369 points in a 48-minute game. Apparently the NBA–or at least its players–has completely forgotten the concept of “defense”.
In all fairness, the 65th annual All-Star weekend hosted in Toronto wasn’t a complete disaster for the league. Beginning with the Celebrity All-Star game led by rapper Drake and comedian Kevin Hart, NBA fans were treated to a spectacle of mediocrity–intentional, of course. The matchup never failed to amuse, as both celebrities’ teams gave it their best efforts. SNL cast member Jason Sudeikis put on a show for Hart and his team, making some impressive shots to keep a win within reach. Unfortunately for him, Drake and “Team Canada” prevailed in a close game, 74-64.
Even the traditional All-Star events preceding the game itself were of admirable quality this year. In the 3-point competition, Warriors guard Klay Thompson beat out teammate and current NBA superstar Stephen Curry for the title, scoring 27 points in the championship round. Preceding the event was yet another appearance by Hart, defeating forward Draymond Green–a 244 pound 7 foot behemoth of an athlete–in their own contest from behind the arc.
The dunk contest brought back the dunk, and was so athletically impressive that there were serious talks of a shared title.
Despite all the fanfare and hype, and even though incredible talent was present, the game itself was atrocious–but not due to a lack of offense.
And then came the unmitigated disaster that was the All-Star Game. Before tip-off, the exhibition contest seemed spectacular on paper. From both the Eastern and Western conferences, All-Stars including LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade were set to take the court. Most notable was Lakers’ guard Kobe Bryant, competing in his 18th All-Star game before retiring later this year after 18 years in the League.
Despite all the fanfare and hype, and even though incredible talent was present, the game itself was atrocious–but not due to a lack of offense. The 369 total points scored set an NBA record for most points total in an All-Star game, with Pacers forward Paul George leading all scorers with 41 points. Curry himself had a monster of a game, finishing with an incredible near-half court shot to end the game.
But what was missing from it all was defense. Or, in more cynical terms, a complete and utter lack of effort. Throughout most of the contest, defenders lazily threw their hands in the air to “contest” shots, sluggishly approached their opponents, and in some instances even allowed players to score on them for seemingly no reason.
In such a game of high significance for Bryant and the many competing for the last time with the five time NBA champion and certain hall of famer, it is understandable that cutthroat defense may not be explicitly appropriate. Respect must be paid for Bryant’s efforts in and out of the league–blocking all of his shots is clearly not the way to do that.
But such instances are symptomatic of a larger problem for not just the NBA, but all American professional sports. The NFL, for example, is currently struggling with ratings for its annual Pro Bowl, recently changing the game’s format from a traditional AFC versus NFC matchup to a gimmicky “backyard football draft” style. The results? Yet another drop in viewership.
The problems plaguing All-Star competitions in the modern era are not due to lazy players, as professional athletes are clearly not sloths. Instead, the problem lies in incentives. With the exception of the MLB, all professional All-Star competitions present no incentives for athletes to try their best, nor to try at all for that matter. What becomes of such contests now resembles a pickup basketball game in a small subdivision, with competitors acting as idiotic and tactless as possible for fun.
In baseball, the National League and American League battle in out for something valuable–home field advantage for their conference’s representative in the World Series.
For many players, the risk of injury deters them from competing at a high level. In the case of the 2016 NFL Pro Bowl, athletes declined their invitation to compete at record levels, citing risk of injury as a primary justification. Many high-caliber athletes mean too much to their teams to risk injury for the season, costing wins or even championship berths. In evaluating their options, it makes no logical sense for an athlete to risk such career-ending injury to compete in a game with no impact on the season.
Even further, the event’s “spiritual” significance has long worn thin. Competitions between East and West or National and American leagues used to be fierce, as each conference had its own identity and relished bragging rights accompanied by a win in an All-Star matchup. Now, the divisions between conferences have become more a product of the rules than a true cultural divide, blended by constant media accessibility to teams and athletes across the country. As such, the prestige and glory accompanied by winning an All Star game means little now, as most fans do not identify with the conference, but with teams and individual athletes.
Going forward, sports organizations like the NBA must act quick to remedy the problem of declining public interest and lack of relevance in their All Star games. In general, there are two solutions that work best. The first, and arguably most effective, is that employed by the MLB–simply making the game mean something. In baseball, the National League and American League battle in out for something valuable–home field advantage for their conference’s representative in the World Series. A prize like this is worth competing for, and justifies the expenditure of effort for athletes.
On the other hand, the NBA might also choose to embrace the gimmicky nature of their All-Star game and move in a direction similar to the NHL. Since 2015, their contest is done in a captain-based format, where four teams play in a simple tournament bracket to be claimed the winner. In addition, the games are played 3-on-3, making the actual competition fast-paced, entertaining, and high-scoring, with minimal loss of effort from defenders. Competitions like this de-emphasize the “prestige” factor of the game, instead replacing it with a fun, lighthearted atmosphere by design, rather than by lack of effort. Even lesser known players get an opportunity to show their talent, as occurred this year with John Scott.
While the tradition of the NBA All Star Weekend is still strong, its headline event is a travesty to the sport. Going forward, management within the league must make a choice: embrace the game’s pickup-style nature, or make the game worth something. Otherwise, there may not even be a game for fans to ignore.