How fair was the NBA dunk contest? How can the contest be improved? Basketball geek Torch staffers weigh in

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The Miami Heat's Derrick Jones, Jr. was the somewhat controversial winner of the NBA's 2020 Slam Dunk Contest.

The NBA Slam Dunk Contest occurred on February 15, 2020. Participants Aaron Gordon, Dwight Howard, and Pat Connaughton all gave fans an unreal show; however, it was the Miami Heat’s Derrick Jones Jr., who brought home the title of NBA dunk champion. Jones Jr.’s victory was highly debated, so we asked three of our sports knowledgeable staff members (Sports Editor Andrew Kaye, Entertainment Editor Matthew Nebenzahl, and staff writer Joshua Wolf) for their view of how the contest went and how future events shall play out.

How do you feel about the players who participated?

Matthew Nebenzahl: I believe each player has an outstanding dunking ability, but some players simply didn’t have a chance going in. Dwight Howard, at 34 years old, simply doesn’t have the same bounce he had when he first started competing. Pat Connaughton has an outstanding vertical and had decent creativity in the contest. Gordon and Jones Jr. were simply in a different tier than the other two, creativity and skill wise. From the jump, fans knew who would most likely advance to the finals.

Joshua Wolf: Although each contestant has an incredible dunking ability, most if not all of them were backup choices for the contest. The first players invited are the superstars of the league like Giannis, LeBron, and Zion, but just like every year, the superstars pass up on the opportunity to not risk injury. Despite that, the contestants still put on a great performance. From the jump everyone watching could tell who the two finalists were going to be, and even though Dwight Howard is a previous winner, and Pat Connaughton is a great in game dunker, they stood no chance in a competition like this.

Andrew Kaye: The lack of superstars in this contest for the last few years has ruined the viewership. Of course, this is mostly due to the players fear of injury, but the league has not done its part to make it enticing to compete for the superstars. Having three previous contestants made it obvious to the fans who would put on the best show. Most fans knew that Aaron Gordon and Derrick Jones Jr. are two of the best dunkers in the league; meanwhile, Dwight Howard is much older and stiff, and Pat Connaughton just didn’t stand a chance. Overall, the contestants put on the best show we have seen in years and possibly ever. 

What were some underrated and overrated dunks completed by participants?

Nebenzahl: Pat Connaughton’s second dunk where he jumped over his teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo and tapped the ball against the backboard was very underrated. Although he got a score of 50 on the slam, many don’t realize the difficulty of not only jumping over the Greek Freak but staying in the air long enough to complete his maneuver was unreal. 

An overrated dunk had to be Dwight Howard’s Superman slam. Howard earned a 49 for his second jam, but I believe most of the score was given due to his Superman costume, the honorary 24 on the costume to honor Kobe Bryant, and the nostalgia Howard brought when he did a similar dunk to a past contest from 2008. It was still a cool dunk, but the fact it scored better than Gordon’s dunk over Tacko Fall isn’t right.

Wolf: I thought the most overrated dunk was Dwight Howard’s superman dunk. Yes the storyline of how Dwight was probably the best dunker in the NBA about ten years ago, and now his return to the league, but to be honest that dunk was quite frankly disappointing. He brought out his old friend and teammate Jameer Nelson to throw a lob from the behind the backboard, and Dwight caught it from about seven feet away from the basket and punched it in. 

A very underrated dunk in my opinion was Aaron Gordon’s dunk when he caught a lob of the side of the backboard, held the ball out with a full extension and did a 360 in the air and slammed it in. Gordon earned a fifty for the dunk so the fact that I think it’s underrated means that it was truly incredible. In my opinion this was the second best dunk of the whole contest behind Gordon’s last dunk over Tacko Fall.

Kaye: The most underrated dunk of the night was Dwight Howard’s Superman dunk. He jumped from near the free throw line off two feet, which is pretty difficult for anybody. He could barely move, but he got this one to go on the first attempt. The judges did not fail to inflate his score at a 49, showing their excitement with the dunk; however, the commentators and fans were unimpressed by it. Many fans refuse to call this a dunk worthy of even a 40, but it was a difficult and nostalgic flush with power and finesse. 

The most overrated dunk of the night had to be Connaughton’s dunk over Giannis Antetokounmpo. Although spectacular when completed, this dunk took three tries to complete. On the second dunk of the competition (Jones’ birthday windmill), Jones was penalized for missing the first attempt. The judges had said that it would have been a 50 if it was completed on the first try. Meanwhile, Connaughton had no point deductions for his two misses, although the two missed really ruined the suspense behind the dunk. 

Were the judges fair? Did they get the winner correct?

Nebenzahl: As many others believe, I think that Dwyane Wade was biased for his former teammate Derrick Jones Jr. In the final round of the contest, he gave Aaron Gordon a 9/10 for his dunk over Tacko Fall, but he gave Jones Jr. a 10/10 for a windmill from a step in to the free throw line. I believe both dunks should’ve gotten 10s. Wade may have just thought Jones Jr’s dunk was better, but you never know.

I believe at the end of the day, with the given format of the contest, Jones Jr. was the deserved winner. The authority on his dunks was unheard of, and the creativity he displayed shocked all. Gordon, although robbed of a 50 in the final round, couldn’t keep up with Jones Jr’s vast ideas, which is why he ultimately lost.

Wolf: Being totally objective in judging any competition is nearly impossible, but hiding your bias has to be first on the list when judging the NBA dunk contest. Dwyane Wade was not the only subjective judge, but was the most influential to the outcome as well as the most obvious judge to blame for the controversial ending. Wade, NBA legend Scottie Pippen, and actor Chadwick Boseman all gave Aaron Gordon a nine on his last dunk over 7’6’’ Tacko Fall, which in my opinion deserved a ten. No one has ever dunked over someone that tall in the dunk contest and although it looked like Gordon didn’t clear Fall, but after watching the replay numerous times, Gordon cleared his head but Fall put his hands up causing it to look like he didn’t clear him. 

On the other hand, actor Chadwick Boseman had no business being on the judging panel. Every other judge had a hand in the NBA except for Common who is very involved in pop culture and the NBA as he was the one who did the player intros for the All Star Game. Boseman made many questionable decisions in the scores he gave, and ultimately was not necessarily totally biased, but just gave the wrong scores to the wrong dunks.

Kaye: Of course Dwyane Wade would be biased for his former teammate Derrick Jones Jr. However, Wade was not the only judge to give Jones a 10 and Gordon a 9 in the final round of the overtime. Scottie Pippen gave the same scores. I believe neither dunk really deserved a 50, but in comparison to Connaughton’s 50 point dunk, Jones’ dunk deserved one. Aaron Gordon’s final dunk, over Tacko Fall, was not worth a 50 point score due to the fact that Gordon’s thigh hit Fall in the head. Gordon explained afterwards that he originally wanted to jump over Shaquille O’Neal, but O’Neal refused. Even if he did jump over Shaq, simply jumping over a person is not enough for a 50 unless one cleanly clears seven-foot-seven Tacko Fall. 

The winner was correctly chosen in Derrick Jones Jr. due to his ability and creativity. Gordon repeated a dunk over Chance the Rapper twice, and Derrick Jones’ had the best dunk of the night with his dunk over someone who threw the ball off the backboard and Jones put the ball through his legs. Jones was the better dunker in the contest. 

What changes should the NBA implement to the contest to advance the fairness and level of excitement?

Nebenzahl: Rather than a two round system where only two players advance to the final round given their combined scores from the first round, the NBA should change it to where each dunker would get four dunks, and the total scores would determine the winner. This would allow fans to see more of what Pat Connaughton and Dwight Howard had to offer. Contrary to my previous statement, Gordon earned a perfect score on his first four dunks, which would have granted him a championship. If the system were changed, the contest would provide a fair competition for each player.

Also, the judges need to be changed. Celebrities simply shouldn’t be judging dunks of which they don’t know the difficulty as other players would. Although Common and Chadwick Boseman were fun to see, they don’t have the experience and credibility to be determining the scores. Although the other three judges were basketball athletes, they would be better replaced with former slam dunk champions or participants. Guys, such as Vince Carter or Blake Griffin, would be a better fit as they know the difficulty that goes into pulling off such outstanding dunks.

Wolf: I have to agree with Matthew in his idea to not eliminate the dunkers, but I don’t think they need to change the judges. One great fix to the judging problem is to hide the judges until after they have judged all of the dunks. If the judges are hidden to the public during the contest, they can truly judge the dunks and not get scrutinized by the public eye. Dwyane Wade wouldn’t have been forced to give Jones Jr. a ten on his last dunk because they were teammates; instead, he could have given it the nine that it deserved and the contest would have been totally fair. It creates a great storyline for the contest as well. After all the dunks are over, the judges would get revealed and everyone can see who gave who what scores, but because it is after the fact, the judges have already given their honest scores.

A potential way to make it more exciting is for the NBA to partner with professional dunkers to add them to the dunk contest. Imagine if every NBA dunker was paired with a professional dunker and had a week to rehearse their dunks. Derrick Jones Jr. wouldn’t have done three between the legs dunks because of a lack of creativity; instead, his partner would have given him ideas of new dunks for him to do. The two scores of both dunkers would be combined to a total score and whether it’s an elimination style contest or four rounds combined, professional dunkers would add so much excitement for the NBA to add to this already great weekend.

Kaye: I have to disagree with Matthew and Josh in regards to the elimination of contestants. I believe that the final one versus one round is the best part of the contest, and many fans do as well. This creates the sense that each dunker must do their best when the lights shine brightest. I also believe the contest should include more competitors. As long as the NBA doesn’t throw in the leagues bottom feeders in terms of dunking, this would only improve the contest. The fans could see more dunks, and this change could possibly create three rounds rather than two. Having more “qualified” judges would be a very nice change as well. Former contestants and even the top YouTube professional dunkers as judges would create a better understanding and better scoring all around. 

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