Playground-Style Draft Should Be NBA's Next All-Star Evolution

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2020

CHARLOTTE, NC - FEBRUARY 17: LeBron James #23 of Team LeBron and Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of Team Giannis pose for a photo after the 2019 NBA All-Star Game on February 17, 2019 at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Last year, the NBA made a big show of listening to the demands of the public and putting the All-Star draft on television for the first time. The two captains, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, took part in a video conference with the NBA on TNT crew, pretended to be surprised by each other's picks and drafted most of the players you'd expect from the pool of All-Star starters and reserves.

A year ago, the novelty of the draft being televised was enough to placate the masses who were disappointed by the previous year's press release.

In Year 2 of the new tradition, it became clear that merely televising it doesn't go far enough. It's three-quarters of a great idea, but the NBA could hit a home run in the coming years by holding the draft at midcourt minutes before the start of the game.

James and Antetokounmpo hit many of the same notes they did during last year's telecast and recycled many of the same jokes from the previous iteration. Even the themes of the picks were the same: James took Los Angeles Lakers teammate Anthony Davis first among the starters; Antetokounmpo took Milwaukee Bucks teammate Khris Middleton first among the reserves. James took banana boat-mate Chris Paul and fellow Klutch Sports client Ben Simmons; Antetokounpo took "African brothers" Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam with his first two picks.

Like last year's draft, it was a harmless good time that no one will remember next Sunday when the All-Star Game tips off.

BROOKLYN, NY - JANUARY 23: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers and Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers talk during a game against the Brooklyn Nets on January 23, 2020 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ac
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James' pick of Davis encapsulates exactly why the All-Star draft needs to be held live in the arena.

This was James' second year in a row taking Davis at the first opportunity. When last season's All-Star draft was held, the big man was still a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, and he, James and mutual agent Rich Paul had spent a week publicly lobbying for a trade to the Lakers. After James drafted him to Team LeBron, it opened up an easy opportunity for Antetokounmpo and Inside the NBA host Ernie Johnson to make a joke about tampering.

The circumstances are different this time. James and Davis got their wish over the summer and are now Lakers teammates, rolling to a 38-11 record, best in the Western Conference.

But the All-Star Game is set to take place in Chicago, Davis' hometown. James pretended to agonize over the pick, finally saying, "I'm only taking him because he's from this city."

On TV, that joke got a few laughs before everyone moved on. But imagine if James hyped up his teammate's Chicago roots while announcing that pick at midcourt of a sold-out United Center. Davis would get a moment with his hometown fans on the biggest weekend of the season, which could then be packaged on the NBA's social-media channels into a viral clip.

Everybody wins.

The entire conceit would work better with a crowd. James and Antetokounmpo feigned shock at each other's entirely predictable picks. Antetokounmpo frequently consulted his notebook (emblazoned with a huge Nike logo, obviously) for draft strategy. Much outrage was had when someone's planned pick was stolen. All of it would play better with 20,000 fans to sell the jokes.

Plus, players would take their draft position personally—and thus compete harder in the game—if it was fresh. Trae Young can't be happy he was the last selection among the starters. Jimmy Butler, the most notorious chip-on-his-shoulder player in the NBA, was taken in the middle of the second round. 

MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 3: Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat talks to his teammates during a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on February 3, 2020 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
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No one was surprised when Antetokounmpo selected Middleton first in the second round, what with them being teammates and all. But before taking Damian Lillard, James made sure to point out the Portland Trail Blazers point guard's scoring average over the past two weeks.

Something like that could easily be motivation for Lillard if it happens immediately before the start of the game. Ten days after the fact, the impact isn't the same.

For years, the NBA has been trying to make the All-Star Game more competitive. This time around, it's implementing a new format with an untimed final quarter played to the leading team's score through three quarters plus 24 points, in honor of the late Kobe Bryant. It's as radical a change as there's been to the All-Star format.

Taking it a step further and picking the teams on the court, playground-style, would turn the draft from a fun-but-disposable pregame show to genuinely must-see TV.


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.