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Defining Moments of the NBA Season: The NBA’s History of Innovation Pays Off Again in the All-Star Game

The Elam Ending revitalized All-Star Weekend. The league should take the same progressive approach to its return from hiatus, whenever that may be. 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.

During an untimed fourth quarter, the world’s greatest players made this year’s All-Star Game feel more like a Game 7. They hustled on defense, sailed for blocks, and dove for loose balls. Coaches and players had to strategize to score. An event that usually feels like a meaningless exhibition game suddenly became basketball at its best.

The change came as a result of new rules: There was $500,000 of charity money on the line, and the final frame followed a tweaked version of the Elam Ending. A “target score” was determined by adding 24 points—as a tribute to the late Kobe Bryant’s no. 24—to whichever team had the most points after the third quarter. Team Giannis led Team LeBron 133-124, so the target score was 157. It’s not like past All-Star Games didn’t have moments of intensity; it just didn’t occur until the closing minutes. Setting a target score created a finish line that inspired players to try as soon as the fourth quarter began. Coaches limited substitutions, riding with the same five on each side when the score was still 144-138. Down the stretch, Team Giannis targeted James Harden, who fought hard in response and held his own. And Team LeBron spread the ball around, getting big buckets from LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, James Harden, and Anthony Davis. It was Davis who won the game in a 157-155 comeback victory for Team LeBron, drawing a free throw on a switch against the smaller Kyle Lowry. The crowd roared after Davis missed the first free throw, and a celebration ensued after he made the second. It wasn’t the perfect Elam Ending, but the quarter showed how great the format can be.

In the weeks leading up to the game, there was confusion over the changes and skepticism over whether they’d work. The league even said it was just a one-year trial. But it was a success met with widespread approval. The All-Star Game was thrilling, and it served as a reminder for the importance of innovation and experimentation.

The NBA is what it is because of the risks it has taken over the years. A shot clock was implemented in 1954. A 3-point line was added in 1979. The dunk contest was added in 1984. A draft lottery was created in 1985. A developmental league was made in 2001. Along the way, the league expanded from eight teams to 30. No idea ever receives unanimous approval though, even one as insignificant as the scoring format in an All-Star Game. Change can be scary. Some ideas didn’t pan out, like switching the leather ball to a microfiber ball in 2006, or shortening the 3-point line to increase scoring in 1994, which only led to a decrease in scoring. But the league’s bets usually pay off. When basketball has had a problem, be it strategic or financial or aesthetic, the NBA has never been afraid to find ways to improve the product.

Today, the NBA is facing perhaps its toughest challenge in its history. Less than one month after the All-Star Game, the regular season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. Everything is uncertain right now, but once it’s safe for sports to return, the NBA, owners, and broadcast partners should take the chance to be daring.

Over the past year, numerous proposals to change the league schedule have been introduced. In December, the NBA suggested adding a 30-team in-season tournament, a postseason play-in tournament for the seventh and eighth seeds in each conference, and the reseeding of conference finalists. All of the ideas were met with opposition, but now, with the league facing a time crunch should it resume the 2019-20 season this summer, they’re back on the table. A play-in tournament could finalize the playoff seeds, and the playoffs could feature shortened series, possibly with three-game series in the early rounds, according to league sources. A neutral site may also be utilized, which was already an option for any in-season or postseason play-in tournaments.

Building a bubble for teams to play would come with obvious challenges for players—like getting tested regularly and being away from their families during a long quarantine away from home. But it’s doable, and it may be necessary for players to get paid, as the NBA could withhold paychecks if games get cancelled. As a side benefit, the league will get an opportunity to find out which of its prior proposals could someday be implemented full-time. If the revised structure fails, then it’s forgivable considering the circumstances. If it succeeds, then the NBA can feel confident in it for future seasons.

Playing games this July, August, and September would require pushing the start of next season, but next season could be delayed anyway if subsequent waves of social distancing are required. NBA commissioner Adam Silver recently said on ESPN the league has discussed changing the start date of a new season; Hawks CEO Steve Koonin said at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference that it should be permanently be moved to December to avoid being overshadowed by the NFL regular season. If the start of next season does get delayed, the NBA might find out that it helps drive interest at a time when most eyes are on the NFL, and concerns about a summer dip in ratings could be squashed or confirmed if the Finals ran until next August. Opponents argue that summer television ratings usually dip since better weather means people are outside and families are taking vacations, but any predictions at this point are just conjecture; if there’s a tournament this summer, or if next season’s Finals don’t happen until August, the league will have data that can inform future decisions.

In an interview with TNT’s Ernie Johnson on Monday, Silver said that it’s impossible to make long-term decisions now, given how uncertain everyday life is at this point; the league can only plan for every possible scenario. In the likely event fans aren’t in arenas when the NBA resumes, the league will look for ways to innovate the broadcast. Why not put the highest-tech virtual reality cameras around the arena to give fans at home a new broadcasting experience? Why not make streaming games more interactive, allowing viewers to choose which announcers they want to hear or have players and coaches mic’d up to provide a new experience? Many fans around the world will never attend an NBA game in their lives, so not only is the coming year a time to innovate how the league runs, but the way it’s consumed by fans.

The Elam Ending was a low-risk gamble that worked for the NBA, and there may be more interest in the All-Star Game because of it. The aftermath of the coronavirus will create a new normal, both for sports and life in general. Amid a trying situation, the NBA has a chance to prove again that necessity is the mother of invention.