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2018 NBA All-Star Game

Lack of All-Stars make L.A. tougher sell for James, other pending free agents

For the first time since 2005, the host city did not have a player in the game

LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers dancers both took part in a great routine at Staples Center on Sunday. It was the closest that any current member of the Lakers or Clippers got to their home court during the 2018 NBA All-Star Game.

If the Lakers or Clippers hoped to impress projected NBA All-Star free agents such as LeBron James and Paul George, being the first teams from the host city to not have an All-Star since Denver in 2005 probably didn’t do much to help their cause. And this is with two NBA teams. As for the city of Los Angeles, it doesn’t need to sell itself to James.

“Los Angeles is a great city,” James told the crowd before game.

Los Angeles is a great city and it was a great NBA All-Star Weekend host. The typical sunny weather was just right until it rained after the All-Star Game. The entertainment was hip-hop elite with Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, Pharrell Williams, Migos, Kanye West and Travis Scott among others grabbing the mic. Being in “La-La Land” also gave James the ability to sleep in his own bed in the $23 million home he recently purchased here. And coincidentally, the Lakers and Clippers have the money to add a marquee free agent during the offseason.

But when you’re the NBA’s biggest star who has been to the NBA Finals every year since 2011, weather, sunshine, entertainment and money won’t be enough. You need the elite players, too. The Clippers have three NBA All-Star-caliber players in DeAndre Jordan, Lou Williams and Tobias Harris, but none was an All-Star this year. The Lakers have some young talent in Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, but time will tell if they become All-Stars.

Kevin Durant (L) and LeBron James (R) celebrate as Stephen Curry (C) looks on after Team LeBron defeated Team Stephen 148-145 at the 2018 NBA All-Star Game, February 18, 2018 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

“That was odd,” Team LeBron All-Star forward Kevin Durant said of the absence of Lakers and Clippers players in Sunday’s game. “But I was talking to [Charlotte Hornets All-Star] Kemba [Walker] and I told him next year it’s going to be in his hometown, so he has to make it. Usually, when you’ve got a guy playing in their city, everyone kind of rallies around him and supports him. But it was different not having a Laker or a Clipper here.”

Possibly damaging the Lakers’ “King James” dreams is the franchise playing its own role in making the Cavaliers’ roster more attractive.

The Lakers recently traded two of their young talents to Cleveland – easy-scoring guard Jordan Clarkson and high-flying forward Larry Nance Jr. Cleveland acquired a veteran point guard in George Hill who complements James well with his 3-point shooting, ability to be effective without the ball and defense, and also added a talented, athletic and young scorer in Rodney Hood, who could start for a lot of teams.

The new-look Cavaliers sans an injured Kevin Love are 2-0 since the moves and fun to watch again. The Lakers have the ability to sign two major free agents this summer, but the Clippers don’t have that ability until 2019. Trading ex-Clippers star Blake Griffin just months after he signed a five-year contract has to be curious to a prospective free agent as well.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he stays in Cleveland now,” one high-ranking Eastern Conference team executive said. “The Cavaliers put a really good team around him. The Cavaliers have made it really tough for him to decide to leave Cleveland again. The Lakers might have helped them keep LeBron.”

James and the Cavaliers will return from the All-Star Break as the third-best team in the Eastern Conference at 34-22, which is 6½ games behind the first-place Toronto Raptors. While Los Angeles fans are dreaming big, the three-time NBA champion James is focused on what he usually plays for: championships.

“We just added four news guys before the [trade deadline], and we have a lot of work to do,” James said. “So, I really don’t want to look too far ahead. But, obviously winning championships is what it is about. That is what the league is all about and hopefully at the end of the road then I have the Cavs there actually to compete for one, to be in the Finals representing the East.

“So, that’s my goal. Getting back. I’m looking forward to getting back with the guys. I know they’re excited, and that is going to be our mindset. But we’ll see what happens.”

In the third quarter, former Lakers greats Shaquille O’Neal, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and Magic Johnson were introduced during a timeout. The Lakers’ and Clippers’ hopes of landing James, George or another top free agent could rest in the sales pitches and influence of the respected Hall of Famers Johnson and West. Johnson is the president of the Lakers and the longtime executive West is a consultant with the Clippers. There will be immense pressure on both to hit the free-agent lottery this summer.

Johnson and the Lakers have already been fined for making comments about George and NBA All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo this season. Keep in mind that George, a Palmdale, California, native, appears to be happy playing with fellow NBA All-Star Russell Westbrook with the Oklahoma City Thunder. During the NBA All-Star media session on Saturday, Lakers fans were chanting, “We want Paul … We want Paul.” George heard it. James deciding to come to Los Angeles could make a decision to go to the Lakers an easy one for George.

“It feels good to be welcomed. I think anyone would want to be wanted and to be welcomed,” George said.

During a fourth-quarter timeout with 2:14 remaining, Lakers president Jeanie Buss and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer were given respectable applause when they were introduced to their home crowd. The crowd gave its loudest ovation of the night for the surprise introduction of NBA icon and Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, who was handed a ball in honor of the 2019 NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte, North Carolina.

On a night that was all about the stars past and present, Lakers and Clippers fans were left to cheer for NBA All-Stars who didn’t play for their team. But the good news is that James, the 2018 NBA All-Star Game MVP, was complimentary about L.A., calling it “built for stars.”

“I feel this is the perfect place to hold All-Star Weekend,” said James, who had 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. “It’s one of the few cities that we have in our league that can accommodate all of this. What I mean by all of this is you have 200-plus countries that are covering this game. You got so many people from all over the world coming to watch our game and to be part of this. We know the traffic. We understand that. Traffic is traffic. But L.A. can accommodate that.

“It is built for stars. It is built for entertainment. It is built for cameras and bright lights. It’s a great place for that. I hope everybody had a great weekend. I know I did. I know my family did. It was a great weekend.”

Dream big, Lakers and Clippers fans. Dream big.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.