The NBA’s dunk contest has lost its luster. Where once superstars unleashed never-before-seen slams, we now must often endure glorified G League players recreating throw-downs of yesteryear, often taking a few attempts to complete the feat. The 3-point contest has been more entertaining of late, and it is high time the dunk contest returns to its rightful place as the highlight of All-Star Weekend.
Only four players participated last season, with Oklahoma City’s Hamidou Diallo taking home the crown. Names have begun to trickle in for the 2020 event in Chicago — home to the most famous of all dunk-contest winners — and Dwight Howard’s reported return is not a great sign that this year will bring the excitement back. Which got me to thinking: Who would make the ideal 2020 dunk contest?
Let us return to the deeper fields in the contest’s 1980s heyday and consider 10 hopeful participants.
LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
You could argue the Michael Jordan mystique was born in the dunk contest. Never mind the gold chain in 1985. It is hard to describe how big a spectacle Jordan’s 1988 duel with Dominique Wilkins was. The image of Jordan leaping from the free-throw line — the ball cocked in his right arm, tongue out, flying toward a contest-clinching 50-point explosion — made the perfect poster. The feat is less impressive each time someone replicates it, but the dunk contest was king then, and Jordan sat on the throne.
LeBron has chased that ghost ever since he joined the league, yet he has never entered a dunk contest. He told our Chris Haynes that he came close a few times, especially in 2006, but minor injuries always held him back. In 2012, he told Fox Sports Florida, “I’m getting too old for that.”
But part of the LeBron mystique is his remarkable longevity. Now, imagine if he were to win the dunk contest at 35 years old, nearly twice Kobe Bryant’s age when he became the youngest to ever win it. LeBron can still throw down with the best, and I would love to see him try to shatter a backboard.
Vince Carter, Atlanta Hawks
Carter just became the first player ever to play in four different decades. The 42-year-old might help LeBron not feel so old if he participated. It has been 20 years since Carter’s epic victory in the 2000 dunk contest — arguably the greatest performance in the event’s history — and there would be some symmetry to him returning in his final season to an event that launched his legacy two decades earlier.
We are only three years removed from Carter saying “it’s possible” he could still win the dunk contest.
“These days people say, ‘Oh, why didn’t you defend it?’” Carter told Sportsnet in 2017. “Yeah, I could have. But I didn’t want to make a career out of it — didn’t want people to expect me to be there every year. Now if I didn’t win it, that’s a completely different ball game. You know, looking back, I had two dunks I could’ve tried that I didn’t. And I can’t tell you [what they are]. Nope. Can’t tell anybody.”
Show us, Vince. Show us.
Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
The greatest duel since Jordan vs. Wilkins was LaVine vs. Gordon in 2016. Similarly controversial, LaVine sealed his second consecutive victory with a between-the-legs dunk from (just inside the) free-throw line. Gordon’s double pump deserved a 50, too. One dunk was more incredible than the next.
Gordon returned to the contest the following season, but LaVine declined an invitation to defend his crown again, and the event has lost some of its shine ever since. They both remain among the handful of most athletic players in the league. Gordon said this past summer he is down for the rematch, and LaVine would have home-court advantage, so there is really no excuse for Round 2 not to happen.
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
Hear me out. Williamson has yet to make his NBA debut for the New Orleans Pelicans due to a knee injury, but all signs point to him making a healthy return soon. The Pelicans are playing for the future anyway, so why not hold Williamson out and unleash his death-defying athleticism at the dunk contest?
Now, I understand it seems like an incredibly dumb idea to ask a 285-pound kid to put the kind of unnecessary torque and impact on his rehabilitated right knee that it would require to win a dunk contest, but a guy can dream. What better way to introduce the most anticipated athlete since LeBron to the NBA world than at the dunk contest, where he can unleash the very skill set that made him famous.
Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Morant is mulling an invitation, according to Haynes. Here is hoping the Rookie of the Year favorite accepts it, and not just because it would be fun to see him duel with Williamson. The hype surrounding Zion’s athleticism overshadowed that of Morant, the No. 2 overall pick behind his fellow 19-year-old.
The young Grizzlies have played themselves into the early conversation for the Western Conference’s final playoff seed, largely thanks to Morant’s relentlessness. He attacks the rim with the aggression of Russell Westbrook, hurdling toward the basket with little regard for his opponent’s safety or his own.
When Morant leaped over 6-foot-10 Kevin Love and nearly finished what could have been the greatest in-game poster in NBA history, all Love could say afterward was, “Ja almost ended my professional career with this dunk.” In many ways, Morant might be safer taking his anger out on the dunk contest.
Anfernee Simons, Portland Trail Blazers
Simons entered the season as a leading breakout candidate, but playing behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the Portland backcourt does not afford him ample opportunities to showcase his skills. The dunk contest might be the perfect place for him to announce his arrival — and audition as a trade piece for the Blazers moving forward — and Simons has already made himself available.
“I’m just going to let them decide who they put in it, but, obviously, I want to participate,” Simons told The Oregonian’s Jamie Goldberg on Tuesday. “I might not be the most acrobatic with all the tricks, like Zach LaVine, stuff like that, but I can jump really high, so I can use that to my advantage.”
The dunk contest is a good place for guys who humbly share, “I can jump really high.” That might just be an understatement, given what we saw from Simons two days earlier. The 6-foot-3 guard dribbled baseline and nearly bumped his head on the rim throwing down a dunk so forceful that he might have ripped Meyers Leonard’s arm from his body had the Heat center bothered to contest it any further.
Derrick Jones Jr., Miami Heat
Jones might be the most athletic player in the NBA. He is certainly the best NBA athlete you do not know enough about. The 22-year-old has earned more burn this season in Miami than he has gotten in any of his previous three campaigns, and that means more dunks for the rest of us. His 36 dunks are more than any other wing in the league has this season, and every single one of them is a marvel.
Jones has already accepted an invitation to this year’s contest and nearly won as a rookie. In 2017, with just 20 NBA minutes under his belt, a lanky Jones jumped four teammates for his first dunk and took an alley-oop off the side of the backboard between his legs to enter the final round with the best score of the night. He lost to Glenn Robinson III in the end, but he is stronger and more confident now.
Isaiah Thomas, Washington Wizards
It is always fun to have a short dude in the dunk contest. Webb won in 1986, and Nate Robinson won three times from 2006-10. They don’t even need to get all fancy with the attempts. There is something about seeing a 5-foot-8 guy rising above a 10-foot rim that makes everyone so happy. Given Thomas’ revival on the Wizards, the dunk contest would be a great way to reintroduce him to the masses.
Thomas won a dunk contest in college at Washington’s Midnight Madness event in 2009, hurdling 6-foot-10 teammate Matthew Bryan for the clincher. Still in search of his first in-game NBA dunk, Thomas nearly bounced an alley-oop to himself in the 2017 All-Star Game, but didn’t stick the landing. He may not have his All-Star swag all the way back, but the weekend could use that smile again.
Alex Caruso, Los Angeles Lakers
Caruso has become a cult hero, largely because a balding white dude is not our typical touchstone for an NBA player, much less a complementary piece on a championship contender and a would-be recipient of alley-oops from LeBron James. The undrafted 6-foot-5 guard is more than meets the eye.
There is a mural in L.A. depicting Caruso dunking over a handful of All-Stars for a reason. The man has a mythical aura to him that shines through in every dunk he throws down. I know the NBA has already secured an entry from Lakers center Dwight Howard, but give the people the Laker they really want.
Also under consideration ...
Not that anyone would decline an invitation to The Greatest Dunk Contest in NBA History, but if someone were unable to participate due to injury or reality, we will extend invites to these runners-up: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets; Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics; John Collins, Atlanta Hawks; Hamidou Diallo, Oklahoma City Thunder; Sekou Doumbouya, Detroit Pistons; De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings; Javonte Green, Boston Celtics; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers; Kelly Oubre Jr., Phoenix Suns; Dennis Smith Jr., New York Knicks; Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets; and Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves.
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