For the first time in 26 years, three bona fide All-Stars will take part in the 2014 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. They'll be joined in this year's edition of NBA's midseason slam dunk competition by the contest's reigning champion and two young high-flyers aiming to make a name for themselves on All-Star Saturday.
As announced on TNT before the broadcast of Thursday night's matchup between the San Antonio Spurs and Brooklyn Nets, here are the six participants in this year's Sprite Slam Dunk Contest, which will take place on Saturday, Feb. 15, and air live on TNT:
• Indiana Pacers forward Paul George, who will start for the Eastern Conference in the All-Star Game on Sunday, Feb. 16, after receiving more fan votes in All-Star balloting than any player not named LeBron James or Kevin Durant;
• Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, who was selected as a reserve for the Western Conference All-Star squad and chosen as one of the players in the pool of rookies and sophomores for the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge, who has committed to defend his Taco Bells Skills Challenge title and who is reportedly planning to accept an invitation to the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest, which will make him the first player ever to compete in all five All-Star Weekend events;
• Washington Wizards point guard John Wall, who was chosen as a reserve on the Eastern Conference All-Star squad;
• Golden State Warriors wing Harrison Barnes, who will also participate in the Rising Stars Challenge; and
• Sacramento Kings rookie Ben McLemore, who wasn't included in the Rising Stars pool but will still get a chance to represent his team during All-Star Weekend.
Word of the All-Stars' entry began to circulate Wednesday night. Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Marc J. Spears reported Thursday that George, Lillard, Wall and Ross had accepted invitations to compete. ESPN.com's Marc Stein confirmed the participation of Barnes and McLemore.
Ross will look to become the sixth player to win multiple dunk contests, joining Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Harold Miner, Jason Richardson and Nate Robinson, and only the fourth ever to win back-to-back dunk contest crowns (Jordan in 1987 and 1988, Richardson in 2002 and 2003, Robinson in 2009 and 2010). This will be George's second trip to the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest; he failed to make the competition's final round in 2012. The other four participants are all first-time competitors.
The Sprite Slam Dunk Contest has come under fire over the years for providing insufficient star power, most notably surrounding the league's inability to get LeBron James to take part in the competition. Individual All-Stars have participated in the contest in recent years — most notably Blake Griffin (2011) and Dwight Howard (2007, 2008, 2009) — but the competition hasn't included multiple All-Stars since 2000, when Vince Carter and Jerry Stackhouse joined the fray. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1990, when Dominique Wilkins and Scottie Pippen took part in the contest.
Not since 1988, though, have at least three All-Stars participated in the same year. In that legendary competition in Chicago, M.J., 'Nique and Clyde Drexler went toe-to-toe, with Jordan winning the contest in front of the Chicago Bulls faithful. Whether the likes of George, Lillard and Wall can catapult this year's competition into the conversation with some of the legendary battles of years gone by remains to be seen, but if nothing else, this year's crop of dunkers seems to suggest that the league has heard fans' complaints about a lack of star power in the competition loud and clear, and is doing what it can to entice a new generation of ascendant stars to crank up the wattage.
Now, let's watch some dunks to get amped. (NOTE: Some of the hip-hop songs used as background music in the clips below might contain objectionable language. Viewer/listener discretion is advised.)
Let's get better acquainted with our dunkers, starting in the East with last year's champ, Ross, back to defend his crown with the aid of noting aerial acrobats Team Flight Brothers:
And here's Mr. George, whose combination of long arms, athleticism, serious bounce and power might make him the dunker to beat:
The Wizards' Wall might not be the first player that comes to mind when you think about dunking, but at 6-foot-4 with hops and creativity, the former No. 1 overall pick could pose a surprising threat to the competition:
We move now to the West, with first-time All-Star Lillard, whom some might overlook due to the relative infrequency of his dunks, but who can get up when he wants to and who has the sort of mean, competitive streak that might make him crank it up a notch to make sure he shows out in Saturday's showcase event:
While North Carolina product Barnes, a.k.a. "The Black Falcon," a.k.a. "The Cat in the Hat," has shown himself to be a bit more of a power dunker than an acrobat during his time with the Dubs, he's still got athleticism to burn and a flair for the dramatic in the air:
And finally, there's McLemore, who proved to be an exciting high-riser during his lone year at Kansas and has shown some impressive springs in practice, in layup lines and in games for the Kings this season:
As was the case last year, All-Star Saturday will feature an East vs. West theme, with the two conferences pitted against one another in each of the evening's events to raise money for charity. Lillard, Barnes and McLemore will represent the Western Conference, captained by Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, while George, Wall and Ross will represent the East, captained by ... well, by George himself. (This guy's doing everything, huh?)
NBA Cares and State Farm will make a joint donation of $500,000, with each event's winner getting $100,000 for their conference's charities and the runner-up getting $25,000 for theirs. The East will play for the American Heart Association and the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. The West will compete for Teach for America and the Wounded Warrior Project.
The rules for the dunk contest are a little different this year.
The two-round competition will begin with a "Freestyle Round," in which the dunkers for each conference will have 90 seconds to do as many dunks as they want. After those 90 seconds, the panel of judges will choose which conference won the round by voting “East” or “West.” The Freestyle-winning conference will get to choose whether its dunkers will go first or second in the head-to-head matchups that take place in the second, or "Battle," round.
In the Battle Round, East and West dunkers will go head-to-head, one-on-one, mano a mano, with the judges choosing a winner for each battle. The loser of each battle is eliminated from the competition. The first conference to win three battles wins the competition and gets crowned 2014 Sprite Slam Dunk champions, earning the $100,000 prize for their conference's charity of choice.
After a conference winner has been determined, fans will also have get the chance to vote for the player that they think deserves to be named “Dunker of the Night,” by casting votes through SMS, Twitter, NBA.com and the NBA GameTime app.
On one hand, the change in rules and setup seems unnecessary; the problem many fans and observers have had with the dunk contest over the years has had to do not with the format of the competition, but rather with the caliber and public profile of its competitors. Making the contest more about "conference bragging rights" would seem, by definition, to make it less about individual bragging rights, which, y'know, has sort of always been the point of the competition, hasn't it? Then again, the Battle Round could generate some of that head-to-head heat, especially with competitive sorts like George, Wall and Lillard, so maybe this will be a more pitched affair than it's typically been in the recent past. We'll see.
The Sprite Slam Dunk Contest and the rest of the All-Star Saturday Night events will be televised on TNT on Saturday, Feb. 15, starting at and broadcast live on ESPN Radio, reaching audiences in 215 countries and territories in more than 47 languages.
Which conference do you think has the stronger squad? Which dunker do you think will wind up being named "Dunker of the Night?" Do you like the shake-up in the competition format to go with head-to-head battles and an overall conference winner, rather than the more every-man-for-himself style competitions of years gone by? Let us know in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter.
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