2014 Dunk Contest: Ranking the dunks

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Let’s get this out of the way: that was an awful, awful dunk contest. Despite one of the most star-studded fields in years and some phenomenal athletes, the 2014 dunk contest was a complete dud. Most of the blame probably lies with the new contest format which, at the risk of recycling adjectives, was unforgivably awful.

For the majority of the “freestyle” round, it would have been possible to hear a fly crash into a bed of cotton in the Smoothie King Center, and it’s not clear why anyone thought it was a good idea.

While the idea behind the “battle” round was an intriguing one, the fact is that the format caused the viewers to see far less dunks under pressure. Last year, having the 4 participants get two dunks each and the finalists get an extra two dunks apiece meant the viewing audience at home got to see 12 dunks. If you don’t count the freestyle dunks, and you really shouldn’t, we got to see six dunks this season, thanks to the East’s “sweep.” Apparently a round-robin of some kind, which would have allowed the fans to see more dunks, would have taken away from the drama of the inter-conference dunk rivalry that does not exist and nobody cares about. More dunks, in general, makes for a better dunk contest.

Okay, enough complaining. At the end of the day, we got to see dunks, and dunks are fun. Now I shall rank all six dunks that we got to see in the “battle round,” as well as the three most notable dunks of the “freestyle” round.

9) Harrison Barnes, Battle Round: Throwing down a windmill while being motion-captured for NBA 2K

When Harrison Barnes hooked himself up to something before his dunk, we knew some type of gimmick was coming, and we knew it wasn’t going to be nearly as fun for the fans as Barnes and the fine gentlemen at 2K studios probably thought it would be when they came up with it. After two misses, Barnes threw down a relatively plain windmill slam, and fans were then treated to an immediate rendering of Barnes performing the exact feat in NBA 2K graphics. I’m sure the technology behind doing that in real-time is amazing, but it was the nadir of the dunk contest.

8) Ben McLemore, Battle Round: Ben McLemore jumps over a Shaq, who was sitting in a big chair

I mean, sure, the crown, the cape, the throne, and the “Shaqramento” and “Shaqlemore” puns were bad, but at this point, we know better than to expect anything resembling subtlety from Shaq. The reason this ranks so low isn’t a reaction to the specific gimmick — it’s a reaction against the idea that “dunker jumps over thing” is enough to make an impressive dunk in and of itself anymore, especially when the person is sitting down. Plus, McLemore took two attempts to pull the dunk off. After rumors that McLemore was going to attempt a 720, this was a disappointment.

7) Terrance Ross, Battle Round: East Bay Funk Dunk, assisted by Drake

We’ve seen the between-the-legs dunk a lot at this point, and while it will always probably my favorite category of dunk, pretending that having Drake hold out a ball puts a radical new spin on an old dunk contest standby simply didn’t work for me.

6) Damian Lillard, Battle Round: Reverse 360 dunk with a lefty finish

I liked this dunk — it was smooth, it was clean, and there was a nice degree of difficulty on it — I think it should have beaten Ross’ dunk, obviously, which would at least have allowed us to see two more dunks. The dunk wasn’t anything radical, and it wasn’t thrown down with enough force or amplitude to make it amazing, so it takes this space on the list. This is the problem with the format — if Lillard had had four “official” dunks, this would have been a great dunk. With only one, it didn’t quite cut it.

5) Ben McLemore, Freestyle Round: Reaching way the hell back and slamming down a self-oop

Here’s another frustrating thing: when you can jump like Ben McLemore, you don’t need a man making a fool of himself on national television, not to mention a herald, to make your dunks impressive. A simple self-oop off the floor that forced McLemore to hang in the air as he re-adjusted himself to the toss was enough to make for a darn impressive dunk.

4) Damian Lillard, Freestyle Round: Off-the-floor self-oop East Bay Funk Dunk

Like I said, I’m a huge sucker for the between-the-legs dunk, and watching the smallest guy in the field throw one down off of a nice self-oop toss was beautiful to see. Lillard definitely should’ve saved this one for the battle round.

3) The East, Freestyle Round: 3-man alley-oop ending in a shot-clock toss to Paul George throwdown

Teammwork is fun. Dunks thrown off the shot clock are fun. Alley-oops grabbed way above the rim and thrown down with authority are super-fun. During the freestyle round, the Eastern squad combined to put all of these things into one dunk, and the result was delightful.

2) Paul George, Battle Round: Reverse-spin 360 East Bay Funk Dunk

Again, I’m a huge sucker for the between-the-legs, and I love opposite-direction spins. Plus, this was a dunk done without any props, or even an alley-oop toss, that we had never seen in a dunk contest before, which is amazing. If George had thrown it down just a little bit harder, or hit the dunk on his first try, this could have easily gotten the #1 spot.

1) John Wall, Battle Round: Over-the-mascot reverse tomahawk

You were expecting something else? This was the dunk that woke up the Smoothie King Center, just in time for the dunk contest to be over. There was some showmanship with the mascot, but it wasn’t distracting. The dunk was beautiful, clean, and he put it through on his first attempt. The hops required to pull off the dunk were apparent, and the power Wall generated with the Nique-like reverse tomahawk was shocking. Great dunk from a great dunker, and a painful reminder of what this dunk contest could have been if the contestants got more chances to show their stuff.

Grizzlies’ other rookie, Brandon Clarke again leaping over expectations

Grizzlies rookie Brandon Clarke
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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When Brandon Clarke signed with San Jose State in 2014, the Spartans bragged about landing their highest-rated recruit ever – Cody Schwartz.

When Clarke transferred to Gonzaga in 2017, Bulldogs fans viewed him as a consolation prize after the program struck out on other transfers like Chase Jeter, Kameron Rooks, Elijah Brown, Randy Onwuasor and Deontae Hawkins.

When the Grizzlies got Clarke with the No. 21 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Memphis naturally focused on No. 2 pick Ja Morant.

Unlike the previous situations, the player coveted ahead of Clarke proved worthy of the hype. Morant is the rare rookie point guard who drives winning, and he’s the biggest reason the Grizzlies are still in the thick of the playoff race.

But, as usual, Clarke is quietly thriving.

“I don’t mind not being super famous,” Clarke said. “I don’t mind people kind of missing out on me.

“By now, I’m kind of used to it.”

Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Clarke give Memphis a promising, cohesive young core to build around. Just remember to include Clarke in that group.

After a long run of competitiveness, the Grizzlies were fortunate to go over the hill and bottom out in a year someone as good as Jackson was available with the No. 4 pick. Then, Memphis got lucky in last year’s lottery, nabbing the No. 2 pick in a two-player draft and getting Morant. What a quick way to rebuild.

Especially when nailing moves around the margins like getting Clarke.

In the 2019 NBA Draft, Memphis traded up to the No. 21 pick for Clarke, whom ranked No. 10 on my board. The power forward-center has only outperformed his ratings since.

Clarke’s per-game stats – 12.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 0.8 blocks – are modest. But he’s incredibly productive in his 22.3 minutes per game.

Incredibly productive.

Clarke doesn’t hold ideal size. He’s just 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and weighs just 215 pounds.

But he’s a great leaper, both quick and high off the ground. And he plays with an attacking style that maximizes his athleticism.

Clarke is an elite finisher who gets above the rim, dunking or showing nice close-range touch. He has already developed pick-and-roll chemistry with Morant. Clarke is shooting 74% in the restricted area, placing him among the league leaders (minimum: 100 attempts):

When opponents wall off the basket, Clarke turns to his highly effective floater. He gets way up then shows the range of his touch. Clarke is shooting 58% in the paint outside the restricted area – second in the NBA behind only Nikola Jokic, who’s shooting 60% from that range. The league leaders (minimum: 100 attempts):

Clarke also shoots a keep-’em-honest 3-pointer, making 37% of his 1.1 attempts per game.

Clarke pairs well long-term with Jackson, a 3-point-bombing center (who’s out with an injury). Jackson’s outside shooting clears space for Clarke inside, and the attention Clarke should draw in the paint will free Jackson on the perimeter. Yet, both can flip roles – Jackson to the interior, Clarke to the perimeter – to keep defenses guessing.

“Oh, it’s amazing,” Jackson said. “Playing with a guy like him, who’s so explosive and somebody I can bounce off of really well, it’s a lot of fun.”

It’s unclear whether Clarke or Jackson can effectively defend big centers. That responsibility will likely fall to Jackson, who’s 6-foot-11 but must add strength. Clarke’s defense is more versatile. He blocks plenty of shots with his hops and timing, and he moves reasonably well in space.

Clarke knows his role and stays within it. He’s not much of a creator, for himself or teammates. He rarely gambles defensively. He just plays intelligently, makes positive plays and avoids negative ones.

On a certain level, Clarke should be an early contributor. He turned 23 before the season. But even experienced rookies rarely play this well.

Yet, Clarke is still overshadowed among rookies on his own team.

“It’s honestly fine,” Clarke said. “I’m not somebody that loves having a bunch of cameras on me and a bunch of pictures and videos being taken of me. So, I think it’s perfect of having Ja be that guy that gets all of that attention.”

Clarke should get some attention soon. He belongs on the All-Rookie first team with Morant.

The three Rookie of the Year finalists – Morant, Pelicans big Zion Williamson and Heat guard Kendrick Nunn – are locks. I had Clarke safely in my fourth slot. Really, he was closer to Williamson and Nunn that fifth.

But Clarke’s scoring average ranks just 12th among rookies. Williamson, Morant, Nunn, R.J. Barrett, Eric Paschall, Rui Hachimura, Tyler Herro, Coby White, De'Andre Hunter, Darius Garland and P.J. Washington all averaged more points per game. That statistic more than any tends to drive voters. So, it could be close for Clarke.

Yet, Morant and Clarke at least have the opportunity for a rare accomplishment.

Since the NBA entered an expansion era in 1988, just seven teams have put two players on an All-Rookie first team:

  • 2017 76ers: Dario Saric and Joel Embiid
  • 2008 SuperSonics: Kevin Durant and Jeff Green
  • 2007 Trail Blazers: Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge
  • 2007 Raptors: Andrea Bargnani and Jorge Garbajosa
  • 2005 Bulls: Ben Gordon and Luol Deng
  • 2002 Grizzlies: Pau Gasol and Shane Battier
  • 1998 Cavaliers: Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Brevin Knight

Will the 2020 Grizzlies become the eighth?

They have more-pressing goals first.

Memphis faces the Bucks today with a chance to make the Western Conference play-in. Advancing would be a great achievement for one of the NBA’s youngest teams.

But Memphis is ahead of schedule even being in the mix. The Grizzlies’ future is bright, regardless. They’re talented, fun and seem to get along well.

In a game earlier this season, Morant threw Clarke an alley-oop, but Clarke missed the poster dunk.

“I’d be joking with him, saying, ‘Yeah, you don’t want to make SportsCenter,'” Morant said.

Later in the same game, Morant attacked the rim but passed rather than scoring. Clarke shot right back: “You don’t want to make SportsCenter.”

And in some ways, yes. Morant still views himself as the underdog from Murray State. But his game is too stylistic, his highlights too jaw-dropping. There’s no way for him to escape the spotlight.

“I wish I could be in the background,” Morant said.

Does Morant envy Clarke’s low profile?

“It’s not jealousy at all,” Morant said. “He’s getting attention. He’s not necessarily in the background. We love him in Memphis. I’m pretty sure his name will get out there even more soon.”

Chris Paul launches ball off Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler runs over CP3 in response

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Chris Paul and Jimmy Butler didn’t need fans to ramp up their intensity Wednesday night.

Just before half of Oklahoma City’s dramatic win over Miami (which cost the Thunder a first-round pick), Paul was getting into it with Miami’s Duncan Robinson. They were jawing back and forth, with Paul draped all over the Heat shooter. Then, on a poor inbounds pass, Paul ripped the ball away from Robinson, lost his balance in doing so and was falling out of bounds, then full-on fired the ball at Robinson to get the out-of-bounds.

Jimmy Butler was having none of that — next time down, he got the switch then intentionally ran over CP3.

“You’re not gonna throw the ball at my teammate like that. We don’t do that here. You mess with one of my guys, especially one of my shooters, then you gotta deal with me and everybody else.”

That was Butler after the game, when asked about the incident.

Paul, for his part, sees a steal on time down the court and drawing an offensive foul the next — two trips down the court the Heat didn’t get off a shot in a tight game. He’ll take that.

Unfortunately for us fans, that’s it for Heat/Thunder matchups for this season (unless you’re picking that as your NBA Finals matchup). I’ve got a feeling Butler and Paul are the kinds of guys who will remember a grudge like this across an off-season.

Every 2020 NBA playoffs first-round matchup set except one; West play-in scenarios

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The first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs is set.

Almost.

Seven of the eight first-round matchups are locked in, but there is still the matter of the eighth seed in the West. The Suns, Blazers, Grizzlies, and Spurs are still alive; which two teams make it to the play-in tournament over the weekend will be decided Thursday.

First, here are the first-round playoff matchups for the NBA restart bubble (times and dates for games have yet to be announced).

EAST

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Orlando Magic
Toronto Raptors vs. Brooklyn Nets
Boston Celtics vs. Philadephia 76ers
Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers

WEST

Los Angeles Clippers vs. Dallas Mavericks
Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets

For that eighth and final matchup, we know the Los Angeles Lakers are the top seed in the West.

The only 2020 NBA playoffs spot remaining is the Lakers’ opponent, the eighth seed in the West, which will be determined by a play-in series Saturday and (if necessary) Sunday. In a unique rule set up just for the NBA restart (because of the shortened season), if the ninth-seed team is within four games of the eighth seed (something that will happen in the West), the eighth and ninth seeds are put into a two-game play-in series. The eighth seed team needs only to win one of those games, the ninth seed needs to sweep both. The winner advances on to face the Lakers.

Here are the standings entering Thursday:

Portland and Memphis control their own destiny — win and they are in.

Let’s look at the play-in scenarios for each team.

• Portland: Beat the Nets and the Trail Blazers are the eighth seed. It’s that simple. If Portland loses, it only remains the eighth seed if everyone else loses (which is highly unlikely). Portland can lose and still be the nine seed if two of the other three teams also lose.

• Memphis: Beat Milwaukee — which is without Giannis Antetokounmpo due to suspension after his headbutt of Moe Wagner — and Memphis can finish no worse than ninth. If the Grizzlies win and Trail Blazers lose, then Memphis becomes the eighth seed. If the Grizzlies lose to the Bucks, they need both the Suns and Spurs to lose to stay in the playoffs.

• Phoenix: The Suns must beat the Mavericks and go 8-0 in the bubble or they are out. Even that may not be enough, Phoenix still needs Memphis and/or Portland to lose to move into either of the top two seeds (if both lose the Suns can be eighth, just one and they finish ninth).

• San Antonio: The Spurs must beat the Jazz to have any chance, lose and their 22-season playoff streak ends. Even with a win, San Antonio needs at least two of Portland/Memphis/Phoenix to lose to become the nine seed (if all three lose the Spurs can be the eighth seed, but that is an extreme longshot).

That’s a lot of options, but ultimately Damian Lillard and Portland are in the driver’s seat — and the way he’s playing it’s tough to imagine them losing Thursday, or two in a row after that.

Thunder’s Mike Muscala hits game-winner, costs Thunder their first-round pick

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The 76ers traded Mike Muscala last year.

Is Muscala a secret agent for Philadelphia?

Now with the Thunder, Muscala hit the game-winning 3-pointer in Oklahoma City’s 116-115 win over the Heat on Wednesday. That result ensured the Thunder will send their 2020 first-round pick to the 76ers.

Oklahoma City owed its first-rounder only if it landed in the top 2020. Otherwise, the Thunder would’ve conveyed their 2022 and 2023 second-rounders.*

*The 76ers originally got the protected pick by trading Jerami Grant to Oklahoma City in 2016. The pick then went to the Magic and back.

The Thunder could pivot into tanking by then, and high second-rounders in 2022 and 2023 might be more valuable than a high-20s pick in this especially unpredictable draft. But the first-rounder is the safer bet. There’s also value in not waiting two and three years for the return.

Philadelphia helped its own cause by losing to the Raptors, 125-121. The 76ers own first-round pick (which the Nets own) will be ahead of Oklahoma City’s, pushing that Thunder pick into the unprotected range.

These results – along with the Pacers beating the Rockets (108-104) and Clippers beating the Nuggets (124-111) – mean seven of eight first-round playoff matchups are set.

Eastern Conference

1. Bucks vs. 8. Magic

2. Raptors vs. 7. Nets

3. Celtics vs. 6. 76ers

4/5 Heat vs. 4/5 Pacers

Western Conference

1. Lakers vs. play-in winner

2. Clippers vs. 7. Mavericks

3. Nuggets vs. 6. Jazz

4/5 Thunder vs. 4/5 Rockets

Though neither 4/5 seeds are determined, both matchups are. The seeding differences don’t really matter without homecourt advantage in the bubble.