Here's an outside-the-box way to spice up the NBA All-Star Game

Lakers LeBron James
This would be fun! Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.

The NBA has announced a new wrinkle for its All-Star Game coming up Feb. 19 in Salt Lake City.

Instead of the Western Conference All-Stars vs. the Eastern Conference All-Stars, or even squads picked in advance by captains LeBron James and Steph Curry … this year’s rosters will be selected right before the game with the two leading vote-getters choosing sides like a playground pickup game.

That sounds like fun, but here’s an idea that might produce a more intriguing and competitive game, instead of the showboating, no defense, 3-point contest the All-Star Game has become.

How about U.S.-born players vs. international stars?

Now you’re talking about a real game, with only the legacy of basketball at stake. From the day when James Naismith hung a peach basket in a Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA in 1891 through the next 100 years, Americans dominated basketball. But today the answer has to be “NO!” Or more specifically “non” or “nyet” or “nein” or “ochi” or dozens of other languages.

Isn’t it ironic that basketball, the only major sport with its origins in the U.S., has become the most international game?

Is it possible that a team comprised of foreign-born players could defeat LeBron, Steph and a squad of American superstars with sneaker contracts? Not only do I think it’s possible, I would put my $5 on it.

These would be the starting All-Star Game lineups based on the most recent fan voting.

For the international team: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece), Luka Doncic (Slovenia), Nikola Jokic (Serbia), Joel Embiid (Camaroon), and Kyrie Irving (Australia).

(Note: Kyrie Irving was born in Australia but raised in the U.S. He went to St. Patrick High School in beautiful downtown Elizabeth, New Jersey.)

The starting five for the U.S. would be: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Jayson Tatum, and Donovan Mitchell.

Who ya got?

The last four Most Valuable Player awards have gone (two each) to the Greek Freak and Jokic from the international team. Two leading contenders for this year’s MVP are Doncic and Embiid, both international players.

The NBA had 120 international players representing 40 countries on team rosters at the start of this season, including impact players like Rudy Gobert (France), Buddy Hield (Bahamas), Jamal Murray (Canada), Deandre Ayton (Bahamas), Andrew Wiggins (Canada), and Al Horford (Dominican Republic).

Every team in the NBA has at least one foreign-born player. The Toronto Raptors have eight players born outside the U.S. Canada is the leading exporter to the NBA with 20 players, followed by Australia with 10.

The Rockets have four international players: Usman Garuba (Spain), Bruno Fernando (Angola), Alperen Sengun (Turkey) and everybody’s favorite Boban Marjanovic (Serbia).

Of course, Hakeem Olajuwon, the greatest Rocket in franchise history, was born in Lagos, Nigeria. Other former NBA All-Stars born outside the U.S. - Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Steve Nash (Canada), Pau Gasol (Spain), Tony Parker (France), Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Dikembe Mutombo (Congo), Arvidas Sabonis (Lithuania), Toni Kukoc (Croatia), and Andrei Kirilenko (Russia).

And you might remember a rather tall center named Yao Ming from China.

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Jose Abreu looks lost at the plate. Composite Getty Image.

It’s a long baseball season, sure the Astros have started 4-8, and there are plenty of fingers to point around. But there’s no need to push the panic button.

Not yet.

Last year, the Astros didn’t start much better – they were 5-7 after a dozen games. It just seemed different, though. Nobody was wringing hands over the slow start. After all, the Astros were the defending World Series champions, coming off a 106-win season and figured to make mincemeat of the American League West again. Business as usual.

This year is different. The Astros are losing games in very un-Astros-like fashion. While the starting pitching has been surprisingly fine, at least the starters healthy enough to take the field, the bullpen has been a mess. The back end relievers, supposedly the strongest in all of baseball, have been disappointing. Bryan Abreu’s earned run average is 5.79. Ryan Pressly’s ERA is a sky-high 11.57 and closer Josh Hader, the best shutdown in the bigs, is at 6.00. The Astros are losing games late.

The Astros starting rotation is comprised mostly of seat-fillers. The Astros are sitting in the doctor’s waiting room for Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers to be declared fit for battle. McCullers’ contribution to the team in recent years has primarily been confined to H-E-B commercials.

Impatient fans and copy-hungry media need a target to blame for the Astros’ slow start and they’ve zero’d in on first baseman Jose Abreu.

For good reason. Abreu, 37, a former American League MVP, is being paid 19.5 million this year and next. He is having a miserable time at the plate. Originally slated for No. 5 in the batting order, now dropped to No. 7 and sinking in the west, Abreu is hitting a paltry .088. But that number actually is deceptively positive. He has three hits (all singles) in 34 at bats, with 12 strikeouts, no home runs and no RBI. Frankly one of Abreu's singles was a pity hit from a friendly scorekeeper who could have given Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. an error on Abreu’s weak grounder Tuesday night.

We can go all-analytics and brain-busting stats to explain Abreu’s troubles at the plate. But let’s use simple baseball language: Abreu is horrible. He’s done. Maybe it’s time for the Astros to cut bait. He is untradeable.

Abreu had a disastrous 2023 season, batting .237, the lowest average of his 11-year career. But after 12 games last year, he was hitting .271, not bad at all. Or as Larry David would say, pret-tay, pret-tay, pre-tay good.

This year he’s fallen off the end of the Earth. Fans groan as he swings meekly at breaking balls outside the zone. Or he fails to catch up to 95 mph-plus. Or he can’t connect on low inside pitches. Look, when you’re batting .088, it’s all bad.

Last year, the Astros actually had two, as Little Leaguers put it, automatic outs in the lineup. Abreu hit .237 and catcher Martin Maldonado blasted .191.

This year, it’s a tight battle between who’s the worst of the worst. Maldy is hitting .091 with two hits in 22 at bats and no RBI for Abreu’s old team, the Chicago White Sox. Abreu is hitting .088 for Maldonado’s old team, the Astros. This could go down to the last week of the season.

If Abreu is still with the Astros at season’s end. The Astros are no longer the high exalted dominant force in the American League West. They can’t afford an .088 hitter in the lineup. They can’t play eight against nine.

It didn’t help when manager Joe Espada recently said, “I got a ton of confidence in Abreu. I'm not going to talk about strategy. José Abreu has been a really good hitter for a very long time, and I have 100 percent confidence in José that, at some point, he's going to start hitting.”

How long is at some point? Didn’t Astros fans go through this last year with manager Dusty Baker refusing to sit Maldonado despite Maldy killing rallies in a tight pennant race?

The Astros don’t have a strong support system, especially backing Abreu at first base. But there are options. Mauricio Dubon is a jack of all trades. He could play first. Despite the funny line in Moneyball, first base statistically is the easiest position to play in baseball. Backup catcher Victor Caratini can fill the gap until the Astros sign a free agent first baseman.

Or the Astros could do something that would light a fire under fans: call up rookie Joey Loperfido, who’s belted five homers and driven in 13 RBI in 10 games for the Sugar Land Space Cowboys.

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