1. The participants in this year's Sprite Slam Dunk Contest seem to be into the new "team" concept.
Last year, the Slam Dunk Contest moved from an individual format to a team event, with six dunkers separated into three-man Eastern and Western Conference teams with one representative from each conference advancing to a head-to-head final. The shift continues this year, with the East and West dunkers squaring off in both a "Freestyle Round" that will feature all six dunkers going off for 90 seconds, with a panel of judges choosing an overall conference winner, and a "Battle Round" that will feature head-to-head matchups between one East dunker and one West dunker, with the judges choosing a winner for each battle and the first conference to win three battles being crowned 2014 champions, earning a $100,000 prize for its respective charities. (That's the American Heart Association and the U.S. Fund for UNICEF for the East, and Teach for America and the Wounded Warrior Project for the West.)
Some fans and observers were lukewarm on the idea of moving away from the every-man-for-himself roots of the dunk contest, but the competitors seem cool with it. From Ben Golliver of the Point Forward:
“All of us [on the East team] have dunks that have never been done in the Dunk Contest so we plan on stealing the show,” [Paul] George declared. “We’re really going to try to put it away on the West.” [...]
“It’s going to be a lot more fun,” [Terrence] Ross said. “Last year we had great dunkers but we were all doing our own things. Now we all have a chance to work together to do some things that nobody has ever seen before. I think that’s going to be the best thing about it.”
[Damian] Lillard saw multiple benefits to the new format.
“I like it,” he said. “It’s different, it’s good for a contest like that where fans have seen pretty much every dunk, to put a twist on it. I’m excited about it. It takes pressure off individual dunkers, they don’t have to be perfect to have a chance.”
Lillard's last point — that, whether in the everybody-all-at-once freestyle round or in the team battle round, the fate of the competition isn't always resting on just one player's shoulders — might have been a contributing factor in getting three All-Stars (George, Lillard and John Wall) to take part in the dunk contest for the first time in 26 years. (If you win as a team and lose as a team, then it lowers the potential downside of coming up short for an individual dunker, right?) If it results in each dunker feeling looser and more at ease, we could see some more creative attempts and explosive finishes, which could help the contest live up to the increased hype ratcheted up by the name-brand participants.
2. Still, George says he's winning the whole thing.
I mean, there's still some individual pride at stake here, you know?
It happened during an interview with ESPN's Chris Broussard during Friday night's Celebrity Game:
Asked if he had any predictions for Saturday night's main event, George said, "Yeah. I mean, I'm gonna take it home. I feel like I've got to redeem myself for 2012, so that's what tomorrow night's going to be about."
George performed well in the 2012 contest, dunking over two teammates, including 7-foot-2 teammate Roy Hibbert, throwing down the infamous lights-out/glow-in-the-dark windmill 360 and using a sticker of Pacers team president Larry Bird's face as a prop. It wasn't enough to win, though, as the fans selected forward Jeremy Evans of the Utah Jazz as the victor in that competition.
The 23-year-old swingman's likely to fare better in a popularity contest this year. Thanks to a breakout first half of the season in which he's led the Pacers to the best record in the Eastern Conference, George received more than 1.2 million All-Star votes from NBA fans, earning him his second consecutive All-Star berth and the first starting nod of his ascendant career. That is, in part, why he's considered the odds-on favorite to be named "Dunker of the Night" on Saturday night. There are, of course, other reasons:
Not that George is willing to offer much insight into what he's got planned to win the whole thing, according to Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star:
"Nothing," George responded when asked for a preview. "I have nothing for you. You just have to wait and see Saturday."
3. Wall might have a posse.
One major potential result of the change in format could be that, with only 90 seconds in the freestyle round and more riding on the successful and expedient completion of dunks in the head-to-head battle round, slams featuring props or elaborate setups either go by the wayside or get curtailed significantly. The Washington Wizards point guard, however, might be planning something in that vein of showmanship.
“I got something up my sleeve but I don't want to talk about it,” he told Michael Lee of the Washington Post.
(Given the controversial sartorial nature of this year's All-Star Game, one wonders if this might literally be true.)
During an interview with NBA TV's Matt Winer on Thursday, though, Wall did offer a couple of clues as to what might be up that sleeve. As transcribed by Dan Steinberg of the D.C. Sports Bog:
Winer: Here’s what I want to ask, are there props involved?
Wall: Might be, might be. You’ve got to be creative nowadays, you know what I mean? Basically everybody’s done every dunk you can do, so you’ve got to have some creativity to it, so that’s what I’m trying to add to my flavor.
Winer: Are there extra bodies involved?
Wall: Yeah, there will be extra bodies involved.
Winer: You like to go to the left hand when you dunk; will the left hand be involved?
Wall: Both hands will be involved in this dunk contest. I think you’re trying to get me to come out and talk about it.
(Well, yeah, John. That's his job.)
So we can pretty much pencil in Wall going up for a two-hander over Gheorghe Muresan in his "My Giant" wardrobe, right? OK, well, maybe not, but it does sound like Wall — whom you might remember busting out a pretty cool behind-the-back slam during the Rising Stars Challenge a couple of years back — plans to go for some stuff that he'd never dream of trying in a game, which sounds promising. More from Golliver:
“Some people are more in-game dunkers than if you throw them a basketball and you’ve got to dunk in front of all these people,” Wall said. “I’m more of a Dunk Contest person. In games, I don’t try all them because I’m not trying to miss and get taken out of the game or be on ‘Not Top 10.’ In the contest, you can miss and be like, ‘I have three more tries.’”
Here's hoping neither he, nor any of his fellow competitors, will wind up needing them. We're not trying to relive the Birdman tragedy this year.
4. Terrence Ross still isn't feeling prop dunks.
When I talked to Ross before the 2013 contest, which he went on to win in impressive fashion, the Toronto Raptors swingman said he preferred no-prop dunks to those with a higher gimmick quotient, "because it kind of lets you see the athleticism of a dunker — rather than paying attention to something else that he's going to do, you're actually paying attention to how he's doing a certain dunk." He reiterated that stance this week when he was asked during an interview with Yahoo Sports Radio's Peter Brown if he thought he could win without a prop:
That's what I've been trying to do! Last year I won it without using any props, and this year I'm gonna head the same way. I want to go back to kind of the old-school mentality of just going out there and showing your natural ability, but you know, some guys still want to jump over cars and want to use all these different props. I mean, it is what it is, and at the end of the day, you're just giving the fans what they want to see.
That sounds pretty cool, Terrence. It is worth remembering, though, that Ross did finish his 2013 victory by dunking over the son of the CEO of Twitter, so his hands are not totally clean when it comes to prop usage. If all holds to form this year, perhaps Ross will begin Saturday night's affair with a couple of raw displays of simple elegance and power, and then cap it all off by finishing a 360 off a behind-the-back feed from Marissa Mayer. (I see you, boss.)
5. Ben McLemore could go a lot of different ways.
Now, he's never-say-never-ing the prospect of turning the tables on his mammoth posterization by LeBron James: "I mean, it would be cool if he came out to be one of my props or something like that, but it depends on how the routine goes and that."
McLemore's perhaps the most graceful aerialist of the group, with springs for days and a lithe physique that seems to slide through the air in a sort of half-gravity, giving him more than enough hang-time to pull off just about anything. But could he really pull off stuff this big and varied? For his part, coach/guru Brown seems to want his young charge to take it easy on himself, according to Ailene Voisin of the Sacramento Bee:
“Things come to you in the moment. I told Ben, ‘You might do some dunks you have never even thought of yet. Have some flair, some pizzazz. But most of all enjoy it. It’s a dunk competition. Your living is not based on a dunk contest.’ ”
Well, if you convince LeBron to come out and then dunk on him, I think it probably would be. (Although I'm not sure if it would be in a good way or a bad one.)
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