David Stern was in his final full season as the N.B.A. commissioner in 2012-13 when LeBron James won his fourth and most recent Most Valuable Player Award. Eight years later, James is in his 18th season and a leading candidate in the race to receive the Maurice Podoloff trophy from Commissioner Adam Silver.
James can still do many things in his supposed twilight years with the Los Angeles Lakers. He remains the game’s most high-profile figure and, by playing at an M.V.P. level at age 36, is constantly reminding us that basketball has its own answer to the N.F.L.’s time-defying Tom Brady.
It would appear not even James, though, can stop the N.B.A. from staging an All-Star Game next month in Atlanta.
He couldn’t have come out much stronger against the concept than he did late last week, blasting the N.B.A.’s plans to stuff three days’ worth of All-Star events into a one-shot Turner Sports extravaganza on March 7. League and players’ union officials are nonetheless expected to soon announce that those plans have been locked in.
It is reminiscent of how the season started — and another illustration of the louder-than-ever say held by the N.B.A.’s broadcast partners at such challenging financial times for the sport’s various stakeholders.
Players largely left the summer bubble expecting the 2020-21 season to be contested exclusively in 2021, starting no earlier than January and perhaps as late as March. Opening night was then suddenly moved up to Dec. 22 at the strong urging of the league’s two national broadcast partners, who wanted to preserve two valuable television properties: Disney’s five-game Christmas slate on ESPN and ABC, and Turner’s traditional Tuesday night doubleheader to start the season.
As James said in a postgame session with reporters on Thursday, many players assumed there would not be an All-Star Game during the extended break scheduled from March 5 to 10. Those players were surprised when it emerged in late January that the league and the union were working on a one-night-only window for All-Star festivities that would enable TNT to air the event, the jewel of its annual N.B.A. coverage.
The 2020 All-Star Game in Chicago, for example, attracted 7.3 million viewers for TNT. That was better than the viewing figures for any of the Christmas games on Disney-owned channels.
The big difference between December and now is that no one has pinpointed the financial impact of a modified All-Star program. League officials maintain that it’s difficult to project figures for All-Star festivities in terms of basketball-related income, which owners and players split nearly 50/50. The New York Times was among the news outlets to report in December that starting the season before Christmas, rather than in mid-January, was expected to generate at least $500 million more in revenue.
Two estimates I was provided by industry insiders pegged the value of Turner’s All-Star coverage at $30 million to $60 million — money that the N.B.A. would have to make up to Turner later if the game was not played. You can safely assume that the overall potential loss (with B.R.I. added) would be much higher, given the way players of considerable stature, such as Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers, have talked about what’s motivating the league to take the health risk of bringing together the top players during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is what it is at this point,” Leonard said. “We all know why we’re playing it — there’s money on the line.”
Leonard seemed to grasp better than most that, 11 months into the N.B.A.’s new reality (and the world’s), trade-offs for the big picture are a constant.
Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Nets’ James Harden are among the marquee players who have joined James in publicly questioning the All-Star plans, contributing to an uncharacteristic swirl of pushback for Silver from the league’s stars. Phoenix’s Chris Paul, the players’ association president, said in response that “guys are entitled to their feelings” — but Paul insisted that “decisions are being made” with “the full body of players in mind.”
Translation: More than 400 players who won’t be invited to participate in the resuscitated All-Star gathering are counting on those who do take part to ensure TNT can proceed with its usual showcase event and insulate them from a costly financial hit.
The league’s deals with Disney and TNT, worth $24 billion over nine years, do not expire until after the 2024-25 season, but it is never too soon in coronavirus times to re-establish oneself as an exemplary partner. The N.B.A., for all the criticism it has absorbed in recent days, is certainly on a winning streak there, from conceiving a bubble to safely usher the 2019-20 season to a conclusion … to engineering that bubble at Walt Disney World as opposed to Las Vegas or any other interested city … to this All-Star save.
I’m told Phoenix was proposed as a potential venue for March 7. Holding it in Atlanta instead would put the game in TNT’s backyard, eliminating travel for its coverage crews.
Yet it’s the opposite for the participants, and that’s the unsettling part — even after the N.B.A. announced zero positives in leaguewide coronavirus testing last week. The All-Stars face extra travel to a function steeped in fraternization between players at a time when teams, in their day-to-day existence, are strongly discouraged from postgame interactions of any kind. There’s seemingly no way to avoid describing this game — an exhibition — as risky.
The All-Star Game “has been an important tradition throughout the history of the league and remains one of our top events for global fan interest and engagement,” Mike Bass, an N.B.A. spokesman, said in a statement to The Times last week. “The health and safety of everyone involved is at the forefront of our discussions with the players’ association.”
The league and the union have been adamant that the game will feature a significant philanthropic component to benefit historically Black colleges and universities as well as Covid-19 relief efforts. The broadcast itself is certain to amplify a league campaign that urges fans to take the coronavirus vaccine as it becomes available and features Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Gregg Popovich in commercial spots.
Murmurs persist that some All-Stars will seek to opt out of playing what has been a mandatory assignment for those selected, according to the league’s bylaws, but all signs indicate the game will go ahead.
James surely knows it, too. Don’t forget that, dismayed as he was about a game that “I don’t even understand” and a trip that will take 24 All-Stars “into one city that’s open,” he also said he would be there if selected.
Even for the face of the N.B.A.’s player empowerment era, even when he’s playing Brady-esque ball, there are limits.
You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.
(Responses may be lightly edited or condensed for clarity.)
Q: Who you got? Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant? Or LeBron James and Anthony Davis? I know you’ve covered both duos. I bet you go with Kobe and Shaq. — Chris Williams (Laguna Beach, Calif.)
Stein: We’ve seen James and Davis together for less than a season and a half. As fearsome as they look as a tag team, even after winning a championship on their first try and quickly establishing the Lakers as this season’s title favorites, I can’t put them ahead of the twosome at the center of the N.B.A.’s last three-peat.
But I reserve the right to change this vote down the road.
For all their success together, O’Neal and Bryant had to settle for three titles in eight seasons. They dominated every aspect of the league for nearly a decade, with their drama as much as with the on-court havoc they caused, but the partnership was dissolved in acrimony when the Lakers decided it was untenable to keep orbiting the team around O’Neal and traded him to Miami in July 2004. There will always be a sense that these two divorced prematurely and could have won more together.
James and Davis so far have a harmony that O’Neal and Bryant scarcely achieved. It’s still the honeymoon phase, with no guarantee things stay this way, but the Lakers also have their two biggest stars under contract together through 2022-23. The outlook is rather rosy — as long as they stay healthy. (Davis, as we speak, is nursing some nagging discomfort in his right leg and foot.)
It’s important to remember the circumstances when making your assessments. O’Neal hadn’t won an N.B.A. championship and was still reasonably young himself, at 24, when he was paired with Bryant, then the most ambitious teenager in basketball history. James and Davis not only have games that mesh together beautifully, as offensive fulcrum and defensive anchor, but they came together when they were clearly ready to team up.
James is in the later stages of his career and, with his legacy secure, has willingly ceded a chunk of the spotlight to Davis that might have been much harder to share in his 20s. Davis couldn’t carry New Orleans to glory as the face of that franchise and has clearly reveled in the boost he gets from James’s presence to unlock his full potential.
Q: Why did the Nets feel compelled to give away so much in the James Harden trade? Couldn’t this transaction have gone forward without including Cleveland and Jarrett Allen? — Tom Cartelli (Milford, N.J.)
Stein: No chance.
The three future first-round draft picks that the Nets parted with were the headliner trade assets they used to win the Harden sweepstakes, but they were not going to have any shot at constructing a workable deal without including both Caris LeVert and Allen. Rather than keep Allen, Houston routed him to the Cavaliers for another first-round pick (Milwaukee’s 2021 first-rounder) and to reduce the Rockets’ luxury-tax bill.
Harden’s incoming $41,254,920 salary required the Nets to send out a minimum of $32,923,936 to make the salary-cap math work. Allen’s $3,909,902 salary didn’t make much of a dent into that figure, but combining him with another blossoming talent in LeVert at $16,203,704, those three first-round picks and the rights for Houston to swap first-rounders in four additional drafts enabled the Nets to outbid Philadelphia and Boston.
Q: Given the potential voter fatigue with the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo this season and Luka Doncic’s Mavericks off to a slow start, could we see someone in his 30s win the Most Valuable Player Award for the first time in 15 years? Steve Nash was the last to win the award in his 30s in 2006. — David Anderson (Raleigh, N.C.)
Stein: You’re onto something for sure. Denver’s Nikola Jokic (26 on Feb. 19) and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid (27 in March) are at the forefront of the M.V.P. race with roughly one-third of the regular season complete, but there are more 30-somethings in the conversation than players in their 20s.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James (36), Golden State’s Stephen Curry (33 in March) and the Nets’ Kevin Durant (32) would be in my top five with Jokic and Embiid if voting ended today.
The duel between Curry (57 points) and Doncic (42 points, 11 assists and 7 rebounds) Saturday night in a 134-132 victory for Dallas was one of the games of the season so far — and reminded you that Curry is back to his best after missing almost all of last season with a broken hand.
(The Los Angeles Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard, in case you’re wondering, turns 30 in June.)
The Western Conference-leading Utah Jazz (20-5) are making 17 3-pointers per game — which puts them on pace for a league record. The 2018-19 Houston Rockets made 16.1 3s per game to set the record, according to Stathead.
For all the justified praised we heaped on the Lakers’ Anthony Davis last week for how perfectly he complemented LeBron James, there’s no avoiding one prime area of slippage in his game this season: Davis is shooting a career-worst 70.2 percent from the free-throw line. He shot a career-best 84.6 percent last season.
Jeremy Lin of the Santa Cruz Warriors (Golden State’s affiliate) and Nik Stauskas of the Raptors 905 (Toronto’s affiliate) were the only two N.B.A. veterans allocated to the G League team of their choosing via the N.B.A. developmental league’s new veteran selection rule — which is also known unofficially as “the Jeremy Lin rule.” The G League’s 20th season opens Wednesday with 18 teams playing in a restricted-access zone at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., similar to last summer’s N.B.A. bubble.
We’re down to just five teams that have not faced a game postponement through the season’s opening seven weeks. That group includes both New York teams (Knicks and Nets), both Los Angeles teams (Lakers and Clippers) and Toronto (which is playing its home games in Tampa, Fla.).
Atlanta appears poised host to the All-Star Game for the third time. It was the host city in 1978 (when my beloved Randy Smith of the Buffalo Braves won most valuable player honors) and in 2003.