What was the highlight of the NBA’s 2023 All-Star Weekend? Was it Mac McClung emerging from anonymity to win the Dunk Contest? Or LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo keeping us guessing when they drafted their All-Star teams? Or was it Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown dueling down the stretch on Sunday’s big stage?
The one thing we can all agree on: The highlight definitely didn’t happen in the Skills Challenge.
After a marquee weekend in Salt Lake City, the Ringer NBA staff gathered to break down the biggest winners and losers from All-Star Weekend. Let’s dive in.
Winner: The Fans
Seerat Sohi: Watching the laissez-faire recklessness of the All-Star Game, you realize even the biggest stars have to mold their games to the constraints of the NBA. When turnovers, errant shots, and wasted possessions don’t translate to regular-season losses, the court becomes a playground for them to freestyle and test the limits of their ability.
The 3s get deeper. The alley-oop passes are thrown higher. When LeBron, whose command of the game seems so complete, throws the ball against the backboard, adjusts in midair, and dunks, he reminds us that there is so much he can do with the ball that we don’t normally see.
LEBRON OFF THE BACKBOARD TO HIMSELF pic.twitter.com/OQ4mTWz6Ix— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) February 20, 2023
Some fans decry the defense-optional nature of the game as an affront to competitiveness, and I understand that. Team Giannis, which ultimately prevailed 184-175, pretty much won the game in the early third quarter and dragged out the fourth quarter with half-court attempts against flimsy contests. This was not a playoff atmosphere. But it’s not supposed to be. I’ve always enjoyed the fact that this is the rare place where Jrue Holiday can airball a left-handed 3 and it won’t matter, where the inner rascal that usually comes out only in empty gyms can goof off and play.
A decade ago, goofing off meant Dwight Howard jokingly took triples and dribbled the ball up the floor. Nowadays, it’s normal practice for big men to do that. The game’s freedom, at its best, makes it a breeding ground, a preview for the future—and at worst, a show where even the misses are met with oohs and ahs.
Loser: … Also the Fans
Sohi: For the second year in a row, LeBron and Giannis, the respective captains of the Western and Eastern Conference teams, chose their players in a pickup-style draft. This season, for the first time, they made their picks in person, right before the game. There was, as a result, much anticipation: Who would each player take first? Could we see an MJ-style “and I took that personally” revenge game from the players who were picked last?
Then the league pulled the rug out from under itself by having both captains select reserves first. As both players made their final picks, you couldn’t help but wonder whether an injection of drama could have helped save an event that was dragging on.
Look, I understand the impulse to spare players from the potential embarrassment of being a low pick, but these guys are All-Stars. They’ve faced worse. Being picked last among the game’s best of the best is hardly an embarrassment. And being doubted has been, for many of them, the fulcrum of their eventual greatness. Why not give them a little more jet fuel?
Winner: Jayson Tatum
Michael Pina: Shortly after he took the court with a blowtorch, scored 55 points, and set a new All-Star Game scoring record, Tatum sat at a podium, took sips from a Gatorade bottle, and fielded questions in an expansive room that was packed with media members. One asked Tatum whether, in the lead-up to his 25th birthday next month, he’s had any time to reflect on all the accomplishments he’s already achieved in a career that’s still somehow not even close to peaking.
“I guess I’m not 19 anymore,” he cracked.
With Kevin Durant and Steph Curry injured, and Giannis and LeBron able to start but not finish the contest, this All-Star Game had a void that needed to be filled. The established class and most obvious MVP candidates were either absent or impaired, leaving the honor up for grabs. Early on and throughout long stretches of the game, several stars jostled for the trophy, but Tatum eventually separated himself from a pack that was highlighted by Donovan Mitchell (in what would’ve been a very sweet homecoming), Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid, and Jaylen Brown, who engaged his Celtics teammate in several friendly but spirited one-on-one clashes in the middle of the game.
Jayson Tatum vs. Jaylen Brown pic.twitter.com/qBlyda9Jwe— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) February 20, 2023
Even in those brief All-Star moments when his defenders actually tried to stop him, Tatum could not be stopped on Sunday. He cooked Brown a couple of times and hit several of his 10 3s over Embiid’s fingertips. Tatum was a radiator. His effective field goal percentage was 87.1, with a 33.3 usage rate that tied Brown’s for the game high.
Coming into Sunday night’s game, Anthony Davis’s 52 points from 2017 was the previous All-Star record, and just last year Curry went 16-for-27 behind the arc on his way to netting a 50-ball. Michael Jordan’s career high in the game was 40. Kobe Bryant (who had the MVP award named after him) topped out at 37.
As far as exhibition games are concerned, Tatum led an efficiency clinic. He went 12-for-13 in the restricted area and didn’t attempt even one shot from the midrange. The numbers are all around inflated by defenders who opted out of playing defense. But 55 is 55.
Winner: Nikola Jokic’s Whole Vibe
J. Kyle Mann: The distance between his status among all the greatest basketball players in the world and his level of giving a shit this weekend is immeasurable. Joker was good-natured about participation and trotted around the court Sunday, but he could not be bothered to prove absolutely anything all weekend, which is hysterical for a guy who’s on track to win a third straight MVP and hopefully compete for the title.
Loser: The Skills Challenge
Pina: This event is a travesty that needs to be changed or scrapped immediately. It’s not necessarily bad (well, actually, it is), but it’s confusing, tedious, and deeply stale. There’s no rationale for tipping off All-Star Saturday night with it ever again. I don’t know who won. I don’t know who lost. I barely remember who participated. If this event isn’t retired and replaced with literally any other form of competition next year in Indianapolis, it will be an all-out debacle that demands investigation. Zero people enjoy it!
Winner: Mac McClung
Matt Dollinger: This one is easy. There was no bigger winner in Salt Lake City this weekend than McClung. Before Saturday night’s festivities even began, it already felt like he had won some sort of contest. But when you consider that 99 percent of people in attendance didn’t know who he was entering the weekend, you’ve got to give it up to McClung for making sure everyone remembers his name.
McClung had scored eight points in his NBA career leading into Saturday. He then threw down four successful jams in the Dunk Contest, tying that mark. Something tells me these eight points will probably be a little more memorable:
Every dunk by MAC MCCLUNG in his almost flawless victory at the 2023 NBA Dunk Contest— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) February 19, 2023
Tap the glass over 2 people: 50
360 windmill: 49.8
Double Pump Reverse: 50
And made every dunk on the first try
SHAQ: "He saved the dunk contest" pic.twitter.com/5RGjujUCMU
Look, is it weird for a G League player to win the Dunk Contest? Yes. Could the NBA have just booked Red Panda instead and probably entertained us the same? Absolutely. Does McClung’s win speak to the event’s overall deterioration? You betcha. But don’t hate on McClung for taking advantage of the NBA’s missed opportunity. He’s a professional dunker who seized the spotlight. Of course he was going to win! He delivered four no-brainer 50-point dunks (despite what Lisa Leslie thinks). Just don’t say McClung “saved” the Dunk Contest. In fact, he may have dug its grave even deeper.
Loser: Future Slam Dunk Contests
Dollinger: Let’s conduct a test. If you can name the last five winners of the Slam Dunk Contest, Adam Silver will give you the NBA’s future Las Vegas expansion franchise for free.
Obviously, you can’t do it. No one can. The list reads like the worst SEO play in internet history: Mac McClung, Obi Toppin, Anfernee Simons, Derrick Jones Jr., and Hamidou Diallo.
It was already hard enough getting big names to participate in the Dunk Contest. But now that McClung has won it? As Vince Carter once said, “It’s over.”
What’s the upside for a star participating? Ja Morant repeatedly and soundly dismissed the notion this weekend. Anthony Edwards couldn’t say “NOPE” fast enough. Any other star who was asked about participating almost certainly led with a chuckle before a semi-polite dismissal.
There’s just no incentive for these guys to compete. A million dollars likely isn’t moving the needle much, either. The Dunk Contest doesn’t do anything for your brand; it just offers a stage for you to get embarrassed on. The most memorable dunks happen in actual games, and NBA stars know they don’t need an exhibition to display their jaw-dropping athleticism.
Players are worried about missing dunks or getting embarrassed in front of their peers. They’ve seen the clips of guys missing dunk after dunk. They’ve seen the jokes about players who use silly props. They don’t want to get caught up in the shenanigans and risk making Shaqtin’ a Fool. Most of the big names don’t even show up for the event anymore, let alone participate in it.
If the stars weren’t already afraid of losing the Dunk Contest, the possibility of losing to a 6-foot-2 G League player no one has ever heard of should do the trick. What All-Star wants to lose to Mac McClung in front of all their peers and millions of people at home? Who’s living that down? Who in their right mind would sign up for that?
The NBA may have saved this year’s Dunk Contest, but I don’t know how next year’s event won’t disintegrate even further.
Loser: The Cumulative Stamina for All-Star Events
Mann: It could just be me—I’ve seen a bunch of these—but it definitely feels like All-Star Weekend is teetering on the edge of a cliff before this event enters a real era of free fall. We’re probably already there, honestly. It seemed for a moment that maybe the 3-Point Contest could level up and become the hot Saturday event, but that hasn’t really materialized and might depend on Curry participating. The Elam Ending was praised as a savior concept for the All-Star Game itself, but watching the first three quarters was like getting a basketball lobotomy. What’s left? Ninja Warrior–esque gimmicks that get super weird?
Winner: Jose Alvarado
Pina: After he went undrafted coming out of Georgia Tech, Jose Alvarado’s 15 minutes of NBA fame were meant to peak during last year’s feisty playoff matchup with the Suns. Instead, he parlayed those 15 minutes into an indefinite stay. And at 2023 All-Star Weekend, Grand Theft Alvarado slipped deeper into the NBA’s seams. First, during the Rising Stars Challenge, when he competed alongside lottery picks like Paolo Banchero, Scottie Barnes, and Bennedict Mathurin, Alvarado was named MVP of the tournament after drilling the championship-winning 3.
Then, during the Dunk Contest on Saturday night, he unofficially retired what had been his calling card—a sneaky, singular move that eventually forced Chris Paul to learn his name—by emerging from the weeds to “steal” the ball from an “unsuspecting” Trey Murphy before tossing a perfect lob off the backboard. This act was, of course, scripted. But unlike most attempts, you get only one try with a reveal like this. If the pass is imprecise, the timing is off, or the dunk is missed, the element of surprise is gone and Murphy gets eliminated. Serious stakes! Alvarado came through, though. As he did all weekend.
Dollinger: Giannis got to hold up a trophy Sunday night despite playing just 20 seconds in the All-Star Game. But he probably should have been handed some sort of award just for this Friday night zinger alone:
Giannis: "You're out here reffing like Marc Davis and sh*t!"— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) February 18, 2023
Richard Jefferson: "I'm mic'd up, bro!" pic.twitter.com/0dNoRX8Xr6
The Bucks’ next game refereed by Marc Davis aside, Giannis was a big winner this weekend even though he didn’t break a sweat. After hurting his wrist in the final regular-season game before All-Star Weekend, Giannis skipped the Skills Challenge (savvy move) before drafting his team for Sunday’s marquee event. Giannis displayed a heavily taped right wrist during the draft, but judging by his comments, it sounded like he would play, likely sending a deserved shiver down every Bucks fan’s back.
Luckily for them, Giannis was kidding. Maybe it was gamesmanship, maybe it was a favor to the NBA (after all, half the event was known as Team Giannis). Antetokounmpo started the game, got the ball, dribbled around the court exclusively with his left hand, and then casually laid in the game’s first points. Was Giannis about to put up an MVP performance despite the injured wrist?
Nah, it’s All-Star Weekend! After scoring the game’s first points, Giannis committed a foul, took himself out of the game, and revealed that his game plan was never to seriously compete but, rather, to barely participate.
It was a fitting move for a weekend in which effort level wasn’t a major consideration. Giannis showed up. Team Giannis won. And life, particularly for the Bucks, moves on. Until next year, I guess.