The NBA All-Star Game served a critical purpose when it was conceived. All the way back in 1951, the basketball world was rocked by point-shaving scandals at the college level. The NBA needed to change the narrative and attract attention to the pro game. They settled on a concept Major League Baseball popularized two decades earlier: an All-Star Game. Boston hosted the first one and drew an enormous crowd of more than 10,000 fans. The All-Star Game was off to the races from there.
The NBA was still several years away from its first television broadcast when that first All-Star Game was played in 1951. That made seeing the league’s best players extraordinarily difficult for all but the most passionate fans. You either caught them when they came through your city or you missed them entirely. The proliferation of television over the next decade made it slightly easier for fans to watch the world’s best basketball players, but it’s not as though you could hop on Twitter and catch the highlights if you missed a big game in the 1960s. The technological limitations of the day made it hard for the league to showcase its best and brightest.
Putting all of them in the same place at the same time addressed that issue. Maybe you can’t see Oscar Robertson and Jerry West every night, but you’ll get them in at least one marquee event per year. The All-Star Game gave fans something they might not otherwise have been able to see.
Basketball became more accessible in the years that followed. The proliferation of highlights meant a great deal. League Pass offered fans the chance to watch every game. Now social media clips those games down into digestible pieces. But the All-Star Game managed to find ways to justify its existence even as its original purpose faded. Yes, you’ve surely heard the bellyaching this week about how competitive these games used to be, but their utility ran deeper. Remember Isiah Thomas’ infamous freeze out of Michael Jordan? Or Magic Johnson’s famous return to the floor in 1992?
Every now and then, an All-Star Game carried real historical significance. It gave fans a glimpse into how different eras of the games could coexist, real-time readings on the game’s tectonic shifts. Seeing an aging Jordan and an ascending Kobe Bryant share a floor as equals mattered in ways no modern All-Star Game ever really has. Fans would probably love to see a similar torch-passing moment in the coming years. Odds are Victor Wembanyama plays his first All-Star Game before LeBron James plays his last. But such a moment would ring pretty hollow in a game that sees one team score 211 points.
The league has tried plenty of tweaks to resuscitate its fading exhibition. A draft. An Elam Ending. Swift moves back toward a classic format. Nothing has yet coaxed real basketball out of the league’s current group of superstars. They’re not even hiding it anymore. “For me, it’s an All-Star Game, so I don’t think I will ever look at it like being super competitive,” Anthony Edwards said after the game. Anthony Davis credited the hype teams of the Bulls and Pacers for creating the best moment of the night.
There’s clearly still an audience here. Ratings actually rose 14% compared to last season. Younger fans may not be as discerning as their disappointed parents. The weekend as a whole matters to stakeholders for reasons that aren’t captured on the main broadcast. Owners and cities still love hosting for everything that comes along with it. Gathering the whole league in a single market for even a few days generates an economic boon and can serve as a strong advertisement for the region, even if it doesn’t for the product.
A night of bad basketball isn’t the end of the world. This particular night of bad basketball won’t help the league shake some of the less desirable portions of its reputation. Fair or not, there’s a perception that in the modern NBA, the regular season matters less than ever, and star attendance is no longer mandatory. Watching the league’s biggest stars sleepwalk through what is supposed to be its marquee regular-season event won’t exactly sway detractors. This event was conceived as a showcase seven decades ago. Sunday’s game directly contradicted those efforts.
There will be proposed tweaks in the coming days and months. A Team USA vs. Team World format is certainly worth a try. Watch any international competition and you know just how meaningful beating the Americans tends to be for other countries. How would you address possible roster imbalance? Would the league announce its 24 best players mid-season and then supplement the side with fewer by adding however many faces are needed? Recent shifts in roster construction have led nowhere.
The In-Season Tournament’s $500,000 prize visibly motivated players earlier this season. There are early rumblings hinting that All-Stars would like a similar payday even though they technically are already paid to appear in the game. Whether it would work or not, the notion is a bit dispiriting. A common refrain surrounding All-Star Games in any sport is that they are “for the fans.” The 24 All-Stars who suited up on Sunday have earned over $4 billion in combined salary as NBA players. Pushing for a substantial payday just to take the game seriously won’t exactly endear them to the fans this game is ostensibly supposed to be for.
How high would the pot have to get to generate sustainable effort? Is a $1 million check enough to risk $50 million through a possible injury? Part of what made the In-Season Tournament’s payout work was the nature of NBA balance sheets. Role players absolutely take $500,000 seriously, whether or not the stars do, and many of those stars, most notably Damian Lillard, were adamant about wanting to win the money for their two-way teammates. Most All-Stars bring eight- or nine-figure net worths into the games. Even the younger ones who haven’t yet reached their first max contract are usually already earning millions off the court.
Maybe one of these proposed changes sticks. More likely, we get brief glimpses of optimism that eventually fade as we did with the Elam Ending. Nothing matters if the players aren’t willing to take the game seriously, and if they aren’t? It’s worth wondering why this game still needs to exist. It had a distinct purpose when it was born. Today, the All-Star Game serves no discernible purpose to the majority of fans.
Could something else take its place? Perhaps there’s room for a lower-key All-Star Saturday-style event that doesn’t grind the league to a halt for a week. Imagine how many back-to-backs the NBA could knock off its schedule with seven extra days to work with. Maybe those days would be better used on an expanded In-Season Tournament, an event that drew rave reviews in its inaugural campaign. A 1-on-1 or 3-on-3 tournament has incredible potential. Still, it requires buy-in the league thus far hasn’t gotten from the traditional five-on-five format (and carries greater potential for the sort of embarrassment stars have avoided in the Dunk Contest). There are better ways to use this time than an All-Star Game that’s barely even a game anymore.
The most radical ideas are almost definitely off of the table. The non-star players who make up the bulk of the NBPA won’t want to give up their mid-season vacation. Star players may not care for the game itself, but they—and their agents—recognize how valuable the All-Star distinction can be in contract and endorsement negotiations and will fight tooth and nail to at least preserve the practice of naming rosters.
But none of this means all that much to the viewers who are tired of watching disappointing All-Star Games. What once was a rare opportunity to see the league’s best talent in one place has become a snoozefest that features those same players at their worst. If the players involved aren’t going to take it seriously, why should the fans? If the All-Star Game can’t find a purpose, it no longer needs to exist at all.