For many reasons, there will never be an All-Star Weekend like this one again. At least, we can hope not.
This one even happening at all was controversial. Some of the most prominent players invited to Atlanta were vocal about not thinking the game should be played with the COVID-19 pandemic still in effect. And although the league was able to avoid the nightmare scenario of an outbreak, it still lost Philadelphia 76ers stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid at the last minute after their barber, with whom they were in contact before arriving in Atlanta, tested positive.
Efforts to raise money for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were at the forefront of the Sunday night presentation—a themed court, Tennessee State alum Robert Covington in the Skills Challenge, marching bands playing during player intros—and that cause is a worthy and admirable one.
But nobody could deny that this event, which originally was set to be canceled when the league and players' union agreed on the schedule for the season, existed because the NBA had money to make.
"I haven't made it a secret out of the fact that economic interests are a factor," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Saturday at his annual state-of-the-league press conference, which was, like everything else this year, done over Zoom. "It's less to do with the economics of one Sunday night on TNT in the United States. It has more to do with the larger brand value of the NBA. This is our number one fan engagement event of the year. … It's sort of what we do. For me, it would have been a bigger deal not to have it."
The resulting evening of festivities ended up being a fine TV broadcast that, like everything else in the last year, felt weird and uncomfortable. Still, parts of it were just normal enough that you could forget it was taking place in a pandemic if you really tried.
The 1st-Timers Still Had Fun
A first-time All-Star appearance is one of the great milestones for any NBA career.
For Zion Williamson and Jaylen Brown, this year's selection was the first of what will be many. For Zach LaVine, it was vindication for what he felt should have been his inclusion in Chicago last year. For Julius Randle, it was a welcome and deserved mid-career breakthrough. They all seemed to enjoy the moment, much more so than some of the veterans who felt the game shouldn't be happening and for whom the personal excitement of being an All-Star has seemingly worn off.
And then there's Mike Conley, who can finally retire the title of "best player ever to not be an All-Star" that was destined to be the first line of his career bio for the rest of time until he was named an injury replacement for Devin Booker—himself an injury replacement for Anthony Davis.
Conley has been great this season, and the Utah Jazz have the league's best record. But the announcement came on the heels of team captains LeBron James and Kevin Durant picking teammates Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell last, which was followed by James' instantly viral justification that nobody ever played as Karl Malone and John Stockton in NBA Jam.
Giving a long-overdue nod to Conley in these circumstances felt less like a genuine effort to recognize his career and more like a way to placate Jazz fans after James' dig. Would it mean the same to him finally being named an All-Star when it came as a substitute for a substitute?
It turns out it does.
On a day when very few of the stars wanted to be there, Conley's excitement was palpable in the pregame interview with Inside the NBA. He's wanted this for a long time, and he'll take it any way he can get it. He even provided one of the more memorable on-court moments of the night, going toe-to-toe with Stephen Curry in the Three-Point Contest.
Curry won, of course, but it went down to the wire, and Conley shot well enough to make him at least pretend to sweat. It was a genuinely cool moment on a night that created all kinds of conflicting feelings.
The Dunk Contest Isn't the Same Without Fans
More so than any other part of the night, the dunk contest fell flat in an empty arena. That event is built on contestants' ability to make the crowd and various celebrities in attendance lose their minds through dazzling feats of athleticism.
This year, there was no crowd to lose its mind.
That was especially true with this year's field, which lacked the star power of the most memorable contests of years past. LaVine and Williamson, both obvious candidates to participate out of the field of All-Stars, opted not to, and it's hard to blame them. With the schedule already as compressed as it is and both of them on teams in the hunt for a playoff spot, why would they further risk injury for a dunk contest either of them will be able to participate in sometime in the future?
Damian Lillard pulled out of the Three-Point Contest for the same reason. It was asking enough of these guys to show up to the game.
The biggest name in the dunk contest was Obi Toppin, the No. 8 overall pick in this year's draft who was a highly decorated college player and now plays for the New York Knicks. But even he got off to a slow start to the year due to injuries, so his presence wasn't met with the fanfare it would have been otherwise.
His two opponents were Indiana Pacers two-way rookie Cassius Stanley and Portland Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons, who have logged a combined two dunks in NBA games this season (both from Simons). Each of them had at least one great dunk, but they would have landed better with the "wow" factor of a sold-out crowd collectively realizing these guys they'd never heard of were invited for a reason.
Imagine the crowd's reaction when Simons traded out his Blazers jersey for a Tracy McGrady Toronto Raptors jersey and proceeded to do a near-perfect imitation of one of McGrady's dunks from the legendary 2000 contest.
The greatest dunk contest I've ever seen in person—the legendary LaVine-Aaron Gordon duel in Toronto in 2016—was memorable not just for their dunks but for seeing the crowd lose it as they tried to one-up each other repeatedly. Piped-in applause doesn't hit the same.
Simons won the contest, for the record, even though he didn't actually kiss the rim on his final attempt, which was a source of much controversy on the broadcast.
What he did do, however, was complete all three of his dunks on the first try. That's an underrated thing to bring to the dunk contest. Unless what you're attempting is all-time-great stuff, like some of the LaVine-Gordon dunks, a few blown attempts really ruin the suspense. Props to Simons for knowing what he wanted to do and executing it.
The Elam Ending is Great, but a Playground-style Draft is Still the Next Step
A year ago, I wrote that the NBA televising the All-Star draft wasn't going far enough and that they should pick the teams on the court right before tipoff. There are probably economic reasons that couldn't happen (Nike has jerseys to sell), but that's still the best way to maximize the current format.
Take that aforementioned James shot at the Jazz after he and Durant snubbed Gobert and Mitchell. What if he had made that joke to their faces right before the game started? Maybe that inspires Mitchell, who ended up on Team Durant, to go out and drop 40, win All-Star MVP and then give a postgame interview asking James if he'd still pick the Jazz last in NBA Jam.
That would have been great TV, maybe creating some genuine animosity between them that could potentially last beyond the All-Star Game. Like, say, if the Jazz and Lakers were to meet in the Western Conference Finals three months from now.
The NBA instituted the Elam Ending last year to make the usually laughable All-Star Game competitive, and it was a resounding success. This year's game was a blowout, but you can't attribute that to the format. None of the top players seemed to want to be there, likely because most of them felt playing the game at all was a mistake. Mailing it in was understandable.
Even still, there were some memorable performances. Giannis Antetokounmpo took home MVP honors after shooting a record 16-of-16 from the field, and Lillard and Curry took turns bombing deep threes, culminating in a Lillard half-court pull-up to end the game by getting Team LeBron to 170.
Even in a non-competitive game, Lillard's shot was a better ending than what the fourth quarter of an All-Star Game usually devolves into. The Elam Ending is here to stay, as it should. But it's time for the NBA to let the captains pick the teams on the court.
Hopefully next year, when the pandemic is over and the game takes place in front of fans again, that can become a reality.
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.