The Arnovitz Eight: All-Star Reform Done Right

TrueHoop's Kevin Arnovitz is in Phoenix enjoying All-Star Weekend as it is now -- and dreaming about how it might be. He writes:

Of all the events that have sprung up around the NBA's All-Star Game, none has captured fan interest more than the annual gripe session about what's wrong with All-Star weekend. The complaints are familiar by now: The undeserving find their way into the starting lineup of Sunday's game. Showcases like the Skills Challenge and the Slam Dunk contest are either tedious or have lost their cachet. The main event is a bore.

All of this is frustrating to basketball junkies, because we know that the beauty of the sport requires so little orchestration. With the world's greatest basketball players on call for 72 hours, tens of millions of dollars to work with, and a little imagination, the league could deliver a product that's every bit as thrilling as its May and June model.

The problem with All-Star Weekend isn't the concept. It's the execution.

Given that basketball is the most beautiful game on earth, and that the NBA loves nothing more than to exhibit its collection of charismatic and otherworldly talent, how could we reboot All-Star Weekend?

Ideas for All-Star reform have been batted around for years, so we decided to compile a list of the best proposals out there. Many of these ideas originated at a TrueHoop Network discussion of All-Start Reform called "The Scorer's Table," which was moderated by Rob Mahoney of The Two Man Game. Other proposals have been around for a while, but deserved a second look as the basketball world descends onto Phoenix

Here are the Eight Ways to Save All-Star Weekend:

1. Less Power to the People
Winston Churchill said that democracy was the worst form of government in the world -- except for the others. Apparently, Churchill never filled out an NBA All-Star ballot. After Yi Jianlian and Bruce Bowen nearly squeaked into this year's starting lineups, it's time to inject a little old-fashioned, iron-fisted authoritarianism into the All-Star ballot process. The challenge confronting reformers will be familiar to any student of political science: How do you maintain some semblance of democracy while at the same time checking the unwashed masses when they make bad decisions?

The best voting reform plan came from TrueHoop reader Keane, who suggested this hybrid system:

How about having the coaches choose the 12 players and then having the fans vote for five starters out of those 12?

We like the Keane Amendment a lot. Fans would still determine all five starters on each team, but their menu of options will be confined to the truly deserving. Coaches could submit the slate of 12 candidates in each conference sometime in mid-January, after which fans would have a two-week window to choose the starters online. The League would still benefit from the horse race, and vocal debates about who's more deserving at forward -- Dirk, Duncan, or Amare. At the very worst, we'd see the third and fourth best players at their respective positions in the starting lineup on Sunday.

2. Sorry, Sophomores
The current centerpiece of the weekend's first night of events is the Rookie Challenge, which pits the League's best rookies against its best second-year players. A great event on paper, loads of young talent on the floor, except ... does it delivers?

Rob Mahoney described the problem in a nutshell:

The game is promoted as a "rivalry," and I love fast breaks as much as the next guy, but in truth I've never seen a Rookie-Sophomore game that really tickled my fancy. The game is somewhat limited by its own arbitrary purpose; the sophomores are almost always going to win, unless they're faced with a vastly superior draft class, in which case they still sometimes win. Yay. Still, the event seems salvageable.

So let's salvage it. One constant suggestion we heard was to get rid of the sophomores altogether. Mike Kurylo of Knickerblogger says we should swap them out for a different squad:

I'd like to see the freshmen play the D-League All Stars. It's become apparent that the D-League is a viable source of NBA-level talent. I think this would be a competitive game, since each has something valuable to play for. The D-Leaguers will be fighting to show that they belong in the League, and they may have an extra chip on their shoulder playing millionaire rookies.

Under Mike's plan, the game would have an actual dramatic narrative: A band of scrappy underdogs who've been toiling away at minimum wage in rickety gyms face off against 20-year-olds who are living their dream.

3. Skills? I'll Show You Skills!
The consensus surrounding the Skills Challenge is that it's a snoozer. Scorer's Table moderator Rob Mahoney captured the underwhelming sentiment perfectly: "OMG, which point guard can run around cones the fastest and make a lay-up?!"

It's not that we don't want to see NBA players show off their fundamental skills. But we're talking about some of the world's most freakish athletes, so why not have them do some freakish things? Rather than rely on the current lineup of basketball camp drills, let's get truly creative. Here's what Mahoney came up with:

Could they block two shots at the same time? Who could steal it from Chris Paul first? If all players were given a ball and a finite space, who would be the last man standing with an active dribble? Could they block a shot launched out of a machine like a clay pigeon?

Traffic cones are for drivers' exams, but a bazooka that launches basketballs at warp speed is for Josh Smith. Imagine the possibilities.

4.The Slam Dunk Contest -- Aim Higher
Nothing gets NBA fans out of their seats faster than a spectacular dunk. It's the most emphatic expression of basketball supremacy. But for whatever reason, the Slam Dunk Contest has been getting stale. Dwight Howard hype notwithstanding. M. Haubs of The Painted Area diagnoses the basic problem, "At this point, it's hard to top the dunks of the past."

How do you raise the stakes? How about by raising the rims? Jeremy Wagner of Roundball Mining Company wants to see a high dunk competition:

Keep raising the rim higher and higher and see who the last man standing is. You could set up different groups such as 6′4″ and under, 6′4″ to 6′10″ and 6′10″ and above. Wouldn't you want to see if Yao Ming can dunk on a rim as high as Dwight Howard can, or if Derrick Rose can throw down on a rim higher than Dwyane Wade?

Haubs would build on Jeremy's idea and perform a complete overhaul of the competition to keep it interesting:

Alternate between the "Artistic" competition and the "High Dunk" competition (very much agree that this would be fun) on an annual basis. I think the every-other-year scarcity would help make both competitions more special.

To reform the "Artistic" competition itself, turn it into more of a figure-skating model (let me explain, please), where the competitors get a certain time period -- 2 minutes or 4 minutes or whatever -- to put together a program of dunks.

This encourages spectacular atte
mpts because a single miss would be less penalized (and boring makes would be less useful), yet you couldn't just miss 72 times and still win the competition like Nate Robinson.

More dunks, greater variety, less waiting -- sounds like a winning formula.

5. Bring on the Euros
It's not that the NBA hasn't tried to expand the lineup of events., It's just that they've failed to offer anything compelling. (Shooting Stars, anyone?) The NBA is constantly reminding us that basketball is the world's lingua franca. So why not make the weekend a global event by inviting the best of the Euroleague to All-Star Weekend?

ESPN's David Thorpe has fashioned a great idea:

The NBA would designate the two worst teams (one from each conference) as of February 5th or so to play against any two teams the Euroleague wanted to send. Two games would be played on Friday and Saturday. If the Euroleague sent their two best teams this year to play Sacramento and Washington, I'd think the Euros would win. No matter what the rules were.

The game could potentially energize depressed fan bases in Sacramento and Washington who haven't seen their teams play meaningful basketball in months. Meanwhile, the NBA would have an exciting event that's every bit as international as the league claims to be.

6. My State Can Beat Up Your Commonwealth
The idea for two-on-two basketball during All-Star Weekend is a popular one, but how would you go about assembling teams? Dan Feldman of Piston Powered performed some intensive research and came up with a stellar idea with some local flavor:

A two-on-two tournament between players from each state and country (that has two players represented in the NBA). Games would be short, probably to seven. This could bring some March Madness-type Cinderella stories to the weekend.

What would the teams look like? Here's a sampling:

Florida: Amare Stoudemire and Vince Carter
Indiana: Greg Oden and Zach Randolph

Louisiana: Danny Granger and Paul Millsap

Spain: Pau Gasol and Jose Calderon

Turkey: Mehmet Okur and Hedo Turkoglu

One ancillary benefit of Dan's idea is that it would give fans in places that don't have NBA teams a rooting interest. Folks in West Virginia could tune in to watch O.J. Mayo and Deron Williams. Virgin Islanders could pull for Tim Duncan and Raja Bell!

7. The Wire
Athleticism is a beautiful thing to behold, but there are also some infectious personalities in the League that deserve some face time. The Slam Dunk competition is one of the few events that seems to capture that appeal. Improvisation is a great way to bring out the characters of the game. In that spirit, TrueHoop's Henry Abbott put forward this idea a couple years back, an event that would steal the weekend:

Strap a cordless microphone on every player, start each player with $20,000 cash, and let them make whatever bets they want with each other. $5,000 I can hit a half-court shot before you. $10k says the judges will like my tomahawk jam more than yours. $20,000 says I can shoot 50% from the free throw line blind-folded. That kind of thing. To keep everyone from talking at once, I guess they should be paired up, which would require some kind of elimination tournament. If they had this, it would be the must-see event of All-Star weekend. It's like poker meets basketball.

Teams make these kind of wagers all the time in practice. It makes for great fun. Imagine what a big stage, a little choreography, and some lead time could produce!

8. Choose Captains, and Pick Teams -- Schoolyard Style
Coming up with new sideshows is one thing, but how do you remake Sunday's game? ESPN's Bill Simmons delivered the best idea in his "New Rules" column from last September in ESPN the Magazine:

Playground rules for the NBA All-Star Game. Ever since the idea of having captains pick sides started to circulate, in February, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. Let's say Stern names Kobe and LeBron as captains. Right before the game we have a coin flip, and the winner gets first pick. The All-Stars line up, and Kobe and LeBron pick their teams playground-style. Imagine the drama. Who'd get picked first? Would a snubbed player end up wreaking havoc in the game? Would bad blood carry over to the rest of the season? God forbid something fun happened on All-Star Weekend.

It's Darwinism at its most sublime. Imagine the power rush of the captains, and the Freaks & Geeks awkwardness of the last two or three guys standing there, waiting for their names to be called. Does it violate the integrity of the Conferences, with stars from the East co-mingling with their counterparts from the West? Maybe, but with players swapping uniforms so freely these days, who really cares?

Got some better ideas for All-Star Weekend? Put them in the comments.