Should the NBA Have An All-Star Game?

The All-Star Game is one of the NBA’s marquee events, but it’s an unnecessary one. Especially in a pandemic.
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If there was a list of players you would expect to be excited about the NBA’s decision to move ahead with an All-Star weekend, De’Aaron Fox might be on it. The Kings fourth-year guard is having a stellar season, averaging a career-high 22.3 points per game for a Sacramento team in the thick of the playoff race. Yet earlier this week, Fox did not sound enthused about the idea of adding another game to the calendar.

“If I’m going to be brutally honest, I think it’s stupid,” Fox said. “If we have to wear masks and do all this for a regular game, what’s the point of bringing the All-Star game back?”

In his next breath, Fox answered his own question.

“Obviously,” Fox said, “money makes the world go-round.”

The NBA is progressing towards an agreement on a scaled down version of All-Star weekend, a league source confirmed to Sports Illustrated. Fan voting has already begun for a game that would take place in Atlanta on March 7th. The event—which reportedly could include a skills competition and a dunk contest—would be held shortly after the official end of the first half of the season.

The NBA is not unilaterally pushing this. The players union is on board, with Chris Paul leading the way. Union officials believe that, for many players, All-Star opportunities are rare and should be taken advantage of, if possible. The NBA’s medical staff says it can safely put the event together. In fact, there’s a school of thought that players participating in All-Star will be safer, as they will continue to be subject to the NBA’s health and safety protocols.

With television revenue serving as the NBA’s sole significant revenue source, the league is motivated to keep its network partners happy, too. While the All-Star game has its critics, it also has an audience: 7.3 million watched the game last year. For context, the NBA’s highest rated Christmas Day game this season—Mavericks-Lakers—drew an audience of 6.9 million. The NBA isn’t specifically obligated to deliver an All-Star game, but providing Atlanta-based Turner with a highly rated broadcast will inch the league closer to fulfilling its contract.

Still … should it? The NBA seems to have survived the post-holiday surge in COVID-19 cases—zero players came up positive in the league’s most recent round of testing—and each passing day brings the U.S. closer to mass vaccinations. But the U.S. reported more than 120,000 new cases on Wednesday, per Johns Hopkins, with a seven-day moving average of 137,000. Georgia, where the NBA plans to hold the game, is averaging more than 4,500 new cases a day.

Across the NBA, response to the push for an All-Star event has been mixed. For some, like Nuggets coach Mike Malone, who has an outside shot at earning the right to coach one of the teams, a break is preferable. “Personally, I’d much rather stay home with my wife and my kids,” Malone said. “This schedule has been so dense, you don’t really have time with your families.” For others, like Warriors guard Stephen Curry, there needs to be more information presented about how the league plans to pull it off. Asked Thursday about his feeling about playing, Curry said, “I’m not ready to talk about that yet.”

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LeBron James was more blunt. In the aftermath of the Lakers win over Denver, James trashed the NBA’s All-Star plans. "I have zero energy and zero excitement about an All-Star Game this year," James said. “I don't even understand why we're having an All-Star Game.”

In fairness, even under optimal conditions James’s interest in committing to an All-Star game would be minimal. The Lakers and Heat had the NBA’s quickest turnaround from last season, jumping from a bubble Finals in October to training camp less than two months later. A weeklong break was always going to be preferable for the 36-year old James, who has emerged as a frontrunner for MVP.

But James cited the ongoing pandemic as a reason the NBA should reconsider. "We're also still dealing with a pandemic," James said. "We're still dealing with everything that's been going on, and we're going to bring the whole league into one city that's open? Obviously, the pandemic has absolutely nothing to do with it at this point when it comes to that weekend.”

James stopped short of saying he would decline to participate. “I'll be there if I'm selected,” James said. “But I'll be there physically, not mentally.” But his words will carry weight. If James declines to play—and a phantom injury in early March could take care of that—there could be an avalanche of players who follow his lead. The All-Star game could become the Pro Bowl, annually a game filled with alternates, creating a PR nightmare.

The NBA could still scrap All-Star. No plans have been finalized, as league and union officials continue to sift through details. The NBA could continue with the All-Star voting and name a team, which would satisfy any concerns about potential first time All-Stars (Zach LaVine, Mike Conley) missing out, as well as any bookkeeping issues surrounding players with All-Star bonuses. They could brainstorm ideas for things to do virtually, like an NBA2K game among the starters.

Perhaps they should. All-Star is one of the NBA’s marquee events, but it’s an unnecessary one. With the second half of the season in flux—the NBA has postponed 24 games already, which could force a handful of teams to squeeze a lot of games into a condensed time period—it could be wise to give everyone an extended breather. The public reaction of players will influence league officials. So far, it has not been good.