It has been 30 years since Michael Jordan launched himself from the free-throw line and slammed the ball through the hoop to edge out Dominique Wilkins in an epic N.B.A. slam dunk contest. Not surprisingly, that moment has now inspired a 30th anniversary special edition sneaker. Not surprising, either, is that the league has jumped in, too, releasing a highlight reel of every dunk that drew a perfect score in the contest’s 34-year history, as Jordan’s did that night.
But the Jordan anniversary aside, the fact remains that the dunk contest, which is regarded as an increasingly unreliable source of entertainment, has started to be overtaken in prestige by the 3-point-shooting competition, even if the former still draws higher television ratings.
And that trend is likely to continue this weekend, when the dunk contest on Saturday night will have a field that pales in comparison to the entrants in the 3-point competition, a group that includes four current All-Stars: Klay Thompson, Kyle Lowry, Paul George and Bradley Beal.
“I have been yelling from the rooftops that the 3-point contest has overtaken the dunk contest, in my opinion, as the most exciting event,” Reggie Miller, a famed long-range shooter and current broadcast analyst, said in a telephone interview. “We have become a very 3-point-heavy league, and most young kids aren’t going to be able to dunk like Blake Griffin or Michael Jordan. But everyone wants to like Steph.’’
For years, the dunk contest rivaled the actual game as the biggest event of All-Star weekend. But a string of recent dunk contests — apart from a stirring duel between Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine in 2016 — has been underwhelming. And the corresponding prominence in the game of the 3-point shot, which was introduced in 1979-80, has only grown.
To see someone like Klay Thompson or Stephen Curry rattle off 3s is pretty spectacular,” Bruce Fraser, a Warriors assistant coach, said. “Lots of things play into being a good shooter: genetics, how your mind and body tie together, hand-eye coordination. Propelling a ball from that distance is not as much about strength as it is physics: Everything has to hit at one time.”
Which is what Thompson and Lowry and George and Beal will be trying to do on Saturday night, along with four others: Devin Booker, Eric Gordon, Wayne Ellington and Tobias Harris. The dunk contest, meanwhile, now relies on lesser-known, and often younger, players because of the longstanding reluctance of stars to participate. Only one All-Star, Victor Oladipo of the Indiana Pacers, is participating in the contest this year. Derrick Jones Jr., who came in second in last year’s dunk contest, had played in only seven N.B.A. games when he competed in 2017. And the 2017 winner, Glenn Robinson III, was the 40th pick in the 2014 draft.
“In the dunk contest, if you are having LeBron and Paul George, it would be very popular,” said Clyde Drexler, who, when he was an active player, took part in both the dunk and the 3-point contest. “A lot of guys are afraid to get in the dunk contest because they may not win and it’ll hurt their brand.’’
The N.B.A. has taken steps to try to revamp the dunk contest. It has, at different times, changed the number of competitors, allowed first-round byes and then taken them away, changed the scoring system, added and then taken away a wheel that selects what dunk a player should perform and incorporated fan voting. In contrast, the rules for the 3-point competition, which began in 1986, have stayed largely the same.
Nevertheless, notes Michael Bass, the chief spokesman for the N.B.A., the dunk contest remains the highest-rated event on the Saturday night of All-Star weekend, even if the 3-point contest is drawing bigger-name players. “Maybe we will see that change over time,’’ he added. “The interest in the 3-point-shooting contest has certainly taken off.’’
Even with that surge in interest, there is talk of altering the 3-point format. Knicks Coach Jeff Hornacek, a former 3-point contest participant, has suggested holding separate contests for big men and guards. Fraser has wondered about the possibility of adding a deeper, half-court shot that would be worth more points. Miller excitedly detailed why the league should have a former 3-point contest winner team with a current N.B.A. shooter in an old-school/new-school competition.