SALT LAKE CITY —
The NBA might have itself a problem.
Sunday night, following a woefully boring All-Star Game devoid of defense in any real shape or form, league officials kept landing on a word to describe what had transpired earlier in the night.
All-Star weekend, one of the NBA’s marquee showcases alongside Christmas Day and the playoffs, was once again an emotionless mess — the best players in the NBA allowing one another to either score on unchecked layups and dunks or comically long jumpers while the crowd largely shrugged.
“That wasn’t basketball,” Boston’s Jaylen Brown said. “That was just highlights and layups and jump shots. Probably just two foul calls the entire game. For me, I’m sure people would like to see a little bit more than what we displayed. But I guess that’s the format of what we’ve been doing and I’m not sure how to change it.”
What the game doesn’t need is more gimmicks.
In an effort to increase competitiveness, the league introduced charitable awards for winning each quarter and the inclusion of a target score to finish out the game.
Yet as player after player dribbled into the paint without even the slightest resistance, it was obvious the money for charity wasn’t an incentive.
A live pregame draft was another wrinkle to try to make things more exciting — and it received only the most tepid reviews.
“I thought it was OK,” Lakers star LeBron James said. “I liked the last format. I liked the format on TV. I think it was a little bit — it looked fun, more fun, cooler, whatever the case may be. But, you know, it’s always good to try some things and see how we can get better with things. Especially with our game. It’s always great to have an opportunity to try new formats, new ways to spice up the game, spice up the viewership and things of that nature.”
Brown basically felt the same — that the league’s intentions were good but that the outcome was so-so.
“I’ve got probably mixed feelings about it,” he said. “I’m open to trying stuff different in order to increase engagement for our league and our viewership, and I think that’s what that was, so I’m not mad at it. But I’ve definitely got mixed feelings. I guess we’ll see what the analytics look like and go from there. … It felt kinda weird sitting up there waiting on someone to call you. But if fans like it then, hey, that’s what we do.”
While All-Star Saturday ended up a success thanks to Damian Lillard winning the 3-Point Contest and Mac McClung riveting fans during the Slam Dunk Contest, Sunday was a total mess — Denver coach Michael Malone calling it “the worst basketball game ever played.”
Clippers star Paul George said there was way less defense played than last year, and that it’s uncomfortable for players who defend to find the right moment to turn up the intensity.
“I was kinda in that middle of do I play hard or just be comfortable?” he said. “… You don’t want to be that guy that’s out there hustling and body checking. You do float that line of, for a guy like me that likes to play on the defensive side, when is it, at what point, do you turn the defense up?”
Sunday, that meant never.
For a league with so few events — the monotony of the regular season combined with an increased emphasis on injury prevention — the All-Star Game is a chance to put the league’s product in front of casual fans.
While “fixing” the All-Star Game to the point of highly competitive basketball is a foolish goal — it’s an exhibition game more than midway into an 82-game marathon. One agent suggested that maybe if players had more time off before and after the game the product would look better.
The game itself doesn’t need to be good — the moments are what most people remember anyway. But when everyone is chasing the highlight moment instead of allowing them to happen more naturally, the highlight plays tend to scramble together.
“This was like a layup line. I don’t know how much notoriety you’d want to get from this. It was just a glorified layup line,” Brown said. “We’ve got to figure out how to maybe make the game a little bit more competitive. But if the fans like it, that’s all that matters.”
Do they? Did you?
A slight increase in effort would go such a long way, players playing defense outside the paint to provide the kind of resistance necessary for good players to truly showcase their skills.
Luka Doncic, one of the best players in the league, might as well have been in Maui. Nikola Jokic, the front-runner for most valuable player — which would be his third in a row — admitted that he had no place out on the court.
“I’m not meant for this game,” he said with a laugh.
He’s right. And Jayson Tatum’s record 55 points? It fell flat and wasn’t special. On Saturday during media day when players get asked goofy questions, one reporter asked players like Jokic what it would look like if they disguised themselves and played a high school game today.
Well, it would look sort of like this, with Tatum scoring over and over again.
At least he and Brown delivered the night’s best on-court moment — although the Afrobeats halftime show was terrific — when the Celtics teammates took turns trying to score on each other with the intensity ramped up.
But it wasn’t basketball. And it certainly wasn’t fun.
With more and more options available for fans (and more importantly, for casual fans), the NBA and its players don’t need to deliver perfection.
They just can’t let it look like this.