The first half of the 2014-15 season has produced one of the least predictable, most enjoyable early-season runs in recent memory. Surprise teams (Golden State, Atlanta) sit at the top of the standings in both conferences while last year’s final four (San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Miami, Indiana) are either scrambling or crumbling. The early list of MVP favorites (Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis) is highlighted by fresh faces, as the top incumbents (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin) haven’t yet sustained top form.
Just one problem: the dunks have left something to be desired.
To be clear, this isn’t really a matter of quantity. Through the first 35 games of 2013-14, the NBA’s 100 most prolific dunkers combined for 2,651 dunks. This year, through the same time period, that figure is 2,629 – a decrease of less than one percent. The bigger issue? Some of the most popular and familiar dunkers have either been missing in action or coming up really short.
Injuries to Paul George and Durant definitely loom large. George, a two-time Dunk Contest participant, ranked No. 32 with 69 dunks last year; review the tape and you’ll be reminded of his variety and power. Durant, meanwhile, is known more as an all-around scorer than a dunker, but his long arms, steady work on his ball-handling and high usage combined to produce 146 dunks last season, tied with Davis for fifth-most in the league. He’s pounded home some truly vicious posters too. Removing two of the league’s most popular players and top wing scorers was bound to impact the overall dunk output.
But the curious cases of James and Griffin have arguably had an even greater impact. Less than one year ago, SI.com argued that James and Griffin were the two must-haves in a dream Slam Dunk Contest field. So far this season, though, the pair of high-flying superstars have been ground-bound more than ever before.
After ranking No. 7 last season with 134 dunks, James has tumbled to No. 31 through Sunday, according to Basketball-Reference.com's dunk data. There are obvious extenuating circumstances: James, 30, is acclimating to a new team and a new offensive system, and he’s been limited by back and knee injuries that recently forced him to miss two weeks. Still, he’s been a meaningfully different player, one who sarcastically apologized for playing below-the-rim back in November. For comparison’s sake, Bucks rookie Jabari Parker still has more dunks than James this season, and he hasn’t played since Dec. 15 due to a season-ending knee injury.
Griffin, meanwhile, has fallen out of the NBA’s top-five most prolific dunkers for the first time in his career. After ranking No. 4 with 176 dunks last season, the Clippers’ All-Star forward has dropped to a tie for No. 9 with Brandan Wright. Note that Griffin’s field goal attempts and usage are at career-high rates, so his drop in dunks reflects a change in approach – more jumpers, less attempts within three feet, less free throw attempts – rather than a reduced role. Griffin led the league in dunks in 2012-13 with 202 and his Lob City cohort, DeAndre Jordan, finished No. 3 with 179. Through Sunday, Jordan had already dunked more than twice as often as Griffin (126-54), even though Griffin had yet to miss a game.
The best way to compare the dunking performances of James and Griffin is by using a fair standard -- their own previous production.
Here’s James’ dunks per game (DPG) data throughout his career. Note James is averaging a career-low 1.06 DPG this season, falling short of his 1.15 DPG as a 19-year-old rookie and his 1.24 DPG in 2010-11 as he got acclimated to new teammates in Miami. It’s also worth noting that the last two seasons produced James’ two best DPG marks: a career-best 1.89 in 2012-13 and 1.74 in 2013-14. Let’s hope that his recent return to free-flowing and commanding play continues.
Griffin’s drop is even steeper given that he's falling from a higher peak (he averaged at least 2.2 DPG in each of his first four seasons). This year, he’s at just 1.32 DPG, meaning that he’s throwing down less than half as often as he did when he posted a career-high 2.91 DPG in 2011-12.
Put this all together, and the NBA has a fairly serious dunking void at the top. If only the league had a high-visibility, midseason showcase it could use to get things back on track... Oh wait, it does. What would the ideal Slam Dunk Contest field look like, if the goals were to produce the best All-Star Saturday night show and to welcome in a new world order of dunking? Glad you asked. The following are SI.com's picks for the dream field for next month's Dunk Contest in New York City.
With any luck, the NBA will ditch the inane “freestyle” and “battle” round format from the 2014 Slam Dunk Contest after it flopped spectacularly in New Orleans. However, the following picks are made assuming that the league sticks to a six-man field made up of three competitors from each conference. Last year’s field, for reference: John Wall, Paul George, Terrence Ross, Damian Lillard, Ben McLemore, and Harrison Barnes.
Anthony Davis, Pelicans
The 2014 field was star-studded, but it was lacking a big man and Davis is the right guy to fill that slot. If any player deserves the total overexposure treatment that Griffin received after jumping over a Kia it is Davis, the 21-year-old superstar with a Grand Canyon wingspan. The Brow has gained serious momentum in his quest for basketball world domination this year, but New Orleans’ middling record and limited national television appearances make him ripe for this environment. Davis simply has the basketball chops to ensure that a premier Dunk Contest effort would endure like Michael Jordan’s free-throw line dunk, Vince Carter’s elbow slam, or Dwight Howard’s Superman moment. Check out how he sky-scrapes in the midst of two Magic defenders in game action and just think about how high he might climb without distractions or interruptions.
Worried about Davis’s limbs getting in his way? Don’t forget that Howard, JaVale McGee and Jeremy Evans have all enjoyed significant success in recent years. The most logical choice for a center in this year’s field would be the high-energy, light-hearted Jordan, who is leading the league in dunks by a wide margin, but he told SI.com last week that he would only compete in the unlikely event that he is selected to the All-Star team. Like Jordan, Davis is a prolific dunker – he ranks third this season – and a master of putbacks. The biggest Slam Dunk Contest challenge for Davis would be opening his imagination so that his next-level length and coordination could be on full display.
Andrew Wiggins, Timberwolves
This is an open and shut case. The reigning No. 1 overall pick has dropped jaws since he was a high schooler, and he is blessed with a prized Dunk Contest attribute: he makes the complicated look effortless. Check out the tape below of a casual, around-the-back dunk he threw down during pre-game warm-ups at Summer League. Wiggins’ dunks boast bounce, power, and extension, while his personality has the right combination of likability and a slight hint of alpha attitude that creeps out every once in a while. His international name recognition, popularity in Canada, and bright future are all distinct plusses.
If there’s any downside here at all, it’s that Ross (and others) already beat him to the Carter tribute dunks. Wiggins is the perfect embodiment of Carter’s influence north of the border, and watching him recreate some classics from 2000 would have been even more goosebump-inducing if others hadn’t already tapped that well. Still, Wiggins should be there. What better way to forget about a 7-33 rookie season in Minnesota than by stealing the stage in New York City?
Zach LaVine, Timberwolves
LaVine, Minnesota’s other 2014 lottery pick, has developed a dunk-centric cult following that is reminiscent of James “Flight” White and Gerald Green. Let’s be honest: there’s a risk factor here, as the last time LaVine was on primetime television, at the draft, he drove his head into a desk when the Timberwolves selected him. Hopefully, LaVine would be more in his element at the Dunk Contest; his leaping and mid-air contortions are so revered that Minnesota held a preseason dunk-off between him and Wiggins. His summer pro-am tapes are a site to behold.
The argument for taking LaVine over someone with maximum starpower, like Russell Westbrook, boils down to availability and fit with the format. Westbrook’s huge profile and explosiveness would make him a dream get for the Dunk Contest, but he can’t bear to suffer through an innocuous 90-second post-game interview, much less 45 minutes of Nick Cannon in a white suit droning on during a totally shameless extravaganza. What’s more, Westbrook’s best dunks are produced by pure instinct and instant reactions, rather than practice and orchestration. The Dunk Contest has been fertile ground for those with experience, plans and gimmicks, and LaVine’s ultra-laidback demeanor and extended YouTube track record makes him a strong fit.
Honorable Mention: DeAndre Jordan, Russell Westbrook, Gerald Green, Damian Lillard, Ben McLemore
John Wall, Wizards
The champ should always be allowed to defend his crown. In this case, Wall should get the opportunity to make up for last year’s abomination of a contest, which ended at the exact moment it was just starting to get good. The 2010 No. 1 overall pick put together one of the better prop-free dunks in recent years, jumping over Washington’s mascot before double-pumping in the winning slam. The format failed the field in 2014 and Wall’s star still shone brightly; imagine what he might be capable of if the NBA sorts out the logistical issues.
Retaining Wall would be huge for headlining purposes. As of the third round of balloting, Wall was on track to be voted in by the fans as a starter for the East. Wall vs. Davis would give the NBA two former UK Wildcats turned No. 1 picks and two projected All-Star starters leading their teams head to head. It’s hard to beat that.
Terrence Ross, Raptors
The downside to Ross is obvious: 2015 would mark his third year in a row, and at some point he would theoretically run out of material. The upside is equally obvious: his frame, burst, vertical and technique are all exceptional, making him a standout and one of the first names that comes to mind when the subject of dunking comes up. There’s a comfort to knowing that you’ll get something good: Ross has posterized Kenneth Faried to kingdom come during a game and he’s gone through-the-legs Isaiah Rider style in the Dunk Contest.
Remember, too, that Ross won in 2013 and he technically “won” as a member of the East team in 2014, even though Wall took home “Dunker of the Night” honors. He’s not exactly defending a title, but he’s got a good run going and, more importantly, last year’s East roster wasn’t broken, so why try to fix it?
Victor Oladipo, Magic
Finding a fill-in for George requires weighing a variety of options. There’s the pure ferocity of Philadelphia rookie K.J. McDaniels, who bounces harder than almost anyone in the league. There’s the outrageous length of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who would make for an interesting foil for Davis. There’s the “emerging star” angle of a guy like Jimmy Butler, whose growing profile now is comparable to where George was a few years ago.
But the pick here is Oladipo because he seems to represent a little bit of everything. The 2013 No. 2 pick can get up, as evidenced by the multiple 360 dunks he’s uncorked during games. He’s also got a showman’s flair and a love for the stage that dates back to his days as a singer at Indiana. Finally, he fits the mold of an under-the-radar gem who could benefit from the limelight. It’s been easy for folks to forget about Oladipo in the midst of Orlando’s extended rebuilding project.
There you have it: a six-man field that boasts six former lottery picks, three No. 1 overall picks, two All-Star starters, and a number of legit superstars who are poised to carry the torch for the league over the next decade. Could this field make everyone forget about the absence of George, the lost time for Durant, and the new “developments” in approach for James and Griffin? Maybe, maybe not, but they would undoubtedly put on a show.