The 2014 NBA Slam Dunk Contest gets underway on Saturday, featuring six supreme athletes who will look to throw down some serious thunder in New Orleans as part of the All-Star weekend festivities.
Between Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, Washington Wizards star John Wall and Indiana Pacers cornerstone Paul George, this is just the second time in history the contest has featured three All-Stars, per BasketballInsiders.com's Alex Kennedy:
This is the most compelling field of contestants in recent memory, and a new format accompanies their arrival. For this year's affair, three players from each conference will team up, with the trio that wins being crowned as joint champions. There will still be a top prize awarded to the individual winner, but he will be dubbed "Dunker of the Night."
It's nice that the Association is letting the fans vote for the latter honor through social media. Perhaps the phrasing for that accolade could be tweaked in the future, though, if this team layout sticks.
Now here is a look at the sextet of dunk artists, including their odds for victory and predictions as to how this captivating spectacle will unfold.
Note: Contest format and information was obtained via the NBA's official release on Feb. 6.
Harrison Barnes Becomes Surprise Dark Horse
The contestant with the longest odds was highly touted at the University of North Carolina and didn't meet lofty expectations.
After bursting onto the scene as a rookie for the Golden State Warriors in last year's playoffs, he's been relegated to an awkward bench role that has been difficult to embrace, courtesy of Andre Iguodala's arrival.
Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle even discussed a possible Barnes trade at the Feb. 20 deadline with Bleacher Report's Adam Lefkoe:
Few probably want to prove the critics wrong more than Barnes, and despite his immense talent and general explosiveness, here he is—being doubted again. That suggests Barnes will have something special in store for spectators and TV viewers when he gets his chance to throw the proverbial hammer down (h/t Austin Carr).
Barnes has a bit more bulk and length than his fellow dunkers with the exception of George and can thus slam it home with vicious authority.
Consistency has been the issue for Barnes in his brief but still promising pro career. With a full 90 seconds on his own in the Freestyle Round to kick things off, look for Barnes to immediately establish himself as a serious contender, despite the doubts of the oddsmakers and others.
East Dominates West in Team Competition
The best combined efforts of Barnes, Lillard and Sacramento Kings rookie Ben McLemore won't be enough to fend off the East's loaded triumvirate.
Wall is soaking up his first All-Star appearance and made the decision to enter this contest despite its recent tradition of lacking marquee star power. Other than currently injured Oklahoma City Thunder stud Russell Westbrook, no point guard in the league boasts the electricity and speed Wall has in the open floor; that should translate well to the dunk contest.
In addition to George, who competed in this event and finished third in 2012, the East has Toronto Raptors swingman Terrence Ross—the defending champion.
After the individual Freestyle Round, one-on-one battles between East and West players are chosen. Here's the explanation of the Battle Round, courtesy of NBA.com's official release:
The Battle Round will feature head-to-head matchups pitting East dunkers vs. West dunkers, with the judges choosing a winner for each battle. Upon losing a head-to-head battle, that dunker is then eliminated from the competition. The first team to win three battles will win the competition and be crowned 2014 Sprite Slam Dunk champions.
No matter which duos go against each other, it's hard to imagine the East not having the upper hand in any scenario. It's even conceivable that George, Wall and Ross could run the table against their opponents and win the first three battles.
The Western Conference has been superior on the hardwood during the 2013-14 campaign, but the East will win in convincing fashion on this occasion.
Paul George Wins Dunker of the Night Honors
The prohibitive favorite may be getting the benefit of the doubt given his meteoric rise to stardom as a sudden elite player at the age of 23, but the hype George has garnered is deserved.
George boasts a strong all-around game and has displayed prowess at both ends of the floor as a key leader for his strong Pacers squad. It's not all that often that he gets a chance to smash the ball. When he does, though, it's special to witness.
The young superstar discussed the dunk contest and his plans for it with ESPN the Magazine's Stevland Wilson:
You know George has been littering the highlight reels with stunning slams when the NBA has to update a video days after his initial hype tape was released to accommodate for his recent prowess:
As amazing as he is at finishing at the rim, maybe George will consider attacking the bucket more in the future rather than jack up the whopping 6.4 three-point attempts per game he was averaging before Wednesday's action.
What's most exciting is that George is still evolving and has a ton of room to grow before he maxes out his potential. Saturday will prove to be an example of the immense physical gifts George possesses and a result of the hard work he's put into capitalizing on them.