and he shared.”
Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker and Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young make up the starting five along with Antetokounmpo.
Embiid is looking forward to getting on the court and away from constant questions from “haters” who have doubts he can co-exist with point guard Ben Simmons.
Embiid was recently booed in Philadelphia by the home fans and had his maturity questioned.
“It’s a lose-lose,” Embiid said. “I love it — me getting back to myself. I stop social media and everybody says I don’t have passion for the game, don’t care about the game. So I just want to be myself.”
Doncic and Young, who were traded for each other two years ago during the draft, have already let loose on the court this week. The under-25 All-Stars were on opposite teams for Friday’s Rising Stars Game. With the final seconds ticking off the clock in the second quarter, Young invited Doncic to launch a shot from halfcourt.
Doncic obliged, the shot went in, and the energetic second-year stars embraced in an image that could have staying power as the next generation of NBA star takes center stage.
James said the emerging next class is one of the most intriguing pieces of the picture this weekend. It’s fitting, the Lakers’ star said, that they’ll get to share in a tribute to Bryant and take away a lesson he would want them to learn.
“If you want to play, you’ve got to put the work into it,” James said. “My first basketball hoop was a milk crate, cut the bottom out of it and put it on a telephone pole. I was watching the game of basketball when I was a kid just trying to learn. … This game is the most beautiful game in the world. It gives back to you when you commit to it, your passion, your love, your joy, your crying.”
Nurse will coach Siakam and Lowry and go against Leonard, who was part of the Raptors last season but left in free agency. From small-town Iowa and an easy drive to Chicago, Nurse will have some extra family at United Center this weekend but his focus is on winning.
He said Team Giannis will bring defense — typically an All-Star afterthought — and be ready for the sprint-to-the-finish fourth quarter.
As part of the tribute to Bryant, the winner Sunday will be decided by whichever team makes it to the final total — computed by adding 24 points, Bryant’s uniform number, to the leading score after three quarters.
“I like it, it’s going to be exciting and it means a lot,” Young said.
–By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media