FIFY: The NBA’s Dunk Contest Problem

We’re about a month away from the NBA’s annual All-Star Weekend. What used to be a ton of fun has generally turned into a blasé affair of no defense, drawn out skills competitions, and KIA commercials masquerading as dunks. The Dunk Contest used to be the NBA’s All-Star Weekend meal ticket, featuring big time players throwing down big time dunks. Spud Webb, Dominique Wilkins, Jordan, Dwight Howard, and Blake Griffin were and are some of the most exemplary dunkers of all time. With the premier athletes in the game opting out (LEBRON. BLAKE GRIFFIN. WE SEE YOU.), we’re left with uninspiring dunks that rely too much on props and gimmicks to seem relevant.

What’s that? I couldn’t hear you over Chase Budinger trying to be Woody Harrelson.

In the last three years, things have gotten particularly dire. Does this look like a list of players you want to watch participate in athletic feats?

  • Terrence Ross
  • James White
  • Gerald Green
  • Eric Bledsoe
  • Jeremy Evans
  • Harrison Barnes
  • Ben McLemore
  • Derrick Williams
  • Chase Budinger

Some of those guys struggle to get even bottom of the rotation minutes. Some of them don’t even play in the league anymore. You have to go back 2011 to find a truly interesting field, when DeMar DeRozan and JaVale McGee got robbed by Blake Griffin’s stupid KIA dunk. And even then, we’re talking about DeMar DeRozan and crazy JaVale McGee. Look, man. When your marquee event is watered down to bench players and rookies, you gotta shake it up. So how do we fix this thing?

1. Add a Defender

Yeah. You know what beats watching grown-ass men dunk balls? Watching the poor souls trying to defend them get posterized. To prove my point, you can view Timofey Mozgov’s entire career highlight reel, which is really other dudes dunking on him while Mozgov bathes in his own tears.

“But K,” you ask, “where are you going to find willing and able participants to get dunked on?” It’s a valid point. NBA players are a notoriously sensitive bunch. There are only so many Timofey Mozgov’s in the world, and even he may opt out, as his highlight tape is maxed out. Well, friends, to bring this dream alive, I plan on looking outside the NBA. Where could you possibly find a group of supremely talented, athletic, and eager basketballers who are J.R. Smith-level irrationally confident and ready to step toe-to-toe with the best?

2. Those defenders are NCAA players

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 11.20.11 PM

YES. Sometimes even the most brilliant of us need a muse, and Brad is mine. You can accomplish this task however you want. My personal favorite way to do this is to find eight willing participants who are in the Lefty Driesell Award running (given to the best defender of the year), and let them go defend their honour. Alternatively, you could just ask the biggest names or whatever 7-footers you can dig up in the college ranks. This won’t, or shouldn’t, effect their eligibility. They’re not getting paid. They’re still amateurs. What they are doing is getting an opportunity to block the dunks of the biggest stars in the game, make themselves household names, and actually go head to head with NBA superstars. Except there are no superstars left in the dunk contest. If only there were a way to…

3. The NCAA guys draft which All-Star or former champ they want to defend

Oh my God. K, you did it. You fixed the dunk contest. Every year, we wish LeBron would go back and throw down some monster jams, and every year, he’s out. Blake Griffin won his trophy, and then never returned to defend his title.

But what if 2014 then-Kansas Jayhawk freshman Joel Embiid takes to Twitter, and instead of trying to court LeBron James, drafts him as his foil in the Dunk Contest? Is any NBA player that’s not hyper-rational (Ray Allen) or obnoxiously demure (all of the Europeans) going to sit down and take a pass like a punk if they’re called out by some 18 year-old, 6′ 11″ frosh? They’d never hear the end of it. Kobe would be doing an entire series of short videos on World Star calling LBJ all of the greatest adjectives in the world if he chickened out of a one on one match up with some poor college kid. Remember how much trash LBJ took when he got dunked on by then-Xavier product Jordan Crawford?

It would be like that, except never ending.

This would work. There’s just no way an NBA player is going to go calmly into the night when some college kid calls him out. And everything becomes instantly more fun. Let’s look back at some great hypothetical match ups.

2014: Embiid calls out LBJ on Twitter. James dunks on Joel Hans so hard, Embiid spirals out of control, eventually ballooning to 300 pounds and not caring.

2013: Nerlens Noel, knowing he’s a likely top pick, goes after former champion Nate Robinson, thinking that with his height advantage and with Nate being a three time winner, there’s only upside. Noel slips to 6th in the draft amid character concerns and questions about whether he’ll ever “challenge himself.” On January 15, 2015, Robinson is traded by Denver for Jameer Nelson. Adrian Wojnarowski notes, “Robinson goes to the Celtics in the trade, where he’ll now see more of Nerlens Noel, who, in the 2013 Slam Dunk Contest, famously pac’d Robinson’s dunk all the way into the damn sun.” Hours later, Robinson negotiates a buyout with Boston so he can “get the hell out of the Atlantic division.”

2010: Georgia Tech freshman and projected lottery pick Derrick Favors calls out Josh Smith, leading to an Atlanta-wide hype campaign marketed with the hashtag #RISEUP, preempting the Falcons adoption of the phrase in October and robbing the city of four years of Samuel L. Jackson promos. J-Smoove is initially hesitant to sign on, hoping to be selected as a 3-point contest participant, but eventually agrees under massive public pressure. This is the one time the new format doesn’t work out, as Smith continually dribbles in for the dunk, but pulls up for 23 footers upon spotting Favors in the lane. Favors is still crowned the champion of Atlanta, as not a single Smoove jumper makes its way into the net despite Favors sitting in the paint some 14 feet away.

2008: Reigning big man in the NBA Dwight Howard is called out by UConn Junior Hasheem Thabeet. Many are confused in the early rounds as Thabeet merely stands in place with his arms up while Dwight throws down 360 tomahawk dunks on either side of him. In the final round, Dwight tries this cheezball trash, and crashes headlong into the torso of the 7′ 3″ Thabeet. Undeterred by Thabeet’s lack of mobility and impressed by his final, emphatic block of Superman, he’s drafted 2nd overall by Memphis. Talk of Dwight Howard being “soft” and having no post skills starts two years earlier than it did IRL. The Atlanta Hawks will later acquire Thabeet for Jeff Teague and a future unprotected first rounder in hopes of using him in the Jason Collins Hack-a-Howard memorial role.

1993: Coming off of a very good career as a go-to scorer for the Kentucky Wildcats, Jamaal Mashburn, against all logic and reason, puts his name in the ring for the NBA Slam Dunk contest. A gunner by trade, Mashburn’s 6′ 8″ frame doesn’t scream “shot blocker,” but his motives soon become apparent. One year pro and All-Rookie Forward Christian Laettner, who had an incredible four year career at one of the most despicable universities of all time, is called out by Mashburn as retribution for The Shot.

A terrifying 6′ 11″ presence on the court, Laettner accepts. Despite being known more for his finesse game and shooting prowess, Laettner is still a very tall white man who can, in fact, jump. He destroys Mashburn with repeated jams, stopping at one point to lean over Mashburn’s crumpled body under the basket, whispering to him that he doesn’t even need 2.1 seconds to dunk on him.

Note: In future years, Kentucky draftee’s Antoine Walker, Nazr Mohammed, Tayshaun Prince, John Wall, Boogie Cousins, and a handful of others would call out Laettner in hopes of avenging The Shot. None have succeeded. The latest challenger, Julius Randle, was so thoroughly destroyed by a retired, 45 year-old Laettner that he would need surgery to repair his right leg, which was broken when Laettner threw down a dunk with such force that Randle’s tibia literally could not even.

1982: The Dunk Contest wasn’t reintroduced until 1984, but I would be remiss to not envision future Human Highlight Reel and then-uGA Junior Dominique Wilkins calling out the 76ers Dr. J. ‘Nique would go on to drop so many humongous dunks with such outrageous originality that he would earn that nickname several times over. But before he was ‘Nique, before he went head-to-head with MJ, with Magic, and with Bird, Wilkins was a college star who supplemented his 20+ a game with decent defense, averaging over a steal a game and almost 8 boards and 2 blocks. Does he go after Julius Erving in ’82? A 55 year-old Wilkins probably thinks he could go out and drop the easiest 20 points of his life if he were to lace ’em up today, so let’s say yes.

Erving eviscerates Wilkins, embarrassing him time and time again with slam after slam. This leads Dominique to dedicate himself a million times over to developing his game. Wanting no part of Utah, he still forces his way out of Salt Lake and into Atlanta, where he goes scorched earth on the league. After winning in ’85, he doesn’t lose to Spud Webb in the ’86 Dunk Contest, capping his victory by dunking the ball with his feet. He also wins back-to-back scoring titles after he upstages Michael Jordan and his 37 a game in ’86-’87 by averaging over 40 a night. Most importantly, he takes all of this now-innate fear of failure and destroys the league, leading those ’80s-’90s Hawks to no fewer than three championships, Lakers and Celtics and Pistons and Bulls be damned.

You see, not only does rethinking the dunk contest get the stars to play. Not only do we get to see grown men embarrassed by other bigger, stronger, more skilled grown men. We could be altering history. We could be seeing the most compelling athlete in the game (LeBron) wrecking kids and having fun. Christian Laettner could have been the dunk contest champion we needed, if not the one we deserved. The Hawks could’ve captured that elusive basketball title. They could’ve been a dynasty. All it would’ve taken was for ‘Nique to face The Doctor in the Slam Dunk Contest in 1982. All it would’ve taken was my master plan.



I loathe Nick Markakis

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  1. […] is no episode this week (Pre-empted by K’s article about the Dunk Contest and the State of the Union speech), so you have time to catch up. I strongly encourage you to do […]

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