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.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

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Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.

Losing Kemba Walker would always sting. Hornets made it nearly as painful as possible

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NBC Sports’ 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.

The Hornets faced a miserable choice this summer:

  • Lose not only their by far best player, but the greatest player in franchise and someone with a deep connection to the community
  • Sign a point guard to an expensive contract that will further inhibit an already-strapped team from competing at even a moderate level

Charlotte’s choice? Both.

The Hornets let Kemba Walker leave via free agency and replaced him with Terry Rozier (three years, $56.7 million). That’s a failure, not one of solely this offseason, but a failure nonetheless.

At 29, Walker would’ve likely become a negative value on a long-term deal. But at least he would’ve kept Charlotte more firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff race in the near term – not that on the fringes of that competition is a great place to be. There were reasonable arguments for and against keeping Walker.

But if the Hornets were willing to offer him only $160 million (about $62 million less than his super max), they should have traded him before it got this far. Why did they keep him past last season’s trade deadline? To have him represent Charlotte in the All-Star game there? To make a longshot run at the No. 8 seed? Without knowing exactly what other teams offered, that seems highly likely a mistake.

The Hornets weren’t good enough to make the playoffs with Walker. What makes them think they’ll be good enough with Rozier?

Losing Walker always would’ve invited a year of pain. Charlotte is too capped out, too veteran-laden to pivot in a meaningful way. But at least Bismack Biyombo‘s, Marvin Williams‘ and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s contracts will expire next summer. Nicolas Batum‘s and Cody Zeller‘s will expire the following year.

Now, Rozier is on the books another year after that.

Maybe Rozier, 25, will become a key part of the Hornets’ next successful era. He has the requisite athleticism and has shown flashes of being a good starting point guard. But he’s coming off a down year. That counts, too.

It’s easy to pin Rozier’s struggles on a tough situation behind Kyrie Irving. That surely factored. Still, most players on a starting track would’ve fared better in those circumstances.

Credit Charlotte for creativity. By signing-and-trading Walker to the Celtics for a signed-and-traded Rozier, the Hornets got more spending power. But they probably would’ve been better off with a point guard in the mid-level-exception range like Tomas Satoransky, Delon Wright or Tyus Jones. It’ll take a major jump for Rozier to justify his near-$19 million-per-year salary.

Charlotte isn’t giving him much help. Jeremy Lamb left in free agency. Even though they have enough breathing room under the tax line to use the rest, the Hornets haven’t used their mid-level exception other than sliver for No. 36 pick Cody Martin.

Internal prospects look limited. Charlotte didn’t place anyone on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years. No. 12 pick P.J. Washington probably won’t change the franchise’s arc.

The Hornets didn’t reach this dismal point in one offseason. But this summer worsened the predicament.

Offseason grade: D-

Stephen Curry on playing in 2020 Tokyo Olympics: ‘That is the plan, for sure’

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It wasn’t just one thing that had the USA finishing seventh in the recent FIBA World Cup in China, but there was one overriding factor — the USA did not send it’s best players. That’s no knock on Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Jaylen Brown and others who sacrificed and certainly gave it their all for Team USA, but we see this every NBA playoffs and now in international ball — the level of play of the top 10 or so players in the world is just different, it  changes and wins games. It takes them to win an NBA title, and now that is true of the gold medal.

Expect some of those elite players to suit up for Team USA in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Stephen Curry is in the front of that line, he told Rachel Nichols of ESPN.

“That is the plan, for sure. You know, obviously knock on wood, you don’t want any injuries or things like that to interfere…

“Definitely wanna go. I’ve never been on the Olympic team. I’ve been on two World Cup championship gold-medal teams. But the Olympics is the experience that I want. And next year will hopefully be it.”

Draymond Green also has said he wants to suit up for the USA in Tokyo.

This was to be expected. As has been written about before here at NBC (and in numerous other publications), it was poor decisions by the international governing body FIBA — in their quixotic quest to have the basketball world cup rival the soccer version — that hurt the USA’s roster, as well as the rosters of other teams around the world.

FIBA moved this World Cup to 2019 — one year before the Olympics — instead of 2018, when it would have traditionally fallen. This shift kept a number of players away. To play for Team USA is a six-to-seven week summer commitment, during the offseason when players are trying to rest, get their bodies right, relax a little, and spend time with friends and family. Putting the World Cup and Olympics in back-to-back years (and FIBA would love to kill 5-on-5 at the Olympics, but that’s another discussion) had players choosing between the two events, and for Americans the Olympics are always going to win that fight. Also, FIBA scheduled this World Cup for early September, so it ran right up against the start of training camps around the globe, with little break for the players. That was another strike (the Olympics next year run late July to early August, and you can catch it all on NBC).

Expect a number of other elite players to want to head to Tokyo. While USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo has talked tough about players who backed out this year, there is no chance he says no to an Anthony Davis/James Harden/Kawhi Leonard level player if they want to go. The USA wants gold and it needs its best players.

Such as Curry.

Wizards’ Isaiah Thomas out 6-8 weeks following thumb surgery

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With John Wall out likely for the season, the Washington Wizards are going to lean on Ish Smith and Isaiah Thomas to handle point guard duties (although Bradley Beal will have the ball in his hands a lot and do plenty of playmaking, too).

Now the Wizards will be without Thomas through training camp and into the start of the season after surgery Wednesday to repair a ligament in his thumb, the team announced. The injury happened during a regular workout Monday at the team facility.

“This was an unfortunate setback for Isaiah, but with his resolve and the top care he will receive from our medical team, we expect him to make a full recovery,” said Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard in a statement. “In the meantime, he will continue to mentor our young guards and have a positive impact on the team as we start training camp.”

After Smith and Thomas, the only point guard on the roster is undrafted rookie Justin Robinson (on a non-guaranteed contract).

This is a fluky, unfortunate injury for Thomas, who has battled through years of hip and other injuries and is looking forward to the chance to prove himself with the Wizards. Thomas went to Washington for the opportunity, and that will still be there, but missing camp is a setback.