By: Rick Blaine
When Latrell Sprewell led the Western Conference All Stars with 19 points in the 1997 NBA All Star game, little did Golden State Warriors fans know that that would be the last time in over a decade that a Warrior would participate in the world’s greatest pick-up game. Warriors fans are still waiting. Ten years after Sprewell’s last Warriors All Star appearance, a young country bumpkin from Mississippi named Monta Ellis, only two years removed from high school, would put on a dazzling performance in the All Star Rookie Challenge. Though it wasn’t the weekend’s feature event, Ellis electrified the crowd, scoring 28 points for the sophomore team in a high flying display of dunks and ally oops. (HERE) Ellis emerged from the 2007 NBA Rookie Challenge with the tag “future star.”
Flash forward to 2010 and Ellis has delivered on his promise of stardom. The sixth leading scorer in the NBA and second in the league in steals, Ellis is now a bona fide star. But is he an All Star? On January 28 we’ll have an answer. That is when the votes of NBA coaches from each conference are counted. Trailing Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Jason Kidd, Aaron Brooks, Chauncey Billups, Deron Williams, Brandon Roy, Manu Ginobili, and Jason Terry in fan votes, Ellis must be selected by Western Conference coaches if he is to make it. Ellis fans can take solace knowing that the coaches are better judges of talent than the fans who vote.
Both Marcus Thompson II (HERE) and Geoff Lepper (HERE] have written good pieces on why Ellis, in spite of his very high level of play this season, may have to beat long odds to make it the All Star Game. Ellis’s biggest obstacle is that he plays on a losing team. With Tracy McGrady likely to be voted in as a starter by the fans (Insert a laugh track here, please.), Ellis’s major competition for reserve spots are Steve Nash (a lock to make the team), Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Brandon Roy, all of whom play for winning teams. It is very likely that there will be only three reserve spots available for Western Conference guards, so Ellis will have to beat out Paul, Williams, or Roy, unless McGrady who is most likely going to get voted in, does the right thing and sits out. One can make compelling cases for any of these players, and the debate should not even center on who is the most deserving, because any fair-minded observer of the game would agree that all four players are worthy of being named to the team. Rather, the discussion should focus on solving the problems of the All Star player selection process, which has repeatedly excluded worthy players. Two simple solutions should be considered immediately by the NBA, and they are 1) establish eligibility requirements for players who are voted in, and 2) expand the rosters to include more exceptional players.
The NBA should put in place eligibility requirements for players who are voted in by the fans. Players who have not played a minimum number of games or who have not logged in an established threshold of minutes, should not be eligible to play, even if voted in. Another option along these lines would be to grant such players a “cameo” appearance in the game without actually having that player take up a roster spot. Tracy McGrady exemplifies the problem. In spite of playing in only six games so far this season in which he has averaged a paltry 3 points and 1 assist, he is most likely going to be named a starter for the Western Conference. What’s wrong with this picture?
This is not a protest against fan voting. Though the fans often vote in questionable players, which can be aggravating, there is nothing wrong with giving the fans their say. Fans deserve to see the players they WANT to see in the starting line-up, even if it is not necessarily the best players. But with the internationalization of the game, fan voting has become a running joke as evidenced by McGrady’s vote total this season. Fans overseas (i.e., China), carry a significant portion of the votes, and they take a very limited perspective of the league with them into the “voting booth.” McGrady, a teammate of Yao Ming, enjoys the benefits of this. McGrady is ubiquitous in the minds of the Chinese, compared to an out-of-sight and out-of-mind Monta Ellis. With Yao out of action, one wonders how many “best of Rockets” replays fans in China have watched this season replete with highlights of McGrady making spectacular plays? Do they even know that McGrady has been injured? One thing for sure, Monta Ellis is not even a figment of China’s imagination at this point. Meanwhile, the ghost of Tracy McGrady is about to be voted as a starter for the Western Conference team.
From a marketing point of view, allowing the international community to vote is a no brainer. By voting, huge international audiences invest themselves in the game and the NBA product. Give voters what they want, and they will watch the game, buy merchandise, and generate advertising revenue. This is good for the NBA. All that fans are asking for is a little reasonableness and sanity. Players should meet a benchmark number of games played or minutes played to be eligible to play in the All Star game. Giving the uninformed voter what they want without stipulations is a bad idea. We see it in politics; let’s do away with it in the NBA.
Though putting in stipulations for minutes or games played would solve some of the All Star player selection problems, an even better solution would be to increase the size of the rosters to accommodate more players. All of the best players should be selected to All Star teams, even if it means expanding the roster. The silly debate that will ensue when Monta Ellis, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, or Brandon Roy is left off the team will be fruitless. It will prove or solve nothing. All of these terrific players should be selected without debate or controversy. None of them would detract from the game. Williams is Exhibit A. He has played at an All Star level for the last three seasons including this one, yet he has never made the team. He is one of the premier point guards in the game today, and fans want to see him in. Though one might argue that the All Star Game is merely a sideshow that hardly merits serious discussion, the game does produce great entertainment for the fans and prestige for the players and the teams for which they play. So, why not expand the rosters and maybe even increase the length of the game to ensure decent playing time for every player so that fans can see ALL of the best players on the floor. From a marketing standpoint this would be a coup. Viewership would increase as more players from more markets participate. Imagine how much higher the All Star Game ratings would have been in the Bay Area had Baron Davis or Jason Richardson made the All Star team in prior years.
Let’s be real. The All Star game is nothing more than a glorified exhibition. Nothing is at stake, and the game has no bearing on the post season like it does in baseball. Thank God for that. But it is a lot of fun to watch. At the All Star game, the NBA hardwood is transformed into a New York City or L.A. blacktop, like a field of dreams for playground legends of the game. The All Star game is David Stern’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters without the Washington Generals. It’s the one game where the world’s finest athletes elegantly showcase their unearthly talent and skills without resistance or encumbrances. And this brings us back to Monta Ellis. Tell me that a star player and phenomenal athlete like Ellis does not belong on the same court as the other All Stars. Wasn’t this venue was created for players of Ellis’s skill and athletic brilliance. Convince me that the 4th leading scorer and leader in steals in the Western Conference has no place on the team. And, finally, prove to me that the NBA’s best fans—you know, the ones that reside in the Bay Area—don’t deserve to see their team’s best player representing their team on All Star Sunday for the first time in 13 years. Go ahead; I dare you.
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