The NBA’s slam dunk contest is one of the league’s most iconic traditions and has produced some great moments over the years. From Vince Carter bursting on to the scene in 2000 to Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins duelling it out back in 1988, the contest epitomizes what we all love about the All-Star weekend, and the NBA.
However, in recent years the dunk contest has lost its lustre. Cheap gimmicks have replaced the pure athleticism and wow factor of the golden age of the dunk contest. DeAndre Jordan leaping over DJ Khaled’s decks or Aaron Gordon’s use of a drone last year are perfect examples of how the contest has lost its way in recent years.
Thankfully, this year’s edition was a throwback to the best dunk contests in memory with rookie Donovan Mitchell and Larry Nance Jr. fighting out in a dunk duel which showcased all that is great about NBA All-Star weekend. Both Nance Jr. and Mitchell incorporated nods to the past in their routines. Nance Jr. replicated his father’s winning dunk from the 1984 contest whilst Mitchell stripped down to reveal a retro Vince Carter Jersey before throwing down Carter’s famous elbow dunk from 2000.
A nod to Zach Lavine
Whilst Mitchell’s winning performance was impressive the king of the dunk contest in recent years has without a doubt been Zach Lavine. The winner of back-to-back dunk contests in 2015 and 2016, Lavine’s performances stood out against a background of dunks which relied heavily on props or dunks which took an agonizing number of attempts, killing the atmosphere in the arena.
From the moment he entered the arena in 2015, to the theme tune from Space Jam, to when he threw down his first dunk, a between the legs reverse flush whilst wearing a Jordan Space Jam jersey, it was clear we were witnessing something special. Lavine had a languid athleticism and easy swagger which made his dunks look effortless. The reaction from NBA stars in attendance confirmed that the Minnesota rookie was built for this.
Lavine saw of competition from Victor Oladipo, Mason Plumlee and Giannis Antetokounmpo to take home the crown in 2015. Capping of his insane debut with a super-smooth effort of the stanchion to seal the victory.
Backing it up in 2016
It was plain to see that this was not a freak occurrence and in 2016 Lavine confirmed this by winning an epic duel with Orlando’s Aaron Gordon, taking home his second dunk contest title in as many years. If anything Lavine’s dunks were even more impressive in 2016, highlighted by his winning dunk where he soared from the free throw line, putting the ball between his legs before slamming the ball home.
Gordon’s part in this story should not be underestimated. He went toe to toe with Lavine for six epic rounds before finally being floored by Zach’s final gravity defying effort. However, history is written by the victors and it is Lavine’s dunks that live in the memory.
Lavine reminded us all of why the dunk contest is great. No gimmicks, no props, no frivolous celebrity appearances just a basketball player doing what very few people on the planet could even dream of doing with a ball in hand.
Mitchell took a note out of Lavine’s book with his performance on Saturday night and future participants should take note. This is what people want to see on All-Star Saturday night.
It remains to be seen if Lavine will be remembered for more than his aerial exploits. His career has stalled following a sickening ACL injury and a trade to Chicago but he has shown promising signs of recovery in the 14 games he has played since his return.
In a 27-point outing against the Sacramento Kings, Lavine showcased much of the raw athleticism that makes him such an enticing prospect. If he can show that he has recovered whilst improving his outside shot and defense there is an All-Star player.
It remains to be seen whether Lavine will be remembered as a great NBA player or simply a great dunker who for 2 nights in 2015 and 2016 captivated the NBA. Regardless of how his career pans out, I will always remember him as one of the greatest dunkers the NBA has ever seen and the man who may have saved the dunk contest.
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