G, Maybe They Don’t Care. But Should They?

Let me shout it from the rooftops.  I was wrong.  wrong.  W-R-O-N-G.  WRONG.

I defended the concept and tradition of the actual NBA All-Star Game last weekend, denouncing the stale format for the Saturday night festivities, one that has become so irrelevant to players that they had to include a player who is not currently in the NBA, Delaware’s own Mac McClung, to round out the Slam Dunk competition.   I wanted to believe the innovations instituted in recent years, such as the “Elam Ending” that involved a target score and an untimed fourth quarter, and this year’s addition of choosing up sides live before tip-off, were going to reinfuse fan interest and player engagement.

In the immortal words of Chandler Bing, could I have BEEN more wrong?

The act of choosing the players that would constitute Team Lebron and Team Giannis took more than FORTY FRIGGING MINUTES.  And that process had more action that the first three quarters of the game,  And by the time that Elam Ending was finally underway, with the Vivint Arena half-filled and those that remained seemingly half-asleep, neither Lebron nor Giannis was playing, both nursing injuries that could have ramifications for their actual teams as the league heads into its “fourth and final quarter” of its season later this week,

And as CBS Sports’ Colin Ward-Henninger reported, I’m apparently not alone in my opinion:

G League call-up Mac McClung may have saved the dunk contest on Saturday night, but now it appears the NBA All-Star Game itself is in need of saving. Team Giannis defeated Team LeBron on Sunday, 184-175, in a game that largely more closely resembled a layup line or shooting practice than a competitive basketball game between the world’s best athletes.

The Elam Ending provided a bit of drama in the fourth quarter as Team LeBron attempted to erase a 19-point deficit, but the rest of the game lacked any sort of competitiveness or edge on the defensive end of the court. Jayson Tatum won MVP honors after setting an All-Star Game record with 55 points, many of which came with little to no resistance.

Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who helmed the losing Team LeBron on Sunday night, didn’t mince words after the game, speaking out against the lack of effort from both sides.

“It’s an honor to be here. It’s an honor to be a part of a great weekend, great players. But that is the worst basketball game ever played,” Malone said after the All-Star game. “I don’t know if you can fix it. I give Joel EmbiidKyrie Irving — those guys were like, competing. Joel was imploring some of the guys to play harder, to try to get some defense in. No one got hurt, they put on a show for the fans, but that is a tough game to sit through. I’m not gonna lie.”

As Malone mentioned, Embiid and Irving appeared to at least be competing, combining for 67 points, 20 assists, 20 rebounds and four steals, but it’s just difficult to get the league’s best players to go hard in an exhibition setting, particularly with the playoffs less than two months away.

Case in point, LeBron James attempted to play defense in the first half, trying to block a layup from Pascal Siakam. In the process, he caught his hand on the rim and was ruled out for the second half due to the injury.

It’s a conundrum, to be sure.  The NFL faced similar challenges with its Pro Bowl, and it didn’t even have the issue of it being a mid-season game.  Today’s players simply aren’t motivated enough, even by the prospect of significant charitable contributions, to go all out in what is essentially a glorified exhibition game.  And much as the opportunity to grab the spotlight in the first post-football (well, at least NFL) weekend of the year, is deemed crucial by objective observers, any argument that would offer that efforts akin to those that David Stern used on players to reinvest in USA Basketball after the embarassing performance that led to the Redeem Team would be effective have to be considered wishful thinking at best.

Some suggestions to amend the festivities further provided in Ward-Henninger’s story by tweeters could be worth considering.  Play teams of five, play games to 21 like a real playground game, untimed.  Play a mini-tournament like the NHL did.  Heck, SHOWCASE the G League, as McClung’s unlikely Slam Dunk win provided one of the few truly engaging and viral-worthy moments of the entire weekend.

But as the NFL ultimately learned, it’s extremely difficult to motivate millionaires to put their bodies at risk when something less than the ultimate goal of a championship is at stake.  They fight to become All-Stars because most contracts include significant bonuses for that.  But defend anyone who is looking for a Slam Dunk in an actual game, or is hurling up three-point attempts like someone trying to win an SUV at halftime?  Beyond their pay grade.

Rather than admonish either the players for selfishness or coaches like Malone for honest assessments of what was essentially a unwatchable evening of something that pretended to be competitive basketball, perhaps it’s time for the NBA to not tout the likes of Jayson Tatum’s record 55-point outburst, including 27 in the third quarter, as being newsworthy.   Something–anything–other than what we were forced to see through half-open eyes last night is necessary to make a weekend like this even remotely relevant going forward.

Flag basketball, anyone?


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