If players aren’t willing to take it seriously, why does this game still need to exist?

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.

What NBA stars could be on trade block this summer? Five players who might move following quiet deadline

There was a sense around the league last summer that the 2024 offseason had a chance to be among the wildest in recent memory. Think about some of the reporting surrounding the league’s best players. The Mavericks were reportedly worried about Luka Doncic asking out. Joel Embiid openly said that his goal was to win a championship “in Philly or anywhere else.” Giannis Antetokounmpo was making similarly cryptic comments about his own future. The volcano was getting ready to erupt. Only one team gets to win the championship every year. The other 29 are disappointed. Three of them looked primed for a breakup with one more bad year.

The past eight months or so have largely been kind to all three. Dallas is trending in the right direction after an offseason revamp. Joel Embiid was on his way to a second consecutive MVP before getting hurt, and the James Harden trade set Philadelphia up for sustainable success once Embiid comes back. Antetokounmpo’s team traded for Damian Lillard, and while the results haven’t quite met expectations, the move at least bought the Bucks some time. Antetokounmpo inked a short-term contract extension last summer.

Could these players move in 2024? Sure. Again… it’s a league with only one champion. Strong regular seasons lead to underwhelming postseasons all of the time. But right now, all three feel relatively good about their short-term outlook. We’re probably not going to get the all-time offseason last summer portended.

But we are going to get some significant player movement, especially after an uncharacteristically quiet trade deadline. So let’s take a look at some of the names to watch this summer as we head into the second half of the season. They aren’t the MVP candidates we expected, but plenty of talent is going to be on the market.

  1. Trae Young, Hawks
    You’ve surely heard the rumors by now. The pre-deadline chatter centered around teammate Dejounte Murray. Atlanta ultimately held onto him, and Hawks head coach Quin Snyder was reportedly a major advocate for that decision. In regards to their two ball-handlers, one league source told Marc Stein that the Hawks “know they have to trade one or the other.” That has become a common sentiment. The Hawks acquired Murray hoping that both he and Young could grow as off-ball players when sharing usage. That hasn’t happened. They are both, emphatically, point guards. Murray’s value has dipped significantly as he’s played out of position in Atlanta.

Young would net more. He isn’t without his own flaws. He has at times been among the worst defensive players in the NBA. To be fair, he’s quietly improved on that front, but he still carries significant physical limitations. His shot selection is inching in a better direction as well, but 2.1 catch-and-shoot 3’s per game is still a tiny number compared to 6.7 pull-up attempts. He can be classified within the James Harden phylum of high-assist guards: he nominally sets up teammates, but does so while monopolizing so much of the offense that role players rarely feel involved in the ways that they do in, say, Indiana or Denver.

That’s a complicated player to absorb. How many teams are equipped to fully hand an offense over to a 6-foot-1 point guard that doesn’t really defend? San Antonio is the cleanest fit. If Tre Jones can turn Victor Wembanyama into the best NBA rookie in decades, just imagine what Trae Young could do for him. Wembanyama could protect him defensively better than any possible teammate. So could Anthony Davis, and you’ll hear Laker rumors for all of the standard reasons. Los Angeles market, Klutch representation, an unhappy LeBron James. Young isn’t quite a Russell Westbrook level of bad fit, but James isn’t exactly known for surrendering offensive control. They’d bump.

Some significant change is coming in Atlanta. It might be Young. It might be Murray. It might be both. But in such situations it’s always prudent to start with the player who’d bring the most back, and that’s clearly Young.

  1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves
    The Mike Conley contract extension was simultaneously a clear bargain and an absolute assurance that the Timberwolves will be above the second apron next season if they don’t move a core player. His new deal takes them to within $5 million or so of the projected second apron. but with only nine players locked in. An Anthony Edwards supermax that would come if he is named to an All-NBA team alone would take them past the barrier. If he doesn’t, filling out the roster will. Minnesota could try to cut its tax bill by trading role players, but frankly, all of them have such valuable contracts that doing so would be reckless. How on Earth are you replacing everything Naz Reid does for less than $14 million next season?

The reality the Timberwolves are facing is that it is virtually impossible for a small-market team to justify carrying three max contracts (Towns, Edwards and Rudy Gobert) and another nine-figure commitment (Jaden McDaniels) while also surrounding those players with market-rate role players unless that team is consistently making deep playoff runs. Maybe the Timberwolves do that this spring. If nothing else they should be favored to earn the No. 1 seed out West. They have seven more home games than road games left and their overall schedule is fairly easy. Of course, the No. 1 seed in this year’s Western Conference might mean LeBron James or Stephen Curry in the first round. There’s not going to be one easy series in the West let alone three.

If the Timberwolves make it far enough, they can probably kick the financial can down the road for a year. The new CBA introduced a revised luxury tax structure that will be a bit more lenient on teams that just dip into the tax, but becomes far more punitive for teams that go deep into it. The Timberwolves are slated to be the latter, but this structure doesn’t kick in until the 2025-26 season, and the Timberwolves haven’t even started their repeater clock yet. Eventually, money is probably going to break up the Timberwolves. It’s just a matter of when.

Trading Edwards is a non-starter. The same goes for McDaniels, the only other starting Timberwolf in Edwards’ age range. Gobert is too essential to Minnesota’s playing style to move. That leaves Towns, whose skill set is loosely replicated by the far cheaper Reid, who himself is ready for a starting role.

Finding a fit here won’t be easy. Minnesota will justifiably ask for a significant return… except that return has to be comprised of relatively cheap win-now assets if it is going to help with these tax issues without compromising the team’s current ambitions. How many contenders have assets like that? And how many are going to want to pay Towns $61 million in his age-32 season? Someone will do it. For now, it isn’t clear who.

  1. Donovan Mitchell, Cavaliers
    An 18-2 stretch leading into the trade deadline gets you out of the headline but not off of the list. Cleveland looked like Mitchell’s waystation two months ago. Now they’re sitting in second place in a wide-open Eastern Conference behind the Celtics, and even if he’s largely responsible for that, the New York rumors have largely cooled down in the wake of his brilliant 2024. There’s no longer any question about fit or hierarchy. This is undoubtedly Mitchell’s team, and the Cavaliers will do whatever needs to be done to ensure a clean roster fit around him… provided he decides to stay.

That’s where this gets tricky. The New York rumors may have slowed, but it’s not as though they’ve been replaced by a steady stream of “he’s staying in Cleveland”s. The past reporting has largely pointed east, but the Cavaliers adamantly refused to entertain talks when it looked like their season was going to fall apart. Do they know something we don’t?

How much risk are they prepared to entertain here? They will surely present Mitchell with a max contract offer after the season. If he signs it? Great. If not? They have a decision to make: move Mitchell for what would probably be around 60 cents on the dollar, or potentially keep him knowing he could walk for nothing… or lead them to a championship in 2025. The Cavs faced this decision with LeBron James twice. They kept him — and lost him — twice.

They wouldn’t do either decision over again, but Mitchell is not LeBron James. Akron’s native son, especially in his prime, existed in an extraordinarily rare category of superstar. Having him on your team, regardless of all other factors, guaranteed championship contention. That has been true of maybe two dozen players in NBA history. Those players are so good that there is no feasible trade package that would be worthwhile because the championship odds that single player generates in any given season are higher than any long-term backup plan could realistically hope for. Mitchell is incredible. He’s not that.

The supporting cast around him is better than any James had in Cleveland outside of his 2016 championship campaign. The 2024 postseason will give them a better idea of whether or not 2025 contention is realistic. If they ride the No. 2 seed to a competitive Eastern Conference Finals battle with the Celtics, yeah, holding onto Mitchell is probably worth the risk. If they get bulled by the Knicks again in the second round? Probably not. Mitchell watch has been on hold during this brilliant stretch. Only time will tell if it needs to be taken off of the board entirely.

  1. Mikal Bridges, Nets
    The Nets are watching the Mitchell proceedings very closely, and they likely wouldn’t mind if Cleveland ran it out with Mitchell to free agency. After all, Brooklyn’s balance sheet is specifically built to pursue Mitchell then. Ben Simmons comes off of the books after the 2024-25 season, and the Nets will have a max cap slot to work with then. The dream, obviously, would be to sign Mitchell outright then, pair him with Mikal Bridges, and still have that mountain of draft capital from the Suns, Mavericks and 76ers to trade with elsewhere. That’s a championship equation, and it’s a path that isn’t really available to the crosstown Knicks, whose short-term success has made its roster too expensive for a free-agent pursuit of Mitchell. They’d have to trade for him.

But the better things look in Cleveland, the worse they do in Brooklyn. After all, their hometown advantage won’t extend to other superstars. Even if they have the draft capital to trade for such a player, would a Doncic- or Embiid-level star want to bet their prime on Bridges as a co-star? He can fit with anyone, but those players tend to seek out higher-level scorers first and foremost.

Whether they’d admit it or not, there has to be some temptation to go in the other direction. The Nets reportedly rejected overtures from the Rockets that involved sending all or most of the picks Brooklyn initially sent Houston for James Harden back home. Was that a great idea? We’ll see how the Mitchell pursuit pans out. If the Nets need to rebuild, it won’t matter how many external picks they have. No draft picks are ever more valuable in a teardown than your own because they are the picks you control. The Nets know from experience that rebuilding without tanking is possible, but they also know it’s not easy. There won’t always be a Kevin Durant waiting at the end of that rainbow.

The clock here isn’t ticking quite as loudly as it is in Minnesota, but there’s a timeline to keep in mind here. Bridges — who said Wednesday night he wants to say in Brooklyn — is on one of the best contracts in basketball for the next two years. The contract he signs after that, which will pay him market-rate and likely cover the bulk of his early 30’s, won’t be nearly as forgiving. His trade value declines with each day that ticks off of that current deal. The Nets either have to put a winner around him while he’s still cheap or move him before he gets expensive.

  1. One of the Pelicans
    Yes, we’re going back to the luxury tax well. The new CBA is forcing our hand here. The Pelicans can probably duck the tax next season while still re-signing Jonas Valanciunas. If they want to get especially creative, they can pull the same move with Jose Alvarado this summer that they did with Herb Jones last summer: let him out of his rookie contract a year early so he faces a depressed restricted free agent market and they can hopefully re-sign him, like they did Jones, at a bargain price. Doing both would probably push them over the line, but they can always duck back under before the trade deadline. The Pelicans can keep their roster in place without being a 2025 taxpayer.

But 2026? Yeah, this roster is a tax roster in 2026, and more likely an apron or second apron roster without significant changes. That’s when Trey Murphy jumps from his rookie contract to a hefty veteran deal and Brandon Ingram goes from his mini max to a far bigger 30% max. The Pelicans will get some relief a year later when C.J. McCollum expires, but by then they’ll have to pay Dyson Daniels, so 2025 is probably their last chance to avoid the tax if this is going to be their team moving forward. The Pelicans have never paid the tax before, so odds are, they don’t plan to any time soon.

If financial pressure is what ultimately forces the Pelicans to settle on an identity, well, that might not be the worst thing. The fit between Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram is… fine. Winning 60% of your games is fine. But it often feels as though there are several different iterations of this team competing for dominance within games, stretches and seasons. There’s a version of the Pelicans that unleashes Williamson as a ball-handler and surrounds him with shooting and defense. That group probably makes more sense without Ingram stopping the ball. Yet lineups featuring Ingram and no Williamson tend to perform better than most other iterations statistically. There’s more talent than touches here.

Williamson and Ingram can work together if you’re only looking for “fine.” They’re so talented that they might even be able to hit the low-end contention bar. But neither seems optimized next to the other, and even together, the roster has long-term questions. Valanciunas is 31 and a defensive liability in postseason play. Do they really want to invest in him as the long-term center? Heck, is McCollum their long-term point guard? He’s not really a point guard. How many wings does this group plan to keep, because they’re expensive and the Pelicans have a lot of them?

It’s a funky roster. At times, that works to their advantage. There is a ton of talent here and very little of it is maximized because of skill overlap. The Pelicans could solve that and their financial woes by splitting up their All-Star tandem. If they are as committed to ducking the tax as their history suggests, it’s an option they’ll probably at least explore.

Giannis Antetokounmpo explains belief in ‘Doc f—ing Rivers’ and says less is on plate after Bucks’ change

Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo “had to be more vocal this year,” he told The Athletic’s Eric Nehm in an interview heading into the All-Star break. Specifically, for the first 43 games of the season, when Adrian Griffin was the coach of the Bucks, he had to talk more in film sessions and diagram plays.

“Things (weren’t) the way they were supposed to be, how can I say it?” Antetokounmpo said. “The last couple of years, I’m used to a specific structure of things, a specific culture, there’s a certain way that you have to do things in order for you to win games, you know? And if that level is not being met, as a leader, you have to push that envelope. Push everybody, your coaching staff, your teammates.”

The Bucks were 40-13 when they fired Griffin, who had spent the previous 15 seasons as an assistant coach. Leading up to that, Antetokounmpo had argued with Griffin at the scorer’s table, criticized the team for being disorganized late in games and, after a particularly bad loss in Houston, said, “We have to be coached better.” (He also said the equipment manager “has to wash our clothes better.”)

Milwaukee is 3-7 under Doc Rivers, who had been an NBA head coach for 24 consecutive seasons before spending the first few months of this season as an analyst for ESPN. According to Antetokounmpo, though, Rivers has made his life easier.

From The Athletic:

“[Rivers brought] some peace of mind,” Antetokounmpo said. “He’s tough. He’s Doc f—ing Rivers. He knows his s—. Same thing for Coach Bud. Same with Joe Prunty, J-Kidd. And Coach Griff was a great coach, a great person to work with, but, at the end of the day, it was his first time.

“He was figuring things out, how to lead a group of guys, how to operate with star players and sometimes, that might be hard. I think everybody did a good job. His coaching staff did a good job too, helping him and making him adjust and I think he did a tremendous job leading us to a 30-13 record, but Coach Doc has won 1,100 games. So it’s totally different.”

With a veteran coach at the helm, Antetokounmpo feels like quite a bit has been taken off of his plate.

“Now it’s almost like I don’t have to do that anymore,” Antetokounmpo said of the extra emphasis he had put on leadership to start the season under Griffin. “I just have to keep the guys together and try to go out there and try to win.

“Coach Doc, he’s a great guy, been in the league for a lot of years, won a lot of games. Like you go to bed, you sleep well at night. Win or lose, you know that the coaching staff is going to be prepared. And not just him, from Rex (Kalamian), from Dave Joerger, like come on, man, Joe Prunty, we have guys that are extremely smart and know the game of basketball. So, from that aspect, you don’t have to worry anymore.”

The story, which published Wednesday morning, follows a couple of eyebrow-raising comments from Rivers during All-Star weekend in Indianapolis:

At media day on Saturday, via Fox Sports’ Yaron Weitzman: “Taking a job when you’re about to go on the toughest road trip of the season is not the smartest decision. I even told them that: ‘Can we wait till All-Star break?’ You know, it would have been a lot nicer.”
In an interview on SiriusXM with Frank Isola and Ryan MacDonough: “Personally, I’ll be honest, I told our owners when they called, I said, ‘I don’t understand why you’re doing this.’ You know? And one of the things they said was, “Well, it doesn’t matter, we’ve done it now. And we want you.’ And so that was a tough one.”
Both times, Rivers said taking over the team had been harder than he thought and noted that he’d had the job for three weeks but only spent four days in Milwaukee. This led to ESPN analyst JJ Redick, who played for Rivers with the Los Angeles Clippers, to call him out for “always making excuses” and “always throwing your team under the bus.”

Preceding all of this was a rough loss against the severely shorthanded Memphis Grizzlies last Thursday, after which Rivers said, “We had some guys here. We had some guys in Cabo.”

In his interview with The Athletic, Antetokounmpo said that he was willing to “talk more in the film sessions like I’ve been doing all year” and “f—ing grab the f—ing board and write something down” if he needs to, adding that “you cannot just let opportunities like this go to waste.” The Bucks are 35-21, third in the Eastern Conference, with a 1.5-game lead on the fourth-place New York Knicks. Their defense has better in the early days of the Rivers era, but their offense has fallen off. The hope is that, in the final 26 games of the regular season, they will get Khris Middleton healthy, find some cohesion and string some wins together. Antetokounmpo sounds pleased to be playing for Rivers, but he’s clearly not satisfied with the results.

“I feel like I don’t want to look back and be like, ‘Damn, I had some great teams and I wasn’t able to get over the hump,'” Antetokounmpo said. “We have to stop feeling bad about ourselves. I’m tired of this. We have to stop doing that. Things are not going to be given to us. We have to go and take it. Like I’ve played with guys that never felt bad about themselves. Came in, did their job, went home, did their job, went home, did their job. That’s what we have to do. We’re not doing it right now, but hopefully we can do it.”