LeBron James said Thursday that it felt like a “slap in the face” to hold an exhibition during the coronavirus pandemic with little warning to players who believed they were getting a five-day break. Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden said Friday that they would rather spend the time with their families, and Kawhi Leonard argued that the NBA was “putting money over health.” Meanwhile, Kevin Durant tweeted his frustration with the league’s contact tracing policy, which has sidelined him for the second time this season.
All told, that wave of criticism included five of the top 12 players in all-star voting expressing frustration with the league or its midseason plans over 48 hours. The NBA hasn’t experienced public tension with its players like that since the bubble shutdown following Jacob Blake’s shooting by police in August.
The All-Star Game is supposed to be a fun, fan-friendly celebration of the game’s brightest lights. So far, this year’s conversations have been a drag. With the clock ticking, here are four possible approaches for NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and the NBPA leadership to consider.
1. Full steam ahead. With coronavirus cases falling nationally, it’s possible that the health risks in March will be meaningfully lower than they are now. James and Antetokounmpo said they would play if selected, and last year’s game drew 7.3 million viewers, making it one of the most-watched events of the year. Pocket the television revenue, keep the game’s tradition going, and work to create a comprehensive All-Star Weekend experience while seeking compromises with upset players behind the scenes. The NBA’s experience constructing the bubble and then salvaging it after a three-day shutdown in August proved everything is subject to negotiation.
2. Scale down the festivities and/or lengthen the break. Recent reports indicated the NBA was considering adding auxiliary events in addition to the All-Star Game. Instead, hold only the game and whisk the stars in and out of Atlanta as quickly as possible. Then, consider extending the midseason break to build in more rest time. The NBA has yet to announce the specifics of its second-half schedule other than targeting March 11 to May 16 as a general framework. Push back to March 13, and maybe the Atlanta concept would seem less burdensome. The players welcomed a three-day break at the bubble’s midpoint, and they have been living with onerous health protocols for more than a month this season.
3. Loosen attendance requirements. NBA rules mandate that healthy players who are selected to the All-Star Game must attend or face a hefty fine. Given the unique schedule circumstances this year, the NBA could agree to make one-time exceptions in extreme cases, such as players whose teams went deep in the bubble playoffs. It would be a bummer and the TV ratings would take a hit if James, who competed through mid-October, opted out, but the show could still go on without him. There are health-related absences in the All-Star Game every year, and key players have been in and out of the lineup all season because of positive tests and contact tracing.
4. Call it off. There’s less than one month until the proposed date of the All-Star Game, and the NBA still hasn’t officially announced its plans. The league could go forward with its voting process, name the two 12-man rosters and then scrap the event so the stars could rest before the second half of the season and the playoffs. It’s not too late to back out, and a significant portion of the league’s fans would welcome the decision in light of the pandemic.
TNT, which broadcasts the All-Star Game, would lose big in this scenario, and Silver might face criticism for bowing to the stars’ complaints. Indeed, there would be some slippery-slope potential for the league regarding its power balance with its biggest stars.
The NBA and the NBPA would also miss out on all-star revenue, and the players might surrender some leverage in future negotiations. To this point, the players can tell the owners they have done everything asked of them from a revenue generation standpoint, including participating in the bubble and agreeing to start the season Dec. 22 to capitalize on the Christmas Day television interest. Forcing the cancellation of the All-Star Game would weaken that negotiating stance.
In recent standoffs, the NBA has been willing to move heaven and earth to maximize its television revenue. But this imbroglio is the latest test of Silver’s long-standing belief that the owners and players are “partners.” None of the four options above will make everyone happy, and this is an especially tricky time to be asking high-profile stars for another round of sacrifices.