At its peak, the Slam Dunk Contest was more than just the main event during NBA All-Star Weekend. It was an art exhibit in motion. Year after year, the league’s best dunkers would intertwine abstract expressionism with concrete force. It was a marvel to see aerial artists such as Dominique Wilkins, Vince Carter, Michael Jordan, and most recently Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon, kick down the doors of gravity and make the rim their canvas. Fans made it a priority to see the Slam Dunk Contest if they didn’t see anything else for the entire weekend. That’s how much of a marvel the competition was.
Now, with the league’s penchant for airing it out from deep and the emphasis on skill during All-Star Weekend, the Slam Dunk Contest doesn’t hit the same as it did in years past. That doesn’t mean that it can’t make a strong comeback.
The Slam Dunk Contest needs reviving. There is no reason for this competition to continue to lack excitement like it has recently. Here are a few ways that this staple of NBA All-Star Weekend could reclaim its throne.
Ditch using people as props
The use of props in the contest has always been paradoxical to me. On one hand, I understand the need to use them in the competition for the sake of creativity and imagination. On the other, sometimes the contestants tend to do the most and go overboard. When then-LA Clippers forward Blake Griffin won the 2011 contest when he jumped over a Kia Optima, I thought that future participants were going to go overboard with objects. If it was a car for Griffin, it could be a truck or something outlandish for someone else.
Instead, contestants began to use people as props. For whatever reason, contestants use dunking over people as their go-to. When he was a guard with the Utah Jazz, Donovan Mitchell dunked over three people one year. Golden State Warriors forward Juan Toscano-Anderson dunked over a couple of people at last year’s All-Star Game and called it a day. The more this dunk is used, the less effective and creative it becomes. If we’re keeping it real, some of the best dunks didn’t feature any props, it was just the athleticism and the star, which brings me to the following.
More star power
Leading up to All-Star Weekend, the NBA’s website and app featured an interview that Turner Sports broadcaster Taylor Rooks did with Memphis Grizzlies superstar guard Ja Morant. I couldn’t ignore the teaser they used to introduce the story. The teaser wondered facetiously “Can Morant Fly?” The answer is obvious. Of course he can. We all know good and well that he can. The real question is whether he can fly during All-Star Weekend in the Slam Dunk Contest.
As much as the fans would like to see it, the answer is no for right now. Morant not participating is beginning to echo the same laments that some fans have about NBA great LeBron James not participating. One can argue that while players such as LaVine and Gordon are not superstars, they still put on a show. That may be true, but the reality is fans want to see the superstars and household names.
But the problem is that the superstars are now found in the 3-Point Contest. This year, you can catch Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard and Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum along with marksmen such as Indiana Pacers forward Buddy Hield and Sacramento Kings forward Kevin Huerter in the 3-Point Contest while the Slam Dunk Contest features Houston Rockets forward Kenyon Martin Jr., New Orleans Pelicans forward Trey Murphy, New York Knicks center Jericho Sims and Philadelphia 76ers guard Mac McClung. The fans are not rolling into Salt Lake City to see a dunk competition with a field of unknowns. They want to see the stars and will follow them wherever they are.
Besides the stars gravitating to the 3-Point Contest, the issue is that winning the dunk contest is seen as cool but not beneficial to the stars. Winning the dunk contest would only reward them with a trophy, maybe a cash prize and commercials from endorsements that they already have. Again, cool but not enough.
One way to inspire stars to consider competing in the dunk contest is using incentives in a different way. An example could be that the winner gets a “whatever you need day” from the team. If the winner wants to take a day off from practice or a game off to heal or even recharge, he could do that without penalty. Granted, players are already load managing, but there are players who really need it and it could be beneficial for them and their teams as they prep for a playoff push in the remaining games of the season.
First round as an in-game round
Currently, there are two rounds in the competition and the format is simple: Use whatever dunk you can or think you can. Sometimes we see impressive dunks in the middle of a game and think that they would translate in the contest, and that may not be the case. Something worth considering is having the first round being only in-game dunks and judge them on force and bounce.
A player could be a great in-game dunker but it might not translate in a competition that’s judged on creativity. Having the first round as an in-game round with the two highest scores moving on to the finals where they can get into their bag and use their imagination would give the judges and fans a more complete assessment of a player as a dunker.
Celebrities entering the competition
In the 1990s, Foot Locker had dunk contests that featured Deion Sanders, Barry Bonds, Cris Carter, Mike Conley Sr., Roy Jones Jr., Kenny Lofton, Ken Griffey Jr., and Mike Powell, and they were able to put on a show. If the superstars don’t want to compete in the contest, why not let NFL players, MLB players and entertainers compete with the NBA participating and all in the field have a fair shot at winning?
Imagine having a dunk contest with NFL players such as Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson and Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf, or even entertainers such as rappers Drake or Quavo, outdunking NBA players and walking away with the trophy.
Elements of surprise and curiosity along with the possibilities of upsets is one way to get the viewers back. Consequently, this could also get the superstars back into the desire to compete and not to be outshined by people who aren’t in the NBA. Dunking as a form of art will never go away, but its main exhibit needs tweaks of renovation.