The NBA Should Have The Three-Point Contest Close Out All-Star Saturday Night

INDIANAPOLIS — So, a little inside baseball for you: Before a big event like All-Star weekend, websites will put together content plans so they have a general idea of what’s going up on a given day. Who’s recapping the events? Who’s going to be talking to which person? How can we make sure gaps are filled in when everyone is doing something that pulls them away from their computers? That sort of thing.

In the lead-up to this weekend in Indianapolis, our fine website had a brief discussion about something that could go up in the lead-up to Saturday night. It was this piece, a few hundred words on why the league should consider rearranging the schedule of events on Saturday — it’s gotten the agenda down to a science by this point. The broadcast starts up, the Skills Competition finds a way to get weirder and weirder every year, then the Three-Point Contest, and then, the Dunk Contest puts a nice bow on the entire thing.

I was going to write it before arriving in Indianapolis, and then, I came to a pretty strong realization: I’d look like a real doofus if the Three-Point Contest was mediocre this year and the Dunk Contest was sick. That, of course, ended up not happening, because Saturday night highlighted why the order of events needs to be tweaked.

For a moment, let’s think about the sport of basketball and how it exists right now. The three-point line is the great equalizer, the thing that can let teams shoot themselves into or out of games. As a result, players work tirelessly to get better from behind the arc, which has led to an explosion in, well, just about everything. Teams are hoisting from deep more than ever and scoring more points, all the stuff that gets brought up as a bad thing whenever an ex-big man talks about basketball on television.

Simply put: the game is built around the three-pointer right now.

This is reflected in the caliber of the players who participate in the Three-Point Contest. Six of the eight players who participated this year have made an All-Star Game before. A seventh, Jalen Brunson, will make his debut in the game this year. Go through the last decade or so of guys who have decided to compete: Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Trae Young, Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Dirk Nowitzki, Klay Thompson, Bradley Beal, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Kevin Love. These are some of the players who have come to define this era of basketball, the exact sort of stars that the NBA and the million brands in its ecosystem love to promote.

And then, look at who tends to do the Dunk Contest, particularly in the last couple of years. Jaylen Brown — the first All-Star to compete since Lillard in 2014 — doing it was huge news. He said after he competed on Saturday night that he believes “some players are just afraid to get turned into a meme or whatever,” echoing what dunk contest great Nate Robinson told Dime’s Katie Heindl earlier this week. But since the famed 2020 contest where Dwyane Wade conspired to keep Aaron Gordon from winning over Derrick Jones Jr. in Chicago (FOR LEGAL REASONS: this is a joke), the Dunk Contest has pretty consistently been a flop. Between crowds that tend to be a little bit flat and collections of players who don’t demand attention from fans like the Three-Point Contest guys above, it’s worth considering what should be the main event.

To be clear, at its best, there is nothing in sports like the Dunk Contest. And I would argue the dunks in the 2024 version of the event weren’t that bad, but it ran into yet another problem that differentiates the two. A flat crowd (or, in the case of the 2024 event, a crowd that is more compelled to boo judges than anything else) absolutely kills the Dunk Contest, while scores are subjectively handed out by a panel that might be a bit harsh, a la this Saturday’s quintet of judges. If a guy misses a dunk attempt or two? That incredible moment where we see someone pull off a feat of athleticism few others can match gets the air taken out of it a bit. The ceiling is higher — that Gordon vs. Jones contest was one of the most remarkable sports things I’ve witnessed in person — but the floor is in the basement.

The ceiling of the Three-Point Contest is for sure not as high, but the floor is about as high as anything the NBA does this weekend. There are no judges who can become the story of the event, and the way the whole thing works creates a natural drama that just does not exist in the Dunk Contest — it’s an objective score, with competitors going against one another and a clock, and that tension builds and builds leading into their final rack. When that’s a moneyball rack and a guy can get scorching hot on it? Even better.

And in 2024, we learned something new about the Three-Point Contest: You can actually build it out and add even more intrigue to the entire thing. The league did shoot itself in the foot by not just having all four competitors who tied in the first round move on — the wholly unnecessary tiebreaker meant that the hometown hero, Tyrese Haliburton, did not move on to the finals — but watching the four-way tie get all sorted out between a quartet of All-Stars was ultra compelling.

And then, there was the spin-off of the usual event, when Stephen Curry and Sabrina Ionescu went shot-for-shot in an absolutely sensational spectacle. Both expressed the desire to run it back in 2025, but imagine if that gets built out even more? Obviously Curry and Ionescu should be involved, but what if the winner of that year’s event joins in? What if another elite shooter from the W like Jackie Young gets in on the fun? Or maybe they just never do this again, letting it be the sort of one-time thing that people look back on fondly for years. Which is fine! We still have the usual competition, the one consistently great part of the night.

Despite all of this, it does make sense why the NBA wouldn’t want to tweak its Saturday night format. Traditions are important, and the tradition of closing out Saturday with the Dunk Contest is as much a part of the Association as the silhouette of Jerry West that give us the logo. The event can turn someone into a household name — Mac McClung went from a high school mixtape hero, to a nice but forgettable college player, to a G League guy who got the occasional cup of coffee in the NBA, to a guy who can forever say he’s a back-to-back champion in a competition that’s been won by guys like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. That’s truly storybook stuff, and a reflection of what the Dunk Contest can be at its best.

But it’s worth remembering the discourse around the first time McClung won. In 2023, the league went to Salt Lake City and had a rather unspectacular field at first glance: McClung, Trey Murphy III, KJ Martin, and Jericho Sims, who was the injury replacement for Shaedon Sharpe. McClung and Murphy were both terrific as they made their way through the first two rounds, and the winner was praised for saving the Dunk Contest. Fast forward one year and McClung was back, this time in a field that included an All-Star (Brown), one of the most exciting rookies in the league (Jaime Jaquez Jr.), and the younger brother of a former champion (Jacob Toppin).

With each passing dunk by Brown that got a higher than expected score and boos from the crowd, one thing was made clear: The weight of making the main event of All-Star Saturday Night the spectacle that we all love should not be on Mac McClung’s shoulders, nor should that have ever been the case. It’s on the NBA to look at what works and what does not, and right now, that means considering changing up the order of events, letting the star-studded Three-Point Contest close out the night, and giving the Dunk Contest a chance to find its place again among the greatness of All-Star Weekend.