NBA Dunk Contest 2020: Why Aaron Gordon and Dwight Howard are back in the NBA Slam Dunk contest

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Alongside the two Dunk Contest newcomers hoping to make a splash during All Star Weekend will be a pair of veterans of not just the sport, but this particular competition. Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon and Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard will make their way back to the NBA Dunk Contest, and each have the opportunity to make a serious point about their careers at this juncture.

Gordon, who is a +140 favorite via SportsLine to win the contest, will be participating in his third and, according to him, final dunk contest. His first dunk contest is perhaps what he's best known for throughout his now six seasons in the league. In a legendary battle against fellow dunking extraordinaire Zach LaVine where the two traded blows like two dunking leviathans fighting for control of the sea, those in Toronto were treated to arguably one of the greatest contests in history in 2016.

Despite his dunks including a between-the-legs dunk while jumping over the Magic mascot on a stationary hoverboard, a one-handed 360-degree dunk while picking the ball off the hand of his team's mascot spinning on a hoverboard, an under-the-legs dunk that prompted Kenny Smith to scream, "IT'S OVER LADIES AND GENTLEMAN" and a double-pump dunk for the ages, he ultimately fell short to the then-Timberwolf and came in second. One year later in New Orleans he tried to return and claim the crown for himself, but he didn't even make it past the first round -- he pulled out of the 2018 competition because of injury.

Now he's back to compete for a title that probably should've been his in 2016 at the same location of the heralded 1988 Dunk Contest, which he says partially inspired his return. But what's pushing him to declare that this is his final dunk contest is a desire to move past the label of just being dunker.

"Hopefully I can make it to the big game on Sunday eventually," he told TNT in an interview that ended with jokes on Feb. 4. "I'm saving all of these dunks after this. This is it because I do want to get out of that, just being known as a dunker. My focus after this one is going to be trying to make it to [the All-Star game]."

Then there's Howard, who has +560 odds to win, and who's participation in the Dunk Contest seems like the perfect way to add emphasis to an incredible comeback season for him. The Lakers big man has participated in the competition four times, winning it all in 2008 with the Superman dunk and the 12-foot hoop dunk headlining the performance.

It's not secret that a lot in Howard's career has changed since that night in New Orleans. The center saw his status as the league's best big man fall drastically, found a way to make a trio including Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant not work, bounced through five teams, had former teammates celebrate his departure from the Hawks, and went through a five-year All Star drought. So when Los Angeles brought him in for this season, the expectations were very much on the floor. 

Since the start of the year, he has more than exceeded what the Lakers wanted him to do in his second-team role. The counting numbers aren't flashy or anything, but his advanced stats speak volumes about his effectiveness on the floor. He has the highest box plus-minus of his career since 2012, his best win-shares per 48 minutes rate since 2011, his best block percentage since 2010, a career-high in true shooting percentage and a career-high in offensive rating. All of that is to say that returning to the competition where he enamored himself to the basketball-loving public and making some noise, or even outright winning the whole thing, is just the kind of thing this comeback year needs. 

There's also some sentimental value in his participation. Howard said back in late January that he wanted to get Kobe Bryant's assistance in putting together some of his dunks. Unfortunately, Bryant died in a helicopter crash alongside his 13-year-old daughter and seven other people on Jan. 26. Howard would go on to tell ESPN that he had, in fact, secured Bryant's help for the Feb. 15 contest and offered a heart-wrenching  quote with regards to how the two had mended fences.

Per ESPN:

"For me, it's super sad because I really wanted to tell him how much I appreciate everything he's done, all the things he's said. Even at the time that we were on the same team, we didn't understand each other.

"But I saw a different Kobe, and I even saw a change in myself. And I'm pretty sure he saw it. I just wanted to be able to tell him how I felt about him, and I never got the chance to. That was really the most heartbreaking part. Every day it's been on my mind. It's something that I've just got to deal with, just show the fans in this city that I'm willing to do whatever it takes."

Howard will presumably do something to honor the late Lakers legend during the dunk contest, meaning this performance will no longer just be about reminding his doubters that he's still capable of greatness, it'll also be about honoring the memory of someone who meant so much to him.

The NBA Slam Dunk Contest will take place on Saturday, Feb. 15 at 8 p.m. ET in Chicago's United Center. 

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