- The NBA has over-tinkered with its All-Star process without a clear goal for years. Here's how they can fix it and avoid another baffling disappointment in 2019.
STUDIO CITY, CA. — To set the stage for the official announcement of the 2018 All-Star Game rosters on Tuesday, the NBA and Jordan Brand pulled out all the stops. TNT’s “Inside The NBA” crew was on site in Los Angeles. Jordan unveiled its first All-Star Game jerseys in a massive smoke-filled showcase space, hosted a sneaker panel with Spike Lee, and closed the night with an international prep basketball game and an invite-only Travis Scott concert.
But there was an obvious problem: The All-Star roster reveal didn’t live up to the surrounding hype and excitement. Not even close. And the main course was easily the weakest link.
For weeks, if not months, skeptical media members warned that this might happen if the NBA and its players decided not to televise the first “draft” of the All-Star rosters, which was conducted by captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry on a private conference call. Those critics’ concerns proved to be entirely founded: Failing to televise the draft proved to be a letdown, it left the key questions unanswered (Who was the first pick? Who was the last?), and it didn’t deliver any real-time tension because the results were read after the fact.
Instead of watching James agonize over Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo, viewers were simply told that Durant was on James’ team. Instead of engaging in a debate over the relative merits of Jimmy Butler and Russell Westbrook, the audience found out those players would represent Team Curry and Team James, respectively, and that was that. Instead of a tense run-up to the last pick, fans were left to speculate and, in turn, quickly lose interest.
They weren’t alone. James and Curry seemed almost apologetic on the TNT broadcast, but they refused to salvage the festivities by revealing any of their picks. TNT host Ernie Johnson bravely attempted to pull the answers from them and floated a few draft pick theories—such as Durant going first overall—but he didn’t have much to go on. Seemingly interesting stories—like James drafting former teammate Kyrie Irving—didn’t really register. All the while, TNT’s Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal openly admitted that the whole thing had been a bad idea.
When the NBA’s two most popular players and its two most famous broadcasters all are gritting their teeth through what should be one of the most-anticipated moments of the regular season, there’s no denying that something went horribly wrong. How could a celebration of the game’s best and most popular players turn out so bland and unfulfilling?
Simple: The NBA has over-tinkered with its All-Star process without a clear goal for years. First, the NBA removed “centers” from the All-Star ballot and pushed fan voting for starters from paper ballots towards social media. Then, the NBA added player voting and media voting elements to the fan vote, in a somewhat complicated weighted formula. All the while, the NBA has continued to allow coaches to select the seven reserves for each team, instructing them to select two backcourt, three frontcourt and two wildcard players.
In the latest move, the NBA did away with “West” and “East” conference designations this year, setting up the highest vote-getter from each conference as a captain to select the rosters in a two-round draft featuring starters and then the reserves. That was a somewhat cool idea, but the league inexplicably fell short on its plans to conduct and air the draft. Plus, hopes that removing conference labels would allow more players from the talent-rich West into the game were dashed quickly. The current format retained 12 East players and 12 West players for no apparent reason.
Does that all sound way too complicated? Of course. Does the whole mess sound like the result of too many tweaks, additions, subtractions, and compromises over multiple years? It sure does.
The most aggravating aspect of the entire All-Star experience—other than the poor reveal—is the muddled and inconsistent voting process. Fans could vote every day for their favorite players, regardless of position. Players could vote for themselves and their teammates. Media members were forced to strictly differentiate between frontcourt and backcourt players, even when numerous quality candidates could qualify for either category. This year, media members and coaches were forced to pick a set number of players from each conference, even though those players won’t play for their respective conferences in the game.
The best solution here is to blow it all up. Well, not quite all of it. But most of it.
Let the fans keep voting for starters on social media. Let the coaches keep voting for the reserves. Let the players and media continue to have a voice for the starters. But—and this is crucial—remove all other voting restrictions. There are no more positions. There are no more conferences. There are only the 10 most deserving starters and the 14 most deserving reserves.
The 24 most-deserving players—no matter which city they play in and no matter what position they play—get to go to the All-Star Game.
This year, such a process would have yielded better results. Paul George, a deserving All-Star, would not have been snubbed. John Wall, an undeserving selection, would have been left home. Jimmy Butler—easily one of the league’s 10 best players this season—would have had a better shot at earning a starting spot because he would have been competing for one of 10 spots rather than one of two West backcourt spots. DeMarcus Cousins, a questionable starter, would almost certainly have fallen into the reserve pile where he belonged.
Just as getting rid of “West” and “East" teams protects the All-Star Game rosters from a disparity in talent between the conferences, removing all conference and positional restrictions would ensure the midseason showcase game best represents the league’s top talent. Remember, the NBA actually got “lucky” this year because there were so many injury issues in the deeper West. Imagine if Chris Paul, Kawhi Leonard, Blake Griffin, Mike Conley, Rudy Gobert, Paul Millsap and others had enjoyed good health. The West’s list of snubs would have been outrageously long, something that’s been a persistent problem in recent years.
There’s no doubt that taking the 24 best players overall—without restrictions—would make the All-Star draft better too. The current setup guarantees that there will be a few guys who don’t really belong in the All-Star Game. Logically, those are the players who are most likely to feel embarrassed when they are inevitably among the final players picked in the draft. The best way to eliminate those feelings of inferiority is, clearly, to dump the inferior players.
Now that the league and its players have seen how badly this process went without a televised draft, one can only hope they learn from their misstep and reverse course next season. For any remaining holdouts, the argument is crystal clear: There’s no possible way for the 2019 All-Star Draft to be worse than the 2018 non-Draft.