Home Sports The NBA All-Star Game’s long slog and the failed attempts to fix it

The NBA All-Star Game’s long slog and the failed attempts to fix it

The NBA All-Star Game’s long slog and the failed attempts to fix it


Imagine an NBA All-Star Game where one superstar broke another’s nose by playing aggressive defense at the rim in the third quarter.

Picture one of the best players in NBA history angrily chiding another all-time great at the final horn because one of them passed up taking the final shot.

These things happened in the same All-Star Game, and not that long ago. In the 2012 game in Orlando, Dwyane Wade fractured Kobe Bryant’s nose to prevent a layup with eight minutes left in the third quarter.

That night was more memorable for Bryant barking at LeBron James to “shoot the f—ing ball” when James passed it twice in the final 10 seconds with his team, the East All-Stars, down by two to Bryant’s West. In a timeout before the final possession, Bryant had assigned himself to cover James and badly wanted to directly stop him. The West won 152-149, but Bryant ended the game with a scowl, frustrated James wouldn’t challenge him.

A few days later, before Wade’s Miami Heat were about to play Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers, Wade called to make sure there were no hard feelings. He was pleasantly surprised when Bryant told him that he “loved” Wade playing that hard in the exhibition.

In a memorable 2003 All-Star moment, Michael Jordan attempted to get into Bryant’s head when he trash-talked the young star as Bryant had a chance to make three free throws with one second left in overtime to win. Bryant missed, and the game went to double overtime, Jordan having hit a miraculous jumper that almost won it for the East in Atlanta.

This was how Bryant, who deeply cared about All-Star Games, was raised to play in these events. Two decades later, it’s hard to compute which is more unfathomable for an All-Star Game: real end-of-game competitiveness or one of them going to double overtime.

All-Star Weekend had long been tilting in the direction of style over substance, but last year’s version in Salt Lake City surely was the nadir.

After it was won by, well no one remembers, Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone told it like it was.

“It’s an honor to be here, it’s an honor to be part of a great weekend with great players,” said Malone, who was the coach of losing side Team LeBron (Team Giannis won). “But that is the worst basketball game ever played. … I’m not going to lie.”

It’s been a long slog — filled with some highlights but lots of apathy — to reach this point in All-Star history. The NBA is hoping for a turning point. Malone was the most blunt but far from alone in his feelings about the game hitting a nadir, and it convinced the league to try and bring some excitement back into the midseason show.

The All-Star Game MVP trophy is named in Bryant’s honor, a testament to how seriously he took the game. There were complaints about the exhibition getting worse throughout Bryant’s career, but he was one of the few who tried to hold it to some sort of standard. As he eased into retirement, the game truly seemed to lose its way.

Consider the changes that each All-Star edition has gone through in less than a decade:

• In 2016, Bryant’s last in the NBA, the concept of defense, already an All-Star rarity, was retired. Defenders barely ran and rarely jumped. The West team scored an obscene 196 points.

• In 2017, the two teams combined for a record 374 points as there was more standing around than anything else. There were 83 dunks, practically all of them uncontested, with 12 of them from Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo alone.

• In 2018, the NBA, perhaps recognizing things were getting out of hand, tried a new format to stir up passion: team captains that would pick teammates playground style a week before the game. But the game would not be highlighted by the format tweak, but rather the dizzying number of 3-pointers heaved by players. There were just 27 dunks … but 123 3-pointers were attempted, the most ever in the All-Star game, which the teams converted at a less-than-exciting 29% rate. Instead of the usual dunk fest, players mostly stood around and took turns watching one another hoist them from deeper and deeper.

• In 2019, a dizzying 167 3-pointers were attempted as the game became even more monotonous.

In 2020, the NBA’s attempts to re-engage player competitiveness reached a new level with the adoption of the Elam Ending, where the fourth quarter would be played with no clock and there would be a target score established. In honor of Bryant, who tragically died a month before the game, the target score was set at 24 in honor of his jersey number.

So 24 points were added to the leading team’s score after three quarters and that was set as the target score. But there were also individual quarter contests with the teams playing for charity.

Sound confusing? It was, especially with fans sometimes having a hard time keeping track of what team their favorite players were on and then needing a tutorial to keep score.

It did produce terrific drama that first year in Chicago, with the Elam Ending resulting in the most competitive play in an All-Star game in the modern era. There was defense, there was trash talk and there was clutch play with Team LeBron taking a comeback win against Team Giannis.

But the rescheduling of the 2021 edition due to the COVID-19 pandemic and confusion about the format never let it thrive, even if there were some notable moments when it was featured.

By last season, in a game where players took turns throwing the ball off the backboard to each other and shooting from half court, any momentum was lost.

“That wasn’t basketball. That was just highlights and layups and jump shots,” Celtics’ All-Star Jaylen Brown said after last year’s game. “I don’t know how much notoriety you’d want to get from this. It was just a glorified layup line.”

The picking of the teams in 2023 didn’t happen until shortly before the game. James, one of the captains, didn’t arrive in Utah until the day of the game after being excused from Saturday events by the NBA for personal reasons.

Perhaps as a result, the selections were haphazard, with reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokic accidentally putting himself on James’ team when he didn’t realize hometown Utah Jazz player Lauri Markkanen hadn’t been picked yet.

“I would not draft myself either,” Jokic said. “I’m not meant for this game.”

Players switched locker rooms. Introductions and pregame ceremonies then dragged on.

“Some people stayed in the same locker room [with players not on their team],” Damian Lillard said. “Everything just felt long. It was an hour between everything. It felt like the longest All-Star that I’ve been a part of.”

That disarray and lack of seriousness carried over into the game, which was a shoddy display of effort and interest, even by All-Star standards. In 1993, there were 62 fouls called. In 2023, there were seven.

Fittingly, James promised Malone he would try to get one defensive stop and, when he contested a shot, hit his finger on the rim and didn’t play the rest of the game.

Viewership registered at 4.6 million — the lowest figure in more than two decades, according to Sports Media Watch.

“I was kind of in the middle of, ‘Do I play hard or do I just be comfortable?’ You don’t want to be that [only] guy that’s out there hustling and body checking, you do float that line,” LA Clippers All-Star Paul George said after the game.

“At the end of the day, the fans want a more serious game. … That’s going to get the most oohs and ahhs, [more] than giving a guy a wide-open dunk. But that’s how it’s been played in our era. I’d love to see it go to a more competitive game.”

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander suggested a financial component be added to entice a better product. That incentivized better performances in the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament, with players saying the $500,000 cash prize for the winners increased the competitive nature of that event.

Instead, the league is trying another makeover. Or, rather, an unmakeover. For Sunday’s All-Star game, the rosters will go back to the East vs. West format. The Elam Ending has been eliminated, and the NBA has vowed to limit lengthy pregame ceremonies that players said made it hard to properly warm up and prepare for the game.

“No one was happy about the experience last year, no one at all,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said during a Nov. 8 interview on “The Old Man and the Three” Podcast after the changes were announced last fall. “It’s not me necessarily saying we expect you to be playing like it’s the Finals but we need a game.”

Silver has set a course this season to “rebalance” the league in what he has termed on several occasions as a “back to basketball” agenda that not only includes returning the All-Star Game to its roots but also a player participation policy aimed at getting star players to avoid resting in high-value national television games.

The in-season tournament did, for the most part, bring the desired effect as there was a marked increase in intensity in early regular season games. Whether the players collectively will respond to the call for a better showing for the All-Star Game is yet to be seen. It probably couldn’t get any worse.

“We need to make the message clear to players,” Silver said after announcing the changes last fall, “[so] guys come out and say, ‘It’s a game. Let’s go try to win it.'”


Source link


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here