By Rob Mahoney
The NBA's selections for All-Star Saturday are typically met with groans and complaints, but the field for this year's Slam Dunk Contest warrants no grumbling whatsoever. Even after expanding the pool of competitors from four to six, the league managed to corral two former contest champions, a long-hyped dunking sensation and three hyper-athletic young players with a legitimate chance to put their own stamp on the competition. It looks to be one of the best Slam Dunk Contests in years, as the NBA opted for pure dunking prowess over star power.
Here's a dunker-by-dunker look at how the competition might unfold, ordered from most likely winner to least likely winner:
(Note: Also included are the official odds for each competitor, provided by Bovada. The parenthetical rank indicates how Bovada's odds would arrange the various players in terms of winning probability.)
Bovada odds: 5/2 (2nd)
Green boasts both the most incredible body of dunk contest work and the most exciting vertical potential, the combination of which should make him the overall favorite. Yet most oddsmakers seem to prefer James White, despite the fact that Green has proven to be a far more creative dunker in a competition setting.
That's nothing against White, whose ups are miraculous in their own right. But I do wonder if we're underselling a former dunk contest champ in Green that nevertheless has a lot to prove. Green's season to date has been crummy to say the least, but All-Star Saturday offers him the slightest respite, if not validation. For a night, it won't matter that he's shooting 34.5% from the field. It'll be forgotten that he's given almost no value to a team that was banking on him to be their bucket-getting sixth man. He'll just be allowed to do what he does best against a field of other top-notch dunkers, with undoubtedly amazing results.
James White, New York Knicks
Bovada odds: 5/4 (1st)
White was born to take part in this contest, and he's sure to impress. But if you're not already familiar with his dunking style and claim to fame, you should avoid YouTube-ing him at all cost. The dirty little secret of White's otherwise phenomenal above-the-rim work is that almost every jaw-dropping slam he's done in competition has been a variant on the same theme. I won't spoil the fun by giving away the surprise to the uninitiated, but I worry that the judges may exhibit some scoring fatigue if White uses too many similar dunks for his four competition entries.
Bovada odds: 15/2 (5th)
I'm normally not all that fond of little-guy dunkers, but Bledsoe is the rare undersized competitor that earned his invitation based on a power dunking game. His dunks aren't just good for a guard, but they're impressive and authoritative on their own grounds. That style doesn't always translate seamlessly into the contest field (where the element of surprise is replaced with anticipated spectacle), but I like Bledsoe to buck the odds, make the final round, and put up a decent fight against whichever elite dunker comes out of the East.
Bovada odds: 7/2 (3rd)
Ross should, in theory, be a great dark horse candidate, but I fear that the dunk contest's new, conference-dependent rules will make it far too difficult for him to even make it to the final round. In this new format, the two finalists must come from different conferences, positioning Green, White, and Ross to wage their own preliminary competition for the opportunity to advance. He's acrobatic and powerful enough to contend with that pair, but Green and White are among the most talented contest dunkers that this generation has to offer. It's a tough break, and one can only hope it forces Ross to bring out his best material in the first round -- both to raise the bar for everyone and ensure that he has a chance to showcase his dunking arsenal.
Bovada odds: 5/1 (4th)
Evans may be one of the least memorable dunk contest winners in NBA history, both due to his lackluster showing and his otherwise lacking rep (Evans is averaging just 5.4 minutes per game this season). The two-ball dunk was nice, but Evans' other contest slams in 2011 (the headband cam and the Karl Malone tribute) don't suggest he has what it takes to get through a field this good and this deep. He's a tremendous athlete and fun to watch in a game setting, but Evans is a bit out-classed with this bunch.
Bovada odds: 15/2 (6th) There's no question that Faried is bouncy enough to warrant a place in this competition, and I'm incredibly curious to see what he comes up with. But his dunks are definitely of the type that translate better to the speed and mayhem of an actual game, and look more impressive when executed on a surging fast break than on an empty court. Faried works hard to fill his lane and keep up with his teammates in transition, and so often that pays off with alley-oop lobs and assorted highlight reel finishes. Those dunks are typically just of a different set -- awesome in their own way, but a poor fit for a very different kind of dunking showcase. Maybe Faried has something up his sleeve (as he did on Friday night, when he unexpectedly won MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge), but I slot him in the lowest spot by default.