In 1984, the NBA implemented a highly entertaining exhibition during its all star weekend called “the slam dunk contest.” That was a popular event that originated in the ABA and soon became even more popular in their league.
In its first five years of existence in the NBA, the great Michael Jordan participated three different times, winning twice (including a classic yet controversial showdown with superstar Dominique Wilkins in 1988).
Jordan’s majestic dunks played a huge role in evolving his early reputation as a high flying offensive juggernaut, and helped Wilkins develop his “The Human Highlight Film” moniker. In 1986, the diminutive Spud Webb shocked the crowd by winning the contest at just 5’7” tall.
Over the years, many other super leapers displayed their creativity in the contest, most notably Raptors superstar Vince Carter during the iconic 2000 contest. But in recent years, the luster of the slam dunk has taken a back seat to a different basketball play:
2014–15: Signs of a Changing NBA
I never thought in my wildest dreams that the 3-point shot would become so heavily used and wildly popular the way that it has, especially during the past five to six years. As far as I remember, this current league wide obsession with 3’s began with Golden State Warriors superstar guard Stephen Curry.
I had a few years in there that I wasn’t paying as much attention to the NBA the way that I had for many years previously, so I had only heard about the Warriors’ “Splash Brothers” tandem of Curry and fellow sharpshooter Klay Thompson. In my memory, it was the 2015 NBA finals between the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers that officially hipped me to their unreal long distance shooting.
Curry was the league MVP for the 2014–15 season and I had never seen him play. I was definitely curious as to what all the hoopla was about this guy that I was suddenly hearing a lot about. The Warriors making the finals really caught my attention.
Back then, I was still very much of the mindset that jump shooting teams don’t win championships, which was the accepted belief for the whole history of the league prior to 2015. Naturally, I had seen many amazing 3-point shooters for decades in the NBA.
The Great Shooters of The Past Never Shot 3’s With This Volume
Larry Bird was the poster boy for long distance shooting excellence for a long while. There was Reggie Miller, Glen Rice, Ray Allen, Jeff Hornacek, Dell Curry and Mark Price who were among the best.
Then there were others who weren’t in possession of the same accuracy and efficiency as those guys, but were huge volume 3-point shooters such as John Starks, Vernon Maxwell, Dennis Scott and Nick Anderson.
But in spite of all those 3-point marksmen, their volume or the frequency with which they fired from distance was nothing like what I was seeing develop around ’15. And when the Warriors won the NBA title that year, it was a symbolic changing of the way that the league approached playing the game.
Curry Glamorized Dramatic 3-Pointers
It was the historic 2015–16 season for Golden State that it finally hit me completely; the NBA was just different now. More different than it had been probably since the institution of the 3-point shot itself going into the 1979–80 NBA season. The most immediate evidence was in that ‘15-‘16 season.
Game after game, Curry was pulling up from several feet behind the 3-point arc and drilling the shots with alarming consistency. His famous pregame routine of practicing shooting shots from the tunnel in arenas all around the league was unbelievable. It really caught me off guard to see people try these shots in rec centers and schools all over the country.
A League Full of Shooters
While Curry and Thompson were the most popular and celebrated volume 3-point shooters in the game, they were far from the only ones who were doing it. Houston Rockets superstar James Harden was another one who had developed that shot as his most relied upon weapon, as was OKC’s Kevin Durant, a masterful shooter and high scorer in his own right.
From my perspective, the league as a whole had taken on a more 3-point centric philosophy as a result of the Warriors proving that jump shooting teams could in fact win the championship.
To me, nothing summed up the incredible prevalence and excitement that a deep 3-pointer could create than the Warriors/Thunder game on February 27, 2016. In an utterly thrilling conclusion to a magnificent game, Curry pulled up from about 32 feet and nailed a dramatic bomb with 0.6 seconds left that gave Golden State a 121–118 overtime victory.
Perhaps even more stunning was the fact that Steph connected on an astonishing 12 of 16 shots from the 3-point line! For a bit of perspective, the great Michael Jordan made 12 shots from 3-point range in his first 100 NBA games!
MJ went 12 of 70 in his first 100 games from the arc; Curry went 12 of 16 in that single game. Granted, we are talking about a 30 year difference in time, and a drastically different philosophy in the game, but it is quite striking how vastly changed the game has become.
That Shockingly Historic MVP Season
Curry’s scintillating volume and jaw dropping accuracy that season still baffles me. He attempted a searing 11.2 shots from 3-point territory and actually averaged a still shocking 5.1 makes per game. The first player in NBA history to make 400 3-pointers in a single season.
He also joined the rare 50/40/90 shooting club and averaged 30 points per game. Just those numbers alone tells me that he definitely deserved the league MVP award that season, which he won as the first and only unanimous selection ever. Thompson averaged 8.1 attempts that season, which was unheard of as a team leader for decades, let alone as a second star.
After their blistering regular season, the Warriors unexpectedly struggled through the conference playoffs before powering through to the championship series, where they squandered a huge 3–1 lead in the NBA finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Naturally, it took transcendent performances from both Cavs megastars LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to rally from that deficit, resulting in one of the most improbable upsets in sports history. After acquiring superstar Durant from OKC over the summer, the Warriors were set to boast an embarrassment of riches.
The Rich Get Richer
For the 2016–17 season, Curry, Thompson and KD alone averaged a combined 23 attempts per game from the 3-point line! Compare that to Jordan’s Bulls from their last championship season of 1997–98, when their top three scorers averaged a meager 8.3 attempts per game.
Of course, a stacked powerhouse such as this exacted revenge (albeit with an unfair advantage) against the Cavaliers as they met again in the ’17 and ’18 finals, winning both times easily.
The COVID-19 Playoffs of 2020
Fast forward to last season. It was the most unusual campaign in the history of the league. COVID-19 and its many worrisome qualities forced the suspension of sports in general in March 2020. The NBA returned about five months later to finish the regular season, then play out the postseason.
During the early rounds of the playoffs, the player who was the most fun to watch in my opinion was none other than Portland Trailblazers superstar guard Damian Lillard. I had been aware of him for years, but he has never captured my attention the way he did in last season’s “bubble playoffs” in Florida.
He was beyond description once the league returned, as he shot the most audacious 3-pointers from the most ridiculous distances often with nothing more than a needle thin look at the basket. His newest nickname, “Logo Lillard” is a tribute to his stunning consistency in shooting and connecting on shots from just inside half court.
Take nothing away from Damian, but I believe that what he did shined a lot brighter and looked more unbelievable with Steph Curry not playing. His Warriors were so garbage last season as a result of injuries to him and Klay, and of course the free agency defection of KD, that they didn’t even come close to qualifying for the playoffs.
It looks like they’re repeating that same performance this season, even though it’s still very early.
Prolific Shooting, Not Dunking is Now The Coolest
I have arrived at a very interesting conclusion; the 3-point shot has officially replaced the slam dunk as the most exciting shot in basketball. Dunks are cool and all, but they feel like a simple formality when a player just has to be tall enough to do it.
Of course, being tall doesn’t automatically make a player an exciting dunker. There still needs to be some talent and creativity to make for a Jordan, Wilkins or Carter. But being a shooter capable of nailing, not only 3-pointers with consistency, but nowadays, very deep 3-pointers with consistency requires an obscene amount of dedication, practice, practice and more practice.
During NBA all star weekend for many years, the signature event (besides the actual game) was the slam dunk contest. Larry Nance in ’84, MJ vs Wilkins in ’85, tiny Spud Webb in ’86, MJ’s back to back victories in ’87 and ’88, Wilkins in ’90, Kobe Bryant in ’97 and of course, Carter in ’00 were all iconic performances by mostly superstar players.
But that contest has become far too desperate and gimmicky for my taste, not to mention the fact that superstars stopped appearing eons ago, which takes away much of its original luster.
The 3-point shootout is much more interesting, and frankly, it was always captivating. Watching Bird’s trademark confidence when he won in 1986, 1987 and 1988 was awesome. Even Craig Hodges hitting 19 in a row when he won in 1991 had me in utter awe. So, it is nothing new in the contests, but now the actual games can say the same.
In my opinion.