By Ben Golliver
HOUSTON -- The Slam Dunk Contest was on the precipice of disaster Saturday before a solidly entertaining final-round showdown between eventual champion Terrence Ross and defending champion Jeremy Evans saved the night. In sum, 2013 will go down as an average contest: It certainly wasn't a threat to break into the five worst of all time, but it wasn't sniffing top 10 greatest status either.
Here's a look at the top five biggest problems that held back the contest. Without these five issues, the event as a whole would have had more staying power and the Ross/Evans head-to-head would have been easier to savor.
5. The Conference Versus Conference Format
A rule change this year pitted the conferences against each other in a running contest throughout the All-Star Saturday events, with the winner earning a larger amount of money to donate to charities of their choice. When this change was first revealed, it seemed a bit needless and complicated, but it actually played out just fine. It wasn't overbearing and Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul did OK in their limited roles as "captains."
The larger East versus West set-up also changed the dunk-contest format, turning into a two-round competition that incorporated the conference rivalry. The first round saw the three East dunkers compete against each other and the West dunkers compete against each other in order to set up a one-on-one, East versus West final round. The big problem: If the two best dunkers in the first round happened to be from the same conference, the runner-up would get sent packing in favor of a weaker option from the other conference solely for the point of preserving the charity battle gimmick.
This wound up not being a huge issue because Ross easily won in the East and there wasn't any real controversy when Evans advanced from a close race in the West. However, it's a looming problem for future dunk contests if this format is maintained. There's absolutely no reason to unnecessarily sacrifice the sanctity of the dunk contest simply for the sake of a made-up charity competition. Next year, the contest should keep an evenly split field of West and East participants (a four-man or six-man field, either way) but ditch the first-round split between the conferences. Throw everybody into the same pool in the first round, have the top two overall advance regardless of conference and then dole out the charity points to the winner's conference.
Is this actually a big deal? Imagine if Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan hadn't faced off in 1988 because they both played in the East and one had to be eliminated in the opening round to fit the charity game. Checkmate.
4. Kenneth Faried Forgot About His Signature Skill
Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried was a wild card in this competition as the designated high-flying big man. Faried went off the backboard to himself on both of his dunks, drawing more recognition with his second effort because he went between his legs. He didn't embarrass himself Saturday, but he definitely left some points on the table.
Faried's best attribute as a dunker is his ability to finish alley-oops. Gerald Green, Evans and Ross all relied on teammates to set up their dunk attempts. Why not Faried? The alley-oop game would have offered him the opportunity to really get creative. What about a full-court or three-quarter-court lob pass where he took off like a wide receiver from near midcourt? What about catching and finishing two alley-oops from two teammates on the same attempt? What about a pass from the stands set up by a fan wearing his jersey and a dreadlock wig?
Who knows what the the best idea could have been and whether it would have been enough to carry him to the final round. The point: Faried needed to stick to what he did best rather than attempt to go off the backboard and then between the legs when leapers like Vince Carter, Jason Richardson and others have already set the bar so high on those maneuvers.
3. Jeremy Evans Needed One More Trick
Evans' easel dunk -- when he jumped over a painting to finish a left-handed windmill before revealing that the painting was a picture of himself executing a left-handed windmill -- was perfectly meta and so creative. This was a true 50 and it will likely go down as the most memorable moment of the contest. Huge kudos to Evans on that one.
The only problem? Evans undercut the concept slightly by jumping over things all night. He hurdled something on three of his four dunks in the contest, jumping over Jazz center Mark Eaton in the first round and Mavericks guard Dahntay Jones during his second dunk of the final round. The only exception: a two-handed, two-ball 360 that was quality but not jaw-dropping. Let's not forget: Evans' best dunk in 2012 saw him jump over Gordon Hayward as well.
So much of dunk-contest greatness is about momentum. The easel dunk was well-placed as the first dunk of the final round, as it ratcheted up the excitement and set a high bar, but Evans simply needed one final closer. His leap over Jones didn't leave you feeling like you had to vote for him. Meanwhile, Ross opened with a nice variety of alley-oops and spinning dunks before closing by leaping over a ball boy and going through his legs.
When it came to their two final dunks, there was no question that the leaping effect worked way better for Ross, in large part because he hadn't used it earlier. If Evans had just one unique concept -- one more different look -- he would have been in position to be a back-to-back champion.
2. Gerald Green Couldn't Pull Off The Double Dunk
This was the most lamentable sequence of the night. Green, the creator of 2008's Cupcake Dunk, arguably the best dunk in a losing effort in contest history, was back with another sensationally creative idea. The plan: Remove the net so as to facilitate a double dunk. He would dunk the ball with his right hand into his left hand and then finish a second dunk with his left before returning to earth. Green was the only competitor with the imagination, hang time and vertical to make this concept a reality. This was tantalizing.
Sadly, he just couldn't get it to go, no matter how hard he tried. The timing wasn't quite right and he couldn't get his left hand back up over the rim high enough to complete the second dunk cleanly. This was the dunk-contest version of the "million-dollar move, 10-cent finish" line you hear about players who blow layups after breaking an opponent's ankles with a killer dribble-combination move on the perimeter.
You can't bash Green, not after his 2007 win and his 2008 classic performance. A journeyman who has played overseas and in the D-League, he's worked his way back into the NBA and he approached this contest with an excellent attitude. Ultimately, you feel badly for him. If this net-cutting dunk goes down, it's the talk of the contest. Some of the other problems on this list were fixable and some were more conceptual; this one just came down to a matter of inches (over and over). Those inches made all the difference in the world.
1. James White Totally Flopped
I'm as guilty as anyone when it comes to hyping James "Flight" White, who made his contest debut at 30 after becoming a YouTube sensation for his previous work in contests at other levels. Wait, scratch that. I'm not as guilty of hyping White as White himself, who guaranteed a win in the run-up to the contest's selection process. On Friday, he told reporters that he had "six top-10 dunks of all time" and boasted that he has put up "LeBron stats" during his dunk-contest career.
I don't think White was referring to 2011 Finals Game 4 LeBron James when he made that statement, but that's the only version of James who came close to approximating what White looked like on Saturday.
White opened with a great idea -- setting up two lines of "flight attendants" for him to run through -- but he simply couldn't finish the slams. Time and again he missed dunk attempts, clearly losing confidence in himself and failing to rally the energy needed to keep the crowd going as the miscues piled up. After all the self-generated pre-contest excitement, White bowed out in the first round without even completing a dunk from behind the free-throw line, a move that has been his calling card for years. Forget about all time; White didn't even have a dunk in the top 10 of this contest, and there was a total of only 16 dunks between the four competitors. Brutal. Did the nerves get to him? Hard to say. After the contest, though, he complained that the basketballs were "hard to grip." Come on. Even if the balls were bathed in Vaseline, there's no need to make excuses after an embarrassing loss. Don't make it worse. The result: White's 15 minutes of fame are over before they started.