Dunk grades: LaVine, Gordon make ’16 one of the best contests ever

1:59 | NBA
History of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest
Sunday February 14th, 2016

TORONTO — The only grade that matters from Saturday night: A+.

The 2016 Slam Dunk Contest will be remembered as one of the greatest shows in NBA history. At worst, Zach LaVine’s marathon double-overtime victory over Aaron Gordon belongs in the top three in the contest’s history with Michael Jordan over Dominique Wilkins in 1988 and Vince Carter’s epic performance in 2000.

Some, including LaVine himself, may make the case that 2016’s competition, which was layered with creativity and complicated maneuvers, was even better than that. “In my opinion, yes,” the back-to-back champ said, when asked whether Saturday’s contest was the best ever.

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The standout elements of this contest were its length and drama. After LaVine and Gordon posted perfect scores on both of their final round dunks, the competition moved into a dunk-off. That extra round saw the competitors post perfect 50s again. Finally, in the second dunk-off, LaVine prevailed 50–47 to join Jordan, Jason Richardson and Nate Robinson as the only dunks to win back-to-back contests.

All told, LaVine scored 299 out of a possible 300 points on his six dunks. Afterward, the Timberwolves second-year guard told reporters that his winning dunk, which came from a step inside the free-throw line and saw him pass the ball between his legs, was improvised on the spot thanks to a suggestion from fellow competitor Will Barton.

• WATCH: Relive LaVine’s classic performance | See Gordon’s absurd dunks

Meanwhile, Gordon finished with 291 points and had perhaps the best dunk by a non-winner in Slam Dunk Contest history when he took the ball from the Magic’s mascot, passed it underneath his butt from left to right, and finished in one smooth motion.

“I think potentially I could have won,” Gordon said afterward. “It could have gone either way. Zach’s an incredible dunker, he went through the legs from the free-throw line. That is insane. So off that dunk, you’ve got to give it to him. That's why the trophy’s with him and not with me.”

Photos: NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest champions through the years

In SI.com’s opinion, the five judges—George Gervin, Dikembe Mutombo, Shaquille O’Neal, Tracy McGrady and Magic Johnson—ultimately crowned the proper champion. LaVine was a deserving winner, by the slightest of margins.

Without further ado, let’s hand out grades for all 16 dunks from Saturday night in Toronto.


Will Barton’s Dunk No. 1

Will Barton aka “The Thrill” aka “The People’s Champ” came out with a bang, dressed Michael Jackson-style in a red leather jacket and surrounded by zombie dancers.

His first dunk was very good: he went right-to-left through his legs, passing the ball from back to front, before finishing with two hands over his head. The judges were a little bit too harsh, likely because this was the contest’s first slam and they wanted to leave a little wiggle room.

Official Grade: 44 out of 50
SI.com’s Grade: 46 out of 50

Andre Drummond’s Dunk No. 1

Detroit’s powerful center acquitted himself nicely, even though he missed his preferred dunk multiple times and had to go to an alternate look. His desired slam: a self alley-oop from the baseline in which he passed the ball through his legs from left to right. After that failed, he went to a self alley-oop that he double-clutched with two hands before finishing, push style, with one hand. Points deducted for the missed efforts and the non-traditional finish.

Official Grade: 36 out of 50
SI.com’s Grade: 35 out of 50

Aaron Gordon’s Dunk No. 1

Orlando’s second-year forward came out to “Classic Man” and stripped off his suit to build a little buzz. Honestly, he didn’t need to bother. Gordon’s first slam was a spinning 360 that saw him take the ball through his legs from front to back and finish in smooth style. The judges handled him fairly conservatively.

Official Grade: 45 out of 50
SI.com’s Grade: 47 out of 50

Zach LaVine’s Dunk No. 1 

After making the rounds, getting love from teammates Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins and a hug from Drake, LaVine got straight to business. His first dunk earned perfect marks, as he threw a self alley-oop, went around his back, cupped the ball underneath the rim and finished with his right hand. He was off to a hot start, making the complicated look simple.

Official Grade: 50 out of 50
SI.com’s Grade: 50 out of 50

Andre Drummond’s Dunk No. 2

Sometimes the Dunk Contest helpers turn out not to be very helpful. Drummond enlisted Steve Nash as his assistant, hoping to recapture the soccer-style magic between Nash and former Suns teammate Amar’e Stoudemire. Instead, Nash juggled the ball all over the court, making a mess of the flow and setting up Drummond with some terrible passes.

Finally, Nash heel-flicked the ball up to Drummond for a right-handed windmill. By the time they finally executed it, the novelty was gone and Drummond had no chance to advance.

Official Grade: 39 out of 50
SI.com’s Grade: 36 out of 50

Will Barton’s Dunk No. 2

Barton’s strong start couldn’t be sustained. For his second effort, he tried valiantly to complete a self alley-oop with a reverse 360 that would end with a sweeping right-handed finish. He just couldn’t get it down and that was that. Exit stage left.

Official Grade: 30 out of 50
SI.com’s Grade: 30 out of 50

Aaron Gordon’s Dunk No.2

Gordon was ready to reveal his secret weapon: Orlando’s Stuff the Magic Dragon on a hoverboard.

After one miss, Gordon completed a truly filthy and multi-stage slam by jumping over Stuff, moving the ball from his left to right hand through his legs before finishing a clean and powerful slam with his right hand while scissor-kicking. The Air Canada Centre crowd went nuts. There was no good reason for Shaquille O’Neal, the lone dissenting judge, to be stingy.

Official Grade: 49 out of 50
SI.com’s Grade: 50 out of 50

Zach LaVine’s Dunk No. 2

LaVine enlisted teammate Andre Miller to throw him an alley-oop. But this wasn’t just any alley-oop, as LaVine rocketed from near the free-throw line to catch the pass with two hands, float above the paint and then finish with a strong right hand. O’Neal again miffed everyone by being the only non-perfect holdout. LaVine’s slam should have earned top honors.

Official Grade: 49 out of 50
SI.com’s Grade: 50 out of 50


Aaron Gordon’s Dunk No. 3

Stuff was back for more! This time, the mascot spun in a circle on the hoverboard to add a degree of difficulty. Gordon timed his approach with Stuff’s spinning, ensuring that he could catch the ball at the right moment of the rotation. He then completed a 360 spin of his own, executing a one-handed cup finish as he put his left hand behind his head for good measure. Just insane, insanely difficult and insanely creative.

Official Grade: 50 out of 50
SI.com’s Grade: 50 out of 50

Zach LaVine’s Dunk No. 3

Right about now, it was starting to become clear this was a contest for the ages. LaVine fired back with a self alley-oop that he cupped with his right hand near his waist before finishing with a smooth windmill. On the first try. Just because he makes it look easy doesn’t mean it’s actually easy.

Official Grade: 50 out of 50
SI.com’s Grade: 50 out of 50

Aaron Gordon’s Dunk No. 4

Stuff’s night continued, although he ditched the hoverboard this time. In perhaps the greatest dunk by a non-winner in Slam Dunk Contest history, Gordon jumped over Stuff, passed the ball from his right hand to his left hand under both of his legs, and then completed a clean lefty finish. Replays showed just how high Gordon had to get his butt and legs off the ground to clear the mascot and make sure he could execute the hand-to-hand pass smoothly. Again, this was totally original, never-before-seen material. It’s not easy to have the best dunk in a contest in which LaVine dunked six times, but Gordon did.

Official Grade: 50 out of 50
SI.com’s Grade: 50 out of 50

Zach Lavine’s Dunk No. 4

LaVine’s major strength in the Dunk Contest is repurposing his unique skills—cruising in from the free-throw line and contorting his body through hand-to-hand passes—in different looks. Here, he took off again from just inside the foul line, using two hands to rock the ball to his right before finishing another long-distance levitation slam. Did it look like some of his other material? Sure. Was it still absolutely jaw-dropping? Yes.

Official Grade: 50 out of 50
SI.com’s Grade: 50 out of 50


Aaron Gordon’s Dunk No. 5

Because both Gordon and LaVine posted perfect 50s on both of their final round dunks, the competition proceeded to a Dunk-Off. Gordon brought the heat with an assist from teammate Elfrid Payton, who tossed an alley-oop off the side of the backboard as the set up. Gordon did the rest, catching the pass in reverse fashion, scissor-kicking and then rocking the cradle for a two-handed finish. The agility and economy of motion were particularly impressive.

Official Grade: 50 out of 50
SI.com’s Grade: 50 out of 50

Zach LaVine’s Dunk No. 5

The pressure was suddenly on the defending champ in big-time fashion. Anything short of a perfect dunk and he would have been an upset victim. To his credit, he rose to the challenge, tossing a self-alley oop from the baseline, going through his legs left to right, and then going with an extra arm extension as he finished the reverse slam over his head. Pretty, pretty stuff.

Official Grade: 50 out of 50
SI.com’s Grade: 50 out of 50


Aaron Gordon’s Dunk No. 6

Gordon admitted afterward that he was running out of prepared material at this point of the competition. After experimenting with a self alley-oop off the shot clock, he called an audible and went back to a slam he used during the McDonald’s All-American contest a few years ago.

The effort—a reverse slam in which he tapped the ball against his back with two hands, double-clutched the ball down to his waist in front, and the powered through for a two-handed finish— was executed cleanly. Unfortunately, it didn’t have quite the pop of some of his earlier efforts. The judges docked him three points, and he lamented afterward that his slam looked better in slow motion than it did in real time. Regardless, this was an excellent dunk worthy of an almost-perfect score.

Official Grade: 47 out of 50
SI.com’s Grade: 49 out of 50

Zach LaVine’s Dunk No. 6

“Almost perfect” wasn’t going to cut it against LaVine on this night.

LaVine went back to the free-throw line for the kill shot, telling reporters afterward that he had never previously executed this dunk and he attempted it on the suggestion of Barton. Practice or no practice, he handled the moment and the pressure flawlessly, taking off from just inside the strip, going through his legs from left to right and then finishing with the right-handed finish.

Official Grade: 50 out of 50
SI.com’s Grade: 50 out of 50


Taken together, LaVine’s performance shredded the concept of “impossible” and set a new benchmark for future contests.

If there’s any knock on the 2016 contest, relative to 1988 and 2000, it’s that LaVine and Gordon are not yet established NBA stars. Clearly, comparing Hall of Famers to rotation players is an apples-to-oranges comparison, just as comparing players from the 1980s to today’s players requires some mental adjustments.

Looking back at the 2000 Dunk Contest: The start of Vinsanity

Whether or not you agree with LaVine’s assessment that 2016 reigns supreme, the contest will be remembered for how long the drama extended and how consistently the two finalists performed in make-or-break situations. This was one for the ages thanks to both LaVine and Gordon.

But, a winner must be crowned.

SI.com’s ballot gives LaVine a perfect total score of 300 out of 300. Gordon finished just behind him with 295 out of 300.

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