CHICAGO – Chris Paul had a vision.
After watching dull All-Star Games in 2016 and 2017 in which the West almost topped 200 points in a game, he had enough of lifeless games that turned off fans.
So the day after the 2017 game in New Orleans, Paul called NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and initiated a discussion: what could the league and players do to improve the All-Star Game and make it more competitive, more entertaining and more watchable?
The first change scrapped conference vs. conference for a playground-style pick ’em in which the top vote-getter from each conference served as captains and picked their teams. That led to incremental improvement.
For this season, the NBA introduced a new scoring system in which the teams played an untimed fourth quarter to a targeted number of points – simply taking the total points for the team ahead after three quarters and adding 24 points in a tribute to Kobe Bryant. For this game, Team Giannis led Team LeBron 133-124 so the first team to 157 won.
Paul’s vision – along with an assist from Charlotte Hornets owner and ultra-competitor Michael Jordan – unfolded Sunday in Chicago when Team LeBron defeated Team Giannis 157-155, a game in which Team LeBron outscored Team Giannis by 11 points in the final quarter to win.
It was one of the more entertaining and competitive All-Star Games in the past decade. Players cared, wanted to win, complained about referees’ calls and no-calls and played a brand of defense usually not observed in this game.
“The good thing about our league is we’re always adding things and trying new things and trying to figure out from my fans what they like,” Paul said. “This was an idea I brought to Adam. Thankfully, we tried it out.”
Yes, the game ended on a free throw, which was anticlimactic. But that doesn’t erase the drama that transpired before then. Plus, free throws determine games all the time. If a team leading by two points makes two fouls shots with two seconds left, that essentially ends the game. It doesn’t make for a bad game.
The scoring system is known as the Elam Ending named for Ball State education professor Nick Elam, who began toying with the scoring ideas as a student at Dayton. Elam believes a timed fourth quarter leads to an “unnatural, predictable, drawn-out, choppy, and sloppy style of play.”
The idea has taken off in some leagues and competitions around the world, including The Basketball Tournament in the U.S.
The scoring format forced Team LeBron to tighten up and play defense from the start of the fourth quarter and took away Team Giannis’ desire to drain the clock.
A team needs to play to win instead of play not to lose.
“I didn’t know what to expect because it was a new format,” James said. “None of us knew what to expect. But throughout the whole fourth quarter and at the end of the game, everybody was like, ‘That was pretty damn fun.’ … That was extremely fun and a great way to end 2020 NBA All-Star Weekend.”
Team LeBron coach Frank Vogel and Team Giannis coach Nick Nurse used more strategy and play-calling than seen at most All-Star Games, and the referees were under pressure to make the right call on replay reviews and challenges.
Who challenges a call in an All-Star Game? Vogel, that’s who.
“I think with the format the way it was, first team to get to that 157 mark, I think it just became more competitive a little bit longer,” Vogel said.
That’s Elam’s point – to make the game more competitive for a longer stretch. Knowing it couldn’t just meander through a quarter and turn it on under the six-minute mark left in the fourth quarter, Team LeBron had to play with urgency from the start of the fourth quarter to put itself in position to win.
Nurse, who loves a good experiment, saw the value in the format.
“Each and every quarter was, from a coaching standpoint, really fun,” Nurse said. “I thought the quarters got really interesting really early in the quarters because the game was moving pretty quick. Not a ton of whistles in the first bit, right? So the thing kind of mattered a little bit.
“Then, obviously, the end was amazing. Everybody in the whole place was on their feet watching each possession, and they were really going at it. Offensively it was hard to get anything started. Even first passes were being denied. It felt like the end of a playoff game, which was really cool.”
Imagine that. Someone comparing an All-Star Game to a playoff game. That’s what Chris Paul had in mind.
Follow NBA columnist Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt