This Friday, February 14 is a very special day. For some, it will consist of spending time with their significant other and sharing a nice romantic evening together. Yet this Friday also marks the beginning of NBA All-Star weekend. Friday night begins with both the NBA All-Star Celebrity game followed by the Rising Stars Challenge. Unfortunately, the new format for the “Rising Stars Challenge” seems to have taken away from some of its fun . Formerly known as the “Rookie Challenge,” this game pitted the best rookies in the NBA against their sophomore counterparts, adding a sense of drama and “pressure” to the game as these rookies were “in for a challenge” against their more seasoned opponents . Yet last season, the league decided to switch things up and have Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley pick teams. I must admit watching Shaq and Chuck pick teams (real and hypothetical) has been quite entertaining and seems to be something the NBA (or TNT at least) is pushing. Yet, this change destroys the underdog mentality it used to have to a certain degree. Oddly, one team this year only has one rookie while the other only features two sophomores. But enough about Friday night.
Saturday marks perhaps the most entertaining night of the weekend with NBA All-Star Saturday Night. All-Star Saturday Night kicks off with the Shooting Stars Challenge where teams made up of WNBA players, NBA Legends, and current players compete to see who can make shots from certain spots in the shortest amount of time. The event is a bit dull, yet it is merely a precursor to the three-point Shootout and the Slam Dunk Contest . Before those is the skills challenge where players again race the clock through a dribbling maze to see who can complete the course the fastest. While the three-point shootout is always consistently entertaining and star studded, the Slam Dunk Contest has become somewhat of a drag.
Before All-Star Saturday Night Begins, TNT always plays specials about the All-Star Game, the best dunks ever, and at times NBA TV will even replay old dunk contests . Fans can tune in and watch stars like Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins go head to head, or see Vince Carter turn in one of the greatest performances in Dunk Contest history as he was at the height of stardom. Yet, the past few years have seemed to buck that trend. TNT and the NBA market the Slam Dunk Contest as if it is the marquee event of the night (and the weekend apart from the All-Star Game) yet when Jeremy Evans (who?) won by videotaping himself dunking a ball, the event hit a low point. It’s enough to have to watch players seemingly glide through the prior events of the night that all have wonderful sponsors plastered on to them as commercials break the action every four minutes. It used to be okay because you knew that last half hour would be the greatest dunking exhibition you’ve ever seen. But it’s hard to get excited when you’re getting ready to watch rookies and relative unknowns compete. In 2011, Blake Griffin, a legitimate All-Star and big name player, participated, yet there was controversy as the NBA sent out a media advisory an hour before the contest began declaring Griffin the winner. Many agreed he should not have even been in the finals.
The amount of product placement and use of gimmicks has gotten to the point where the skill of the actual dunks is not impressive; it takes a back seat to who can come up with the most ridiculous theatrical performance ie. saving someone’s teddy bear that got stuck in the rim or dunking on a Kia commercial that features a choir of gospel singers. This year, the NBA has added some star power back into the event by selecting rising all-stars Damian Lillard, John Wall and Paul George for the competition. Yet, their new set of rules seem to completely redefine the contest itself.
This year, the dunkers will be split into two teams and compete for both team and individual awards. There will be a “freestyle” round where players get to put in as many dunks as possible within 90 seconds, a “battle” round where players from each team go head to head, and a fan-voted “Dunker of the Night” award. While this does destroy the seemingly traditional format of years past, it does have potential to be extremely entertaining. It is so easy to voice displeasure at the previous years’ contests as they seemed to lack speed and passion. Yet, something may be missing. Players who once could prepare that one mindblowing dunk, (i.e. Vince Carter’s 360 windmill or pretty much every one of Jason Richardson’s dunks) will now have to perhaps trade quality for quantity. The matchups between could be intriguing, yet the dunks themselves may be simple and somewhat bland. There’s no telling for sure what will happen, but the NBA sure does love to experiment with the format of its events. It may not be a hit, but it definitely will be something different.