Solving the NBA’s Dunk Contest Problem

Anfernee Simons won the 2021 NBA Dunk Contest Sunday Night. Does anyone care?

The 2010’s produced several All-Time historic Dunk Contest moments. Zach Lavine became a true dunking legend. Aaron Gordon was the perfect underdog. John Collins jumped over a goddamn airplane! But somehow, the NBA is still searching for consistency in the year-to-year success of this event. Why is this? Why can’t Adam Silver, the do-no-wrong Commissioner of pro sports, figure this out?

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The Problems Within

The Dunk Contest is still an objectively entertaining event to watch, I don’t think there are any glaring problems with its formatting. The judges are fun, passionate, and unpredictable. The dunks themselves are still awesome, these athletes are doing things that 99.99% of human beings are incapable of. The problems lie outside of the contest itself.

Watch this video if you want to see a 6’1” white guy outdo every dunk you saw in Sunday night’s contest. Credit: Jordan Kilganon

As you can see in this attached video, Jordan Kilganon has made dunking into an art. As the NBA built its popularity throughout the 80’s and 90’s, the dunk contest was a significant pipeline for new fans. Guys like Kilganon probably grew up idolizing high-flyers like Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady or Jason Richardson; players that dominated the dunk contest while making a relevant impact during the season as well.

This isn’t a revolutionary idea, the NBA has always seen the dunk contest and the other All-Star competitions as a way to entertain the next generation of fans. And kids have always grown up idolizing these dunkers, trying to replicate the seemingly magical nature of these high-flying, basketball-wielding acrobats. The only thing that’s changed is that the kids that actually were able to replicate these dunkers now have a platform to show off.

Youtube and all of the other world-altering social medias have given a home to hoopers that have perfected the dunk, but not much else. Before the widespread use of the internet, people were only able to see NBA-caliber dunks in NBA games. Now, you can access a “50 Epic Dunk Compilation” within seconds. The idea that these NBA players are the world’s greatest dunkers may need to come to an end, because there are literally people like Kilganon and The Flight Brothers that have made a career out of perfecting the dunk. The awe and magic of the NBA Dunk Contest isn’t gone, but it’s been severely diluted.

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The Solution

The solution for the dunk contest has been in front of our faces for years. We’ve talked about it to its uttermost extent. If you look at the success of the three-point contest, if you look at the ratings of certain playoff series, one thing becomes abundantly clear. The NBA revolves around its stars.

This is nothing new. The NBA has always been a star-driven league, simply due to the lack of facial coverings during games and the unique, direct impact that superstars have on winning in this league.

A couple times over the past few years, the Three-Point contest has overshadowed the Dunk Contest. It’s not because of the contents of the contest itself; we can watch Steph Curry hit 105 three-pointers in a row any time we want. It’s just the same shooting motion 35 times in a row, there’s nothing intrinsically entertaining about that. What’s entertaining is the direct competition between the all of the stars that we’ve become so attached to.

The NBA has the capital to get four stars into the Dunk Contest every year. There’s been proven to be very little injury risk, and it’s a fantastic extra branding opportunity for budding or fading NBA stars. If these players are worried about injury, tell them to tone down the dunks. As long as we’re seeing these athletes do things that we can’t, we’ll be entertained.

Make it happen, Adam Silver. Throw more money and incentives at these players. We don’t need to see the best dunks from mediocre players, we need to see mediocre dunks from the best players. Ten times out of ten, I’d rather see Zion Williamson pull off a basic, rim rocking windmill than Cassius Stanley attempt his first nationally televised dunk of the season. And I barely knew who Cassius Stanley was before this contest, probably along with 5% of all the other viewers. Make the event more accessible and understandable for people. I hope I never have to look up another basketball reference page while watching the Dunk Contest.