The All-Star game is back and, despite all the attempts by the NBA to make it fun, I still could care less. The staggering lack of defense on display the last few years, even by the low standard we have historically been used to in the game, makes it look more like a bunch of dudes messing around in an empty gym than a nationally televised event. Don’t get me wrong, I have never been particularly interested in the NBA All-Star game but last year’s 192-182 shoot-out was the absolute nadir in defensive effort. It wasn’t just the sheer number of points scored that shows (192-182 final score!). In fact, the game had only two credited blocked shots.
This got me wondering if the defensive effort in the All-Star game can be traced to the “hustle stats,” namely the blocks and steals. Thanks to Basketball-Reference.com, we were able to go back and see. We took the average of the blocks, steals, points, and field goal percentage for the East and West teams since 1980. Here’s what we found:
-East averages since 1980: 13.5 steals, 5.2 blocks, 135.2 points, .494 FG%
-West averages since 1980 : 13.4 steals, 5.5 blocks, 137.9 points, .505 FG%
Not much defense was played and the point totals look pretty absurd. But let’s just limit the averages to the last four years:
-East averages since 2014: 14.5 steals, 1.3 blocks, 169 points, .557 FG%
-West averages since 2014: 15.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 176.5 points, .535 FG%
So, steals have gone up a bit (probably because of the higher pace) but the points have seriously spiked (as has FG%). The watershed moment might have been the 2014 All-Star game. This was the first time that a team broke 160-point barrier. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was also the first time that neither team was credited with a single block. In fact, since 1980, only one time (2006) has any team had fewer than three blocks in the game. But 2014 wasn’t just an isolated incident. The West had no blocks the next two games (2015 and 2016) and only one block in 2017. The East had only one block last year and only two blocks each of the previous two games.
There is an argument that the players today are so good offensively and in taking the three-point shot that scoring might inevitably be going up, even if defense has stayed the same or improved. Let’s take a look at the three-pointing shooting over the last few years to test that hypothesis:
-2010: East 6-17 (.353%), West 9-21 (.429%)
-2011: East 7-29 (.241%), West 9-31 (.290%)
-2012: East 14-32 (.438%), West 14-32 (.438%)
-2013: East 14-39 (.359%), West 12-32 (.375%)
-2014: East 14-44 (.318%), West 16-56 (.286%)
-2015: East 23-68 (.338%), West 25-65 (.385%)
-2016: East 20-59 (.339%), West 31-80 (.388%)
-2017: East 22-59 (.373%), West 21-63 (.333%)
It’s clear that the three-point shot has really jumped up markedly since 2014. But merely taking the three doesn’t totally explain the jump in points. Indeed, in the post-2014 world, the All-Stars don’t usually shoot the three particularly well. Only the 2015 West, 2016 West, and 2017 East shot the three efficiently, especially when you consider how well these teams shot from inside the arc.
It is true that these threes open up the lane for more dunks/layups but there are just too many shots flying for all over to not attribute the collapse in blocks to a reduction in defensive effort (again, by prior All-Star game standards). I am fully aware how reflexively curmudgeonly it sounds to say that players today just don’t try as hard on defense at the All-Star game but the lack of blocks seem to indicate that this is true. By contrast, in the 1980s, teams had nine or more blocks nine times. In the 1990s, three teams had nine or more blocks in a game. Since 2000, only the 2005 West has had at least nine blocks.
But let’s walk back the cranky old curmudgeon angle a tad. The players today, during the regular season, try every bit as hard as the prior generations. In fact, with all the training and specialization we have, the average player today is probably better than that of prior generations in most aspects of play (including defense). I attribute the lack of defense in the All-Star game to a more pragmatic concern.
The dramatic rise in money at stake in an NBA career (especially for the stars) really discourages taking any real risk in an exhibition. Having seen Paul George’s unfortunate exhibition injury a few years ago, I totally understand this concern and would probably take it very easy if I were in the shoes of an NBA star at the All-Star game. Nevertheless, there is a sweet spot between moderate/reasonable defensive effort and no effort at all. The NBA will have to do a little better in 2018 or they risk losing at least the semblance that this the All-Star is sort of a real game.