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.
In Part 1 of this series, we examined the essential problems working against the mid-season classic, robbing it of its former relevancy and fun. Alongside personal player motivation—the canard many are lifting to explain the issue—we mentioned a few environmental trends. A couple were inescapable. No single event will ever hold the importance in a social-media, ubiquitous-broadcast, highlight-heavy world that was possible when such things didn’t exist.
But one problematic facet—the increasing cheapness of stellar achievements—stood out. Being able to score 55 without much trouble isn’t an atmospheric issue, but a combination of personal choice and the system in which those choices operate.
The NBA can’t do much about the approach of the players, individually or as a whole. But the league has fairly wide latitude with the format of the game. Changing the system will affect the choices of those operating within it. That’s the key to shifting back towards a more balanced, recognizable game.
Here’s the tricky part: there’s no way to do that using existing game rules. In order to turn the game around, the league will have to adopt a whole new way of thinking. They’re facing a single, huge problem that the current system is ill-equipped to solve.
The key issue around which the game pivots now is essentially-unlimited possessions. Action is bounded by a game clock, but the timed system presumes fully-competitive contests. Its assumptions fall apart once an exhibition game stops resembling a standard one, particularly when teams choose not to defend.
We’re used to thinking of defense as a limit on quality of possessions, but it also provides a limit on number. When a team runs a pick and roll, gets denied their initial attempt, passes around the perimeter, then lofts a three, that all takes time. Removing the defense removes the need for the initial screen and everything that comes after. Scores off of undefended, straight-line drives take five seconds instead of twenty. In this fashion, two teams that abandon defense can create as many possessions for themselves within a twelve-minute quarter as they could wish for, far more than a standard game would permit.
This nearly-unlimited buffet of opportunity allows for the point-inflation and easy trophy-winning we talked about in the first installment of the series. And why should it change? Nobody loses in a defense-free system. Opponents scoring quickly doesn’t diminish your own team’s opportunities to score. In fact, it makes them come sooner. Nor does your teammate scoring on a possession instead of you take anything away, as you know you’ll always have attempts later, as long as the clock allows.
Scaling the clock down might reduce the overall effect of the no-defense style—allowing fewer overall possessions and normalizing the score—but it wouldn’t eliminate the issue. That would give more incentive for teams to allow quick scoring.
We cannot mitigate the benefits of unlimited-possession ball while time remains the governing mechanic of the game. If we want defense to return, we need to find a way to make possessions more precious and the consequences of made baskets more meaningful. Valuing scoring opportunities is the key to restoring semi-competitive play.
Fortunately, basketball offers precedent for exactly this. The All-Star Game is often idealized as the “best pick-up game imaginable”. As it turns out, adopting some of the conventions of pick-up ball would get the league out of this mess.
A Comprehensive Way Forward
Everything we’re about to suggest stems from that central core: make possessions meaningful again, offering participants systemic incentives to play a bit harder.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the valid cautions offered by players and coaches. They don’t want to risk injury. They don’t want to get fatigued from playing too many minutes. They don’t want opponents battering them or using shady tactics like undercutting threes and layups. We need to incentivize out potentially-harmful practices even as we offer paths toward competitiveness.
We also need to keep the game recognizable and easy to understand. Even using the Elam Ending for games makes some people twitch, Whatever system we use, if it can’t be picked up with a simple explanation, it’s no good to anyone.
Walking that tightrope means altering the current system significantly without breaking precedent so much that it’s unrecognizable. We’re going to err on the side of making the bold changes necessary, then try to reverse-engineer accessibility into the process.
The Set Up: Players, Conferences, and Coaches
Our alterations begin early, with the selection process itself. The reason for these changes will become evident when we see how the game itself is played.
The first step in the renovation process is to expand each All-Star roster to 15 players. This has long been discussed. It’s necessary for our purposes. The frontcourt-backcourt distinction will remain. We need three fully-functioning teams of five, created from nine forwards/centers and six guards in each conference.
This is simple to achieve. The current All-Star voting process can remain unaltered. Popular vote would determine the five starters from each conference. Coaches would select the other ten reserves instead of the seven they name now.
Both to restore competitive pride and because it’s inherent in the selection and coaching process, the game would revert to an East vs. West format instead of the “Captains Teams” featured currently.
Imbalance was one of the main complaints when the conference division was in place. What happens if one conference holds far more stars than the other? The way in which we set up the game itself compensates for some of that. The rest is a necessary cost of doing business. The system now isn’t perfect either.
The coaches of the teams with the best record in each conference and their staffs will still head the All-Star rosters, but we’re also going to need the head coaches of the second and third teams in each conference. They’ll play a major part in the proceedings, with the help of the lead team’s staff.
As we said, the rosters will be divided between East and West. As is the current practice, the starters for each side will be pre-determined. Those starters will comprise the First Team for each conference.
Ideally a week prior to the game, but certainly no later than the first day of the All-Star break, the three NBA Head Coaches representing each conference will meet to divide their ten remaining reserves into Second and Third Teams, five players on each.
This is not a mark of talent, as the Annual NBA Second- and Third-Team awards are. This is strategy. The coaches will want to comprise two reserve squads that can compete, play well together, and match up against probable lineups for the other side.
The starters will remain starters because of the vote, but the Second and Third teams are critical. As you’ll see, they’ll all play roughly equally, and they’ll all matter.
As we said above, there’s no way to make possessions valuable while the clock is the primary governing mechanism of the game. That’s why we’re relegating it to a secondary role.
Instead of four quarters, the game will be divided into two halves, each with three shifts in which the First, Second, and Third teams will face each other. Each squad of five will square off against its corresponding opponent twice, once in the first half, once in the second.
Playing to 20
Instead of each shift being timed, the teams will play to 20 points. The First Teams start the game against each other. When one of them hits or exceeds 20, their shift ends. After a brief break (hello, commercials), the Second Teams face each other to 20. Then the Third Teams.
The 20-point total is designed to yield shifts of about eight minutes each, though a shift might end much earlier if somebody decides not to play “D”. If the number turns out too small and shifts are ending too quickly, upping it to 25 in subsequent years is possible.
Each shift would also have a clock, set for 10:00, operating on standard rules. Given the history of the All-Star Game, it’s not likely that ten minutes would elapse without one side or the other scoring 20, but if it did, the shift would end when the clock expired. This is to prevent players from having to play extended minutes.
Again, remember that a shift can end much quicker if one team really blitzes another. Other than the maximum limit of how long each shift of players can play, there’s no bias towards time in this system.
Once First, Second, and Third teams for each side have faced off once, it’s halftime. The process is repeated for the second half.
All shots are worth exactly as you’d expect: twos and threes, one point for free throws.
The only rule alteration is this. If a player commits a foul that goes beyond incidental—undercutting a shooter or making hard contact—the team fouled is awarded an automatic two points and the ball rather than having to shoot free throws.
When one side reaches 20, the shift ends and the margin is recorded. If East beat West 20-16, East got a +4. Points over 20 are not counted for these purposes. The difference is always 20 minus the lower team’s score.
When the next shift starts, the scoreboard is reset to 0-0, as two new teams have taken the floor.
The Final Showdown
After both halves are complete—each team has faced off against its opponent twice—we have the results of the six shifts. Each will have its own margin. So, you’ll have something like this:
First Teams (1) East +6
Second Teams (1) West +3
Third Teams (1) East +10
First Teams (2) East +4
Second Teams (2) West +4
Third Teams (2) East +3
Adding those together, we get East +23 total, West +7. Good day for the East.
But we’re not done yet.
We’re going to find the difference between the two and divide by three to find the average margin of victory per team.
In this case, 23-7 = 16. 16/3 rounds to 5. That’s the advantage the East earned with their performance.
The East team now gets spotted 5 points in one, final game to 20. In this final matchup, each side can field whatever players they want, regardless of First-, Second-, or Third-Team status. They can also substitute freely in all the normal places. First team to 20 wins. That final showdown determines the winner of the event.
(A couple small rules about the point advantage: round up or down normally and, unless the two sides average out to exactly a zero margin, the points spotted to the advantaged team cannot be less than two. If the advantage rounds to less than two, give the advantaged team a two-point edge to start the final showdown.)
Keeping Players Fresh
One argument against this set-up is that players may get cold or stiff while waiting for the other teams to finish their shifts.
This is why we have warm-up rooms. And three coaches.
Remember the Head Coaches from the second and third best teams in the conference? Those coaches will coach the Second and Third teams in the game. While the First Team is playing, the Second Team and their coach will be in the locker/warm-up room, stretching and preparing. When the Second Team is playing, the Third Team will do likewise.
And that’s it. Three five-man teams for each conference, each playing the other to gain advantage in the final showdown where anything goes in a race to 20. Almost like you’re in a playground pick-up game, but at a professional level.
Why it Works Better (Probably)
Playing to a score—instead of playing by time—limits possessions, our critical initial key. In an exhibition setting, playing no defense in a clock-based system holds no disadvantage (and at least a couple advantages). In a point-based system, playing no defense has a direct cost. Every time the opponent scores, you get closer to being off the floor. If you’re just going to exit after two minutes, why bother to come at all? Why bring your kids to watch you play? What are you going to say to the fans back home who voted and cheered for you to get here?
In this system you’re probably not going to hack Ja Morant on that flying dunk, but you’re not going to open up a lane for him to get 10 of them either. We’re having fun, but there’s a limit.
Playing to a defined score also makes your personal possessions more valuable. If you know your team is only going to get “x” number of possessions on average, you don’t want to waste them. You don’t want to face an opponent who’s playing no defense because now this whole thing is going to be over in ten seconds.
If I pass to (or just watch) Jayson Tatum as he scores 55 points in a timed game, who cares? I’ll probably score 25 myself if he’s getting that much. If Tatum scores 55 in this system, either he’s on a nuclear volcano burner for the ages or I’m really upset at the opponent that’s letting him score so easily, because I’m going to get literally zero shots myself.
This system leverages the investment the players still have—time invested, personal prestige, professional pride—by making them matter more during the course of play.
There’s also a psychological accountability aspect inherent in this system that just doesn’t exist in the current one.
If I’m subbing in for a few minutes on a 12-person team where nobody’s really trying anyway, I’m not letting anyone down. I’m an undefined part of a vague tapestry that doesn’t matter.
If I’m playing with four other players against a particular opponent, I don’t want to let those four teammates down. I also don’t want THAT guy to beat me...or at least not twice, especially not in embarrassing fashion.
Narrowing the scope of responsibility also ups its intensity correspondingly. Even more so if our little group’s performance will have some effect on our larger group’s success.
The link between coaches and players is also strengthened through this system in a way that it never has been, even when All-Star games were played more competitively.
Coaches put together two of the three teams on each side. They’re doing it with reason and purpose. Afterwards each coach is responsible for that small group of players, who understand why they’ve been brought together and who they’re working with.
There’s far more room for coaching and strategy here. With each side pared down to five at a time for all but the last game, matchups matter a lot. So do adjustments between the first half and the second for each five-man team.
This feels a lot more like basketball and it binds participants a lot tighter together. It’s not the 48-minute, NBA format we’re used to, but that format wasn’t looking much like itself anyway, or we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
We accomplished these things with each participant playing, max, 20 minutes before the final showdown, only approaching 30 if every game goes full-length and a player plays every single second of that final one. None of those things are likely. Probably most participants will play between 16-22 minutes total—a guaranteed light workload—and each of those minutes will matter.
Fun Fan Participation
The players aren’t the only people mattering more in this system. It would also lead to greater fan engagement than the current one.
Fan voting remains unchanged, but that’s not the end of the engagement.
With 15 All-Stars from each conference, chances are better that a fan’s team will be represented. And with this system in place, it’s guaranteed a team’s representative will have just as much chance to play as anybody does.
Not only do we have the usual fan debate about who should be named All-Stars, but we get an incredible intermediary discussion about how the ten reserves from each conference should be divided into teams. Do you stack your best scoring guards in Team 2 or do you split them up? Do you back-load Team 3 to mess with the opponent? Which players will work best together? Can any configuration create an automatic headache for the other side?
Then we have the reserve teams selection reveal, where everybody gets to see where the jagged edges are. Neither conference’s coaches know how their counterparts will divide their reserves until the actual teams are announced. Once set in place, Second Teams must match up against each other, as must the Third Teams. No cross-matching is allowed until that final game to 20 at the end of it all. Did either side end up in a matchup nightmare? If so, do they have any advantages to compensate? How should each team strategize against the other?
Speaking of that Final Showdown, do you put in your starters again automatically or is someone running hot that you want to insert instead? How do you sub during that final fray? Do you play differently behind or ahead?
Every decision or debate point is another chance for fans to speculate, opine, and become invested in the process. Under the current system, that all stops the moment All-Star reserves are named and everybody gets angry about their favorite Bubble Guy who didn’t make it. Under this system, decisions can be debated for days, both before and after the event.
The level, duration, and complexity of discussion would be unprecedented, and the comprehension cost wouldn’t be too high. Once they’d seen it, most people would understand having one team of five take the court to start, with second and third teams coming in after. Even if calculating the average margin (all six shifts added, divided by three for the three teams) seems complex, it’s not hard to understand that beating your counterparts by more points is better, and beating them at all is better than losing.
No solution is going to address every issue, but a system-based alteration like this will have a greater effect than any incentivizing or decoration of the current game will. Changing the format changes outlook and mode of participation, the two things people are complaining about most.
Three teams of five, going head-to-head playground-style, to earn advantage in a final showdown is both easily-understandable and true to the roots of the game. It’s not exactly NBA basketball, but neither is what’s being shown in the current format.
Greater fan participation via a greater number of potential decisions should more than compensate for the need to learn a new system. Re-introducing personal responsibility and coaching should also make the game more recognizable.
The league should give something like this a try. There’s huge potential for it to get better, or at least more interesting. Unless you like 48 minutes of non-stop highlights, it couldn’t get much worse.