The fall of the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest has always been grossly overstated. That doesn’t mean it’s status as the de facto main event of NBA All-Star Weekend isn’t under serious threat.
The dunk contest has always stood as the marquee affair of the league’s annual showcase. From Larry Nance (Sr.) to Michael Jordan to Spud Webb, the early years of the competition managed to overshadow it’s Saturday night counterparts, even as Larry Bird made the undercard 3-Point Shootout his own personal conduit for trash talk. A few lean years gave way to Kobe Bryant and, after a two-year hiatus, Vince Carter.
Perhaps it was Carter’s 2000 performance that’s to blame for the perception that the dunk contest has fallen on hard times. To this day, it stands as the single greatest and most influential series of dunks in league history, raising the bar for all future dunks, creating a template from which dozens of dunkers would build, and helping solidify the sport in an entire country.
The “Vince Carter Dunking Tree” would include some of the best dunks in the 16 years since, including many that built off of Carter’s between-the-legs or approach from behind the backboard. But most of those dunks have failed to reach the lofty bar Carter single-handedly recalibrated, and the dunk contest went through some lean years. That was cause for props, gimmicks, and format tweaks, and the growing feeling was that the dunk contest, devoid of new and original ideas, had jumped the corporate-branded shark.
All the while, the actual NBA was undergoing fundamental changes. The 3-Point Shootout originated at a time when the 3-point shot was mostly a gimmick itself, a sparsely-used pseudo-weapon for teams trailing late or with the odd player who had bothered to practice from that far away when those long heaves counted for only two points. Now, it’s a linch pin of the league’s best offenses and something even the most old school of coaches have no choice but to leverage.
The rise of the long-ball is well-established, with outside shooting volume on a steep, decade-plus rise. “Live and die by the three” may still be a popular axiom, but now it only highlights the high variability of a triple-heavy strategy rather than standing to denigrate the shot at a philosophical level. Those who didn’t utilize it got left behind, and those who continued to fight against it’s existence were left to look foolish as the Golden State Warriors, led by MVP and single-season 3-point record-holder twice-over Steph Curry, became just the latest league champion to lean on the trifecta.
“I think the game is just evolving,” breakout Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, a late injury replacement for this year’s 3-Point Shootout, said of the event’s popularity. “The ability for Steph to kind of manipulate a game, from passing to knocking down shots from 30 feet behind the arc, it’s something a lot of people can look up to and it gives people that aren’t as athletic, or aren’t as tall, hope.”
The accessibility and proliferation of the 3-pointer have worked hand-in-hand. While the Mark Jacksons of the world think that might be bad for the game, there’s little confusion that becoming an elite shooter the level of Curry isn’t easy, or even natural. But it’s more reasonable for a young or undersized fan to throw up threes in the driveway than throw down 360s. At media day, David Vertsberger brought up an informal Twitter poll that suggested an 1,800-respeonse sample of fans are more excited for money balls than windmills.
“That’s really cool,” says Curry’s Splash Brother, Klay Thompson. “That shows that the world really appreciates the way all of us shoot the ball who are in it. They look at it as an art form, and I do too.”
Curry finally won the event at All-Star weekend last year, his fourth attempt, setting a record with 27 points in a single round. This year, he’ll defend his title in a city in which he lived for several years, in a market in which he’s revered, and he’ll do so as he chases a second consecutive MVP and title.
Thompson is gunning for his teammate. While he admits he might need two perfect rounds to unseat him, he’s taken aback by the suggestion that Curry is a unanimous choice to win.
“Everybody thinks that? Oh, wow. There’s gotta be a few who think that Klay has a chance,” Thompson says. “I don’t mean to refer to myself in the third person. There’s a few out there, I think. One of them, hopefully, is my brothers. Probably the rest of the world thinks Steph. That’s fine, I’ll play the underdog for a night.”
Against Curry, everyone’s an underdog. Even Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, with the benefit of the home crowd and familiar sight lines, can’t be considered a favorite. Redick took to studying his shooting charts to find the best location for his money ball rack, needing every edge available. Phoenix Suns rookie Devin Booker is a popular dark horse pick among players, but even that’s more of a second-place vote of confidence.
The league’s best player is defending his title in an event that’s been growing in popularity over the last several seasons. He’s doing it against a loaded field, including his teammate, the hometown star, last year’s MVP runner-up, and the league’s second-highest percentage shooter this season. This is happening as the shootout’s competition for headliner status is said to have reached a nadir.
If threes are growing in importance and the league’s top stars are more inclined to participate, does that make the 3-Point Shootout the main event? Should it?
“I don’t know if it’s the main event,” says Los Angeles Clippers sharpshooter J.J. Redick. “I think there’s probably a renewed interest in this. Last year, I thought they put a great field together and they’ve done that again this year. I think part of it is the emphasis the NBA has placed on this event and part of it is the evolution of the game and the emphasis on 3-point shooting. “
Of course, Redick, like Thompson, sees one thing standing – or flying – in the way of the 3-Point Shootout taking the night’s biggest stage.
“People want to see Vince Carter, people want to see Kobe, those guys when they were in their prime and they did it. I’m not calling anybody out, I think that’s the thing that’s been missing from the dunk contest,” Redick says. “I definitely think Zach LaVine has reinvigorated the interest in that.”
“I would say yeah, but Zach LaVine is in it, and he’s worth the price of admission just by himself,” Thompson agrees. “His ability to jump off one and two feet is really special. He makes it look so easy and effortless. It’s not there, it doesn’t rival it, but it’s still right up there.”
Last year, LaVine turned in the best individual dunk contest performance since Carter, throwing down an array of impossible yet effortless slams. Afterward, he claimed he hadn’t even shown his very best yet.
The primary buzz around All-Star media day on Friday focused on what LaVine may have in store, with teammate Karl-Anthony Towns doing his best to stoke the flames of hype. LaVine did the same by winning the MVP at the Rising Stars game, and he’s eschewing humility to keep the excitement level appropriately high.
“If I make ‘em, it’s gonna be crazy,” LaVine told ESPN’s Marc Stein on Friday.
If he makes ‘em, he’ll join a short list of the greatest dunkers in league history. If he doesn’t – and maybe even if he does – he may also have the distinction of being the last player to close All-Star Saturday Night with a dunk instead of a three.