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2014 NBA Slam Dunk Contest preview: Biggest questions heading into tonight

2014 NBA Slam Dunk Contest The 2014 Slam Dunk Contest has star power, proven dunks, a slew of leapers and plenty of intrigue. (Getty Images)

NEW ORLEANS -- Let the dunking begin.

The NBA's annual Slam Dunk Contest is set for Saturday night at the Smoothie King Center. The top two things to know entering the festivities: there will be star power, and there will be a totally new format.

Let's run through the biggest questions heading into the Dunk Contest as we count down the final hours and minutes until showtime.

WHO is dunking?

This year's field features six players: Pacers forward Paul George, Raptors guard Terrence Ross, Wizards guard John Wall, Blazers guard Damian Lillard, Warriors forward Harrison Barnes and Kings guard Ben McLemore.

Of note: all six were lottery picks, all six are 23-and-under, three are All-Stars (George, Wall and Lillard), two have previous Dunk Contest experience (George and Ross) and one is the defending champion (Ross). This year's contest marks the first time since 1988 that three All-Stars have competed in the same field.

Click here for my complete breakdown of the participants, which includes video.

HOW is this year's contest set up?

The standard 1-to-10 scorecards and 0-to-50 scoring system for dunks are gone. Yes, that's right: scrapped entirely. In addition, the six dunkers will be split into two teams by their conference affiliation, making for an East versus West, three-on-three showdown.

The conferences will face off in a new two-round format that includes a warm-up "freestyle" round and a second "battle" round.

In the freestyle round, the three dunkers from each conference will get 90 seconds to execute as many dunks as they can while on the court together. The dunkers can help each other out, go solo, or just slam one after another regardless of misses.

In the battle round, a dunker from each conference will go head-to-head, with the loser, as determined by the judges, being eliminated. The first conference to win three head-to-head battles will win the contest and be crowned champions. After the contest, a fan vote will determine the "Dunker of the Night."

RELATED: SI.com's All-Star hub: Schedule, preview, analysis and more

WHY did they change the format?

I'm happy you asked. The Point Forward offered a full breakdown of the pros and cons to the new set-up right here.

The short version: the opening round should serve as a nice warm-up that starts the contest with a bang and eliminates the down time associated with missed dunks, while the second round should offer start-to-finish drama with every dunk serving as a "win or go home" moment. Also, the conference vs. conference format ties in with the other All-Star Saturday events, which also pit East versus West.

RELATED: Non-Champions: Five greatest Slam Dunk stars never to win

Paul George Paul George's popularity and dunk repretoire makes him a favorite in this year's contest. (Pool/Getty Images Sport)

WHAT are the contestants saying?

Eastern Conference

The confidence was oozing when the participants met with the media on Friday.

"All of us [on the East team] have dunks that have never been done in the Dunk Contest so we plan on stealing the show," George declared. "We’re really going to try to put it away on the West."

The Pacers forward will start for the Eastern Conference after he received 1.2 million votes in the fan voting process. After initially suggesting that he wouldn't participate, George ultimately decided to come back for another go-round after previously dunking in 2012. That's a good thing, because he owns possibly the "Dunk of the Year" so far with a 360 windmill.

"It was just being thankful for the fans voting me as a starter," George said of his decision to compete. "I wanted to give back by being in the Dunk Contest."

Ross, who recently posterized Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried, was similarly confident. He said that he wasn't planning to do any more retro tributes to Vince Carter, as he did last year, but he smiled broadly when asked if he was ready to go.

"I have something," he said cryptically. "I have a dunk that should be pretty nice."

The 2012 lottery pick was unconcerned about the format change impacting his ability to repeat as champion, and he sounded eager to embrace the new setup.

"It’s going to be a lot more fun," Ross said. "Last year we had great dunkers but we were all doing our own things. Now we all have a chance to work together to do some things that nobody has ever seen before. I think that’s going to be the best thing about it."

Although he's the least experienced and possibly least-heralded dunker on the East squad, Wall was just as confident as his teammates. He was brash, too, questioning whether Blake Griffin and LeBron James deserved to win the 2011 Dunk Contest and the 2003 McDonald's All-American Game Dunk Contest, respectively.

The 2010 No. 1 pick said that he used to dunk more in high school, when the fear of losing playing time and getting embarrassed on national television over a missed dunk was nonexistent. Wall also asserted that his dunking style is well-suited to the exhibition format.

"Some people are more in-game dunkers than if you throw them a basketball and you’ve got to dunk in front of all these people," said Wall, a first-time All-Star selection in 2014. "I’m more of a Dunk Contest person. In games, I don’t try all them because I’m not trying to miss and get taken out of the game or be on Not Top 10. In the contest, you can miss and be like, ‘I have three more tries.’"

Asked why he decided to enter his first contest this year, Wall was blunt: "Being an All-Star. If I wasn’t an All-Star, I wouldn’t do it. I’m just being honest."

Damian Lillard Damian Lillard will participate in five All-Star events, including the Dunk Contest. (Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images)

Western Conference

Quiet confidence was the name of the game for the West squad.

"We know what we're going to do," Lillard said. "But I don't want to tell people what it's going to be."

The 2013 Rookie of the Year isn't known as a prolific dunker -- he's dunked just eight times so far this season -- but he has a quick burst to the rim. Lillard saw multiple benefits to the new format.

"I like it," he said. "It’s different, it’s good for a contest like that where fans have seen pretty much every dunk, to put a twist on it. I’m excited about it. It takes pressure off individual dunkers, they don’t have to be perfect to have a chance."

Barnes, meanwhile, has established himself as an elite posterizer, as his dunk on Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic was one of last season's best. The UNC product told the Bay Area News Group that he is considering a tribute to fellow Tar Heel Michael Jordan but that he isn't planning to do anything over the top.

"Keep it simple and just try to make your dunks," Barnes said. "I think over the years there’s been a lot of props that have been involved, a lot of show. You never want to build a dunk up so much that that you’re not able to finish it. It’ll take you five tries to do it."

Finally, McLemore enters the contest as the only rookie. Although he's had to fight for his minutes in Sacramento, there's no question that he has the leaping ability and the grace in the air to be a force in this competition. Rumors that he would pull off a 720 degree dunk -- two full spins -- have circulated in recent days.

"I definitely want to win it," McLemore said. "Everybody keeps talking about the 720. So I don’t know. I’m still figuring it out. It’s not something I had much time to prep myself for."

Like many of his fellow participants, McLemore pointed to Carter's performance in  2000 as his favorite moment in Dunk Contest history.

"When he won the dunk contest, the things he did were unbelievable," McLemore said. "He nailed everything! He pretty much did everything."

WHO is favored to win?

One oddsmaker has tabbed George as the favorite, and his popularity and name recognition advantages will surely help him in the fan voting stage. The Point Forward also tabbed George as the favorite, although both George and Ross drew votes in our recent Give and Go on the subject

"I say T. Ross," Thunder forward Kevin Durant said, when asked to predict a winner. "I like him. He is sick. He’s one of the most athletic people I’ve seen in my life."

Hall of Famer Karl Malone went in a different direction with his prediction.

"My dark horse would be Lillard," he said. "I’ve watched that kid play in Utah at Weber State. Portland is one of the teams that I watch. I’ve seen him in games. Dark horse, a little favorite of mine."

With multiple legit choices, the presence of three All-Stars, and a new format throwing things up in the air, some interested observers simply couldn't make up their mind.

"It’s hard to pick just one, there are so many high-flyers in that," Heat forward LeBron James said.

For more reading: Here’s a look back at the 2013 Slam Dunk Contest, plus a rundown of the biggest problems from last year’s event.
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