The Death of the Dunk Contest

If this is the most entertaining moment from the 2014 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, there's a problem.

If this is the most entertaining moment from the 2014 Dunk Contest, there’s a problem.

Last Saturday night Eric hosted his annual NBA All Star party. Eric (smartly) bills the event as an opportunity for everyone’s wives to get together and talk about The Bachelor or quilting or their best meatloaf recipes or whatever it is women like talking about, but in reality this is just an excuse for the guys to consume beer and hot wings while watching the NBA’s best talent drop their guards and have a little fun (or at least pretend to). It’s a win/win for everyone.

Over the years, the NBA has fiddled with their All Star recipe; trying to find the perfect combination of contests in an attempt to squeeze every last drop of entertainment and marketing value out of an event with absolutely nothing at stake for anyone involved. Over the years the NBA has added the “skills” and “sharp shooting” competitions to a stable that included the 3-point shooting competition. These events are OK, but the star of the show and the real reason why we gather around the TV every year is the dunk contest.

In its heyday, the dunk contest treated fans to some amazing showdowns with aerial feats that caused us to question everything we knew about gravity. Michael Jordan versus Dominique Wilkins in the 1980’s and Vince Carter’s epic performance in 2000 come to mind when thinking about classic dunk contests. In recent years, however, the dunk contest has lost some of its luster. Whether because of ego, avarice, or disinterest, the dunk contest rarely attracts the NBA’s best. This year was no different. Instead of seeing LeBron James, Blake Griffin, or Gerald Green, we were instead treated to the likes of Terrence Ross (Toronto Raptors) and Damian Lillard (Portland Trailblazers). No offense to Ross or Lillard, but…well, I’ll submit exhibits A, B, and C and just leave it at that.

This year, the NBA made a curious format change to their All Star events, including the dunk contest. Rather than having the usual winner-take-all format, the NBA opted to make the dunk contest a team event, pitting three players each from the Eastern and Western Conferences. The Eastern Conference Team consisted of the aforementioned Ross as well as Paul George (Indiana Pacers) and John Wall (Washington Wizards). The Western Conference was represented by Lillard, Harrison Barnes (Golden State), and Ben McLemore (Sacramento Kings). The teams competed in a “Freestyle” round and then “Battle Rounds,” with the winner of each round being decided by a panel of judges. (The dunk contest format was convoluted and not worth fully explaining, but if you’re really curious you can read about it here.)

In the end, the Eastern Conference won the contest in a landslide, but the whole event left all of us at Eric’s house saying, through a mouth full of pizza, “Wait… Was that it?” Apparently we weren’t the only ones baffled by the lackluster new format either. Lots of folks, including current and former players had something to say about the dunk contest:

One could argue that the dunk contest has always been an event that is arbitrarily decided by biased judges and the popularity of the participants involved. This would be a fair assessment. The new format certainly didn’t address that issue, nor did it take any strides towards freshening what had become a stale All Star event that has jumped the shark (or Kia) many times over. Rather, by making the dunk contest a team event, the NBA sought to address one of its most vexing stigmas: that it is a star-driven league.

Perhaps more than any other professional sports league in the U.S., the NBA has constantly struggled with the fact that it is a league run by its best players. Sure, the NBA may be driven on the horse power of 30 teams, but it gets its fuel from an elite few who sell the most jerseys and put fans in the seats night after night. The corporate merger of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh in Miami, or the team-hopping machinations of Dwight Howard are just a couple of examples of how the game’s elite dictate the narrative in the NBA. By trying to put the “All” in these All Star events, the NBA clumsily sought to dispel this notion.

There was only one problem with this approach: the All Star events, particularly the dunk contest, by their very nature, are supposed to celebrate individual talent, athleticism, and creativity. Sure, basketball is a wonderful team sport, but one of the reasons so many of us love the NBA is because it consistently provides us with moments of individual brilliance, performed by phenomenal athletes and practitioners of the game. By suppressing the individual in favor of the collective in the dunk contest (an Ayn Rand sports nightmare if there ever were one), the only thing the NBA succeeded in doing was remind viewers how much they miss the game’s elite dunkers participating in this event. Furthermore, by focusing on the “team,” the NBA also deprives some of its lesser known, but promising young stars (e.g., Ben McLemore) the opportunity to shine in the national spotlight, which could, in turn, bring more attention to some of the league’s smaller market teams (e.g., Sacramento).

The NBA needs to fix the All Star events, that much can be agreed upon. I would argue that this should be accomplished by adding incentives, like cash rewards to the best passer, shooter, and dunker. Another method might be to add challenges. Let players choose who they want to see compete against each other by issuing challenges via Twitter and other social media outlets. Players might be less apt to balk from an All Star challenge if pride were on the line. (While I’m asking for things that I’ll never get, I’d also like to see a one-v-one street ball competition.) But as we learned last Saturday night, trying to fix the All Star events by shoehorning in a narrative about team over individual talent just doesn’t fly. When it comes to showcasing the game at its highest levels, it’s better to just stand back and let the NBA’s best soar all by themselves.

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