The NBA has always had the most entertaining All-Star festivities in sports, with millions tuning in to watch the three-day event, beginning on Friday with the Celebrity Game and Rising Stars Challenge, followed by All-Star Saturday Night, and the All-Star Game itself on Sunday. However, this year brought little in terms of excitement, as what used to be must-watch TV turned into barely watchable. This year was the all-around weakest All-Star Weekend I’ve seen, and changes clearly need to be made to liven things back up. Here are my day-by-day thoughts on the NBA’s underwhelming midseason siesta.
You’d be crazy to expect All-Star opening night to steal the show, considering it contains the least noteworthy events of the weekend. Still, the Celebrity Game, in particular, failed to offer much to the viewer. For starters, the basketball was terrible. This wasn’t much of a surprise, nor should it have been, but even the WNBA players were tossing up ugly shots and some of the “celebrities” looked completely out of place on the court. I put quotations around “celebrities” because the league really seemed to stretch the definition of the word, with several participants I had never heard of. This is the NBA- can’t we get some higher profile stars or ones that actually play basketball?
Among the highlights of the game were Jason “White Chocolate” Williams, who broke out his famous elbow pass, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, and social media sensation Brandon Armstrong, who impersonated several NBA stars on his way to MVP. The best moment of the night came when Jarrius Robertson, a young fan with a big personality battling a chronic liver disease, entered the game, immediately scoring. Robertson brought much-needed excitement, as assistant coach Draymond Green seemed to spend more time on his phone than paying attention to the game, which ended in a blowout.
Unlike the Celebrity Game, the Rising Stars Challenge was actually competitive, finishing in a 150-141 victory for the World team. I have to say, I’m a fan of the USA vs. World format and how it highlights the league’s young talent, especially on the international side. I certainly prefer it to the Rookies vs. Sophomores format of the past as it creates interesting storylines. However, while not near as pathetic as the All-Star game, there still wasn’t much to be seen in terms of defense. More of that later.
Opening up the disaster that’s typically my favorite night of the weekend was the Skills Challenge, which has only gotten worse over the years. After experimenting with the format, the NBA has seemed to have settled on the “Guards vs. Big Men” theme, having two brackets, with the best guard and big man meeting in the championship. This isn’t a terrible concept, but the execution leaves much to be desired. Instead of having the players compete at the same time in elimination matches, they should simply time all the players completing the course and then advancing the top few times into the championship round, like the competition used to be.
Now, the event has pretty much been reduced to a race where all that matters is who makes a three-pointer first. In fact, there is only one pass left in the course, and you don’t even need to successfully complete it. After three failed attempts, you can simply pass the obstacle. The idea that you can win the skills contest without making a single pass is ridiculous. The previous format was more complex, featuring two chest passes, and a bounce pass, an extra shot, and another set of dummies to dribble around. It actually measured speed and efficiency. Instead of ranting, I’ll let you be the judge. First, here’s Steve Nash’s contest-winning final round from 2010.
And now here’s a head-to-head matchup from this year’s first round, where Gordon Hayward defeats John Wall despite missing each of his three pass attempts and first three three-pointers.
I rest my case. Congratulations to Kristaps Porzingis for winning, but the whole thing is kind of ridiculous.
The three-point contest was a bit of a letdown, considering no one had a truly amazing performance and that favorite and defending champion Klay Thompson finished a point shy of qualifying for the final round. However, Eric Gordon and Kyrie Irving still put on a competitive show, tying in the finals, setting up a tiebreaker round where Gordon finally prevailed. Overall, though it could have been better, it remained tense and was the best part of the night.
The grand finale was, of course, the dunk contest, where Aaron Gordon was set to avenge his 2016 loss to Zach LaVine in what many have called the greatest dunk contest ever. Most of the night’s hype was focused on the mystery of what tricks Gordon had up his sleeve to wow us all, and whether or not DeAndre Jordan or rookie dark horse Derrick Jones Jr. could steal away the crown. Spoiler alert: none of them won. In fact, the champion was Glenn Robinson III, who used a couple impressive “50s” to lift the trophy on a night where no one seemed able to put the ball through the hoop.
Favorite Aaron Gordon led with the most creative idea of the night, using a drone as a prop to drop the ball before catching it in mid-air and going between the legs. However, by needing three attempts to throw it down, the energy in the room had died down by the time the dunk went in. Gordon later failed to complete his second dunk and was eliminated in the first round. His foot injury probably played a role, but it was the most underwhelming performance I can remember.
DeAndre Jordan didn’t do much better. Sure, his dunk over DJ Khaled was fun, but it really wasn’t too difficult, and his finish was slightly off on the second dunk, taking away most of the power away from his slam. Not to mention, it took multiple attempts. After DJ’s elimination, the only two participants with real name recognition were gone, leading to a final between two guys who felt replaceable. They had clearly been the best two in the opening round, but neither was stunning by any means.
The final round once again featured misses back-and-forth until Robinson III’s clean, reverse dunk over teammate Paul George, the Pacers’ mascot, and one of the team cheerleaders. It was definitely the best dunk of the night, but it really didn’t hold a candle to several of LaVine and Gordon’s dunks from the year before. The right guy won, but the event was a big disappointment.
The 101 points scored in the first quarter of the All-Star game set the tone for a “basketball” game (again, using air quotes because we’re stretching the definition) featuring crazy alley-oop dunks, deep three-point attempts, and nothing remotely resembling defensive effort. The West emerged victorious by a 192-182 score that set a new record for points scored, surpassing 2016’s total, which had broken 2015’s record, which in turn passed 2014’s record. The All-Star game has been a joke for a while now, but the last two years, in particular, have seen an explosion of offense.
You might think that all the scoring would lead to excitement, and while it did at times, such as Kevin Durant’s alley-oop to Russell Westbrook, it got boring pretty quickly. I think Scott Van Pelt said it best in his “1 Big Thing” segment: “You have to really try to make the best athletes on Earth doing incredibly fun things to watch unwatchable, but that’s where we are.” There just isn’t much fun in seeing a 60-foot outlet pass to an immediate alley-oop followed by the opposing team inbounding the ball to midcourt just to throw a lob of their own. The lack of defense was humorously epitomized by Stephen Curry laying down on the court just to get out of the away of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dunk early in the third quarter.
I understand the injury concern that comes withing playing in a technically meaningless game, but I don’t think that means trying has to be off-limits. Maybe you don’t lay out for loose balls or give 100% on defense every time down, but when you’re on the court, there should definitely be some effort. Individual players don’t play more than half the game anyways. Offenses should be trying to get good shots rather than just jacking up threes.
Of course, players should still be throwing some flashy passes or attempting things they wouldn’t necessarily try in games every now and then, but the All-Star Game should still resemble basketball. We want to see the best players in the world actually play each other, not just see who can throw down the sickest dunk. At some point, it just isn’t that exciting. On a side note, the All-Star Game had several dunks better than what we saw in the Dunk Contest.
To conclude, I’d have to consider this year’s All-Star Weekend a disappointment. Most notably, the hype surrounding the Dunk Contest quickly dissipated, but across the board, myself, and judging by what I’ve heard and read, most people as well, felt things just didn’t live up to their expectations. I’ve explained some of the changes I’d like to see, and I really hope the NBA decides to look at improving things. It’d be a shame if what can be such a great interlude during the season turns into an event that people would rather skip over.