The 2018 Dunk Contest Participants' Overreliance on the Past Makes for an Uninspiring Night

The 2018 Dunk Contest had a retro feel to it, but were the contestants overreliant on the competition's past?
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LOS ANGELES—The Slam Dunk Contest had all the storylines, human props, retro jerseys and costume changes necessary for a classic. But all those accouterments couldn’t overcome a central flaw: the four-man field simply couldn’t deliver the top-level technique, ultra-complex combination slams that have become commonplace in recent years.

Utah’s Donovan Mitchell emerged as the latest Dunk Contest champion Saturday at the Staples Center, besting Cleveland’s Larry Nance Jr. in a tight final round after Indiana’s Victor Oladipo and Dallas’s Dennis Smith Jr. were eliminated in the first round. The event was marked by an old-school feel: Nance was assisted by his father, the 1984 Dunk Contest champion, and Mitchell paid homage to his mentor, Darrell Griffith, a former Dunk Contest competitor, and 2000 champion Vince Carter with Mitchell & Ness throwback jerseys. 

To one of the greatest dunkers in basketball history, at least, the night was a success.

“The right guy won, no question,” Julius “Dr. J” Erving told The Crossover. “He brought the best dunks cumulatively and, at the end, he did what he needed to. He got a 48 when he needed a 47 [in the final round]. [The retro tributes were] pretty cool. [Mitchell brought] back Dr. Dunkenstein, No. 35 for the Utah Jazz, and I had to tell everyone who Darrell Griffith was. Then he switched over to Vince Carter too. He deserved to win.”

Erving, above reproach as a dunking analyst, was correct on two fronts: Mitchell deserved to win and his tributes were thoughtful. The Jazz’s rookie guard was the most consistent finisher, and his portfolio was well-balanced. He brought out a second hoop to throw an alley-oop to himself, he skied over his crouching sister and comedian Kevin Hart and he mimicked a Carter dunk from 2000 to seal his victory in the final round.  

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“Knowing your history is the biggest thing,” Mitchell said. “Understanding where this game originated. The OGs, even if it’s just dunking. Darrell Griffith and I went to the same school. I know Darrell very well. We both got drafted by the Jazz. To be able to pay homage to him meant a lot to me.”

Unfortunately, this contest descended too far into the retro vibe to have any staying power. Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon and others have set an impossibly high standard in recent years, and the 2018 field simply couldn’t keep up. This event just felt dated, a cardinal sin given that the Dunk Contest is at its best when it challenges the imagination and boggles the mind.

Oladipo’s showing fell well short of his 2015 Slam Dunk Contest fare, as he struggled to convert relatively simple dunks. Nance Jr. executed a brilliant reenactment of his father’s “rock the cradle” dunk, but he was inexplicably gifted a “50” for a simple slam from the baseline and the alley-oop dunk he finished with his father’s help was nothing special. 

As for Smith Jr., he has every right to feel robbed. While his first dunk, a double-clutch reverse, was somewhat safe, his second dunk was the best of the entire contest. Smith Jr. rotated in mid-air, put the ball through his legs and finished strong with his left hand—the type of multi-stage dunk that could credibly go element-for-element with LaVine’s or Gordon’s work. The judges rightfully rewarded Smith Jr. with a 50, but he didn’t advance to the Finals due to the judging panel’s overenthusiasm for Nance. After the contest, Smith Jr. turned to Twitter to question the “39” he received for his first dunk, the one that sent him home early. “What that look like?” he wondered.

In Nance’s defense, he saved his most original work for last, tapping the ball off the backboard to himself while in mid-air before finishing the dunk. Compared to the rest of the night’s slams, this was a jaw-dropper. Compared to LaVine’s free-throw line flying or Gordon’s mascot leaping, it produced more of a respectful nod. And, frankly, Dwight Howard did it better in 2008.

While Mitchell was the night’s steadiest dunker, his work was easy to nitpick using recent comparisons. JaVale McGee dunked two balls on two hoops in 2011; Mitchell’s second hoop was mostly for show. Multiple contestants in recent years have skied over standing targets; Mitchell easily cleared his human assistants, but they were crouched so low that it created a warping effect. Carter’s finishing dunk and the accompanying “It’s over” celebration were revolutionary in 2000; Eighteen years later, Mitchell delivered a thoughtful replay that wasn’t nearly as mesmerizing or groundbreaking as the original.

To be sure, there’s absolutely such a thing as going “too modern” in the Dunk Contest. Just ask Gordon after his failed “Drone Dunk” last year, Harrison Barnes after his weak NBA 2K-infused dunk in 2014 or Paul George’s confusing glow-in-the-dark jersey dunk in 2012. Good ideas can turn bad very quickly and ill-conceived notions have ruined plenty of All-Star Saturday nights.

Still, if given the choice between over-innovation and pure imitation, the Dunk Contest is always better served by the former rather than the latter. The 2018 contest will soon be forgotten for a simple reason: Its contestants did a far better job retracing old steps than breaking any new ground of their own.