By Rob Mahoney
The participants for this year's Slam Dunk Contest have been announced. But supposing that invitation and acceptance were no issue -- call it a wholly arbitrary power of fiat unique to this exercise -- who would make up this season's dream dunk-contest field?
LeBron James, Miami Heat
No dream field would be complete without LeBron, purely because of his potential to perform well beyond his in-game dunking repertoire. James' pragmatic dunks are impressive and powerful, but he really doesn't showcase the kind of variety you'd expect from a first-choice dunk-contest participant; it's right-handed tomahawk after right-handed tomahawk, punctuated with the occasional two-handed power slam. But James has the athleticism and body control to leave an indelible mark on a flailing competition, if only because of his physical attributes and the coercive pressure to perform.
When the much-hyped Shannon Brown flunked out in the first round of the 2010 dunk contest, he shrugged off the disappointment and went back to being Shannon Brown. But if LeBron James were to bow out unceremoniously, he -- and we -- would never hear the end of it. Such is the burden of being an unprecedented physical freak, and such is our gain, as James would have little choice but to pull out all the stops. Imagine this guy as the competitor with -- by far -- the most to lose:
Nate Robinson's win in the 2006 Slam Dunk Contest remains one of the great travesties of our time, largely because of how it marginalized an outstanding performance by then-Sixer Andre Iguodala. Observe:
The man pulled off a two-handed reverse windmill off a lob from behind the backboard while somehow limboing out of harm's way. It's breathtaking stuff, and the kind of dunk that only gets better as you slow down the clip and explore all the angles.
But what makes Iguodala such a special catch in a contest setting is that he thought to even explore that path toward the rim in the first place. It may seem straightforward enough to attempt a dunk that begins behind the backboard, but the lower limits of the glass create an obstruction that runs counter to the very process of dunking. To leap high enough -- and far enough -- to execute this dunk without being decapitated requires a suspension of the laws of physics, which Iguodala can clearly bend and violate on his whim.
James White, New York Knicks
(UPDATE: White has been selected for the Slam Dunk Contest.)
Many years ago, a young James William White IV sneaked out the window of his Hargrave Military Academy dorm and walked wearily toward a crossroads. It was on that fateful night that White shook hands with a demon on a life-changing agreement -- his immortal soul in exchange for boundless hops, the kind with which he could forge a basketball career and cement a legacy as one of the greatest dunkers to ever walk the earth.
But crossroad bargains always come with some crippling catch: White may well go down as the greatest dunker who no one -- save YouTube-crazed dunk enthusiasts, lovers of fringe pro basketball and some Knicks fans -- really knows. White's deal may have made him an outlandish dunker, but only that; he can't really shoot, doesn't defend well and isn't even an average passer or rebounder. Until this season, he lacked the all-around abilities to carve out a place in the NBA, making stops in San Antonio, Houston and the D-League before arriving in New York this season. (He has also played overseas in Italy and Russia.) Two hundred and twenty-nine of White's 377 career minutes have come in 34 games for New York this season. The fact that he averages just 6.7 minutes per game makes him barely an NBA player, but the 30-year-old White deserves a chance to fulfill his destiny in an exhibition of pure dunking excellence.
If a player more renowned than White were able to pull off even a fraction of the dunks that he makes look routine, they'd be legends of the dunk contest alongside Michael and Dominique and Vince. Here's a look at his variation on the free-throw line classic, an incredibly difficult dunk made to look completely pedestrian:
The free-throw dunk may be White's go-to, but he's far from a one-trick pony. If you've got the time, take a spin through this dunk compilation, with my apologies in advance for the R. Kelly track that while ridiculous, may be completely appropriate:
Maybe this is just me being crotchety, but I side with the many NBA fans disenchanted by the prevalence of props in the dunk contest. The spectacle of the contest itself may thrive on anticipation, but when the lead-up to the dunk is more intricate and thought out than the slam, I find myself quickly losing interest.
The one exception is Gerald Green, who shall forever be known for the amazing cupcake dunk:
It's quite possibly the best use of the behind-the-basket camera in NBA history.
But what really sells me on Green as a top-tier dunk candidate -- in addition to his mystifying in-game dunk work -- was another of his entries from that same contest. NBA dunk contest participants regularly get by with the obvious flash of a between-the-legs dunk, and Green himself showed off an impressive one-hander in that contest after using that same pre-dunk device. Yet shortly thereafter, Green lined up to do the exact same dunk -- one that would cap out most dunkers' repertoires -- without shoes:
The response from the fans wasn't just muted. It was nonexistent. Green really hurt his cause by replicating his own dunk, but I still feel like the degree of difficulty on his no-shoes finish is woefully underestimated. That may make this a bit of a dunker's dunk, but contest regulars should at least be able to appreciate the challenge that goes into launching for a difficult move without the benefit of sneaker traction.
All together, Green's dunk contest résumé is filled with creative and highly difficult attempts, all made possible by an exemplary athleticism. It's a tough call between Green and the other many deserving candidates (for the record, Green said he will never enter another dunk contest), but when it doubt, go with the guy who can do this:
Obligatory honorable mentions: Paul George Eric Bledsoe Andre Drummond Terrence Ross Blake Griffin Nick Young J.R. Smith Alonzo Gee DeAndre Jordan