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Is The NBA’s All-Star System Broken?

All-Star controversies surrounding Kobe Bryant and DeMarcus Cousins have us asking once again if the selection process is broken…

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It seems like every time an unworthy starter like Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant gets voted into the All-Star game, or a worthy potential reserve like Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins gets snubbed, the entire peripheral NBA world, from fans to media, makes a collective nondescript yawp like all the angry Will Ferrell characters screaming at once. People are outraged, they bash the system, wonder when the NBA will ever get it right and demand that something be done immediately.

But what exactly is supposed to be done?

While the NBA All-Star game is third in terms of total viewership among all major All-Star games—the NFL Pro Bowl and MLB All-Star Game most recently drew in 11.4 million and 11.3 million viewers, respectively, compared to 7.5 million for 2014’s NBA All-Star Game—the All-Star game is really the only one that carries any lasting importance with fans.

The minute training camp starts, the media starts asking burgeoning young players whether they think they’ll make their first All-Star appearance that year, while the Tim Duncans and Kobe Bryants of the world are asked whether they think they still have enough gas in the tank to make yet another appearance at the NBA’s midseason classic.

Players value themselves in part based on their inclusion on these teams, and in fact the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement even has a stipulation that allows a young player to make more money if he is voted in as an All-Star starter twice in his first four seasons.

It’s true that making the team matters, but it’s also true that the game itself really doesn’t.

In baseball, the winning league gets home-field advantage in the World Series, a rule intended to make the game more competitive, but basketball has no such implications. In reality, there’s a whole lot more media coverage about (and fan interest in) the process of voting in starters, naming reserves and discussing snubs than there is covering the game itself.

In fact, it’s not uncommon to see a good chunk of media leave a little early on Sunday to catch flights back home that evening so that their various newspapers don’t have to pay for an extra night at the league hotel. There’s all kinds of glitz and glamour behind All-Star Saturday (dunk contest champions are easier to remember than who actually won the last five All-Star games), and the celebrity-heavy parties on Friday and Saturday night show just how dazzling the whole weekend is meant to be.

Players debut their new shoes (in all sorts of vibrant colors), adidas gets to experiment with fancy uniforms and sponsors get to throw their hats into the ring at Jam Session and other events over the course of the weekend.

What makes all these things relevant is the conversation building up to it, and the conversation building up to it has everything to do with who did and did not get voted in, and who did and did not get added to the roster as a reserve.

If, say, the NBA were to appoint all the players rather than allow fans to vote in starters, there would be no conversation. If those decisions were made based entirely on some completely objective method, like some combination of team record and statistics, the controversy would be entirely gone. These are the things that make the All-Star game relevant, not the game itself, so to call the system broken really isn’t accurate. The system gets people talking, and if nobody’s talking about this stuff, nobody’s going to watch it, either.

And the NBA really, really wants people to watch it, which means fans shouldn’t expect any massive changes to this system any time soon.

Count the number of media impressions the concept of NBA All-Star gets in a season; it’s mind boggling how much free media the All-Star game gets.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN Radio yesterday that he thought the NBA should look at expanding the rosters.

The idea of more spots seems like it could head off the obvious roster snubs, but wouldn’t it also kill all the free hype the current process generates? And where would the minutes for those extra players come from?

As much as changing the system might sound like a good idea, is it really? What else would we talk about in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline?

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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