The NBA should have just allowed the big-name players to try to salvage the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest.
Getting John Wall, Paul George and Damian Lillard to participate was enough. That was half the battle. But instead of keeping things simple and allowing the names on the marquee to carry the show, the league implemented a new formula that was equal parts awkward, confusing and ultimately lame.
It's a shame, because the contest should be remembered for moments like this incredible reverse from Wall:
Or this dazzling 360 from George:
But what it will be remembered for is the new format, which fell flat.
It was difficult to grasp the new rules from the get-go. Emcee Nick Cannon's explanation left me and those watching with me scratching our heads.
It was only after the festivities kicked off that things started to make sense. The opening rounds that were dubbed "freestyle" ended up looking like little more than pregame warm-ups.
There were a few highlight jams peppered in during the 90-second free-for-all. Sadly, none of them got their due because of the chaotic nature of the round.
Three dunkers were going at once, looking at each other to see whose turn it was, missing left and right, and then not getting any credit for the dunks they made because the clock was running and someone else was coming up right behind them.
Lillard's best dunk of the night may have come during this round, but it was sandwiched between botched attempts from all and vanilla-flavored windmills from Harrison Barnes:
And after three judges (not five this year) unanimously decided that Team East won this new round of freestyle action, we found out the spoils for that achievement was picking the matchups in the "battle" round.
Each competitor from Team East was tasked with going head-to-head with a dunker from Team West—the winner moving on to, well, who knows what at that point.
Lillard had the unenviable task of taking on defending champion Terrence Ross to kick off the second round. Ross trumped Lillard's nice left-handed 360 off a self-oop pass with a between-the-legs dunk that came with a little help from rapper Drake:
Again, the three-judge panel decided that, and it was pretty foggy as to why that mattered. Would Ross go on to a final round? What if later dunkers are worse than Lillard but still move on because he's already been eliminated?
With answers aplenty already floating up in the air, the next set of dueling dunkers took flight. In the no-brainer of the evening, George wiped the floor with Barnes by way of a 360, between-the-legs dunk that probably didn't get its due:
George's dunk was spectacular. It took him a few attempts, but the effortless athleticism and fluidity on display when he finished it was quite a sight.
20 years after JR Rider's win in the Slam Dunk contest, Paul George just went 360 East Bay Funk. Pretty sweet, folks.— Mark Remme (@MarkRemme) February 16, 2014
The judges gave the battle to George, who would not be heard from again.
One final battle remained. It was between Ben McLemore and Wall. After some fun theatrics, the former threw down a very impressive one-handed dunk over Shaquille O'Neal sitting in a throne:
Ben McLemore Dunk Over Shaq pic.twitter.com/G7tFPe1v7V— jose3030 (@jose3030) February 16, 2014
John Wall one-upped him just a couple of minutes later. On a confusing night that featured several great dunks which seemingly led to nothing, Wall stole the show:
John Wall jumped over Wizards' mascot G-Man, took the ball out of his hands, and reverse dunked on the other side of the rim.— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) February 16, 2014
Wall won his battle, and TNT's Kevin Harlan told us to hurry to vote online or by text for who we thought the dunker of the night should be.
It was likely the most exciting moment of the contest for many people, but it still felt like something else should be coming.
I looked around the room and asked, "Is that it?" Certainly the winner of each battle round would go on to something else.
Instead, all three dunkers from Team East were presented as the winners of the contest. Bleacher Report's Garrett Jochnau summed up my confusion perfectly:
When Vince Carter was in a dunk contest, "it's over" wasn't so much a question as it was a statement. Tonight, it was definitely a question.— Garrett Jochnau (@GarrettJochnau) February 16, 2014
Harlan, equally out of sorts, felt it was probably worth mentioning that Wall had won the fan vote. Maybe he, like I and probably plenty of other fans, thought emcee Cannon had forgotten to give Wall his due.
Turns out Harlan jumped the gun. The whole contest felt slightly disorganized, and when Cannon gave the real announcement that Wall was the dunker of the night, it made Harlan's mention even more awkward in retrospect.
The likes of Wall, George and Lillard were supposed to restore some luster to this event. Based on the merits of some of their dunks, they might have.
Wall's finale in particular should find itself firmly entrenched in Dunk Contest lore. In the press conference following Saturday's events, Wall shared the inspiration for his jam, saying:
Somebody sent me a YouTube link on my Twitter and said, "27 dunks that haven't been done in the NBA dunk contest." The first one was that one and it seemed hard, but for me it came out to be easy.
He also shared his motivation, saying that he did this for his teammates, coaches, fans in D.C. and "my mom, who's in the hospital sick right now."
So Wall won for a worthy cause, but we didn't even really know he won for a while. Perhaps the NBA will learn from this. In the future, the dunkers themselves should drive the action—not new rules or gimmicks.
Let them have their moments as individuals too. Yes, basketball is a team sport. But this is the All-Star break, and the Dunk Contest is an opportunity to show off individual ability. This new Team East vs. Team West thing just didn't work for the main event. It extinguished the competitive fire.
Sadly, the moments that should have been electrifying morphed into little more than footnotes for the real story: new rules and a new format that just didn't work.
Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.