Revamp the dunking contest, add a H-O-R-S-E competition, and more
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) talk about pro basketball's ho-hum talent showcase.
The good news about the NBA All-Star Game? It's more competitive than both the NFL's Pro Bowl and the the average Harlem Globetrotters-Washington Generals tete-a-tete. The bad news? That isn't saying much. Professional basketball's annual marketing jamboree-cum-post-Super Bowl coming out party—emphasis on party—All-Star weekend has much to offer: star power, spectacular dunks, celebrity sightings, league gossip, and player rosters unseen outside of using the CPU OVERRIDE trade function on XBox 360.
That said, the weekend mostly lacks the one element that makes sports compelling. Namely, drama.
Oh, sure: We'll never forget an HIV-positive Magic Johnson coming out of retirement to win MVP honors in the 1992 contest. Or a teenaged Kobe Bryant impetuously waving off Karl Malone to go one-on-one with an end-of-his-prime Michael Jordan. Or even Blake Griffin dunking over a car, thereby taking YouTube and corporate sponsorship synergy to literal new heights. For the most part, though, All-Star weekend is a lot like the relatively new Skills Challenge: intriguing in theory, a bit ho-hum in practice.
So why not make it better?
Fact: the NBA is hardly as wedded to tradition as, say, Major League Baseball. Also fact: To gin up fan interest and excitement, baseball actually made its All-Star Game count for something. Now, I'm not suggesting the NBA game determine conference home court advantage in The Finals—I don't want to see any torn ACLs out there—but I do think the league could tweak the weekend, just as it has in the past. (Speaking of torn ACLs: Does anyone remember the now-kaput legends/old-timers' game? Ouch).
A few suggestions: Make the Dunk Contest and every-other-year event. There are only so many dunks that can be done, and a biannual schedule would keep them fresher. Next: Up the number of Three-Point Shootout invitees to 16, and have them compete head-to-head—two men shooting at the same time at the opposite ends of the court—in a single elimination bracket. (Everyone has widescreen HDTVs now, so viewing in split-screen wouldn't be a problem). Grantland guru Bill Simmons repeatedly has called for the addition of a H-O-R-S-E competition. I'm all for that—as anyone who has spent time around NBA practices can tell you, the pros are incredible trick shooters. Why not share with the world?
Jake, how would you revamp All-Star Weekend?
So many ways, Patrick. Only the NBA can take one of its unique advantages among American sports—its street-ball, trick-shot, Etch-A-Sketch side that is in own way as amazing as the fundamental stuff—and pave over it on the one weekend it should be let out.
So, yes to H-O-R-S-E. But make it a four-player bracket (two one-on-one games, winner meet in The Finals), and make it P-I-G.
The Rookie-Sophomore Game? It's nice, but make it two 20-minute halves. Not only would it be cool to see pros playing the ol' college schedule, but the setup would be more catered to rotating in 10-12 guys, which is supposed to be the point anyway.
LOVE that 3-point shooting idea, Patrick. I wouldn't change a thing.
Half-court shooting contest. Start with 20 players, everyone shoots, whoever makes goes to the next round, repeat until there's a last man standing. Enough said.
And I can't have an All-Star Weekend without the dunk contest. But—and here's the real but—you have to get better dunkers. Have some corporate sponsor step up and offer $10 million to the winner's charity of choice. Get only the best to judge it—former dunk contest winners, preferably sensible ones. Make it eight players over three rounds (top four advance, then top two). Allow two dunks per round still, but you only are allowed one miss per dunk—whiff twice and you get a zero. Wouldn't you rather see Blake Griffin vs. LeBron James in The Finals, rather than Chase Budinger or (gulp) Paul George?
That's all I got, Hampton. Think I'm a radical who needs to be stopped? Got any better ideas?
Sure, the All-Star Weekend could add a half-court shooting contest. They could add H-O-R-S-E. Or better yet P-I-G, sponsored by Farmland. That would go nicely with the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the Foot Locker 3-Point Shooting Contest, and Sprite Slam Dunk extravaganz-o-rama.Or whatever. How about a Trash Talking contest sponsored by Orbit?
It wouldn't change a thing.
Patrick, Kevin Love disagrees. The Timberwolf thinks the NBA should imitate baseball, and let the All-Star Game winner get home-court advantage for The Finals. Oh, sure. Like that would make Joe Johnson care. Jake, you hit on one surefire way to get the players fired up: money. A big, fat check for the winning team would work.
But why? Making the game more competitive would increase the risk of injuries, sure. But, just like in baseball, trying to make the game matter misses the whole point of the exhibition. Namely, exhibiting. The idea is for fans to see the game's biggest stars in a loose, relaxed setting where they can not only show off their streetball skills, but also let their personalities shine through. The problem, and the reason that all your perfectly sound suggestions won't change much, is that the game doesn't have any. Personalities, that is.
What we have here is an "all-star" game with precisely two stars. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. The rest of the starters—Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, or Kevin Durant—they are all great players, sure. But none of them has a personality bigger than the game. None has the charisma to match their skills—not the kind to draw new fans or more deeply engage old ones. It's not like anyone is clamoring for commercials where Marc Gasol sells underwear, or anyone wants to put LaMarcus Aldridge in a movie with Bugs Bunny.
Bizarrely, the most interesting player in the league almost wasn't invited to Orlando. The roster for Saturday night's young stars game was set before Jeremy Lin's breakout streak. Commissioner David Stern, in an insanely self-destructive burst of legalism, had told USA Today he wouldn't make an exception and add Lin to the roster, then came to his senses and invited the kid.
But, well... Beyond getting more Ivy League, undrafted Asian-Americans to electrify a whole new fan base, I'm stumped about how to improve the weekend. Because all the format tweaks in the world won't make the festivities on the court any more interesting until fans care about the players off it.