Saving All-Star Weekend From Itself
And naturally, there's the annual uproar over positional slots. Guards aren't differentiated, meaning Chris Paul equals Kobe Bryant. A forward is a forward. Yet for some reason, power forwards and centers stay separate when the big man -- at least as an inflexible chess piece -- is a dying art. Getting into these arguments is like tumbling into a sinkhole, only to realize that your sinkhole has been a part of a larger bed of quicksand. Go ahead you tell me who should start at center in the West. Not Andrew Bynum? How about Amar'e Stoudemire, a PF/C hybrid in an unorthodox system? Too slack? Zach Randolph has been a rock for the Grizzlies. He's as pure a power forward as you'll find over the counter.
There be two conflicting impulses here: The open-ended fun of guard/guard, and the tyranny of PF/C; the popularity contest of fan voting versus the meritocracy of coach-picked reserves. A celebration of the dunk that's become a corporate formality. Something's got to give.
There can be resolution. And I would like to illustrate this with a series of examples. In 2004, the West out-heighted the East by (rough calculations here) a ratio of 37 to 1. At one point, Flip Saunders put a line-up out on the floor consisting of Shaq, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Yao Ming, and a guard, probably Kobe Bryant. Only Don Nelson would ever pull something so strange during hot real action, but Saunders dared to dream. And you know what? It didn't work so badly. It gave these giants a chance to show off their range as players, provided a good laugh, and was a clever -- or maybe just prankish -- way to exploit a competitive advantage.
On a slightly more serious note, what about the East's frantic fourth quarter comeback in 2001, engineered by Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury. No one's ideal backcourt, AI and Steph still got together for one brave afternoon and showed there was such a thing as heart in an exhibition. They shared the ball well, if only with each other, played off of their teammates, and looked as essential to the NBA as they ever would. Sure, it's not a real game, but anyone who watched 2001 can tell you, there was a playoff-type atmosphere for most of the second half. Think of it like one of those comic books where an alternate dimension opens up, or Alice in Wonderland in the midst of a major business operation. When strange, unexpected things happen in the game, we're all the richer for it.
Compare these heady milestones with, say, the 2006 game, when four Pistons made the East. Saunders, now with Detroit, was the coach, and Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton, Ben Wallace, and Chauncey Billups acted like absent teammate Tayshaun Prince had just been locked up. This was around the same time that people starting suggesting that the Pistons, not some collection of the league's best individual players, represent America in international competition. This was the absolute low point of recent All-Star games. Maybe all four were deserving, and I suppose the success of the unit up to that point was its own kind of entity (please, give Slimer a badge!). But this wasn't the All-Star game, it was that season's Pistons. I could've seen that any day of the week. Don't wear your work clothes to the White House, or even bring your wife as your date!
The All-Star game should offer a chance for the sport to experiment and stretch out. Players and coaches alike can expand their minds. Throw out positions altogether in the fan balloting; there aren't quotas for the coaches, aside from some vague attempt to make sure there's some size on their side. Okay, that's a bit extreme. Why not just "guards" and "big men," and if that means you're stuck with Kevin Durant as the starting center, then make it work. Who wouldn't want to see that, if only for a few minutes? Or what about -- gasp -- LeBron banging in the paint? The funny part is that, as I wrote yesterday, positional fluidity and the unorthodox coupling of talent is becoming a new strategy for building teams. The All-Star Game could be both weirder and more cutting edge than ever.
As for the dunk contest, give the players what they want. If no one worthwhile will participate, it's pretty obvious the event has lost its luster. Attempts to retool it have failed utterly. So why not put it in the hands of, say, Shaq, a master showman who knows his way around the league, and can get any player to at least listen to him? What about hyper-specific micro-contests, like a rematch between Andre Iguodala and whoever got the title that should be his? Let it be personal.
An in-game dunking challenge, that could entice LeBron back in by offering less pressure and a style more suited to his skills. Let Dwight Howard see how high he can go. Find a way to get James White involved. Dunks haven't gone out of style; on the contrary, the league has more monsters of the dunk-way on board than ever before. Yet whoever organizes this thing has lost touch with the streets, or at least YouTube. Make Shaq the Dunk Czar, give him a staff, and watch Saturday turn into the three-ring circus that -- given all the time we spend watching it -- it deserves to be.
Again, I know this sounds kind of crazy. I'm splintering tradition, rejecting the monolith, and daring to suggest that the league work a little to push All-Star Weekend closer to the edge. Except the more ASW moves in this direction, the closer it comes to reflecting the reality of the league today. The problem isn't that ASW can't decide how serious it wants to be, but that its structure, and strategy, belong to a stodgy and inflexible league that is increasingly a thing of the past. And if there's one thing everyone can agree on, it's that the weekend should put the NBA's best foot forward, not serve as a celebration of the dead skin that's already been left behind on the ground.