NBA Dunk Contest judging was so bad it felt rigged

The NBA Slam Dunk Contest isn’t dying; it’s been dead for years with only occasional signs of rebirth. This is, mostly, a totally fine arrangement: a bad dunk contest is largely forgotten 24 hours later. A good dunk contest — which we seem to get once or twice a decade — provides incredible highs to the viewers and pushes the boundaries of human athleticism and creativity. The dunk contest doesn’t need to be canceled again, but it could certainly stand to be improved. The 2024 NBA Slam Dunk Contest was a premium example of that.

The biggest criticism against the modern NBA Slam Dunk Contest has been its lack of starpower. That changed at least somewhat this year as Jaylen Brown became the rare All-Star to compete in the dunk contest. His competition was one standout rookie in Miami Heat wing Jaime Jaquez Jr., and two G League players in Jacob Toppin and reigning champion Mac McClung.

McClung won the 2024 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, becoming the first back-to-back winner since Zach LaVine in 2015 and 2016. McClung was deserving as the winner — the man literally jumped over Shaq for a reverse dunk, and also pulled out a dunk we’ve never really seen before — but everything that led up to that point was another embarrassment for the dunk contest.

The judging in the dunk contest continues to be a total sham. It felt worse than ever this year, and it overshadowed what could have been a fun night.

The judges almost seemed to predetermine that Brown would make the final. Brown’s first dunk of the night — a Dominique Wilkins homage from the Atlanta native — was probably the worst dunk of the entire contest, a basic windmill that would be cool in a game but not a dunk contest. Still, it drew the highest score of the first round. With the other three dunks to start off the opening round — Jaquez dunking over Shaq, McClung’s incredible drop-and-catch reverse pump slam, and Toppin jumping over his brother Obi for a reverse dunk — all bringing the heat, it already seemed like the fix was on.

The best dunk of the second batch in the first round was clearly Toppin doing a 360 under-the-legs dunk. That’s a great dunk! Somehow, the judges gave him the second lowest score, and he failed to make the final.

Brown didn’t even do his second dunk of the first round correctly — he jumped over a small man on a chair, and tried to cover his eyes but didn’t do it until he landed — yet he still made the final.

It made sense why the league would want Brown in the final. The NBA finally got an All-Star back in the dunk contest, and if he made a deep run maybe other stars would consider joining in the future. Unfortunately, Brown had the worst dunks of anyone in the competition, and the push to get him into the final undermined the entire contest.

Players and fans each sounded off on the poor judging throughout the night.

McClung beat Brown in the final to win the competition, and he had to bust out his best material to get the crown. That’s the way it should be. Still, it doesn’t have to be this hard to judge a dunk contest, and the inaccuracies of the judging is a real factor in the stars not wanting to compete.

Ja Morant said as much a few years ago:

Why NBA stars don’t want to compete in dunk contest

The biggest issue with the dunk contest continues to be the format. Stars don’t want to compete in part because it’s so easy to embarrass yourself in this setup. Blow a dunk, and you’re getting meme’d forever. The best players in the world also don’t have the time to practice exhibition dunks because they’re too busy, you know, working on their all-around games.

Back in 2014, I proposed a new format for the dunk contest that would minimize potential embarrassment and encourage more stars to compete. My “jam session” format would make the entire thing looser and feel like a party. Give any NBA player in attendance the opportunity to run up there and try a cool dunk. Less pressure, no real spotlight. The winner would be the person who did the single best dunk of the night.

The dunk contest shouldn’t feel like such a chore. It has become one for multiple reasons, starting with the format and the consistently poor judging. Commissioner Adam Silver has been willing to tweak many traditions in recent years, and the dunk contest should be next.

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