The NBA’s most meaningless weekend is upon us, the time of the year when the entire league and every element of its infrastructure is shamelessly devoted to showmanship, stage craft and the glorious pursuit of self-aggrandizement.
In other words, everyone can stop pretending otherwise for a few days.
If you wonder what the difference is between this weekend and every other in a league that is steadily leaving the boring old conventions of sports behind and barrelling full steam into pure entertainment with a side dish of – ‘Hey, who won, anyway?’ – well, it’s a reasonable question.
The answer might be that games remaining on the regular season calendar matter a little more than the All-Star Game itself, but hey, given Kawhi Leonard seems primed to show up and play in Charlotte Sunday night compared with a Wednesday night against the Wizards, that might be the wrong answer.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the NBA, I suspect I always will.
But I’d be lying if I said that a league where the off-court machinations are a combination of Game of Thrones and Celebrity Big Brother; where the regular season seems like a prelude to some other season that won’t be played until three years from now — when player X is going to join player Y on Team Z, providing they get the cap space — doesn’t take some getting used to.
And as fun as the endless gossip and speculation can be, the shame is that the constant off-court orchestrating can distract – if not detract – from a regular season is actually well worth watching.
In the east, there are at least four teams — with loaded rosters vying to fill the void atop the conference left when James took his talents to Hollywood. In the west, the Golden State Warriors some days look like as potent a force as the team that won 73 games three years ago and others look like a team that’s so bored with their success that they just might to a couple of Game 7 showdowns in the playoffs just to see what the edge feels like. Elsewhere, there are a lot of quality clubs lining up, hoping to catch them on a bad day.
The MVP race is fascinating; the Los Angeles Lakers are fascinating; the fascinating Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double for the third-straight year and James Harden is, fascinatingly, making a season-long run at Wilt Chamberlain.
And yet ….
All that really seems to matter is this summer, and maybe the summers to follow after that in a league where games of chess get played out in slow motion by executives who are constantly maneuvering themselves to be in position to nab the superstars required to be taken seriously as a championship contender, and where those superstars are themselves scheming and planning to get themselves on teams where they have enough star power around them to have a chance to win, but not so much that they get overshadowed by their fellow superstars.
It’s a tricky balance.
But it seems like that’s all that’s ever going to matter, from here on in. What’s happening now across the league will always be an appetizer to what might happen, one day.
The players’ contracts are shorter – particularly for the subset of the superstar class willing to risk long-term security for one or two-year deals for the ability to dictate exactly where they’re going to play and with whom, so teams across the league are always on the clock.
Teams that want to get in the superstar game need to plan years in advance in order to accumulate the assets and cap space to make their big moves.
Meanwhile, teams on the outside looking in when it comes to the league’s game of superstar musical chairs are undertaking multi-year tanking strategies in order to be able to draft their own superstar or maybe even two.
As a result, it seems like half the league is either positioning themselves to land a superstar or draft one with the rest – the modest ‘just make the playoffs’ class – mere furniture in the NBA’s ‘rings or bust’ economy.
But in all scenarios, the focus is on the future, rather than the now as the Anthony Davis trade request debacle proves.
The New Orleans Pelicans should be squeezing whatever greatness they can out of their homegrown future Hall-of-Famer while he’s still under contract; the Los Angeles Lakers should be focussed on LeBron James helping elevate an unproven collection of young talent into the playoffs for the first time and the Boston Celtics should be enjoying an excellent chance to advance to the NBA Finals.
Instead all three franchises are in some measure of disarray and misery, all because of the rush to look to next season and beyond.
Even at all-star weekend, where the basketball is officially secondary to everything else having all the league’s desirables in one place seems akin to the contestants in The Bachelor lounging around the mansion, lending itself to more reality show-like drama.
While the league weakly frets about tampering James’ all-star captains’ picks include seemingly every free agent he might ever want to play with, instantly making a mockery of any fines the NBA wants to levy when it comes to his never-ending recruiting and stage managing.
Who cares – the games don’t matter anyway, remember?
Welcome to All-Star weekend where nothing matters except the future.