Why does the dunk contest so often feel underwhelming? It's a shame, really. This should be the NBA's golden ticket, a grand showcase of the thing that attracts so many fans to the sport of basketball in the first place. The NBA is where you can watch humans fly, and the dunk contest is the place to watch it unabated without pesky things like strong-side overload defenses, double-teams and Roy Hibbert. There's really no reason this should struggle.
Yet here the NBA is again, changing the rules of the dunk contest. It feels like the league tinkers with the format every other year. This season, we've got a conference vs. conference gimmick with a battle round, a freestyle round and multiple champions. It sounds confusing, but it's hard to judge until we actually see it in action. If previous ideas like The Wheel and three straight years of endless Nate Robinson is any indication, though, the concept will likely be better than the execution.
It's encouraging to see the NBA recognize the dunk contest needs to be spiced up, only it seems like everything they try is predestined to fall flat. Well, we can change that. We can improve the dunk contest. It just needs to be more like a best trick competition at the X-Games:
I haven't watched the X-Games since I was in junior high, but as a seventh grader in 1999, the X-Games was the greatest. It got me playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 and listening to a lot of Millencolin and Bad Religion, which is an objectively good way to your spend time as a 12-year-old. I regret nothing.
What can the dunk contest learn from the X-Games? It's about the pace, the vibe and the lack of structure. The best trick competition at the X-Games was, if I'm recalling this correctly, more of a jam session than a tangible competition. There was a winner, sure, but everyone realized this was all about entertainment. It was a free flowing environment where everyone was having a good time.
This is where the rigidness of the dunk contest's structure has always backfired. The dunk contest is supposed to fun for everyone, not something that scares away the best players in the league every year because of some vague sense of pressure. This needs to be a celebration more than a competition. It needs to be something warmer and more joyful without the stress.
With all of that in mind, here's how I'd change the dunk contest.
A half hour jam session format, where one dunker follows after another. When it's over, the single best dunk of the night wins
The 2000 contest is considered one of the greatest ever, but you might not remember it kind of ended with a dud. Tracy McGrady botched his final dunk, Steve Francis couldn't keep up with his earlier pace, and Vince Carter finished with an only sort-of-impressive two-handed dunk from a step inside the foul line. There's no need to have so many rounds, where the dunkers have to decide whether to bust out their good stuff early or save it for later in hopes of making the finals. Forget that. The real winner of the contest should be the guy who has the single most memorable dunk of the evening.
6-8 regular contestants throwing down dunks one at a time.
The NBA did a good job choosing the contestants this year, and I'm guessing the new lighter format had something to do with being able to draw three All-Stars. These guys will be your consistent group of dunkers, following in a line one after another. If you miss your dunk, no biggie, you'll have another crack at it once everyone else goes. The pace here is important, and this would keep a steady stream of dunks coming throughout the night. No 17 tries in a row for Nate Rob. No situations where we're held hostage by the Birdman again. This is the way to get optimal flow.
Special surprise dunkers!
This is key. Every year, fans and the media complain about LeBron James and others skipping the dunk contest. Instead, 'Bron will throw down some contest-style jams in warmups or in practice and post them on YouTube. Well, one of the things that makes the dunk contest great is that LeBron and all of the other All-Stars are already sitting courtside for the competition. With that in mind, this freewheeling format allows them to jump in for a dunk or two if they feel inspired.
That's right, planted dunkers in the crowd. Be it LeBron or Blake Griffin or Anthony Davis, these guys are already in the building. If they want to interrupt the line to throw down a dunk? We encourage it! Remember, the pace of this thing means that missing wouldn't be so embarrassing. There's no pressure to think up six different dunks, or whatever. Just go out there and have a good time! Speaking of which...
Oh yeah, this is also a concert.
While the dunkers are dunking on one side of the court, we've got a concert going on at other end. The NBA already has Kendrick Lamar, Jannelle Monae and Pharrell lined up for All-Star weekend. That's monumental progress after making everyone watch Fall Out Boy light it up up up last year. Nelly, Busta Rhymes, Snoop and Diddy are apparently getting in on the action, as well. This is a wonderful development. Now just replicate something close to it for the dunk contest and we're set.
It needs an MC, too. I'm not suggesting him, just being realistic: the NBA would pick Kevin Hart. You know they would. OK. Fine. Whatever. My pick would be Jim Ross.
Now, we've eliminated excessive downtime, the cringeworthyness of missed dunks and the constricting sense of pressure hanging over the participants.
Do you agree? Too much? Just right? What else does the dunk contest need? Does the dunk contest even need to be fixed? Give us your best ideas in the comments.