It’s almost here. The Slam Dunk Contest. Recently derided for a stale format, excessive use of props, and a lack of participation by some of the league’s biggest stars, the 2014 All-Star Weekend in New Orleans will feature a newly revamped competition that should make the event less focused on watching players try to complete the same dunk over, and over, and over again and more on the facts that dunks are awesome. Now, not only have the contestants been divided into Conferences, but the first round is now a simultaneous entry “freestyle” round. After that, it becomes an inter-conference one-on-one matchup. Think of it like a lay-up line, but with dunks and a slam-off.
Dunks are fun. A case could be made that dunks are in that rarefied air of fun that causes any and every spectator — regardless of fandom — to stop what they’re doing, put down whatever is in their hands, and blink hard several times, trying to reason out that they just saw what they think they just saw. Legends have been made on the mere mythology of a dunk; think of Dr. J’s rock-the-baby or his infamous “take-off-at-the-foul-line” slam. It is one of the only moves that is so completely and uniquely basketball, a visual definition of individual grace and power disguised as a universal scoring action.
That is the key to the enduring power of the Dunk Competition. It doesn’t matter how many lame Kia leaps the fans have to put up with, the prospect for “amazing” is always there. With the deepest field of entrants in a long, long time, let’s take a look at some classic dunks, both in-game and from Dunk Contests of yore, as well as the best dunks from each player slated to appear this weekend.
Vince Carter, 2000 Slam Dunk Contest
Vince Carter stands to some fans of the NBA as an athletic outlier who never achieved his true potential, which really means being on a team that won a championship. Vince Carter didn’t do that. He may also be the only player with over 22,000 points, 5,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists to not make it into the Hall of Fame.
That is patently ridiculous, because Vince Carter should be in the Hall of Fame — if only for his dunks. His entry into the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest is a perfect example why. (Shout out to his 2000 Summer Olympic dunk when he leapt over the 7’2-inch French center.) According to Carter, he made up his famous between-the-legs jam on the bench right before he did it, but both of his dominant dunks feel that way.
Dunking can be like the eyes — a window into the soul. To look at his first dunk, the three-sixty Tomahawk, is to see everything that made Vince Carter awesome. The way he casually rolls up to the hoop, the way he seems to decide what, exactly, to do right when he jumps off the ground and not a second before. Then, the between-the-legs. In the words of Shaquille O’Neal, “Vince Carter did a video game dunk,” and set the standard for dunking in contests and in-game.
Paul George, Pacers/Clippers, 2013
Last year, in the 2013 NBA Playoffs, Indiana Pacer Paul George became a household name. The Small Forward/Shooting Guard went toe-to-toe with noted Dunk Contest abstainer and best player in the world LeBron James as the Pacers pushed the defending champion Miami Heat all the way to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. At the age of 23, Paul George had announced to the world that Kevin Durant didn’t have a monopoly on superstardom in the NBA’s youth movement.
This season, with the Pacers in control of the league’s best record and as close to an assured return to the ECF as there can ever be in professional sports, George took up the unofficial mantle of team captain of the East’s dunk contest contestants. ‘Unofficial’ because there isn’t actually a captain, but between George, Washington Wizards point guard John Wall, and Toronto Raptor wing Terrence Ross, George might be the best player of the three.
He might be the best dunker as well. Take a look at this dunk, an in-game three-sixty windmill to finish a fast break. Compare that to Vince’s dunk from the page before — George’s style is more powerful, more forceful. They’re almost the same slam, but they’ll never be mistaken for each other.
Terrence Ross, Raptors/Nuggets, 2014
Terrence Ross, the versatile swingman for the Raptors and 2013 Dunk Contest champion, has bona fides that belie his youthful status in the NBA. Drafted in 2012, Ross has been at the center of the Raptor’s makeover following their trade of Small Forward Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, and tied fellow Dunk Champion Vince Carter’s record for most single-game points scored by a Raptors player in a game against the Los Angeles Clippers earlier this January with 51 points. Ross made additional history in that game by being the only player to ever score 50-plus points while averaging less than 10 points per game.
While Ross tied Carter by going 10-17 from beyond the three-point line, his main claim to fame among the NBA faithful had been his dunks. Standing at 6 foot 6 inches, Ross elevates with ease, as his dunk over Denver Nuggets Power Forward Kenneth Faried shows. As exciting a player in the open court as anyone else in the League, Ross won the 2013 Dunk Contest while wearing a throwback Carter Jersey, and his final dunk was a between-the-legs slam that evoked Carter’s 2000 slam. That Ross did it while simultaneously jumping over a ball boy shows just how far the contest has evolved in the last fourteen years.
As the lone returning contestant and defending champion, Ross will have all the attention focused on him before the 2014 exhibition. Most likely, this will be a welcome change of pace for the Raptor forward, who labors in relative obscurity during the regular season. An even better performance than last year would go a long way towards erasing all that.
Throwback: Jordan and Dominique Wikins, 1985
The 1985 Dunk Contest, like everything else associated with Jordan, stands tall over everyone else in the NBA. This time, Jordan was poised to take on Dominique Wilkins, and the results were nothing short of spectacular. It was His Airness versus the Human Highlight Reel. When crotchety basketball old-timers complain that things were better in the good old days, they might have a point.
Talk about a difference between ballers. Talk about Jordan with an honest to God hairline (and a hilarious gold chain.) Watching the difference between Jordan and Wilkins, two dunkers best described as reigning eminences of the finesse school of slam, the artistry of their dunks becomes readily apparent. Wilkins finished harder, his 6 foot 8 inch frame all liquid angles until it crashed toward the rim. Jordan, though — Michael Jordan had real, unimpeachable swagger. By today’s parlance, Jordan’s dunks aren’t all that difficult. But they still look great almost 30 years later.
Bonus Throwback: Shawn Kemp eviscerates Alton Lister
If Jordan and Wilkins were the best at styling it out, then Seattle Supersonic Shawn Kemp was — and is — the undisputed king of dunking angry. The Reign Man didn’t do anything except destroy, something that Golden State Warrior Alton Lister found out the hard way. Owing to the graphic nature of this dunk, the following clip may not be safe for children.
Kemp Dunk Family Tree: Damian Lillard and Harrison Barnes
In case you missed the memo, 2013′s Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard is a point guard from Oakland, California. Rather, Damian is an Oakland Point Guard, in the tradition of guys like Jason Kidd and Gary Peyton. Now running the show for the Portland Trail Blazers, Lillard’s game has been defined in those same rough, unafraid terms. It’s a big part of why he won Rookie of the Year, and why his Blazers are poised for a serious playoff run. Check this dunk out, and see if you can’t spot the resemblance to the Reign Man.
Harrison Barnes, a small-forward who plays for the Golden State Warriors, was drawing comparisons to Kobe Bryant while he was in high school. That wasn’t fair to Barnes, who is a tremendous scorer but can’t possibly be compared to a Hall of Fame talent like Kobe. On the other hand, maybe it’s unfair to compare Kobe to Harrison, because Kobe never dunked this hard.
That’s a vintage Kemp stare right there. Barnes and Lillard make up two-thirds of the Western Team for the Dunk Contest. What happens if they just start dunking on the guys slamming for the East?
Descendants of Dominique: John Wall and Ben McLemore
The last remaining roster member on the Eastern Conference Dunk Team, John Wall, was the number one draft pick in 2010. His team, the Wizards, were NBA shorthand for frivolous nonsense when he arrived. With an almost entirely new set of teammates, playoff aspirations, and a max contract, Wall is set to prove that he’s worth all that money and attention. If he can pull off smooth dunks like the one below this weekend, he just might be.
The West coast equivalent to the Washington Wizards, the Sacramento Kings are another franchise that has long been mired in mediocrity. They’ve been so bad for so long that they own the longest active playoff drought in the league — largely a result of neglectful ownership. But the Kings were sold last year, and their first draft pick under new ownership, Ben McLemore out of of Kansas, has a reputation for being a phenomenal scorer. He drew comparisons to Ray Allen during the draft, and he also did this dunk.
Bonus: Gerald Green’s Windmill Alley-Oop
His head was above the rim. It happened in a game. No further comment is necessary.