As the N.B.A. finalizes arrangements to stage an All-Star Game in Atlanta on March 7, LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers issued a strong rebuke of the whole concept, calling the idea “a slap in the face” for players who thought the annual midseason showcase would not take place this season.
Speaking after he led the Lakers with a triple-double in a nationally televised victory over the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night, James said he had “zero energy and zero excitement” about flying to Atlanta in the midst of a pandemic for what amounts to an exhibition game.
While James acknowledged that the N.B.A. players’ association consented to the proposal, he said he had been eagerly anticipating the league’s scheduled break from March 5 through March 10, given that the Lakers and the Miami Heat faced the shortest off-season (72 days) in league history after meeting in last season’s N.B.A. finals in October.
“I don’t even understand why we’re having an All-Star Game,” James said.
Earlier on Thursday night, the N.B.A. notified its teams that it expects to have “finalized agreements” with the players’ association by next week on holding the All-Star Game as well as a dunk contest, a 3-point contest and a skills competition — all on March 7. Those plans were conveyed in a memo issued to the league’s 30 teams, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times.
A typical All-Star weekend includes even more events and can stretch across four days, but next month’s proposed trip would still require participants and various team and league employees to be in Atlanta on March 6 and 7. The All-Star functions are likely to take place at the Atlanta Hawks’ State Farm Arena, according to two people familiar with the negotiations but not authorized to discuss them publicly.
Negotiations between the league and the union on a modified All-Star proposal have been ongoing for more than two weeks, but the prospect of bringing representatives of numerous teams to interact in one place — given all the coronavirus-related disruptions that the league has faced during the first six weeks of the season — had been criticized as needlessly risky even before James’s blasts.
“If I’m going to be brutally honest, I think it’s stupid,” De’Aaron Fox of the Sacramento Kings said on Wednesday.
Noting that the N.B.A. has instituted countless health and safety regulations to limit potential coronavirus exposure, including rules aimed at curtailing postgame fraternizing between teams, Fox added: “If we have to wear a mask and all this for a regular game, then what’s the point of bringing the All-Star Game back? But, obviously, money makes the world go round, so it is what it is.”
The league does not have a separate television contract for its All-Star festivities, but All-Star programming is regarded as the jewel of Atlanta-based Turner Sports’s annual N.B.A. coverage. Having at least one night of All-Star events to broadcast would give Turner an opportunity to recoup some prime advertising revenue, and holding the game in Atlanta means Turner’s coverage crews won’t have to travel.
The Phoenix Suns’ Chris Paul, the president of the National Basketball Players Association and one of James’s longtime friends, has been described as one of the strongest backers of an All-Star weekend boiled down to one day in Atlanta — with both the league and union determined to ensure that the game benefits historically Black colleges and universities and Covid-19 relief efforts.
It was not immediately clear whether fans would be admitted — Atlanta is one of 10 teams currently allowing reduced crowds at its home games — or if players selected as All-Stars will have any means to opt out if they would rather not participate. In normal circumstances, All-Star Game participation is mandatory for those selected. James said that, despite his reservations, he would “be there physically but not mentally.”
In the first batch of All-Star balloting returns, which were also announced Thursday, James had the league’s second-highest vote total (2,288,676), behind only the Nets’ Kevin Durant (2,302,705).
“I will say this: If they do have that All-Star Game, whether you agree with it or not, the league is going to make sure it’s done in a very responsible and safe manner, and that’s been proven time and time again,” Nuggets Coach Mike Malone said before Denver’s loss to the Lakers.
After tightening its safety protocols significantly in January and instituting an increased vigilance in enforcing mask-wearing, leaguewide Covid-19 testing has trended in a positive direction for the past two weeks. Only one confirmed positive test was announced by the N.B.A. in that span after 27 positives over the previous two weeks.
Yet the league has been forced to postpone 23 games already in the first half of the schedule because of various positive tests and contract-tracing procedures that left teams in those games without the minimum requirement of eight players in uniform. The N.B.A. began the season by releasing only half of its schedule for the first time in league history, knowing it would likely have to reschedule several postponed games in the second half after the March 5-10 break.
If the league’s original plans hold, teams will complete their 72-game regular seasons in May, followed by four rounds of playoffs expected to go well into July but finish before the scheduled start of the Tokyo Olympics on July 23. Among the N.B.A.’s goals when it moved the start of this season up to Dec. 22 was to try to get the 2021-22 season back on its more familiar October-to-June timeline.
The league announced in November that the All-Star weekend originally scheduled for Feb. 12-14 in Indianapolis had been postponed until 2024 because of “public health concerns,” with Cleveland and Salt Lake City already chosen as the host cities for 2022 and 2023. All-Star balloting, which began on Jan. 28 and runs through Feb. 16, was planned all along — with or without an actual All-Star Game.
“I think the N.B.A. knows what they’re doing,” said Chicago’s Zach LaVine, who, like Sacramento’s Fox, is a candidate to be chosen as an All-Star for the first time. “I don’t think they would do the game if it wasn’t safe for the players or the fans. So I’m always up for that.”
Said James: “Obviously you guys can see I’m not very happy about it. But it’s out of my hands.”