2018 NBA All-Stars: The history of the Three-Point Shootout and Dunk competiitons

Tonight, on the second night of NBA All-Star Weekend, it is All-Star Saturday Night time.

Leading off the night with the Skills Competition, in which four big men (All-Star Al Horford, All-Star Andre Drummond, Rising Star Lauri Markkanen and Joel Embiid, who is both) take on four guards (Rising Star Jamal Murray, Rising Star Buddy Hield, All-Star snub Lou Williams and random inclusion Spencer Dinwiddie) in what is now becoming the regular format of the event.

However, the Skills Challenge has been around since only 2003. The two events after it, the Three-Point Shootout and the Slam Dunk Contest, have much more pedigree and history than that.

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The three-point competition was first held in 1986. At that time, the NBA’s league-wide attitude to three-point shooting was unfathomably different to what it is now.

In the 1985-86 season, the three-point line, which had only been adopted by the NBA seven seasons prior, did not have a lot of customers; the league leader in made threes that season was Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird, who made a mere 82 of them in 82 games.

Only six players made more than 50 three-pointers that season, and NBA teams on average shot only 3.3 threes a game, making only 0.9 at a 28.2% clip. For comparison’s sake, last season, 116 players hit more than Bird’s mark of 82, 178 hit more than 50, teams attempted an average of 27.0 per game, and hit an average of 35.8% of them. 

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Bird’s inaugural title win was the start of a short period of dominance in the competition for him. He won the first three shootout titles, including a now-famous win in 1988.

In winning his third straight shootout title – a feat since equalled only by Craig Hodges between 1990 and 1992, an eight-time entrant who also finished as runner-up twice – Bird shot second in the last round behind fellow finalist Dale Ellis. Going first, Ellis recorded 15 points, a solid-enough score for the time. Nevertheless, having scored 23 points in a dominant semi final win in which Ellis’s score of 12 was merely a very distant second, it was Bird’s title to lose.

However, in the final, Bird got out to a slow start. He hit only 7 points through his first 16 balls, and the shock was on the cards. The dominant early-round performances by a man so far ahead of the field that he never saw the need to take his warm-ups off was in jeopardy, and a clutch performance was needed to get him out of the very hole he had built for himself.

Luckily, clutch shooting is what Larry Bird did. And with an iconic gesture, he was able to save the day. The story goes that an unfailingly confident Bird says to his fellow contestants before the competition began “alright, which one of you is going to come in second?”. Dale Ellis, as it turned out.

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Since its early days, the three-point competition entrants pool has grown from beyond Bird, Ellis and Hodges as the lure of the outside stroke has caught on around the league. Since 2003, only one player has won more than one three-point competition, that player being Jason Kapono, who won in both 2007 and 2008, the latter including an all-time best 25 of 30 points in the final. He needed it, too, in order to stave off a furious performance by Jason Terry, who had recorded 23, 25 and 25 through the first three rounds before a 19-point last round.

The competition has also grown in stature, as measured by the terms of the quality of competitors. Whereas at the turn of the century the three-point competition was often the domain of the jump shooting role player and/or the ambitious stroke of Antoine Walker, save for the occasional appearance of a Dirk Nowitzki-type (2006 winner). The competition belonged to the Kapono, Voshon Lenard (2004 winner) and Daequan Cook (2009) types, not the stars.

This has changed however in recent years. Perhaps catalysed by Kapono’s historic performance, the Three-Point competition competition now attracts the league’s best. Kyrie Irving won with an excellent 23 point final round performance in 2013, and as the field has expanded now to eight contestants, more of the league’s better shooters are accepting their invites. Both Splash Brothers have won a title – one of them, Klay Thompson, is having another go this year – and the field for this season’s version contains more star power in the form of Paul George, Elite Shooter.

The Dunk Contest, in contrast, has never lacked for star power.

The very first Slam Dunk competition was an ABA event, held in 1976 at half-time of the All-Star game, Unrecognisable from the Dunk Contest as it is today, players instead had two minutes to do five dunks from five prescribed areas of the court, with scoring not announced to the public and no chances of a do-over if anyone missed. But it did have star power – Hall of Famers Artis Gilmore, David Thompson and George Gervin all took part in the event, while the winner was “Dr J” Julius Erving, who would have dominated the competition for years had it been a regular event.

The following year, the ABA ran a year-long dunk contest featuring 22 competitors, but thereafter, the event died away. It was rebirthed by the NBA in 1984, however, and has since gone on to be an annual event and the showpiece part of All-Star Saturday Night.

Larry Nance Sr was the inaugural winner of the NBA Slam Dunk contest that year, beating out Dr J in the final in a field that also included Dominque Wilkins, Clyde Drexler and Ralph Sampson. It is perhaps serendipitous that Nance’s son, Larry Nance Jr, will be one of the competitors in tonight’s contest, in what will now be his home NBA arena.

Nance never won another Slam Dunk contest after that. But Nique did, taking the title the following year, and further triumphing in 1990 with his unequalled combination of dexterity and power. In 1988, however, Wilkins lost to Michael Jordan in one of the greatest showdowns in the competition’s history.

Over the next few years, while no individual contests quite rivalled the 1988 special, inventive dunks were becoming the thing. Highlighred by Cedric Ceballos’s blindfolded dunk, the NBA’s best athletes have always tried to find ways to add new wrinkles to the event, yet rarely had there been the competition that there was in 1988, nor the excitement.

That is, until Vince Carter showed up in the year 2000 and pushed back the boundaries of what is possible. After two years without a Slam Dunk contest – one due to the 1999 NBA lockout, the other simply because it was replaced for a year – the event needed a shot in the arm. And in throwing down the single most impressive dunk in NBA history, Vince did just that. Other great dunks that year – Tracy McGrady, Steve Francis – paled into comparison to Vince’s dominant performance. And just as Magic Johnson had tried to tell us for years, the Slam Dunk Contest really was back.

Whenever it is considered that the dunk contest is running dry for ideas and excitement, the bar gets reset that little bit higher. There are only so many ways the human body can contort and spin, and only so many ways that flailing limbs can bend. But there has never been a limit on human creativity in any field, let alone this one.

The creativity continued. Between Jeremy Evans’s off-the-catch multi-ball, Dwight Howard’s stickers and Gerald Green’s birthday cake, the creativity level increased as the limits of human contortion were reached. Flair outside of the dunk itself has, or had, become the norm. Between Dwight Howard’s superman dunk and various competitors paying homage to previous entrants, culminating in Blake Griffin’s dunk over a back in 2011, the pizzazz became the entry.

However, between them, Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon threw the focus back onto the dunks themselves. In winning the second of his two titles in 2016, LaVine triumped over Gordon – somehow – with the two of them combining for a series of spectacular dunks that rivalled the 1988 spectacular.

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The NBA never seeks to stop being creative, and nor do its players. And the Slam Dunk Contest is the best avenue for that creativity than anywhere else.

Considering the legacy at stake in this event, the standard will need to be high. But between Victor Oladipo, Larry Nance, Donovan Mitchell and Dennis Smith, the Dunk Contest should be in good hands tonight.

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