The NBA has a problem, and it really shouldn’t be an issue.
All-Star Weekend, one of the marquee events on the league’s calendar, is back in the spotlight. It happens every couple of years when things go askew just enough to get people talking about it.
Getting back on track requires some internal reflection and some outside intervention, like going to therapy to tune things up and get back on the right track. The core issue is the Slam Dunk Contest, which is a recurring problem. Every few years, just when things start to look better, the situation devolves back into the same rut of being too boring or too overdone.
Aside from the All-Star Game, the Dunk Contest is the heartbeat of NBA’s premier weekend festivities, and getting it right is paramount. Rarely is the takeaway from the weekend something that happened in the Skills Challenge or the Rising Stars Challenge. Sometimes it happens in the 3-Point Contest, but when the Dunk Contest is at a high level, it’s the biggest highlight.
The Zach LaVine-Aaron Gordon epic battles were the stuff of legend. Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins took it to the highest of heights. It’s been up and down over the years, but mostly down.
Saturday’s edition of the Dunk Contest didn’t help things. It started with Orlando Magic guard Cole Anthony, the first dunker of the night, taking a few extra minutes to put on Timberland boots to perform his first dunk. The stunt took too much time, and though it was a difficult dunk, the process took far too many tries to finally get it right.
That’s the case with several of the dunks every year — too many attempts and not enough steak to go with the sizzle. As with many therapy sessions, there’s some work to be done before the next visit, so here are some fixes to consider for the Dunk Contest and All-Star Weekend.
► Quality control. This has been a big problem in the contests that have fizzled. I don’t know what the league uses as criteria to pick the contestants, but there has to be a higher bar. This year’s crop didn’t have the buzz with Anthony, Jalen Green, Juan Toscano-Anderson and the eventual champion, Obi Toppin. Green was the favorite, but he was so laser-focused on getting one dunk he couldn’t convert that he didn’t make it past the first round. The same happened with Anthony. Toppin won partly because the other competitors couldn’t get theirs right. Some have suggested a one-point penalty for every missed attempt, which seems like a good idea. If it takes five tries to get a dunk to go, the max score is 45.
► Entice big names. Bring the heat. Find out what Ja Morant requires to compete in the Dunk Contest. He’s on a different level with his dunking, but that would be fun to watch. Bring Aaron Gordon back. Sure, he’s been hurt before, but under the right conditions, he’d probably compete again. If there were enough of a financial incentive, more of the elite dunkers might do it. Money never has been an issue with the NBA and getting a few sponsors to chip in $1 million apiece wouldn’t be hard to do. Pistons guard Hamidou Diallo also would be on my short list of phone calls.
► Remove the props. It’s the player, the ball and the rim. No jumping over anyone, no getting a lob pass from a teammate, no ball racks, no cars, no mascots. This rule would eliminate the best dunk that I’ve ever seen, but it would also get rid of some of the worst dunks that we’ve ever seen. I’d be willing to concede allowing just one dunk with a prop, but there are too many attempts in each contest that take too much time.
► Add a time limit. Even if there are multiple attempts allowed without a penalty, make a time limit. Too often, the crowd is waiting for a setup or a run-up or something before the actual dunk happens. No one needs more than 45 seconds to a minute to get everything figured out. Part of the pageantry of the dunk contest is getting it right the first time. If I know what you’re going to do because you had five attempts before you got it right, the suspense is gone.
Aside from the Dunk Contest, the rest of the weekend was pretty good. Here are some observations from the other events:
► The Rising Stars Challenge was awesome. Converting it to four seven-player teams was a rousing success and playing to a set score in each of the games went very well. It brought a sense of competitiveness to what otherwise was mostly a showcase of 3-pointers and dunks. In the end, the players made the adjustment to know when they needed to score, and the early shenanigans were done. The Pistons’ Cade Cunningham and Saddiq Bey were two of the standouts this year.
► The Skills Challenge became too convoluted. Having teams of three compete was a nice touch, but the scoring and the rules for each of the events were confusing. Players didn’t know exactly what was going on, with tiebreakers for some things and no tiebreakers for others. The final event for the competition was a halfcourt shot, and that should not be the decider in a skills competition. If anything, it should be first, and let one of the other things be the ending.
► The 3-Point Contest was OK. What about adding a 4-point spot that’s near the center-court logo? That’s becoming more common in today’s game, and the scoring in the contest is too constrained. There are Mountain Dew-sponsored spots, but there are only two shots there. Make it a whole rack of balls instead, so there’s more of a chance to catch up if a player is behind.
In most years, All-Star Weekend is pretty good, and this year was no different, but there’s always room for a tune-up.
Session over. Maybe the next appointment won’t be for a few more year.