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Would Anyone Miss The NBA All-Star Game?

Adam Silver.
Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post

The NBA's All-Star Game happened. That is maybe the most that can be said of it. The East won, by a margin that would be considered galling in an event that was contested with more seriousness than a teen applies to taking out the garbage.

It's clear Adam Silver and the NBA's owners want more intensity and competition from this exhibition, which after all is a product that the league sells for lots of money to a broadcasting partner. Silver has spent years now tinkering with the format and publicly imploring the NBA's superstars to please at least pretend to give a single solitary rip. For all that demeaning work, Silver was given a Sunday showcase that had all the competitive intensity of an autumn foliage tour.

If this is a subject that is still raising your blood pressure in 2024, possibly you should see about cutting some of the sodium from your diet. The NBA All-Star Game has not been hotly contested for more than a few minutes at a time in at least the last decade. It's not clear, for that matter, that it would ever be a very good idea for the league's best players and brightest stars to spend an evening going full-tilt in a midseason exhibition; there is always something a little bit harrowing and a little bit cringey about a guy or two visibly trying hard to kick ass in a pretend game, like watching your nephew go Daniel Day-Lewis mode in a presentation of Annie staged in grandma's living room.

There's dissonance in Silver's insistence upon treating this as something that requires earnest competition. The league's 82-game schedule, expanded playoff field, and player draft incentive structure all work in concert to guarantee that no more than two-thirds of the league's teams ever really try to win the games that do count. In a league where whole swaths of each regular season go by without any real meaning or competitive ambition, it's more than a little bit wacky to ask the sport's best players to care about the outcome of a few quarters of basketball with zero formal relationship to the season around them. The players are not meaningfully incentivized to care, and so they do not.

Luka Doncic, who started for the West, was at pains to signal as early in the weekend as possible that he would at no point be more than half-awake. Asked during a painful but mandatory Saturday media session what he hoped to accomplish in the game, Doncic all but mimed jerking off. "Score some points" was his answer. Did he predict a competitive game? "I don’t know. Yes and no. I don’t know. Yes and no." Doncic's effort in the opening minutes of the game was flagrantly non-serious. In the third quarter, with the game already largely out of hand and any hope of a contested finish entirely dashed, Doncic bothered to leap for the first time all night; having lost his feel for the maneuver he of course did it poorly, and the resulting rim-check was the closest thing to a contribution that he made to the event:

The few players who tried only did so on offense. Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James each revved up for a couple of powerful if straightforward dunks; Tyrese Haliburton bombed home a sequence of five consecutive audacious three-pointers; Tyrese Maxey cheesed his way to the free-throw line, an act of pure busterdom that ought to be punishable by suspension, if not a turn in a carnival dunk-tank. With a notable dearth of slick and willing passers in the lineups and with absolutely no one on either side willing to move at anything beyond a light jog, the wide-open flow of action didn't even produce much by way of outrageous passing trickery. The game was largely played in and around the center-court logo; the East attempted an astonishing 97 three-pointers against 49 two-point attempts.

The players don't share the league's view that this is supposed to be a competition. Their priorities are to have fun and at all costs to avoid folding their precious leg bones into Z-shapes, which would threaten the ambitions of their teams and imperil their personal earning potential for a game that simply does not count. Also it would hurt. Anthony Edwards, now a two-time All-Star but also for the first time leading his team in contention for the top of the loaded Western Conference, told Tim Bontemps of ESPN pretty flatly that he does not want to try hard in an exhibition. "For me, it's an All-Star Game, so I will never look at it as being super-competitive," he said after the game, when handwringing about the quality of the contest made its way back to the players. "It's a break, so I don't think everyone wants to come here and compete."

"You try to go out there and compete a little bit and not just be a highlight show," explained an apologetic Anthony Davis, who said his favorite parts of the game were the trampoline dunkers who performed during second-half commercial breaks. "But at the same time, do you guys really want to see somebody going down for a dunk and somebody going to contest it and, God forbid, something happens in the All-Star Game when it could have been avoided?"

Yes, the game could've been more competitive, but the higher priority is making sure that players are still intact when they return to their teams for the part of the league year that matters. This view is at odds with the pageantry of the event; that players view running and jumping and in all other ways trying in this event as an unacceptable career risk is not something that is disclaimed on tickets. The crowd in Indianapolis may have known going in that this would not be a very strenuously contested exhibition, but that preparedness did not evidently inspire them to cheer very lustily for the game's meager thrills. You will encounter noisier and rowdier and more appreciative crowds watching firefighters coax a stubborn cat down from a tree.

Silver might be the last person on earth who thinks this is a thing that can or even especially should be solved. Sunday night, down on the court for an embarrassingly sulky closing ceremony, he sarcastically congratulated the Eastern Conference's players for having "scored the most points," not very subtly making the point that he preferred not to declare them the victors. Silver hopes to fix this event either with incentives or browbeating, but it can't be disentangled from the larger points of contention between modern players and their bosses. Silver and the league find themselves more and more these days making the case that more top-level basketball does not increase the risk of injuries to players. It's a fundamentally silly argument—any amount of basketball at all is more dangerous to a person's ligaments than, say, lounging by a pool—but Silver has to sell this league and its diluted product to broadcasters. The regular season has to matter, and there has to be lots of it; the play-in has to produce good basketball; the playoffs have to deliver high drama; the skills competitions have to feature big names and memorable performances; and the All-Star Game itself has to have at least as much intrigue as a block of Law & Order reruns.

Players, meanwhile, are not morons. The league's salary structures actively depress earnings and undermine job security, even for the sport's very best performers, and salary cap and luxury tax penalties deliberately and expressly compress the championship windows of even the most carefully constructed cores. A star player who has a chance at a title with his present team would be nuts to risk it stepping in for a charge against Giannis Antetokounmpo in what would otherwise satisfy all formal requirements as a televised layup line. Silver wants to disavow the product and lay its obvious shabbiness at the feet of the players, but the players are making rational and defensible calculations about what they are willing to risk in order to stage a convincing sideshow. This is not something that will be fixed by scolding.

Sunday provided an exhausted broadcast, a comatose crowd, and a deathly boring game containing no more than a few seconds of redeeming athletic spectacle. The NBA has a thing and they want to sell it, and they want to cultivate in fans a righteous expectation that this thing will be worth a damn, so that broadcasters will clamor to buy it so ads can be sold against it. They keep upping the pageantry, as if by doing so they will either cover for the product's inadequacy or shame the players into caring. But this thing has been a piece of crap long enough for it to have become tired even as an object of scorn. Beyond a certain point, pretending that it can be made otherwise becomes the greater insult.

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