The dunk contest was my favorite night of the NBA season as a kid, to the point where I would count the days down from months away until I would get to watch the most athletic players in the league see who could jam a basketball into the hoop in the coolest way. Many years after I reenacted every single dunk contest dunk on my NERF hoop, something about the event continues to enthrall me, so I’m handing out awards for the bests and worsts in dunk contest history.
Best Dunk Contest
I ranked every dunk contest throughout history in four different categories. While 2016’s duel between Zach Lavine and Aaron Gordon unequivocally had the best dunks of any contest, the overall greatest contest ever is a tie between 2000 and 1988. In the former, Vince Carter attempted five dunks, made all of them on the first try, never competed again, and remains the undisputed greatest contest dunker of all time.
On the other hand, 1988 featured a rivalry between former champions Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins, the top two scorers in the league that season. The modern equivalent would be Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook facing off, both as previous winners. Wouldn’t that be insane? (Instead, we’re getting Miles Bridges versus Hamidou Diallo tonight. Nice.) Well, it was insane at the time. They went back and forth in an epic final round exchanging mostly 50s on slams that were simple in concept but executed with nuance, until Wilkins inexplicably scored a 45 for a two-handed windmill that nearly tore the rim off. Jordan did his by-then-patented free throw line dunk that he had literally just completed in the semifinal round minutes earlier. He got a 50 for doing the exact same dunk twice, which was wack. Everyone knows Nique got robbed, but he won two years later (ironically, by repeating the same dunk two rounds in a row), and at least he got to be part of the greatest dunk contest of all time.
Worst Dunk Contest
I mean, has any human being had less energy doing anything ever than Tim Perry did during the 1995 Slam Dunk Contest? It’s hard to not go with 1997, which was so bad that the NBA discontinued the event and replaced it with a second shooting contest, but at least it had Kobe, a teenager with swagger who turned in a decent performance. Meanwhile, 1995 is probably the only contest from which most basketball fans wouldn’t be able to recall a single dunk.
Most Disappointing Dunk Contest
I was particularly excited leading up to the 2010 contest, since Shannon Brown, an in-game dunking sensation, and DeMar DeRozan, who had supposedly had never lost a dunk contest in his life, were competing against two-time champion, Nate Robinson. Plus, I was a 13 year old boy who loved dunks, and had not yet learn to curb my expectations.
About halfway through the contest, the commentators offered up these quotes:
Kenny Smith: “I’m gonna keep it real, somebody better do something.”
Reggie Miller: “It can’t be any worse. It can’t be any worse.”
Charles Barkley [after TNT showed a weird angle of a boring dunk]: “To make that dunk look exciting, we had to spin the camera around.”
Here’s contestant Gerald Wallace:
Brown showed up to a dunk contest with layup line material, Wallace threw down two basic dunks with as little authority as humanly possible, and Robinson won without a single memorable slam. The dunks were so bad that everyone felt compelled to get excited about this fairly routine DeRozan windmill by default. The announcers were mostly laughing at the contestants. The crowd was dead. Nobody wanted to be there.
But it did teach Young Lev that excess anticipation can come back to haunt you, and that sometimes you need imperfection in the world so that you appreciate the good stuff.
Harrison Barnes started off his 2014 showing with a reverse layup (of which it seems the NBA has removed every YouTube video except for this footage that looks like it was filmed with a toaster), and continued the rest of his night with four uninspiring windmills from various angles. In 2000, the TV broadcast was so fed up with Larry Hughes missing six straight attempts that the camera didn’t even catch his only made dunk of the night. Chris Andersen’s 2005 performance was so embarrassing that someone made a YouTube video of it with that goofy saxophone tune and Andersen covered himself with tattoos to hide for the rest of his career. We also cannot forget Antonio Davis going into a drunken stupor and bouncing the ball into the crowd for no apparent reason before bailing on his minute-and-a-half dunk routine with nearly 40 seconds remaining. Tony Dumas didn’t even make a single dunk in 1995. We already covered Tim Perry from that same year. Same with Brown and Wallace from 2010. But the funniest thing to ever happen in a dunk contest was, and will forever be, Darrell Armstrong making a layup in 1996 — not because he came up a little short on a dunk and didn’t make it cleanly, and not because the ball slipped out of his hands — simply because the dude wanted to take a layup.
Most Underrated Dunk
Every judge who gave Gerald Green’s cupcake dunk a 9 should be banned from ever judging again. We also got a Kenny Smith classic: “He… He blew it out! He blew it out! He blew it out, Chuck!”
Best Kenny Smith Moment
One of the best parts of any 21st Century dunk contest, and sometimes the only good part, is Kenny Smith unabashedly shouting during or after dunks. The 2000 Dunk Contest is widely credited for reviving the event after the dark ages of the 1990s. Most of that has to do with Vince Carter, but a lot of it has to do with Kenny stamping all the great modern era dunks with signature lines that are now inseparable from the dunks themselves:
Vince Carter’s 360 windmill in 2000 → “Let’s go home, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s go home!”
Desmond Mason’s between-the-legs in 2003 → “That is freaky. That is freaky right there!”
Andre Iguodala’s back of the backboard alley-oop in 2006 → “There it is, young gun! There it is, young gun!”
Nate Robinson’s dunk over Spud Webb in 2006 → “I don’t care. What you say. The young fella. Came in here. And put on a show!”
Dwight Howard’s side of the backboard dunk in 2009 → “It is getting ugly in here! It is getting ugly!”
Blake Griffin’s 360 in 2011 → “Shut it down! Shut it down! Shut the building down!”
Kenny almost always comments on the youth of the player, the grotesque nature of the dunk, or the over-ness of the contest. He’s sometimes wildly incoherent (e.g. “He’s got you on his feet again! He’s got you on his feet again!” after Zach Lavine’s 2015 behind-the-back), and almost always repeats the same line multiple times even though we all heard him the first time — but it just works. And it’s never worked better than his famous “It’s over! It’s over, ladies and gentlemen! Oh my goodness gracious, it is over!” after Vince Carter’s first round dunk from 2000. Please let Kenny Smith announce dunk contests until he’s 90 years old.
Best Post-Dunk Reaction By a Dunker
You just saw it. Vince Carter’s double point. Next!
Best Post-Dunk Reaction By a Spectator
My single favorite thing about the NBA Slam Dunk Contest is the reactions of other players on the sideline. It’s hard to even fathom how ridiculously athletic the average NBA player is, so seeing those guys’ amazement really puts in perspective how difficult the dunks actually are. James Harden not really knowing what to do with his body for a few seconds and Jerome Williams levitating out of his seat like a horror movie demon are two top notch examples.
Kevin Garnett is an elite dunk contest reactor — here’s him sinking into the ground after a 2000 T-Mac dunk. Dikembe Mutombo, though, might be the GOAT of dunk contest reactions. He’s a sidekick in this tremendous reaction in which Gary Payton spontaneously begins conducting a symphony after a 1995 Harold Miner slam; he looks like he witnessed a crime after a 2001 Desmond Mason dunk, and he displayed great variety in the 2016 contest with these two expressions.
2016 was a fantastic year for reactions all around. Steph Curry felt compelled to take his anger out on the ball after Lavine’s near free throw line between-the-legs. The Timberwolves offered up my favorite ever reaction by a group of players. I think Carter’s elbow in the rim dunk from 2000 elicits the best collective reaction by a crowd, but the most perfect dunk contest reaction came after a different dunk from that same contest. We’ll get there in just a minute.
Worst Outfit Worn At a Dunk Contest
Even Jermaine O’Neal looking like a baked potato couldn’t come close to this mind-bogglingly hideous getup from Carmelo Anthony. Also, I couldn’t find any pre-2000 examples because NBA players wore suits to the dunk contest back then, which is wild.
Most Impressive Missed Attempt
If a miss builds anticipation rather than deflates the arena, then you know you’re watching a great dunker. Blake Griffin’s missed 360 was so spectacular that he got a probably undeserved 49 when he finally completed a watered-down version of the dunk, setting up a final in which Javale McGee, who dunked two balls in two different baskets and then three balls in the same basket, would lose to a f***ing KIA product placement.
Dunk That For Some Reason Everyone Thinks Is Overrated Even Though It’s Definitely Underrated
Dwight Howard jumped into the air, made his body go into this position…
… and then put the basketball in the hoop. I don’t give two f***s whether or not he touched the rim. This is a 50.
Most Fraudulent Dunk
In 1992, Cedric Ceballos did the Bird Box challenge decades before it was a thing, dunking with a blindfold on to earn a perfect 50 and win the contest. Only one problem: He could see through the blindfold. For sure. Nothing anyone ever tells me will convince me otherwise, and no person who has ever tried going from their bedroom to the bathroom in the middle night without turning on the lights should be fooled either.
First, he’s headed completely off course on his run up until around the free throw line, where he somehow, uncannily, during his final two steps, veers the perfect amount to the right to jump straight at the basket. Second, Baron Davis tried a blindfolded dunk in 2001 and clearly could not see (despite also clearly cutting holes into his headband in an attempt to see). He started from much closer to the hoop than Ceballos and still missed his dunk by a good two feet, making a mockery of himself and the competition but also showing us what happens when somebody actually tries to dunk blind.
Worst 50 Dunk
To start off the worst winning performance in dunk contest history, Fred Jones did a… dunk. Whenever I come across an adjustable height basketball hoop, I’ll try is this exact maneuver. You know why? Because it is literally the easiest dunk there is. It’s even easier than dunking without the bounce because the ball is already at the rim for you when you get up there.
Most Inconsistent Judge
When the judges hold up their scores, they probably don’t think some dick is going to scour the internet years later to expose their inconsistent scoring. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it. Julius Erving gave this dunk a maximum score of 10 in 2001 and this dunk a minimum score of 6 in 2015. The f***? In regards to the latter, it’s an unwritten rule of the dunk contest that you award a sympathy 7 if a guy makes a boring dunk after previously missing a more ambitious attempt.
Best Dunk Contest Dunk
Aaron Gordon’s under-the-legs, over the mascot dunk from 2016 is currently my number two. Almost 30 years later, nobody has dunked from the free-throw line with as much grace and style as Michael Jordan in 1987, but many have come close. I used to think that Jason Richardson’s 2003 and 2004 between-the-legs dunks were the two best of all time, but, although those particular dunks still haven’t been replicated, I’m partial to another one that has had many, many imitators who haven’t come close to the original:
Let’s unpack everything that makes this dunk perfect:
0:00 – 0:10 – They way Vince bites his lip
0:15 – The way Vince walks up to the basket to build excitement
0:22 – That little flip of the ball
0:23 – How beautiful that early 2000s Toronto Raptors jersey looks on Carter
0:28 – How perfectly Marv Albert’s line is synced with the dunk; he says “stuff” exactly as Carter dunks the ball
0:29 – The sound the dunk makes
0:29 – The cleanliness of the dunk (maybe the cleanest dunk ever)
0:29 – The way the net flies up through the rim
0:30 – The way that Carter immediately spins back in the other direction on his rebound jump, bouncing almost high enough to dunk it again
0:31 – Shaq’s face… the greatest dunk contest reaction by a spectator of all time, mostly due to the size of his camcorder. He looks like he’s holding a f***ing spaceship!
0:33 – Kenny Smith’s epic “Let’s go home!”
0:43 – The way Ray Allen starts doing pilates
1:00 – How perfectly straight Vince Carter’s left arm is
1:00 – How, on the overhead angle, it looks like Vince pauses in the air for a second before finishing the dunk
1:13 – How fluidly Carter’s body spins
1:22 – This idiotic graphic saying that he jumped 36 inches. They could have literally put up any number and I would have believed it. Because Vince Carter was flying.
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