The hoopla of NBA All-Star weekend is unquestionably boisterous and unruly. There is simply something mystical about the assemblage of the most talented basketball players on the planet, under one roof, trying their best to put on a show for the fans. But amidst the East versus West matchups, highlight reels, and celebrity appearances, the widespread notion is and always has been that the true marquee event is the Slam Dunk Contest. After all, what is more glamorized and glorified in basketball than the slam dunk?
Yet, despite its inborn popularity, the most recent NBA dunk contests have underwhelmed fans across the board. Gone are the days in which the true slam dunk stars of the league hold epic battles of pride and creativity on the hardwood. Never again will we see the star power of Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins ferociously engaging in a war for the ages, forever immortalized in video reel history. The NBA dunk contest, as it stands today, is sinking deeper and deeper into the murky depths of irrelevancy.
In a transparently desperate attempt to shake things up a bit, the NBA employed a new format for judging. Abandoning the universal 10-point scoring system, players were divided by conference into teams of three.
The first round was a “freestyle round” in which the three players of each conference (half of whom were not even All-Star game participants) lazily and quietly threw the ball into the basket with lackluster dunks. Admittedly referred to as a “warm up round” by broadcasters, the freestyle round was confusing, uneventful, and felt more like an after practice shoot around than a televised event.
The second round was a “battle round” in which a player from each conference was teamed up for competition against a player from the opposite conference. At the end of the battle round, a “dunker of the night” award was presented to Washington Wizards point guard John Wall for his reverse dunk over his team’s mascot.
In the end, the social media outcry almost unanimously declared the contest a dud, even expressing a deep sense of confusion at the new format that seemed only to succeed in getting in the way of the contestant’s creative freedom. It was the worst re-imagining of the NBA’s once great event since the infamous “wheel of 2002”, in which players were required to mimic historical dunks rather than create their own legacies.
In the end, however, it is not the event format that has slain what should be the NBA’s most entertaining event. The real problem with the NBA dunk contest is that the best dunkers in the league have no interest in competing. The NBA’s most marketable high flyers such as LeBron James, Blake Griffin, and Kevin Durant are absent come time for All-Star dunk competition. In order to ignite a spark into the waning years of the Dunk Contest, the NBA needs to put its money where its mouth is. For being awarded the Dunker of the Night award, John Wall was presented with $100,000. Considering that LeBron James rakes in roughly $20 million per season on NBA salary alone, $100,000 is hardly worth the stars time, nor is it worth the risk of tarnishing his legendary façade should he lose. Instead, the NBA powers that be would do well to take a leap of faith by putting a solid $1 million as a cash prize for the dunk contest victor. Upping the stakes this much would entice most big name stars. After all, who could deny the allure of the possibility of LeBron James vs Kevin Durant in an NBA Dunk Contest showdown? The TV ratings would arguably rival those of the actual NBA Finals, and the primal magnetism of the dunk contest would be restored.