Sunday, February 16, 2014

The 2014 NBA Dunk Contest: Less is More

In the 1989 film Field of Dreams, the main quote is "build it and they will come".

"Get them to come and it will be built" is how the NBA dunk contest operates. The problem is that the NBA itself failed to realize the simple fix, over-complicating the whole thing and turned it into one big cluster-you-know-what.

Yesterday, I previewed the All-Star Saturday night festivities. The crown jewel of it being the dunk contest. Once held in high regard, it's struggling to regain that lightning in the bottle. Sometimes everything aligns just right like it did in 2000 and the audience in the arena and at home are in awe. It is an event of legend and a star-making moment. From then on, all eyes were placed on Vince Carter. The trouble with lightning in a bottle is it is hard to have happen once, let alone recreating it a second time. The last fourteen years or so have seen the NBA try and fail- but never so blatantly until last night.

The most obvious problem from previous years' contests was the lack of recognizable faces as mentioned before. As the field was later reduced to four contestants who many were not familiar with, the dunk contest was up against it even more. The move to expand to six contestants in 2013 (the first contest to have more than four participants since 2001) was a step in the right direction. Then this weekend, they actually had names people knew. They had stars.

Paul George is a top five player. Terrance Ross was the defending champion. John Wall and Damian Lillard are two of the most electrifying young point guards  Harrison Barnes and Ben McLemore rounded out the field. McLemore was the least known, coming in as a rookie. While the fresh blood was overkill in recent years, this year it was done just right.

Leave it to the NBA to turn it into a circus. A new format that can't be explained in under five minutes, let alone the minute or two spent right before the main event. Maybe whole college courses could be used to explain it. I was short of writing on a blackboard and window a la Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind.

The first problem was the team-centric aspect to it. While the pairing of stars worked quite well and added flavor to the Taco Bell Skills Challenge (where's my free quesadilla?), it was counterproductive in the dunk festivities. No one cares about which conference wins. No one. What fans want is to find out the best dunker is. Who rises above- literally- and places themselves in the pantheon of dunk contest champions?

The event started off with the trios going at it in a "freestyle round". Akin to layup lines, the players seemed to saunter through this fruitless activity with not much rhythm or fluidity. It seemed like a collection of warm-up horseplay, when players get loose and goof off. The problem here was two-fold. No one wanted to give away their best so early, and the pressure to produce quantity over quality left the audience confused and unable to process anything fully. The reaction to dunks were quickly erased as players would follow right after with another.

After a tediously long and unnecessary reasoning, the judges held up their i-Pads to reveal which conference they chose as the freestyle winner. East it was, and East it would be all night.

Next came the one-on-one's, also known as the "battle round". Two players would square off with one dunk each. The judges armed with their tedious reasons would decide who won each match-up. The first conference with three wins would win the whole thing. Yes, that's right. A conference would be named a winner- not an individual. There would be no dunk contest champion. Just champions.

There is a time and place for champions, and that is in June. Not February, NBA machine. This contest is supposed to celebrate individual achievements and place the spotlight on one player at a time. The conference pride comes tonight at 8 pm when the two sides square off to prove which crop of all-stars is better. But I digress.

Terrance Ross out-dueled the weekend's renaissance man, Damian Lillard. Paul George dispatched Harrison Barnes with a 360, between-the-legs dunk. If I counted right, it was on a fourth try, technically illegal as contestants were limited to three tries. But who was keeping track at that point?

Finally, John Wall eviscerated Ben McLemore with a filthy opposite-sided fully extended reverse dunk. Soon after, the announcers proclaimed that Wall had "brought back the dunk contest". Well, it never really went anywhere. It just wasn't given the attention it needed. One dunk (while extremely impressive) does not make a contest, and surely does not "bring it back".

I must call myself out and admit I was wrong about Wall. "Wall should be practicing his jumper and three instead of dunking." I said that yesterday, and he sure proved me wrong. The biggest shame is that we didn't get to see more of him- or the rest of the players for that matter.

As Wall celebrated, the audience was left wondering what was next. A dunk-off between the East stars? Another round? Anything?

Nope. Just a trophy presentation to the trio. Oh, wait- how could I forget? John Wall received the title of "dunker of the night" from the fans via Twitter. Not dunk champion. DUNKER OF THE NIGHT. How moronic does that sound? As sarcastic children say, "Whoop-de-freaking-doo."

Bleacher Report's Garrett Jochnau said it best afterwards when he took to Twitter:

"When Vince Carter was in a dunk contest, 'it's over' wasn't so much a question as it was a statement. Tonight, it was definitely a question."

Not seeing more dunks from six bright young and freakishly athletic players is the biggest robbery of all. No fan should be left with such an empty, unfulfilled feeling after an event with a collection of players like the 2014 dunk contest had.

The word "epic" is used far too often these days. But the league had a chance to re-capture that lighting in a bottle and make last night's event epic. By adding a gimmicky new format that strayed from celebrating the individual player's moment, the NBA wasted another dunk contest. In this case, less is definitely more.

Maybe they'll learn from this mess and get it right next year. Or maybe they'll add three or four more gimmicks no one will be able to explain. Regardless, all they have to do is stick to the traditional round-by-round format and bring the stars. They'll do the rest.

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Fearing Change: NBA All-Star Saturday Night

Many people fear change. While a necessary part of life, it can be understandable as forming habits makes life simpler and more streamlined. Sometimes it is not only necessary to change- but better. But are the changes to NBA's All Star Saturday Night an improvement?

Shooting Stars

The Shooting Stars competition -which compiles one current NBA player, one former star and a current WNBA player- has only seen one slight change. Instead of the teams of three being from one city, the teams are made up of three stars with location not playing a factor:


Team 1: Tim Hardaway Jr. (New York Knicks); Tim Hardaway Sr. (Legend); Elena Delle Donne (Chicago Sky) 

Team 2: Chris Bosh (Miami Heat); Dominique Wilkins (Legend); Swin Cash (Chicago Sky)


Team 1: Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors); Dell Curry (Legend); Becky Hammon (San Antonio Stars) 

Team 2: Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder); Karl Malone (Legend); Skylar Diggins (Tulsa Shock)

No one seems to ever care or remember about this competition as it is mainly a time-killer. Also, with the half-court shot being a little more difficult and not a measured statistic, it is harder to give any one team sole advantage. But with players like Curry and Durant in the mix, odds are it will come down to those two stars' squads. I give the edge to Curry and his dad who was also known for his accuracy from deep. 

Skills Challenge

The recurring theme in this year's new changes is  teamwork. Instead of eight individuals going for the best overall time, teams of two battle it out to see who the best duo is. I for one am not a fan of this, as I prefer to see one man named the best. The teams are:

Giannis Antetokounmpo/Demar DeRozan

Michael Carter-Williams/ Victor Oladipo

Trey Burke/ Damian Lillard

Goran Dragic/Reggie Jackson

While it is fun to see stars such as Lillard and Dragic as well as superb rookies like Carter-Williams and Oladipo, the overall talent level is lacking compared to years' past. Also, the duos seem to be thrown together outside of the Williams/Oladipo rookie pairing. Antetokounmpo and DeRozan will finish last while the championship will come down to Williams/Oladipo and Burke/Lillard. I give the edge to the West.

Three Point Contest:

The biggest and most intriguing change comes courtesy of the three-point shootout. Instead of just five money balls (each at the end of the rack), players will get to choose where they want a rack full of money balls. This gives the shooter an element to plan advantage wise. Better at corner three's? Dead accurate from the center? Have a favorite spot on the wing? It is  a new wrinkle, and one worth watching indeed. Contestants include:

Bradley Beale, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, Kevin Love,  Aaron Afflalo, Kyrie Irving, Joe Johnson and Marco Belinelli.

Curry is far and away the leader in made threes (171) with Lillard third (149). Makes me wonder where Klay Thompson ( who ranks second with 152) is. Lillard will fight and Beale will make it interesting. But Curry is so automatic that this contest is his to lose.

Dunk Contest:

The dunk contest has lost tons of credibility from its glory days of Jordan/Wilkins/Webb and Carter/Francis. The field was made smaller and later on it was a bunch of players no one would recognize. Often after they showed a player, fans would go, "Who?". This year- like the rest of All-Star Saturday Night- is different.The field:

Paul George, Terrance Ross, John Wall, Harrison Barnes, Damian Lillard, Ben McLemore.

The first thing you notice is the star power. Finally, contestants the public recognizes. George is not only a three-time dunkee, but also a top-five player in the NBA. Ross won last year. Out of the rest, all eyes will be on Lillard and if he can run the table contest-wise. Wall should be practicing his jumper and three instead of dunking.

The other change is the initial round will be known as the "freestyle round". Dunkers of both conferences (three in each) will get 90 seconds to do as many dunks as possible. one conference will be deemed winner, and in individual match-ups will be given the chance to dunk first or last. After the match-ups are over, a conference will be chosen as the winner.

I can't stand this new change. It makes no sense. People don't watch this to see what three players are better. They watch to see who the best dunker is. What was once promising with the added two players and overall talent pool is dragged down by this nonsensical addition. While fans get to choose dunker of the night, it should simply be chosen by the ratings. Save the conference pride for Sunday's game.

This contest will come down to come down to consistency, really. In past years, sometimes a player will over-exert themselves to impress the crowd and tire out. In a traditional contest, I'd pick George first, Ross second and Barnes third. Based off the top two being from the East, I'd have to choose that conference as this year's winner.

Change is good when done for the right reasons and intentions. But for the sake of it? No thanks. While the NBA should be commended for thinking outside the box, the changes they have instituted seem to make little sense.

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.

It's My House of Cards and I Want It NOW

If there is one thing movie and television lovers these days know, it's instant gratification and binge watching. Just like Queen's infamous song, people want it all- and they want it now.

And Netflix capitalizes on their eagerness with it's premiere original show, House of Cards. They used the same tactic last year on February 1st, and the momentum only built from there heading into the newest season of the show. 

February 14th is a special date in honor of Saint Valentine who was beheaded for performing marriages for young lovers while it was forbidden by Rome's emperor, Claudius (also known as Claudius the Cruel). It is now commemorated by getting females flowers, cards and chocolates. The encore effort from House of Cards is upon us-so why not eat the chocolates and watch the Netflix's best show at your leisure? 


When we last left the not-so-comfy confines of H.O.C.'s version of D.C., Frank (Kevin Spacey) had been behind the downfall of Peter's (Corey Stoll) political career and ultimately- his life. Along with his power-hungry wife, Claire (Robin Wright), Frank battles the media fallout along with pesky reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). Claire also faces adversity as newcomer Gillian (Sandrine Holt) questions her motives and is sent on a leave of absence. Gillian then attempts to sue for wrongful termination due to her being pregnant. Frank is vetted for the vice presidency, and ultimately receives the spot alongside President Walker (Michael Gill). His plan for more power alongside Claire is in motion, and the duo is literally as they- spoiler alert- end the season going for a nighttime jog. 

Yeah, sorry to ruin the ending there. 

All of the brand-new thirteen episodes are available for viewing pleasure currently. Instead of finishing it in three to four months like most shows, this can be done in thirteen hours or so- with the help of some Starbuck's or Redbull. More power to those of you who can limit yourself to one  day. And even more power to those of you who can hold yourselves to one  a week.

The season starts where it left off, with the power couple brought into picture via that same late night/early morning run. The two pause with sweat trickling down their brows and give each other a nod, signaling they are ready for more. 

And that is what the Underwoods are about. Never backing down from a fight. Undertaking each and every ambition they have in life- personally and professionally. The first season was them getting their foot in the door not only in story lines, but with the fans streaming the show as well. Season two sees them kick it wide open without hesitation. Lines are drawn, then crossed. The grey areas only get murkier and more twisted as the characters only go further down the rabbit hole of madness. 

David Fincher's district continues to stay on its path of darkness and underhandedness with misguided motives and agendas all over. The second season not only sucks you in completely engulfs you. Like last year, it tosses you into this mix of dastardly deeds and backstabbing actions and makes you feel like you are a part of it every step of the way. It stays true to itself- and ironically on most accounts, that means a ton of dishonesty. While the most genuine words spoken by characters are brutal truths, there is something to be said for cutting to the chase and avoiding sugarcoated speeches. 

The best at telling it like it is? Well that would be Spacey's Frank Underwood by a large margin. His stern tone and touch of a southern accent he slides into with such ease is only made sharper and more vindictive with his brilliant use of analogies and merciless nature. As the first chapter of the second season ends, Spacey finally glances toward the viewer to deliver his ever-popular external monologue. By saving it until the end, those at home practically demand that Frank opens up. 

"Did you think I'd forgotten you? I bet you wish I had."

Frank goes on to display his mastery of analogies and delivers the cold hard truth on a silver platter. As calloused as you are, we are just happy you acknowledged us- Mr. Vice President.

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Punk is Dead, but CM Punk is Alive and Well

Ever since June 27th, 2011, the world of professional wrestling (specifically WWE's) has crossed the line between reality and storylines. On that day, CM Punk (clad in a nostalgic Austin 3:16 shirt) sat Indian-style on RAW's rampway in Las Vegas, Nevada. John Cena was lying in a heap in the corner of the ring after being driven through a table, courtesy of R-Truth. Punk sat quietly with microphone in hand while taking a big sigh. It was the calm before the storm.

The storm was a six minute promo that launched Punk into the top tier of WWE superstars. That tier included the Undertaker, HHH, Chris Jericho, Brock Lesnar, the Rock, Randy Orton and most notably, John Cena. In it, he crossed the "fourth wall". That figurative wall is when reality intersects with storylines in the WWE universe, a definite no-no. The thing is, WWE wouldn't have let him speak a word if they hadn't given him permission to do so. So he spoke. Up until he mentioned Vince McMahon's doofus son-in-law (HHH) and eventual death, he had the crowd and viewers at home in the palm of his hands. HHH would later admit that they knew of the whole promo and had planned to stop it there, but skeptics think WWE officials sensed Punk was a little too far to the edge of a very big verbal cliff. During that six minutes of sheer unpredictability, Punk mentioned "reaching for one of Vince's non-existent brass rings". Essentially having the carrot of main-event stardom dangled constantly but having it pulled away right when Punk would close in on it- all the while, McMahon would be using Punk's marketability to make money hand-over-fist.

Therein lies the issue between Punk (also known in real life as Phillip Brooks) and the WWE.

On Monday evening around 7:30 pm, Brooks walked out after a heated discussion with WWE officials. He reportedly got on a plane headed for his hometown of Chicago and took himself out of whatever plans the company had for him. This comes at an odd time, as the Royal Rumble was the night before and kicked off the "road to Wrestlemania".

In 2011, when Punk won the WWE title at Money in the Bank in Chicago, he ran out of the arena and was whisked away into the night. People had no idea if he had re-signed with the company, or if he was actually hi-jacking the title. He eventually would come back, and WWE's buzzer-beater of a gamble on putting the belt on CM Punk at the time paid off big. Viewership increased, and most of all- it garnered mainstream attention. Casual fans were brought back by sheer curiosity. Eventually they would screw it all up, involving Kevin Nash and giving the belt to the flatter-than-soda Alberto Del Rio. But that edge of reality and wrestling gave fans a refreshing feeling. New ground had been found, and the company could build off of it. But within months, the totem pole of superstar hierarchy was reset and John Cena was champion again, cliche catchphrases and generic feuds included.

So Punk suffered through a feud with Nash and HHH, eventually being rewarded with the longest reign (434 days) in 25 years. His return at Over the Limit last year was anticipated, but would later feel underwhelming. He battled Jericho in a less than impressive feud between two of the better mic workers in the business (a testament to how far Y2J has regressed). Then he moved on to a vicious feud with Brock Lesnar, yet it still seemed to not lead towards progress. He was placed opposite of Ryback, which held him back more than helped the Goldberg clone. And in the last few months he's done the one thing a creative mind like himself despises: he's spun his wheels. Sure, he's fought the Shield and the Wyatts. But it seemed to be more filler than anything.

It's not only the lack of creativity that warrants Punk's displeasure and exit. It's the wear and tear of a career full of thousands of miles flown and driven. Sleepless nights. Long, physical matches. Broken bones, torn and strained muscles. And as rumored most recently, concussions. It could be part of the reason why his offensive moves have lacked any crispness or accuracy and make Kofi Kingston look like Daniel Bryan. His trademark kicks to the head look sloppy. And that top rope elbow- originally a tribute to the "Macho Man" Randy Savage- should be retired from Punk's arsenal.

The physical part would be worth it to Punk if he was rewarded with a more permanent top spot, specifically the main event at Wrestlemania XXX in New Orleans. But with Batista's recent return and Randy Orton as champion, that vision is just a pipe dream for the master of the pipe bomb promo.

The latter part being the extended reasoning for Punk's untimely leave. After seeing the Rock waltz in for the last two 'Mania main events, Punk believes he has earned his way to that spot. To have Batista come in out of shape and out of sorts with no crowd backing him at all at the Royal Rumble is what the Chicago-born star perceives as a slap in the face, and rightfully so. Even if one believes stars like Punk, Bryan, Ziggler and others should be rewarded with the company's actual brass's one thing for the Rock to saunter in. It's a total other thing for Batista to come back in and act like he's THE man. While Rock helps with everyone's payday, Batista's star simply is not big enough to warrant a main event spot at the grandest show of the year.

It especially is dimmer alongside the reigning champion, Randy Orton. For now, the two are set to square off in the main event as Daniel Bryan fans scream foul. Orton was reportedly "irate" at the fans' disapproval and disinterest in the title match between him and John Cena at the Royal Rumble last Sunday. Why he is surprised no one cared is beyond me. But it is telling of the company's current landscape. The top tier of active stars is Cena, Orton, Punk and Bryan in that order. There are plenty of rising stars such as Ziggler and members of the Shield. But until WWE allows them to take the forefront and the older stars (Lesnar, HHH, Rock, Jericho) take a backseat, the company is doing more harm to itself than good.

But right now fans and even Punk's fellow wrestlers are to wonder if this is real or a work. Current storylines for the biggest show are being re-worked each day. If it is a work, then kudos for making Punk fresh again, and an even bigger kudos if the storyline involves him returning after Mania.

Then again, if this IS real and Punk has left the company, WWE takes a big-time hit and will have to look in the mirror and re-evaluate their gameplan for creating stars.

Thank you, CM Punk.

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.