Fri, 06 Feb, 2015, 16:27
The dunk contest used to be All-Star Weekend’s signature event, even if the league never quite got a handle on how to orchestrate it. The dunk, after all, is basketball’s classic, galvanizing moment of athletic expression.
Basketball is changing, though, and we see it reflected in the anticipation for All-Star Weekend. There’s buzz over a 3-point shootout involving Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kyle Korver, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli. The dunk contest? Dinner plans aren’t being canceled to watch Mason Plumlee jumping in public.
You can chalk up the gulf in star power between All-Star Saturday's marquee events as a matter of the dunk contest’s safety concerns, prospect of humiliation and general mismanagement over the years. That’s part of the explanation, to be sure. There’s another factor here, though: raw athleticism -- i.e., the ability to jump -- is less of what defines a perimeter player these days.
The game is far different than when Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 points a game in a dominant 1987-88 MVP season while shooting .182 from behind the arc.
It’s different these days because the rules are different. When the NBA had illegal defense, space in the paint was legislated into the game. Defenders weren't allowed zone coverages according to where a player might drive. This all changed after 2002, when illegal defense was nixed and coaches such as Tom Thibodeau flooded the strong side to prevent scorers from driving.
Now teams have to carve out their own by spreading defenses with as much shooting as possible. Someone like Korver might be a bench player in the not-too-distant past. These days, he’s an integral part of a great team and a fringe All-Star candidate. In that aforementioned Jordan season, the league average on 3s attempted by a team was 401. Last season, that average was 1,766. The long ball is no longer a goofy novelty; it's the lifeblood of a team offense.
I recently asked Curry if the buzz over the contest shows how the game has changed. “Yeah, I would say so," he replied. "Because, obviously, a lot of teams are successful from outside, shooting the 3 ball, being really successful at it, turning that into wins.”
That’s about the size of it. For as much as retired players warn of “living and dying by the 3,” the 3-pointer wins games. More than that, it wins titles.
“You don’t want to vacate the paint entirely," Curry continued, "but to consistently shoot from outside, use it as a threat, it’s really tough to guard, and I think the Spurs won championships off of that concept and it’s proven to be successful.”
Dunks are still loved and can still change a game in a big way. High flyers such as Blake Griffin, Russel Westbrook and Lebron James still have a lot of currency in this league. It’s just that the game is less defined by the dunk and more defined by a softer kind of triumph.
It’s personified by Curry, someone who looks about as physically imposing as your average golf pro (for the record, Curry is an excellent golfer), lofting 3s over a defense’s futile efforts at intimidation. His skill set has more to do with winning than it would have in the past. Fans are drawn to what’s ultimately successful.
As Curry says, this year’s contest should be “one of the funner parts of the night.”
He then catches himself: “Funner’s not a word. [That’s] pretty bad.”
Maybe not, but with the way 3-point shooters are redefining the game, it might indeed be more fun.