Fixing the NBA's All-Star Weekend
Every sport has its issues when it comes to celebratory festivities. The NBA arguably has the best lineup of events compared to baseball's super-boring Home Run Derby and football's Pro Bowl that doesn't even feature the best players, but the solid framework has not yielded the level of entertainment that it should. Let's go through some should-be-common-sense ideas to make this must-watch TV.
First, let's look at the event that only survived one year. It came down to a matchup of Kevin Durant vs. Rajon Rondo, who due to poor scheduling had to go to a tiebreaker of shooting threes (?). It seems ridiculous that the most popular playground basketball game – one that even people who don't really play basketball participate in – isn't played at the highest level. All you need is four participants and some basic rules. The order is randomly determined. You get one attempt at your shot. If you make the shot, everyone else has to attempt the same shot. The first person to miss gets a letter, and the next person gets to attempt a new shot. If the three other contestants make the shot, the original attempter gets a letter, and picks a new shot to attempt. If a 'new shot' is attempted and missed, no penalty is incurred, as the next player in line can attempt their own new shot. Each player that get five letters (H-O-R-S-E) loses, last player standing wins.
To stop it from becoming a pure shooting contest, you can add a restriction that there has to be some gimmick in place – if you want to attempt a three-pointer, you have to add a wrinkle like 'no jumping' or 'off the backboard' or 'using one hand'. You can't specify which hand to use, but you can say 'strong hand' or 'weak hand' to avoid right-handed players taking advantage of lefties and vice-versa. Each player has 24 seconds to get their shot off. And no dunks allowed, because we already have a dunk contest.
That's it! It's simple – anyone who's ever played basketball knows how to play HORSE. And it's way better than the weird Shooting Stars competition that made absolutely no sense. Come on now.
The problem with the Skills Competition is that it doesn't really test skills, and (like most of the events) is inherently biased towards guards. The only real challenge is making a chest pass into a circle, and if you miss three times in a row then you just get to move on. The rest is dribbling, making a layup, and making a three pointer, which I guess technically are skills, but there's no real challenge at all. Many serious NBA fans have good reason to skip over this event entirely and tune in for the three-point contest. It feels like an obstacle course equivalent of the first level of a Mario game, testing your ability to run and jump, but none of the more intricate movements you'll need to use to survive the later stages.
It begs the question: what are the skills that should be tested? Every player should be able to make a shot in the lane, so you could erect 11-foot barriers about five feet out, which guards could conquer with a floater and bigs with a mini hook shot. Every player should be able to do a simple spin dribble, so make that one of the required motions instead of a simple weave. A simple chest pass isn't quite enough – expand that section to a chest pass, bounce pass, and overhead pass, where the order is specified by the appropriate apparatus lighting up without warning so players have to instantaneously react.
The ending should be an homage to the second-most-popular playground game: knockout. Instead of just making a single three-pointer, you'd have to make two shots in a row without the opponent making a shot in the middle. Simple knockout rules apply – if you miss the three, you have to get the rebound and shoot from there. If it goes out of bounds, you have to go back to the top of the key and take another ball to attempt a three. After you make a shot (whether the initial three or a rebound shot), you have to repeat that process before your opponent scores. And of course, you can intentionally knock the opponent's ball out of the way by chucking your ball at theirs.
Despite the year-after-year bitching about how this contest sucks, it's still considered the crown jewel of the weekend. It was only as recently as 2016 that we've had a contest for the ages between Zach Levine and Aaron Gordon, and this year's featured some exciting dunks by winner Hamidou Diallo. The primary complaint is that the dunks aren't creative enough, which is something that can't be changed by the setup of the event, but there are still inefficiencies that can be corrected.
The scoring is probably the most irritating part of it, because there don't seem to be established guidelines for how to score a dunk (evident in the exasperation of the commentators). It seems reasonable that the number of attempts should matter – if it takes you one attempt to make a dunk, and someone else five attempts to make an equally impressive dunk, you should get more points. But it's hard to factor that in for a judge, so just make it a total point loss. You can tell the judges to score the actual make, and just subtract one point from the total for each retry. So a pretty-cool dunk that got straight nines (for a total of 45) that took three tries (a deduction of two) would get a score of 43. If you really wanted to penalize retries, you could deduct more points the more they miss (e.g. two point deduction on the second miss and each subsequent miss), but that might be too much of a downer.
Another note on scoring – the commentators and (probably) most people at home tend to score the dunk out of 50, but the judges only get to score using integers out of 10. So if you think that a dunk should get a 48, that relies on three judges giving a 10 and two judges giving a 9, but that doesn't really work out in practical terms. Considering that even all misses garner a score of 7, the judges only have three scores (8, 9, 10) to pick from. This doesn't leave much room for nuance, since you're effectively saying 'amazing!', 'pretty good', or 'ehh'. Two ways to fix this: either let the judges use half scores (7.5, 8.5, 9.5) and lower the bar for all misses to automatic 6s. Or (and this probably makes more sense), just let the judges score out of 50 and average the scores.
Oh, and this takes way too long. Each dunker has a one-minute clock that starts if they miss their first attempt. And can we get six participants, with three advancing to the final round? Done.
Probably my hottest take for All-Star Weekend – the Three-Point Contest is easily the most entertaining event. The rules are easy to understand (whoever makes the most shots), it doesn't drag on unnecessarily (compared to the long periods of buildup in the Dunk Contest), and the they always find the league's best to participate. The variability of the contest is also part of the magic of the three-pointer – it only takes a quick hot shooting stretch to steal a round (as seen in Joe Harris' upset of Stephen Curry this year).
The construct is extremely simple – five spots on the three point line (two corners, two wings, and top of the key) with five shots each, with a one-minute time limit. Each shot counts as one point, and of the five shots there will be one multicolored 'money ball' worth two points. Each player can pick one spot where they want all five shots to be money balls. The maximum score is 34 points (4×4=16 regular shots, 4×2=8 money ball points, 5×2=10 money ball rack), and anything above 25 is considered elite. There are two rounds, where the top two scorers from the first round advance to the final. It's a test of accuracy (from all over the floor), consistency (maintaining the same form), and endurance (hoisting 50 shots in 2 minutes).
The beauty is in the simplicity, so adding gimmicks feels like making a change for the sake of making a change. I'd be completely fine if this event stayed exactly the same, but let's run through some ideas that are at least within the realm of possibility.
One possible critique is that the final round is not any more difficult than the first round. A potential fix – add a 'four-point' line three feet behind the current line, beyond which shots would count as double (so money balls would count as four points). This presents some logistical challenges: do you have two separate ball racks and have someone remove balls from one rack as the player attempts shots from the other? If a player opts to take a four-point shot, do they have to take all their shots from that spot at that distance? Do you extend the court to make four-point shots possible from the corners? A hybridization of the last two seems like it makes sense – if the player wants to take a four point shot, they have to move the whole ball rack backward, and they're locked into four-pointers for that spot. For the final round, you could require four-pointers from one spot.
Another critique is that this is not a true test of shooting three pointers, since there are different styles of shooting three pointers. The contest is biased towards pull-up shooters, since taking a ball from a rack and shooting is effectively pull-up shooting. Other categories include step-back shooting (like James Harden's signature travel move), off-the-dribble (Steph Curry in transition), catch-and-shoot (most white guys), and curling off screens (JJ Reddick). You could have each player match a style with a spot according to their preference – e.g. off the dribble from the left wing, off screens from the top, etc. – and increase the time by 30 seconds to accommodate the change. While it adds complexity and makes it a more holistic test of three-point shooting, it seems like it would be too complicated. At the very least, you could try the simpler mechanics like off-the-dribble and catch-and-shoot.
The All-Star Game
The lone event of Sunday tends to be its most boring because of the lack of competition. This year's game was actually fairly entertaining, but that was mostly because some of the in-game dunks (Wade to LeBron, Steph to Giannis, Steph to himself) were better than those in the dunk contest. But that's not the reason we want to see all the best players on the same court – we want it to be like NBA 2K, where they actually compete and play somewhat hard. You can look up games as recently as 2010 to see some truly competitive ones. Nowadays, the score gets run up with uncontested dunks and open three-pointers in the first three quarters, and the players end up trying if the score is close in the fourth. The league has tried various mechanisms to increase the competition, from allowing the teams to be selected pick-up style (going on to televise this 'draft') and including charity incentive money for the winning team, but none of it has worked.
Innately, these players are all competitors who hate to lose. So it shouldn't be terribly difficult to bring that spirit out of them. The event would probably have to still be a game in the traditional five-on-five sense, but some rule changes could be in play. They could have charity incentives for each quarter, where the score resets after each 12-minute period, since this replicates the suddenly-competitive-end-of-game scenario four times. They could also have a Big 3-style point goal, where the first team to score 100 points (or whatever number, maybe 120) would win. The teams would consequently be more wary of giving up free dunks and threes, since each one of those buckets would count against the point limit. Alternatively…
King of the Court
If you are going to move away from a five-on-five setup, why not go to a streetball-style operation instead? The All-Star Game gives us individual moments in flashes – e.g. Steph going 1 on 1 vs. teammate Klay Thompson and getting a four-point play – but there are just too many players on the court for this to be a regular element. For that, you'd need smaller teams. It's one of the beautiful things about basketball – there's no other sport where you could play with as many players as you want and emulate the complete game; soccer and hockey needs goalies, baseball and football need full teams.
Of the 24 All-Star players, you could do eight teams of three, with a point goal of 7 (with all one point shots in true streetball fashion), win-by-two points, a 24-second shot-clock, the team that scores getting the ball back, and five-minute games in a simple bracket elimination. If you wanted to do a true King of the Court, you'd go with twelve teams of two players each, and reduce them down to six, with these six doing a classic winner-plays-on until each team player twice.
For a league that prides itself on innovation (commissioner Adam Silver debuted a jersey that could change number and name literally this week), these changes seem like an easy and harmless way to reinvigorate the weekend and increase the quality of the product. If you really want the fans to have a say, let them vote on that.