On Saturday, in the midst of the citywide cultural occupation by the NBA that is All Star Week, the most hotly anticipated event was the Foot Locker Three Point Contest at Barclays Center during State Farm All Star Saturday Night.
The general consensus was that long-distance shooting had surpassed the evening’s former centerpiece, the Slam Dunk Contest in both relevance and prominence. Not to slight the great Dr. J, but mascots aren’t why it had grown stale and dull in recent years. It had devolved into prop-based commercial-ready kitsch, and, sadly, the league’s finest aerial artists, like the heralded duels between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins, don’t deign to participate any more. Even if you’re an NBA fan, you’d need to consult your friend in Google to name any of the contestants.
Plus, the three point contest synchs so neatly with the larger stylistic and strategic trajectory that the league has taken in the last decade.
Whether you want to peg it to the rise of Daryl Morey and his armada of protractor-wielding statistical wonks, or Mike D’Antoni’s supercharged Phoenix Suns squads of the mid-to-late 2000s, these days, most teams look to spread the floor with long-distance shooters, attack the rim with multiple, whirring pick-and-rolls. They hunt for threes and opportunities at the rim and free throws, all while eschewing stagnant isolation ball and the midrange game.
It may sound contradictory or even illogical, but the advanced metrics have shown that even a well-defended, contested three-point attempt is of greater value than a wide-open long two. Last night was a celebration of the oncoming reality that is engulfing the sport from the bottom up.
In Sacramento, Silicon Valley’s Vivek Ranadive has used the Kings’ D-League affiliate to see what might happen if these theories are pushed to the absolute extreme limits of possibility. The Reno Bighorns play at a frenetic, crazed tempo, substitute entire five-man platoons, and launch literally nothing but threes and/or attempts in the paint. Even if a player has the time and space to compose a well-crafted sonnet before firing up a fifteen-footer, he’ll either dive to the rim or scamper back outside. It’s Uber, but for offensive efficiency.
More than just capturing the current hoops zeitgeist, the Three Point Contest was packed with actual stars. Stephen Curry is a whippet-quick, deadeye marksman and the engine that drives the Western Conference-leading Golden State Warriors. They currently lead the league in Offensive Efficiency (points generated per 100 possessions) Pace (the number of possessions per game) and Defensive Efficiency; that’s some 1996-97 Chicago Bulls-type dominance right there.
Then there’s Kyle Korver, a gent that spent this summer training by dragging giant rocks while running on the ocean floor. (True story!) If he continues at this rate, he’ll become first player in NBA history to shoot over 50% overall, 50% from three and 90% from the free throw line, and the degree to which his gravitational pull torques defenses is essential to the surprising Atlanta Hawks and their deliberate, yet definitely Spurs-ian powerhouse.
You could easily spend the entire competition watching these two duke it out, but the fun part here is the rest of field: Seven of the top ten three point shooters in the league including two ex-champs. As LeBron James said during Friday’s media scrum, “I think it’s the greatest field that we’ve seen.”
Of course, we were all totally wrong. It was the Dunk Contest that once again sent hearts aflutter, all thanks to a springy, uber-athletic rookie toiling in relative obscurity for the Minnesota Timberwolves named Zach LaVine.
Granted, considering amount of hype and perhaps overwrought, ideology-justifying expectations that accompanied the Three Point Contest, it’s not surprising that it failed to astound. And a three point shooting contest isn’t really the best measuring stick of long-range prowess.
Firing off twenty-five treys within sixty seconds while plucking balls off a rack is a specific skill that’s pretty much unrelated to any actual in-game activity. Just like the SATs aren’t a measure of intelligence, per sé, the contest is just a test of how well you take the test. It was impressive, to be sure, but about as much fun as watching a ballet dancer go through a proper stretching regimen.
The contest was burdened, too, by the seemingly-endless, soporific breaks between each round, all of which were filled with over-caffeinated unfunny entr’actes from Anthony Anderson and Kevin Hart, dancing children, kiss-cams and even a two-minute speech leading up to a Valentine’s Day marriage proposal in the stands. If you wanted to build momentum towards a climactic showdown between the league’s best, this wasn’t the way to do it.
Still, there was one transcendent moment. In the finals, Curry just found the zone, banging home thirteen straight while nailing 20 of 25 to take the crown. You could see the rest of the branded bombast in every nook and cranny of the arena slip away. It was Curry and the hoop. That’s all. Grab, release, swish, again and again. Zen and the art of making the nets dance with an oh-so satisfying snap.
But Curry’s display of skill paled in comparison to LaVine’s gravity-defying theatrics. It may be due to the fact that expectations for the dunk contest had been dialed down to zero, but it felt like a historic performance, perhaps the best we’ve seen in decades, and it turned the crowd (and his fellow All Stars) into a giddily effervescent sea of disbelief and wonder.
“All of them involved rotating the ball around his body in some way, whether through the legs on three of the dunks or around his back on this one. In the early days of doing this, just doing it was enough — for J.R. Rider, for Kobe. Then Carter had to catch it on the alley-oop and Jason Richardson eventually did it while spinning,” Steve McPherson wrote at A Wolf Among Wolves. “These were different evolutions of this particular dunking wrinkle, but it feels like LaVine passed them all evolutionarily tonight.”
It was also a stark reminder that, for all the smart folks coming up with better, smarter, more efficient ways to play the game—and yes, a perfectly executed dribble hand-off can be a delicately and intricately gorgeous thing too—it’s the moments of near-paralyzing, improbable beauty like this and this, that can take a jam-packed crowd of disparate individuals and turn them into a unified, singular yawp, that make basketball a magnificent, self-forgetting diversion in the best sense of the word.
Don’t take my word for it. Just watch.