The NBA dunk contest is tomorrow, a chance for the world to watch Aaron Gordon soar like an Olympic high jumper and to learn Derrick Jones, Jr.’s name. Even before going down with a torn ACL, Zach LaVine had declined to defend his back to back titles, leaving Gordon to compete against three good but potentially overmatched opponents. DeAndre Jordan, a ferocious finisher on lobs, may struggle to be much more than a really big man dunking the ball really hard. Glenn Robinson III is an athletic role player who could surprise with a good showing. Jones, Jr. has played a grand total of 15 NBA minutes but has done this in the D League.
With luck, it will be another entertaining show, as well as a TV and social media success for the league. Still, this year’s contest is almost guaranteed to be worse than last year’s. In fairness, the show that LaVine and Gordon put on in Toronto was the greatest in NBA history. The pair started off with casual jams that virtually nobody else could pull off, then upped the degree of difficulty to absurd, then unprecedented. Gordon’s Under the Legs, Over the Mascot On a Hoverboard and LaVine’s Between the Legs From Almost the Free Throw Line were two of the greatest dunks ever, whether in a competition, a game or someone’s driveway on an eight foot rim. LaVine might well have declined to come back this year simply because even he, one of the highest rising and smoothest finishing dunkers ever, knew he couldn’t do better.
That’s the problem with the dunk contest. Every year, the expectations we have of players’ creativity and athleticism get higher and higher. The competition stays interesting if players keep attempting harder and harder dunks. In 1976, at the first ABA Dunk Contest, Julius Erving stole the show when he took off from the free throw line. Twenty years later, Brent Barry’s identical dunk did not get a perfect score, but did win him the contest. Fifteen years after that, when Serge Ibaka did it, he only managed a 45 out of 50 and finished last in the competition. Five years after that, we only celebrated LaVine’s two dunks from close to the free throw line because he added creative flair and significant difficulty to them. Like any number of trick-based extreme sports, the dunk contest is not sustainable.
Even without truly extraordinary participants like LaVine and Gordon, the league can try to bring in guys who bring extra entertainment value, like the 5’9’’ Nate Robinson did in four different contests. Star in-game dunkers, like Blake Griffin in 2011, Dwight Howard in 2008 or Vince Carter in 2000, can build considerable hype with their presence alone. (Griffin put on a great show, although his winning Kia Product Placement Car Dunk was possibly his worst one. Howard put on a cape, which was fun. Carter’s performance was legendary. LeBron should have joined this group but never did. Maybe someday Zion Williamson will make an appearance.)
Without any of those factors, though, it’s easy to forget how mediocre the dunk contest can become. The three years before LaVine, then Gordon, arrived were tough to watch. In 2012, Jeremy Evans, a not-extraordinary dunker by contest standards without any real extra entertainment value and certainly not an in-game star, beat Chase Budinger, a better but slightly less exciting player. 2013 was possibly the all time low point for the contest, as a gimmicky East versus West format could not hide the glaring lack of star power participating. Although a few stars did join in 2014, an even dumber format with Freestyle and Battle rounds made it somehow just as forgettable.
Unfortunately, that might become the norm sooner rather than later. As much as last year distracted us from the inevitable, the dunk contest is doomed to become irrelevant.
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