Hello from the United Center, where the arena is still buzzing after the controversial end to the 2020 slam dunk contest. Who knew that placing the Iowa Democratic Party in charge of this year’s event would end poorly? Saturday night of All-Star Weekend featured three competitions, a Damian Lillard—excuse me, Dame D.O.L.L.A.—rap performance, and many more winners and losers. Onto the list!
Winners: Bam Adebayo, Buddy Hield, and Derrick Jones Jr.
Well, these three literally won events Saturday night—in the Skills Challenge, 3-point contest, and slam dunk contest, respectively–and hoisted sizable trophies as a result. But we can dive far deeper into their victories.
For his first five dunks Saturday, Aaron Gordon received five 50s. That perfection vaulted him through the first round, through the ostensible final round, and through the first dunk-off round against Jones. And when Jones’s dunk in the second dunk-off fell short of perfection—receiving only a 48 from the judges—the contest seemed Gordon’s to lose.
Aaron Gordon lost the dunk contest by one point to Derrick Jones Jr. after jumping over Tacko Fall. pic.twitter.com/3nBarEXuwb— ESPN (@espn) February 16, 2020
When he hurdled 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall to cap his dunking night, the judging appeared a mere formality. After that long run of 50s—more on this later—the whole United Center assumed Gordon would claim his long-awaited dunk contest trophy on his third try at winning the competition. And then the scores were revealed—and the crowd did the math, and everyone began booing like someone had just insulted Michael Jordan from center court.
Gordon’s final dunk scored 47 points, making Jones the uncomfortable winner. Confusion reigned, and controversy followed. As colleague Rodger Sherman noted, one of the judges who docked a final point from Gordon was Dwyane Wade, a recent teammate of Jones’s. Was there dunk contest collusion???
Or were all five judges trying to collude, and just failed to do so properly?
Loser: Aaron Gordon
On Saturday, Gordon scored 297 out of a possible 300 points, ultimately losing in the second tiebreak round despite a host of magnificent dunks. Back in 2016’s hallowed dunk contest, Gordon scored 291 out of a possible 300 points, ultimately losing in the second tiebreak round to Zach LaVine despite the same magic. Gordon was not pleased with the repeat disappointment:
Magic’s Aaron Gordon after controversial Slam Dunk Contest loss to Heat’s Derrick Jones Jr.: “We’re here to do four dunks. It should be the best out of four dunks. I did four straight 50s — five straight 50s. It’s over. It’s a wrap. Let’s go home.” pic.twitter.com/X02EYkG6Ar— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) February 16, 2020
Place your bets for the 2024 dunk contest now, because the result seems clear.
Loser: Dunk Contest Score Inflation
Here was part of the problem for Gordon this time around. Far be it from me to impugn the grading legitimacy of All-Star Celebrity Game MVP Common—but more than half of the dunks completed Saturday were awarded perfect 50s. Some were absolutely worthy of the honor.
But when every dunk is a 50, then no dunk is. We need a better way to separate the merely good dunks from the truly special.
Loser: The Dwight Howard Dunking Comeback
Howard last appeared in the dunk contest so long ago that he hadn’t yet made the Finals as a member of the Magic. The 2008 champion and 2009 runner-up—to Nate Robinson in a razor-thin fan vote—returned to the Saturday night showcase amid ample hoopla, but he failed to justify the excitement with his actual dunks. Howard’s first effort was a spinning, smiling jam, but it yielded just 41 points, the fewest in the first round.
His second try was more of a tribute to Kobe Bryant and his own past contest efforts—was anything more predictable than a return of his Superman cape?—than a dazzling dunk in and of itself. The judges still rewarded him with a score of 49, but that meant Howard was the only dunker without a single 50. He was the first contestant eliminated, bringing a muted end to his attempted resurgence. At least Howard’s in-game comeback with the Lakers this season has gone much smoother.
Winner: The Kings
The last Sacramento player to win one of the big three Saturday night events was Peja Stojakovic, with consecutive 3-point contest titles in 2002 and 2003.
Hield sated that drought with a final-shot win in Saturday’s 3-point shootout. After tying Devin Booker (competing only because of Lillard’s withdrawal due to injury) with 27 points in the preliminary round, Hield scored a matching 27 in the finals to edge out Booker’s 26. Since Hield moved to the bench on January 24, nobody has made more 3s than the Kings guard, who has canned 49 percent of his 10.4 3-point tries per game. That hot streak continued Saturday, all the way through his final, crucial swish of a moneyball.
Winner: Jason Kapono
The former Miami and Toronto sharpshooter won consecutive 3-point contests in 2007 and 2008. Since then, the following players have tried and failed to defend their title: Daequan Cook, Paul Pierce, James Jones, Kyrie Irving, Marco Belinelli, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Eric Gordon, Devin Booker, and now Joe Harris.
Harris scored 22 points in the first round Saturday, but hiccups on the final moneyball rack prevented him from advancing. Kapono remains the last player—one of six ever—to win multiple 3-point shootouts in a row.
Winner: Deep 3-Pointers
New this year to the 3-point contest were two deep shots, one from each wing 6 feet beyond the arc. Was the branding silly? Yes. Did the phosphorescent green coloring of the Mountain Dew Zones look like something out of a cheap superhero movie? Also yes. But did the United Center crowd enjoy the new addition? Yes to that question too—and that matters most of all.
All-Star Weekend is about fan entertainment, and with every long shot released from these deep zones, the fans in attendance took a collective intake of breath. The shooters weren’t particularly successful from the new spots (they combined to make eight of 24 attempts), but that lesser efficiency seemed to amplify the excitement: A single make from that range was sufficient to induce raucous cheers.
Winner: Big Men Who Can Pass
Nikola Jokic leads centers in assists per game this season. He’s playing in tomorrow night’s All-Star Game. Second is Adebayo—also playing tomorrow, after winning tonight’s Skills Challenge. And third is Domantas Sabonis—playing tomorrow, too, after placing second to Adebayo in the Skills Challenge.
In terms of team construction, a multifaceted big man who can pass is a giant boost. (Denver, Miami, and Indiana have all met or exceeded expectations this season despite injuries to other key players.) In the first competition Saturday, two of the league’s best received some individual recognition as well, besting guards and wings along the way.
Loser: Basketball Fundamentals
Congratulations are in order to Adebayo—but let’s talk about what he actually needed to accomplish for his win, versus his Skills Challenge champion predecessors. The NBA switched to a new setup a few seasons ago, and the format is rather barebones: a snippet of dribbling, a chest pass, a single layup, and a 3-point shot. Compare those demands with what was required of Deron Williams in his record-setting (back when the contest was timed, rather than head-to-head) run back in 2008.
Williams needed twice as much zigzag dribbling and an extra layup. He completed a bounce pass. He threw two chest passes of varying length. His fundamentals were impeccable, and he deserved the win. But what is the NBA teaching kids these days? Whither the bounce pass? As my mother texted me, unprompted, after Adebayo’s win, “The trophy is that big for what they just did??? This competition looks like it should be in [the local rec league], not the NBA.”
Loser: NBA Finances
In actually important NBA news, before Saturday’s festivities began, commissioner Adam Silver said at a press conference that Daryl Morey’s China boondoggle last fall cost the league “hundreds of millions of dollars,” though he estimated an upper limit of $400 million.
At least the league got its Mountain Dew money from the new 3-point spots.