There is something fundamentally wrong with the NBA All-Star game and All-Star Weekend at large. The new NBA Jam-like rule change, while interesting, does not fix what plagues the NBA’s premier regular season event.
So What Is the Problem?
Give the NBA credit, they have shoehorned the All-Star event into the perfect time period. Those feeling hungover from the Super Bowl have something to watch, and those who are waiting for prime time NCAA basketball to come during March have an event to hold themselves together in the meantime. If you are an NBA fan, chances are you were already going to watch the All-Star activities. By picking mid-February, the league has found a period in the sports calendar where the NBA has center stage.
In spite of the logistical victory, fans do not care and players do not care. The NBA has seen a sharp decline in viewership numbers for the All-Star game from the ’90s leading into the 2000s, and then almost no growth since 2005 (Please note the Lockout of 1999 had the All-Star Game cancelled, all data from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Basketball_Association_on_television). Viewership is not the best metric for fan engagement, but it does give a decent look at where fans stand with respect to watching the actual game (admittedly, it does not measure interest in the other festivities during All-Star Weekend). I also examined the voter numbers to assess engagement, but worried that the results might be unreliable. Due the constant changes in how and where fans could vote, any correlations might not be instructive.
I also have to believe that the NBA’s new format for the All-Star Game was not done purely in order to pay homage to the late Kobe Bryant. The change was made primarily to better engage fans. This will not fix fan engagement; it will only serve to make a complicated game slightly more complicated. Look, the NBA could add a 4-point line and a soccer style off-sides to the game but that does not necessarily improve the product.
The Key Is To Make the Game Worth Something
Part of fixing player engagement is to alter the exhibition nature of the game. As it stands, the stakes for the game are too low and the results have no impact on the rest of the season. Why should KD chase down LeBron in transition to block his shot? Why should anyone even play a marginal amount of defense? A win or loss has no effect.
I propose a simple solution: award home court advantage for the NBA Finals to the victor of an East vs. West All-Star Game. Imagine this – the 73-9 Warriors go into the Finals with a stacked team, and still do not have home court advantage. The change will force players take the game far more seriously. Doing so helps balance the conferences in terms of strength as well. The Bucks have a notoriously easy strength of schedule, propelling them to near 50 wins before the All-Star break. Conversely, the Western Conference is stacked from 1-7, with the Lakers out in front right now. Why should we punish a Western Conference team for random scheduling and the ineptitude of the Eastern Conference?
Another fix (and a long overdue fix, at that) is to eliminate positional voting as well, and choose All-Stars only by conference. If we were to examine the top 5 vote-getters from the Western Conference last year (by raw fan vote totals alone) this sets up an All-Star team of LeBron James, Luka Dončić, Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant (data from www.basketball-reference.com). That squad of five would be a ton of fun to watch.
The other idea floating around the NBA fanscape is financially incentivizing players to play and win the All-Star game. I am not fond of this solution, though it does have some utility. Anything that requires an infusion of cash from the league seems destined to result in net negative in an after-the-fact cost-benefit analysis. Now, if you said bonus structures in the new CBA (coming 2023-ish) should change or could change based on All-Star game performance, I’m all ears. As it stands, however, adding financial incentive appears to be thee least efficient method of making the All-Star Game matter.
The NBA Should Better Acknowledge its Partner Leagues
The WNBA and G-League are making huge strides in the recent years, but the onus is on the NBA to incorporate these partners into All-Star Weekend. How cool would it be to see Sue Bird beat Steph Curry in the 3-point shooting contest? Alternatively, how about seeing some unknown prospect who shunted college to play in the G-league beat out those two? The moment and the reaction would be epic.
The idea that the NBA shows unity with its other leagues is also profoundly powerful and progressive. Above all, it shows that the leagues are connected by the love of basketball. If a G-League player dominates Dwight Howard in the Dunk Contest, that would provide fuel for a rivalry between the two if the G-Leaguer got called up the following season. That is what fans care about, seeing rivalries and light-hearted dueling. I did not care about the celebrity game until Kevin Hart made it fun, and have not cared about it since he stopped playing. At times, my partner and I were more excited about that game than the actual All-Star Game because Kevin Hart gave us something to look forward to.
There are many different ways the NBA could incorporate its partner league, from having a mini-3v3 tournament (where teams are composed of one G-Leaguer, one WNBA player, and one NBA player) to having events like the Skills Challenge/3-Point Shootout/Dunk Contest open to the field at large. The Rising Stars Game could even be coed as well, or a spin-off Rising Stars game might feature rookies against G-League All-Stars. All these activities require very little from the NBA, reward more people involved in other leagues, and create mentoring/collaboration experiences across all NBA products. Look, the NBA greenlit a fashion fhow. In retrospect, these ideas are a lot better than a fashion show.
Before people come chiming in saying “well if they did that, I wouldn’t watch it” – where you watching it anyway (in recent seasons)? Are you planning to watch All-Star Weekend this year. Quite possibly not. Why would incorporating these other events change that? For those who do already watch All-Star Weekend fervently, why would the proposed changes be inferior to what we’ve seen in recent years?
Adding More Activities to All-Star Weekend
Another option for the NBA to improve viewer turnout could be to add more activities to All-Star Weekend. One idea I’m fond of is a 1-on-1 tournament, as this gets at the very heart of All-Star Weekend. At its most basic level, All-Star Weekend is designed to be a showdown between the top talents in the game. Nobody has to depend on a team, or be held back by a team. It’s a mano-a-mano showcase (or womano-a-womano if the league took my advice). The NBA could set up a round-robin, king of the hill style of play, where players match up one on one to see who is the best solo player. For players this could be a ton of fun, and probably an easy sell. For fans, we get to see the parts of the game we want to see. Can Harden break LeBron James off the dribble? Can Kyrie Irving get Steph Curry turned around? Can Kawhi out-muscle Paul George? The league could make it so that a player starts on offense, and he matches up against a defender. If the defender can steal the ball and score, the offensive player is forced to sit, and the defender stays on the court (this time as an offensive player). Every time you sit, you get a strike; three strikes, and you’re out.
What makes the NBA great is its willingness to adapt and change. From the rule changes to adjust game flow to the internationalization of the game, the NBA is not afraid to change and try new things. While the All-Star Game is not the marquee event it once was, there are adjustments the league can make to return All-Star Weekend to its former glory.