Sometimes you get it wrong, and the NBA got the 2013 Slam Dunk Contest wrong.
Interest in the competition has been wearing thin over the last few years, both from players and fans. While LeBron James' continued refusal to participate hasn't helped, other established superstars and league dignitaries have hardly expressed a desire to revive the moribund exhibition.
This year was supposed to be different.
Three years removed from Blake Griffin's sedan-clearing showmanship, a trio of current All-Stars partook in the dunk contest for the first time since 1988. Enough star power existed in Paul George, Damian Lillard and John Wall to restore hope and hype in what used to be the premier event of All-Star Saturday night. They alone would be enough to save the dunk contest.
But they were never given the chance. The NBA rolled out a new team-oriented initiative to help spice things up, pitting conference against conference and removing the trademark individual glory associated with the dunk contest.
In doing so, the league went one too far. The implementation of a "freestyle" round was one part confusing, two parts disastrous. Replays had to be showed afterward to remind those watching who did what. Rotating from one dunker to the next did little to enhance creativity and the entire competition was doomed from there. So much so, that the new format isn't even worth saving and improving.
Best dunk contest participants in years and the NBA is ruining it with this insipid production and needless rule changes.— Kelly Dwyer (@KDonhoops) February 16, 2014
Kinks are to be expected when any changes take place, but those very changes are invariably expected to generate some improvement. There was none of that this year, as the NBA inadvertently squandered an opportunity to rehabilitate a broken competition.
Like Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey wrote, "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."
Avoiding future disappointment will take more change, most of which will require the NBA putting significant distance between itself and a new, unimproved system that isn't dunk-contest material.
One Is the Optimal Number
First thing's first: Goodbye, teams.
The NBA has embraced a conference-centric All-Star Saturday night, and that's fine. It worked for the Skills Challenge and is the reason Shooting Stars competitions are so fun to watch. But the Association can still maintain that approach into the dunk competition without stripping it of its unique individuality.
Think back to the Three-Point Shootout. The champion still earned a win for his conference without teaming up with anyone. The best shooters from either conference moved on, and a victor was determined from there.
Something similar needs to happen for the dunk contest. Individual winners must be named again. "Dunker of the Night" doesn't count. It's an empty title that doesn't really mean anything. Though Wall took it home for the Eastern Conference, it could have easily been awarded to someone from the losing side.
Where's the significance in that? Nowhere. Individual accolades don't mean anything if the emphasis is on teams. For Wall, it was additional recognition for having already helped "win" the contest. For Harrison Barnes, Ben McLemore or Lillard, it would have been a consolation prize having no impact on the outcome.
Rather than make it an afterthought, the competition should be restricted to one winner like in years past, where the personal victory, in turn, earns a conference win.
Goodbye Shackled Freedom
Be honest: The freestyle round was good in theory.
Since each dunker only had to throw down a minimum of one dunk, it should have promoted risk-taking—like a 720-degree dunk attempt.
"I was thinking about that, nobody has put that up," McLemore told CLNS Radio on the possibility of trying a 720-degree slam. "But we’ll see."
That attempt never came. Instead of having its intended effect, the freestyle portion was bound by the very freedom it was attempting to instill. Rotating within the teams made this stage hard to follow. Those who missed dunks were forced to gather themselves in between two other dunk attempts before trying again, and 90 seconds just isn't enough time for three rim-rockers to share the floor while successfully showcasing their mid-air talents.
Feeble attempts at teamwork were also forced. George's dunk off the shot clock was pretty, and the result of a collective effort, but it didn't jibe with the traditional spirit of the competition. Aside from that moment, the entire round was largely a dud and should be done away with altogether.
Improving Battle Rounds
As opposed to wasting time on freestyling in the future, and in the spirit of ditching teams, the league should give every participant a certain amount of time or attempts to put in their dunk of choice. Each dunk should be scored as per usual and used to determine the seeding for battle rounds.
Conferences shouldn't come into play here. Seeding should be followed accordingly, not taking into account whether two players from the same conference are squaring off.
Scoring could then stay the same throughout the battle rounds, or an aggregate rule could come into effect. Either each player has three attempts to put a dunk of choice in, or they have a certain amount of time to attempt as many as they want, with all made dunks factoring into their final score.
At the end of the battle rounds, there would be three winners—kind of like there was this year. Unlike this year, though, it wouldn't end there with the East or West being crowned the winner.
The three remaining participants would head into a final round, where the player with the highest score wins and is crowned champion—not "Dunker of the Night." That player would then earn a win for his conference, keeping in theme with the rest of All-Star Saturday night.
This way, emphasis is still placed on collective, charity-donation-driven success, without compromising the singular sanctity of the dunk contest.
Change for Sake of Change
Plenty of other suggestions could make sense. The aforementioned alterations are simply quick fixes that improve the competition overall, but they're not an end-all, be-all mandate.
Initial seeding may not be something the league is interested in, or the NBA may want only two dunkers waging battle in the final round, or both. It doesn't really matter. There are a number of other difference-makers that can be employed to ensure the necessary changes take place.
Above all else, there shouldn't be a freestyle round, and there most definitely shouldn't be in-competition teams. It should be every dunker for himself, without regard for what conference they hail from.
At the end of the night, there should be a champion. Not champions—champion. Let the conference victory be linked to an individual outcome and secondary to the entire thing, guaranteeing the contest isn't cut short and we're seeing more than basically one dunk per contestant.
That was the biggest problem. Prioritizing teams and freestyle dunking over one clear-cut winner essentially meant Terrence Ross, George, Wall, Barnes, McLemore and Lillard had one chance to shine on their own, and that's not what the dunk contest is all about.
soo...who is ready for more dunks?— Holly MacKenzie (@stackmack) February 16, 2014
Worse still, the most current setup likely deters superstars from wanting to participate. Pressure is already high because fans and pundits have seen (close to) it all. One standalone, three-attempt dunking session isn't enough to entice the likes of a Griffin, LeBron, Kevin Durant or any other headlining luminary who will be held to an impossibly high standard and expected show the world something it's never seen before.
What was the biggest problem with the 2014 dunk contest?
"I haven’t retired officially," Griffin told ESPN’s Marc Kestecher, P.J. Carlesimo and Marc Stein of the dunk competition. "It isn’t something I’ll never, ever do again. But for right now, I try to take my rest when I can. And this year I really wanted that Saturday night rest. So not this year."
Not next year, either. Or the one after that. Or the one after that. Not unless the NBA does better, and it can do better. Fans deserve better.
The dunk contest needs better.