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Player attitudes toward All-Star Game, Dunk contest not new, make “fixing” weekend difficult

INDIANAPOLIS — If change starts by looking in the mirror and making an honest assessment, then “fixing” the All-Star Game will be a Mount Everest for the NBA. Check out these player comments following an All-Star Game that featured less defense than an LA Fitness pickup game and left Adam Silver gritting his teeth as he handed out awards.

“It’s always fun. But I don’t know what they can do to make it more competitive,” Anthony Edwards said. “It’s a break. I don’t think nobody wants to come here and compete.”

“But I think the good thing that came out of tonight was none of the players were injured, and everybody came out unscathed or how they were before the game started,” LeBron James said.

“I think 200 is a lot to be scored. It just shows that we didn’t go out there and compete like I guess you would want us to or whoever would want us to. But I think that’s just what it is,” All-Star Game MVP Damian Lillard said. “Guys are talented, make a lot of shots. We hit a lot of threes, and that was it.”

For all the hand-wringing in the greater sports media about another non-competitive All-Star Game, “fixing” it — or fixing the Dunk Contest and the rest of All-Star weekend — runs headlong into the attitude of players.

That’s because players see the All-Star Game for what it really is: An exhibition with no stakes aimed at casual fans and the international market. All-Star players know they will be judged not on a glorified February pickup game but rather on getting their team into the playoffs and advancing. Understanding that, all of them just want to get out of the All-Star Game healthy and get a few days rest before the final push of the regular season, then the playoffs.

Make avoiding injury is the goal and this kind of game and effort we’re going to get, especially when you have multiple players who can pull up from half court and knock down 3s.

The comments above, which are fairly representative of player attitudes, show why changing the game will be so difficult. They also are not new. Players have gone through the motions with this game for nearly a decade (give or take), plus there is a week break around the All-Star Game now because players and coaches wanted a mid-season break from the grind. They know what pays the bills, and it’s not an exhibition game.

What stakes could be put on the game that would change player attitudes? The In-Season tournament showed money talks — players on the tournament champion Lakers got $500,000 a piece — but will the NBA offer the max/near-max/future max players a million each if they win at the All-Star Game? Is that a good look for the league?

The same is true of the Dunk Contest. Jaylen Brown competed this season and performed well, but took hits for his performance in some corners of social media (of course, some corners of social media would have ripped the Michael Jordan/Dominique Wilkins Dunk Contest because they could). What top players say off the record is they see far more downside than upside — win and they were expected to, lose and some will rip them for not winning. Brown certainly got some of that. What’s the motivation for players?

We act like this is new, but remember, the 1998 Dunk Contest had to be canceled because not enough players wanted to do it after the Kobe-won 1997 Dunk Contest was widely panned.

There are no easy answers here. No silver bullets. How do you add defense to an exhibition game when the league’s regular season doesn’t have that much?

“I think it’s something we need to figure out. Where is the median?...” LeBron asked. “That’s what our games are like in the regular season now. They let us tighten up in the postseason. It’s a deeper dive into a conversation of how we can shore up this game.”

“Yeah, there were some discussions [about more defense]. There were definitely some,” Jaylen Brown said. “I’m not sure how successful that was, but there was definitely some discussions. I guess guys are trying to figure out how to do that at the same time as having fun, being safe, being injury free. I guess more solutions need to be had to figure that out.”

It’s easy for everyone to say, “We need to figure that out,” but actual answers are elusive. Because change starts with player attitudes toward the All-Star Game and weekend, and those see this game as a fun showcase for some fans and not much else.