Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 2, 2021

How the NBA can fix the Slam Dunk Contest

By JOSH FELTON | March 17, 2021

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NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/CC BY 2.0

Due to inconsistent scoring and a lack of creativity, the Slam Dunk Contest has lost its allure.

NBA All-Star Weekend is one of the most exciting times to watch basketball. Usually, the events are thrilling. The Skills Challenge and the Three-Point Contest are both extremely competitive and unpredictable in their results. Entertaining and unforced, the All-Star Celebrity Game features famous personalities who surprise fans with their athletic abilities. The Rising Stars Challenge displays the future superstars of the league, and the NBA All-Star Game is the main event for obvious reasons. 

Meanwhile, the Slam Dunk Contest is the one event that leaves the audience bored out of its mind. For years it has been the least anticipated event. It is one where fans leave to get food or participate in more entertaining activities. What is the reason for this? For years the NBA has struggled to answer this question. 

The league catches lightning in a bottle every four years when they get an enthralling competition; however, it is usually ruined by horrible judging. To make the competition more exciting, here are some ways to fix the competition before the league decides to suspend it.

Get Acclaimed Judges

This was not always a pressing issue for the Dunk Contest. However, the most exciting contests of the past decade, 2016 and 2020, had controversial judging by panelists who were less than “qualified” to officiate a slam dunk contest. In both competitions, fans felt Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon was robbed and that bad officiating was why he refuses to participate again. 

While many judges are basketball legends, that doesn’t make them qualified slam dunk judges. The NBA needs to find slam dunk champions like Julius Erving and Vince Carter who will properly judge contests and appreciate dunks that may seem unimpressive to the average spectator.

Tougher Scoring Criteria

Let’s be honest, most of the dunks in the dunk contest are unoriginal. Not to downplay the difficulty of the dunks, but for the majority of them, fans have seen the same dunks for the past 10 years. The feeling of mystery is no longer present, giving fans the sense that they are not missing out by skipping the event. The way to solve this problem is by making the scoring harder and only rewarding 10s to dunks that are unique and engaging. 

What made the 2016 and 2020 slam dunk contests special were the back-and-forth dunks that were jaw-dropping and unexpected. A 360-degree dunk over a spinning mascot is worthy of a 10; it is something that hasn’t been done before. Even dunks that have been done but rarely are worthy of a 10 because of their extreme difficulty. Not to slight participants, but we are past the era of rewarding a 10 for a between-the-legs dunk. 

A prime example of dunk scores becoming stricter is Cassius Stanley’s first dunk from the 2021 Slam Dunk Contest. Stanley did a between the legs dunk with his off-hand off the bounce on his first attempt. The announcers were stoked about his first dunk, but the judges gave him a score of 44. The judges were all former slam dunk winners and assessed the competition differently than celebrities would have. Stricter scores mean more impressive dunks, so the competition is more exciting and engaging.

Encourage Superstars to Participate

For some reason, the Slam Dunk Contest does not feature notable stars from the association. Perhaps because it is the most physically demanding of the events at All-Star Weekend. That didn’t discourage stars from participating in the contest in the 1980s and 2000s. 

The NBA needs to consider cash prizes for the winners of the competition — even though athletes make more than enough money — to encourage elite dunkers to participate. Also, having fans vote on the players they want to see will increase viewership altogether.

The NBA has something special with the Slam Dunk Contest, but it’s slipping away from them. There’s still time to fix the competition before it's not worth hosting anymore. Finding acclaimed judges and superstar participants, setting stricter scoring criteria and having fans vote on players to participate would increase total engagement with the competition and could save it from being suspended again, as it was in 1998.

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