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NBA All Star Game: Dunk Contest and Other Improvements

Blazersedge tackles a couple questions about rights and wrongs in 2014 NBA All-Star Weekend.

Ronald Martinez

Let's hit a quick All-Star-themed Mailbag!


That was IT??? After weeks of anticipation and hype I feel let down by most everything at All Star Weekend this year.  Am I jaded or Blazer biased or does it just suck more nowadays?  Instead of talking about the great plays everybody's complaining and offering suggestions to fix it.  I'm not sure it can be.  Maybe I'm just getting old.


All of us are getting old.  And truth be told, how do you compare anything to the days of Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Clyde Drexler, et al. in the Dunk Contest?  It's not just romanticizing the era.  Those were unique events, not to be repeated anytime soon.  Not every Olympics or World Series will be a classic.  Certain events stick out in our minds forever.  That's the beauty of sports.

We do have to remember, though, that Jordan and 'Nique were followed by Kenny "Sky" Walker (fine dunker, but...) and more contests that proved less memorable than the classics.  Once you've seen Spud Webb, how many more short guys can thrill you?  Once Dwight Howard has done Superman, how many centers dunking seem new and fresh?  We're in a lull until someone else catches us up in "Can You Top That?"  And sorry, jumping compact cars for a sponsorship doesn't count.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.  Let's start from the foundation.

There's nothing wrong with the actual All-Star Game.  It usually brings us something worth watching.  The league does a great job building it up.  Fans get plenty to debate before and after plus they get a chance to pull for their guy to shine in front of a national audience.  The foundation of the weekend is secure.

Saturday needs tweaking.  I think everybody understands that, including NBA officials.  Their first step should be answering a basic question: "What are these events meant to showcase?"  You can choose from three possible answers:

1.  They're meant to showcase the best of the best, just like Sunday.

2.  They're supposed to bring younger, lesser known, burgeoning stars to America's attention.

3.  They highlight players who best embody specific skills: dunking, three-point shooting, point-guarding.

Right now the NBA takes a sloppy, semi-hybrid approach to this question.  They market it like #1 is the answer, as if we're going to tune in just because NBA players are famous and are participating.  But the players' de facto approach to the evening reflects #2.  LeBron and Kevin Durant don't sign up for these events.  They're for young players just establishing themselves.  TV coverage follows closer to #3, selling us like we're seeing the best dunkers or shooters during the event no matter who is participating.

You can see the problem here.  If the league assumes we'll tune in based on star power alone then they'd better present stars big enough to justify our viewership.  If the players' approach is more true, that we're supposed to be familiarizing ourselves with younger stars, then the league needs to package and promote those stars carefully instead of just turning them loose and assuming we'll catch on to them.  Either way, if those guys aren't actually the best dunkers and shooters then we feel ripped off hearing commentators claim that they are while the camera cuts to a better guy sitting in the stands and checking his cell phone.  Each approach requires distinct tactics.  You can't just mix them together and hope for the best.  It feels like the league and its broadcast partners are doing just that.

Many folks are clamoring for the first approach, a return to the Jordan-Dominique days.  Just get LeBron James to dunk and all will be well!  That's true on the surface, but it'll only work for a year or two.  How many dunks does LeBron have?  How many times can he win?  And, as we've seen, it's not like you can force him to participate.  So let's put that approach in the, "If you can manage it, do it!" file but assume it's not in the cards.

Practically speaking, the league has to choose between 2 and 3.  Are you going to use the Saturday contests to push new stars over the top or are you going to use them to showcase obscure dunkers and shooters who are really good at their craft but won't be playing on All-Star Sunday anytime soon?  Each has merit.  Either could work.  You just have to decide who you want to invite.

If you go with obscure, skill-oriented players then your selling point is, "In this league even guys who will never sniff an MVP vote are ultra-amazing."  You sell the dunks and shots themselves, tell people they're going to see things they've never seen before.  But you also make darn sure that you have selected the best dunkers and shooters in order to up the chances of amazement.   Even if most dunks fall short of masterpieces, at least you get to see astonishing athletes jumping to the moon.

If you go with introducing new stars, you don't sell the skill, you sell the players.   Commentators get to set up the battle, not the component parts.  "Here comes Damian Lillard onto the court.  Terrence Ross is staring him down.  Who has the goods to win this one?  It's going to be a donnybrook!"  It doesn't matter if the dunks are the best in the league or not, it matters that one guy defeats the other and emerges the victorious hero and that the other guy put up a fight.  If you think he got ripped off by the judges, so much the better.  Now you have more empathy for him.  (Note that outcome is a disaster if you're going with the other approach, selling the skills and not the player.  Divergent goals and tactics, remember?)

Was Damian Lillard the best choice to participate in the Dunk Contest this year?  By skills, maybe not.  By young star status, certainly.  But if that was the criterion, the league did precious little to actually establish/hype him or any of his fellow dunkers.  They just threw him out there under the young star premise, marketed him and the event as if he were a major star who could carry it by his presence alone, and depended on the actual dunks to make up the difference.  Unless you get really lucky that approach is going to fail.  And by all accounts it did.  That wasn't the fault of any of the participants.

You don't have to throw the Pharrell-infested pre-game concert we saw before Sunday's game but at least give these guys some buildup so you're not depending on the players and skills to sell themselves without proper exposure.  The league needs to import that crazy announcer lady from Japanese MMA, get some spotlights and music, create pre-match highlight reels, and make these guys taking the court seem important from the first minute they emerge onto the event stage.  They've got the raw material.  They just have to package and sell it better.

As far as format, the East vs. West motif in this year's dunk contest was fine.  It gives the players something to fight for.  Head-to-head contests are also fine.  But you don't want to over-complicate the event to the point that it overshadows the skill or the story.  Each event should be structured to keep the central message in front of viewers at all times and to make that message easy for broadcasters to explain.

You have to lose the group portion of the Dunk Contest.  You have to dissolve the teams in the Skills Challenge and go back to one, clear winner.  Nobody ever said, "Whoo!  The Broncos and the Seahawks won the Superbowl together!" or, "I'm partying because the NFC beat the AFC!"  Take a clue from Olympic sports.  Some are timed like the Skills Challenge.  Some are head-to-head elimination like the Dunk Contest or Three-Point Shooting should be.  Barometers of victory don't matter as much as creating the arena in which players can contend with each other, fight for a prize, and be acclaimed for it, showcasing themselves and the league in the process.

Side Note:  I'd find the dunk contest more interesting if they went back to allowing only a certain number of misses.  It helps build the drama.  Which dunk are you going to choose and when?  You have to warm up with some easier dunks, show off your leaping ability and power in straight dunking in the early stages, then save the super-fancy stuff (and a couple misses) for the big finale.  The event shows a progression that way.  I understand they're trying to encourage boundless creativity and risk by not tracking misses, having players go all-out for that standout slam.  But this way even when they get it, it blends into the background.  First of all, you probably missed it four times before succeeding.  Second, what's to distinguish your 360 windmill tomahawk from somebody else's 360 reverse tomahawk from somebody else's 180 reverse double-clutch tomahawk?  In the space of 3 minutes you see those 3 dunks attempted a total of 12 times and they're stuck in a pile of others that look just as bombastic.  Can you even remember the 25% that actually went in?  There's no story, no tension, no real contest.  Start small, build bigger, let it all out when it counts most.  That's a good narrative, especially for a sporting event.

Friday Night events would be more interesting if money for charities was on the line.  Say $50,000 to the winning team's charity, $25,000 to the charity of the losing team in each game.  Now the teams have something to play for.

The single, standout event which would bring pep back to the weekend would be a 1-on-1 contest.  It's easy to figure how it should go:

1.  Four players are named by the league automatically and given byes until Saturday.  For the inaugural contest those players are LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, and Carmelo Anthony.

2.  In the locker rooms of each of the other 26 teams players nominate a potential representative, whomever they think would represent their team best in a 1-on-1 tournament.  They know who has the junk.

3.  The league then chooses 16 of those 26 nominees to play in a Friday night bracket.  Round 1 whittles down 16 to 8.  Round 2 cuts 8 to 4.

4.  The 4 winners from Friday night head to Saturday to face the 4 automatic bye players.  Each one is matched up against one of the ringers.  Round 3 takes 8 down to 4, the next round determines the two finalists, and those two face off at the end of the night.

5.  Games are short, probably to 7 by 1's and 2's or to 14 by 2's and 3's.  You have to clear it past the top of the key on any opponent miss that hits rim.  You're allowed 3 fouls.  The 4th disqualifies you and gives the win to your opponent no matter what the score.  The player whose team holds a better regular season record gets the ball first in the game, ties settled by coin flip.  A 20-second shot clock marks the mandatory change of possession and games cannot last longer than 5 minutes.

6.  The winner of the contest gets an automatic bye position next year.

Not only would interest be insanely high in this kind of event, it'd be easy to market.  You either get the dream matchup between superstars or you get a David vs. Goliath story.  Either way you cannot lose.

The hangups are two.  You probably couldn't get elite superstars to participate long-term.  Also if anybody got injured in this more "serious" endeavor a franchise and its fan base would go ballistic.  For these reasons I don't see it happening.  But it's nice to dream.


How can anybody justify playing Lillard and Aldridge a combined 22 minutes in the Allstar game?  Portland broadcasters were right to go ballistic.  Are you as upset as I am?  What do you think of Rice and Harvey letting Scotty Brooks have it?


Twitter is a totally legit medium through which to ask questions, by the way!  Hat tip to 1greatgirl for 1greatquestion.

I empathize with upset feelings.  I remember not feeling like they EVER played Clyde and Duck and Porter enough.  And the one time they did Magic Johnson ripped the game MVP.  (sigh)

But you have to remember what the game is about.  That afternoon showcases the league's brightest stars, not necessarily just the best players.  American Idol is about finding just that, an idol. That may or may not be the contestant with the best voice.  Several local reporters and I work with the Trail Blazers' Dustin Hawes on a weekly Running the Break feature covering the team.  We're very good at what we do.  I'd stack us up against anybody.  If Hawes had the chance to get Charles Barkley into that column for a week, though, I'd expect him to kick any or all of us to the curb.  Singly some of us could probably out-analyze Barkley when it came to the Blazers.  Collectively I'm sure we could.  But in terms of show, flair, hits Barkley would crush all of us.

This All-Star Game was all about LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant.  Each minute Scott Brooks kept Durant on the bench was a minute less for that dream matchup to potentially catch fire.  Basketball purists like you and me can cringe all we want, but since the whole purpose of the game is to showcase the league and satisfy America's dreamy aspirations, Brooks would have been letting down everybody, including the guys on his team, by sitting KD.

Blake Griffin is a similar story, just to a lesser degree.  On my team I still like Aldridge better.  In an All-Star Game I want to see monster dunks, not 2-9 from the floor, mostly on jumpers.

While I weep a little for Blazer fans hoping for their Big Weekend, I totally understand why things transpired as they did and I can't summon much grief over it.  Want to teach everybody a lesson?  Win a title.

I'd say the same to Rice and Harvey, I guess.  I understand the urge to defend your guys but it seems like wasted energy to me.  If the Blazers go deep into the playoffs nobody will remember what happened (or didn't) on All-Star weekend.  If they don't then the complaints don't end up meaning much.  It'd be whining that a glass of milk is only half full when the whole cow has gone dry.

Keep sending in your questions to the written and video version of the Mailbag to the e-mail address below or hit me up @DaveDeckard.  Remember that for each person who follows that account a Trail Blazer will get an extra 10 seconds of playing time in next year's All-Star Game!

--Dave (