Sunday, February 16, 2014

The 2014 NBA Dunk Contest: Less is More

In the 1989 film Field of Dreams, the main quote is "build it and they will come".

"Get them to come and it will be built" is how the NBA dunk contest operates. The problem is that the NBA itself failed to realize the simple fix, over-complicating the whole thing and turned it into one big cluster-you-know-what.

Yesterday, I previewed the All-Star Saturday night festivities. The crown jewel of it being the dunk contest. Once held in high regard, it's struggling to regain that lightning in the bottle. Sometimes everything aligns just right like it did in 2000 and the audience in the arena and at home are in awe. It is an event of legend and a star-making moment. From then on, all eyes were placed on Vince Carter. The trouble with lightning in a bottle is it is hard to have happen once, let alone recreating it a second time. The last fourteen years or so have seen the NBA try and fail- but never so blatantly until last night.

The most obvious problem from previous years' contests was the lack of recognizable faces as mentioned before. As the field was later reduced to four contestants who many were not familiar with, the dunk contest was up against it even more. The move to expand to six contestants in 2013 (the first contest to have more than four participants since 2001) was a step in the right direction. Then this weekend, they actually had names people knew. They had stars.

Paul George is a top five player. Terrance Ross was the defending champion. John Wall and Damian Lillard are two of the most electrifying young point guards  Harrison Barnes and Ben McLemore rounded out the field. McLemore was the least known, coming in as a rookie. While the fresh blood was overkill in recent years, this year it was done just right.

Leave it to the NBA to turn it into a circus. A new format that can't be explained in under five minutes, let alone the minute or two spent right before the main event. Maybe whole college courses could be used to explain it. I was short of writing on a blackboard and window a la Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind.

The first problem was the team-centric aspect to it. While the pairing of stars worked quite well and added flavor to the Taco Bell Skills Challenge (where's my free quesadilla?), it was counterproductive in the dunk festivities. No one cares about which conference wins. No one. What fans want is to find out the best dunker is. Who rises above- literally- and places themselves in the pantheon of dunk contest champions?

The event started off with the trios going at it in a "freestyle round". Akin to layup lines, the players seemed to saunter through this fruitless activity with not much rhythm or fluidity. It seemed like a collection of warm-up horseplay, when players get loose and goof off. The problem here was two-fold. No one wanted to give away their best so early, and the pressure to produce quantity over quality left the audience confused and unable to process anything fully. The reaction to dunks were quickly erased as players would follow right after with another.

After a tediously long and unnecessary reasoning, the judges held up their i-Pads to reveal which conference they chose as the freestyle winner. East it was, and East it would be all night.

Next came the one-on-one's, also known as the "battle round". Two players would square off with one dunk each. The judges armed with their tedious reasons would decide who won each match-up. The first conference with three wins would win the whole thing. Yes, that's right. A conference would be named a winner- not an individual. There would be no dunk contest champion. Just champions.

There is a time and place for champions, and that is in June. Not February, NBA machine. This contest is supposed to celebrate individual achievements and place the spotlight on one player at a time. The conference pride comes tonight at 8 pm when the two sides square off to prove which crop of all-stars is better. But I digress.

Terrance Ross out-dueled the weekend's renaissance man, Damian Lillard. Paul George dispatched Harrison Barnes with a 360, between-the-legs dunk. If I counted right, it was on a fourth try, technically illegal as contestants were limited to three tries. But who was keeping track at that point?

Finally, John Wall eviscerated Ben McLemore with a filthy opposite-sided fully extended reverse dunk. Soon after, the announcers proclaimed that Wall had "brought back the dunk contest". Well, it never really went anywhere. It just wasn't given the attention it needed. One dunk (while extremely impressive) does not make a contest, and surely does not "bring it back".

I must call myself out and admit I was wrong about Wall. "Wall should be practicing his jumper and three instead of dunking." I said that yesterday, and he sure proved me wrong. The biggest shame is that we didn't get to see more of him- or the rest of the players for that matter.

As Wall celebrated, the audience was left wondering what was next. A dunk-off between the East stars? Another round? Anything?

Nope. Just a trophy presentation to the trio. Oh, wait- how could I forget? John Wall received the title of "dunker of the night" from the fans via Twitter. Not dunk champion. DUNKER OF THE NIGHT. How moronic does that sound? As sarcastic children say, "Whoop-de-freaking-doo."

Bleacher Report's Garrett Jochnau said it best afterwards when he took to Twitter:

"When Vince Carter was in a dunk contest, 'it's over' wasn't so much a question as it was a statement. Tonight, it was definitely a question."

Not seeing more dunks from six bright young and freakishly athletic players is the biggest robbery of all. No fan should be left with such an empty, unfulfilled feeling after an event with a collection of players like the 2014 dunk contest had.

The word "epic" is used far too often these days. But the league had a chance to re-capture that lighting in a bottle and make last night's event epic. By adding a gimmicky new format that strayed from celebrating the individual player's moment, the NBA wasted another dunk contest. In this case, less is definitely more.

Maybe they'll learn from this mess and get it right next year. Or maybe they'll add three or four more gimmicks no one will be able to explain. Regardless, all they have to do is stick to the traditional round-by-round format and bring the stars. They'll do the rest.

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.

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