Other than the Finals, All-Star weekend is the NBA’s marquee event. It not only showcases the league’s breathtaking talent, it also illuminates the successful intersection of sports and entertainment that has transformed the NBA from the second-tier sport that is was for many years after its founding, to the behemoth and astonishingly profitable global enterprise that it is today.
If this evening’s game can follow-up with the energy and excitement of last night’s dunk contest and 3-point shootout, we should be in for a special treat.
For most of the past 15 years, since Vince Carter put on the most spectacular exhibition since the days of Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins, the dunk contest has been on life-support, barely breathing and begging to be put out of its misery.
Who remembers Chris “Birdman” Anderson and the bird poop he dropped in the 2005 event? Or how about 2012 champ Jeremy Evans (or was it JJ Evans from Good Times?) jumping over the microscopic motor mouth Kevin Hart? The recent incarnations have been about as exciting as listening to Bill Walton doing color commentary on cockroach racing.
Approaching yesterday evening’s events, everyone was talking about the 3-point shootout, which has now surpassed the dunk contest in terms of fan engagement. But the Minnesota Timberwolves’ rookie Zach LaVine slightly altered that dynamic with his incredible aerial assaults while beating out Orlando’s Victor Oladipo for this year’s slam dunk title.
The only problem is that impressionable kids with no concept of how real basketball is meant to be played will now insist on imitating him and dreaming of one day being in his shoes.
If I was the NBA, I’d be slightly worried with a younger generation aspiring to be a guy shooting 41% from the field, making 28% of his three-point attempts, and averaging 7.6 points for a team with an 11-42 record. But that’s an entirely different discussion for another day.
If you truly want to see the positive direction that the game is moving in, the strongest indicator is the 3-point competition. Unlike the dunk contest, which has consistently devolved into a horrifyingly disappointing sequel to the days of Jordan and Vince Carter similar to Caddy Shack 2, The Godfather III and Anchorman 2, the long-distance shootout is actually worth setting aside some time to watch.
The event featured the two front-runners, based on the early season returns, for the league’s Most Valuable Player award in Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Houston’s James Harden. The entire field was probably the best ever assembled, with dynamic superstar point guard Kyrie Irving, who now serves as the newest incarnation of Robin to Lebron James’ Batman in Cleveland, which happens to be the league’s hottest team heading into the break, competing as well.
With deep-range specialists like Curry’s teammate Klay Thompson, J.J. Redick, Marco Belinelli, Wes Matthews and Kyle Korver, the Atlanta Hawks marksman who has a chance to become the NBA’s first-ever player to shoot at least 50% from the field, 50% from 3 and 90% from the free-throw line, the star wattage in the event, in comparison, made the guys in the dunk contest seem like they could have been wearing Iowa Energy or Sioux Falls Skyforce jerseys, as opposed to Michael Jordan’s Space Jam jersey, which LaVine actually unearthed for dramatic effect.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, the deep ball is where the power of the game now resides. Offenses are functioning much farther away from the hoop than ever before. A great dunk will always make you jump out of your seat, but when it comes to winning basketball, simple math will tell you that three’s are worth more than two’s.
Rather than bore you with analytics, I’ll implore you to simply watch the Atlanta Hawks and the Golden State Warriors, the teams with the two best records in the NBA heading into the break at 43-11 and 42-9 respectively, and watch how Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Kyle Korver augment their teams’ respective strengths with their astonishing long-range shooting ability.
The dunk, through aerial artists like Dr. J and Michael Jordan, once re-invigorated the league. Today, high school scrubs can imitate the occasional Jordan dunk. But even the best and most elite prep players would be hard pressed to match what Curry, Thompson and Korver can do on a nightly basis.
Steph Curry’s marvelous marksmanship in winning this year’s 3-Point Shootout was a joy to behold. And Zach LaVine’s dunk contest performance was pretty fun as well.
But if you’re gonna run out and buy a jersey for your kid before heading to a rim near you, I’d suggest you invest in the Curry merchandise and start working on shooting the ball off the pick and pulling up from deep off the dribble, as opposed to practicing trying to dunk with the back of your neck.
There was once a time where the game’s best players entered and won dunk contests. That day’s been long gone. The day of the three is now upon us. It’s been a gradual shift over the years, but watching the respective trajectories of the dunk contest and the 3-Point Shootout would have led you to the doorstep of where today’s game is at.
Have fun and enjoy the festivities tonight. And as we get back to real basketball in the season’s second half and gear up for the playoffs, pay attention to how the game is changing. The day of the dunk, of the individual, of the athlete who can simply run and jump high and little else is fading fast.
We’re getting back to the concept of team and real hoops skills. If you ask me, that’s a definite change for the better. Unless of course, if you prefer to play like Zach LaVine rather than Steph Curry.