NBA Dunk Contest Rules: Slamming Down 2 Major Changes

NBA Dunk Contest
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NBA All-Star Weekend has come and gone, and two things remain as clear as ever: 1) half-court shots are way too easy for Damian Lillard, and 2) the NBA Dunk Contest rules need to be fixed. Fans and players alike have been decrying the current format for years. But the NBA has done nothing but make the most minor of tweaks. So, I am proposing two possible ways to reformat the NBA Dunk Contest to make it actually watchable again.

Option 1: Fix the dunk contest judging system

When we think of controversial decisions from NBA Dunk Contest judges, the example that comes to mind from recent memory is the Aaron Gordon-Derrick Jones Jr. matchup in 2020. It came down to a duel of back-to-back perfect scores for both finalists. Until, of course, Dwayne Wade gave Aaron Gordon a “9.” The contest that everyone seemed to think deserved to end in a draw came to a surprising end. Derrick Jones Jr. won and Aaron Gordon—along with his fans—once again felt like he’d been snubbed.

Aaron Gordon 2020 NBA Dunk Contest

This episode is far from an isolated incident. It is, in fact, emblematic of a general issue with the dunk content judging. The judging will continue to feel arbitrary at best and oftentimes downright unjust for one simple reason: first round scores start off too high and have nowhere else to go. When a relatively pedestrian dunk on the first attempt of the first round gets a 47 or 48, as is often the case, the scoring system is simply busted for the remainder of the contest. A simple windmill dunk early on can sometimes get you a 48. You can see, then, how easily a shootout of 360 dunks and dunking over 7-foot behemoths would end in 50-point stalemates between multiple dunk contest participants; or, alternatively, plain-looking dunks edging out truly creative ones. The margin for victory simply gets set too narrow too early on.

Rank-based scoring system

So, here’s my fix. Don’t have the judges score the dunks on the spot. Make them wait and score all first-round dunks at the same time. Give them little replay screens so that they can compare all 8 dunks (two attempts for each of the four contestants) at the end of the first round. Instead of awarding scores of 7-10 for each dunk, make each judge assign a number of 1-8 for each dunk, with “8” being the best dunk and “1” being the worst.

In other words, the NBA Dunk Contest judges would simply re-watch each dunk and rank them in order. Whichever two dunk contest participants reach the highest two cumulative scores for their dunks can pretty decisively be considered worthy of moving on to the finals. That’s because they would have received the most 6s, 7s, and 8s. This eliminates any recency bias or disadvantages relating to the order in which the contestants go.

It also creates an extra layer of suspense. The announcers and fans have to wait a few extra minutes, re-watching the dunks along with the judges, before knowing which two participants will get the nod to move on. Then, in the final round, the winner can be chosen simply based on who had the best single dunk. In the first round, a cumulative score makes sense. But I honestly don’t see the point of it for the final round. Implement this format and I would never complain about the NBA Dunk Contest judges again.

Option 2: Fix the dunk contest format

Another part of the problem with the current NBA Dunk Contest rules is the dunks themselves. Aside from Mac McClung, it’s rare at this point to see anyone bring something truly innovative to the table. As a result, NBA Dunk Contest participants tend to fall within the two extremes of 1) playing it too safe, or 2) trying too hard and making an ass of themselves (*cough cough* Jalen Green going 1 of 9 on his attempts in 2022).

Jalen Green 2022 Dunk Contest

Maybe it’s time to simply let the true artists of the past reign supreme for good. Instead, let’s reformat the NBA Dunk Contest so that each participant has to attempt the same types of dunks. Rather than testing who the most creative dunker is, this would, instead, test who the most complete dunker is. In the first round, each contestant would have two attempts to make their best effort at any four of these six different dunks: an off-the-backboard dunk, a 360 dunk, a between-the-legs dunk, a dunk over a tall individual, a reverse dunk, and a freestyle dunk (that way the truly innovative dunkers can still do something creative).

Make it easier to compare dunks

The scoring system for this format could adopt the alternate one I laid out above. But it could probably still work with the current scoring format too. It would be easier to judge more objectively and comparatively since we all know what each of these types of dunks should look like at their best.

I’m open to what happens in the final round. It could just come down to each contestant choosing and attempting two of the above six dunks. Or, it could be that they must attempt the two that they didn’t do in the first round. Or, it could be one of the six and one freestyle dunk. It could even be the final format I suggested above, with two freestyle attempts each and a winner crowned based on who had the single best freestyle throw-down.

Or, we do away with the NBA Dunk Contest altogether, go full farce with it, and have the Celtics’ Lucky come out to just bop around and stuff.

Boston Celtics' Lucky

Surely, there are other possible ways of improving the NBA Dunk Contest rules. But, for me, a dunk contest based on either of these proposed fixes is a dunk contest that I would watch the hell out of. And I truly believe it is a dunk contest that more star players would be inclined to participate in…no offense, Mac.

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