Spuriosity: Why the Rookie Challenge is where NBA action is

The regular NBA season is a 29-city, 82-game marathon beginning in late October and ending mid-April. While regular season results dictate post-season positioning, it’s ultimately a medal-less marathon. The real grind happens in the playoffs — 16 teams competing in four rounds, each one a race to four wins in seven shots.

During the 2006-2007 season, the San Antonio Spurs played 102 games in the regular season and playoffs combined. In 2004-2005, 105 games. In 2002-2003, 106 games. Each of these seasons ended with the Spurs hoisting the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy.

With this season’s Spurs crossing the 40-win threshold before any other Western Conference team had earned 35, one cannot help but surmise that a playoff berth is an already foregone conclusion. Moreover, it begs the question — if the Spurs continue to humble their opponents at a franchise-record pace, is this going to be another 100-game season, otherwise known as a championship run?

Not to put the ring before the run, but why shouldn’t the Spurs, Coach Popovich included, relax during the 60th Annual NBA All-Star Weekend held February 18-20 in Los Angeles?

Popovich called being named the Western Conference All-Stars coach “a great honor,” but one couldn’t fault him for thinking, perhaps, “It’s a worthless waste of time. I’d rather be at dinner,” as he said after the January 14 victory over the Dirk-less Mavericks.

Three days following Popovich’s selection as coach, Eastern and Western Conference All-Star starters were named, based on fan votes. The defending champion, Eastern Conference All-Star starters are Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Dwyane Wade; Western All-Star starters will be Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Yao Ming, and Chris Paul.

Yes, the perennially plagued Yao “Ow” Ming, who’s played in five games this season, was voted in as an All-Star starter. Thank you, China. Yes, the Spurs and Celtics, the two most consistent, successful teams thus far, failed to garner a single All-Star starter between them.

If we can agree that the All-Star Game’s manufactured pomp and circumstance isn’t even appointment television anymore, but only there to increase the league’s bottom line, let’s just make the NBA Rookie Challenge the main event.

The current format of the Rookie Challenge began in 2000, pitting the league’s brightest, most exciting rookies against accomplished second-year players on Friday night in the weekend’s festivities. For example, last year’s 2010 Rookie Challenge resulted in a barrage of 219 combined shot attempts. (Interestingly, the same number of total shots taken in the 2010 All-Star Game.) The Rookies bested their Sophomore brothers 140-128. Spurs energy man DeJuan Blair was the game’s Chairman of the Boards, grabbing 23 rebounds and scoring 22 points. Not surprisingly, Blair will return this year as a member of the Sophomore squad in a bid to flex his might over the league’s new Rookie young bloods.

Sending only the Rookies and Sophomores of the NBA to the All-Star Weekend rather than more experienced, older players would be mutually beneficial for all parties involved. Young players like rookie Gary Neal, or sophomore DeJuan Blair, are afforded the opportunity to showcase their oft-overshadowed talents on a national stage. Subsequently, the NBA’s youngest products become more recognizable individual brands that only stand to boost the league’s legitimacy. All the while, league veterans like Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili can use the weekend for rest and relaxation.

Taking it a step further, let’s continue the Rookie Challenge’s procedure of naming an NBA Assistant Coach as the Head Coach of the Rookie and Sophomore squads. By removing accomplished coaches like Gregg Popovich, Phil Jackson, and Doc Rivers from the All-Star Weekend mix, it thrusts a background coach into the foreground of the festivities.

Of course, being selected as an NBA All-Star by the fans or head coaches is an achievement that calls for celebration. But, let’s get real and laugh at the NBA’s claim that “The 60th NBA All-Star Game will bring together 24 of the world’s best athletes to compete on the NBA’s biggest stage ever.”

The biggest stages aren’t constructed in the middle of seasons, but rather at the end, when something’s actually at stake. As for the San Antonio Spurs and Coach Popovich, it’s business as usual. They aren’t worried about vote counts. For them, it’s all about ring count.

Rudy Gayby covers the Spurs along with Manuel Solis at Spuriosity. Contact them at [email protected]

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