The Fatal Flaw of the NBA’s New ‘Captain’ All-Star Format

The NBA clearly felt that its All-Star Game selection process needed saving. The solution it landed on, however, failed to create actionable change.
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The NBA unveiled sweeping changes to its All-Star Game format on Tuesday, announcing that the 67th edition of the midseason showcase will be the first not to pit an East team against a West team and that top vote-getters will serve as captains to select the two squads. Presented with an opportunity to reimagine a lagging event, the league and its players unfortunately settled for creating a spectacle rather than overhauling its broken selection process.

Why? Read the fine print. The NBA didn’t actually get rid of West All-Stars and East All-Stars, they just got rid of the West and East names on the jerseys. Indeed, the 2018 All-Star selection process will be exactly the same as last year: a fan, player and media vote will select five starters from each conference while a coaches’ vote will select the remaining seven reserves from each conference. Those 24 players will then be thrown into a pool from which two captains—the leading vote-getter in the West and East—will get to pick their teams.

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There’s no doubt that the opportunity to watch, say, LeBron James and Stephen Curry pick their All-Star teammates will be captivating. Will James take former running mate Kyrie Irving? Will Curry snub rival Russell Westbrook? But the process would be far more fulfilling if the team captains were selecting from the 22 most deserving All-Star candidates regardless of their conference affiliation. The new pool setup could be useful for evening out the Sunday showcase—given that the West has won six of the last seven All-Star Games—but it still doesn’t represent the absolute best the NBA has to offer because it doesn’t reflect the vast, and growing, talent disparity between the two conferences.

The right way to do this was simple and not much different from what the NBA settled on: Allow the fans, players and media to select 10 starters regardless of conference affiliation and allow the league’s coaches to select the 14 reserves regardless of conference affiliation. If there won’t even be an East or West team, why restrict voting to East or West players?

Under the NBA’s new setup, the 2018 All-Star Game will go off in Los Angeles with an absurd collection of snubbed talent sitting at home. In general, West teams have outperformed East teams for more than a decade, and the busy 2017 off-season only made matters worse: 2017 East All-Stars Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Paul Millsap and Carmelo Anthony all moved to West teams, while only one West All-Star, Gordon Hayward, went East.


There’s no possible way to include all of the West’s deserving players under the current framework. Just take 15 seconds to try to build a West team and look who gets left out.

Possible West All-Stars: Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Karl-Anthony Towns, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Klay Thompson

Possible West snubs: Damian Lillard, DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert, Paul Millsap, Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Nikola Jokic, C.J. McCollum, Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins, Dirk Nowitzki, LaMarcus Aldridge

Possible East All-Stars: LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving, DeMar DeRozan, John Wall, Kevin Love, Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry, Bradley Beal, Al Horford, Kristaps Porzingis

Anthony and Millsap may fall from being 2017 East All-Stars to outside the West’s top 20 candidates. Butler, a 2017 East starter, could easily be a 2018 West snub. A potential 2018 East starter like DeMar DeRozan would almost certainly be snubbed entirely in the West. Potential 2018 West snubs like Damian Lillard, Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert would all be near-locks, if healthy, in the East.

Meanwhile, the thin batch of possible East snubs includes the likes of Isaiah Thomas (injured to start the year), Joel Embiid (a strong bet to make the team if healthy) and Goran Dragic before moving on to the less enticing likes of Hassan Whiteside, Otto Porter, Serge Ibaka, Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and others.

The league’s new format should be evidence enough that it believes the talent disparity between the conferences is a serious issue, but consider:

• Only 6 of the top 24 players in SI’s Top 100 NBA Players of 2018 are in the East.

• Only 7 of the top 24 players by 2017 Real Plus Minus are in the East.

• Only 9 of the top 24 players by 2017 Player Efficiency Rating are in the East.

• Only 10 of the top 24 players by 2017 Win Shares are in the East.

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If there was a real, unfettered draft of 24 stars for the All-Star Game, these East players would likely be in: James, Antetokounmpo, Wall, Irving, Hayward, Lowry. That’s six. A healthy Thomas would be too and maybe one more would sneak in. Regardless, that’s still far short of the 12 East players who will be sent to L.A. come February. Why is the NBA clinging to a selection process that props up weaker East candidates at the expense of West stars if those players won’t even represent the East team? If the league is willing to scrap a conference versus conference tradition that dates back to 1951, it should have ensured that the new format was as fair and balanced as possible.

Look, the All-Star Game’s biggest problem in recent years is that everyone collectively decided to give up on even pretending to play defense. There’s probably no solution for that unless some sponsor decides to put up a huge cash prize.

But the All-Star Game’s second biggest problem has been that all of the stars aren’t invited and that numerous deserving players are systematically snubbed every year. The NBA had a great opportunity to solve that specific problem and reward its best players with an honor many of them covet. Instead, the league settled for a half-measure that papers over the unfair selection process with a showy distraction.