The All-Star Game Isn’t A Serious Event, So The NBA Should Embrace That And Have Some Fun

INDIANAPOLIS — After a year of demanding that the NBA All-Star Game get more competitive after a lackluster event in Salt Lake City, Adam Silver stood on the court in Indianapolis clearly appalled at what he’d just witnessed with the East winning a 211-186 “basketball game” in the event’s return to it’s long-time format.

Silver could only muster “You scored the most points, well … congratulations” as he handed Giannis Antetokounmpo the All-Star Game trophy in the least enthusiastic trophy presentation I can ever recall.

The NBA and Silver have been trying in vain to make the All-Star Game matter in a way it never really has for this generation of players. There was once a time where All-Star Weekend provided a stage for players to make themselves household names — and make themselves a lot of money. Showing out against the league’s best was a chance to earn fans, endorsements, and a bigger contract for players playing for a smaller market team. But with social media and every game from every team being available to watch, the incentive for the players no longer outweighs the risk, as they all have national endorsement deals and large followings. The result is 24 guys going half-speed for 48 minutes.

Some are more shameless than others about the effort level, with Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, and Anthony Edwards really laying bare how unserious the entire thing is this year. Others are a little better about faking it, but there wasn’t a player on the floor in Indy that truly took things seriously — the closest being Tyrese Haliburton and Damian Lillard dueling for MVP honors.

The truth is, it’s hard to blame them.

The last great All-Star Game took place in Chicago in 2020, but the circumstances around that game must be remembered. Kobe Bryant had tragically died a month beforehand, and with the All-Star Game being the first major leaguewide event, there was a concerted effort by everyone involved to honor him and the result was a wildly entertaining game where the Elam Ending format’s race to 24 points provided a tense final quarter where the two teams played honest to goodness basketball until the game was decided.

However, that game also was a reminder of why guys go through the motions, as playing through a knee injury in that game was the beginning of the end of Kemba Walker’s NBA career. What was once a chance to showcase your talents on a rare national stage (which then pushes the established stars to make sure they don’t end up being a punchline) is now an exercise in toeing the line. Most of the players want to put on a show (a few truly do not care, but most of them understand they need to give the fans something), but not for 48 minutes. They want to play the hits, do some big dunks, knock down some deep threes, and get out of there unscathed to go enjoy a few days off before returning for the stretch run.

The NBA, meanwhile, wants to make it a great television event. I think there’s a way to do that, but it will never be in the form of a competitive, full basketball game. The challenge is that the TV partners want a spectacle and an event that, at minimum, fills that same allotment of time, which means the league is going to have to get a bit more creative to pull it off.

It’s not all that different from what the NFL has gone through with the Pro Bowl, where players were so clearly just trying not to get hurt (in a more physical sport) that the league had to completely change the event format and not even play actual football. The result is the Pro Bowl Games, which is now a weekend long event where various side competitions earn the two conferences varying point values that factor into the final score of the flag football game they play in one quarter increments. The result has been an improvement over what the Pro Bowl had been, largely because it tries to be more fun without presenting itself as a serious football event.

The NBA could certainly try to give players a financial incentive to play harder in the All-Star Game, but even with that they will never get them playing at peak effort. That’s why I think going the route of embracing fun is the much better way to go about it all (with a financial element almost certainly needing to be a part of it to get full buy-in). Basketball lends itself to side competitions far better than football does, and if they take cues from what the NFL does — namely having the competitions include just members of the Pro Bowl team — there’s a pathway to doing that.

You could make the Skills Challenge (which needs to just go back to the old format), Three-Point Contest, and even the Dunk Contest (maybe with some big tweaks to it) contribute to the final point total of the weekend for the East and West, and only include players from the actual rosters (which you could expand to 14 each). If players are worried about getting embarrassed in the current format of the Dunk Contest, which is understandable given how Jaylen Brown was received, you could just make it a “Best Dunk” competition where each roster nominates three guys to do their best dunk and then move it along — that’s basically what happens in the All-Star Game anyway. And, if guys want to not take it seriously, they can send Luka out there to get stuffed by the rim trying to go off the backboard, which would be funny and fairly entertaining too.

On Sunday, play four games to 24 (keeping with the Kobe theme they’ve given All-Star by naming the MVP award after him) with other games and competitions happening between quarters to allow fans to forget they’re watching guys mostly go through the motions in the actual game — like the NFL does with the flag football game. The games themselves would be snappy, and because of that it wouldn’t drag in the same way the All-Star Game does now.

In between, they could do a halfcourt shot competition where each team tries to make the most halfcourt shots in three minutes, and that’s worth five points to the final score. They also could have each team nominate one player for a HORSE competition (but, just play to like three letters and call it ASW or something) which is where you might actually get an engaged Luka and/or Jokic. Yes, I know they tried HORSE once on Saturday night, but if it’s a much shorter competition with just two guys, I think there’s some legs there.

And finally, you have them all play a 24-man game of knockout from the three-point line. If you stacked the lineup to put guys behind each other you know they wouldn’t want to lose to (LeBron/Steph, Luka/Jokic, Jayson/Jaylen, etc.) they’d absolutely make it entertaining, trying to knock the ball away and taunting after knocking someone out, and by the time you got to the end it would for sure get competitive.

Do all of that and have the players on the winning team getting $100,000 each and the losing team getting $50,000 each (or whatever number they can get covered by sponsors), and you won’t get a great basketball game but you might have a chance at doing something more entertaining that engages a larger portion of your fanbase.

All-Star Weekend’s greatest value right now is how much kids absolutely love it. It is a phenomenal place for kids to come and see their favorite players, whether it’s at brand stuff, practices, or the events, and that really does matter. That said, I understand why the league wants to put on an event that its most fervent fans enjoy.

The problem is, that event can’t be just a basketball game. Too much is at stake in the big picture to risk it at All-Star by giving it their all for an exhibition. So instead, it’s got to be something more that embraces the fun and doesn’t require guys to be serious. A pathway is there, but the league has to stop pretending there’s some sanctity to the All-Star format that must be upheld. It’s time to embrace the fun.