The Damian Lillard-Trey Burke duo won the Skills Challenge on Saturday, narrowly edging Victor Oladipo and Michael Carter-Wiilliams in the final round. Lillard was there defending his title from last year.
The Skills Challenge is not anyone’s favorite All-Star Saturday event. It’s an obstacle course, but nothing interesting–just some dribbling, passing, and shooting. There have been charges in recent years of players phoning it in, especially the defending champion, who goes at half-speed lest he win and have to go through the motions a year later. The TNT crew–Shaq, Chuck, Ernie, and Kenny–introduced it by pointing out that whoever tries will probably win.
The NBA tried to address these issues this year by making it a relay race with four teams of two. Lillard-Burke and a Goran Dragic-Reggie Jackson combo represented the West. Oladipo-MCW and Giannis Antetokounmpo-DeMar DeRozan represented the East. The first three teams were composed entirely of point guards, while the last was a pair of wings.
After a bizarre jazz band introduction, DeMar-Giannis led off the competition. The intensity was nothing incredible, but also probably up from previous years. Giannis had some cool dunks, but their time of 45 seconds was the worst of the first round.
‘Dipo-Carter-Williams topped them and secured a spot in the finals mostly by getting through the dribbling sections quickly, but still couldn’t top either Western Conference team. Dragic and Jackson ran a smooth course and hit their shots, but as the commentators spent the entire run pointing out, Jackson ran his race a little too calmly. They finished with a 42.3.
Burke and our beloved Lillard smoked the rest of the field with a 40.6 and moved on to the final round, employing a radical strategy of running fast and shooting well. Burke made me nervous with some weird finger rolls, but it was never really in doubt.
In the final round both teams struggled, putting up the longest runs of the Challenge. Oladipo and MCW had an awkward run, as they both messed up the passing and MCW in particular struggled with his shot. Victory for Lillard-Burke seemed guaranteed, but they both missed their first two jumpers. Lillard is such a good shooter that he understandably assumed that he had made the shot and moved on toward the next obstacle before having to double back and shoot again. Burke, running second, had to play Jason Lezak to Lillard’s Michael Phelps. He ran the last stretch of his leg at a dead sprint, and dropped in a looping finger roll to edge the East finalists by a tenth of a second.
The crowd, the announcers, and my little brother went nuts. Lillard reacted to his second straight title more enthusiastically than he does to a game-winning three.
The event was fun, and I like the new format. That said, I think the best thing for this contest is a radical revamping of the course. Players know that this is the least important event, so they play the whole course conservatively to avoid messing up and ending up in a funny YouTube video seen by more people than the Challenge itself. Maybe make them dribble through a maze, or try to steal the ball from one another, or run away from wild animals. I don’t know what I would do with the event, but the way it’s set up now just doesn’t inspire excitement. The current course is nothing a high-schooler couldn’t do reasonably well. It’s a decent test of skill, I suppose, but it seems more like a draft combine challenge than anything. This, of all the contests, does by far the worst job leveraging the incredible skill and athleticism that these players have. For all the flaws in the other two contests (and the dunk contest was a mess this year), those have a guaranteed viewership and occasionally produce memorable moments. The Skills Challenge is boring, and not much more than a mild attraction for anyone. I think the NBA either needs to scrap it or make it over.
Anyway, congrats to Dame and Burke.