Let me preface this article by stating right off the bat that Terrence Ross deserves full credit for winning Saturday's slam dunk contest. He performed a handful of amazing dunks and was far more consistent, and stylish, than his competitors.
But I'm not going to spend much time lauding Ross when the glaring theme of the dunk contest was the inadequacy of the contest itself. The way that the NBA was able to take its most amazing athletes and embarrass them was truly a failure of the contest and its format.
Allowing each player 90 seconds to complete a dunk, with no penalties for missed dunks, is a terrible way to structure the contest. In theory, it allows players to try outrageous dunks that they might not try if they have to worry about failing. In practice, it allows players to repeatedly try dunks that they can't comfortably do.
I don't want to see the best dunks that someone can do once out of every six or seven tries. That means I might have to sit through five or six missed dunks. Watching someone repeatedly miss dunks is something akin to watching a stand-up comedian bomb onstage.
It's horribly awkward for everyone involved. The dunker knows he's bombing, you know he's bombing and, worst of all, he knows that you know he's bombing.
What's perhaps worse than the missed dunks themselves are the half-hearted and blatantly phony celebrations that follow an eventual successful attempt. It's as if by posing in some authoritative way or making the appropriate gestures, the dunker is telling everyone how amazing his dunk was (see Vince Carter in the 2000 dunk contest). Only we saw all the failures that led to the dunk, and the dunker knows we saw them, making the whole thing a giant lie.
The dunker is saying "yep, that's how that was supposed to go" but we know it was supposed to go like that all the previous times, when it didn't.
As much as the format was to blame for the awkward moments that pervaded the dunk contest, the judging was every bit as much at fault.
I expect bad judging from dunk contest judges. I realize these are not professionals and that no one is taking any of this seriously. What I found surprising, however, was how the judges failed to deduct any points for repeated failed attempts. Terrence Ross scored a 50 for his first dunk, despite five missed attempts. No one can seriously argue that Ross making the dunk on his sixth attempt was as impressive as it would have been had he made it on his first attempt.
There's an inherent decrease in the value of a dunk that comes from multiple missed attempts. We all recognize this and there is no reason why it shouldn't be reflected in the judging.
I'd be curious to see what would happen if a player accidentally kicks a child, a woman or the tallest person they can find (Mark Eaton) in the face (which seems like an inevitability given the trend of jumping over people while dunking). Would the judges score the successful dunk in a vacuum, essentially saying something like "sure, he punted that 8-year old in the face a couple of times, but when he eventually got it right, it was spectacular." Then give him a perfect score.
No one epitomized everything that was wrong with the contest's format and judging more than James White. For his second dunk of the night, White received a score of 32 for failing to dunk at all. Not simply failing once, but failing to dunk repeatedly (without having counted I'd guess there were six failed attempts). White (or more accurately, whoever within the NBA was responsible for the format of the contest) forced us all to endure the awkwardness of watching White go up and down the court as if he were running "Pat Riley windsprints," as Shaq described it. White was visibly tired and it was clear that his chances of pulling off a dunk he couldn't do when he wasn't tired and wasn't embarrassed decreased with every failed attempt.
For his efforts, White not only received the contest-mandated minimum of 30 (five scores of 6-out-of-10), but he also received two 7-out-of-10s. I think the generous judges at fault for the sevens were Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, but I could be wrong about this.
Let's all stop and take a second to think about this. First of all, why is there a minimum score of 30? Why is there a minimum at all? If White can't complete one dunk in the in the 90 seconds of time allotted (which is occasionally stopped for convenience) and can't dunk on the untimed bonus attempt, he should get a zero. Period.
By having a minimum score, the NBA is basically saying to the judges: Here are 10 cards, numbered 1-10, but don't use anything below a six, and don't use the six unless someone can't dunk at all. Even then, feel free to give them a seven for trying really hard to do a dunk that they obviously can't do with any kind of consistency.
Why not use the entirety of the 10-point scale? I want to see 4-out-of-10s. I want to see fives and sixes and eights. More than anything, I just want to see the judges trying to distinguish between dunks on something more than a "that was really good, I'm giving him a 10" or "he didn't dunk at all, I'll give him a seven" basis. Instead, what the judges told us by awarding four perfect scores was that there were four dunks that were all exactly as good as each other and all exactly as good as dunks can be. That's nonsense.
As an aside and as more a comment on White's remarkable night (he was probably on court for longer in the dunk contest than he has been all season for the Knicks), I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed White acting apoplectic after his first dunk. White was given a 45 for running through a gauntlet of women dressed as flight attendants and dunking from a foot inside the free-throw line. He was stunned that he wasn't given 10s across the board. In fairness to White, I expected 10s myself. He used the right amount of gimmick that usually prompts judges to hand out perfect scores.
Surprisingly though, the judges actually decided to judge something, and instead gave White 9s.
The fact that White, an amazing athlete and an incredible dunker, could be made to look like a fool in front of viewers is a terrible reflection on the dunk contest, its format and judging. He was embarrassed and I was embarrassed for him.
To show how judging would work if the full 10-point scale were used and deductions were made for misses, here's how I would have judged Terrence Ross' four dunks:
The first, in which he transferred the ball behind his back, would have gotten a 6. It's a complicated move and a tough dunk to do, but we've seen it before and it doesn't warrant a nine or a 10. I would have given it an 8 if it were done successfully on the first attempt. Deducting marks for the five missed attempts, it's a 6.
I would've given Ross' second dunk, a 360 windmill, a seven. Again, a nice dunk, but nothing that warrants a nine or 10. The dunk got a 49 from the judges.
Ross' third dunk, an off-the-backboard quasi 360, would have received an eight if I were judging. It was well executed and unique.
Ross' fourth dunk was worthy of a nine. It was, in my mind, the best dunk I saw all night. And if you're following the logic, that means I wouldn't have handed out a single 10. And why should I have? I didn't see perfection in any dunk. I didn't see any dunk that was head and shoulders above all the other dunks of the night, or the dunks from previous years. That's my standard for handing out a 10 and it should be the judges' standard too.
I understand completely that the dunk contest isn't a competition in any real sense; it's an exhibition with pretense. And that's fine. I'm not suggesting that the NBA should change the contest and its judging to make it more competition-like, I'm suggesting they make changes to make it more entertaining and less awkward for players and viewers alike.