(Editor’s note: We originally ran this article exactly one year ago. Things have changed slightly since then — the league actually did a draft! — but nearly all the suggestions are still highly relevant! — Eric)
The NBA All-Star weekend is broken.
It is billed as the league’s marquee annual event and draws many thousands of celebrities and fans from around the country. Bill Simmons once dubbed it “The Black Super Bowl.”
Despite that mass appeal, the actual on-court events of the weekend are poorly executed and lackluster. Complaints have been raised about the format of the Saturday Skills Challenge, ways in which teams are selected and certain players are snubbed, and the overall effort of everyone on the court during the Sunday game.
What can the NBA do to make it’s weekend appealing again? Blazer’s Edge editors Timmay! and Eric Griffith make some suggestions:
Problem: All-Star game rosters are too small
Solutions: During the 2011-2012 season the NBA permanently raised the active roster for regular season games to 13 players per team. Despite that, the All-Star game rosters have been stuck at 12. This is in contrast to past changes; the NBA has adjusted the All-Star game rosters to match league-wide roster size on multiple occasions. For example, When the league temporarily reduced rosters to 11 players from 1977-1981 the ASG rosters were also reduced to 11 players. Before and after those years each conference had 12 all stars, which aligned with the league’s maximum roster size. However, from 1971-1973, the league did deviate from that guideline...by allowing the All-Star rosters to expand to 14, exceeding regular season team size.
Effectively, this disparity has made it twice as difficult to make an All-Star team in 2016 as it was in the 1970s. From ‘71-’73 there were only 17 teams in the NBA, each with a roster size of 12 for a total of 204 players, and 28 all-star spots available. In 2016, there are over 400 active players in the league but only 24 all-star spots. The league has literally doubled in size, while also decreasing the number of available All-Star spots by four. This has created a situation where very legitimate superstars like Damian Lillard are left off the team, while in 1973 semi-stars like John Block (averaging 17.9 points and 9.2 rebounds at the time) do make the team.
Some have raised concerns about playing time with an additional player, but with 240 minutes available per game—48 times five players on the court—there are an average of more than 18 minutes available per player. NBA coaches have already admitted to carefully scripting their rotations for the game. If done correctly, even with 13 players everyone could could see the court for 10-26 minutes. That also assumes that older veterans like Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant in recent years, for example, would even prefer to play more than five minutes at all.
Problem: Current team selection gives fans the power to vote on undeserving players, while deserving players like Damian Lillard are snubbed.
The NBA used fan vote to select All-Star starters from the 1970s until this season. The perception is that over the last 10-15 years the fan vote became especially problematic. Yi Jianlian, Jeremy Lin, and Zaza Pachulia have all come perilously close to making the roster. Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson undeservingly made the roster as aging veterans. But this is not a new problem; players and coaches have complained about the fan vote since at least 1977 (scroll to Jan. 24).
This season the league “fixed” the problem by using a combination of fan, player, and media vote. The results were okay, but still less than satisfying. The fans still overranked Pachulia while many players took the task less than seriously and voted for themselves or teammates. Consequently, Steph Curry was selected as a starter over Russell Westbrook—a player literally averaging a triple-double. The system is better, but still less than ideal. Here are some solutions:
Simple solution 1: Give the players and media a limited ballot. In the pre-Internet days, the league used paper ballots and only included a selection of players who might actually have a chance at deserving an All-Star spot. This will stop the players from engaging in voting shenanigans.
Simple solution 2: Rather than having three frontcourt spots and two backcourt spots, construct the starters from two backcourt players, two frontcourt players, and a wildcard. The league could take the top two guards, the top two forwards/centers, and then the fifth spot could be filled by whichever remaining player had the higher vote standing, regardless of position.
For example, this year Westbrook had an overall score of 2.0 but finished third in the guard vote by tiebreaker. Anthony Davis had an overall score of 3.5 in the frontcourt and was selected as the third starter. Under the wildcard scenario, Westbrook would replace Davis. Similarly, the third guard in the East, Isaiah Thomas, would have beaten out Jimmy Butler.
The wildcard selection might create some unusually small starting lineups, but with the league heading in a smallball direction anyway that would be semi-representative of on-court trends. Plus, it’s the All-Star game. Do lineups REALLY matter?
Semi-crazy solution: The problem could be solved by having fans vote for two captains for each team. All 30 teams would select one player to put on a virtual ballot and then the top two vote getters from each conference would have the captain honors. This gives the power back to the fans to make a decision on their own, and the virtual ballot eliminates the “Kobe problem.”
Once that is done, the coaches (and possibly players?) would then vote for the next 10 roster spots on each side. Then the NBA would re-open fan voting to select the thirteenth and final player for each side. They could brand it “Vote for Lucky 13” or something similarly gimmicky to drive social media participation. The “Kobe problem” might still exist but it’d be partially balanced out by the rosters now having 13 players.
Problem: More All-Stars play in the West than the East
Solution: The league should also follow the NHL’s lead (first and last time this will ever be suggested) and do away with conference teams. Selecting players irrespective of conferences allows the top 26 best players to be selected, eliminating biases during years in which conferences are especially unequal. For instance, Al Horford and Kyle Korver have both now been selected ahead of Lillard in years past. Having no conferences fixes that.
This solution also allows player pairings that would otherwise be impossible. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, for instance, never shared a court until they were named to the 1992 Dream Team. Watching transcendent stars like that play on the same team every couple seasons outweighs the virtually non-existent benefit of adhering to the conference team structure. Very few fans care about rooting for the West vs. East—they care about rooting for the player from their home team.
Semi-insane corollary: Select teams by allowing the top four players in the starting lineup vote to serve as captains (first and fourth in total votes are paired, second and third in total votes are paired) and select the remaining roster.
Then have a made-for-TV draft during the Saturday practice broadcast on NBA TV. The draft will add a must-see event to the NBA’s branded channel, while also adding a ton of drama. Watching a captain snub his teammate, or being forced to choose between players from two rival teams would be great drama.
Imagine if Kobe Bryant as a captain had refused to select Shaquille O’Neal when they played together with the Lakers in the early 2000s. Or if Westbrook selected former teammate Kevin Durant with his first choice and buried the hatchet.The possibilities for intrigue are endless!
The league could donate $50k to a charity of the last player selected’s choice to make up for any perceived indignity.
Problem: Not every team is represented, causing some hometown fans to lose interest
Solution: Find a spot for everyone. With the Saturday night contests, the Rising Stars game, and the main event, there are about 60 spots open. Choose a player from every team, similar to baseball’s strategy.
Problem: Nobody tries in the actual All-Star game
Solution: Gone are the days of players playing all out in the All-Star game, but that was not always the case. The famous 1987 game (Tom Chambers MVP!) had a high level of competition from buzzer to buzzer. Over time, the game digressed to a lackadaisical first through third quarter followed by strong efforts in the fourth, such as in 2003 when Michael Jordan hit a crucial jump shot in the final seconds. But within the last five years players have stopped playing hard even in the clutch situations. In 2015, despite a close contest down the stretch, virtually no defense was played and it was apparent the participants barely cared.
While going the baseball “Make it Count” route (such that it actually affects the playoff competition) seems unwise, the league could use charity donations as a motivation. Each player from a winning team would be allowed to select from a list of pre-approved charities, to avoid the complication of verifying that an individual’s foundation isn’t actually a slush fund for his friends and family, that the league would then donate $100k to. Any player who doesn’t put forth at least a modicum of effort would be shamed by the fans for his lack of caring about charity donations.
Readers - do you like our ideas? Leave your own ideas in the comments below!