NBA All-Star Weekend, usually a mid-season highlight for basketball enthusiasts, came and went from Feb. 17-19 but you’d be forgiven for not tuning in. This year’s gathering of the world’s greatest basketball players shot itself in the foot by utterly failing to live up to the hype, a concerning trend during the recent past that is turning one of basketball’s greatest spectacles into a bore.
Maybe we were just spoiled by last year’s incredible slam dunk contest between Aaron Gordon and Zach Lavine, but this year’s event felt like a huge disappointment regardless. It all starts with the participants – of course last year’s runner-up Aaron Gordon deserved a shot at the crown again. In the eyes of many, the judges robbed Gordon of the title last season, electing to give it to Lavine for the second consecutive year and setting up a dramatic showdown between the two, just the kind of rivalry needed to generate intrigue. However, with Lavine eliminated from participation after suffering a torn ACL just before the All-Star break, there was no chance for a three-peat and the hotly anticipated rematch.
This was already a shame, but the NBA should have done a much better job of replacing Lavine. Sure, DeAndre Jordan has some star power to bring to the table, but Derrick Jones Jr. and Glenn Robinson III certainly do not. Jones is a rookie who has spent a large portion of the season in the D-League, and Robinson comes off the bench for the Indiana Pacers scoring a measly 6.2 points per game, a career-high average that fails to attract an audience. Gone are the days of Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins squaring off in epic slam dunk contests in the ’80s. Now the contest features bench players that aren’t highly regarded by even their own organizations’ fans.
If the contest is going to be consistently great, then stars need to fill out the lineup. Fans would clamor to see the likes of Lebron James and Russell Westbrook compete head-to-head, and emerging stars like Andrew Wiggins, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo would draw an excited crowd for years to come. Right now, that spectacle isn’t just lacking, it’s nearly disappeared entirely. The lack of star power is diminishing the buzz around what used to be such a fun display of showmanship.
The most glaring issue of All-Star Weekend revealed itself quite early on Sunday evening during the main event, an absolute joke of a contest. Over the past few seasons, the game has become less competitive due to the lack of stakes. Back in 2001, the final score was a reasonable 111-110. In 2006, the result was 122-120 – an inflated sum, but still along the parameters of a typical basketball game. This year, the final score was a whopping 192-182. There was simply no defense being played, no heart to suggest that the athletes actually cared. Half-court shots were taken at will in the middle of quarters, and Anthony Davis cherry-picked his way to 52 points, breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s individual record for most points scored in a single All-Star game, eventually being awarded the All-Star MVP. The level of nonchalance is approaching NFL Pro Bowl levels of embarrassment.
The game doesn’t count and the players want to have fun, but fans treasure this weekend, and the quality of basketball needs to improve if the All-Star game is to maintain that aura of excitement. That could mean the league intervening by adding stakes to the game. The MLB All-Star Game used to determine home-field advantage in the World Series – a similar policy in the NBA could invite passion and meaning to the contest. It may be entertaining to see these elite athletes throw down creative dunks, but a 48-minute layup line will quickly discourage fans from tuning in. Whether the players take it upon themselves to improve the overall quality of their play or the league institutes rules that make the game more meaningful, something has to change. This year’s contest was a joke, and nobody’s laughing.