The NBA has made a number of smart reforms to its All-Star Game in recent years. This includes diversifying the voting base to select All-Star Game starters right in the nick of time, preventing Zaza Pachulia, Derrick Rose, and Luka Doncic from grabbing starting spots in years when they weren’t even selected as reserves.
It also includes nuking the traditional East vs. West set-up, now two years gone. Getting rid of the conference battle and letting captains pick each team has been an enormous boon to the All-Star Game.
The change was made in the wake of a 2017 All-Star Game that seemed to rub important people especially poorly. Hornets chairman Michael Jordan and players’ union president Chris Paul both groused to anyone who’d listen about the lack of competitiveness in that game. That sparked the NBA to do something about it, and the captains’ draft was born. Both All-Star Games since have been quite competitive and fun. The reform worked!
Another tweak came this year with the televised draft. This personalized it even more, as we saw LeBron James’ free agent focused recruiting efforts laid bare, with Giannis Antetokounmpo even joking about tampering on national TV. The NBA is at its best when it’s a little irreverent and a lot fun, and that’s what this set-up has given us instead of the traditional, anodyne East vs. West battles.
This set-up also allows the teams to take on a certain personality. Team LeBron was clearly the villain of this All-Star Game. You had LeBron, the rogue G.O.A.T. candidate who switched teams again this summer and spent early February watching his friend and agent trying to trade most of his roster for Anthony Davis, who tossed out a trade request 18 months before free agency and oh yeah also shares an agent with LeBron. Team LeBron had Kevin Durant, perhaps the first two-time reigning Finals MVP for whom some share of his team’s fans wish would just go to the Knicks already.
LeBron drafted Kawhi Leonard, a pending free agent who forced a trade away from the most successful franchise of the past two decades with a year left on his contract; Kyrie Irving, who had previously forced a trade from a team that had made three straight NBA Finals and is now toying with Boston’s heartstrings; James Harden, a superstar who otherwise reasonable analysts openly loathe for his playing style; Ben Simmons, another client of LeBron’s shadow agency; Damian Lillard, seen as a future Lakers free agent target; and Klay Thompson, a definite future Lakers free agent target.
Meanwhile, the other team was captained by wholesome Giannis Antetokounmpo, anchored by the joyful and beloved Stephen Curry, and had home team hero Kemba Walker. This team played hard from the jump, shared the ball, cheered for legend Dirk Nowitzki, took a huge lead ... and got trucked by superior talent in the end.
GM LeBron might not have a great track record in Cleveland or LA, but he’s 2-0 in All-Star Games because he doesn’t give a flip about appearances. He embraces the villainy.
This is all lovely and entertaining. It’s a game within the game, and given that the broader game doesn’t at all matter, it’s nice that we can pretend the smaller game does.
But there are still a few things the NBA could do to improve the experience overall.
- Make the All-Star Game draft a live event with all of the players there. There isn’t much schedule wiggle room, but this is not a long event. The televised captains’ draft took only about 30 minutes. The NBA could hold the live draft in the All-Star host city on Friday before the game with everyone in attendance, and it’d only take an hour. Run it right before the dreaded Celebrity Game. A few of the players brought out their Twitter fingers as LeBron and Giannis picked teams this year, but we need them all there to see the honest reactions.
- Get rid of conferences for all-star selection. Just have voters pick the top 10 players overall for the starters, with the top vote-getters named captains. Then have coaches select the next set of all-stars from among the whole league without reference to position or conference. No offense to a couple of the fringe East All-Stars, but the lines are disappearing and we might as well just move past them.
- Expand the rosters to 15 players. I know this is counter to the previous point about loose standards for East All-Stars these days, but there are deserving players left out. They just all happen to be the in Western Conference right now.
The important thing is that none of these have to be done to fix the All-Star Game, because the All-Star Game is fixed. These are just tweaks to further the improvement.
Good job, NBA.