NBA All-Star Game 2020: It’s all fun and games until someone loses a player

By @RyanGrosman
Laced
March 1, 2020

Exactly 2 weeks ago, we were treated to the most competitive and entertaining NBA All-Star Game in the last 20 years. Maybe even longer.

And since then, we have all raved about it, pumped its tires to the nth degree and lavished tons of praise on the NBA for its ingenuity in implementing the new format.

But the question now is, is it sustainable?

Every year, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver tries to find new ways to ratchet up the intensity of the All-Star Game. To get players to actually play hard and care about the outcome.

And every year he fails.

Silver thought he had something 3 years ago when he first instituted the team captains format, allowing the top 2 vote-getters to pick their teammates, schoolyard style. But this didn’t fully achieve the results that Silver was looking for.

In the inaugural match, which saw Team LeBron battle Team Steph, the game was pretty ho hum until partway through the 4th quarter. It was only when the players saw the finish line did they start to turn it on.

The end of the game was the most intense. In the final seconds of the game, with Team LeBron up by 3 points, LeBron James and then Golden State Warrior, Kevin Durant, smothered his Warriors teammate, Steph Curry. Unable to get a 3-point shot off, Curry shoveled the ball to DeMar DeRozan who failed to make the shot. Game. Team LeBron.

Last season, which was round 1 of Team LeBron vs. Team Giannis, the game was wholly forgettable, returning to the mid-season yawn fest of years past.

But then came the 2020 All-Star Game in Chicago.

Like a lot of people, I questioned whether the new format would actually make a difference.

The fact that each quarter was its own game, with $100,000 going to the winning team’s local charity, gave the players some extra motivation to ball out. As did the very genius idea to have hundreds of kids from the charities right there in the stands, cheering on their respective teams.

For once, there was actual stakes to winning or losing. This made the games a little more entertaining than usual. But not much.

Aside from Giannis Antetokounmpo picking up his intensity in the second quarter game, the first 3 quarters were just okay. The players weren’t completely dogging it, but at the same time, there wasn’t much intensity, either.

Then the 4th quarter began. With Team Giannis leading Team LeBron 133–124 in cumulative points, 24, in memory of Kobe Bryant, was added to 133 to set the target score at 157.

Now, with the game clock turned off, the greatest players in the world turned it on.

The intensity suddenly shot up. And we saw something that we hadn’t seen in decades — NBA players trying in an All-Star Game. James, Giannis, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry — everyone had a look in their eye that said, we ain’t losing this game.

That’s when the real game began.

The race to 157 had everything. Defence. Shot blocking. Charges. Exploiting mismatches. Diving for balls. Intentional fouls. Replay challenges.

Bodies were flying everywhere.

Lowry began doing Lowry things — namely taking charges and going full board after rebounds. Paul began doing Paul things — namely pesky defence and complaining to the refs.

Joel Embiid posted up James from the 3-point line. Giannis dove for balls. James and Kawhi Leonard smothered Kemba Walker and Pascal Siakam on defence.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was perhaps the closest thing to real game action we’ve ever seen in an All-Star Game.

For Silver and the league, it could not have turned out any better. And of course, they’re already talking about bringing this format back for next year’s game.

Now, I don’t want to be the Debbie Downer or wet blanket guy. But I’m going to be that guy.

Although it was the most competitive and entertaining All-Star Game in decades, there are 2 huge reasons why I don’t believe the intensity and competitiveness will be sustainable under this new format.

To say that Silver and the NBA fixed the All-Star Game completely is short-sighted and and ill-conceived. Frankly, it’s alarming.

The stars aligned

Can the magic of this year’s All-Star Game be replicated next year? Did the new format and “Elam Ending” actually contribute to the increased intensity? Or was it purely dumb luck?

I believe it was the latter rather than the former. How this game played out was the byproduct of a perfect storm. The absolute perfect confluence of events.

First off, the death and legacy of Kobe Bryant hung over everything.

New rules aside, the players were already extremely motivated heading into this game. They wanted to honour Kobe the best way they could — by playing hard. And the news that the first ever Kobe Bryant MVP Award was on the line made it that much more appealing to go all out.

Second, because the 3rd quarter happened to end in a tie, the $100,000 donation rolled over to the 4th quarter, making winning the 4th worth $300,000 instead of $200,000. So there was much more at stake for the players. Again, it helped that the very kids who’d be benefiting most from their hard play were only metres away, cheering relentlessly.

Finally, the new format only works if the cumulative scores are relatively close going into the 4th and final game.

If Team Giannis is blowing out Team LeBron or vice versa, the play on the court would be nothing like what we saw. More than likely, we would’ve seen a repeat of the first 3 quarters. And adding 24 to the higher score to set the target score would’ve put the game even further out of reach.

But as it so happened, the score was close going into the 4th with Team Giannis leading Team LeBron by just 9 points.

It’s possible that this notion was on the minds of NBA executives or Team LeBron after the 1st quarter. Team LeBron, which was clearly the more stacked team, absolutely manhandled Team Giannis, beating them 53–41.

It appeared as though Team LeBron would continue to throttle Team Giannis and run away with this thing. But they seemed to take their foot off the gas in the 2nd quarter to let Team Giannis back in it.

I know this sounds very conspiracy theory-ist, but there were 2 huge benefits to letting Team Giannis win the second game — keeping the cumulative score close and assuring both charities would get at least $100,000.

Maybe the league whispered this to Team LeBron or maybe the players took it upon themselves. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it. But the whole new format thing could’ve been rendered moot if Team Giannis didn’t run up the score in game 2.

Luckily, there’s an easy solution to ensure that no matter what happens in the first 3 quarters, the 4th will always be a close game. At least to start the quarter.

Forget about the cumulative score from quarters 1–3. Forget about adding a number to the higher score to set the target score. Instead, both teams start at zero and play to a set number, just like you would in a pickup game. Whichever team gets to that number first wins. The number could be 24 to continue to honour Kobe.

However…

What happens when someone gets hurt?

Even if the NBA manages to tweak the new All-Star format to maintain the same level of intensity year in and year out, what happens when the first player gets injured or, even worse, gets lost for the season?

Will teams and fans still be in favour of this format? Will they still want their star player — the key to their franchise’s success — putting it all on the line for a mid-season exhibition game? Will they still want to sacrifice playoff success and a potential ring for a meaningless contest?

The answer is no.

Yes, with the new charity aspect, the game is no longer completely meaningless. But it does have zero bearing on the standings and winning 16 playoff games. I guarantee, as soon as the first player gets carried off the court, no one will give a shit about these charities.

These players have an obligation to their respective teams and their own future earning power, not to winning an exhibition game in February.

Like I said, we witnessed perhaps the most intense, high-octane quarter we’ve ever seen in an All-Star Game. The world’s most gifted basketball players — the giants of the game — going toe-to-toe, full throttle. I didn’t want it to end.

But, at the same time, I was on edge the entire 4th quarter. My stomach wouldn’t stop doing summersaults. Why? Because I didn’t want to see anyone get hurt.

Raptors fans know that Lowry only has one gear. Whether he’s up 30 or down 30, it doesn’t matter — he’s going full tilt. He is the heartbeat and motor of the Raptors. If Lowry goes down, the team could very well go down with him. So every time he took a charge, I held my breath.

I was even worried for other teams’ players. At one point in the game, Ben Simmons came down awkwardly after a dunk and I feared the worst. I was saying to myself, please no, even though I don’t even like Simmons. But you don’t want to see any player going down like that.

What if LeBron James got hurt? He, along with running mate Anthony Davis, has finally brought respectability back to the Los Angeles Lakers after years of missteps and missing the playoffs. One misstep of his own in a meaningless game could’ve changed everything.

Every time Giannis dove to save a ball or went hard at the rim, I again held my breath. He’s the reigning MVP and the favourite to win it again. And any hope of the Bucks hoisting the Larry O’Brien rests squarely on his round shoulders.

I can imagine coaches, GMs and executives everywhere were also holding their collective breaths.

Plus, those who played in that grueling final quarter were being pushed to exhaustion. And when a player is exhausted, the chances of sustaining an injury increases. With no timeouts or extended stoppages in play, the players appeared gassed.

There was a close-up shot of Embiid at the free throw line that said it all. He looked beyond exhausted. Sweat was just pouring off of him.

Giannis played the most minutes — almost 31 in total. Simmons, Embiid, Lowry and Walker weren’t far behind. That’s a crazy number of minutes for an All-Star Game. This was compounded by the fact that a ton of those minutes came in that intense 4th quarter.

It turns out that Walker, who appeared to play the entire 4th, was on a minutes restriction, which he obviously exceeded. Following the All-Star break, he’s had his knee drained and has missed 5 straight games. I’m sure the Celtics organization is just delighted by this outcome.

Yeah, I’ve heard the counterargument. Injuries are a part of the game. They can happen anywhere, at any time. So it shouldn’t be a deterrent.

It’s true. A player can hurt himself simply warming up in practice. But this is an exhibition game that, in the end, means nothing to their team’s success. If a player gets hurt in practice, he’s at least preparing for a meaningful game. In other words, he’s getting hurt in the line of duty.

The coaches were mostly at fault for the players reaching exhaustion, as they kept the same guys on the floor for most of the final quarter. It seemed these players were getting pushed harder than they would in a regular season game.

But in Nick Nurse and Frank Vogel’s defence, this was the first game under this format. And they were learning on the fly. With no game clock or timeouts, it’s harder to set up rotations and distribute minutes.

There is no real solution here. Once the players start going hard, anything can happen. But there are some things that can be done to help reduce the risk of injury.

First, the teams should be granted a couple of timeouts in the 4th, so the players can rest.

Second, the NBA should institute minute restrictions for just the 4th. For example, each player can only play 10 minutes max. Coaches can use their guys however they want, but once they’ve reached 10 minutes, they’re out.

Yes, it was the most intense, action-packed All-Star game we’ve seen in a very long time. Maybe ever. But it was fool’s gold.

If the stars don’t align like they did in Chicago or if a player gets injured, the NBA All-Star Game will go right back to how it’s been. With the best players on Earth just going through the motions. And I can’t really blame them.

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Ryan Grosman

Ryan Grosman

Welcome to Laced — sports with a little something extra. Follow me on Twitter @RyanGrosman