NBA All-Star Weekend and the Death of the Dunk Contest

This weekend the best players in the National Basketball Association (NBA) will head to Brooklyn for the 2015 NBA All-Star Weekend. All-Star games always tend to draw mixed reviews from fans across all sports. The games are generally sloppy exhibitions where the players tend to joke around most of the time. However, they also tend to produce a few exciting highlights and are a fun opportunity to see a player from your favorite team represented on a roster with the best players in the world. 

Like the Major League Baseball (MLB) and National Hockey League (NHL) All-Star events, the NBA has a variety of skill competitions the night before the big game. For years, the highlight of this night, and the NBA All-Star weekend as a whole, was the Slam Dunk Contest. The Slam Dunk Contest used to be a massive spectator event that virtually every sports fan in America tuned into. In the 1980s and 1990s, winning the dunk contest turned players into heros and was something that every little kid dreamed of accomplishing. Winners included Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter. Carter’s 2000 victory was probably the greatest performance in Slam Dunk Contest history, and the competition has been declining ever since. 

The contest has still had some memorable victors since 2000. Nate Robinson defeating Dwight Howard for the 2009 title was exciting considering the size discrepancy between the 5’9” Robinson and 6’11” Howard. But it was also around that time that the dunk contest became more about props and costumes than about actually dunking. 

Viewers became critical of the fact that players were more focused on the elaborate show that the athletes would put on before they attempted a dunk, only to see a mediocre dunk follow. This culminated in 2011 when Blake Griffin won the contest. It was Griffin’s rookie year and he entered the contest with a huge hype surrounding him after showcasing a collection of monster dunks throughout the first half of the season. Everyone had massive expectations for what Griffin could do in the dunk contest. He still managed to win the contest, but it was an underwhelming effort in the eyes of many. His final dunk epitomized this era of the dunk contest. He brought out an entire gospel choir to sing and rolled out a brand new sedan in front of the hoop. He then caught a pass from a teammate in the car as he leapt over the hood and dunked the ball. While this would be an amazing athletic achievement for most people, for an athlete of Griffin’s caliber, jumping over the hood of a small sedan wasn’t terribly impressive. 

In the last few years, the NBA has experimented with different formats and voting processes to try to make the contest more exciting and to bring it back to its glory days. They even experimented with a bizarre team format last year that was met with very poor feedback. Ultimately, what the NBA needs to do is find a way to attract star players to compete in the dunk contest again.

This year’s Slam Dunk Contest lineup of Zach Lavine, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo and Mason Plumlee will only draw the eye of the most die-hard NBA fans. While it is true that the dunk contest has always consisted primarily of younger players, they were generally larger names who were much more of a draw to the casual fan. While this year’s contestants are a talented foursome, viewers can conceive of a much more exciting group. Imagine a lineup consisting of athletic, young star players such as Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, John Wall or first overall pick Andrew Wiggins. Wall won last year’s competition and is in the midst of a breakout season, yet he isn’t coming back to try to defend his title. 

The best indicator of how far the dunk contest has fallen is that this year many fans are saying they are more excited for the Three Point Shooting Contest than the Slam Dunk Contest. I would include myself in that crowd, and it’s because the Three Point Shooting Contest is filled with star players this year. It has MVP frontrunners James Harden and Stephen Curry, Curry’s teammate Klay Thompson and Cleveland star Kyrie Irving. It also includes deadly shooters from great teams in Kyle Korver, JJ Redick, Wesley Matthews and Marco Belinelli. Any one of those eight players could win the contest, and that level of parity and star power is what will make the competition great this year. It should also be something the league takes note of when they consider selecting the Slam Dunk Contest lineup for next year.