LeBron James has nothing to prove to anyone at this point in his career. He’s a four-time MVP award winner, a two-time NBA champion, a two-time Finals MVP and even if Pierre the Pelican were to chop off his leg at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans and he never played another game in his life, LeBron would still go down as one of the 15 greatest players of all time. But there’s still one thing LeBron’s never done in his 10 and a half seasons in the league: win the Slam Dunk Contest.
Let’s establish this right now: LeBron James’ legacy and his participation in the Dunk Contest are in no way related. Not taking part in a spectacle event like this wouldn’t take away anything from the list of accolades that will make him one of the greatest players of all time when all is said and done. The whole “Should LeBron do the Dunk Contest?” debate shouldn’t even matter.
But here’s the thing: It does matter. Even if he has nothing to prove, LeBron is too great a dunker to not participate. If you believe the Dunk Contest has lost its charm or importance, you could probably make a strong case to support that opinion. In recent years, we’ve had to stomach no-name players like Jeremy Evans and James White. But isn’t that the problem? Wouldn’t LeBron in the Slam Dunk Contest make it relevant again?
Back in the 80s ,90s and early 2000s, superstar dunkers like Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, Vince Carter, Jason Richardson, Spud Webb and Kobe Bryant played. Unfortunately, we haven’t had a superstar in the dunk contest for awhile. You could count Blake Griffin in 2011, but he wasn’t really the superstar he is now at that time. Terrence Ross and Evans are the last two champions and the event is in dire need of a revival, both in terms of creativity and athleticism. It’s a compliment to say LeBron is the answer to that problem.
To be fair, the list of 2014 participants looks to re-engergize an event that’s somewhat lost its luster over the years. Paul George, John Wall and Damian Lillard are all big names and Harrison Barnes, Ben McClemore and Ross are all pretty enigmatic dunkers. This is just the second time in NBA history the Slam Dunk Contest has featured three All-Stars. But can you imagine if LeBron and George, Eastern Conference rivals, had to duke it out?
This isn’t about the LeBron haters out there who hammer him for not wanting to participate. If you think LeBron is abstaining from the competition because he’s “scared to lose,” you’re a fool. The real reason is LeBron thinks the Dunk Contest is beneath him and not worth of his time without any financial compensation. For a guy who’s such a student of the game’s history, he could not be further from the truth.
All-Star Weekend is about more about the fans than the players. Why else do you think the starting fives are determined by the fan vote? All-Star selections are bonus provisions in contracts, but the number of selections a player racks up in his career doesn’t impact how we remember his place in history. So why not dumb it down and step into the ring of this spectacle for one night and give the fans what they want?
It’s not like LeBron wouldn’t win it. The hype alone would probably boost his dunks by a couple points with the judges anyway. But it seems that LeBron has some irrational disdain for the Slam Dunk Contest, not only because of his complaints that he should be compensated for participating (to which I say, get off your damn high horse), but because of his continuous pleasure in showing off how great a dunker he is. For example, the display he put on just a few days ago in the Phoenix Suns‘ practice facility:
He was just getting started with those practice dunks. In the actual game against the Suns, LeBron unleashed a monster windmill in transition off a steal. He hung on the rim way longer than necessary and stared down the crowd afterward on another two-handed beast. He threw down a high-flying jam on a fast break against the Golden State Warriors a night later. With more people complaining that LeBron won’t “man up” and do the Dunk Contest, he’s responded with more aggressive and wicked dunks. It’s almost like he’s teasing us.
As a fan, that should piss you off a little bit. Some of the all-time great dunkers before LeBron James were good sports and participated in this once-illuminating event without getting paid for it. Air Jordan, the Human Highlight Film, Dr. J, Spud Webb, Vince Carter and tons of others could have hurt their reputations as dunkers if they had lost, but they gave the people what they wanted. Why can’t LeBron do the same if it’s not that big a deal?
LeBron has no reason to care what the public thinks about him, but don’t make the mistake of thinking he doesn’t care what the public thinks about him. After “The Decision,” LeBron learned the hard way about fan support. Luckily it wasn’t anything a couple of titles couldn’t fix, but now that Kevin Durant is getting all the attention as the MVP favorite LeBron has spent the last few weeks seething and reminding everyone that he’s still pretty damn good. From the Mount Rushmore comments to the game-winner in Golden State to the almost excessive chest-pounding and crowd stare downs of the past week, LeBron is hellbent throwing his name back into the MVP discussion. He very much cares what we think.
So just do it, King James. You have nothing to prove and a win or lose, a Dunk Contest won’t make or break your status among the all-time greats. Some say it’s a lose-lose for LeBron if he chooses to give in to popular demand: if he wins, he was supposed to but if he loses, then the haters won’t ever let up. But in actuality, the fans AND LBJ would win either way. Because if LeBron James ever decides to just do the fun thing and wins it, then everyone can back off. And if he loses…well, that just means we must have been treated to one hell of a Slam Dunk duel for a guy like LeBron James to lose. Either way, it’s exactly what the Slam Dunk Contest needs.