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Can Damian Lillard, Paul George and Young Stars Save NBA Dunk Contest?

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Can Damian Lillard, Paul George and Young Stars Save NBA Dunk Contest?
Darron Cummings/Associated Press

We're saved.

Disappointing NBA dunk contests be damned, ESPN's Marc Stein brings word that a quartet of rising stars are ready to revive the exhibition's notoriety:

Damian Lillard's inclusion is already a certainty, according to CSNNW's Chris Haynes, as is Paul George's, per Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears:

John Wall appears likely to accept an invite as well:

Sacramento Kings rookie Ben McLemore is a fifth dunker who might join the field too, via Cowbell Kingdom's James Ham:

I hope I speak for everyone when I say, "Finally."

It used to be that the NBA's dunk competition was the high point of All-Star weekend—save for the game itself of course. Fans went crazy, judges (unsuccessfully) tried to maintain composure, lights flashed and buildings shook. 

More importantly, stars flocked to participate. Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin—they all wanted to win; they wanted to showcase their athleticism and rim-rocking, gravity-defying slams.

Over time, though, the dunk contest has turned into a platform on which lesser-known players emblazon themselves with a title that has become meaningless.

Big names haven't always won, even when the dunk competition was at its peak. Nate Robinson and Gerald Green are hardly superstars.

The difference is, despite periodic lulls, players such as Robinson and Green still had to go through stars like Howard. Since 2011, when Griffin won, household names have been less inclined to join the festivities, turning the dunk contest into an event packed with false hope and second-rate intrigue.

But no more.

 

A Contest Reborn 

Nothing should be held against dunk contestants of the last two years. They put on a fine show. It's just that "fine" isn't good enough.

Actual stars generate more hype. Though some of the game's best dunkers are career role players, superstars make the league go 'round. The contest was far more interesting when Griffin was jumping over sedans and Howard threw down jams donning a cape, not when Jeremy Evans and Terrence Ross were being named dunking champions.

How many All-Stars participated in last year's contest? Zero. How about 2012? Zero.

Perennial All-Stars aren't necessarily needed to keep the contest afloat. Great efforts have been put forth by DeMar DeRozan (an All-Star this year) and Nate Robinson, among others, in the past. But there's value in having All-Stars take flight, and this year, we could have three.

George, Lillard and Wall are All-Stars. George is an All-Star starter, and this marks the second time he's taken part in the dunk contest. All of them could be on the floor come Saturday, Feb. 15, doing what stars before them—LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook—haven't: saving the dunk contest.

 

Damian Lillard

Most point guards aren't talented dunkers. Then again, Lillard isn't most point guards. 

For one, he was the first real star since Griffin to accept an invitation, perhaps paving the way for others to follow. Beyond that, he's just a natural with both feet off the ground.

The Portland Trail Blazers wunderkind slices through opposing defenses with the grace and dexterity of Rajon Rondo, but wages rim assaults with explosiveness and hops reminiscent of a healthy Derrick Rose and Westbrook.

With his unique combination of athleticism and finesse, Lillard is perfect for this type of exhibition. He's used to handling the ball extensively, which should make for some nifty airborne maneuvers. Behind-the-back and between-the-leg throwdowns are not out of the question.

During games, he's proved to be a fantastic finisher with hands and bodies obscuring his vision. Just imagine what he can do in open spaces or as he's jumping over players who aren't actually trying to contest him. 

 

Paul George

George has been here before, but not like this.

The last time George participated (2012), he wasn't a star. And this time, he won't have to resort to glow-in-the-dark stuff to help bolster his appeal. He already has plenty.

Moreover, George has technically played in countless dunk contests this season alone, turning almost every game into rim-rocking exhibitions. 

When he gets into the open court, forget about it. Spins, windmills, reverses—he can do everything. Given the kind of lift he can generate for someone his size, nothing can be ruled out.

Frankly, he's the closest thing to Durant or LeBron in the NBA right now. If those two aren't willing or able to join in, then George is the next best option.

 

John Wall

Is there anyone in the NBA faster than Wall?

Agile players make good dunkers, and Wall is one of the more underrated rim-rockers right now. While he tends to finish with scoops and point-blank layups over dunks, the athleticism is clearly there.

The way he's able to elude defenders midair and make the most of crammed spaces, combined with his ability to play above the rim on command, means we should be in for some crafty dunks.

Lillard and George will make interesting headliners, but Wall is not to be overlooked. Give him a running start and a path clear of defenders, and he may just grab some quarters off the top of the backboard before putting one down.

 

Terrence Ross

This isn't the same Ross who won the 2013 Slam Dunk Contest.

For one, Ross has a 50-point game under his belt and has slowly made a more recognizable name for himself. As he's gotten more playing time, he's developed into a vicious in-game dunker.

One-handed posters are his specialty, and we already know 360-degree jams are not out of the question. 

Defending his title won't be easy against this projected field, and he doesn't have the reputation of George, Wall or Lillard, but his physical gifts complement a faith-restoring endeavor like this one. 

 

Ben McLemore

From the moment McLemore was drafted, his dunk-contest candidacy was inevitable.

Soaring above the rim is kind of his thing (aside from three-point shooting). At 6'5", he has the look and feel of a more powerful J.R. Smith.

Relax, that's not commentary on his NBA ceiling. This is from a pure dunking standpoint.

McLemore would be the only rookie going up against a trio of star dunkers and one dunk champion, but he has the hops necessary to keep pace. He could also benefit from the use of props or teammates. Few players in the league can finish off the catch as well as he can.

If he's able to deal with appearing on a national stage, and doesn't get intimidated by what the rest have in store, there's a strong possibility he turns quite a few heads—none of which will be opposing defenders this time around.

 

Saved (Finally)

Don Ryan/Associated Press

Give up on LeBron doing a dunk contest. It's not going to happen. More than a decade into his career, that much has become clear.

"Why don’t you take a poll and see if you think I have more to lose than gain?” James asked ESPN's Brian Windhorst in February 2012. 

That's the same approach plenty of other superstars have taken. Why participate only to risk losing and subsequent ridicule? 

Will this year's dunk contest participants restore previous hype?

Submit Vote vote to see results

It's been the underlying theme for quite a few years, well before Griffin won his lone dunk contest. Losing could hurt a star's brand. Participating opens up the unnecessary potential to fail.

While reasonable, that hasn't changed the normal fan's approach. Dunk enthusiasts want to see stars participate. They still want to see LeBron, Durant and perhaps a healthy Westbrook and Rose show off their hops in an exhibition. And that will never change. Ever.

But the dunk contest's narrative can.

This season, three All-Stars could be putting their athleticism and, to some extent, reputations on the line for the good of this exhibition. This once-entertaining contest turned hatchery for lackluster competition.

This year, the dunk contest can be saved. It can return to its previous level of prominence.

For real this time.

 

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