Breaking down the lackluster NBA 2021 Slam Dunk Contest

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Anfernee Simons of the Portland Trail Blazers was the eventual winner of the NBA’s 2001 Slam Dunk Contest.

At halftime of the 2021 NBA All Star Game, the annual Slam Dunk Contest occurred. Rookies Obi Toppin of the New York Knicks and Cassius Stanley of the Indiana Pacers were accompanied by the Portland Trail Blazers’ Anfernee Simmons. After Simmons was declared the winner, The Torch’s Editor-in-Chief Matthew Nebenzahl and Sports Editor Joshua Wolf sat down to discuss the results, format, and the contest as a whole.

Nebenzahl: Overall, the absence of a full crowd really diminished the energy and the popularity of the contest. In prior years, when acrobatic dunks are thrown down, roaring fans electrify the building, which only adds to the excitement of each dunk. Obviously, this aspect can’t be controlled, and the NBA did as much as they could given the current circumstances. However, this year’s contest really shows how important fans are to the dunk contest.

Wolf: The Dunk Contest is all about hype, and there was none of it this year. The first problem was the lack of name recognition with the contestants. Cassius Stanley was a second-round pick just a few months ago and he hasn’t even had an in game dunk this season. Obi Toppin is playing just under 13 minutes per game as the 8th pick. Simmons was the most qualified to be in this, which proves the point even more. The absence of a crowd obviously played a factor, but what stood out was the lack of on court reactions that we always see from players and celebrities alike. The famous Vince Carter dunk in 2000 is highlighted by the camera panning to a young Shaq in awe on the court while he videos the whole thing. Normally we see hundreds of players, ex-players, and celebrities in attendance for the whole weekend, but obviously this year we didn’t. 

Nebenzahl: Regarding the participants, all three are very talented, young individuals looking to make their mark on the league in the coming years. Lacking, however, is the popularity of the contestants. When fans tune into the dunk contest, they want to see the game’s biggest stars throwing down dunks– not players that only the biggest of fans know. 

Sure, this isn’t the league’s fault.  They can’t force their most popular players that fans would want to see participate, such as Zion Williamson, Lebron James, and Russell Westbrook, to take part in a contest that really serves them no incentive. I believe that they should implement some sort of incentive for the players to participate, whether that’s money for charity or for another cause. I believe this would encourage the most popular players to play, and this would result in a more electrifying contest. 

Wolf: As for the actual dunks, there was nothing I can point out that really took me out of my seat, which is what you are looking for in this type of event. In the first round, the dunks were all around the same level. To me, Stanley should have received the highest score with his between the legs off the lob, but it was Obi who led after one. 

Going into the second round it went Toppin, Simmons, Stanley in that order, but the only thing that mattered was being in the top-2. It was clear after the first of several misses that Stanley had no chance to move on and the other dunkers had to merely finish their dunk on the first attempt to move on. Simmons paid homage to Vince Carter and did a 360, mini windmill which was alright, but as I mentioned, he didn’t have to be special. Toppin brought out his teammate Julius Randle and his father, which was nice, but he couldn’t clear both of them without using his off hand making it seem worse. Again, all he had to do was finish the dunk and that is what he did. 

Nebenzahl: Regarding the dunks, nothing was really that special. This year’s participants had a high standard, and they simply didn’t meet it. When fans have seen Zach Levine, Aaron Gordon, and Derrick Jones, Jr. do insanely acrobatic dunks year after year, simpler dunks cannot and will not cut it for the fans.

All three dunks in the first round were equally impressive. Stanley’s through the legs dunk was scored lower than deserved. Toppin’s baseline dunk off the bounce was nice, but I felt as if the dunk lacked the energy that it needed to score higher. Surely, the lack of a full crowd can be the cause of this. Simmons dunk merely displayed his athleticism rather than his creativity. In my opinion, all fans know how athletic these guys are. The contest is based on who can combine this athleticism with the much needed creativity. 

In the second round, Stanley’s dunk was representative of a pre-game dunk that we would see from better dunkers. It was a good dunk, but when you are competing against other guys who would have no problem finishing that dunk, there’s a problem. Simmons’ copycat of Tracy Mcgrady’s 2000 dunk was much better than Stanley’s, and it, rightfully, propelled him into the finals. Toppin needed a decent score to enter the finals, and he easily did so with the best dunk of the entire contest– a windmill over his father and teammate Julius Randle.

Wolf: The finals was to make up for the disappointing rounds prior, but that it did not. Toppin went between the legs from inside the free-throw line and Simmons just dunked it and pretended to kiss the rim. I had the contest going Toppin’s way, but there really was no right answer. 

Nebenzahl: In the finals, both participants, Simmons and Toppin, disappointed. Toppin’s through-the-legs dunk was simply a downgrade from similar dunks that we have seen in previous years. Simmons’ dunk again showed off his insane jumping ability. Usually players save their best dunks for last, but it seemed as if both players ran out of ideas, even after only having two dunks.

Kenny Smith summarized the contest well, saying how some of the all-stars weren’t excited watching the dunks that were being thrown down. If the players who were experiencing the dunks, first hand, weren’t enjoying them, how would fans watching on a television feel?

Overall, the contest was underwhelming. Luckily fans had the second half of the All-Star Game to watch after the performance. If the league wants to enhance the popularity and rebound this year’s disappointment, they should find ways to either get fans involved, get the biggest stars to participate, or somehow grant the contest more meaning. 

Wolf: Overall, the lack of time, name recognition, and hype had doomed the 2021 Dunk Contest from the start. Due to the circumstances there was no way to put on a normal dunk contest, and the product suffered because of it. 

Nebenzahl: I believe the changed format served the contest well. The judges choosing an outright winner in the final round rather than scoring the players and potentially throwing the entire competition away and causing controversy (Dwayne Wade in the 2020 contest) avoids a situation where fans believe a player was “robbed.” Going forward, the league should keep the 2021 format.

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