ATLANTA — It’s the NBA All-Star Game almost no one seemed to want.
Certainly not the players, who scoffed at playing an exhibition game in the midst of a pandemic.
The city of Atlanta, picked as a replacement for original host Indianapolis, didn’t seem so thrilled with the idea, either.
The mayor urged fans to stay away from an event renowned for wild parties and packed streets. Police scheduled 12-hour shifts and canceled off days in an attempt to crack down on any events that could lead to a surge of COVID-19 cases.
But the league pressed forward, eager to improve its bottom line and its brand by televising the popular midseason showcase around the world.
The NBA’s best will take the court at 8 p.m. Saturday (TNT coverage starts at 6:30) in a one-night-only, hastily arranged event at mostly empty State Farm Arena, where a limited number of invited guests will attend.
“All-Star is part of our league. It’s no different than all the other games we play,” commissioner Adam Silver said. “It begins and ends with the fans. This is an event the fans love to see. They love to see the players come together. But, nothing comes without controversy in a pandemic.”
The league’s biggest stars, led by LeBron James, would have preferred getting time off during the six-day break.
James called it “a slap in the face” to players who had little time to recover from last year’s interrupted season, and are still dealing with burdensome protocols intended to stifle the coronavirus as much as possible (but still weren’t enough to prevent the postponement of 31 games in the first half).
Now James is trying to make the best of the situation, using the All-Star platform to carry on with his efforts to expand voting rights. The game is being held in a state that was a focal point of the 2020 election.
“Look what we made happen, what our voices made possible,” the Lakers star says in a 51-second ad that was set to air for the first time during the game. “And now, look what they’re trying to do to silence us, using every trick in the book and attacking democracy itself. Because they saw what we’re capable of, and they fear it.”
This will be the fourth straight year to feature a format where the two top vote-getters served as captains and drafted their teams from the All-Star selections.
James has handled the duties all four times, going 3-0 in his previous stints — including last year’s 157-155 thriller in Chicago. Durant got the nod for the first time, though he is out due to an ailing hamstring.
James used the top draft pick on two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who captained the squad that went against Team LeBron the last two years. They are joined in the starting lineup by Stephen Curry of the Warriors, Luka Doncic of the Mavs and Nikola Jokic of the Nuggets.
Durant selected Nets teammate Kyrie Irving with his first choice, rounding out the starting lineup with Joel Embiid of the 76ers, 2020 All-Star MVP Kawhi Leonard of the Clippers, Bradley Beal of the Wizards and Jayson Tatum of the Celtics.
“I just try to pick players that can complement one another,” James said. “It’s the All-Star Game, so there’s going to be some shenanigans out there. But for the majority of the game, we’re going to try to play the right way and come out with a win.”
Commissioner: Normalcy lies ahead
The NBA is expecting arenas to be filled again next season and a return to its normal calendar, Silver said Saturday, while cautioning again that every plan is contingent on continued progress in the ongoing fight against the coronavirus.
There are no plans for the league to travel overseas next season for exhibitions or regular-season games, Silver said, meaning recent preseason trips to foreign markets such as China, Japan or India won’t be repeated until at least 2022.
But otherwise, things may largely appear back to normal — with the NBA eyeing a return to the 82-game schedule, starting in October and ending in June.
“I’m fairly optimistic, at this point, that we will be able to start on time,” Silver said in his annual news conference that precedes the All-Star Game. “Roughly half our teams have fans in their arenas right now and, if vaccines continue on the pace they are and they continue to be as effective as they have been against the virus and its variants, we’re hopeful that we’ll have relatively full arenas next season as well.”
The league had 171 games canceled last season — one reason for revenue projections being missed by about $1.5 billion — and this season will be at least 150 games below the usual total. All teams are scheduled to play 72 games instead of 82.
— By PAUL NEWBERRY