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10 Most underrated Dunk Contest performances in NBA history

The top 10 dunk contest performances of all-time was too easy. An assorted pile of Carter, Jordan, Wilkins, and Richardson then boom, you’re done. We decided to take another approach: the most underrated dunk contest performances off all-time.

The criteria is relatively simple yet admittedly vague. We figured that to be underrated, one likely should not have won in the given year with which their performance took place. Also, we tried to adjust the performances for their particular era. That means accounting for how the dunks stood up relative to what was happening elsewhere in the dunk game at that particular time. Beyond that, it’s time to enjoy the hipster’s champions:

Honorable Mention: Jamie Watson – 1995 (3rd Place)

Jamie Watson’s performance won’t blow your socks off, but considering the “skating program” era (where contestants were asked to perform three or more dunks within a 90-second period), he was bringing some intriguing pieces to the table. His jackknife reverse in the final round was impressive and his swooping windmill 360 to close out the first round could have very well planted the seed for Vince Carter’s scene-stealer in 2000. Sure enough, Carter lists Watson as one of his dunking influences.

10. Jerome Kersey – 1987 (2nd Place)

Lost in the shadow of Michael Jordan and his free throw line flight (the second of three consecutive years with which MJ would rely upon that particular jam), Jerome Kersey’s stellar flight show yielded a whopping eight dunks of varying difficulty. A power dunker by trade, Kersey appeared in four consecutive dunk contests, peaking here in ’87 with a strong runner-up finish.

9. Orlando Woolridge – 1984 (7th Place)

Yes, Woolridge finished seventh in the NBA’s inaugural Slam Dunk Competition in 1984. And yes, he only made 2 of his 3 attempts. However, as history often forgets, Woolridge became the first player in NBA history to complete a between-the-legs dunk when he executed the maneuver from the baseline, finishing with an unorthodox right to left transition. Respect.

8. Larry Johnson – 1992 (2nd Place)

The 1992 NBA Slam Dunk Contest was Larry Johnson’s to lose, and he lost it, but not before laying some serious groundwork. LJ steamrolled his way to the final round with no other dunker coming within 7.5 points of his cumulative score. Among the highlights: a backboard-ball-tap-to-reverse-two-hand power flush, a poster-esque bounce hammer, and a pristine pump 360.

In the end, Johnson was undone by his inability to finish his dunks in the finals (a running theme on this list), paving the way for an underwhelming dunk champion in Cedric Ceballos. Spoiler alert: Ced’s blindfold dunk was totally unnecessary – he’d already won at that point.

7. Shawn Kemp – 1991 (2nd Place)

Despite his best efforts, Shawn Kemp led an early 90’s Buffalo Bills-level existence in the dunk contest realm, falling short in all four of his appearances (1990, 1991, 1992, 1994). His best showing came in ’91, where he battled springy Boston Celtics guard Dee Brown right down to the wire. Kemp’s flexible finale from a step inside the free throw line made for outstanding poster material.

6. Jason Richardson – 2004 (2nd Place)

Jason Richardson is rightfully remembered as one of the greatest dunk contest performers off all-time, yet his 2004 contest sometimes slips through the cracks, standing alone as the one slam dunk contest appearance that didn’t end with him walking away with a trophy.

After back-to-back wins in 2002 and 2003, Richardson was looking to become the first three-time winner in ’04, executing an all-business windmill for his first dunk before stealing the show with an off-the-backboard between-the-legs dunk on his next attempt. Richardson’s second flush would mark the high point of his ’04 run, as he’d fail to complete both of his final round dunks (a 360 between-the-legs attempt and a 360 honey dip).

Despite a relative dud of a finish, we commend Richardson both for his incredible between-the-legs finish and his never-ending willingness to go big or go home (a more standard dunk in the finals may have been enough.)

5. Kenny Smith – 1990 (2nd Place)

Kenny Smith should have won the 1990 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. His rival, Dominique Wilkins, seemed to be the beneficiary of favorable scoring after many had felt he’d wrongfully lost a decision to Michael Jordan in ’88. Smith may have caught the short end of the stick through all of this, having his creative performance overshadowed by a Wilkins showing featuring multiple repeats that’d all already been seen in Nique’s four previous contest appearances.

Smith still stands as one of the most innovative competitors of all-time, introducing various dunks to the main stage not previously seen: a one-handed rim-grab reverse, a between-the-legs bounce pass off the backboard to reverse finish, and a bounce rim-grab reverse swing. In the end, Smith was likely undone by his rim-aided final round reverse, which didn’t appear to be executed exactly as he desired – perhaps yielding a little too much help from the rim.

4. Terence Stansbury – 1985 (3rd Place)

Terence Stansbury was ahead of his time. Unfortunately, his dunk contest performances have been mostly overshadowed by names like Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins, two guys who are apparently kind of a big deal. But don’t get it twisted, Stansbury was no slouch – his one-footed helicopter 360 has yet to be properly emulated (shout out to Antonio Harvey for his hilarious attempt in ’95.)

To put it another way, Stansbury’s performance was so undeniable that judges opted to make an exception and allow three players to enter the final round after a Stansbury-Jordan dunk-off ended in a stalemate. In the end, Stansbury faltered on his final flush (an underwhelming one-hand shift dunk) but his performance remains masterful, even if wrongfully forgotten.

3. Andre Iguodala – 2006 (2nd Place)

No doubt, Andre Iguodala’s dunk contest performance is one of the finest on this list. It’s so good, in fact, that we wondered about how underrated it may actually be. Amongst dunk purists, there’s a touch of a cult following behind Iggy’s showing in 2006, as nearly 140,000 views on YouTube may attest.

Unfortunately for Iguodala, the judges’ yearning for a new-age Spud Webb story (this time played by Nate Robinson) may have cost him the top. Also, Iggy probably could have helped his own cause by not missing so many attempts.

2. Desmond Mason – 2003 (2nd Place)

Desmond Mason caught himself on the wrong side of one of the greatest head-to-head battles in dunk contest history. That’s the long and short of this one. His Jordan cradle rock got the party started, while even his “routine” one-hander – to ensure a final round meeting with Jason Richardson – was a thing of beauty.

Mason hit underground dunk contest legend status during the final round, completing the first unaided two-footed between-the-legs dunk in contest history (finishing with his left hand to boot). Mason’s between-the-legs and subsequent two-hand windmill put him in the driver’s seat, forcing Richardson to dig deep into his own bag of tricks to find something worthy of eclipsing Mason’s effort. Richardson would succeed, but Mason’s performance deserves to live on.

1. Steve Francis & Tracy McGrady – 2000 (2nd and 3rd Place)

These two originally didn’t make the cut. How could such tremendous performances be underrated, we wondered? Well, we answered our own question: Vince Carter. Francis and McGrady both churned out performances that would have handily won any contest dating back to 1994 (J.R. Rider may have given them a run). Unfortunately, they chose the year 2000 for their coming out party, which just happened to coincide with Carter’s world takeover.

This 2000 dunking duo weren’t flawless, but they were close. Both upped the ante so high in round 1 that many were actually left wondering how Carter could possibly top them (this was before we saw VC’s first dunk.) Francis brought the energy and elevation, McGrady brought the dynamic execution. Half court self passes, clockwise 360 two-hand dips, and stunning reverses were all in play, and they were glorious. So they were overshadowed by the greatest dunk contest performance of all-time? Fair enough. It doesn’t make their performances any less exceptional.

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