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Let’s Make the All-Star Game Great Again

Count me among one of the countless fans that was pleasantly surprised with NBA All-Star Weekend 2020. I readily admit that I was skeptical of the new game format, and the Saturday night events are always hit or miss, but I found myself entertained by both nights. The theme of the weekend was always going to be the celebration of the life of Kobe Bryant, and the league executed it supremely well. The pre-game tribute to Chicago was remarkable and Common’s player introductions felt more organic after the forced humor of Kevin Hart in previous iterations. 

2020 was the first All-Star game that I had watched since 2017, and I only tuned in because I was writing this piece. I consider my apathy to be deeply troubling. I would count myself among the top 1% of NBA fans, yet I have no interest in watching a game where the 24 most relevant players to the league in any given season (give or take due to injuries) are all participating. The games are a horrific combination of no defence, terrible shot selection, and tantalising glimpses of what the game could be through the last 5 minutes when players try – but only  if the game is close enough. 

It has given us some of the all-time lowlights like this:

Sadly, that isn’t a one-off example. Here is a tribute to the 2019 game:

To a certain extent I believe Adam Silver and his brain trust are not doing what is best for the league overall. They have made admirable efforts to drive the sentiment that the NBA is a player’s league by encouraging players to be local and global community leaders while also offering support to player empowerment. However, there has been such an emphasis on enhancing offensive play and hampering defensive play that it has fundamentally altered the on-court product to the point that playing defence is almost an untenable strategy. I understand that 3-pointers and dunks are the sexy plays, but they lose impact when they are all a team hunts for and opposing  teams do little to hamper those endeavours. We are now treated to the defensive efforts like this:

and this:

and all-time classic compilations like this:

There is evidence to suggest that this isn’t what fans want. John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal reported in early December some disturbing facts:

  • NBA on TNT viewership was down 23% vs a year ago
  • ESPN viewership was down 20% vs a year ago
  • Regional Sports Networks viewership was down 13% vs a year ago

Lowered viewership has been discussed at length on various media outlets and there could be a variety of factors contributing to those numbers. Stars such as Stephen Curry, Zion Williamson and Kevin Durant have spent most or all the season on the side-lines, and this may have hampered early-season fan engagement. I don’t necessarily agree with statements like that because every year stars are injured. I would say that repetitive play styles, lack of effort (particularly on defense) and the resting of stars has had a far greater impact on those troubling numbers.

No matter the reason, it has the league’s attention to the point where the board of governors are now discussing somewhat radical ideas such as mid-season tournaments and play in games for the final two playoff positions in each conference. The fact that the NBA is now considering these ideas gives me reassurance that my ideas for the All-Star game could potentially be viable. So, what are those ideas? I’m so glad you asked!

The first thing I want to amend is the All-Star selection process. Here is a breakdown of the main points around changing this:

  1. East vs West is back. The current setup of the top vote getters selecting their squad feels gimmicky, and this gimmicky sentiment is exactly what I am trying to get rid of.
  2. Rosters are expanded to 13 players per squad. NBA teams can have a maximum of 13 players active on a given night. This is just for fluidity and frankly it’s just stupid that it hasn’t happened already.
  3. Finally, the players are selected as such:
  • The teams with the two best records in each conference have two guaranteed All-Stars.
  • Teams 3-8 have one guaranteed All-Star.
  • The remaining three roster spots are made up of “wild card” players. These players can be selected from any team in the conference. 
  • No position specific requirements. There are too many point-forwards, shooting big men, and slam-dunking point guards to adhere to traditional positional requirements.

I am firmly in the camp of rewarding players that contribute to winning before rewarding players who have great counting stats. In my opinion, having a minimum of ten roster spots occupied by players on playoff teams hits  the correct balance of primarily rewarding winning players while also accounting for players who bust their ass every night for their team but are burdened by unfortunate injury luck to teammates and/or incompetent front offices. Ideally the preference is that players that are using “wild card” selections have a previous history of team success so it can clarify that they are more than the classic “good stats, bad team guy.”

If it were solely up to me to select the teams this year, here is how the Eastern Conference All-Stars would look. Please note these selections are based on league standings as of 20/02/2020. Standings may have been slightly different at the time of player selection.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
  2. Khris Middleton (Bucks)
  3. Pascal Siakam (Raptors)
  4. Kyle Lowry (Raptors)
  5. Kemba Walker (Celtics)
  6. Jimmy Butler (Heat)
  7. Joel Embiid (76ers)
  8. Domantas Sabonis (Pacers)
  9. Spencer Dinwiddie (Nets)
  10. Nikola Vucevic (Magic)
  11. Ben Simmons (Wildcard)
  12. Jayson Tatum (Wildcard)
  13. Bam Adebayo (Wildcard)

I don’t feel great about having Dinwiddie or Vucevic on the team even though both players are having good years. There are clearly more talented players in the Eastern Conference, but the aim of the game is to win,  NOT to just put up the best individual stats. I value the way that those two are a significant reason that Brooklyn and Orlando would be playing postseason basketball if the season ended tomorrow. 

There is one other obvious omission from the team as well. Sorry, but Trae Young is not an All-Star. The argument for him being an All-Star revolves around his ridiculous counting stats and his highlight reel. The combination of handles, visionary passing, and extreme range shooting has  made him the current poster boy for the highlight generation.

His stats are undoubtedly inflated by his 34.0% usage rate, which ranks 4th among high usage players across the league. A lot of the work he does on the offensive end he gives back on the defensive end where he has a 116.4 defensive rating, which makes him the 14th worst defender in the league . His limited height and slight frame don’t help him on this end, but more than his measurables, he simply doesn’t give optimal (or any) effort on that end.

Let’s be honest here, nobody really watches Hawks games; they are an absolute dumpster fire of incompetence. The fans see the YouTube highlights and think Trae is the greatest thing since sliced bread. When you watch full games, you see exasperated teammates frustrated with Trae as he dribbles the air of the ball as he searches for the highlight play. The only number higher than Trae’s usage rate is 41, also known as the amount of losses the Hawks had entering the  break. There will be plenty of All-Star selections in Trae’s future, but in 2020 he just didn’t deserve one. 

To be frank, the above suggestion of reformatting the selection process is completely irrelevant if the game itself is played with limited or no effort. The players need to be properly incentivized. Financial enticements to be on the winning team are unlikely to work because the players simply make so much money that it wouldn’t  matter. To put it into context, Pascal Siakam was the lowest paid player at this year’s  game earning $2.325 million (which is a tiny figure by NBA standards) but he is in the last year of a contract and will undoubtedly earn a max contract at the negotiation table this summer. The donations for the winning team  of each quarter are significant and meaningful and I am in favour of keeping those in place.

My belief is that the best way to motivate the players is through in-season benefits. Stay with me because here is where it really gets radical. What if the conference that wins the All-Star game gets home-court advantage for the NBA finals? For instance, say the NBA finals started tomorrow and the Bucks, representing the East, were playing the Lakers, representing the West. Naturally the Bucks would have home-court advantage because they have a superior record of 46-8 compared to  the Lakers, whose record is 41-12. However, at the All-Star game the West beat the East. Under my rules the Lakers would have home-court advantage in the finals. 

Don’t we think the players would play as hard as they possibly can at the All-Star game if home-court advantage for the finals was at stake? I’m not talking about for the last five minutes of the game either. If this was the reward, I think that the game would have the intensity of the last five minutes for the whole game. With the reformatting of the selection process I mentioned earlier a minimum of 10 of the 13 players on each team would have real and measurable motivation to play their asses off for every second they were in the game.

What was so awesome about the All-Star game this year? It was the fourth quarter where Giannis recovered and blocked LeBron, it was when Kyle Lowry sacrificed his body to take a charge on a stampeding Kawhi, and it was when Nick Nurse drew up plays to try and isolate Harden defensively. These were the moments that will stick with me until next year’s game either ruins or enhances my relationship with the All-Star game all over again. 

The TV ratings support my proposal as well. Viewership on TNT peaked at 8 million during the 4th quarter, a significant 8% rise from last year’s viewership. I went through the play by play action for the 4th quarter logged on ESPN.com and here is what I found:

  • Teams shot 16-44 combined
  • There were only 3 dunks and 3 made three’s
  • There were 28 free throws attempted
  • There were 4 steals and 7 blocks 
  • 32 rebounds
  • 12 turnovers
  • 22 fouls

This paints the picture of a defensive slugfest. Neither team shot the ball well, the ball was turned over excessively, and the teams committed an ungodly 22 fouls between them. The glamour plays of the slam dunk and 3-pointer only happened 6 times combined in the quarter, yet here we are speaking with excitement and reverence of the 2020 All-Star game. 

Fan interest and engagement peaked during the 4th quarter of the game, yet it completely contradicted the play style the NBA is leaning more and more towards. Adam Silver is a much smarter man than I , but please commissioner look at what the fans are telling you. We don’t want some gimmicky mid-season tournament and we don’t want to see a play in game between the Magic and Wizards just to see them get trounced by the Bucks in a 4-game sweep. The answer to the ratings drop is making the All-Star game great again.

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