Disgust with All-Star Game Pushed Chris Paul, Michael Jordan to Demand Change

Ken BergerFeatured Columnist IOctober 5, 2017

FILE- In this Feb. 20, 2017, file pool photo, Eastern Conference small forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, of the Milwaukee Bucks, dunks as Western Conference guard Stephen Curry, bottom, of the Golden State Warriors, lies on the court during the first half of the NBA All-Star basketball game in New Orleans. The NBA is scrapping the East against West format for its All-Star Game and will have captains pick teams this season. (AP Photo/Max Becherer, Pool, File)
Max Becherer/Associated Press

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when the NBA All-Star Game became an unwatchable bore-fest.

Was it the 2015 version that went over like a lead balloon at Madison Square Garden, piercing the nation's weary eyeballs with 133 gratuitous three-point attempts?

Was it the following year in Toronto, where not even Kobe Bryant's All-Star swan song could save an otherwise pointless exercise in basketball butchery?

According to an executive within the league who was privy to the meetings that culminated in Tuesday's announcement of significant changes to the All-Star format, the most recent event in New Orleans was actually the last straw.

And golden boy Steph Curry was the culprit.

For those involved in the process, Curry's hitting the deck and covering his ears on Giannis Antetokounmpo's fast-break dunk—instead of, you know, playing defensewas the tipping point. Yet if National Basketball Players Association president and nine-time All-Star Chris Paul wasn't injured and watching the game at home on TV, the All-Star fiasco may not have been fixed.

"For the first time, he actually just sat at home and watched it like a fan would watch it," a person close to Paul told Bleacher Report. "I got the sense that he thought what everybody else thought; there's very little competition. He's an ultra-competitive guy. … I think he viewed it from a different perspective and was like, 'Holy crap, we've got to do something.'"

The morning after the West's 192-182 "victory" over the East in New Orleans, Paul called NBA commissioner Adam Silver and told him, "We have to fix this."

Not only did Silver agree, he was elated.

"It was almost a relief," a person familiar with the league's thinking told B/R. "It was like, 'Thank God, they feel this way, too.'"

A phone call between Chris Paul and Adam Silver the morning after the latest All-Star Game prompted changes to the game's format that were announced this week.
A phone call between Chris Paul and Adam Silver the morning after the latest All-Star Game prompted changes to the game's format that were announced this week.Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

"They," in this context, are the players. While the changes unveiled Tuesday—team captains will now draft their teams from the pool of 24 All-Stars, instead of pitting East vs. Westwere paramount to fixing an unwatchable event, they also speak to a larger issue.

The players run the NBA. Now, they run the All-Star Game, too.

But rather than becoming an issue that could sour the labor peace the league currently enjoys, Paul's epiphany resulted in a win-win for Silver and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts. Instead of being in the position of trying to force unwanted changes on the players, Silver found himself playing the role of a willing accomplice for a call to action that came straight from the top of the union leadership.

"There's no question that NBA players have more of a power base than most other leagues," an executive within the league told B/R. "But this isn't one where the NBA had to do a whole lot of arm-twisting. This is one I think we all agreed on."

Once Paul got the ball rolling, the discussion was steered chiefly by Silver and Roberts, who had touched on the issue during bargaining sessions in the past but never got down to the details, league sources said. The third driver of change was none other than Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, who flexed his muscle because, well, he's Michael Jordan, but also because he's the chairman of the league's labor relations committee.

"Michael was heavily involved," said one of the people familiar with the meetings.

Gone is the long-held tradition where 12 All-Stars from the East face 12 All-Stars from the West. (If you think about it, there was never anything sacred or meaningful behind that approach anyway.) The voting and representatives of each conference won't change, but the twist is that the top vote-getters in each conference will choose up sides.

With a host of potential free-agent rumors, the selection of players in the 2018 All-Star Game may be as compelling as the game itself.
With a host of potential free-agent rumors, the selection of players in the 2018 All-Star Game may be as compelling as the game itself.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Plenty of details and logistics are still to be decided. Who gets the first pick? Will it be a standard draft or serpentine style (whomever doesn't have the first pick gets the next two)?

Will the entire draft be televised? On one hand, it would be a marketing bonanza for the league. On the other, NBA players do not like to be shown up. Is there a way to capitalize on the commercial interest without embarrassing the last player chosen?

Finally, assuming LeBron James, per usual, will be the top vote-getter in the East, will he be subject to speculation and unwanted storylines based on his picks? What if he chooses Draymond Green over teammate Kevin Love? And can you imagine if he picks prospective free agent Paul George, who has long been linked to the Lakers? Consider the All-Star Game overshadowed by a newly fueled "LeBron-to-the-Lakers" frenzy.

One issue that has been resolved, though the details are still being discussed, is that the starters voted in by the fans and media will remain so. The easiest way to ensure that is to force the captains to choose among the other eight starters with their first four picks.

However it all plays out, don't be fooled into thinking this was any kind of orchestrated effort to address the East-West talent imbalance. Nothing short of realignment will fix that. And as typically is the case under Silver's leadership, he was open to change on this issue but was only willing to take it so far.

The All-Star changes speak more to a power base among NBA stars that has never been greater. If making the All-Star Game an event worthy of celebration again is the end result, everybody wins.

The 1998 All-Star Game that featured Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant on the same court is considered by many in basketball circles as one of the most competitive in recent times.
The 1998 All-Star Game that featured Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant on the same court is considered by many in basketball circles as one of the most competitive in recent times.HENNY RAY ABRAMS/Getty Images

Will it work? Will we ever see an All-Star Game as competitive as the one in 1998, when Jordan dueled Kobe at Madison Square Garden?

The truth is, nobody knows. But at least the players are now invested in the outcome and in the product—as opposed to their own gratuitous highlights.

"These are guys who get mad at each other when they're running through plays in a shootaround," the executive within the league said. "They're extremely competitive. So it seemed odd to me that they'd get in front of 20,000 people and millions on TV, and all they cared about was dunks and three-pointers."

Hopefully, mercifully, those days are over.

         

Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KBergNBA.