Today in The Works: How to fix the All-Star Game. For real.
Do Something New
Every year, the All-Star Game happens, and every year, there are angry fans galore at the players selected. Some do so out of rank homer-ism; others, a inflated sense of morals and justice. Just as bad, though, is the stale nature of the game itself. For too long, the West was the best, and the East got slaughtered every year. Now, things are leveling out, but it could still use a shake-up.
Bigs vs. Smalls: Red Auerbach's Celtics teams used to play regular big vs. small scrimmages, which the guards and wings usually won on the strength of their quickness and passing. Those contests informed Don Nelson's entire coaching philosophy, for better or worse, and the NBA certainly looks like a game of speed and skill rather than brute force these days. On the other hand, tall stars increasingly find themselves playing outside of the paint -- whether it's Kevin Durant as a wing scorer or LeBron James as a do-everything beast.
Those new realities suggest that a contemporary matchup between big and small stars wouldn't necessarily go to the guards. Divide teams by the median height -- let's assume it's 6-foot-8, give or take an inch -- and enjoy the bizarre matchups like LeBron on Chris Paul, or Kevin Garnett on Kobe Bryant, or a swarming turnover-based attack by the smalls that leads to as many fast-break points as possible. It might be hard to set up systems in time to make this game as interesting as possible, but it's experiment worth trying. It'll entertain and teach us something about where basketball stands in the modern age.
Liberals vs. Conservatives: Our country is as divided politically as its been since at least the presidential election of 2004, with one side calling for revolution and the other wondering what's wrong with people who think that a few relatively minor liberal policies constitute socialism. If the NBA wants as many viewers as possible, they will cater to the current political strife and choose teams by where players fall on the political spectrum.
That process will be a little tricky, since most basketball players are self-identified Obama voters and the league's Republicans are usually tall white guys like Spencer Hawes. However, party identification does not always correspond to actual political views, which is why the league should require all selected All-Stars to take a survey to glean their true affinities and hopes for the future of America. The added bonus is that we'll learn more about our favorite players: perhaps Dirk Nowitzki is a fervent supporter of a high estate tax and we just never knew it.
Ratings are sure to surge as Americans watch the game not only as a basketball exhibition, but as a battle for the future of the nation. Have you ever seen the Dean Cain vehicle "Futuresport," in which rival multinational conglomerates play for control of Hawaii? It will be like that, only bigger.
Fun vs. Dull: Every season, NBA insiders argue to determine which players are most deserving of selection for the All-Star Game. But these discussions rarely focus on the fact that the All-Star Game is an exhibition for the league at its most entertaining, not just a chance to celebrate the league's most effective players. These debates aren't only about who's deserving, but what constitutes an All-Star player.
Finally, we can put this issue to rest with a game between the most thrilling and the most quietly effective players in the NBA. Can you describe any aspects of David West's game other than his statistics? Does it even matter if he scores on Blake Griffin at will? Who actually wins his team more games, the professional Chauncey Billups or the flashy Monta Ellis? These are the issues we seek to resolve with this All-Star idea.
No Dunks Allowed: The All-Star Game is a showcase for the league's brightest talents, but it too frequently devolves into an effort to see who can complete the most elaborate alley-oops. Occasionally, this is exciting, like when guys throw it off the backboard to themselves. Too often, though, the defense rests and opens up the lane only to see a pass go hilariously high out of bounds. There are some highlights, but overall these dunk attempts tend to make the game unwatchable.
The only solution is to outlaw the dunk from the All-Star Game. This might seem counterintuitive if excitement is the goal and not some peach basket purist's wet dream, but what viewers want is creativity, not just a certain kind of play. The dunk ban will force players to explore new avenues of basketball joy instead of trying the same old alley-oops we've seen for years. It may not be entirely representative of the NBA game, but it's a chance to see something we've never seen before. And isn't that what the All-Star Game is all about?
No Referees: Part of the All-Star Game's problem is that it has all the rules of a real game without feeling like one -- participants are in a regular NBA structure but play with little of the energy and commitment that makes that structure work. The solution isn't to tell guys to try harder, but to change the rules of the game itself.
With that in mind, it's time to do away with the usual organized basketball rules and let the players call their own fouls. Sure, there might be a few fights, just like on the playground, but the increased intensity will make for a better game. Suddenly, the game becomes something more than a showcase for great players and a challenge of their respective manhoods. Is one guy calling too much? Does someone keep flopping? This is how reputations are built.
Haves Versus Have-Note: The premise here is simple and pure: The players from the best teams take on those from the worst. Granted, All-Star selections often end up placing a disproportionate amount of importance on teams being really good. So if we went by the usual fan chicanery, followed by coaches' selections, it would really be "best teams against those not quite as good."
What if, though, we actually took the best players from the worst team, and had them go up against the best on the best teams? And that doesn't mean a grab bag of Kevin Loves and Monta Ellises going up against half of the Lakers, Miami's Big Three, and most of the Celtics. If the ASG is really about individual talent then by heavens, let's see who really has the best individuals. No matter what happens, that will teach us all a thing or two.
Alphabetical Order: So mundane, yet so refreshing. Remember how the East used to have no big men, and was forced to rely on flashy guards and nothing else? That's how they won in 2001, in what's arguably the best All-Star Game ever. Alphabetical order could make things similarly funky. What if a team ended up with no guards? Then what would they do? That's kind of like bigs vs. smalls. So what if a team simply had no one who could shoot from long range?
More to the point, there would be no clear advantage, no logic whatsoever to who went with whom. One thing's for sure: When John Wall and Deron Williams end up on the same team every year (in a few years), well, that's a reunion we can look forward to every year. Just watch out for coaches looking to cook the teams with alphabetically-oriented selections.
Dogs vs. Cats: A lot of NBA players own dogs, but less publicized are those who are cat fans, or live with significant others whose cats have come into their lives. What's more, because cat people live in the shadows, and have yet to be officially recognized by the NBA fraternity, each year would be a flat-out grudge match -- a struggle for equality that's been a long time coming.
The problem, though, would be getting Team Cat to reveal itself, for fear of being mocked for seasons to come unless they won. There's also a distinct chance that Team Cat is simply not numerous enough for it to be a fair fight, in which case dogs and cats will be unleashed into a crowd of the All-Stars to see what animals clings to which players. It would double as the NBA's very own Puppy Bowl. And dang, couldn't the NBA use a little cuteness?
Battle of the Elements: This one is kind of a trick, since it doesn't actually involve the four elements fighting each other in basketball form. It would use the All-Stars picked in the normal fashion. But there are four quarters to a basketball game, just like those pesky elements. In this scenario, East meets West -- first in air, then water, then fire, then earth. In practical terms, that means a simulated hurricane, a swimming pool, one of those hot rooms they do yoga in, and then on a bunch of dirt.
It's weird, and maybe a little scary, and yet nothing will get basketball more in touch with its pagan roots than this exercise. Eventually, players will earn a reputations as especially talented in one environment or another, like Nadal on clay, and we will come to look forward to their next adventure. It will only come once a year, but soon, this version of the All-Star Game will make us wonder how we ever did without it.