The NBA Slam Dunk Contest is always the most hyped event leading up to NBA All-Star weekend, and 2014’s edition will be no different.
The field of contestants includes defending champion Terrence Ross of the Toronto Raptors, Paul George of the Indiana Pacers, John Wall of the Washington Wizards, Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers, Harrison Barnes of the Golden State Warriors and Ben McLemore of the Sacramento Kings.
The lineup is dominated by guards and completely devoid of big men like Blake Griffin, Kenneth Faried and Serge Ibaka (who have competed in years past). If nothing else, the field this time around will have to show off impressive vertical leaps in order to throw down creative dunks nobody has seen before.
Perhaps the most intriguing subplot of this year’s contest, though, is its new format. It has the chance to boom or bust, but at least the competitors have the skills to keep things interesting.
As CBS Sports’ Royce Young writes, “The biggest change is that it’s not necessarily an individual competition anymore, but a team one.”
The 2014 NBA Slam Dunk Contest will pit the Western Conference contestants against the Eastern Conference contestants in a “freestyle” round in which each dunker will have 90 seconds to throw down as many dunks as their heart desires.
The 90-second time frame could mean that competitors will be more focused on making their dunks, but it could also dumb down the difficulty level because there’s a time limit working against them.
Afterward, there will be a “battle” round. Young writes that it is “essentially a dunk-off between individual players from the East and West.”
Judges will determine a winner in the head-to-head matchup, and the loser will be eliminated.
After it’s all said and done, one player will be deemed “Dunker of the Night” via a collection fan votes through Twitter, texting and NBA.com.
Having thousands of NBA fans with access to multiple instant replays vote on a winner is a solid process, so long as it doesn’t become a popularity contest—like voting for All-Star starters.
The new format has its pros and cons, but my concern is organization. How are the head-to-head matchups decided? Why would a contest to determine the league’s best dunker include a team aspect?
Ultimately, I think fans will be disappointed in the new format either due to its execution (the emphasis on teams) or because the Dunk Contest has failed to live up to the hype for several years in general.
Although the freestyle round of the Dunk Contest could lend itself to teamwork between conference opponents, I’m more interested in the battle round dunk-offs.
One dunker versus another, and the best slam between them (as voted by judges) wins. What’s simpler than that?
The high stakes of a win-or-get-eliminated scenario could force these athletes to try new things in order to wow the judges and eliminate their opponent—much like Olympic snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg, who won a gold medal by landing a trick he’d never even tried before.
This format will still favor dunkers with a deep repertoire, because they’ll have to save their best dunks for the end in order to have the best shot at winning it all.
Fans may not like the new format, but pitting dunkers head-to-head might make the contest even more competitive.
When asked whether or not he's considered trying a 720-degree slam in the 2014 Slam Dunk Contest, Sacramento Kings rookie guard Ben McLemore said, "I was thinking about that. Nobody has put that up. But we'll see."
Well, I'm intrigued.
Utilizing creativity has been a staple in recent dunk contests. Gerald Green blowing out a candle on a cupcake sitting atop the rim was sweet (pun intended), Serge Ibaka grabbing a child's toy off the rim with his teeth was inventive (as well as underrated, but he needed to do it first try for effect), and JaVale McGee dunking three basketballs at once was something we hadn't seen before.
So can McLemore pull off the 720? Will he even attempt it?
My answer is yes to both questions, because, why not?
As a rookie, everyone will be underestimating McLemore's chances in the Dunk Contest—much like Terrence Ross of the Toronto Raptors last year. That should prompt him to let loose and simply go for it.
Also, the youngster out of Kansas has dunk contest experience dating back to his high school days with Oak Hill Academy. Per Jared Weiss of SB Nation, he said:
"Matter of fact, the last dunk contest I was in was with Oak Hill. We were in Hawaii and I won that."
The Slam Dunk Contest is usually good for at least one new and innovative thing fans have never seen before. Perhaps McLemore is the perfect candidate to provide that for fans this year.
According to NBA.com, the Eastern and Western conferences will be in direct competition with one another to raise money for charity during All-Star Saturday night.
Depending upon which conference wins the Dunk Contest, their respective charity will receive $100,000, while the runner-up will get to donate $25,000 to theirs.
As far as the 2014 Slam Dunk Contest is concerned, I'm taking the Eastern Conference lineup (Terrence Ross, Paul George and John Wall) over the Western Conference representatives (Damian Lillard, Harrison Barnes and Ben McLemore).
Although I'm picking McLemore to do something special on Saturday night, the three-man rotation of Ross, George and Wall is simply too potent to ignore. Ross is the defending champ, George has previous experience in the dunk contest and Wall showed off some ridiculous slams in the 2012 Rising Stars Challenge.
Don't think I'm sleeping on Barnes, though, because he could certainly surprise some folks. However, the East is due to win something having lost the past three All-Star Games to the West.
The team competition will be decided by the new "freestyle" format, and I believe that benefits dunk veterans like George and Ross above everyone else.
Indiana Pacers superstar Paul George is a gifted dunker. Nobody is disputing that.
With that said, I think PG has the best chance of being named "Dunker of the Night" due to his popularity.
Ideally, the fan vote in this instance will reward whoever the best dunker was on Saturday—and who knows, maybe that will be George when it's all said and done.
His status as an NBA superstar, however, may ultimately be the X-factor putting him over the top.
One could argue that I'm comparing apples to oranges here, but NBA fan votes are NBA fan votes regardless of the setting. There will be those who choose guys deserving of said honor, others voting with personal bias toward their favorite players and others still balloting for the injured Kobe Bryant to make the All-Star game as a starter.
The Pacers star received more than 1.2 million All-Star votes from fans, which was more than triple the votes John Wall and Damian Lillard received.
I hate being cynical, but naive fans might vote for George simply because he's a big name on a championship-caliber team. That will be fine if he truly beats his competitors on Saturday, but the competition may be stiffer than ever in 2014.
My early prediction for the Slam Dunk Contest a week ago was John Wall, and I don't intend to stray from that gut feeling even though I think George will be voted as the favorite.
Of the Wizards floor general, I wrote, "Wall is trying to build up his brand and make a name for himself as a bona fide star in the NBA. As a result, he may show added motivation to win this contest as a means of putting the league on notice."
The Kentucky standout has been somewhat under-the-radar playing in Washington, but he can change his perception by putting on a show during All-Star weekend. Winning the Slam Dunk Contest would go a long way toward building up his brand and overall popularity in the NBA community.
Let's just say I think he's up to the task.