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With the starters for the 2018 NBA All-Star Game set in stone, we can finally get to talking about real-world issues that have an impact on our everyday lives.
Like which players should ideally be present for Feb. 16's dunk contest in Los Angeles.
Before the comments section is inundated with answers ranging from Kevin Durant and LeBron James, to Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook, to Stephen Curry and Kay Felder, let's get something out of the way: Realistic picks are the aim. And younger players are the focus.
Bigger, established names don't have any incentive to make late-career cameos. The dunk contest is notoriously hit or miss, and it remains difficult, if impossible, to do something that hasn't been tried before. With the way follies and foibles spread across social media, superstars stand to do more damage than good to their reputations.
Rather than journey down Whimsical Way, we'll turn to candidates with theoretical or stated interest and who promise the most entertaining boomstick bonanza. Last year's champion, Glenn Robinson III, won't be making the cut. His ankle won't allow it.
Plus, you know, the 2017 contest wasn't anything worth reliving.
Wishy-washy? Sure. Zach LaVine declined to defend his slam-dunk reign last year, shortly before suffering a torn ACL in his left knee. And he's not five games into a return from that injury.
Still, LaVine helped revive this event in 2015 and, with the help of Aaron Gordon, even more so in 2016. We'll always remember the Space Jam-inspired stuff from his first victory:
And who can forget this (basically-from-the-foul-line) smash during the 2016 showdown:
LaVine was also awarded the 2017 title before the dunk contest (or his injury) ever took place with this brain-bending 360-degree sledgehammer:
And, hell, this dude went emphatically above the iron just three games into his return from that ACL injury:
LaVine wants to prove he's more than an aerial-assault specialist. We get it. His dunk-contest days are probably over. But he's welcome back anytime.
Cash Considerations, Golden State Warriors
Jordan Bell received serious cash consideration for a full-blown nod, but inevitably, his selection fell victim to a dearth of (totally subjective) style points.
Most of his throwdowns come off slips, drop-offs and alley-oops. That's fine. (Random yet life-changing note: He's a perfect 15-of-15 on alley-oop finishes.) But transitioning into a freestyle clash could yield an awkward result—sort of like what happened with DeAndre Jordan last year.
At the same time, Bell has hops and is no stranger to freelancing:
If all else fails, he can just have Durant toss him lobs or ask Nick Young to assist him with a bunch of missed jumpers:
Bell will eventually deserve a chance to showcase his bounce in an environment that won't draw the ire of Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle. But let's give the artistic juices a year to marinate before his baptism-by-fire—particularly after his scary fall against the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday.
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Jaylen Brown almost earned a final bid for his stance against two-handed dunks alone:
On occasion, he's anti-opening-your-eyes, too:
He's even delivering peanut-butter-and-jam-but-hold-the-peanut-butter sandwiches in the snow:
Let's stop here before I regret excluding him by a Kevin Durant's legs-thin margin.
Terrance Ferguson, Oklahoma City Thunder
Presented without comment, because words aren't necessary following a stuff that, by law, retroactively stripped the Los Angeles Lakers franchise of two championship banners:
The (Preferred) Participants
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Including a springy big man who's not a high-volume ball-handler is always risky, but John Collins reserved his seat at the dunk-contest table back in July:
Besides, the Atlanta Hawks have let him experiment with attacking off the dribble. And he's shown he can whirligig while on the ball—even if his first attempts don't always fall:
Equally important: Does anyone else put more sizzle on their putbacks? It sometimes feels like Collins prefers to bring the ball back down just to increase his chances of erasing someone's dignity:
Maybe this doesn't do it for you. Perhaps you're more invested in wing candidates. To each their own.
But, as a general rule, players with nitrous-powered moon boots for feet must receive due. And Collins has shown his vertical extends higher than the backboard:
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
Aaron Gordon has a (gradually ebbing) case for Most Improved Player honors. He's reaching the point of his career in which players actively avoid the dunk contest—especially after making two appearances. With restricted free agency on the horizon and his profile high enough, he has little incentive to return for a third go-round.
And, bless his vertical, he doesn't care.
Gordon told The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears in November he would run it back if the NBA asked him. And dammit, they better. He's a dunk-contest savior. His 2016 performance is in the conversation for the greatest of all time—and he didn't even win.
This between-the-legs, over-Stuff-the-Magic-Dragon, one-handed, half-reverse rim-wrecker is the only reason Evan Fournier hasn't requested a trade out of Orlando:
Did he disappoint last year? Absolutely. But so did everyone else. At least he tried to make millennials everywhere proud with a drone-assisted bang:
Whatever you do, however much you disagree, don't twist this into a legacy pick. Gordon remains one of the league's best jammers. He's even been known to practice for the February flying-fest in the middle of games:
His misses aren't mistakes so much as posters-in-training:
And let's not forget he's owed brownie points for full-body flexes:
Put this guys back in the dunk contest. Please.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
And the award for "Most Unlikely Dunk-Contest Shoo-In" goes to...Donovan Mitchell.
This selection should take no one by surprise right now. But he wasn't mentioned in the same vein as fellow rookie Dennis Smith Jr. at the start of the season, perhaps because no one knew what role he'd play for the Utah Jazz.
That was then. This is now. And right now, Mitchell has to be here. He's quickly established himself as one of the most ferocious above-the-plane bakers in the league. The numbers say he has 22 rim rockets to his name, yet it feels like more—10 to 20 times that or so.
Exhibit F(or crying out loud this is getting ridiculous):
Exhibit G(ordon Hayward who?):
OK, we'll stop here. No, not because we're out of highlights. Every Mitchell dunk watches like its own separate, mesmerizing reel. But you get the point: Mitchell despises rims more than Paul Zipser hates looking at his true shooting percentage.
Dennis Smith Jr., Orlando Magic
So do you feel like partaking in this year's dunakthon, Mr. Smith, or nah?
"That's something I'd like to do," he said, per the Dallas Morning News' Eddie Sefko. "If I'm given the opportunity, I'm definitely willing to do it."
Well, if that's the case, the 20-year-old should go ahead and buy his ticket to Los Angeles. The NBA isn't one to intentionally ruin its own product. And not having Smith in the dunk-off would be a major a brand fart.
Look at it this way: Smith has been billed for this event since before his first game with the Mavericks. Shoot, he's practiced for this moment before entering the Association, period:
And yes, this includes prior to his...12th birthday:
Now that he's here, enjoying the Mavericks' highest usage rate (among everyday players), he's determined not to disappoint. Just ask Elfrid Payton (assuming his vision wasn't obscured by that fibrous blindfold he calls a haircut):
Or the Los Angeles Clippers' invisible rim protector, Casper Transparent:
Or Pau Gasol:
While you're at it, be sure to ask any member of the Mavericks' layup line as well:
Thank you, Dennis. And Aaron. And John. And Donovan. Thank you all.
You're making us pine for the dunk contest again. We are eternally in your debt for this hope incarnate.
Read more NBA news on BleacherReport.com
If it felt like sacrilege when the Cleveland Cavaliers fell out of the top five in our power rankings a few weeks ago, what do we call this?
LeBron James' team is struggling, and several other Eastern Conference squads (one of which LBJ used to play for) are on the come-up, possibly jeopardizing the Cavs' home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and sending them tumbling down the rankings.
Elsewhere, the Oklahoma City Thunder are righting the ship (for now), and the New Orleans Pelicans are riding a red-hot Anthony Davis to their highest position of the season.
As always, the goal is to organize all 30 teams into an order that reflects the league's current power structure. Recent play gets extra weight, but now that we're more than halfway into the season, we have to consider the last week alongside the larger sample. Is a rough three- or four-game stretch indicative of a team's true worth? Or is it a blip?
We make those tough calls and several others in this edition of power rankings.