Ford: Can NBA All-Star Game be saved?

NBA ALL Star Basketball-19022017-0003
LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers (23) makes a backwards dunk during the first half of the NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017.

A rather remarkable thing happened on Jan. 23, 1973, in old Chicago Stadium when the NBA held an All-Star Game and one of the teams failed to score 100 points. In fact, the West squad didn't even score 90 that day, losing 104-84 despite possessing a starting lineup of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Sidney Wicks, Spencer Haywood, and Tiny Archibald.

The bench wasn't bad, either.

Maybe the final score wasn't considered remarkable at the time - just the product of guys lofting shots in an exhibition with only moderate interest in their destination - but a team hasn't been held to fewer than 100 points in the 44 All-Star Games and 88 opportunities since.

The most recent chance was Sunday in New Orleans, but it didn't quite happen. The game, played in the Smoothie King Center, put defense in a blender, added a large dollop of three-point shots, generous scoops of both dunks and layups, and poured out a 192-182 win for either the East or the West. I'm not sure because I didn't watch. I would have, but I love basketball.

Now, I get it. This isn't supposed to be all that serious, and no one wants to see a 95-90 All-Star game strewn with fouls and the day-to-day drudgery of isolation and dump-and-kick basketball. Opening things up a little, allowing for some free-form creativity, a little extra panache down the lane without fear of ending up in the courtside seats, that's all good. And high-scoring NBA All-Star Games are not exactly a recent phenomenon. Even in the 1950s - the game originated in 1951 - scoring 100 points in the exhibition was fairly common. (The lone exception was 1953, a 79-75 game played in Fort Wayne, Ind., at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum. Not certain which war was memorialized there. It could have been the Peloponnesian. Presumably, the game was played with the lights on.)

So, yeah, this is the usual nature of the beast, but rational people can probably agree that 192-182 means things have gotten a little out of hand.

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Let's go to the box score, and what a box score it is. According to ESPN Stats & Information - and I'm damn sure not going to check their math against the tape - of the 162 made field goals, 75 were dunks, 39 were layups and 43 were three-point shots. I'm not sure who made the other five shots, mere two-pointers away from the basket, but they won't be invited back.

A total of 280 field goals were attempted, or one every 10.3 seconds. The only thing rarer than a 24-second violation was a contested shot. The East allowed 192 points (I cheated and looked to see who won) and committed only five personal fouls, two of them by LeBron James, who couldn't help himself. Together, the teams "defended" nearly 200 attempts in the basket area and blocked exactly one shot apiece. The blocks were by Marc Gasol and Giannis Antetokounmpo, which means, apparently, that the European guys didn't get the memo.

OK, so what? Maybe the NBA All-Star Game is supposed to be the osso bucco of the sports world. If you don't like it, don't order it, or in this case, don't watch it. But don't complain about it without offering a way to make it better.

Fair enough, but don't tell me the league wasn't at least slightly embarrassed by Sunday's game, and that there aren't discussions around the conference room table about taking a little helium out of the balloon in the future.

If you want to fix the game, there is an easy way. Winners each get $1 million. Losers get to keep their warm-ups. You'd see some defense then.

The problem is that teams want two things. They want their players to be all-stars, because that helps sell tickets at home. And they want their players to come back from the All-Star Game in one piece. That's no problem at the moment. A guy is more likely to get hurt breaking his hand on the rim after his 20th dunk than because an opponent ran into him. But if it were a real game, with real stakes, whatever those might be, things would get serious.

In 1971 and 1972, there were All-Star Games played between the ABA and the NBA. They were called Supergame and Supergame II. There wasn't much money involved, but there was pride, which also isn't a bad motivator. The NBA won both, by five points and two points, but the most telling stat is that the teams combined for 63 and 59 personal fouls in the two games. In the first game, the NBA attempted 70 free throws, the ABA 45. (The refs were from the NBA, perhaps not coincidentally.)

Even with a total of 10 future Hall of Fame players on the court for each of those two games, it probably wasn't pretty basketball and it was dangerous, but nobody was throwing the ball off the glass for someone else to windmill dunk, either.

So, maybe there isn't a solution aside from the osso bucco one. The teams are happy the players don't hurt each other. The players are happy they get to fool around and perform. The networks will be happy until enough viewers turn away. Ratings are usually about half what they were 20 years ago, but other events, including baseball's All-Star Game, have suffered the same drop-off.

What is obvious, though, is that the NBA now has two meaningless dunk contests during all-star weekend and, if nothing else, it should find a way to at least get rid of one of them.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports