Grading the 2014 Slam Dunk Contest
NEW ORLEANS — John Wall, Paul George and Terrence Ross of the Eastern Conference won the 2014 Slam Dunk Contest on Saturday, with Wall taking home the “Dunker of the Night” fan vote.
Here’s a round-by-round, match-up by match-up look at this year’s Slam Dunk Contest with the judges’ verdicts, The Point Forward’s grades and additional analysis along the way. We’ll grade the dunks on the contest’s traditional 1-50 scale.
‘Freestyle’ Round: Eastern Conference
During interviews on Friday, the East’s team members promised that they would show off a little teamwork in the opening round, which put all three players on the court together for 90 seconds. They did just that, finishing off their slate with the best dunk of the opening round, an off-the-glass, off-the-shot-clock, bouncing alley-oop that George finished with a strong right-handed dunk. The trio also pulled off a smoothly executed George-to-Wall-to-Ross double alley-oop.
Leading up to that conclusion were several nice warm-up efforts. Ross threw down a reverse double-pump and he spiked a 360 with one hand. Wall threw down a windmill off of a bounce to himself and followed that up with a high-rising lefty finish on another self alley-oop. George did miss a dunk in the freestyle period but he made the most of an off-the-bounce pass from Wall, throwing down a smooth and fast reverse windmill slam with two hands.
The East only had a few misses during their 90-second period and their general flow was good, even if they were ramping up a bit. East Grade: 40 out of 50
The West’s freestyle period got off on the wrong foot and just wasn’t able to recover despite a stronger finish. They opened with a Barnes-to-McLemore-to-Lillard alley-oop that Lillard spiked hard off the back rim. From there, the Blazers guard tried to set up his teammates with a double alley-oop, but both Barnes and McLemore failed to get close with their efforts. Things did pick up but this was a deep ditch.
From there, Barnes did a simple two-handed windmill, McLemore impressed with a high-rising lefty self alley-oop and Lillard missed another dunk on an ambitious through-the-legs self alley-oop attempt. Thankfully, Lillard gave that one another go after another vanilla windmill attempt from Barnes. Once he pulled it off on the second pass, the 6-foot-3 Lillard could lay claim to the best individual dunk of the opening round.
The session completed with McLemore skying high for another self alley-oop, this time finishing with his right hand, and than another generic right-handed dunk from Barnes, who didn’t get much air as he brought the ball down near his waist. Lillard nearly sealed the round with a vicious 360 dunk with his off hand, but he got back rim again and the ball ricocheted away as time expired.
Judging the totality of the round, there was just no way to give the West the edge over the East, even with Lillard’s highlight slam. There were too many missed dunks and too many bland efforts from Barnes to make this much of an opening competition. West Grade: 35 out of 50.
The judges voted unanimously for the East, granting them the right to choose whether they wanted to go first or second in the next round. They got it right in a clear-cut decision.
‘Battle’ Round: Face-off One: Lillard vs. Ross
The “Battle Round” featured a series of head-to-head match-ups between dunkers from the East and West, with the East choosing to go second.
In the first battle, Lillard faced off against Ross, the defending Slam Dunk Contest champion. This battle wound up being a case of substance versus stylized substance, as Lillard opted for a gimmick-free approach while Ross enlisted Drake, a custom intro theme song that mixed the words “The Champ Is Here” with the rapper’s “Started From The Bottom.” The in-arena buzz around Ross’s showmanship stood out from what had been a flat opening round.
Lillard’s dunk — which he made on the second try — was precise and well done. Throwing a high self alley-oop, Lillard complete most of a 360 before piledriving a left-handed finish. It was clean, economical and it featured the type of bounce we don’t often see from Lillard during games. This was a strong effort. Lillard Grade: 44 out of 50.
Ross, meanwhile, positioned Drake in the paint with the ball in his outstretched hand. Running towards the hoop, Ross grabbed the ball, put it through his legs while in mid-air and completed a strong right-handed finish. After a few false starts, Ross finished the sequence, making the slam look way easier than it actually is. We arguably saw better efforts from Ross in last year’s Dunk contest, but the timing and verticality of this effort demand recognition. Ross Grade: 45 out of 50.
Both dunks were pretty and both possessed a high degree-of-difficulty. Ross certainly out-sold his fare, which does count in these contests if tie-breakers are needed. It’s no surprise that the strictly business Lillard would opt for a prop-free approach, but it also shouldn’t be a surprise that such a philosophy wound up making him the first player to be eliminated.
The judges voted 2-1 for Ross. I co-sign their decision. Score: East 1, West 0
Face-off Two: Barnes vs. George
Barnes had a good idea in theory: take advantage of the popularity of the NBA 2K14 franchise by attaching technology to his body that would record his movements and allow game players to download the dunk at home. That type of outside-the-box thinking could be a bonus in a contest that is decided by a fan vote.
Unfortunately, much like his freestyle round efforts, Barnes’ dunk attempts in the battle round efforts left much to be desired. There just wasn’t enough pop in his legs on Saturday, and he lost the crowd’s interest with a series of misses on relatively easy attempts. He finally put down a double-clutch two-handed dunk that was easily the weakest of the battle round. Exit stage left. Thanks for coming. Barnes Grade: 25 out of 50
Thankfully, George was up next to get the train back on the tracks. The Pacers’ All-Star forward entered the contest as the favorite and he didn’t disappoint, concocting a super difficult dunk look that appealed to diehard purists and casual fans alike. The setup: George would do a 360 (almost), spinning the “wrong way” (clockwise) before putting the ball through his legs and finishing with a windmill dunk. If that sounds familiar, George pulled off the same dunk — minus the “through the legs” part — earlier this season.
The only downside to this one is that it took George three or four tries to get it right. That wouldn’t matter against Barnes but it’s worth noting for later. George Grade: 48 out of 50
The judges made the no-brainer decision to advance George past Barnes. Duh. Score: East 2, West 0
Face-off Three: McLemore vs. Wall
By the contest’s new rules, a Wall victory in the final round would end the contest immediately because the East would be able to claim a clean 3-0 sweep. To his credit, McLemore pulled out all the stops to ensure that wouldn’t happen easily.
The Kings rookie dressed up like a real king and took the court accompanied by Kings minority owner Shaquille O’Neal and a jester to get the crowd excited. McLemore placed O’Neal on a throne in the paint and proceeded to jump over the throne, throwing out both of his legs in a “Jumpman” style pose as he finished the right-handed slam. The sequence was completed by O’Neal putting a crown on McLemore’s head. That sounds a bit corny, sure, but it wasn’t that bad.
McLemore has a unique ability to look like he’s floating and flying when he bounces high off the court, and the slow-motion replays of his dunk over O’Neal are worth re-watching over and over again. This was a strong effort and the West’s best dunk of the second round. McLemore Grade: 47 out of 50.
Wall then made the contest’s last dunk its best dunk. Teaming up with Wizards mascot G-Man, whom he placed with the ball over his head on the right side of the court, Wall put his freaky athleticism to full use. Jumping over the top of G-Man, Wall corralled the ball, double-pumped and finished a two-handed reverse slam.
Individually, all of the dunk’s elements (the leapfrog, the double-pump, the reverse) were impressive, and Wall’s ability to put them together seamlessly drew the best reaction of the night from both the crowd and the judges. That a point guard could pull off such a display — one was unique in sum even if we’ve seen its various aspects before — made it all the more impressive. Wall Grade: 50 out of 50
The judges gave the third round to Wall in a 3-0 sweep. Johnson declared: “John Wall just brought the Slam Dunk Contest back.” That was certainly hyperbole, as the contest’s format got in the way of a true revival. Instead of watching Ross, George and Wall go head-to-head-to-head in an epic final round, the contest was simply over because the East had achieved the 3-0 battle round sweep. That was that. Score: East 3, West 0
‘Dunker Of The Night’
While Wall, George and Ross were all named “Slam Dunk Contest champions” by virtue of their conference victory, a fan vote determined that Wall was the “Dunker of the Night.” While the format was cause for plenty of controversy, the fan vote — much like the judges decisions — was free of controversy.
The fans got this one correct: Wall followed up a strong opening round with the contest’s best overall slam and George’s best effort was weakened slightly by the fact that it took a bunch of tries. Wall was a worthy winner; if only we could have seen more from him (and George… and Ross… and McLemore and Lillard, too, for that matter).
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