I’m not exactly sure who started it. I know that Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports introduced the idea of Damian Lillard as a possible All-Star last month. I know that some people took up the cause and ran with it, so much so that Damian was asked about the potential of being an All-Star reserve after a couple of games last month, and that after the All-Star reserves were announced and Damian wasn’t among them some other people called snub.
Let me go on the record with this: Damian Lillard is not an All-Star this year. He will be at some point; he just isn’t right now.
But just because Dame’s non-selection isn’t a snub doesn’t mean Portland’s potential Rookie of the Year doesn’t warrant consideration. And because of that consideration, it’s important to talk about what exactly makes one an All-Star, and why some NBA players have been asked to participate in All-Star festivities in their first season as a pro and others haven’t.
Before we go into all that, though, it’s necessary to illuminate what the All-Star Game is really all about.
In classic Wikipedia fashion, the NBA All-Star Game is described as “An exhibition game hosted annually by the National Basketball Association, matching the league’s star players from the Eastern Conference against their counterparts from the Western Conference. It’s the featured event of All-Star Weekend.”
All-Star Weekend is much more than just a vehicle for the All-Star Game, which in turn is much more than a meaningless exhibition game. All-Star Weekend is about putting together a promotional package for the league as a whole at a time when the eyeballs of the American sports fan are exceedingly vulnerable.
The NFL and Major League Baseball are the two most popular professional leagues in the United States. Summer and fall belong to the MLB. Fall and winter is the domain of the National Football League. As one is winding down, the other is getting ready to start. The Super Bowl was two weeks ago; pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training this week.
Sandwiched between the NFL and the MLB is the NBA. Its fan base, as far as it really matters, is pretty niche. Diehards keep the thing on its feet at all. That doesn’t mean David Stern and his crowd want to give up on the millions, or even billions, of dollars that are up for grabs on television deals, season tickets, and merchandise, though. Expansion is the name of the game. Getting people in the fly-over states (places where there are no professional basketball teams) to care about the NBA, and show that they care by ordering a premium cable package or another Kobe Bryant jersey, is the prime directive of the office of the commissioner.
Enter All-Star Weekend and its marquee event the All-Star Game.
Sure it’s good clean fun watching all the best players in the NBA on the court at the same time. Sometimes, even, the All-Star Game has an impact on basketball culture (the 1992 All-Star Game for instance). But more than anything, the game itself and the affiliated events serve as an advertisement for the league.
So does that mean that I think the All-Star Game is without significance, or worse a fraud? Not at all. I think the exact opposite, in fact. The All-Star Game is one of the more important things that takes place in any given NBA season, and it needs to be great every year.
Casual fans have trouble staying hooked on the NBA for the 82 games each team has to play, but a rousing mid-season game featuring all the marquee players in the league can pique the interest of some who might not have tuned in back in November or December while sustaining the interest of those few couple-times-a-month fans who might have been leaning towards bowing out in early February when the narratives get thick and indecipherable and some of the play starts to slow down in the long preparation for the stretch run. A lackluster All-Star Game does not accomplish those very important ends.
We all know that the fans select the 10 guys who start the All-Star Game. The criteria for how non-starters get selected are a little less cut and dry. Sometimes one outlier type season is good enough to get asked. Sometimes it’s a collection of good seasons building to a better or a really good season that gets a guy in. Sometimes it’s getting the ever popular brand-tag of “the next big thing.”
And it’s “the next big things” that often get invited to the All-Star Game as rookies. When you’ve got a guy who from day one is primed to be a superstar, you don’t hold out on the people, especially if you want that guy to help you sell stuff on TV.
The last three rookies to play in the All-Star Game were (in reverse chronological order for oldest to most recent) Tim Duncan, Yao Ming, and Blake Griffin. Apart from being frontcourt players, these three guys have a lot in common.
Tim Duncan entered the league in 1997, had an immediate impact, and very easily lived up to the hype that came with him from Wake Forest. The Big Fundamental has always been those two things, big and fundamentally sound. He might not ever sell the most jerseys, but he was a big deal player from the day he showed up. He was a talent that needed to be recognized, spoon-fed to the masses if it had to come to that.
Yao Ming is the most interesting case among this group of three, and might go the furthest to emphasize the importance of branding with regards to the All-Star Game. By no means did Yao blow people away in his rookie season. He succeeded, there’s no doubt about that, but his impact on the court didn’t outpace his importance off the court, at least not right away. But that off the court stuff was much, much more important any way. And it’s what got him into the All-Star Game.
China is the golden goose. Not just of the NBA, but for all American enterprises that want to continue thriving and printing money for the next century. There was absolutely no better way to sell the NBA to China that through a player like Yao Ming. Ballots for the 2003 All-Star Game were the first to be available in Chinese. With the backing of Chinese fans, Yao was voted an All-Star starter, netting about 250,000 more votes than Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq was on a three-year run of being the MVP of the NBA Finals at the time.
Yao played 17 minutes in his first All-Star Game, and scored two points. He didn’t light the world on fire, but he was there, and the Chinese NBA fans were part of the All-Star Game equation from 2003 on. Yao started the All-Star Game eight times from 2002 until his retirement in 2011. The in-roads the NBA has made in China, with Chinese fans, and with Asian Americans because of Yao Ming cannot be overstated.
The most recent rookie to be selected to the All-Star Game has had the same type of impact as Yao Ming. But where Yao represented international expansion, Blake Griffin is the poster-child of the new NBA. Griffin is big, strong, fast, and marketable. He’s smart, good looking, non-threatening, and self aware enough to laugh at himself.
Griffin’s appeared in mainstream car advertisements, in weird end-of-the dial ads for super niche products like Game Fly, and on viral videos and podcasts for companies like Earwolf and Funny or Die that are right at the bulls-eye of the zeitgeist.
It can be argued the Blake Griffin’s branding extravaganza began in the moment of super-synergy when he won the Slam Dunk Contest by leaping over the hood of a Kia, but in my mind it was the inclusion in the actual All-Star Game (held in LA the town where Blake happens to play his home games) that gave Griffin the legitimacy to be a massively marketable player and not just a one-trick pony.
Which brings us to Damian Lillard. Where does he fit in the conversation of game-changing rookies, and does he bring the kind of stuff to the table that put those aforementioned guys (not to mention the likes of Grant Hill, Shaq, Dikembe Mutombo, David Robinson, and Michael Jordan) into the All-Star Game?
So far in 2012-13, Lillard leads rookies in total minutes played, minutes per game, total assists, assists per game, and points per game. He’s also fourth in the league in minutes played, tied for 18th in field goals, 12th in field goal attempts, tied for ninth in three-point field goals, tied for fourth in three-pointers attempted, 10th in total assists, 15th in points, fifth in minutes per game, 18th in points per game, and 14th in assists per game. Those are All-Star type numbers. In fact, there are a couple statistical categories (minutes per game, minutes played, and field goal attempts) where all or almost all of the guys ahead of Damian are All-Stars, some of them starters.
Where Damian is lacking, though, and what may or may not have kept him out of the All-Star Game, is branding. Dame’s narrative is strong, he comes from a small college, wasn’t recruited much out of high school, and grew up in Oakland, but he lacks the kind of image that makes Blake Griffin Blake Griffin or the international cachet of a Yao Ming.
Portland understands what they have, and are taking advantage of it. But only those in the local market get to experience the cross-platform marketing at play when in-stadium PA announcer Mark Mason introduces Damian Lillard as wearing the letter “O” and not the number zero. (Here’s a hint, it’s tied directly to a local-area commercial for games on Comcast in which Damian explains he decided on zero to represent the fact that he came from Oakland, went to college in Ogden, and currently resides/plays his basketball in Oregon.)
There’s a marketable commodity in Damian Lillard, but the NBA hasn’t gotten wise to it yet.
But what does Lillard think about all this? The hoopla, the branding strategy, the future of the Portland Trail Blazers? He is complicit in everything after all; nobody can be drafted into a marketing scheme against his will.
“It’s a compliment to me but I got to pay my dues just like everybody else,” Lillard told me after a recent game when I asked him how he felt about getting brought up as a potential All-Star. “I got to keep getting better. I think down the line that stuff will come for me, but right now I got to keep helping the team win.”
When I brought up to Damian the sometimes-salient facts that Portland plays half of its games in the Pacific Northwest, hardly ever gets on national TV, and isn’t one of the top franchises in the NBA, and because of those things some of the more marketable elements of his game are lost on the less discerning professional basketball fans, this is how he responded:
“We’re an NBA team. We might not be the Lakers are the Knicks, but we’re an NBA team,” Lillard said. “We have an All-Star on our team, so it’s not like people don’t know what we’re doing or don’t know how I play or what I’m doing on the floor.”
I re-framed my line of questioning a little bit after it had been announced the Lillard would be competing in the Skills Challenge, an event that would put him center-stage all by himself and up against some of the NBA’s top talent at the point guard position. But he didn’t imagine that this event and his inclusion in it would do much to raise his profile.
“I don’t think it will do a lot, I just think it will allow people to see me participating in some type of competition,” he explained. “It’s a precise type of challenge so they’ll get to see my ability to do things like that.”
He does admit, though, that the more he plays and the more heads he turns, the more basketball fans across the country are coming to know him.
“I think a lot more people are starting to me familiar with my story, where I come from. I think people can appreciate it because there are a lot of people that have been in my position that didn’t get the opportunity to play in this league,” Lillard told me. “There are a lot of people that are in my position right now as far as coming from a small school and growing in a tough neighborhood. I think it’s being recognized because it gives people hope.”
There’s certainly an opportunity here to be capitalized on, it’s just not immediately obvious what the best course of action is going to be. Maybe the NBA will build Damian Lillard’s branding around Dame being an ambassador for small college players. Maybe it will be built around his preternatural leadership skills and knack for operating calmly under extreme pressure. Or maybe it will be constructed around Lillard’s very apparent ability to never be flapped. (That’s my attempt at a play on the word unflappable, probably the most apt descriptor I can come up with for Damian Lillard.)
However they choose to do it, there’s plenty of branding for the NBA to be built around Damian Lillard. Maybe not enough to make him the first backcourt rookie to make the All-Star Game since Michael Jordan, but the list of guys not selected to the All-Star Game in their rookie year includes both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, two of the most marketable young players in the NBA and two guys with highly successful marketing campaigns that tie the league to international brands like Nike and Pepsi.
All-Star Game or no, there’s a chance a similar kind of marketing campaign and branding strategy will be in Damian Lillard’s future.