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Fixing NBA All-Star Weekend

The events are fine, but the league should change how they’re conducted.

2022 NBA All-Star - AT&T Slam Dunk Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

NBA All-Star Weekend 2022 is in the books. The results—Team LeBron beating Team Durant in a 160-point-apiece affair, Karl-Anthony Towns winning the three-point competition, and Obi Toppin taking home the slam dunk trophy—were underwhelming. Everyone involved tried hard, but the mix left many NBA fans cold, including Mike, who submitted this question to our Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dear, Dear, Dave.

I promised myself I’d watch the All Star game and contests even though there were no Blazers in them because I wanted to be a good fan and appreciate the game. And maybe I could find someone to ask you if we could trade for! Boy do I regret it. What happened? I remember All Star games with Brandon [Roy] taking over and dunk contests that made everyone jump. Karl Anthony Towns as the three point winner was just so so. I couldn’t even finish the dunk contest. The Rising Stars wasn’t much either. What happened to our exciting weekend and how do we get it back?

Mike

With all due respect to Anfernee Simons, I thought last year’s dunk contest was underwhelming too. The three-point shootout usually delivers, but the Rising Stars game is kind of silly. All suffer from the same issue: we’ve seen them too much. How many dunks are possible? And when they’re all jammed together like that, how do you differentiate? It’s like someone saying, “You like cheesecake? Here! CHEESECAKE! CHEESECAKE! FROSTED CHEESECAKE! MORE CHEESECAKE! Please rate each piece on a scale of 1-10.”

Contrast the NBA All-Star weekend events with a spectacle that ran alongside them this year: The Olympics. It suffers from the opposite problem. We haven’t seen Scandinavians cross-country skiing while shooting nickel-sized pop lids enough to understand what’s happening, let alone care. Yet we tune in and consume this stuff like crazy every second year. What do the Olympics have that the more-comprehensible, and theoretically more exciting, NBA All-Star events don’t?

Spectacle and pageantry are obvious answers, but the league actually does pretty well with that stuff, all things considered. Also athletes train all their lives for the Olympics, not much at all for the All-Star game. But we’re not talking about NBA All-Star weekend actually equaling the Olympics, just picking up some of that inherent interest.

The NBA doesn’t need to grab attention for All-Star weekend; they need to hold it, year-to-year.

I’d argue that the Olympics engage the world because of three things:

  1. They’re international. You don’t just see athletes from your home country playing their sport. You see them in a different situation, against different opponents, stacked up against rivals and underdogs in ways you don’t get outside of that event.
  2. The prizes for winning are meaningful. The prestige of medals, having your national anthem played...that’s a huge part of the mystique. Third-place finishers earn an heirloom that’ll be passed through their families for generations. Their great-great grandchildren will be saying, “My grandma was in the Olympics and here’s her bronze medal.”
  3. The rules for each sport are clearly-defined and an intrinsic part of the process. They only give one prize for, “Ski fast!” All the rest of the skiing events are, “Go around these gates or over these bumps or off of this jump.” Rules and boundaries narrow the path, making the process more comprehensible, also making the achievement harder to earn, and thus more remarkable.

Again, there’s no way the NBA could, or should, duplicate the Olympics. They can’t create artificially what international sport has spent several lifetimes building organically. But they could borrow from these concepts to enhance interest in their All-Star events. I mean, if people can invent Big Air snowboarding, hand out medals, and get millions of people to watch it, the Association can surely sell its dunk contest.

Prizes

The simplest factor to duplicate is meaningful prizes.

Does anyone outside of Trail Blazers fans and the Simons family remember who won the 2021 slam dunk contest? It doesn’t affect anything. You get a shiny trophy and go home. Judging by participation, that trophy isn’t enough incentive to get anybody to come back to compete twice. If they don’t want to do it again, why should we watch it again?

For the individual events, how about $500,000 prize money to each winner, plus $500,000 donated to the charity of their choice. They can afford to buy a new house for a family member (or add 50% to their salary if they’re a minimum-contract player), plus make a huge difference for people in need. Get corporate sponsors to help with the prize in exchange for branding, or just consider the money an investment in your brand.

Also, how about credit for the achievement through the rest of the year? Every time a player is introduced for the first time in an arena—be it starting lineups or checking in for the first time off the bench—that player is introduced as, “NBA Slam Dunk/Three-Point Champion [Insert Name Here].” Remind people that the event exists, and that winning it is a semi-big deal.

Team events are harder. The charity aspect would be simple. Have each team designate an organization to receive winnings should the squad prove victorious. Paying off participants gets tricky because of scale. A nice cash bonus for winning plus something to take home (All-Star Game winner’s trophy for each participant) might help. But the psychological/emotional incentive needs boosting.

I don’t think the NBA should go anywhere near the MLB system of changing the playoffs based on the outcome of the All-Star game. But they need to split the teams by conference again to create some kind of natural rivalry.

After that, could there be a little acknowledgement when Eastern and Western Conference teams meet that something happened at the All-Star Game? “Here to face your Atlanta Hawks, from the Western Conference, victors at the 2023 NBA All-Star game, the Portland Trail Blazers.” Yeah, it’s repetitive, but how many times can you hear that your side lost before you want them to win again and turn the tables? How about patches on uniforms for the year? Special sneakers? Special sneakers passed out to every fan at a designated home game for each team in the winning conference?

However they do it, some combination of financial reward and ongoing reminder that this matters would go a long way towards creating stakes in the event that are largely missing now.

Different Competitors

No matter how much you like the All-Star weekend events, the limited pool of participants drains half of the fun from the competition before it starts. Only the actual All-Star game is immune; people want to see the biggest stars compete against each other. Upping the rewards for the other events may get higher-profile players to participate, thus solving part of the problem, but even that isn’t enough.

The NBA should borrow more directly from the Olympics here, creating an event that you can’t see anywhere else, with prestige and opportunity that go beyond just the players involved and their fans.

The league did well with the Rising Stars challenge this year, inviting G-League players and running a tournament format. I think they can get away with two teams, but it should be ALL G-League and two-way contract players. This should be about players who could make the league that you might not have seen before, All-Stars from another venue, not first-round NBA picks with other agendas. This should be one of the most important, visible events of the year for everyone playing in it.

If you could import All-Star teams from other leagues, ensuring return-favor appearances of the American Rising Stars the following summer for exhibitions in Europe/Asia, even better. Make Rising Stars a brand, a legit way to get noticed, not just an afterthought.

It’s not hard to do that with the three-point shootout either. Make it an actual tournament running throughout the day. The top dozen NBA shooters by percentage (minimum number of shots required) get invited automatically and get a bye through the first round. So, too, a handful of “Star Exemption” players that you’d like to see compete because of their name value. After those slots are filled, invite one great shooter from each franchise, plus shooters of international renown. Best of all, have franchises run local and regional tournaments throughout the season to determine one fan participant who gets to shoot alongside the pros for the day.

Run that tournament all day Saturday until you’re down to your Final 6, who compete Saturday evening at the main event. The excitement of seeing an international player try to take down the NBA participants—or even better, the fan participant if they made it that far—would add spice to the event. You’d probably tune in to see if Sherman Smith from Poughkeepsie is about to become an instant half-millionaire [and legend for life] by somehow out-shooting the league’s best for one night.

Dunk Rules

Diversifying participation and increasing prizes would be enough to help the Rising Stars and Three-Point competitions. Both they, and the actual All-Star Game, have codified rules already, so they don’t need help in that vein.

But what about the Slam Dunk competition? Poor Sherman Smith can’t hang there, and you don’t really want to open that up to amateurs or extra-league participants anyway, lest it become a de facto high/long jump competition among people who can’t actually play the game at a high level.

Unlike distance shooting, dunking isn’t a skill as much as an art. Right now, that art is so abstract that nobody knows how to codify it. It’s like comparing Jackson Pollack and Rembrandt, going, “Yep! Both art! Both good!” If you were to ask which was the better artist, the subject would be far too wide to come up with a meaningful answer. You at least need to specify an era or a style to start the conversation.

It’s the same with the dunk competition. You don’t want to inhibit the creativity of the participants. At the same time, having no meaningful guidelines for any dunk leads to no meaningful, understandable competition. A few standards would bring participants together, within the contest and with the viewing audience.

I’d suggest something like this:

No matter how many players the NBA invites, each participant would come prepared with 4-5 dunks, though they may not use all of them.

The first round would consist of two dunks from each participant. Each of those two dunks would be bounded by a pre-set description, chosen on Christmas Day, broadcast nationally. The descriptions could be pulled out of a lottery hopper. Perhaps fans could suggest some. They could be words like, “Height” or “Distance”, or they could be more abstract like, “Funky” or “Spin Cycle” or “Jordan-esque”. Every participant would know the descriptions when they accepted the invitation to the contest.

In the first round, each participant is judged by how well the dunk represented the given description, in addition to how amazing it was...sort of like an artistic vs. technical merit score in figure skating. The top three dunkers by those criteria would advance to the finals.

A fourth finals participant would be determined by an intermediate round, in which each of the remaining, non-advancing dunkers got to throw down one dunk of their choice to earn entry. Best dunk of the bunch joins the top three. If they burn their very best dunk just to get into the finals, so be it. That’s the way sports work.

The dunk contest finals would pit the four top dunkers against each other, two dunks, no restrictions.

The following rules would apply to all dunks:

  1. Each participant would be limited to one dunk involving a second person for the whole competition (passing, leaping over them, etc.). No first-round dunk could involve a second person.
  2. Costume changes and decorations count only minimally, worth tenths of a point instead of full numbers. Style matters, but the dunk is the thing.
  3. A strict time clock applies for each dunker’s attempts. Maybe one minute to complete a dunk in the first round, two minutes in the final.
  4. Each dunker gets one miss per dunk, two attempts total at any dunk. If you miss the first attempt, you must make the second or take a zero. Changing dunks for the second attempt of a run is permissible, the same way changing your serve in tennis is if you faulted on your first try. This introduces strategy. “Do I go high-risk to win, or play it safer to make sure I finish high?”

These boundaries would change the dunk contest from a, “Let’s sit around and see if these guys can dunk it,” affair to more of a Top Chef competition, with creativity at the fore, but directed in ways that bring cohesiveness and pit dunks against each other. You’d create meaningful moments and decisions where now, they are few.

Mileage may vary on any of these adjustments, but you can insert your own. The idea would be to make the events feel more like competitions, but keep them fresh and unique enough to allow the special talents of participants to shine through.