Wall, Lillard, George headline new look All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest

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If all of us — red state, blue state, regardless of religion or skin color — could come together and agree on just two things they would be:

1) Kevin Durant’s new puppy is really cute.

2) The NBA All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest needed some life injected into it.

The NBA has heard you on Number 2. The league is trying to do that in two ways this year in New Orleans, when the Sprite Slam Dunk contest takes place on Feb. 15.

First, they brought in some star power. Here are your contestants for this year’s dunk title crown.

Paul George (Indiana Pacers)
Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)
John Wall (Washington Wizards)
Terrence Ross (Toronto Raptors)
Harrison Barnes (Golden State Warriors)
Ben McLemore (Sacramento Kings)

That’s three guys selected to the big game on Sunday night (Wall, Lillard, George) who can all throw it down, as well as last year’s defending champion, Ross.

Then there is a new format that pits the Eastern Conference against the Western Conference.

First, there is the “Freestyle Round” — for 90 seconds all three dunkers for each conference can showcase as many dunks as they want. Whatever dunks they want. At the end of each conference’s 90 seconds, the judges will choose a winner, East or West.

The winning conference gets to decide if its dunkers go first or last in the “Battle Round.”

In that second round a dunker from each conference will have a little head-to-head dunk-off pitting East dunkers vs. West dunkers. For example, it could be Wall against Lillard — they each throw down a dunk, the judges vote for the best dunk and the loser is eliminated. The first team to win three “battles” will have his team crowned the 2014 Sprite Slam Dunk champions.

Then you the fans come in — you (and tens of thousands of your closest friends) get to choose the ultimate winner, the “Dunker of the Night” through votes cast via SMS, Twitter, NBA.com and the NBA GameTime app.

Traditionally I’m in the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” camp, but the dunk contest is broke. It has been very up and down — it’s a lot of fun when a big personality like Nate Robinson or Dwight Howard took over the event, but a lot of years it has been down. (I will add this is an event that is just not as impressive on television as it is in person.)

So why not shake it up? I have no idea if the new format is really going to work or not, but with all these big names we should see some monster throwdowns. I’m actually pumped about the event this year, which is a sign the league has gotten something right.

Cavaliers try to convey confidence amid their own star crisis (crises?)

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Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert said the Pacers could have done better in their Paul George trade – a bold (though correct) public critique from someone who had to apologize for his handling of the last time he lost a star and is staring down the prospect of losing another star this summer and the original star again next summer.

What was supposed to be a press conference introducing new general manager Koby Altman today predictably turned into an examination of Kyrie Irving‘s trade request and LeBron James2018 free agency.

“This thing is not broken,” said Altman, who takes over a team that has reached three straight NBA Finals – winning the 2016 title – but now faces immense peril.

Both Gilbert and Altman kept their assessments of Irving’s trade request close to the vest, not even confirming it occurred. But even NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said he assumes reports of Irving’s request are accurate.

Gilbert said he planned to call Silver, clearly part of an attempt to project stability. That was the transparent underpinning of the entire press conference, which included Gilbert saying he felt better about hiring Altman than any prior general manager. The plan went awry when Gilbert stumbled through an answer about why he’s never given a general manager a second contract and why the Cavs couldn’t lure Chauncey Billups, who turned down leading the front office and later said he knew of Irving’s discontent and labeled it “alarming.”

But Gilbert did give his assessments on the franchise’s biggest issues.

On LeBron’s future beyond this season: “We do not control all the cards we get dealt.”

On whether Irving will be in training camp: “Right now, Kyrie Irving is under contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers for two or three years, depending on the last year. So, as of now, he’s one of our best players. Sure, we expect him to be in camp.”

In context, Gilbert sounded as if he was merely saying he expected every Cavalier under contract to be in training camp until their contract status changed – not that he was predicting Irving wouldn’t be traded this offseason.

All reports are that the Cavs are proceeding as if they’ll trade Irving, though Gilbert also brought Kobe Bryant’s infamous 2007 trade request. Kobe and the Lakers reconciled, and he won two more titles in Los Angeles.

“I’m not saying that that happens here,” Gilbert said. “But the possibilities of what will happen are wide.”

The Cavs at least left the door open publicly for Irving returning. Altman downplayed any animosity between the team’s stars, echoing LeBron’s tweets. But Irving’s issues with LeBron appear to be deeper and different than face-to-face resentment, and this summer’s saga hasn’t necessarily helped.

Altman called LeBron “deeply committed to this team and deeply committed to this city” and Irving a “core piece of who we are and what we do.”

Yet, the new general manager wanted to expand discussion beyond those two.

“It’s interesting,” Altman said. “We’ve had an active offseason that I wish some of you would talk more about, in terms of what we’ve done.”

The offseason LeBron reportedly deemed frustrating?

Altman gets a pass for David Griffin’s departure, which clearly rankled LeBron. But Cleveland’s signings – Derrick Rose, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Jose Calderon, Cedi Osman – leave plenty to be desired, especially as the Warriors load up. A championship looks even further from Cleveland.

With the goal so high and future so turbulent, Gilbert and Altman faced an uphill battle in projecting stability today. Luckily for them, this isn’t the true measure of success.

But things that matter far more – navigating Irving’s trade request, re-signing LeBron – might not be much easier.

Watch the top 60 clutch shots from last NBA season

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It’s that time of the year when there is no basketball, so we fill the time with idle Kyrie Irving speculation and video highlights of last season.

Along those lines, above you can out the top 60 clutch shots from last season, as determined by the folks at NBA.com.

The great thing about the clutch shot list is the ball is in the hands of stars at the ends of games, so there is plenty of Russell Westbrook, John Wall, LeBron James, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and more. Personally, I would have switch No. 1 and No. 2 on the list, but it’s all fun to relive.

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert: Pacers ‘could have done better’ on Paul George trade

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Kyrie Irving has requested a trade. LeBron James could leave next summer. The Cavaliers keep churning through general managers, the newest – Koby Altman – the reason for today’s press conference.

But Cavs owner Dan Gilbert looked past his own team’s turmoil and potential turmoil to take a shot at the Pacers, who traded Paul George to the Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.

“I will say Indiana could have done better than they did,” Gilbert said after Altman refused to directly address a question about George trade talks and shifted the discussion elsewhere.

This didn’t strike me as Gilbert trying to distract from Cleveland’s troubles. He just seemed to want to take a shot at a foe, something he’s no stranger to doing. The Cavaliers are particularly salty about their trade offer for George, which included Kevin Love, not being accepted.

For what it’s worth, Gilbert is right. The Pacers should have done better. Oladipo is now on a lucrative contract extension, and Sabonis spent his rookie season showcasing the reasons people doubted him the draft. That’s a piddling return for a star, even one on an expiring contract with dreams of joining the Lakers.

Report: Kings meet with former Magic GM Otis Smith about front-office job

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The Kings lost Scott Perry to the Knicks, so Sacramento is seeking someone else to aid Vlade Divac in the front office.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Former Orlando Magic general manager Otis Smith has met with Sacramento Kings officials about the franchise’s vacant vice president of basketball operations job, league sources told ESPN.

Smith has plenty of experience, which Divac lacks. But it’s not all good experience.

Running the Magic, Smith made numerous errors – including drafting Fran Vazquez (who has never played in the NBA) No. 11, overpaying Rashard Lewis and then trading Lewis for Gilbert Arenas’ even worse contract. If Smith’s Orlando tenure is predictive, he’ll indulge the Kings’ worst tendencies to mortgage the future for the present.

That said, Smith might have learned from his time with the Magic (though working under Stan Van Gundy with the Pistons the few couple years isn’t exactly the best place to hone long-term-planning skills). What amounts to an assistant general-manager role might be a better fit for him, too.

Usually, this opening wouldn’t garner so much attention. But Perry was lavished with praise for Sacramento’s offseason, raising the profile of this job – which already carried relative prominence. The No. 2 in the Kings’ front office is now perceived, somewhat fairly, as more important than the typical assistant general manager.