LeBron James can do basketball an honorable and valued service by entering the 2015 NBA dunk contest, not to win necessarily, but to eradicate the stigma of losing.
Today we can agree that All-Star dunk festivities — once the highlight of the NBA’s mid-season bacchanal — have lost nearly all their luster. The big names don’t participate because (and let’s be honest here) they have relatively little to gain, should they win, and much to lose if they cannot better the likes of young, live-legged, would-be journeymen such as Terrance Ross and Ben McLemore.
In an acknowledgement of this misplaced luster, the NBA has basically given an out even to those who will participate this year: Three players from each conference will team up, with the trio that wins being crowned joint champions. There will be a top prize awarded to the individual winner, but he will be dubbed “Dunker of the Night.”
Whatever. This is nearly as bad as Team Figure Skating.
It’s not clear why this dunk-risk-aversion dynamic persists. The league’s best shooters do not appear unwilling to participating in the 3-point competition. There is no loss of face for Stephan Curry should he lose out to some young gun like Damian Lillard, or any of the league’s noted long-distance marksmen (among them this years, Kevin Love, Bradley Beal, Marco Bellinelli and defending champ Kyrie Erving). When Larry Bird won it, he relished the chance to win it again.
The Dunk Contest is different. In the beginning, all the big names did indeed participate. The very first one, at the 1976 ABA All-Star Game, featured this luminary lineup: Julius Erving, David Thompson, Artis Gilmore, George Gervin and Larry Kenon. The NBA revived the circus in 1984 and thereafter Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins didn’t just win, they showed up to defend. The stars started begging off in the ‘90s, though a young Kobe Bryant won in 1997. As recently as 2008, Dwight Howard lent some star power, as did champ Blake Griffin 2011 — but the Clippers big man chose not to defend.
LeBron has for 10 years been notoriously cagey about the Dunk Contest, steadfastly refusing to enter, claiming that he’s an “in-game dunker”, but nevertheless strategically allowing media to see his chops once a year, normally just prior to the All-Star break.
LeBron is so clearly the game’s best player, and its most dominant personality, he can simultaneously restore the profile of Dunk Contest — without winning it. In fact, he should huddle with the judges beforehand and say, “Don’t let me win.” By taking part next year, thereby enhancing the showcase and honorably congratulating a worthy winner, he can show other stars that competing in the Dunk Contest is nothing of a gamble in terms of cred, brand or machismo.
I’ve got nothing against Paul George, Harrison Barnes, Ben McLemore, Terrance Ross and John Wall, all of whom are scheduled to do rim-rattling battle Saturday night. There are several legitimate up-and-coming stars in that field, an you gotta love anyone who attempts the rare 3-point/jam double (Lillard). But I would love to see LeBron compete against these guys, mano-a-mano, along with Josh Smith or maybe a healthy Russell Westbrook. If LeBron commits, other stars will follow — if only to compete against the King, and each other.