How to fix NBA slam dunk contest judging

CHICAGO — To spend a Saturday night whining about celebrities judging dunks in a for-show competition of little consequence seems, in all honesty, a bit silly. A bit extra, as the kids say. Aaron Gordon was robbed, yes. There are no long-term ramifications. No lasting harm.

But there were hundreds of thousands who watched, and elite athletes who genuinely cared. So here we are, quarreling over 47s and 48s and 50s. Try telling Gordon to let it go. Even with a smile on his face, he couldn’t in the immediate aftermath.

“I feel like I should have two trophies, you know what I mean?” he told reporters, referring to 2016 and Saturday night.

And he’s right.

“I did four straight 50s – five straight 50s,” Gordon said. “That’s over. It’s a wrap. Let’s go home. Four 50s in a row in an NBA Dunk Contest, it’s over.”

And he’s absolutely right. Four straight 50s should be a wrap. But not, as Gordon argued, because first-round scores should carry over to the final round. Because four straight 50s should be a mind-blowing, near-impossible feat. And frankly, in the NBA dunk contest right now, it’s not.

Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon dunks dunks the ball during the NBA All-Star Slam Dunk contest Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, in Chicago. (AP Photo/David Banks)


That’s not a commentary on the contestants’ athleticism, which is mind-blowing. Gordon and Derrick Jones Jr. did things on Saturday night that few humans can. The problem, though, is that judges measure their athleticism against average human beings rather than against their competitors.

Dwight Howard got a 49 for this dunk on Saturday …

… Which means anything better than catching a lob and throwing it down merits a 50. A standard windmill merits a 50. A through-the-legs jam merits a 50. Going through the legs three times, or five times, or 20 times in mid-air … merits a 50. Rewarding relative mediocrity and unremarkableness makes rewarding true excellence impossible.

The problem with the dunk contest, therefore, is simple: too many 50s. The scale is skewed. There’s no room at the top of it to differentiate between good and great and out-of-this-world. Gordon’s off-the-side-of-the-backboard, up-and-down-and-around, 360-degree cradle was ridiculous.

In the eyes of the judges, it was no different than … this:

So, you want to fix the dunk contest?

Set that Gordon dunk as the standard – as perfection – and work down from there. Think of a soft, simple two-handed slam as a 1. Recalibrate the scale from those two endpoints. Because the current one no longer gives greatness its due.

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