One Round to Rule Them All

Photo by Nrbelex on Flickr

When the lineup for this year’s Slam Dunk Contest was announced, there was nothing but crickets coming from casual basketball fans. No Blake Griffin? No LeBron James? More dedicated followers of the NBA were maybe less surprised. Defending your dunk title has become a bit passé. And rumors about James’ participation fly every year, but he has little to gain by entering and winning and much more by losing. Getting into the dunk contest and falling to anyone might be a bigger misstep than The Decision.

But even the most enthusiastic basketball fans groaned at the field. Derrick Williams? He’s caught some nice alley-oops from Ricky Rubio, but he strikes me as a game dunker, not a showcase dunker. Paul George had that one great breakaway reverse where he pulled it down between his legs, but that’s about it. Chase Budinger’s dunks would best be described as workmanlike. And lastly, Iman Shumpert (who misses nearly as many dunks as he makes) bowed out to be replaced by the wildly better Jeremy Evans. But Evans is 6’9” and bigger guys get less credit for jumping high. It just doesn’t look as cool. His best dunk so far was called an offensive foul.

So why is there any reason for positivity? For one, the new single round format might actually work. Call me crazy, but the multi-round format of previous years has ruined what could have been some great dunk contests. Take Andre Iguodala’s performance in the 2006 Slam Dunk Contest. His alley-oop from Allen Iverson caught off the back of the backboard was probably the best dunk from that year’s event, but it came in the penultimate round and Iguodala ultimately lost to the diminutive Nate Robinson in a dunk off. Robinson’s dunk over Spud Webb signaled the turn of the contest towards a weirdly meta, prop-based approach to the dunk contest. Plus it took him 14 attempts to put it in. Iguodala was, in short, robbed.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6z9-l4hnMM

Two years later, Dwight Howard took the crown with the most prop-driven performance up until that point, but Gerald Green’s opening round dunk got lost in the shuffle. It’s a shame, because it was slick and creative.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1pXEumOGOU

But in subsequent rounds, Green showed he couldn’t come up with anything to top himself, much less any of the other contestants. The best dunk contest participants, from Michael Jordan to Vince Carter, have shown a sense of showmanship that extends beyond the individual dunks to the arc created over the whole contest. It’s kind of cognitively dissonant with the spirit of dunking in the game, which relies more on chance, timing, and opportunity than advance planning.

So there’s a chance that this single round format will level the field a bit more, resulting in good early dunks carrying more weight. But on the other hand, the NBA ditching the judges and awarding the trophy based solely on fan vote is thoroughly wrongheaded. The judge system has had its own problems (as when Howard’s truly impressive sticker dunk was misunderstood by them in the moment), but it’s impossible to see how a fan vote doesn’t lead to something that values flash or name recognition over an honest appraisal of dunks. On the bright side, no one knows who these contestants are. Seriously, this field’s about as open as the field of Republican presidential candidates last November.

But mixed feelings over the Slam Dunk Contest are nothing new. The truly revelatory performances are almost always surprises, which is perhaps in the dunk’s very nature. Like humor, a good dunk thrives on being unexpected, whether that means breaking out of the flow and rhythm of a regular game or coming up with something that’s never been seen before in the contest. The real key to a great dunk contest performance, though, is not only doing something startlingly new, but rather finding a balance between athleticism, showmanship, and, strangely, comprehensibility. Green’s cupcake dunk, Howard’s sticker dunk, and Javale McGee’s cradle under-the-backboard dunk all suffered for not being as immediately graspable as Dr. J’s free throw line dunk or Vince Carter’s through-the-legs alley-oop. Given the tremendous athleticism of players in the NBA now and the switch to fan-voting, it’s likely that the winning dunk won’t be the most impressive, but rather, the one that communicates the best.

Seth Carstens