The NBA will add some new wrinkles to the All-Star weekend format, which indicates it has finally come to grips with the one unassailable truth about the league's annual February showcase: It can't be boring.
The events we'll see in New Orleans this year are part of an exhibition, one designed to promote interest in the league while showcasing the talents of its participants. Nobody cares about history, records or tradition when it comes to things like the Slam Dunk Contest and the Skills Challenge.
All that matters is the entertainment value.
So, with the dunk contest now set to feature a "freestyle round" that should alleviate the interminable waiting between individual dunks, and a team format that will pit opponents against one another in head-to-head matchups, it seems the NBA is finally focusing on the fan experience.
The same goes for the Skills Challenge, which will work as a two-man relay for the first time ever. And the Three-Point Contest will now include an entire rack of money balls to be placed in the spot of a player's choosing.
These aren't wholesale changes by any stretch. Instead, they're smaller alterations designed to add some intrigue and competitive spirit while picking up the pace of the proceedings.
Frankly, it won't be surprising to see many of the new ideas disappear as soon as next year. And that's perfectly fine because the league should be experimenting with as many fresh approaches as possible.
The NBA is taking a small step in the right direction this year. It understands that fun is the only thing that matters. In keeping with that spirit, here are a few suggestions on ways to add even more fun in the future.
Stratify the Dunk Contest
Dividing the dunkers into two teams is a great idea. It creates camaraderie between players from different clubs and could serve to add a little pressure to an otherwise casual contest. After all, these are highly competitive athletes; they don't want to be blamed for letting their teams down.
But what if the league took things a step further by splitting up dunkers in more creative ways? It's great to pit the East and West against one another; there's something like a rivalry between the conferences, although it's been kind of a hammer-and-nail situation this year.
Maybe splitting players into groups based on height would really get the competitive juices flowing.
Think about it: Big men always get penalized for their height in dunk contests. They've got a natural advantage in being closer to the rim in the first place, and many of their dunks simply don't look as difficult because they're not elevating like their smaller counterparts.
That's an easy fix. Just split the bigs into their own category, put the mid-sized wings in a group together and then have the league's little guys square off against each other. Three sizes, three categories.
Then, best of all, whichever contestant emerges from his size group gets to represent his brethren against the winners from the other two categories. This way, you get an even playing field to determine which dunker of each size is best and the entertainment of seeing the best little man compete against the best wing and the best big.
So if DeAndre Jordan comes out of the hypothetical pack for the big guys, he'll be on a mission to prove that players of his size can put on just as good of a show as the smalls. And if Nate Robinson (assuming his ACL heals) represents the smalls, he'll compete with the typical ferocity granted by his inborn Napoleon complex.
If Terrence Ross or Paul George were to represent the medium-sized division, they'd be hellbent on avoiding a loss to the bigs or the smalls.
Maybe this seems like a far-fetched idea. But the league has been totally comfortable with the ill-fated "Dunk Wheel" in the past and is ready to test out a freestyle round that could devolve into a disorganized mess this year.
It wouldn't be the first failed idea.
Experimentation is a good thing—it's how the league will eventually settle on the most entertaining format. And if it turns out that switching things up from year to year is more enjoyable than picking one set of rules and imposing them forever, that's even better.
Oh, and one other thing: Roy Hibbert isn't allowed anywhere near the planning committee for any future event. He's no fun at all, per Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star:
I don't think Paul should (compete in the dunk contest), to tell you the truth. He's doing the stuff in the games to show why he could've won it two years ago. I think he's been there-done that, and I don't think he needs to go back unless he was defending it. So I don't personally think he should do it.
H-O-R-S-E Meets Pop-A-Shot
The Three-Point Contest is fun to watch because it features some of the league's best shooters. But its real entertainment value comes from the urgency created by the timed round. With the clock ticking down, there's a sense of desperation that adds extra tension to the event.
We can all agree that a countdown adds to the fun, but why confine the league's All-Star shooting exhibition to five spots around the three-point line?
What if players got to pick a spot on the floor—any spot, from half court to behind the bench to the foul line—and were given 30 seconds to make as many shots from that location as possible? There'd be no penalties for misses, and speed would be at a premium.
Imagine Steve Nash picking the charity stripe and hitting 20 free throws in 30 seconds, after which Jose Calderon would try to beat that total. That's fun, right?
Or what if Stephen Curry drilled four shots from beyond half court and Kyrie Irving had just 30 seconds to do better. You could assign letters to each player who lost a round and eventually crown a champion of this cross between H-O-R-S-E and Pop-A-Shot.
We've seen the NBA try out H-O-R-S-E before, but the casual pace absolutely sucked the life out of what should have been a great idea.
Still, the enthusiasm from fans and media was there. ESPN's Arash Markazi (then with Sports Illustrated) had this to say about the event's potential back in 2009:
The game will take place on a 45x50 foot court alongside the network's new NBA on TNT Rig outside the arena. The best part about this, though, is that the rig can rise up to 14 feet off the ground and rotate. Think about the shots that can be created off this thing—shots from the top of the rig, shots from the top of the truck holding the rig, shots from the top of the makeshift bleachers next to the court. We haven't seen this kind of potential creativity since Jordan and Bird battled it out for a Big Mac.
We know now that the idea didn't work five years ago. And it wasn't much better when it was moved indoors the following season.
But by taking the competitive elements of H-O-R-S-E and adding in a timer and some spatial variety, things could get very interesting.
It's now clear that NBA players understand they can use All-Star weekend to build their brand. Irving has done exactly that in recent years by winning the Three-Point Contest and wearing out poor Brandon Knight in a breakout Rising Stars Challenge performance.
If you don't think young stars are hip to the boost in popularity (and potential Pepsi commercials) that can come from big showings in these exhibitions, just ask Damian Lillard why he's so keen to compete in all five events.
Even though All-Star Weekend hasn't happened yet, Lillard is already guaranteed to be one of the biggest stars of the entire ordeal. That's a good thing for his brand and a great thing, potentially, for his wallet.
That leads to another tweak for the NBA, and this is an easy one: Embrace guys who want to make a name for themselves during All-Star weekend. Promote them. Make them the household names they want to be. If up-and-coming stars like Lillard continue to see the league marketing them in exchange for serious participation in the various All-Star events, it'll ensure a steady flow of talent continues to pour into said events.
And nothing's more entertaining than talent.
This year, there are plenty of budding stars involved. That's a great thing for All-Star weekend. Momentum is already building, and the NBA can keep it going by giving guys like Lillard what they want: their names in lights.
On the Right Track
Every year, people complain about how All-Star weekend is dying, or meaningless or losing its luster.
The truth is, All-Star weekend's quality isn't waning at all; it's just that we've become desensitized to how exciting it is because it hasn't changed in so long. The NBA gets that, which is why it's shaking up the formula this year.
Nothing is sacred when it comes to events like this, and the addition of some outside-the-box tweaks proves the league understands stagnation must be avoided at all costs. Fans need to be kept in some measure of suspense, even if the only reason for that suspense is the simple fact that nobody knows how well (or poorly) some of the new ideas will work.
The league is moving in the right direction with All-Star weekend, which, ironically, means it's not committed to staying on any particular course. Now, all it has to do is make sure it keeps that spontaneous, creative approach—as long as that approach doesn't involve a Dunk Wheel.
Other than that, go crazy!