The 2019 NBA All-Star Game is almost upon us, with the league’s best and brightest about to take center stage in the most-awaited exhibition match of the year. Since 1951, the NBA’s greatest players have gathered together under one roof to thank the fans for supporting the game.
But even from among the greats, there are those who rise above the rest to tower over the competition and show everyone watching that they are the brightest star in the NBA. With a number of exquisite performances over the years, there are those who stand out beyond others. Though the MVPs of each game stood head-and-shoulders above their peers, there are a few who have played even better than the others.
In naming the top five All-Star Game performances, I did not include any from recent years. Why? The lack of defense played left such a bad taste in our mouths that it prompted a format change last season.
New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis set an All-Star record of 52 points in the 2017 edition, but it was bereft of anything resembling the beauty of the game. In other words, the games played of late have been eyesores to anyone who loves the NBA.
Thanks to the new format, where the top vote-getters from each conference select their own teammates regardless of affiliation, the All-Star Game is back to its former glory, and it showed in the thrilling game we witnessed last year.
With that said, here are the five greatest All-Star Game performances in league history.
5. LeBron James, 2008
Stats: 27 points, 8 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks
Game Result: East 134, West 128
Location: New Orleans Arena, New Orleans, Louisiana
In the 2008 All-Star Game, LeBron James had a brilliant all-around performance. The King nearly recorded a triple-double (he would get one eventually in 2011) with 27 points, eight rebounds and nine assists as he carried the East to victory despite a late rally from the West.
James was 12-of-22 from the field overall and shot 2-of-7 from the 3-point line. He stole the ball from his opponents twice and still had the extra push to swat two shot attempts as well. The Cleveland Cavaliers forward had a lot of help from Ray Allen, who scored 14 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter, including three straight triples in the final 3:15 of the ballgame. Allen would eventually become LeBron’s teammate in Miami a few years later.
With less than a minute to go and the score tied at 125-all, James drove to the lane in transition for the emphatic slam dunk on Dirk Nowitzki and Amar’e Stoudemire that would give his team a lead it would never relinquish. It was his second All-Star Game MVP trophy in three years.
4. Kobe Bryant, 2011
Stats: 37 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals
Game Result: West 148, East 143
Location: Staples Center, Los Angeles, California
Kobe Bryant was all over the court in this one as he was determined to put on a show in front of a home crowd that expected him to be the star of stars in Hollywood. Bryant shot 14-of-26 from the floor and 7-of-8 from the charity stripe.
The Lakers legend shot early and often on his way to scoring a red-hot 21 points in the first half to give the West a comfortable 76-64 lead by halftime. The highlight of the game was a fast-break chasedown between Bryant and James, with the former beating the latter for a two-handed breakaway dunk. The Black Mamba gave King James a friendly tap to the rear at the end of the play as if to say, “nice try, kid, but I’m better.”
Though he was nearing Wilt Chamberlain’s All-Star scoring record of 42 points, Bryant chose to involve everyone in the offense in the final minutes. Nonetheless, the 37 points were enough to give him the MVP award as the best player in this game. The award was Bryant’s fourth All-Star Game MVP trophy, joining Bob Pettit as the only players in league annals to win as many.
3. Magic Johnson, 1992
Stats: 25 points, 5 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 steals
Game Result: West 153, East 113
Location: Orlando Arena, Orlando, Florida
The summer of 1991 saw Magic Johnson retire from the game after testing positive for HIV, but a few months later, he was voted to play in the 1992 All-Star Game. In spite of not playing a single game during that season, Johnson played like a well-conditioned athlete, giving the Orlando crowd a magical performance that gave everyone who watched the game goosebumps.
It was the feel-good story of the season as he returned to the hardwood to play the game that was taken from him by the disease.
There was no denying that Magic was pumped for this game. He orchestrated the West’s offense as if they were the Showtime Lakers. His 25 points came on only 12 shots (9-of-12), nailing a perfect 3-for-3 from 3-point land and 4-of-4 from the free-throw line.
In the waning minutes of the game, Magic had a playful one-on-one with Isiah Thomas. Magic defended him as well as anyone could have, forcing Thomas to put up an airball. With less than a minute to go, Johnson was trapped on an island guarding the scoring machine that was Michael Jordan. No problem. The former Lakers point guard defended his Chicago Bulls rival as if he was Dennis Rodman, keeping Jordan from the lane and letting him take a jump shot, which he missed.
But Johnson wasn’t done yet. With the shot clock ticking away, he nailed a fadeaway 3-pointer with 14.5 seconds to go right in the face of Thomas to cap the most memorable lopsided All-Star Game in league history. Only Magic could have made it so as he took home his second MVP.
2. Wilt Chamberlain, 1962
Stats: 42 points, 24 rebounds, 1 assist
Game Result: West 150, East 130
Location: St. Louis Arena, St. Louis, Missouri
Wilt Chamberlain’s 42-point mark at the 1962 All-Star Game was the golden standard for decades for points scored in the prestigious event, and it wasn’t until recently that the mark was eclipsed. Unfortunately, as good as Chamberlain was in this game, he couldn’t carry the East to a win against the powerful West team that had a more balanced scoring attack led by Bob Pettit, the game’s MVP. Pettit had 25 points and 27 rebounds, an All-Star Game record that stands to this day.
Walt Bellamy had 23 points and 17 rebounds, Elgin Baylor scored 32 points with nine rebounds, and Oscar Robertson dropped 26 points and 13 assists to help Pettit take the game away from Chamberlain’s grasp. Had Chamberlain been enough to power the East to a win, his individual brilliance could have netted him the top spot on this list.
Nonetheless, Chamberlain was an unstoppable force, knocking in 17 field goals and half of his 16 free-throw attempts to set the former All-Star scoring record. He was unrelenting underneath, but not even he nor his teammate Bill Russell were able to stop the West from scoring.
For more than 50 years, the record stood the test of time, as if it was a wall that could not be surmounted. It wasn’t until 2017 when the players stopped playing defense that the record was broken. If not for the horrendous showing today’s stars staged the past few years, there’s no doubt that Chamberlain’s mark would still stand.
1. Michael Jordan, 1988
Stats: 40 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals, 4 blocks
Game Result: East 138, West 133
Location: Chicago Stadium, Chicago, Illinois
At a time when the All-Star Game was at its competitive best, Jordan delivered a scintillating performance because he had to do it. The East needed every bit of his scoring to escape with the win against a West team that was determined to take the game away from its host.
His Airness scored 16 points in the final 5:30 of the fourth quarter to secure the victory. At the time, his 40-point total was the second-highest scored in an All-Star Game next to Chamberlain’s 42.
The Bulls legend shot 17-of-23 from the field for a sizzling 73.9 percent shooting mark and knocked down a perfect 6-of-6 from the line. Jordan was simply the best player in the league that season, and he stood out among his peers on this night as well. More than that, from a historical perspective, this was the greatest singular performance in an All-Star Game since its inception based on game score and z-scores, according to Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal.
Fromal adds to the majesty of Jordan’s show-stopping performance with more historical perspective on his defensive feats on this night. He became one of 38 All-Stars to record four steals, one of only 11 to block four shots, and the first of only two players to record both four steals and four blocks in a single game (Dirk Nowitzki is the other). Defense in an All-Star Game? Yes, Jordan played the other end of the court, too, even if this was just an exhibition match.
Not only did his performance stand the test of time statistically and metrically, it was also a dazzling one. Simply put, Jordan’s performance was aesthetically beautiful. From the high-flying dunks, well-timed blocks, invisibility-cloaked steals to the aerial acrobatics and dizzying offensive onslaughts, Air Jordan had a recital for the ages in front of an adoring hometown crowd.
Say what you will about who the GOAT is, but on this night, Jordan had a GOAT game that earned him not only the MVP, but also the greatest All-Star Game performance of all time.