Zach LaVine meant no disrespect to the iconic dunkers who have come before him, as he quickly pointed out. But when asked if he felt the 2016 Verizon Slam Dunk contest was the best dunk contest ever, LaVine didn’t hesitate to offer a candid take in his post-victory elation.
“Yeah, and I don’t want to get into — everybody’s probably going to say something about Mike and all them and Dr. J. But in my personal opinion, man, we did some things that nobody else did,” LaVine said. “Like half the dunks we did were like professional-dunker dunks, and it takes them four or five times to try it and make it, and we did it on the first try.
“It was crazy. In my opinion, yes.”
LaVine’s “opinion” is right. This was the best dunk contest ever, and, frankly, this was the best All-Star Saturday Night ever, too.
The NBA’s All-Star Saturday Night has lost its buzz over the past few years, if not the last decade. The Slam Dunk Contest has progressively gotten less entertaining as fewer stars participated and the creativity waned, and fans have never really been interested in the Shooting Stars Competition — which was removed this year — or Skills Challenge to begin with. The 3-Point Shootout is hit or miss — you either find it intriguing, or you don’t really care for it.
But Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, that all changed.
The Skills Challenge was a relative success. The competition was setup with guards on one side of the bracket, and big men on the other side — ensuring there would be a big man in the finals — which made things more interesting than in years past. Watching speedy and athletic guards navigate an obstacle course became boring; watching slower big men do it, though, is fresh, exciting and unintentionally hilarious.
Isaiah Thomas, the heavy favorite, predictably made the finals. His opponent, rookie big man sensation Karl-Anthony Towns, was unexpected and might’ve been the slowest and least athletic competitor in the field. But Towns pulled off the upset, and the group of four big men — Draymond Green, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Towns — celebrated a skills victory over their smaller counterparts.
It was fun and entertaining and lighthearted, the way it should be. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it was certainly the most memorable Skill Challenge in recent memory.
And the events only got better from there.
The 3-point contest between Draymond Green and actor/comedian/four-time Celebrity Game MVP Kevin Hart went as well as it could’ve. Green won the shootout, 12-11, as Hart’s last-second make to tie Green didn’t count as it was ruled after the buzzer — and saved the gimmick, which served as an appetizer for the real 3-Point Shootout, from being ruined.
Had Green made a few more shots, or Hart not gotten hot at the end, it would’ve simply been a pointless spectacle. But instead, it was a surprisingly competitive competition, and Hart — who’s become nothing more than a self-promoting sideshow the past few All-Star Weekends — actually proved he’s got some game, hitting actual NBA 3-pointers (his foot was on the line for about half of his attempts).
Speaking of shooting, the 3-Point Shootout was arguably the best it’s ever been as well. Five of the eight contestants finished with 20 or more points (which is usually the high, not the average) in the first round, resulting in a three-way tie for third place. Rookie Devin Booker downed J.J. Redick and James Harden, earning a much-deserved trip to the final round to face … the Splash Brothers.
Poor guy. We all knew how that was going to turn out.
Stephen Curry went before Klay Thompson (the leader in the first round), finishing with 23 points, a high mark by any measure. Thompson looked like he was going to fall to his MVP teammate in back-to-back seasons, only to catch fire on the last two racks and finish with 27 points — tied for the most ever with Curry in 2015, because, of course.
3-point shooting has never been more prevalent than it is in today’s game, and this year’s 3-point contest reflected that with the Splash Bros and a field of worthy challengers.
The dunk contest, the annual highlight of the entire All-Star Weekend, didn’t look that enticing at first, as it featured defending champion LaVine, the stunning favorite, and three somewhat unconventional choices.
Andre Drummond is a first-time All-Star and a rising star, but he’s far from a household name for now, and isn’t necessarily known for creative dunks. Will Barton has been a rotation player for about a year. Aaron Gordon, a former lottery pick and the breakout star of the night, has toiled in obscurity in Orlando amid a lack of playing time and several injuries.
LaVine looked like a lock to repeat as a back-to-back champion.
Yet Gordon won the night by going dunk-for-dunk with LaVine, combining for an insane six straight 50-point dunks during a double-overtime dunk-off (which has to be some sort of unofficial record). Six 50s in the 6ix. It was only right.
Gordon had the dunk of the night — somehow bringing the ball under both legs as he practically sat down mid-air and then slamming it over the Magic’s mascot, Stuff The Magic Dragon — and many felt he was robbed. Those people are right. But anyone clamoring for LaVine — who dunked from the free-throw line three times, including once between-his-legs — to have won was right, too.
It was just amazing, and worth all the hyperbole it’s since received. A top-3 dunk contest at the least, but probably the best one ever given the creativity, versatility and competitiveness both dunkers displayed.
The dunk contest is back for the time being. Hopefully we can get LaVine-Gordon II, but if not, perhaps this duel — and the reaction it caused — will inspire better dunkers to join the competition next season and in the years to come.
The dunk contest had become such a taboo topic recently that it made sense why few stars have wanted to participate — they’d be ridiculed regardless of their performance, in most cases. But this proved that, with the right field and the right dunks, people can still love the dunk contest, and that’s as big of a victory as any during All-Star Weekend.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t improvements to be made. A one-on-one competition, a (real) Horse competition, and an old timer’s game are all events that could supplement the weekend, and any of those three ideas — among many others — would be improvements over the vanilla Skills Challenge.
But assuming everything stays relatively the same for the next few years, as it has now for over a decade (the Skills Challenge was implemented in 2002), the 2016 All-Star Saturday night was an overwhelming success.
The dunk contest is back. All-Star Weekend is back. And that’s all you can ask for.
Jovan Buha covers the NBA for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter: @jovanbuha.