The bizarre dichotomy of the NBA All-Star Game

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Sunday night, 24 players will amble into the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. Many of them will be hungover, sleep-deprived, or both from a night of partying at all the hot spots during the biggest nightlife year for the NBA universe. They will casually go through the media requirements, slowly get dressed, do some casual shooting, talk with a lot of friends and acquaintances.

They will play a game, of sorts. There will be no defense. There will be very little effort. There will be some ooh and ahh moments, a few dunks, some neat passes, and a general giggly sort of feel to the day. It will be presented with lots of flash and pageantry and have no effect on anything, nor should it. It shouldn’t decide homecourt advantage in the Finals, it shouldn’t impact playoff seedings, it’s an exhibition and should mean absolutely nothing.

Those players were elected to play in the game either by fan vote, the same fan vote which routinely ignores any and all evidence to who has been good or not good throughout the season and is primarily decided based on either the presence of an overwhelming voting block (in the case of Yao Ming), or the player’s station as a member of one of the big three teams (Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls), or by coaches’ decision, which is often done using impact from assistants or video editors and which can often be attributed to recognition of a lifetime event or influence from what they “should do.”

To sum up, today’s NBA All-Star Game is a completely meaningless exhibition in which you will barely remember anything outside of who wins MVP and who was on roster, and was constructed using completely meaningless, bogus, and largely flawed methods of election. Saying the All-Star game is stupid isn’t really a stretch, even if it’s a bit much for something that’s just supposed to be fun for fans. Fun things can be meaningless, like cartoons for your four-year-old or appletinis (say hey, LBJ).  There’s no harm in that. This is not advocacy for eliminating the All-Star Game. The Game is a tradition, a nice PR tool for the league, and a fun experience, if exhausting and boring for players after about their third time.

No, what this is is a study in contrasts. Because while this game is constructed nearly without meaning, entirely arbitrarily, its relevance expands beyond this day, this season, this year and into a much greater context. That’s the real dichotomy of the All-Star Game. It’s both meaningless and crucial.

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When evaluating the resumes of players listed for the Hall of Fame, the criteria is complex, but it’s like any other resume. When you list your resume to an employer, are you able to encapsulate on a 1-2 page document why that job you were at less than six months didn’t work out? Can you describe the thriving success you experienced at the position you were at for four years without a promotion? Can you give context to why one award granted meant a lot and was well-earned while the other was simply the result of your relationship with the awarding board? No. You just fill in the lines. I can do X, I have done X,  I want to do X. That’s it.

The All-Star resumes are no different. Stats, a specific anecdote, perhaps, championships most importantly, and then there’s that which is most often the first thing listed.

X-Time NBA All-Star.

That line holds relevance in history. When we debate the relative merits of a player for inclusion in the Hall (and don’t get me wrong, we can say a lot of the same things about the Hall of Fame that we say about the All-Star Game; in fact, the Hall is probably a bigger disaster than a game which is voted for online), that measure is used to distinguish. Being a six-time NBA All-Star? That’s more than a half-decade of being one of the elite players in the NBA!

Some six-time All-Stars in the Hall of Fame: Tiny Archibald, Adrian Dantley, Joe Dumars, Artis Gilmore, Tommy Heinsohn, Jack Twyman.

Pretty impressive, right? Some active six-time All-Stars: Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Joe Johnson.

Joe Johnson is a six-time All-Star.

(Note: I’m one of the few people left on the planet who doesn’t punish Johnson for his contract relative to his performance. The Hawks have made the playoffs each year since 2008, haven’t been an abject embarrassment in them outside of the Bucks series which they won, and gave Atlanta a run. Johnson, for all his moderate efficiency, is a huge part of that and is constantly underrated for his defensive work. My point is more about how we look at things now versus how we will look at things later.)

When we look back at Johnson’s career, the contextual stuff about the disgust over his selection or the mockery of his production relative to his contract will get lost. Someone’s going to be perusing Basketball-Reference in ten year who has never seen Joe Johnson play a second of basketball, look at his per-game stats during his peak, look at that six-time All-Star streak, find the YouTube of his work in the Boston series 2008, and think of him as a pretty great player, when currently, he may be the most derided All-Star selected, and Chris Bosh is on the team for crying out loud (again, I don’t have an issue with Bosh, he’s actually been great this year, but for the most part people hate him).

My point is, this stuff matters.

Going to the All-Star game means nothing, but it means more than the All-NBA teams, which receive so much less scrutiny and criticism. Being an All-Star means something to your career. It puts you into that level. When people in non-NBA contexts introduce you, they introduce you as “NBA All-Star.” It’s a designation that represents being something greater, not just currently, but within the massive flow of players that ebb in and out of the league. Stars rise and die in weeks in this league (take heed, Jeremy Lin), and these players selected are above. Paul Pierce is a nine-time All-Star. Nine. He’s probably going to wind up with a decade of All-Star appearances.

Jermaine O’Neal is a footnote in the NBA, and he’s pretty much only mentioned in reference to how slow he is or his injury issues.

The guy is a six-time All-Star!

And there are certainly debates about the quality of stars in the league relative to these eras. But they’re only mentioned in relatively recent context. We ignore how many fewer teams there were in 1980 and before, when some of the biggest legends exist. And no, no one’s going to be talking about Joe Johnson or Jermaine O’Neal as all-time greats, but there is a fondness that develops as a man’s career passes, a remembrance of when he was best that comes to overshadow the fading years of age. The same will happen with Jason Kidd, with Kevin Garnett, the same has already happened with Gary Payton.

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So today is a day for lazy skip passes, a few off-the-backboard alley-oops. Kobe will shoot a lot and if he’s feeling it will score a lot and make everyone shake their head, grin and go “Oh, Kobe.” LeBron may have one of those days… you know what, no, James has never taken this event seriously, probably never will. Blake Griffin will do some stuff. But none of it means anything, and the process of their respective assemblies is obviously flawed, subjective, invalid and largely a joke. But the fact that they are there (or in Joe Johnson’s case, there in spirit) does resonate. It does reflect something about their position in the context of this game, of sports, of culture.

Having been an All-Star means something, even if being one doesn’t.

PBT Podcast: What to watch during stretch run of season

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Are the Cleveland Cavaliers for real? And by “real” do you mean best in the East or threat to Warriors?

Who is going to make the playoffs in the West? Is Utah going in? Portland? The Los Angeles Clippers?

Is James Harden going win MVP? Is it Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year?

Those are just some of the storylines as the NBA races down the stretch run of the season (most teams have around 25 games left). Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break down all the things to watch from the end of the season, including if Detroit can climb up into the postseason, and how the top of the East is going to shake out.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Suns, Hawks say they won’t change strategy to tank

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Phoenix shut down healthy players in a transparent bid to tank last season. But Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said not to expect a repeat.

Scott Bordow of azcentral:

Wednesday, McDonough told azcentral sports that the Suns won’t approach the final 23 games of this season the same way. In other words, Phoenix isn’t tanking in order to improve its chances of landing the No. 1 pick in the May 15 draft lottery.

“We’re planning on doing what we have been doing, that’s playing our young players. For us, that’s not a change,” McDonough said. “… We want to continue to have them improve and get minutes and try to win as many games as we can.”

The Mike Budenholzer-coached Hawks also won’t sit their top players.

Michael Cunningham of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Some other teams near the bottom of the standings have publicly proclaimed they will favor youth over experience for the final four-plus weeks of the season, but Budenholzer said he will stay the course.

“I think we’ve been a mix of young and veteran guys all year,” he said Wednesday. “I think the way we progressed through the season — of course when you start the season you think it could be a little different — (but) right now but I think the way we’ve played, and the way we continue to play, won’t be that much different.”

To some degree, McDonough and Budenholzer are just trying to avoid a Mark Cuban-esque fine. The NBA discourages most talk of tanking.

But Phoenix and Atlanta don’t need to change their rotations to tank. They’re already good at losing! Both teams are a league-worst 18-41.

Some teams will get more serious about tanking down the stretch. The Suns and Hawks are already there. That doesn’t make them more virtuous than the Mavericks.

Still, this is a tight race for the top of the lottery. Four other teams have just 18 wins. Another has only 19, and one more has only 20. If the Suns and Hawks need to get worse to improve draft position, I wouldn’t put it past either team.

By the way, that headline can be read a couple different ways. That’s intentional.

Report: Kyrie Irving requested trade after ‘sloppy’ discussion by Cavaliers’ front office

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The Cavaliers reportedly explored trading Kyrie Irving in June. He requested a trade in July.

Since dealt to the Celtics, Irving has said he’ll never pinpoint his precise reason for leaving Cleveland. But he also said the Cavs “didn’t want me there.”

Did the Cavaliers push him out?

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

On the day of the NBA draft back in June, just days after Cleveland parted ways with former GM David Griffin, a robust Cavs contingent made up of front-office personnel, coaches and team support staff members held an impromptu, “what if?” discussion about Kyrie Irving’s future, multiple team sources confirmed to ESPN.

The discussion, characterized as “small talk” by one source familiar with its content, was less a formal straw poll of what the Cavs should do with their All-Star point guard should trade opportunities present themselves, and more a thought exercise anticipating what the market could bear for a player of Irving’s caliber.

The talk got back to Irving, multiple team sources told ESPN, and that served as the tipping point that led to Irving formally requesting a trade a little more than two weeks later.

“It was sloppy,” one league source familiar with the draft-day discussion told ESPN, adding that any talk about trading a player of Irving’s ilk — however informal it might be — should be handled strictly between the GM and owner, because of the sensitive nature of its content.

While Altman was involved in the meeting, he and Mike Gansey — at that point officially the head of the Cavs’ G League team — were only keeping the ship afloat on an interim basis and had yet to be formally elevated to their current roles as GM and assistant GM, respectively.

This is one spin on the story. Yet another: Irving initially requested a trade before the draft and considered requesting one in 2016.

Both sides are trying to blame the other for the disintegration of their relationship.

It can be difficult to read how serious the draft-day discussion was. Maybe Irving interpreted ut correctly. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just used it to justify a trade request he wanted to make anyway.

What’s more clear: Communication hasn’t been as strong between the front office and players under general manager Koby Altman as it was under Griffin. McMenamin:

While the Cavs were struggling in late December through early January, LeBron James questioned Altman’s absentee status on a long Cleveland road trip, team sources told ESPN.

Altman helped repair that relationship leading up to the trade deadline, looping LeBron in on discussions that culminated with three trades. LeBron appears more invested in the Cavaliers, just in time to keep him next summer.

But some mistakes can’t be fixed before it’s too late. Maybe those Irving trade talks in June were one of them.

Report: NBA considering play-in tournament for playoffs

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Adam Silver and LeBron James are publicly arguing about 1-16 playoff seeding.

But that’s not the only change to the NBA’s postseason potentially afoot.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

sources say there is also some behind-the-scenes momentum for the idea of a play-in tournament determining the last two seeds in each conference — to the point that two specific proposals are circulating at the highest levels within teams and the league office.

The play-in proposal that has generated the most discussion, according to several sources: two four-team tournaments featuring the seventh, eighth, ninth, and 10th seeds in each conference. The seventh seed would host the eighth seed, with the winner of that single game nabbing the seventh spot, sources say. Meanwhile, the ninth seed would host the 10th seed, with the winner of that game facing the loser of the 7-versus-8 matchup for the final playoff spot.

It is not coming next season, and it would be a shock if the NBA adopted it in time for 2020 or even 2021. It may never happen. Any such change would need approval from the competition committee, and then from a supermajority of 23 NBA teams. That process has not even started.

The NBA playoffs, with best-of-seven series, makes it more likely the better team advances. The NCAA tournament, with one game per team per round, generates excitement with increased variance and upsets.

Each format presents its own pros and cons, and I think too many NBA people seek the unpredictability of college basketball without considering the tradeoffs.

But I actually like this, because it makes the long regular season matter more. Each play-in seed faces a progressively easier route to the real playoffs:

  • No. 7 seed: Win one of up to two home games
  • No. 8 seed: Win one road or one home game
  • No. 9 seed: Win one home and one road game
  • No. 10: Win two road games

With more doors open to post-regular-season basketball, that’d theoretically curb tanking. Most tanking occurs lower in the standings, and the NBA hopes its lottery reform will address that. But this could incentivize teams otherwise be out of the playoff race to keep competing.

There are still plenty of questions to answer: How is revenue from the play-in tournament distributed? Could it work in conjunction with 1-16 seeding? How are are play-in-tournament teams treated in the lottery?

But this at least seems plausible.