The Mazzola Minute
Issue   |   Tue, 02/27/2018 - 20:46

Maybe Steph still hasn’t gotten the memo, as he was spotted during the game munching popcorn on the bench, but the N.B.A. All-Star Game is serious now.

What was formerly the N.B.A.’s high-scoring, no defense, comedy-fest has became a competitive basketball game contested by the best players in the world. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little. For fans interested in flashy plays and comically stupid turnovers, the first quarter provided all the usual antics of the All-Star Game, but as time wore on and the score tightened, players started attempting previously unheard of actions like basic layups and perimeter defense.

With his go-ahead layup late in the fourth quarter and near triple-double stat line, LeBron James earned the All-Star Game MVP trophy. I found his lockdown defense (with the help of Kevin Durant) on Steph Curry to be the most significant play of the game. It saw the two captains squaring off with the game on the line, and the defensive intensity really captured how significant the difference in energy level was in this All-Star Game compared to in previous years.

The N.B.A. made a bold decision this year to abandon the traditional East-West format of the All-Star Game in favor of a captains (chosen by fans through voting) pick playground-type format. Prior to this year, there seemed to be an unwritten agreement between the chosen players that defense was lame, alley-oops were cool and stupidly-long three-point attempts were fun. The ultimate goal of the All-Star Game appeared to be making the highlight reel, not winning. Sure, this kind of spectacle is enjoyable on some level, but All-Star weekend already has the skills challenge, three-point contest and dunk contest for basketball for fans who apperciate tomfoolery.

What basketball lacked was a competitive game between the best players in the world. Sure, the NBA Finals supposedly pits the two best teams against each other in a seven-game winner-take-all series, but even the Golden State Warriors can’t claim to have a lineup of only the best players in the world (although their four All-Stars may beg to differ).

Additional changes, like televising the draft of players by captains, are in the works for future years, but it’s safe to say that the new format is a commercial and competitive success. The changes to the All-Star Game
may also usher in a wave of changes across the N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver, alluding to the imbalance between Eastern and Western Conference teams, acknowledged that the league may be better served not to pit the Eastern and Western Conference champions against each other in the finals. Rather, the sixteen best overall teams would be reseeded regardless of conerance at the start of the playoffs based on record, making it possible for the two best teams, even if they’re both in the Western Conference, to contest the N.B.A. Finals (let’s be real here, it’s not going to be two Eastern Conference teams given the present landscape).

The new playoff structure is intriguing, but it does beg the question: why now? While the Western Conference has been inarguably stronger this past two decades, that hasn’t always been the case. Immediately following the NBA-ABA merger and through most of the 1980s, the Eastern Conference had a disproportionate share of talent. Then, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the balance of talent was roughly even between the two conferences.

Some cite LeBron James’ supremacy in the Eastern Conference as the main reason many star players have been leaving the East. This off-season alone, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony headed west together to join Oklahoma City. While LeBron’s seven consecutive trips to the NBA Finals is a terrifying statistic, it’s not the only NBA dynasty. In fact, the Warriors have been building an arguably stronger dynasty, notching two championships, the NBA all-time regular season wins record and three finals appearances in the past three seasons. Also, the San Antonio Spurs are on-pace for their fourteenth consecutive 50-win regular season, while the Thunder and Rockets have both consistently challenged the Warriors’ dominance.

The third change in discussion is perhaps the most drastic, shortening the regular season. The current 82-game season is exhausting. Injury rates, particularly among star players, are at an all-time high. Coaches routinely rest top players to avoid burnout. Top teams can afford not to take every game seriously — I’m looking at you, Golden State — in order to preserve their legs for the playoffs. The second game in a back-to-back is nearly unwinnable, no matter the opponent. With fewer games, the intensity of play would increase. There would be more of the spectacular performances that fans expect of star players.

I can’t offer much of a defense of the current 82-game schedule. I do appreciate that stamina and intelligent coaching decisions are rewarded, but these can also be accomplished with a significantly shorter season. The best defense of the 82-game schedule is the difficulty of change in gneral. Historical comparisons would become next-to-impossible, and any accurate comparison would necessitate the creation of an algorithm to account for fatigue, a near-impossible objective. Basketball statistics are a prominent part of the game, and the change in how statistics must be interpreted would make creating all-time rankings of players and teams much more difficult. While these lists have no actual meaning, fans enjoy reading them and that counts for something.

With so many evolutions in the style of play over the years in the NBA, it’s nice to see the league finally considering some major logistical changes to match.