2017 NBA Slam Dunk Contest Analytics: Who Has the Edge?
The Slam Dunk Contest is often the most anticipated event of NBA All-Star Weekend, even surpassing the actual game itself.
I mean, seriously, check this out.
LaVine is out this year after back-to-back titles (he has a torn ACL, but wasn't slated to be in the contest this year anyway), robbing us all of the LaVine vs. Gordon rematch we all wanted. While that might lower expectations of this year's contest ever so slightly, don't sleep on the 2017 field of participants.
Gordon is back this year to defend the title that probably should have been his last year, and he's joined by token big man DeAndre Jordan, relative unknown Glenn Robinson III, and total unknown Derrick Jones Jr. The lack of household names continues to be a bit of a problem for the dunk contest, but we all know how exciting it can be when one of the unknown participants steals the show.
Making dunk contest predictions is an NBA All-Star Weekend tradition as old as ... well, the dunk contest itself. All predictions of this sort are anecdotal, naturally, based on a couple dunks that one saw, either from a game situation or immortalized on Vine or YouTube. The only real problem with that method of debate is no can really prove if his or her prediction is any better than anyone else's, since it's so hard to back up a dunking argument with anything resembling an actual fact.
As you probably know, we here at numberFire like to use numbers to support our opinions (hence the name and all). Yes, there's a certain je ne sais quoi about what makes a dunk special that can't really be quantified, but that's not about to stop us from trying.
Setting the Stage
Using shooting split statistics from NBA.com and pre-draft measurements from DraftExpress.com, we pitted the four participants against each other in a variety of different dunk-related stats, ranked the winners, assigned points based on said ranks (4 points for first, down the line to 1 for last in a given category), then added them up in an attempt to find the best dunker of the four from a statistical point-of-view.
The numbers are admittedly a bit skewed by the huge discrepancy between playing time and actual dunks performed during NBA action this season among the participants, but it was so much fun doing this last year, that we decided to look at it again this season anyway. Jordan might have 165 in-game dunks to Jones' 3, but there are still categories in which Jones has a chance to come out on top.
And yes, choosing the categories, how to rank them, and the points to assign are all inherently subjective ways of making a point as well, but hey, it's just a dunk contest prediction and you shouldn't get too wrapped up in all that #WellActually nonsense.
Enough chitchat, let's crunch the numbers.
Leaping ability is one of the first things that comes up when someone tries to describe what makes a good dunker. We looked at leaping ability from two angles (via DraftExpress.com): a) pure vertical leap; and b) peak reach, as determined by combining each player's max vertical leap with his standing reach (not an exact science, but an interesting exercise, nonetheless).
|G. Robinson III||41.5"||3||8'4.5"||11'10"||1||4|
|D. Jones Jr.||42.5"||4||8'8.5"||12'3"||4||8|
Anyone who watched last year's contest knows Gordon can get up there, but you might be shocked to learn that he has only the third-best vertical leap of this year's field. Robinson III has a vertical leap of 41.5", which is identical to LaVine's, if you're wondering.
Relative nobody Derrick Jones Jr., meanwhile, has everyone beat with a ridiculous 42.5" max vertical leap. Combine that with his 6'7" frame and impressive wingspan and you've got a 12'3" max reach that surpasses everyone else in the contest, including the 6'11" DeAndre Jordan.
Jones may only have six career shot attempts and three dunks, but he's the highest flier of the bunch and could surprise some casual fans with his leaping ability.
When it comes to "experience" and dunking, just looking at the raw number of dunks completed for each player undeniably skews in favor of the big men, particularly if they are the type to spend a lot of their time around the rim.
|G. Robinson III||17||2|
|D. Jones Jr.||3||1|
To wit, 95.3% of DeAndre Jordan's 383 shot attempts this year have come within 5 feet of the hoop, so it should come as no surprise that he blows the rest of the field away in total dunks with 165 (over 2.5 times more slams than the rest of the field combined).
Although big men are rarely the favorites in dunk contests, there's something to be said for a guy that averages 2.9 dunks per contest and has experience throwing it down on a nightly basis under the bright lights and in front of screaming crowds. DJ should be more than ready to dunk in front of people come All-Star Saturday.
There's nothing more deflating in a dunk contest than watching a player blow multiple attempts. For that reason, accuracy is something worth considering in our study.
|Dunker||Dunks Made||Dunks Attempted||Dunk %||Score|
|G. Robinson III||17||20||85.00%||1|
|D. Jones Jr.||3||3||100.00%||4|
Jordan has missed 12 dunks this year, but that's pretty forgivable for a guy who's attempted a whopping 177 of 'em. Besides, his dunk percentage is still pretty much in line with Gordon's, who has only missed 3 of his 47 dunk attempts.
Robinson is the least accurate dunker of the pack, only connecting on 85% of his 20 attempts. Finally, Jones may have only attempted three dunks in his rookie season, but he has connected on all of them. Maybe there's some kind of advantage to being a guy that has never missed a dunk in an NBA game.
All bets are off when these guys start tossing the ball up and off things and try to get fancy with it, but Jones' perfect in-game track record -- albeit in limited attempts -- is worth acknowledging.
If a player records a large portion of his dunks off assists, he might not be accustomed to running in on his own and creating a highlight slam by himself like he'll need to do in the dunk contest.
|Dunker||Assist % on Dunks||Score|
|G. Robinson III||82.4%||1|
|D. Jones Jr.||66.7%||4|
We've seen how well Gordon can throw it down with little assistance (mascots notwithstanding), so he should probably get the edge in this category. Jones ultimately wins it for having the lowest assisted percentage, but again, his three-dunk sample size is ridiculously small and hard to draw too many conclusions from (try as we might).
It's hard to quantify style, especially when it comes to dunking, but we've thrown in some bonus points for players based on how many alley-oops, putback dunks, and tip dunks they've connected on this season, as well as how many times they've managed to throw down a reverse dunk in a game (because that data is readily available on NBA.com/stats).
|Dunker||Alley-Oops||Putback+Tip Dunks||Oops + Putbacks + Tips||Score||Reverse Dunks||Score||Total|
Jordan is the clear king of alley-oops, putbacks, and tip dunks, and it's not even remotely close.
That's obviously aided by his size, but the fact that his 90 such slams is almost 4 times as many as the rest of the field combined is worth some props. He's also the only player in the contest that's thrown down a reverse jam at some point this season.
As mentioned throughout this study, Derrick Jones Jr.'s grades are skewed by the fact that he's only had three dunks in his incredibly young NBA career.
That said, his extreme leaping ability alone should be enough to make you consider him as a dark horse to beat Aaron Gordon, who is the odds-on favorite to win it this time around after such an impressive showing in last year's contest.
In any case, our admittedly imperfect grading system suggests Jones Jr. might be the best dunker in this contest and has a chance to impress and surprise you. This exercise yielded Gordon as the favorite last year, while everyone else was basically handing the trophy to LaVine before the contest even began.
LaVine may have won in the end, but many believe Gordon's performance was more original and deserving of the trophy. If you're in that camp, let's see if we can go two-for-two in picking the best dunker in the competition.
If this Derrick Jones Jr. dunk reel is any indication, there just might be a chance.