To date, LeBron James has avoided the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest like the plague, despite tantalizing fans with his easy in-game dunking and Nerf hoop performances in pre-game warm-ups and in “leaked” practice videos.
His timing is always well-planned and impeccable. There are more than a couple videos of pre-game LBJ dunks to be found online from 2013, and you’ll find that in most cases, they came from the February-March time frame. Coincidence that the dunk video from the Heat practice earlier this week comes less than a week before the 2014 All-Star Break? Simply put: no.
So what’s the benefit for LeBron? Why resist pleasing millions of fans? After all, all transcendent superstar guards and wings have participated at least once, early in their careers. The full video of Michael Jordan dunking in 1988 can be found here (he was in the contest three times), and I suggest you take a few moments to watch Kobe Bryant’s winning performance in 1997 below.
LeBron wouldn’t be alone. We’ve seen Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers like Scottie Pippen, Ray Allen, Blake Griffin, and a host of top scorers and perennial All-Stars at the height of their powers have competed. See: Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Steve Francis, and Dwight Howard.
Go back to the 1980′s, and stars certainly weren’t above the competition. Other than Jordan, we saw Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins, and Clyde Drexler participating. Times have changed, to be sure.
Truth be told, the risk is much greater than any potential reward for LeBron James. The idea of an LBJ dunk contest display is so much sweeter and mesmorizing than what the tangible product would likely give us. Of course, the odds are that James would win, and handily. He would put on a display that would trump the infamous practice video, and our collective jaws would be on the floor.
But in the off-chance that it didn’t turn out that way it would hurt LeBron’s image, fairly or not. Of course, Jordan didn’t win his first contest, and he recovered just fine. (He had to participate and win not once, but twice more. That’s the legendary competitiveness.) The fear of not dominating, or of losing or even almost losing to a rookie like Ben McLemore or even a legitimate, up-and-coming superstar like Paul George surely would keep LeBron awake at night if he ever agreed to throw his name in the ring.
This is a situation that LeBron can absolutely control, and somehow manage to hold league-wide attention with this yearly spectacle. Clearly, the “leaked” practice video was safe, controlled atmosphere. If it hadn’t gone how LeBron envisioned, it that video never would have seen the light of day.
Truthfully, if James was going to take part in the contest at any juncture of his career, that point has already passed. He’s 29 years old, and it shouldn’t be any secret that his best dunking days are behind him. While he is certainly still in the prime of his career, there’s no question that the legs have enough miles on them that a 2014 King James dunk show wouldn’t rival, say, a hypotheical 2007 version.
LeBron James knows what he’s doing. He shows much more awareness in this arena of his career than he did way back when with The Decision. He’s at the point in his career where he doesn’t need the Dunk Contest, but the league badly needs him. And he uses it to his advantage. Some year, and soon, the charade will end. And we’ll never know exactly how a Slam Dunk Contest featuring LeBron James would have turned out.
Of course, we’ll always have this: