When the NBA announced the six participants for the 2013 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest taking place Saturday in Houston, the overall reaction was one of disappointment.
While no one doubts that James White and Gerald Green will put on a captivating show, the lack of superstar names was all too familiar. It was yet another opportunity for those who were alive during the dunk contest's heyday to give a "back in my day..." story without any opportunity for retort from the modern fanbase.
While those older fans can cling to their memories of Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins rocking the rim, current fans can only wonder "what if" about LeBron James and most of the league's top stars.
But what if, by the grace of the basketball gods, the slam dunk contest became mandatory for those chosen? Which players would get selected?
Well, you're about to find out. But before we get started with the fun, let's go over some basic ground rules for the competition.
This isn't a legacy competition. We're basing the selections solely on how they would perform in 2013. So while some fans may clamor for Kobe Bryant's inclusion on this list, it isn't happening. Creating an ideal dunk contest is about finding the players who can provide the most entertainment value, not appease the Lakers' fanbase.
For these purposes, we're also going to stay within the confines of the current dunk contest rules. No extension of the field or re-configuring of the players chosen. We do this simply to avoid the type of craziness that could come with a completely unstructured criteria. Sure, it would be fun to have the piranha-filled moat round in the dunk contest of our dreams, but that isn't happening anytime soon.
There are, however, a ton of rule changes the NBA itself made for this year's event. There are now six participants (three from each conference), who compete in a two-round event. The first round consists of two dunks for each participant, with player who gains the top overall score from each conference moving on to the final round.
With the rules and criteria mumbo-jumbo out of the way, let's get to the fun part and name the participants for both conferences in an all-superstar dunk contest.
(For the remainder of the dunk contest rules, head to NBA.com.)
Eastern Conference Representatives
LeBron James (F, Miami Heat)
Let's just get the most obvious name crossed off first. Fans have wanted James to enter the dunk contest since came into the NBA, only to be rebuffed and teased every step of the way. James announced he would be entering the 2010 dunk contest at the 2009 event only to back out—he once again teased fans
In the real world, LeBron is never going to enter the dunk contest. He's 28 years old now and is far more concerned with chasing rings than making the flashbulbs go off during All-Star Weekend.
That isn't going to stop us from wondering "what if?" The appeal of LeBron entering the dunk contest is rather obvious. He's arguably the best in-game dunker among superstars of all-time, soaring with a combination of power and grace that is just marvelous to behold in person. LeBron is like Dominique Wilkins in Karl Malone's body.
Don't believe me? Just watch.
Here is a look at some great dunks from Wilkins:
Now here are some highlights from James for comparative and jaw-dropping purposes:
Keep in mind all of those highlights for LeBron come from the past four months. Even at a time where his athleticism should theoretically be on the downslope—a dunk contest is the one place where I would take 21-year-old LeBron over the 28-year-old iteration—James is still one of the most ferocious athletes in all of sports.
Just imagine what he could do with a completely open court and time to pre-prepare his dunks. Based on his popularity (back nearly to its apex) and his dunking prowess, James would be the runaway favorite against anyone in the NBA.
Now if only we could actually get him in the real-life dunk contest before his athleticism atrophies.
Josh Smith (F, Atlanta Hawks)
Assuming he doesn't get traded prior to Saturday night's festivities, Smith is a perfect second representative for the Eastern Conference. He won the contest in 2005, even rocking a Wilkins jersey to pay homage to the former Hawks legend.
Smith returned the following year but failed to retain his crown. He has since been absent from the contest, but now may be the best time humanly possible for him to make an image-repairing return to Saturday night.
Over time as Smith's frame has filled out, he's become more reliant on power slams than LeBron-level grace. His athleticism hasn't missed a beat, though, and it's on display almost on a nightly basis in Atlanta.
Nearly all of Smith's best dunks follow a similar script. The Hawks will start a fast-break possession off a turnover or rebound, where the ball handler will feed him somewhere around the three-point arc. From there, Smith will take a few dribbles/steps and go up, usually finishing with his left hand.
That being said, Smith isn't too shabby when you give him a few dribbles in the open court, either.
There aren't all that many worthy adversaries for James in the Eastern Conference portion of the competition—especially with Derrick Rose's knee still on the mend—but Smith has enough contest pedigree and athleticism left in the tank to be an interesting rival.
Paul George (F, Indiana Pacers)
The final spot came down to players who may stretch the "superstar" label a little bit: George and Toronto Raptors forward Rudy Gay. Both are similar in stature, dunking style and had competed in the contest previously.
Unsure of who to pick, I turned to the internet's most reliable source. No, not Wikipedia, but YouTube. It was there I was reminded of a trip George made over the summer to China and the astounding clip that follows:
So...George wins in a landslide. And considering George has been far closer to the superficial "superstar" label than Gay all season, his selection feels far more in the spirit of this column, anyway.
Though he rarely gets mentioned as one of the league's best dunkers among casual fans, George has quietly been bringing Pacers fans out of their seats his entire career. He is just 22 years old and hasn't lost a centimeter off his vertical leap like James and Smith both have. An athletic freak with the ability to catch the ball just about anywhere near the rim, some of George's best highlights even come with a teammate tossing up an alley-oop.
George may have disappointed a bit with his first dunk contest appearance, but something tells me he wouldn't do the same if given a second opportunity.
Western Conference Participants
Russell Westbrook (G, Oklahoma City Thunder)
Following an Eastern Conference lineup filled with top-flight forwards, it's about time the guards get some love. Westbrook has long been one of the best in-game dunkers in the league, reaching his apex point on dunks quickly and finishing as if he's a power forward.
In fact, other than LeBron, Westbrook may be the most intriguing superstar in the league who has never done a dunk contest. Teammate Kevin Durant is a better all-around talent and a great dunker in his own right, but Westbrook dwarfs him when it comes to this contest.
From a pure entertainment perspective, Westbrook is one of the more outwardly emotional players in the league. You won't find a player who wears his proverbial heart on his sleeve more, and his legendary competitiveness shines through in just about everything he does.
That even carries over to when Westbrook throws down. When he puts down a big dunk, Westbrook knows it—and he makes sure you do, too.
If we were handing out pre-contest superlatives, Westbrook would certainly win Most Likely to Use a Prop and Most Likely to Get into a Quarrel With the Judges Over His Score. It would be captivating to watch, especially when Westbrook competes against his Western Conference rivals.
Blake Griffin (F, Los Angeles Clippers)
Among the Western Conference participants, Griffin is a selection most will have a hard time arguing against. His rise to nationwide stardom started with one jaw-dropping leap over a Kia in the 2011 dunk contest, a slam that spawned Griffin's ascent to arguably the best deadpan comedian in advertising today.
The Clippers star may not be among the five best players in the league yet, but he's certainly in that elite stratosphere from a marketing standpoint. For most fans, "dream" dunk contest conversations start with LeBron and then go directly to Griffin—and for good reason.
Heading into the All-Star break, Griffin has, far and away, the most dunks in the league. His total of 132 is 13 more than teammate DeAndre Jordan for second place through Wednesday night's slate of games.
And as you may have noticed, Griffin's dunks tend to sway into the spectacular realm more often than not. Here is a look at Griffin's most recent jaw-dropping slam, a posterization of Spencer Hawes, which would have garnered a "10" on just about any scorecard imaginable.
What's more, Griffin also has a secret weapon he did not possess in 2011: point guard Chris Paul. When the Clippers traded for Paul, Griffin's infamous "Lob City" reaction gave the team an instant nickname, one the duo has gone about living up to in a myriad of ways.
Teammate involvement isn't a requirement in the dunk contest, but Griffin's competition would be hard-pressed to find a better helper than Paul.
Kevin Durant (F, Oklahoma City Thunder)
Admit it, you all thought I was going do snub Durant after the Westbrook section. Well, that was never remotely in the cards.
While Westbrook is undoubtedly the Thunder's best and most consistent dunker, Durant is not all that far behind. After coming into the league considered a scoring freak with good, but not great, athleticism, Durant has proved all the doubters wrong time and again. At 6'9", Durant is able to sky above seven-footers on a consistent basis, and his length allows for finishes that no other player could pull off.
Those things have always been in his repertoire. What has allowed Durant to become a more ferocious in-game dunker is his vast improvement as a ball-handler. Watch here as Durant blows by Matt Barnes and throws down a ferocious slam.
That was something Durant would not have been able to pull off during his rookie season. Most players come into the league a dunker and evolve into a more all-around player. Durant's evolution as a player has allowed him to show off his dunking prowess.
All of that played a factor in choosing Durant, but perhaps the biggest thing working in his favor was a potential finals appearance against LeBron. The rule changes pit the conferences against one another, meaning the NBA's two best players would have a pretty strong chance of facing off in the finals.
Durant and LeBron would not just match the Michael Jordan-Dominique Wilkins rivalry hype-wise—they would have the opportunity to surpass it. Though MJ and 'Nique were the two best dunkers alive when they went up against each other, they were never the two best individual players.
Durant and LeBron are far and away the NBA's two best players, transcendent talents who are likely to factor in at least the next half-decade's worth of championships.
That potential matchup obviously isn't the only reason Durant was chosen, but it may or may not have been what gave him the tiebreaker over Andre Iguodala. OK, it was. Forgive me. These are the two best players on the planet, and if there's a chance for fans to see them go mano-a-mano in a dunk contest, you take it—even if it's (unfortunately) fictional.