In the modern era, of both sports and society, we have grown accustomed to a sense of immediacy and perfection. In an age where the answer to any question is several key strokes away, all of life’s minor inconveniences and frustrations are magnified. This sentiment is taken further by the communal nature of social media, a place where millions of individuals with the desire to complain about the same topic can do it together.
In the NBA, perhaps the place where most of this ire is targeted is the festivities that take place during the league’s annual All-Star break: NBA All-Star weekend. A collection of events meant to showcase the league’s best and brightest stars in various different competitions, all leading up to the All-Star game on Sunday night, the weekend is intended to be a love letter to the sport of basketball. In many ways, it hits this goal out of the park. However, its shortcomings have been broadcasted over and over again throughout the basketball community, leaving one burning question.
Is the criticism warranted?
To a degree, yes. There are certainly issues with the current All-Star proceedings, mostly stemming from the lack of superstars competing, The idea that it’s not quite the same as it used to be. The memories of Jordan vs. Wilkins in 1988, the heroic, nonchalant domination of Larry Bird in the 3-point contest, and Dwight Howard’s superman impression are seared into the collective memory of the basketball world. The majority of the negative feedback toward the current weekend is from basketball fans who claim recent iterations of these events have not offered the same level of mystique.
The hallowed events of the past certainly deserve admiration, but it’s simply unfair to compare them to the current contests. In 5-10 years, we will likely remember the battles of Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon as the new Jordan vs. Dominique; Hamidou Diallo’s high-flying antics of last year as the new Superman, and Buddy Hield’s clutch money ball as the new Larry Legend. However, I believe we need to recognize some of the more positive parts of the current weekend, and give credit where credit is due to the players who make it possible.
An Explosion of Personality
Firstly, the fun, loose nature of the the current skills, dunk, and 3-point contests allow us to see our favorite hoopers in an entirely new light; one where they’re allowed to be themselves. While we have more off-court access to our favorite players than ever before thanks to social media, the opportunity to see them doing what they’re best at is something new. There’s an inherent difference between watching athletes trade Twitter barbs versus watching them nail long-range jumpers. It allows us to enjoy their remarkable basketball talents while getting a healthy dose of their individual personalities as well.
There is no greater proof of this than the modern dunk contest. Not only are the participants tasked with coming up with their slams themselves, but the freedom of dressing up in different outfits and bringing in special guests to assist their soaring makes the Dunk Contest the most personal of the evening’s festivities. The spectacular nature of the feats on display certainly helps add to the euphoria as well. The average Joe can hit a 3-pointer, but it takes otherworldly athleticism to pull off Aaron Gordon-like throw-downs. While it’s not too often we witness a never-before-seen slam, the rowdy, high-flying, electric energy surrounding the Dunk Contest makes it a home run year after year, and a classic that will stand the test of time.
Meeting Fresh Faces
While one aspect of the weekend may be the attempt to showcase the league’s biggest stars, another extremely positive aspect of the current weekend is the chance to introduce the basketball masses to fresh faces, those who are spectacularly talented but not spectacularly famous. These players deserve a spot in their respective contests as a result of their skills, and attempt to use this chance to catapult their personal brands.
The greatest example of this aspect is the modern 3-point contest. Its high number of participants allows for the inclusion of some long-range snipers that may not be household names. This season, the inclusion of Davis Bertans and Duncan Robinson helped show off their remarkable abilities to the basketball world as a whole. With the current state of the game, perimeter shooting is more important than ever, and it is integral that each team is stuffed with spacing. This allows for certain sharp-shooters to fly under the radar, and the 3-point contest gives them a chance to showcase their range to the masses. The recognition of underrated shooting talent and the chance to watch a flurry of lethal jumpers from the league’s best make the modern 3-point contest a wildly entertaining spectacle, regardless of its many detractors.
Finally, the ever-changing game of basketball is often difficult to keep track of. From season to season, small nuances of change take place within the spectrum of the league that alter the game as a whole. However, there are certain renaissances that take place throughout different facets of the game that are too obvious to ignore. The most obvious in recent memory is the increase in long-range shooting, which has also led to a focus on positionless basketball. Gone are the days of Point Guards dribbling up the court to lob the ball to a waiting, lumbering big man in the post. Today, the game is much different and more fluid. Perhaps the largest difference can be found in the aforementioned big man position, as they are now tasked with handling the ball, delivering pinpoint passes, and draining 3s of their own.
This has manifested itself most clearly in today’s Skills Contest. The current format, which pits big men against guards, does a phenomenal job of showcasing the versatility of current Centers and Power Forwards. In 2020’s iteration, the bigs slew the guards in each of the 4 quarterfinals, proving that the size of the player no longer has an inverse relationship with their on-court skillset. Bam Adebayo defeated Domantis Sabonis in the finale, with both Centers and first-time All-Stars remaining perfect until the shooting portion. As the game we all love continues to evolve, it is important that the league takes steps to recognize and celebrate the change. The Skills Challenge helps broadcast the remarkably polished games possessed by many of the league’s largest individuals, and recognizes the way the game has adapted in the process. It helps determine the league’s most skilled, versatile hooper, and the head-to-head, gripping style of the Skills Contest makes it a must-watch every year.
The All-Star game itself is another animal entirely, but I believe that receives its fair share of respect and admiration. The events of All-Star Saturday night, though, have not always received the positive feedback they deserve. After a phenomenal set of events in 2020 All-Star weekend, I thought it was only fitting to honor the great parts of the festivities, and shout out some of the gracious stars willing to show off their skills in the process.