Commentary

All-Star Saturday night notebook

The Dunk Contest may have had a good finish, but did it go just a little too far?

Updated: February 15, 2009, 4:34 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Dwight HowardNoah Graham/Getty ImagesDwight Howard's dunk contest antics were fun, but were they too much theater?

PHOENIX -- It doesn't have the crush of humanity that Vegas did in 2007 or the humanitarian subplot of New Orleans in '08. But Phoenix put on a fun show Saturday, and it has been a solid, hassle-free week down here. Well, except for the part when my laptop showed up DOA, but that wasn't Phoenix's fault. Let's just say I know my Arizona shopping malls a lot better now.

As far as Saturday's events go, let's start with the finish -- a great finale to the dunk contest after a humdrum first round. Despite the excitement, I have a grievance that demands airing: Methinks all this is getting a little too staged.

For some time, the dunk contest has danced on the fine line between spontaneity and scripted theater. This one, I think, went too far.

When Rudy Fernandez shed his Blazers jersey to honor late Spanish basketball player Fernando Martin, I shouldn't have had a news release with a bio of Martin landing on my laptop while Fernandez was still hanging on the rim.

When Dwight Howard was able to delay proceedings for five minutes while they rolled out a new rim for him, then summoned a phone booth to appear so he could do his Superman routine, I thought that was pushing it.

And when Nate Robinson showed up in Kryptonite green and summoned his competitor as the help for the winning dunk, I had a feeling it wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision.

Look, it was great theater. But that was just that it was … you know, theater. At the end of the day, the contest still needs to be about the dunks. Giving somebody a score of 50 for a tip dunk solely because of an elaborate prelude is wandering too far away from the essence of the competition.

OK, let's move on. The 3-point contest surprisingly was a dud, as only one competitor had a round score better than 17. Kudos to Daequan Cook for pulling it out, but his numbers wouldn't have won in any other recent contest.

A better event, actually, was the D-League all-star game, which this year doubled as the Michigan alumni game. (Courtney Sims, Brent Petway and Chris Hunter were all there.) The game was fairly well attended, including by several league execs who were scouting talent, and unusually well played for an exhibition game.

But seriously, nobody could stop talking about the ref. I don't think I've ever seen a pro basketball game in which the biggest dude on the court was in zebra stripes, but it happened Saturday night. D-League ref Kevin Cutler is absolutely enormous -- I'll say he's 6-foot-9, 260 pounds and without an ounce of fat. He looked as though he could kick the crap out of all 10 players on the court … at the same time. Literally every person I talked to made some comment along the lines of, "I bet nobody gives that guy any lip."

As far as players go, the guy I wanted to see was Othyus Jeffers, a previously unknown shooting guard from Robert Morris in Chicago who has blown up for the Iowa Energy this season and should be in the NBA soon.

Jeffers is listed at 6-5, so it disappointed me to see he's actually 6-2. I mean, I've seen some inflated heights before, but this was kind of absurd.

However, Jeffers has the definitive "NBA body": incredibly long arms and a powerful torso in the mold of Mitch Richmond. He defends like crazy, too. All this will make him a useful role player at the 2 in the NBA. He can't shoot well, but he has a high-arcing stroke with a nice rotation, so his troubles might be eased when he gets more reps.

I talked to Energy coach Nick Nurse, and he was effusive in his praise of Jeffers' play and work ethic. Nurse didn't necessarily have great incentive to pump the guy up, either, considering his team likely would suffer if the NBA were to poach his best player.

Sims, Phoenix's D-League pickup, might prove useful as well. He's 6-11 and a pretty good finisher, and he can stroke it from deep. On the other hand, he's a bit awkward, runs funny and isn't terribly physical. He and Blake Ahearn were co-MVPs of the game, for what that's worth. Ahearn has played in the NBA before and likely will see several more tours in the league as a just-don't-kill-us third point guard.

A few other notes:

• My spies say the rumor of a deal sending Carlos Boozer to Houston has no chance of happening.

• It has come up that the rumored San Antonio-New Jersey deal for Vince Carter in its present form would require the Nets to cut three players. If San Antonio were to send Fabricio Oberto, Bruce Bowen, George Hill and Roger Mason to New Jersey for Carter, the Nets would have to cut three of their 15 players before the trade is approved … even though they'd likely cut Bowen and Oberto afterward.

But it's pretty easy to find three Nets worth cutting. Stromile Swift and Maurice Ager have expiring deals and never play. That's two right there. Coming up with a third can be done with a two-for-one deal or by cutting the chronically disappointing Sean Williams, or by waiving Chris Douglas-Roberts and telling him to stick around for a few hours so he can re-sign after the trade goes through.

Bottom line, it's doable, and it wouldn't be an impediment to a Spurs-Nets swap.

• Finally, let me share a juicy tip from a league source on the state of the salary cap. Basically, the situation will be worse than many people expect, and the luxury-tax level next season will be set even lower than what several teams are currently planning for. The implications will be huge as we head into next season.

Here's the more interesting part of what I was told: Next season's luxury tax might just be the tip of the iceberg. The salary cap (and thus the tax level) could drop massively in 2010; my source used the term "bloodbath."

This would have huge effects on the pursuit of big-game free agents, of course, but also on the luxury-tax level for that season … which could push many more teams over the line and lead to fire-sale-type trades.

All this would be a prelude to the labor negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement in 2011. If money gets as tight as some project, things could get ugly.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.