Have We Reached a New Golden Era of NBA Dunkers?

Bryant Knox@@BryantKnoxFeatured ColumnistMay 2, 2013

LeBron James has helped the NBA reach a new level when it comes to in-game finishers.
LeBron James has helped the NBA reach a new level when it comes to in-game finishers.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

From the legends of the past to the superstars of today, the NBA has always featured some of the world’s best athletes. For fans of basketball, there’s not a more entertaining game to watch, and the dunks on display are a big reason why.

It’s no secret that the NBA Slam Dunk Contest has dwindled down to an irrelevant showcase of popularity and showmanship, but that hasn’t stopped the in-game demonstrations from remaining extraordinary. In fact, the highlight-worthy finishes we see on a regular basis may be somewhat to blame when it comes to our lofty expectations—that and, of course, Vince Carter.

So for those who consider themselves dunk aficionados, the question becomes, have we entered a time where high-flying finishes have reached new heights?

This isn’t a debate as to who the best dunker in NBA history is. Whether you’re loyal to Dr. J, a witness to LeBron James or you simply want to be like Michael Jordan, every period of our past has something special to offer. But as the game continues to evolve, so do the players.

Nostalgia will keep fans around until the end of time, but when we look back at this era, we might just realize how incredible it was to be a fan of the NBA.

Once upon a time, NBA players were allowed to play a hands-on style of defense out on the perimeter. It was a time of physical play where grabbing and pushing were considered the norm, and it made life difficult for even the league’s most gifted talents.

Now, with the hand-check rule being enforced more than ever, players across the league have become known for their athleticism, as defenders aren’t allowed to hold and shove the way they once were.

With the increased enforcement of the hand-check rule—combined with an ever-increasing level of athleticism—there’s no position that is excluded when it comes to highlight reels. In fact, the NBA has shifted down from a big man’s game to a point guard’s world, and the ultra-athletic guards of the league have begun to take over.

Players like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook epitomize the league’s shift. Without the hindrance of a defender’s grip, they know how to use their athleticism to their advantage. They can get to the rim against virtually anyone they face, and their smaller frames add to the impressiveness when they pack it home against a bigger defender.

But today’s game doesn’t care what position you are. Point guards no longer play like point guards, post players can be just as athletic as wings and big men like Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee have shown that athleticism isn’t lost among the league’s giants.

Even players like James have shown that positions are moot above the rim, as he can finish regardless of what spot he’s playing on the floor.

Another rule that benefits dunkers is the restricted area. Before the 1997-98 season, the no-charge zone was expanded from a two-by-six-foot box to a circle with a four-foot radius (according to NBA.com). That change helped alleviate concerns for offensive players, as an aggressive move to the rim would not be called a charge regardless of the defender’s position.

But despite a change in rules and an increase in athleticism, there’s one thing that has revolutionized the landscape of how fans and media view the game. That thing has brought dunks of all kinds to the forefront, and that one thing is social media.

In today’s day and age of social media, no devastating dunk goes unseen. People want their news as soon as it happens, and in the sports world, a thunderous throw-down is newsworthy any night of the week.

In 2012-13, the NBA’s biggest social media victim was arguably Brandon Knight. He’s not the first player to be put on a poster, and he certainly won’t be the last, but posters of the past had to go through physical production, while today they can be published instantly.

In the Twittersphere, everyone from major news outlets to fans at home can pitch in with their opinions following a big play. Players themselves take to the practice as well, giving people on the outside even more to talk about.

But not everybody has signed off on the idea of social media as a promotional tool for individual success. Kendrick Perkins, following one of the best dunks of the 2011-12 season, took exception to James’ shout-out to Blake Griffin. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Tom Haberstroh, Perkins said, “If you’re an elite player, plays like that don’t excite you.”

But what Perkins neglected to recognize is that players are fans too. Super-athletes like James and Griffin have the physical gifts most merely dream of, and while they’re to be given credit for the current state of dunking, they also have an appreciation for the era in which they play.

Social media and instant updates play a huge role in how we perceive today’s Association, but without the athletes to grab our focus, we’d be watching rapid replays of jump shots and layups.

The NBA has hit a new level when it comes to highlight-worthy finishes; social media is simply there to remind us of them on a day-to-day basis.