Andy Larsen: The NBA doesn’t look the same as it did 70 years ago. Why do its All-Star teams?

The rosters are the same size now as they were in the ‘50s, when the league had only 10 teams. A lot of deserving players are being left out as a result.

LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates with James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers during the second half of the NBA All-Star basketball game Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Huh)

The NBA’s first All-Star Game was in 1951, 70 years ago.

The NBA was struggling, and positive attention was in short supply. The basketball world was dealing with a point-shaving scandal among colleges, and average attendance was about 3,500 per game. The league had just seen a game end with a final score of 19-18.

Boston Celtics owner Walter Brown looked over at the MLB’s All-Star Game, thought “Hey, we can do that!” and paid for and hosted the NBA’s version. Over 10,000 people attended, the game made money, and the league has done it every year since.

There were 10 teams in the league back then, and the rosters for the Western Conference All-Stars and Eastern Conference All-Stars contained 11 players each — five starters, five reserves, and an alternate. No Black players were selected. Most of the league’s teams had two players on the roster, though the Lakers and Knicks had three. In all, 18% of the league made the All-Star Game.

If 18% of the NBA was selected to the All-Star Game today, we’d invite 81 players.

Now, look, I’m not advocating for that, but here’s what I do believe: it’s a little bit too difficult to become an All-Star in today’s NBA. As the league has tripled in size 30 teams, we’ve expanded All-Star rosters from 11 to 12 players per team.

It wouldn’t be until 1989 that there would be more teams than players at the All-Star Game. For most of the game’s vaunted history, it featured more players than teams in the league.

Twelve teams have no All-Star representation at all in this year’s contest. If you’re a fan of a specific team, there’s a 40% chance that you have no reason to watch the game, no reason to watch the NBA’s All-Star draft, and so on. As much as anything, that’s what’s fun about the All-Star Game itself: seeing guys you’ve developed an emotional connection with play with other players, try to find themselves among the league’s pecking order. But it’s no fun to watch a pecking order established that you’re locked out of.

“But Andy,” I hear you saying, “while the size of the league has grown, the All-Star Game’s mission hasn’t: find the best 24 players in our league. Why should that number change?”

Because the available pool of basketball talent has widely expanded. Instead of gathering pro players from a few states in which basketball was a focus (in 1951, the NCAA basketball tournament was just 16 teams, up from eight the year prior), we’re now an internationally renowned sport, with literally hundreds of millions of youth playing the game worldwide. It is astronomically harder to be an NBA player than it ever was 20 years ago, let alone 70 years ago.

What I propose is a modest change: 15-player All-Star rosters for each conference. That’s the size of actual NBA rosters, after all, and shouldn’t the All-Star teams work like actual NBA teams? That also would mean an average of exactly one All-Star per team.

Ah, symmetry. Seems like the perfect amount. If we were establishing the All-Star Game from scratch today, this is exactly what we would do — we certainly wouldn’t randomly select 12-player rosters.

I then further propose that the practice of establishing injury replacements from the All-Star Game is abolished. 15-man rosters will be able to absorb the annual ritual of one or two players from each conference being unable to play due to injury.

We’d still have All-Star debates and All-Star snubs and all of that, but the whole process wouldn’t feel quite as unfair as it does now. Remember when Damian Lillard, or Deron Williams, was locked out of the All-Star Game for two consecutive seasons, just because the Western Conference had four of the best guards in NBA history at the time? Both deserved to be there.

This year, that’d mean spots for Trae Young and Khris Middleton in the Eastern Conference, and spots for DeMar DeRozan and Mike Conley in the Western Conference. All four have had definite All-Star caliber seasons by any standard, and deserve to be mentioned among their peers.

For no reason beyond tradition, we’re stuck in the past. Let’s make the All-Star team fit the league we play in now, not the ancient relic from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

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