Not many people paid attention to NBA All-Star Weekend. Players tried to duck out of it; fans took it as a welcome break from basketball itself. And while it’s unfair to compare network television ratings to cable ratings, it’s still impossible to ignore the fact that the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special had nearly three times as many viewers. This year, as with many others, the glitz and glamor of the All-Star Game primarily served to disguise the Game’s own irrelevance.
That irrelevance is both confusing and oddly appropriate, because while the All-Star Game is supposed to put the NBA’s star power on a national stage, it’s also sadly true that no other sporting event is more perfect for its calendar date than the annual fiasco of the All-Star Game. The NBA season is already 20 games too long, so instead of celebrating the season, the Association’s “midseason” festivities remind us that there is still a lot of basketball to go (and in the Lakers’ case, a lot of games left to lose).
The remaining 29 games of the regular season will be basketball at half-speed, for the most part. Sure, there will be some interesting stories – Oklahoma City’s last-ditch drive for the playoffs, for one, and the Knicks’ race to the bottom. But it’s not possible to take a look at the madcap fireworks of the playoffs and conclude that the regular season can even pretend to be equally watchable.
However, that doesn’t mean that the All-Star Game has to be a blip on the sports calendar. Right now, football season is over, pitchers and catchers haven’t reported to spring training and March Madness is still a month away. There is a real market for sports during the February doldrums – that’s why Sports Illustrated schedules the Swimsuit Edition this month every year, as there’s precious little else to see. As such, there’s a real opportunity to make the NBA’s All-Star ceremonies an event to celebrate.
A few suggestions, then:
Make All-Star Weekend meaningful
Look, nobody’s saying that the All-Star Game should determine home-court advantage in the NBA Finals. While it’s obvious that the All-Star Game is an exhibition, given how badly people have reacted to the MLB All-Star Game, that’s probably a good thing. But as all-star games in college football show, people rarely feel invested in events when their teams have nothing on the line.
Nevertheless, there are ways to make All-Star Weekend more fun. Play games in unconventional settings (like an aircraft carrier!). Experiment with new rules, such as a 20 or 30-second shot clock, a wider court or legalized hand-checking on defense. There’s a lot that the NBA can do to make All-Star Weekend more entertaining, and if we’ll be honest, Commissioner Silver’s proposal to introduce legalized gambling is mostly an attempt to strengthen the NBA as a whole on this front. You’ll care more about something like Boston-Utah if you’ve got money on it. Why not apply that same principle to All-Star Weekend itself?
Avoid All-Star fatigue
Much as I adore the Dunk Contest, Zach LaVine’s dominant display this week only served to remind us how mediocre the last several Dunk Contests have been. How many truly new dunks have we seen in the last five years? Ten? There’s not much new ground to break, so it’s mostly gimmicks at this point, and I (almost) feel sorry for the guy who has to hype up every dunk as though it’s something we haven’t seen before. But if the Dunk Contest was held every two or even three years, it might actually be an event.
Reach out beyond the court
If you think about the 10 biggest non-scandal moments in the NFL in the last five years, three or four of them probably involve the hit TV show “Hard Knocks.” It might sound outrageous to fans today in a world where the NFL’s biggest problem is its disastrous PR, but once upon a time, the NFL was often pilloried for being flat, unobtrusive and boring. “Hard Knocks” was one of the few programs that allowed us to see what NFL players were actually like. There’s little else on television right now, and the NBA has a real opportunity to complement All-Star Weekend with programming that gives fans a chance to see a different side of the players.
Give the players a reason to care
The central problem with All-Star Weekend is that the players don’t really care. In response, somebody will almost inevitably suggest an All-Star draft. The NHL makes team captains draft their All-Stars, playground-style, so that personal bragging rights are on the line – but has that really made NHL players care about the game? Other people propose paying the winners – although given that your typical All-Star is already very rich, even a $50,000 bonus wouldn’t move the needle very much.
These reforms won’t change players’ attitudes towards All-Star Weekend. At the end of the day, who’s going to put their body on the line for an exhibition? I don’t want Kobe Bryant to risk his ankles defending Russell Westbrook one-on-one when there’s nothing to play for. I don’t see the point in Kevin Durant taking a charge when his job is to win championships, not dominate friendlies. The fact of the matter is, players really care about the hectically punishing schedule and the bodily toll that high-level basketball imposes – both of which are key features of the 82-game season. All-Star Weekend doesn’t help on that front; by February, everybody in the NBA is banged up and tired. As such, perhaps the All-Star Game will always be a novelty, a bit of harmless fun. But if the season were shorter, players might actually have the strength to get out and compete.
Winston Shi is just grouchy because his Lakers are just barely good enough to not even be able to tank properly. Tell him that nobody cares about the Lakers at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.