Sans LeBron, this contest remains a slam dunk for fun

It’s easy to forget, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis casually dropping dunk-compilation videos that look like they were filmed on the moon, that there is an actual dunk contest coming up this weekend, and that the cast of characters involved is, in a word, great.

The NBA Slam-Dunk contest isn't in a jam despite LeBron's absence.

Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE

It’s easy to forget, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis casually dropping dunk-compilation videos that look like they were filmed on the moon, that there is an actual dunk contest coming up this weekend, and that the cast of characters involved is, in a word, great: All-Stars Paul George, John Wall, and Damian Lillard; last year’s winner, Terrence Ross; Harrison Barnes, who once did this; and Ben McLemore, the competition’s token rookie, but a good choice nonetheless.

The common consensus is that we’re in the Dark Age of the dunk contest; that it’s become an event shunned by the league’s superstars; that it’s been made uninteresting by the unlimited attempts given to its competitors. But this year’s cast of characters flies in the face of this idea. If you don’t like this group of players, which includes a fringe MVP candidate, two other young and ultra-talented point guards/All-Stars, and three other not-bad filler participants, then that’s on you, because you’re waiting on a prayer.

Barring disappointment or disaster, this should be the best dunk contest since at least 2008, when Dwight Howard and Gerald Green squared off and Dwight threw down the Superman dunk; and arguably, since 2003, when Jason Richardson, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Desmond Mason went at it in spectacular fashion. (That field sounded a lot better in 2003.)

Even its worst-case scenario seems better than the top contest since ’08, when Blake Griffin’s entry resulted in a disappointing promotional stunt that still beat out the work of JaVale McGee, Serge Ibaka, and DeMar DeRozan. (I mean, there was no way Blake wasn’t being named winner of that competition.)

And so, the contrarian’s position comes down to this: no LeBron, and no Kevin Durant. This is true: LeBron James is not dunking in this contest. Durant isn’t either. And LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the world’s best basketball players, the only guys in this current generation who have solidified themselves as historic, pantheon-level individuals. “Jordan dunked in the dunk contest,” you say. “So did Dr. J and Dominique Wilkins and etc. etc. etc.” This is true. They did.

But: it does not appear that LeBron has any plans, now or in the future, to enter the dunk contest. Maybe he will, and that would be really cool, and I would be prepared to declare that dunk contest one of the best ever before it even started, because LeBron’s presence alone would likely ensure that it was. Maybe Kevin Durant will do the same, and we’ll get to see his spindly body throw down some geometrically improbable dunks. That would also be great.

That hasn’t happened yet, though. And if you have any interest in basketball, you understand the significance of Paul George entering the field. If you don’t have any interest in basketball, you probably still understand the significance of Paul George entering the field: he was the third-leading vote-getter in the All-Star Game, behind only LeBron and KD. He’s the best player on what appears to be the league’s best team. He’s dunking.

The problem with waiting for LeBron and Durant is that it assumes there’s no possible version of the dunk contest that could exist successfully without these guys. That’s your prerogative. But that’s a limitation you’re placing on the contest, and it basically is one that doesn’t acknowledge the existence of any other players in the league aside from those two stars.

The best thing about the NBA is that it’s filled with stars. Every player has a distinct personality on the court; there’s no helmet hiding him, only 10 guys out there at a time. Every guy in the NBA is interesting in some way, and many of them are very interesting. This dunk contest happens to include at least four guys who are interesting — I’ll forgive you if you don’t really think that Ross or Barnes reach the level of top-tier personalities, because they don’t, but in the context of the dunk contest, they have serious credentials.

LeBron’s dunking video is a reminder that really, we don’t need him to be in the dunk contest — it’s not like we’ll ever miss anything LeBron James ever does. He could elevate the contest with his presence, for sure, as could Durant. But this year’s field is a reminder that there’s still the potential for greatness without them, because that’s how good this league is.

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