The NBA’s annual Slam Dunk Contest has faced intense scrutiny at many points throughout its history. Criticism includes the repetitive format, participants taking too long on a single dunk, lack of creativity, and at times over the top spectacle bordering on Harlem Globe Trotters entertainment.
But the criticism comes from fans and analysts who remember the roots of the contest, and hope to see a repeat of the kind of innovation that not only changed the contest but influenced the league for decades.
One of several facets the NBA would adopt when it absorbed the ABA, the dunk contest helped elevate superstar Michael Jordan's legendary status, while allowing Atlanta Hawks great Dominique Wilkins to show off his full athletic repertoire. Like Jordan, Kobe Bryant shot to fame after his victory in 1997 and the same went for Vince Carter in 2000.
It’s those names and incredible performances that cast a skyscraper-tall shadow over this year’s contestants: Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Minnesota Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine, Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo and Brooklyn Nets center Mason Plumlee.
As that young batch stews up ideas for Sunday night’s competition at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, perhaps they can draw some inspiration from the tour de force performances below.
Here are five dunk contest that are often referred to as the best of all-time.
Michael Jordan vs. Dominique Wilkins Part 2, 1988
A rematch from 1987, the effects from this one are still rippling through the league. Many have said Jordan and Wilkins’ career paths could have been changed if the outcome proved different. It’s also the contest by which all others are compared to; either it’s lesser or equal, but never better.
Perhaps taking advantage of the home Chicago crowd, Jordan seemingly leapt to the rafters after taking off from the foul line in honor of slam dunk innovator Julius Erving to win.
While many of Jordan’s dunks seemed effortless and graceful, Wilkins made his mark with sheer force and power. He unleashed windmills, both one and two-handed, and maybe would’ve won if it weren’t for Jordan’s fan base in the stands.
Jordan would also beat out future Hall of Famer and highflyer Clyde Drexler, and defending champion Spud Webb.
Vince Carter, 2000
In the preceding years, the contest severely waned in popularity and the league had to win some favor back from fans after the 1999 dead-locked shortened season. Enter Vinsanity.
After Jordan vs. Wilkins, Carter’s multifaceted and even brilliant one-man show stands as maybe the best dunk contest performance of all time.
Every dunk seemed dreamed up from an “NBA Jam” programmer’s playbook. Carter put his arm through the rim, he put the ball between his legs on the fly thanks from a bounce pass from teammate and cousin Tracy McGrady, and one of the more underrated efforts was Carter’s attempt to dunk with both hands from the free throw line. And he nearly did it.
Josh Smith, 2005
This is a forgotten gem that included some of the best in-game dunkers of the last decade. There was the lanky Smith, then-New Orleans Hornets rookie J.R. Smith, Chris “Birdman” Andersen, and the bouncy days of Amar’e Stoudemire.
From the get-go former Hawk Josh Smith proved superior in every way. Each of his dunks showed style and power, and he even honored Wilkins for one. He started off by taking off just inside the free throw line, then elevated above a supine Kenyon Martin to catch the ball for a one-handed alley-oop.
Smith wrapped up the title with one-handed windmill from the wing while donning a Wilkins throwback.
Gerald Green, 2007
Then a Boston Celtic, Green conjured up some of the most creative dunks in the contest’s history and pretty easily walked away with the title. Paul Pierce helped him first with an assist off the side of the backboard and Green trailed him, double-clutching the ball for a two-handed slam with his head well above the rim.
Defending champion and former New York Knick little man Nate Robinson got into the act, allowing Green to jump over him for his second dunk. Green would also harken back to his team’s history in the contest, recreating Dee Brown’s no-look dunk from 1991.
Green didn’t need much to best Robinson in the finals, given the latter’s multiple attempts in the last round. He merely jumped over a table and was almost horizontal with the floor when he threw it down with one hand.
Blake Griffin, 2011
Given the hype he built up with his mesmerizing slams during games in his rookie season, it seemed Griffin wouldn’t have to do too much to win this year. But he stepped up with some innovative moves, including a true 360-degree, double-clutch, two-handed slam in the first round.
Griffin later paid homage to Carter with his arm in the rim, but added some spice to the dunk by throwing it off the glass for an alley-oop.
He’d close out the night by hurdling the hood of a Kia coupe, with point guard Baron Davis serving a lob through the sun roof and a choir singing in the background.