The only expectation for the 2019 NBA All-Star draft special was that there would be one to watch. We’ve been waiting an entire year for a televised draft. The league changed the format of the All-Star rosters for the 2018 game, but kept the actual draft—the part that would’ve garnered the most engagement—behind closed doors. The captains wouldn’t even talk about the order they chose, lest they hurt anyone’s feelings—any NBA All-Star’s feelings, the feelings of an elite group of professional basketball players who are selected by their peers, coaches, and fans as the best in the game.
I’m never one to discount feelings, but I’m also not the one missing out on monetizing a televised draft. The NBA realized this, and, like they do for everything else, they capitalized. Airing the draft, which this year was between Western Conference captain LeBron James and Eastern Conference captain Giannis Antetokounmpo, was worth it for James’s expressions in the first 30 seconds alone. The draft was filmed early Thursday morning, perhaps around the same time reports were released that Anthony Davis would not be traded before the deadline, and would finish the season in New Orleans. (James’s reported desire, of course, was for his fellow Klutch Sports client to end up in Los Angeles.) “Everything’s good,” James responded to Ernie’s initial “How are things?” To me, he said it with a forced smile; to others, it might’ve looked genuine. Part of the fun was just getting the chance to scrutinize. It was the first moment in the trade deadline fiasco that we were close up with the man who had the most to lose, and lost it.
The draft itself was at the speed of any fantasy selection process, with some deliberation and recalibration after the other team made a surprise move. In the end, these were the teams James and Antetokounmpo selected:
*James traded Westbrook to Antetokounmpo for Simmons.
As Chris Ryan wrote after last year’s non-televised event, the draft needs to be seen to be considered a spectacle. This fit. Here are three takeaways from the first-ever on-air All-Star draft:
1. Giannis Is Too Nice to Be a GM
Dear Antetokounmpo drafted with his heart, not his head. He mentioned before the draft that he was planning on taking Steph Curry first because Curry took him first the year before. Curry is a top-five player in the NBA, so Antetokounmpo easily got away with a little loyalty there. Still, it foreshadowed of the lack of viciousness to come.
For his first bench selection—we all know how crucial that WR2 or flex can be—Antetokounmpo took teammate Khris Middleton. He was leaving three rings (Klay Thompson), three unicorns (Nikola Jokic, Ben Simmons, Karl-Anthony Towns), and 3-pointers (again, Klay “I have the record for most 3s in a game” Thompson) on the board. I applaud loyalty, and Middleton isn’t a scrub. But that’ll cost Antetokounmpo. Er, it would, if this were a serious competition and not the All-Star Game.
Antetokounmpo finished his regular selections (before the honorary additions of Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki) with Kyle Lowry because “I promised him I wasn’t going to take him last,” which left Bradley Beal to Team James. Lowry is shooting 41 percent from the field this season, and is averaging 14.2 points to Beal’s 24.9. Points > promises.
2. LeBron Is at Work
The trade deadline bent so far from the Lakers’ favor that James is still on a team with more memes dedicated to it than accolades. And a large group of NBA fans were happy to see him—the man who seems to always trade in his teammates for better ones—fail. James jokingly leaned into the villian role during the draft, as he not-so-jokingly did years earlier in Miami.
James drafted Kevin Durant (an upcoming free agent), Kyrie Irving (an upcoming free agent), Kawhi Leonard (an upcoming free agent), James Harden, and Anthony Davis (a prime trade target) for his starting five. When Ernie Johnson asked him about adding Davis to his team, which he has seemed to be actually trying to do over the past two weeks, James laughed without apprehension:
Ernie: “You sure you want him to be your teammate?”
James: “I’m very sure of that.”
Antetokounmpo: “Isn’t that tampering?”
James: “Tampering rules do not apply on All-Star weekend.”
This whole Anthony Davis bit between LeBron And Ernie is pic.twitter.com/79ERIzyf0b— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) February 8, 2019
Why wouldn’t he feel free to make that joke? Though his recent maneuvering has been disappointing, there have never been consequences for James trying to control managerial aspects of the game before. After the draft was over, even, James proposed a trade to Antetokounmpo—Westbrook for Simmons—that wasn’t part of the scheduled programming. Antetokounmpo accepted, tying a bow on his performance as the ultimate good sport of the evening, and the All-Star Game had its first-ever trade. At least James got one trade done on deadline day.
3. The NBA Can Laugh at Itself
For something as ridiculous as an All-Star Game, “rules” really don’t matter. Whatever is conductive to entertainment will be allowed. That’s where the NBA stands out as a league—the nature of the game doesn’t have a clear in-game break for something like a celebratory touchdown dance, but if it did, the NBA would preserve that space. Because James was drafting and because Davis was on the board, the league knew there was a decent likelihood that the broadcast would discuss what had been going on the past couple of days between the Pelicans and the Lakers. And some of the league’s serious issues, like tampering, were at stake—yet the NBA trusted the participants to make light of it. Again, for entertainment. The NBA isn’t a regular mom, it’s a cool mom.