But first, how Blake Griffin saved the dunk contest.
Let There Be Dunk!
You could make a very convincing argument that Blake Griffin, not the Heat, is the top story of this NBA season. Oh, I'll go even further: the Clippers rook has set the tone for everything that is worthwhile about 2010-11. Without Blake, there's no 2010-11. And if he weren't a part of next month's dunk contest -- in Los Angeles, no less -- it would be the kind of PR blunder fans would talk about for years to come.
Well, it looks like they made good after all. According to the LA Times, Griffin is in, along with Thunder big man Serge Ibaka; surreal Wizards center JaVale McGee; and flamboyant Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings. A totally unpredictable field, a rush of cult favorites unseen in years, and yes, a pretty good opportunity to save the dunk contest.
But what, pray tell, should each man do? Dwight Howard and Nate Robinson pushed the idea of gimmick dunks off into the rubbish heap, and if Andre Iguodala couldn't win by dunking in an out-of-bounds, off-the-backboard, alley-oop from teammate Allen Iverson, then pure skill won't cut it anymore. What the dunk contest now demands is a third way, some as of yet undiscovered combination of style, ingenuity, and showmanship.
Each of these four contestants has it in him to be that guiding light, not just Blake Griffin. The questions is ... how?
Blake Griffin: The mammoth of the bunch, and the hands-down favorite in anything involving dunking a basketball, Griffin has turned "dunking big man" from a novelty act or a liability into a truly bewildering, physics-shattering, feat. He's absolutely enormous -- not just tall, but muscular like LeBron James or Ron Artest -- and explodes with a speed and impulsiveness to rival any guard. No amount of hyperbole can do him justice, and if Howard played up his freak show act, then Griffin dares you to find him outrageous.
Griffin's greatest enemy is himself. He's given us so much already, and created such a mystique surrounding him, that the mere idea of him competing in a dunk contest seems so, well, human. It's also not clear we want to see a more creative, or witty, Griffin. What Blake needs to do is what he does every single game, but more. That would mean something like Dr. J's free throw line dunk, or the mythic "making change" of which no documented case exists. Yeah, that would make us happy.
JaVale McGee: McGee is, like Griffin, a big man known for athletic dunks. Except while Griffin traffics in raw power and propulsion, McGee uses his long, serpentine frame to dramatic effect. With ungodly wingspan and his tensile movements, the Wizards center seems like he could either tear down the rim or rip himself apart by flying in too many different directions at once. He also has something of a reputation for eccentricity, or maybe it's just flakiness. Regardless, if Griffin is all purpose, McGee is seemingly random, if occasionally brilliant.
McGee isn't going to beat Griffin at his own game, and as we've seen, can't throw down from the free throw line. He would do well to study the history of the past, and consult the famous Gerald Green BIRTHDAY CAKE dunk of 2008. When Green blew out a candle on a cupcake -- lit by Rashad McCants, and perched on the rim -- it was super-athletic and fun. But most of all, it was truly bizarre and unforeseen, even if in retrospect, McCants seems to have provided much of the guile. McGee might want to try something with a bunch of severed doll heads, or a dress himself as a human pinata that explodes on dunk-pact. Gilbert Arenas would be proud.
Serge Ibaka: Ibaka is the real head-scratcher here. Despite everything I've said about Griffin, and all the weird and wonderful things McGee brings to the table, big men are still at a disadvantage in the dunk contest. That's not to sell Ibaka short ... actually, it is. He's an exciting in-game dunker, but lacks any of the transcendent ability or unique-ness that makes Griffin and McGee into viable attractions. One thinks of such well-meaning, but forgettable showings from Hakim Warrick in 2006 or Amar'e Stoudemire in 2005. Then again, with these being a contest of big men and all, maybe history won't work against Ibaka.
So what's the answer? More to the point, why would the league even recruit Ibaka for the event? Presumably, it has something to do with his being on Thunder. He would willingly and enthusiastically go along with it, unlike some past selections, because that's how things work around those parts. It also never hurts to draw attention to a team that's darn hard to dislike. Ibaka, like the rest of his Thunder brethren, is also all about having when appropriate. It would be strange for him to take this opportunity to show the growth he has made as a player. Rather, he should try and show off his lighter side, since his comedic gifts far outstrip those of cyborg Griffin or unusual Mr. McGee.
Brandon Jennings: I didn't even know Jennings could dunk, which makes this choice all the more inspired -- and his acceptance is so totally Brandon Jennings. Jennings is the most outspoken player in the league (or at least a close second to a certain loud-mouthed Aussie teammate of his), and if he wins this one, it will be through personality, plain and simple. He should treat the dunk contest like sketch comedy, maybe even fail to touch the rim as a meta-joke about his presence there. Whatever, I'm just happy to have him alone. Forget Brandon Jennings, dunker; having him around will make that night more interesting, and lively, than it would otherwise be.
That's part of what makes this line-up such a revelation. There's so much more to look forward to than the annual letdown, or the increasingly tired debate over whether in-game dunking has outmoded the contest, or the contest outmoded itself. There's Griffin, who is dunking personified this season; McGee, a constant source of amusement, amazement, and confusion; Ibaka's good vibrations; and Jennings, even if he just ends up playing hype-man, or sidekick, to all the bombast. This year, for the first time in a while, the dunk contest really will be must-watch television. (BS)
Starting Over All Over Again
It wasn't supposed to be this way for the Blazers. In June 2007, they were on top of the world after winning the lottery and had their pick of Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. They chose the presumed safer option in Oden, whose inside presence could carry their young roster to several championships. With Oden, Brandon Roy, and LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland had a young core bested by none. All wunderkind general manager Kevin Pritchard had to do was fill in the gaps.
Now they're an ungodly mess. Oden has famously been unable to stay healthy, has played only 82 games in his career, and may never suit up for the Blazers again. Roy has no cartilage left in his knee, can't move like he used to, is considering season-ending surgery, and can't stand playing with current backcourt-mate Andre Miller. Pritchard is gone after falling out of favor with owner Paul Allen. Only Aldridge has fulfilled expectations, but he always held the least potential of the franchise's three hopeful stars.
Things are now so bad that any hint of trouble suggests oncoming despair. Last Monday, center Marcus Camby, who was acquired last winter to give Portland what seemed like the deepest center rotation in the league, hurt his ankle and had to rolled off the court in a wheelchair. The injury wasn't as bad as first feared -- Camby returned three days later and missed just one game -- but the immediate response perfectly encapsulated the mindset of Blazers' observers. Writers ran to Twitter to be the first to show pity for the franchise. I said that they should think about canceling the rest of their games for the season, and it was only a half-joke. Camby isn't a part of the team's long-term plans and has never been the healthiest player around, but the injury still felt like another cruel blow to the Blazers in the moment. Right now, it just seems as if they're doomed.
In some cases, this would be cause for a full-scale rebuilding process. For Portland, though, it's a more complicated situation. Roy and Aldridge are both under contract for the better part of this decade at lofty salaries, with the former unlikely to be compelling trade bait if his knee problems persist. Plus, Roy remains the face of the franchise even with his future in doubt and Aldridge has been the team's most productive player -- neither is a bad apple in need of a fresh start. Additionally, Oden is a restricted free agent this summer. If not for his impressive pedigree, Oden would almost certainly be on the outs this summer, but the team may be unwilling to let him go after receiving such a little return on their initial investment. While he's unable to stay on the court, he still has the potential to be effective. It's a question if he'll ever get that chance, less if he'll be effective when given the opportunity.
In other words, the Blazers have several reasons to believe their former master plan could reap benefits, no matter how unlikely it now seems. Despite their recent troubles, the hope of the past still looms in everyone's minds, especially with all major figures (excluding Pritchard) still on the payroll. Several things would have to go their way, but those several things are still possibilities as long as Roy, Oden, Aldridge, and other pieces like Rudy Fernandez remain on the roster.
The unfortunate flipside of this scenario is that with every passing game, the chances of this plan working become less likely. That lack of fulfillment feeds on itself to create a relentlessly gloomy atmosphere. There's a cap on their potential success, and yet the players who once promised so much are still around to remind everyone of what was supposed to be. The Blazers find themselves in a state of limbo -- not bad enough to embrace a rebuilding period, yet not good enough to assume that happier times are right around the corner.
Another way of putting this situation is that the braintrust has no clear path for the future. On Monday, my Ball Don't Lie compatriot Kelly Dwyer noted that the Blazers need a concrete plan for Roy, but the situation goes deeper than that. Across the board, the franchise needs a new coherent plan and the resolve to stick to it. The decision will be risky either way: if they choose to rebuild, then they may be giving up potential success; if they choose to stick with the current core, they could be consigning themselves to a long period of slow torture. The choice shouldn't be made without thought, but that doesn't change the fact that it needs to be made for the future health of the franchise.
My personal preference would be to rebuild: Oden can't be counted on for much of anything, and the Aldridge-Roy duo is a second-round playoff team at best even with both healthy. But my opinion is ultimately not the one that matters -- it's the decision of current general manager Rich Cho, his staff, and Paul Allen. The important thing is that they formulate a plan. The current state of malaise can only feed on itself and create something even less promising. (EF)
With Gilbert Arenas, It's Never Black and White
Eric Freeman: So Gilbert Arenas says that he and JJ Redick are the two best white shooters in the league. Does Gilbert know what race he is, or is there something deeper going on here?
Bethlehem Shoals: For starters, I think this might just be one of those cases where Gil says something ridiculous because it's ridiculous -- whether or not it makes any sense. That said, as is so often is the case with Arenas, there's also a kernel of truth to the absurdity. I don't think Arenas sees himself as white or anything, but certainly, outside of the "First Black President" nickname, he hasn't exactly identified himself as "black". I think he prefers to see himself as an individual -- a weirdo.
EF: Are you saying that he doesn't consider his race or that it's so unimportant that he can be whatever he says he is?
BS: Well, that seems like a more appropriate question regarding his Cuban background. The white/black thing doesn't seem literal or objective; it's more about how these categories work in the league. Black is hip-hop, and white is ... not hip-hop. Gil could be making a joke about the fact that he doesn't fit the stereotype, just like Reddick. The irony is that, in the wake of the gun stuff, GIl's probably seen by the average fan as one of the league's biggest "thugs", and everybody knows that "thug" and "black" are often interchangeable.
EF: Right, I think that's the most interesting part of all this. It's almost like Gil has taken the fresh start in Orlando as an opportunity to tell people he's not the thug they think he is, that even their racial conceptions of him are wrong. Not to get too Dark Knight/LeBron about it, but he can be whatever he wants depending on the situation at hand.
BS: So there's two ways of seeing it: Gil is making a point of saying he's not who people think he is, or he's saying, I'm who you've always known me to be: GIL. Wait, is that two different things? He's making a joke to remind people of what he hopes they already know?
EF: I think they're two parts of the same equation. He's not who they think, and yet the "Gil" he is can't be easily distinguished by conventions.
BS: Then we're back at this: If he's trying to tell the world an important message, why does he run the risk of it's being seen as a non sequitur.
EF: This question feels like something that Arenas scholars have struggled with for years. Whenever he tries to explain himself, he only comes off as more bizarre. That's what made the NBA.com blog so great -- he was incredibly forthright but also consistently weird. He works under different standards of logic than most people.
BS: Or he would prefer to always mask it in a joke, lest he be seen as too earnest -- or failing to entertain us at every turn.
Top Of The Pops
Everyone had good laugh when, over the weekend, LeBron James referred to himself, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh as "the Heatles". But did he really pick the best musical comparison? Eric Freeman investigates.
Real Band: Heatmiser, a melodic hardcore foursome fronted by Elliott Smith before he became an indie singer-songwriter legend.
Verdict: Heatmiser had two creative forces in Smith and co-founder Neil Gust, but they were never considered a major force and are best remembered today as Smith's first real band. In later interviews, Smith spoke of the band quite poorly, usually claiming that he didn't even like hardcore and was playing a character on stage. Maybe LeBron will speak poorly of the Heat if things go sour down the road.
Real Band: Fleet Foxes, a quintet from Seattle who pretentiously describe their music as "baroque harmonic pop jams."
Verdict: Five members makes for a nice basketball correspondence, but Fleet Foxes are unmistakably the product of frontman Robin Pecknold's vision, even if their harmonies are their calling card. Additionally, their genteel sound matches poorly with the Heat's fire-and-brimstone promise. On the other hand, FF did reach the top of indiedom when their eponymous album made the top of Pichfork.com's 2008 year-end poll. Can the Heat reach similar lofty heights?
Real Band: Sleater-Kinney, a massively influential female punk trio with strong feminist politics.
Verdict: Sleater-Kinney plays loud and fast, just like the Heat at their running best, and all three members are indie legends. The only issue here is that the trio is almost too even -- there's no third member that is as clearly below the rest as Bosh.
Real Band: Radiohead, the best-reviewed band of its generation, loved by mainstream and underground audiences alike.
Verdict: In terms of reception, Radiohead are the Heat as they exist in their own dreamworld: loved by all, endlessly successful, able to put out great album after great album, etc. They even have a universally admired frontman in Thom Yorke (their own Wade) and an equally important boundary-pushing genius in Jonny Greenwood (their LeBron). Unfortunately, the other members of the band aren't particularly notable, so there's no clear Bosh analogue.
Real Band: Beat Happening, an extremely influential lo-fi band fronted by Calvin Johnson, founder of Pacific Northwest mainstay K Records.
Verdict: Likely the worst fit possible. Beat Happening specialize in sparse, hypnotically simple tracks like "Indian Summer," with Johnson's featureless, deep voice acting as its own form of star power. They can't possibly match the Heat in terms of bombast -- in fact, they'd probably just point and laugh at LeBron's chalk routine a lot. (EF)
The Works is written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Eric Freeman (@freemaneric), who also contributes regularly to Ball Don't Lie. Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is now available.