Sunday's All-Star Game may be the ultimate reason the NBA's best and brightest stars have descended upon Houston this weekend, but the festivities will get kicked off on Friday by showing fans the future of the sport.
At 9 p.m. ET on TNT, the Houston will host the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge. With rosters comprised of the 20 best rookie and sophomore players, the game is an opportunity for casual fans to get a full-fledged introduction to the game's top youngsters.
Over the past couple seasons, the NBA has also gone out of its way to make the Rising Stars Challenge a fun experience. The league eliminated the Rookie-Sophomore format last season, instead giving TNT analysts Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal a chance to play "general manager" and divvy up the teams themselves.
The result was arguably the most buzzed-about iteration in history. Barkley's squad came away with a 146-133 victory, and perhaps more importantly, bragging rights over his seven-foot colleague.
The two NBA legends once again divided up this year's crop on Feb. 7 in a live fantasy draft televised on TNT. While most thought Team Shaq ultimately came out looking better, this year the fans have a very real opportunity to affect the game's outcome. Prior to Friday's contest, fans were given the opportunity to vote on the starting lineup for Team Shaq and Team Chuck.
Those starters won't be announced until right around tipoff, so it's hard to speculate about the game's ultimate outcome.
We can, however, take a look at the rosters and determine a few top MVP candidates. Here is a look at a few of the favorites, with odds coming courtesy of Bovada.
Kyrie Irving (PG, Team Shaq)
Any game MVP conversation has to start with the man who took home the trophy last season. Irving ascended on the national stage last season, dropping 34 points thanks to an 8-of-8 performance beyond the three-point arc en route to leading Team Chuck to victory. The Cleveland Cavaliers point guard not only looked better than his counterparts throughout the game, he simply eviscerated a solid crop of young talent.
That talent chasm has only grown wider over the past calendar year. The NBA's Rookie of the Year for the 2011-12 season, Irving has ascended into the Eastern Conference's best healthy point guard. He's averaging 23.5 points, 5.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game while being by far the Cavaliers' most important player.
According to NBA.com's stats database, Cleveland scores five points more per 100 possessions with Irving on the floor and shoot better from every spot on the court other than inside the paint (non-restricted area). For the second straight season, Irving has also taken over down the stretch. His 108 clutch points ranks second in the league, behind only Kevin Durant.
OK, so Irving is really good. We all know this. The problem is that Irving is so good that it might hamper his ability to win the Rising Stars MVP.
He was named to his first All-Star team this season, meaning he'll be double-dipping this weekend in Houston. While nothing has been announced regarding his participation on Friday night, it stands to reason that the Team Shaq coaching staff will try to keep Irving's minutes limited.
It's possible that Irving will wind up playing the entire game, dominating and then going for a repeat performance on Sunday. But he also means so much to the Cavaliers franchise that the possibility seems far-fetched.
The sheer force of Irving's talent merits his inclusion, but don't expect too much from the youngster on Friday.
MVP Odds: 7/2
Damian Lillard (PG, Team Shaq)
The midseason favorite for this year's Rookie of the Year Award may well follow in the footsteps of his predecessor. Taken sixth overall by the Portland Trail Blazers, Lillard has ascended to the forefront of the national conversation with a very Irving-like rise.
A ball-dominant guard surrounded by mostly middling talent, Lillard is averaging 18.3 points and 6.5 assists per game heading into All-Star Weekend. He's just a 41.8 percent shooter from the field, but that is somewhat mitigated by his above-average efficiency beyond the arc.
Arguably the most impressive part of Lillard's season is what happens when he's off the floor. Portland's offense craters with its point guard off the floor, scoring over 11 points per 100 possessions less when he's on the bench, per NBA.com. That's at least somewhat a product of the Blazers' league-worst bench, but makes Lillard no less valuable.
The criticisms of Lillard's game are valid. He takes a ton of bad shots and doesn't know when to stop taking them, as evidenced by his embarrassing 1-of-16 performance versus Orlando on Feb. 10. He's also a turnstile defensively, both seemingly unaware and disinterested on that end of the floor.
Neither of those deficiencies ultimately matter in an exhibition setting. Lillard can jack up as many shots as his heart desires without anyone batting an eye, and the overall defensive effort will likely be higher in the Celebrity All-Star Game than the Rising Stars Challenge.
As a result, Lillard's brilliance can be exemplified. He will be able to create consistent shots for himself and others after blowing past laissez-faire defenders, which should lead to some pretty massive counting stats. Irving's presence looms large, but if his minutes are limited as expected, Lillard may run away with the award.
MVP Odds: 5/1
Kenneth Faried (PF, Team Chuck)
Barkley went big with each of his first two selections in the draft, and he may have hit an exhibition home run with his second choice. Faried has lived up to his "Manimal" nickname almost since the moment he set foot on an NBA floor, and his skill set has only been exemplified in his second season.
Though he's oftentimes vacillating across three positions in George Karl's rotation, Faried's style of play stays consistent. He's an absolute menace on the defensive end, giving requisite effort on every possession—even when vastly overmatched in the size department. For the season, he's averaging 12.3 points and 9.7 rebounds—solid enough totals—but would likely lead the league if there was a stat for hustle points.
Usually, that's exactly the type of player who gets lost in exhibition settings. No one is rewarding an MVP trophy to the gym class hero of a meaningless game.
Faried just so happens to have a secret weapon: utterly freakish athleticism. Almost on a nightly basis, Faried will come through with the type of brilliant play that makes you wonder how he fell to the No. 22 pick in 2011. Whether it's a play-of-the-year-type dunk or jaw-dropping block, Faried is bound to do something spectacular on Friday.
He may not have the ball in his hands all that much, but if Faried gets it in the open court, look out. With Team Chuck having a noticeable weakness at the guard spots, there aren't any usual suspects on the roster. That could leave someone like Faried with a golden opportunity to pull a shocker in Houston.