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How to Fix the NBA All-Star Game, Part 1: Understanding the Problem

The system doesn’t need a tweak, but a complete overhaul.

NBA: All Star-Saturday Night Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023 NBA All-Star Game has been roundly criticized by analysts, fans, and some participants. Last Sunday’s defense-free, 184-175 tilt between Team LeBron and Team Giannis was long on three-point heaves and dunks, short on competitive spirit or, well...anything resembling actual basketball outside of the finishes.

Proposed “solutions” are flying like snowflakes in a blizzard this week, but most miss the point. They rely on incentives for players, or the inverse, bigger repercussions, like having the outcome give a playoffs advantage. Major League Baseball has already shown the latter route won’t work. And no matter how you incentivize behaviors among freely-acting participants, you can’t force them. We can barely quantify good defense under normal circumstances, let alone judge it in an exhibition setting.

Only two choices lie before the NBA now. They either have to shrug their shoulders and invite us to enjoy the contest as-is—celebrating infinite, unbridled offense—or they have to change the entire system to leverage the benefits the event still holds into competitive impulses.

No external adjustment is going to remake the nature of the (non-) competition. That’s like adding frosting to an artichoke. It’ll exist; it just won’t work. The league needs to build in competition at the event’s foundation if they hope to have it return to the weekend.

To understand why, we need to look at the forces working against the All-Star Game, relatively new developments that have changed faster than the NBA has been able to keep up with.

Prestige Issues

Contrary to popular belief, internal motivation of players is only part of the story with the All-Star Game. If we’re being honest, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas weren’t defending that well, nor were their lives affected by who won or lost the mid-season contest. Some individuals might have taken it seriously, but those individuals exist in every generation, including today’s.

All the talk about player motivation eclipses a bigger truth. Some of the major issues affecting All-Star weekend are environmental.

We Already Know You

The All-Star game has lost cultural relevance over the years. Back in 1989, most viewers couldn’t see all of their own team’s games, let alone everybody else’s. If you wanted to watch the league’s best players outside of your market, you either had to hope they appeared among the very few nationally-televised regular-season games or you had to buy a ticket the one or two times they appeared in your home arena.

In that environment, the All-Star Game provided an indispensable opportunity to see superstars, all at once, on a single day. Conversely, it became a showcase by which the players themselves could become known. How often did even the best from Indiana or Milwaukee get to have their names mentioned nationally alongside Michael Jordan, or be seen receiving and delivering passes from him? Answer: Just once a year, at this event.

Between regional broadcast networks and NBA League Pass, you can now follow any superstar, anywhere in the league, in every single game he plays if you wish. Every player of note today gets seen more times, by more people, than Jordan did in his prime.

Instead of being surprised and delighted by seeing All Stars, we now argue vociferously about which bubble players should have been included. We’ve watched their performances, have their highlight reel queued up on YouTube, and can cite their True Shooting Percentage with the click of a button.

You knew Pascal Siakam equally well in mid-January and mid-February. Him being left off, then subsequently named to, the All Star register didn’t affect that one way or another. Nor do you think one bit differently about Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Zion Williamson because they couldn’t appear due to injury.

Other Avenues to Fame

If the event did provide any recognition benefit, it’s nothing that couldn’t be overcome by a skillful Tweet or Instagram post...avenues unavailable to players of earlier decades. Were he so inclined, Durant could garner far more attention by staying home and tweeting snark all weekend than he could playing 30 minutes in Salt Lake City on a February weekend.

You don’t even have to be an All-Star to achieve this. If your name isn’t mentioned as often as Magic Johnson’s and you can’t garner any league-wide honors, just start a podcast! Hello, J.J. Redick. And more power to you.

Easy Upward Mobility

The environment surrounding the event isn’t the only thing that’s changed. The standards of the event have shifted too.

There’s still cachet in being named among the greats of history and recognized among peers. But this, too, is being eroded quickly, in part because of the style-of-play issue that everyone is griping about this week.

Jayson Tatum just set the NBA All-Star scoring record with 55 points, eclipsing the mark of 52 set by Anthony Davis in 2017. Steph Curry ranks third with 50 points, achieved in 2022. Twelve players are tied for the Top Ten scoring performances of all time. Nine out of those twelve marks were set in the last decade.

By playing 200-point-per-team games, modern players aren’t just joining their forebears, they’re eclipsing them at will.

At first, this may argue for participation in the event. If you could get your name inscribed above Jordan’s and Wilt Chamberlain’s in a single afternoon, without much effort, why wouldn’t you?

Things that come cheaply are seldom valued for long, though. Once huge-scoring games become commonplace—and they have—both significance and the incentive to earn them will diminish. At that point, you’re not going to just see stars skipping All-Star Saturday events. The Sunday game will start suffering from lack of relevance as well.

What Can Be Fixed?

Nothing can, or should, be done about the first two issues above. We cannot turn back the clock, nor is it possible to make the weekend much bigger than it is in the cultural pantheon. Trying to do so puts the cart before the horse. We need a better game, with better competition, before people will give more attention and respect to the proceedings.

The issue of upward mobility, though? That depends upon controllable parameters. If the game is worth playing again, re-gifted meaning through (at least modest) competition, both participation and observation will gain significance alongside. The NBA cannot govern or incentivize their way out of personal and environmental factors, but game play is adjustable. That’s where they’ve got to go if they want things to change.

In the next post, we’ll explore the critical mechanic that leads to the current style of play and explore how the league might change the event format to address it. Even spitting in the wind of all these other forces, they just might have a chance to make the All-Star Game fun and worth playing in.