The NBA’s annual All-Star weekend is a joy many basketball fans look forward to every season. From the celebrities sitting courtside to the rim-shattering dunks from the Dunk Contest, what’s not to love? Well, this year’s All-Star weekend (day would be the more appropriate term) was a bit different. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, only 2,500 fans were allowed into the State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia. Although it was nice to have fans back in seats, the environment was just not the same. However, the fake crowd noises being pumped into the arena did make up for that.
The question of whether or not the league should have even had the events is a legitimate debate that warrants discussion. Hell, the league’s brightest star LeBron James admitted deciding to go on with hosting this game was a, “slap in the face” to the players. James also stated, “I’ll be there if I’m selected. But I’ll be there physically, but not mentally.” That showed, as LeBron only played 13 minutes the whole game. The only player to get less minutes was last-second addition Mike Conley, who replaced the injured Devin Booker. Booker was just one of five selected players that didn’t participate. Kevin Durant, Booker, and Anthony Davis all sat out due to injury. However, it was Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid’s reason for sitting that raises an eyebrow towards the league. Simmons and Embiid were caught in the claws of COVID-19 contact tracing, ultimately leading to them being kicked out of the game. Luckily for the league, they didn’t come in close contact with any of the other players. But, just imagine, what if they did? What if the league’s brightest stars got COVID-19? Does the league push on with an already jam-packed schedule where every game counts? Holding this game was irresponsible, and Adam Silver is lucky to have dodged the COVID-19 bullet with Philly’s All-Stars.
For the sake of organization, let’s discuss the events in chronological order. The Taco Bell Skills Challenge is up first. It’s cool. I have no complaints about it; you can almost see the event as an appetizer before the main course — bad pun fully intended. You can tell the players don’t take it nearly as competitively as the other contests, which is fine. I have no complaints about watching Luka Dončić jog between obstacles in his warmup outfit. The event is meant to be a fun activity for the participants and a little teaser of what’s to come for the audience.
Next up on the day’s slate was the three-point contest. It was probably the best event of the night despite Damian Lillard dropping out of it in order to rest for the pending game. That narrative of excitement remains true despite the fact that the participants that were selected were questionable. Namely Joe Harris, Duncan Robinson, Joe Ingles, and Buddy Hield were left out over a guy in Jaylen Brown who is 40th in total threes made (76) and 70th in three-point percentage (38.8 percent) this season. Despite that, it was a fun competition between mainly Stephen Curry and last-second addition Mike Conley. Curry won the competition on the last shot of the night, nailing a money ball to put his total to 28, just a single point above Conley’s 27. Dope. Cool. Who doesn’t love moments like that? Even Conley was smiling.
Although not chronologically correct, let’s tackle the disappointment of the Dunk Contest. Sure, Anfernee Simons, Cassius Stanley, and Obi Toppin aren’t the flashiest names in the game. But, who cares so long as you can dunk? It’s the Dunk Contest, you don’t need to have a big name to perform well even if casual fans won’t be as excited comparative to if it was Zion Williamson or LeBron participating. Regardless of the prowess of the participants, the vibe surrounding the contest was depressing. Just look at the players on the sideline. They weren’t jumping up and running around going wild like they usually do. Most just clapped sitting down or jolted a little bit. The energy just wasn’t the same as it usually was. The judging was questionable all night, as Cassius Stanley’s electric between-the-legs dunk was the lowest scoring dunk of the contest (excluding his botched second dunk) only netting 44 points. Yet, Anfernee Simmons’ failed attempt at kissing the rim won him the trophy in the final round? No way. What about the Toppin’s dunk where he put the ball under his leg and caught it for a reverse dunk; the same dunk Zach LaVine did in warmups a week ago (though he did it better)? 48. It’s hard to name the best dunk of the night since there was no originality in any of them. Simmons paying homage to Tracy McGrady with one dunk, Toppin jumping over some people, and a step inside the free throw line dunk are the most notable from the night. Obviously all of those dunks are impressive feats of human athleticism, but from a critical stand point, the contest was extremely boring in comparison to recent years.
Now, to the actual All-Star game itself. Well, sort of. The main constant throughout the game was the commentary and the production decisions from TNT. In all honesty, this is where I had the biggest problem with the night. I wasn’t exactly thrilled to have Zion Williamson giving the generic “I would like to thank my teammates” speech take up a fourth of my screen for two minutes, nor was I happy about having the both head coaches’ audio be randomly piped into national television extremely spottily. I get that you have to make the game about more than the game, but this just wasn’t the way to do it. I’d much rather have players join the commentary team mid-game or have an interview take place during timeout. Show some graphics to pass the dead time between play. Drizzle in some mic’d up moments. Please stop shrinking the live game play, it’s irritating. However, what was the most frustrating thing to deal with was the commentary. Chris Webber was a great player, but not so much as a commentator. Reggie Miller is passable. Although a legend in the industry, Marv Albert is past his time. He’s an iconic voice, but that doesn’t automatically mean he’ll give a good performance. All throughout the night Albert keep spitting into his mic, and with each crackling ’T’ that came out of his mouth I slowly started to lose my mind. He even called Dončić Jokić at one point despite having a few seconds to catch up to the ball. Oh, and he called Damian Lillard Curry. Don’t get me started on when he called Nikola Vučević Jokić, though I can’t find a clip. The commentary team made the game a drag to watch.
The game itself was fun. Aside from the lopsided 60-41 second quarter the game was close and competitive. If you exclude the second, Team LeBron only wins by a single point. Granted the captain himself elected to not really play, but, still. It wasn’t a surprise to see Team LeBron win. Team Durant was missing their captain, Kevin Durant, the second overall pick for the team, Joel Embiid, and the second bench player chosen, Devin Booker. No diss to Mike Conley, but if you’re picking Devin Booker and end up with Mike Conley, that’s a bit of a downgrade.
However, the game did see many highs. Curry and Chris Paul threw back-to-back lobs to each other. Giannis Antetokounmpo hit a James Harden-like step back three. Curry and Lillard were literally having a halfcourt contest mid-game. The game was undoubtedly fun, and players like Jokić looked like kids running around a playground having the time of their lives. Although it was a little ridiculous for Team Durant to be 48 points away from the target score (170) in comparison to 24 for Team LeBron, the game ended with the same feel of any All-Star game. The fourth quarter was much more competitive and defense was actually played.
The overall All-Star Day was disappointing and felt underwhelming to watch as a basketball fan. Obviously it’s unfair to subjectively compare this year’s events to prior years, it is completely fair to judge the events themselves. Due to a boring Dunk Contest, poor Three-Point Contest selections, terrible production performances, and depleted All-Star rosters, this year’s All-Star break was very lackluster. It left me disappointed wanting more, which is something you never want for an event that is supposed to be the biggest most exciting event of the year. The cumulative gathering of the league’s brightest stars is supposed to leave viewers feeling satisfied, not upset with what happened or what could have been.