With the exception of Haier Shooting Stars, which is not a real event by any standard, the Taco Bell Skills Challenge is the most uninspiring All-Star Saturday contest. Veteran players like Dwyane Wade in 2008 and, let's be honest, Chris Paul this season throw their first run so they don't have to go through the sub-AAU dribble-pass-shoot drill again. Frankly, the technical requirements of the challenge are an insult to these incredible basketball artists.
But the challenge becomes entirely worthwhile when you grade its artistry ... just like the Dunk Contest! My old writing partner Bethlehem Shoals, who recently wrote a GQ analysis of Derrick Rose's aesthetics, and whose FreeDarko collective has an amazing Blake Griffin print available, sat down with me to grade the Skills Challenge like a Dunk Contest. These are the results.
Ziller: Westbrook, who finished dead last in the 2010 Skills Challenge, hit the corners hard in his first run. When you grade something like a Dunk Contest, you're looking for spontaneity and something unexpected. Russell Westbrook hitting the top-of-the-key jumper on his first try? That's not expected. Westbrook also legitimately attempted to juke the slaloms on his crossovers and dunked with rare ferocity on the final lay-in. As the great Kenny Smith would say, "The Taco Bell Skills Challenge is back!" Score: 10/10.
Shoals: They call him "The Button-Down Kid", except when they don't, and Curry didn't disappoint in his first round, until he did. Conscientious and yet still smooth, the Warriors sophomore guard breezed through the first half of the course until he hit the three-pointer. That's his speciality in life, and he bombed it, needing three tries to sink it. Maybe he got a little cocky. Maybe the broadcast crew missed a valuable data point to use in their very serious commentary on meaningless Saturday night contests. He recovered, but by then, that initial ease looked like hesitancy. Score: 7/10.
Ziller: There's a reason becoming a repeat Skills Challenge champion rarely happens: at some point, you stop caring and actively try to sabotage yourself. Rose was on record pace at the start thanks to his unreal foot speed and impressive skill set. But about midway through, Rose realized he was too good, and actively slowed down. He even feigned confusion approaching the dribble cones! There was a giant arrow stuck to the floor, and Rose is the reigning champ, and he's getting lost? PFFT. Birdman II. Also, we despise prop gimmick, and you can't convince me those shoes weren't meant to distract from the uninspired performance offered up. Score: 5/10.
Shoals: This run came down one single, cataclysmic moment: When Paul botched the opening lay-in that's meant to merely get the player up and in rhythm. It wasn't any kind of reflection on Paul's ability, or even his leanings as a player. That miss said, loudly, that the reigning point guard champion of the league just couldn't be bothered. There were flashes throughout this disappointing run of what makes Paul Paul -- the pin-point passing, the low, nimble movement, and the kind of panoramic awareness most commonly associated with giant bugs and missile systems. What was absent, though, was that clenched intensity. Make all the nut-punch jokes you want. Without it, Chris Paul is nothing more than Jrue Holiday all grown up. Score 4/10.
Ziller: Earnest effort earns points in subjective scoring. How else would Nate Robinson be a three-time dunk champ? Wall was easily the most nervous competitor, and it showed with a hesitant chest pass and palpable anxiety at the shooting station. Wall's Rookie Challenge bombast -- which included the best pass of the weekend -- was gone, replaced by the jitters. Next year, he's going to win this thing. Score: 5/10.
Ziller: By the books, Curry's final run was nearly perfect; he missed only a bounce pass. But, like DeMar DeRozan's East Bay Funk Remix, Curry lacked showmanship and confidence. Curry hesitated to leave station on the long chest pass, showing a real lack of faith in his own abilities. He also loped around every slalom, nakedly carrying the ball on every "crossover." It was, without question, the least street Skills Challenge run of all-time (which makes sense, since Curry grew up around the NBA as -- factoid alert! -- Dell Curry's son.) Score: 6/10.
Shoals: Officially, Westbrook lost this round, since his haphazard passing pretty much cost him the crown ... by one definition of greatness. Those of us not busy rewinding our back episodes of Remorseless and cleaning off oyster crackers saw a Skills Challenge performance for the ages, one that both hewed to and demolished the three-part play so dear to Western creativity. Westbrook began twitching with anticipation, looking as if he might either chew up the ball or set an all-time record. When he got going, he hit the corners hard and fast, reminding us what a natural fit he is for this setting. After two passes bounced out of the ... what is it, a giant wooden hole hovering a waist-length? ... Westbrook senses, and rather than sulk or lose his cool, he just kicks back, cycles through the last dribbling section with the confidence of a great stallion going to be shot, and then throws down the most ferocious dunk of the evening. Kudos, brother! Score: 10/10.
FINAL SCORE: Westbrook 10, Curry 6. Russell Westbrook wins the 2011 Skills Challenge Graded Like A Dunk Contest Contest.