John Wall, Paul George lead East to 2014 Slam Dunk Contest title

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NEW ORLEANS — John Wall’s final dunk of the night won the 2014 Slam Dunk Contest for the team representing the Eastern Conference, but the drastic format changes to the event, and not any of its dunks, are what will be remembered most from this year’s All-Star Saturday showcase.

“I think it was cool,” Wall said of the new format. “It was fun. Brought some excitement to it in the first round. And basically the second round you go toe to toe with the guy from the West, and you got to have a great opportunity to beat those guys.”

Judging by the fan responses coming in live over social media channels, he was a member of a very small minority.

The event began with a 90-second freestyle round, where each team took turns throwing down dunks with all three of its respective members on the court at the same time. This resulted in a lot of teamwork, and one of the better dunks of the night — Terrence Ross drove and threw it off the backboard, Wall caught it and passed it off the shot clock, and Paul George finished with a thunderous one-handed flush.

The West struggled in the freestyle round, missing too many attempts overall. But Lillard saved it with an athletic attempt that saw him catch the ball off the bounce, before putting it through his legs in the air and then throwing it down.

After that it was onto the Battle Round, which featured a player from each team going head-to-head in competition. The winer of each round was voted upon by judges Dominique Wilkins, Magic Johnson and Julius Erving, though there was little drama because there was a decisive victor in every single round. The team to win three rounds would be declared the contest’s winner, and the East was able to sweep it.

The first battle featured Lillard against Ross, and while Lillard’s pass to himself and finish with a one-handed, 360-slam was impressive, Ross brought more creativity with him to his performance — along with a fellow Canadian, rapper Drake, as a prop.

Drake held the ball in an outstretched arm, and Ross ran up, grabbed it and put it through his legs before finishing a one-handed slam.

Neither was amazing, but Ross got the 2-1 nod from the judges.

The second battle matched up Harrison Barnes against George, and this one was really no contest. Barnes put a device of some kind in his pocket before taking a few attempts to complete an extremely modest dunk by Dunk Contest standards.

We saw once it was over that the device somehow was meant to capture Barnes’ motion, and we then were shown an NBA2K video game version of the dunk that he had just finished. The lack of creativity of the actual dunk, along with the forced product placement were an underwhelming combination.

George took advantage, and considering he was one of the more athletic dunkers in the event, his entry appeared effortless by comparison. It took him a few tries, but George completed a between-the-legs, 360-dunk that most felt was the best of the night. All three judges voted for George, so all that was left was for Wall to finish things off.

With the assistance of the Wizards’ mascot G-Man who began holding the ball, Wall leapt over him, taking the ball and bringing it down below his knees before finishing with the two-handed reverse slam. That was far better than a nonsensical routine performed by Ben McLemore before him, who had Shaquille O’Neal sit in an elaborate throne that was placed in the paint before jumping over him for his turn at a slam.

Another easy 3-0 decision for the judges, and the contest was over.

It was a bit anti-climactic, and the format was initially confusing to fans, before most decided along the way that it wasn’t a change for the good. Seeing a team awarded the event’s trophy messes with the iconic history of the signature All-Star Saturday event, too, where we’re used to seeing one dunker crowned as the Slam Dunk champion.

But Wall didn’t seem to mind so much when all was said and done. He was voted as the Dunker of the Night by the fans (even though George’s body of work seemed more deserving), and discussed how he came up with his final, contest-winning attempt.

“Somebody sent me a YouTube link on my Twitter and said 27 dunks that haven’t been done in the NBA dunk contest,” Wall said. “And the first one was that one, and it seemed hard, but for me it came out to be easy.”

Wall then detailed just how meaningful it all was to him personally.

“It’s a humbling experience for me, a great opportunity,” Wall said. “I wouldn’t be here without my coaches, my teammates and my fans in the city of DC supporting me for my first three years. So I did it for all those guys and did it for my mom that’s in the hospital sick right now, so it was a big moment for me.”

Clippers make changes, but progress?

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Chris Paul is fantastic, the best point guard between Magic Johnson and Stephen Curry.

Paul’s departure might also help the Clippers – in the short- and long-term.

The same unrelenting unacceptance of anything less than perfection that drives Paul to personal greatness can also grate those around him. J.J. Redick spoke openly of a loss of joy. After six seasons together, Paul’s message might have worn especially thin on Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. This could be a breath of fresh air in the locker room.

L.A’s return in the trade with the Rockets – Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell and a first-round pick – certainly softens the blow. That’s 1.5 starting-caliber players, 3.5 rotation-caliber players and a first-rounder – a very nice return if Paul were leaving anyway.

Long-term, it’s easy to see how committing $201 million over five years to a 32-year-old could backfire. The Clippers reportedly balked at that five-year max offer, but even the four-year max would’ve meant paying Paul $43 million at age 35.

There was a fine case for the Clippers to get younger and leaner (and happier) without Paul. Maybe they could’ve even ridden their Paul-built prestige, unprecedented in franchise history, and the L.A. market to chase the biggest free agents in the next couple years.

Except they didn’t do that.

The Clippers fell right back into win-now mode with risky bets.

They re-signed Griffin to a five-year max contract worth more than $171 million. They signed-and-traded for Danilo Gallinari, guaranteeing the forward nearly $65 million over three years and flipping the Houston first-rounder (while also shedding the overpaid Jamal Crawford).

Griffin, Gallinari and Beverley – the centerpiece of the Paul trade – are all nice players. But they all also carry significant injury risk. The 28-year-old Griffin has missed 83 games the last three years. The 29-year-old Gallinari has missed 203 games the last seven years, and he already hurt his thumb punching an opponent while playing for Italy. The 29-year-old Beverley has missed 78 games the last four years.

Injuries could derail any season with that trio leading the team, and whether the Clippers can shift courses anytime soon is out of their control. They have more than $49 million tied to player options for DeAndre Jordan ($24,119,025), Austin Rivers ($12.65 million), Milos Teodosic ($6.3 million) and Wesley Johnson ($6,134,520) next summer .

Even just the likeliest of those four, Austin Rivers, opting in would leave L.A. without max cap space. I’d also bet on Johnson, who has fallen into Doc Rivers’ doghouse, opting in.

Will the Clippers want Jordan and Teodosic to opt in or out? Those are mysteries – a particularly high-stakes one with Jordan, a premier center who will turn 30 next year.

Jordan’s situation will be especially tricky given Griffin and Gallinari. Griffin might be best at center, and Gallinari is certainly optimized at power forward. Does Jordan add more talent or create more of a logjam on this team?

At this point, I would’ve rather just maxed out Paul and Griffin for five years and hoped the franchises problems stemmed from bad luck. Foolproof? Hardly, especially because even if luck were the culprit, the people involved believing otherwise could’ve had lasting destructive effects on their mindsets.

It’s also worth noting that the Clippers didn’t necessarily have that choice. Paul might have left for James Harden and the Rockets even with a five-year max offer from L.A.. Re-signing Paul could’ve also pushed out Griffin.

There’s no choice but to grade the Clippers moves with some guesses at the counterfactual.

At least they clearly did well on some smaller moves.

Teodosic, who starred in Europe, is an intriguing 30-year-old rookie. Willie Reed appeared to be nice value at the minimum, but a domestic-violence charge is concerning. Kudos to owner Steve Ballmer for spending to acquire second-rounders Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell.

Still, all these smaller additions must be weight against the smaller departures: Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute, Marreese Speights, Raymond Felton and Crawford. Those are several contributors heading out the door.

One key person staying? Coach Doc Rivers, who was stripped of his presidency after a lousy front-office tenure.

But how much did the Clippers really learn from the Rivers era? They put Lawrence Frank, another coach with no front-office experience before arriving in L.A., in charge of roster construction.

At least Frank can focus on only one job, not the two Rivers was handling. And Jerry West, Michael Winger and Trent Redden will provide a depth of front-office expertise this franchise was sorely lacking.

With lots of new faces and titles, the Clippers are in a more captivating place – but one that doesn’t look substantively different enough to be preferable to their old place.

Offseason grade: C-

Report: Kyrie Irving trade came together when Cavs stopped asking for Jayson Tatum

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We knew that Boston and Cleveland had talked previously about a possible Kyrie Irving trade, but the talks had gone nowhere because early on the Cavaliers were asking for recent No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum, along with a veteran player and a pick. Boston GM Danny Ainge had just traded the No. 1 pick and taken Tatum after that step back, no way he was going to move the Duke star.

What changed and got the deal done was the Cavaliers stopped asking about Tatum, said Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports in an interview on NBA TV.

“The big discussion point with Boston and Cleveland over the past several weeks on a potential deal has always been about Jayson Tatum’s involvement. The Cavaliers coveted him greatly. I think if Tatum was involved the first day these talks transpired, this deal would have been done weeks ago.”

What Cleveland got by opening their mind to other possibilities was an All-NBA point guard in Isaiah Thomas, a 3&D guy they needed in Jae Crowder, and the highly coveted unprotected Brooklyn Nets pick for the next draft.

You can see why the Cavaliers wanted Tatum, at Summer League he showed an ability to knock down shots, including difficult ones. He’s a guy who can walk into the NBA and score, which would have helped the Cavaliers now and going forward. But what they got in this trade was better — guys who can help them win now and flexibility for the future (they can keep that Brooklyn pick, or it could be traded for a veteran to help keep LeBron James in Cleveland).

Sixers’ Ben Simmons fully cleared to play basketball

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Finally, some good news on the health front for Philadelphia.

Ben Simmons, the No. 1 pick a year ago, has been fully cleared for basketball activities about a month before training camp opens, reports Tom Moore of the Bucks County Courier Times.

Simmons was healthy enough to dominate a random pickup game in Australia against a bunch of 5’10” guys this week. We’re desperate enough for good signs that we will take that as one.

Also, Markelle Fultz is expected to be fully healthy for training camp after his ankle sprain.

So much for the good news. There is no updates on the status of Joel Embiid, which is concerning only in that all health news about Embiid feels concerning.

The source said center Joel Embiid hasn’t been cleared for fullcourt scrimmaging “as of yet.” Embiid, who is from Cameroon, worked with children as part of the NBA Africa Game earlier this month, but didn’t play in the Aug. 5 game.

For the sake of the game, we need the Sixers healthy this season and starting to show us how a team with so much promise and potential starts to pay off. Please let us see it. The Basketball Gods need to smile more fortune and the feet and ankles of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Report: Cavaliers called Warriors about Kyrie Irving-Klay Thompson trade

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The Warriors rejected a Klay ThompsonPaul George trade offer from the Pacers.

What about Thompson for Kyrie Irving, who’s younger than George and locked up for an additional season (the same amount of time as Thompson for a similar price)?

Apparently, Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman inquired before sending Irving to the Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick.

Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated:

It would be hard to believe that Altman could have landed a better trade than the Boston one. He did call the uninterested Warriors about Klay Thompson, a source said.

I’m not sure what this trade would’ve accomplished for either team.

The Warriors obviously already have a point guard in Stephen Curry. Though Irving isn’t the best distributor, his handles and defense push him to point guard. Curry and Irving would have been a tough fit together. Golden State knows Curry and Thompson are a championship-caliber pairing.

Thompson would have been a big upgrade at shooting guard in Cleveland, but the Cavs would have been woefully undermanned at point guard. Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon and Kay Felder wouldn’t cut it. At least the Cavaliers have decent options at shooting guard with J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Kyle Korver.

The Warriors would’ve never said yes, which is fortunate for the Cavs. They did better in their trade with Boston, anyway. Thomas can step in at point guard while Crowder still provides much-needed wing depth – plus Zizic and that sweet, sweet Nets pick.