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When Gravity Won: The Worst NBA Slam Dunk Contests Of All Time

The 2024 NBA Slam Dunk contest is now officially behind us, and once again, it was pretty meh. Mac McClung was called up from the G-League to save the event again, while Jaylen Brown—the most famous participant in years—didn't live up to the hype and was booed out of the building.

As bad as Brown's performance was, at least McClung was there to give the crowd something to cheer about. This year's Slam Dunk contest was far from the worst, as some iterations of this historic contest have been boring, disastrous, or even both.

With that being said, let's look at the five worst Slam Dunk contests in NBA history. Keep in mind that this list is entirely subjective.

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#5. 1996 Dunk Contest

This contest is remembered for two things, Brent Barry's dunk from the free-throw line while he had his warm-up clothes on, and Darrell Armstrong attempting a layup because he ran out of time. This Dunk contest relied heavily on rookies and sophomores, which would be a sign of things to come in later years. The biggest names in this contest (Barry, Jerry Stackhouse, and Michael Finley) were all rookies, and the other contestants weren't world-beaters either.

Greg Minor was a sophomore for a poor Celtics team, Doug Christie was just trying to get his career back on track after a terrible sting in New York, and Armstrong had only 35 minutes of NBA experience before he infamously attempted a reverse layup during the Slam Dunk contest (emphasis on the "Slam Dunk").

Thankfully this embarrassment didn't end Armstrong's career, as he'd go on to have a good 14-year career in the league. Aside from Barry's free-throw line dunk, there was nothing special about this contest. And even his crowning moment was just an inferior copy of MJ's free-throw line dunk.

 

#4. 2021 Dunk Contest

The 2021 Slam Dunk contest had just three contestants, and all three of them combined to average 13.4 points per game that season. To put that into perspective, infamous draft bust Josh Jackson also averaged 13.4 points per game that year. The NBA didn't originally want Anfernee Simons, Obi Toppin, and Cassius Stanley to be the main contestants. They sent out invitations to the likes of Zion Williamson, Jaylen Brown, Anthony Edwards, Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon, and others, but they all declined.

That meant that the Slam Dunk contest would have to go ahead with just three contestants for the first time, and honestly, they should have canceled it. I mean, who would want to watch a Slam Dunk contest with three players who were getting minimal playing time, and with no fans in the crowd due to the Pandemic?

There wasn't much to write home about until Anfernee Simons won the whole thing after almost kissing the rim, as he wrapped up a very forgettable contest.

 

#3. 2014 Dunk Contest

What a confusing mess! This was the last truly star-studded Slam Dunk contest, with big names like Paul George, John Wall, and Damian Lillard competing alongside Harrison Barnes, Ben McLemore, and the defending Slam Dunk champion Terrence Ross. So, how did they manage to mess this up? It's simple: They decided to adopt an East vs West format for some reason, with George, Wall, and Ross going up against Barnes, Lillard, and McLemore.

The two teams would have a meaningless "Freestyle Round" before a one-on-one "Battle Round", where the first team with three victories in the Battle Round would have won. This could have worked if the contest would have gone down to the wire. Instead, the East swept the West and it was over just like that, meaning that we only saw six dunks that mattered.

John Wall's dunk over the Wizards' mascot was pretty cool, and his opponent Ben McLemore brought out Shaq and did basically what Jaylen Brown did this year (except that Shaq is two feet taller than who Brown dunked on). But apart from that, this contest was confusing and it ended abruptly. There's a reason why they never tried this format again.

 

#2. 1997 Dunk Contest

This Slam Dunk contest was so bad that it almost killed off the legendary All-Star weekend tradition entirely. And it was unanimously considered the worst Slam Dunk contest ever until a few years ago. It featured a pair of future Hall of Fame rookies Ray Allen and Kobe Bryant, as well as current Lakers HC Darvin Ham, Chris Carr, Bob Sura, and the returning Michael Finley.

The sophomore Finley was easily the most accomplished player in the group, but he had just gotten traded to the Mavericks for Jason Kidd in what looked like a terrible trade at the time. The most "memorable" moment of this contest was when Finley missed his dunk after doing a cartwheel and the whole audience laughed at him. Thankfully for him, he would go on to rebuild his reputation by having a great career in Dallas, but this is a night that he'd like to forget.

Eventual winner Kobe Bryant also didn't remember this night fondly, even though this was the first-ever accolade of his legendary NBA career. He basically won by default because of all the missed attempts by his opponents and he also failed to get the crowd on its feet, which is something you never associate with Kobe. The Slam Dunk contest was canceled in 1998, but thankfully Vince Carter, Steve Francis, and Tracy McGrady brought the contest back to life in 2000.

 

#1. 2022 Dunk Contest

A quarter of a century later, the NBA's All-Star weekend returned to Cleveland, and coincidentally, we saw the Slam Dunk contest that finally managed to surpass the 1997 Slam Dunk contest as the worst of all time. Obi Toppin returned after the 2021 contest to take on Juan Toscano-Anderson, Cole Anthony, and Jalen Green. Green was one of the NBA's most exciting rookies that year, so many expected him to have a big showing in the contest.

Instead, Green missed his first eight attempts and was flamed by basketball fans around the world. Anthony didn't do much better, as he injured his thumb during an attempt. That left Toppin to battle it out with Toscano-Anderson in the final round, where Toppin won easily as Toscano-Anderson barely put up a fight.

The contest received backlash from everyone in the basketball community, and it's pretty surprising why the contest didn't get canceled after this like it did in 1997. Many fans lobbied for a 1v1 contest during All-Star weekend, while Stephen A. Smith claimed that the NBA should gather some of the best dunkers in the world for its Slam Dunk contest, regardless if they play in the NBA or not. Maybe that's the only way the contest can be saved in the future.

 



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