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NBA AM: Predicting the Dunk Contest Field

Zach LaVine will be in the 2016 Slam Dunk Contest, but who will the NBA choose as his competition?

Joel Brigham



On the NBA website’s page for the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest – set to be served as dessert on All-Star Saturday this coming February 13 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto – it simply states that “this year’s participants will be announced soon.” Since so many people are such big fans of this event, however, there’s little reason not to speculate who those participants may be, particularly since some other All-Star press releases have hit the wire over the course of the last week.

With that said, here’s a look at which talented young dunkers likely will (and will not) be taking part.

Zach LaVine, Minnesota Timberwolves – So far it looks like LaVine is the only player to have committed to participating in the dunk contest this year, but that makes sense considering he won the thing last year flashing an array of dunks that re-energized the competition and made it as relevant as it’s been in years. LaVine talked with Basketball Insiders about his thoughts and feelings regarding the dunk contest earlier in the season, so it sounds like he’s ready to go. Unfortunately, it looks like some of his most gifted peers are going to sit things out.

Larry Nance, Jr., L.A. Lakers – It’s a great thought, especially considering how many highlight dunks the L.A. Lakers rookie has generated in just his first half season in the league, but the Lakers’ training staff strongly recommended that Nance turn down the opportunity to follow in his father’s footsteps as a potential dunk contest champion to deal with a knee issue that has nagged him for a good portion of January. Nance told Basketball Insiders on our podcast that he wanted to compete in the dunk contest, but the Lakers opted to take a cautious approach. The league reached out to the kid and everything to gauge interest, but Nance needs the long weekend to rest up and actually contribute to real basketball, robbing fans of what was sure to have been a really strong showing. There’s always next year.

Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves – Also nope, but not because of any injury. Wiggins just doesn’t seem interested in doing it. When asked by Tas Melas of NBA TV if Wiggins would give the dunk contest a go, he shook his head no about as emphatically as one can. And while he didn’t give any real reason why he’s passing, it doesn’t really matter. Another of the league’s most exciting young dunkers isn’t interested, even though he’s done some incredible acrobatics with a basketball in the past.

Terrence Ross, Toronto Raptors – The addition of Ross to the dunk contest field makes a ton of sense not only because he’s one of the most gifted and creative dunkers in the league, but also because he would give the hometown Toronto crowd a local favorite to cheer for in one of the weekend’s marquee events. So far there has been nothing to suggest that the 2013 Slam Dunk champion will return to the contest he owned as a rookie, but his grace and athleticism belong in this competition. There might not be anyone in the league willing to participate in this thing with a better shot to dethrone LaVine.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks – It wasn’t a great showing for Antetokounmpo last winter when he stacked up against LaVine, Victor Oladipo and Mason Plumlee in the 2015 Sprint Slam Dunk Contest, but his chest is much more puffed out than it was a year ago and one has to think he’s learned what kind of showmanship has to go into these contests to have a shot at winning. Chances are good that, if properly prepared, Antetokounmpo would put on a good show. With those hops and long arms, he has to have some dunks in his arsenal that nobody else in the field could pull off. As a true rising star, he would bring a little name recognition to the field as well.

Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic – After spending a good chunk of his rookie season injured, Aaron Gordon looks healthy this year and is more than qualified to show off his athleticism on a stage as elite as the one provided him at All-Star Weekend. We already saw a bit of his skill earlier this month when he pulled off a Dominique-esque double-pump reverse in the middle of a game just for the hell of it, and he’s had his fair share of strong showings in high school and college dunk contests too. He’s a charismatic kid with hops for days, and he’d put the fear of God in a rim were he included in this February’s dunk contest. If added, he’d be a legitimate contender to win the whole thing.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks – While there hasn’t been anything in his arsenal of dunks this season to suggest that he’s got the sort of nimble athleticism and effortless elegance in the air that some of these other potential contestants offer, there’s more than enough appeal to offer a spot in the popular contest to the league’s most popular rookie. There always seems to be at least one seven-footer in these competitions, and Porzingis has the charm and creativity to at least come up with something showy if not technically overwhelming. At the very least, he’d bring in viewers, and he’s already going to be in Canada for the Rookie-Sophomore Game. Might as well suit him up for one more major event.

Derrick Williams, New York Knicks – While he might not fit the bill as the sort of ultra-young, ultra-athletic dunker that the league selects for the modern version of this contest, Williams does have dunk contest experience and has publicly expressed his desire to partake in the festivities. To his credit, he has shown off some impressive, high-flying slams this season and absolutely is rejuvenated in New York. He and Porzingis won’t both make it from the same team, but one Knick at least seems feasible. If not Porzingis, it may as well be former No. 2 overall draft pick Williams.

Every year when it comes to time to look at who might be included in the dunk contest, there always are a handful of no-brainers, but the league typically pulls one completely out of left field too. Knowing that, a fair prediction for the field of four dunkers would be LaVine, Gordon, Ross and a relatively surprising fourth guy, which for the sake of nailing down a definitive prediction easily could be Porzingis.

Adding Wiggins and Nance would have been the best outcome, but with those two out of the running plenty of entertainment value could be siphoned from a group that featured the aforementioned four dunkers.

The league is expected to announce the actual contestants any day now. Let’s hope we end up with something as creative as one of these 58 dunks never before performed at an NBA dunk contest:


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Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?

Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.

Shane Rhodes



The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.

With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.

It couldn’t get worse, could it?

Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.

In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.

The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.

Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.

The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.

Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.

Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?

If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.

Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.

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NBA Daily: Houston Has It All

Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.

Lang Greene



It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.

So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.

As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.

Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.

One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.

Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.

Floor Generalship

Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.

This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.

Small Ball Ready

Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.

At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.


When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.

Shooting, Versatility and Experience

All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.

Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.


Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.

With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race

Basketball Insiders



Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.

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The Strictly Speaking Podcast


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