There can be few events in sport that energize fans and have them jumping from their seats in excitement, creating a hullabaloo more than a top-quality slam dunk.
In this article, we’ll take a stroll down memory lane and check out some of the slam dunk masters of years gone by and those of the current crop of best dunkers.
We’ll try to give a fair analysis of their dunking ability and mention any interesting tidbits, then come up with some coherent final thoughts.
THE EVER-EVOLVING DUNK
Dunking has evolved as the years have passed and every time that we think we’ve reached a peak of dunking that can never be bettered, someone comes along and goes a step further.
The commentators lose their minds and the fervour that is caused can genuinely affect the outcome of closely fought games.
Posters are created, social media posts go viral, and everyone’s a winner.
EXCEPT FOR THE TEAM ON THE RECEIVING END OF COURSE…
IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER, THEN…
DARRYL DAWKINS OF THE PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
Dawkins was the reason that the NBA switched to using ‘breakaway’ rims in 1979 as he was one of the first players to consistently shatter the backboards from the time he joined the NBA in 1976 when the leagues merged. He had incredibly powerful in-game dunks and extraordinary athleticism.
He even threw in long airtimes and stylish finishes to his dunks.
Aside from his dunking ability and shattering 2 backboards in 3 weeks, Dawkins was a pioneer throughout his entire career and was the first player to ever be drafted straight out of high school.
DONOVAN MITCHELL OF UTAH JAZZ.
Donovan Mitchell made his NBA intentions clear right out of the gate during his rookie season in 2018 when he won the dunk contest at All-Star Weekend.
He captivated the Lob City crowd with an acrobatic, high-flying performance.
As time has passed, Mitchell’s commitment to the dunk has waned somewhat, but for a while there he was truly magical.
ZACH LAVINE OF THE CHICAGO BULLS
LaVine deserves a mention here for his slam dunk contest performances alone.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Zach LaVine is one of the most special and unique dunkers that we have ever seen in the NBA.
He was the second-youngest player after the late, great Kobe Bryant to win the dunk contest and participated in what some consider to be the greatest slam dunk contest of all time against the unfortunate Aaron Gordon.
We have even seen a between-the-legs dunk from behind the foul line from LaVine, and his athleticism and skill seem to know no bounds.
Zach LaVine deserves further mention for the fact that his in-game dunks are no less spectacular or game-changing.
He has a staggering ability to leap huge distances and is one of only 4 players in NBA history to win consecutive dunk contests.
MICHAEL JORDAN OF THE CHICAGO BULLS
There can be virtually no list of ‘greatest’ NBA anything that doesn’t feature Michael Jordan on it somewhere. Among his countless other accolades and record-breaking achievements, Michael Jordan is also one of the best dunkers to ever play the game. His hang times were the stuff of legend and his dunk over Barkley in 1990 became a poster that adorned many a wall and truly encapsulated the verb ‘to posterize’.
Opponents lived in fear of a Michael Jordan dunk and he used that to great psychological advantage, trying to make them whenever possible or using the threat of one to his advantage in some other way by wrong-footing his opposition.
He won consecutive dunk contests in 1987 and 1988 and was so good at it that his ability to dunk from the foul line became an actual trademark and logo for his brand.
KOBE BRYANT OF THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Kobe’s game leaned heavily towards the art of dunking, and he would try to create a highlight-reel standard dunk in literally every situation that he possibly could.
The circumstances of the game didn’t matter. He was a natural-born dunker.
IF THERE WAS A CHANCE, KOBE WAS GOING TO DUNK IT AND WE LOVED HIM FOR THAT.
DERRICK JONES JR OF THE PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Derrick Jones Jr is the dunk contest champion who won thanks largely to a windmill dunk that came after taking off from beyond the free-throw line!
‘Airplane Mode Jones’ has a wingspan of 7 feet that certainly doesn’t hurt his dunking ability.
He is more than happy to execute them in-game, but it was that slam dunk contest effort that secured his mention here.
VINCE CARTER OF THE TORONTO RAPTORS
During an NBA career that ended recently in it’s 4th decade, few can argue that Vince Carter is perhaps the greatest dunker that ever picked up a basketball (and smashed it through the hoop one-handed)
Carter’s explosive jumping has propelled him higher than just about everybody around him over the years and he always dunked it in game super-hard and aggressively.
From clearing a 7 foot opponent to score in the 2000 Olympics, to being the first player to ever pull off a 360 ‘windmill dunk’in a dunk contest appearance – ‘Vinsanity’ is a master of dunks of the very highest order.
SHAQUILLE O’NEAL OF THE ORLANDO MAGIC
Shaq was never going to make a list of the greatest dunkers in the NBA because of his incredible vertical jumps or his incredible air-time.
But he entertained the hell out of us for 19 straight seasons and took out more than his share of rims and backboards with astonishing dunking power.
He has made his mark in NBA history and
…so here he is.
CLYDE DREXLER OF PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Clyde Drexler -‘The Glide’- was one of the best dunkers in an era that was, for better or worse, defined more by brute strength and physicality.
He participated in 5 dunk contests and gets his credit for managing to negotiate those rough and ready games and still manage to dunk the ball time and again.
LEBRON JAMES OF THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS
If you’re looking for a highlight reel of incredible in-game dunks, then you need look no further than LeBron James.
He doesn’t quite have the flashiness of some others here, or any dunk contest titles to call his own, but LeBron James has built a glittering career that has been heavily reliant on dunking, clocking in at almost 2,000 dunks to date.
He has cemented himself as one of the best basketball players who ever lived and some would argue, the best of all time.
LeBron James has the speed and athleticism to engineer some of the zaniest dunks in NBA history.
It is probably only the fact that he has never participated in the NBA dunk contest that keeps him from being top of the tree in this category too.
AARON GORDON OF ORLANDO MAGIC
After playing his part in what some call the greatest slam dunk contest of all-time against Zach LaVine, there’s no surprise in finding Aaron Gordon of Orlando Magic in the mix here on this particular list of the best dunkers in the business.
The debate still rages on to this day as to who should have won their 2016 showdown but that’s another conversation.
What there can be no debate about is that there are few players who have ever managed to dunk a ball with more style and panache than Aaron Gordon.
Watch Gordon dunk over Cleveland Cavaliers’ giant Tacko Fall in the 2020 slam dunk contest, and he STILL doesn’t go on to win the slam dunk contest title!
What’s a guy got to do?
GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO OF THE MILWAUKEE BUCKS
The ‘Greek Freak’ deserves mention, as his extraordinary 7’3″ wingspan allows him to reach the rim a little easier than most players.
When he gets there, which he does consistently and with great effect, oppositions are powerless to stop him and he scores with alarming regularity and gets more than his share of dunks.
NATE ROBINSON OF THE NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
Nate Robinson holds the record for Slam Dunk Contests won with three.
In the classic match-up of ‘KryptoNate’ vs ‘Superman’ in 2009 he triumphed against Dwight Howard, who famously allowed the 5’9” Nate Robinson to jump over him at 6’10” for one of his dunks.
JULIUS ERVING OF THE PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving (then with the New York Nets) was the first-ever player to take off and dunk from the free-throw line 1976 dunk contest, which he promptly won.
Before Julius Erving, slam-dunking was mainly the realm of the biggest men and was actually considered to be somewhat unsportsmanlike and showy.
Julius Erving popularised the crazy, acrobatic dunks that are now commonplace in the game and soon became known as the “Father of Dunking”.
Check out one of his most memorable dunks ever as he went on to ‘rock the baby’ over Michael Cooper of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Dr. J might not technically be the best dunker to ever set foot in the NBA, but he is an integral part of its introduction and evolution.
DOMINIQUE WILKINS OF THE ATLANTA HAWKS
Dominique Wilkins was a totally unique dunker known for his windmill slams.
He was also a superb in-game dunker who performed them against some of the best in the business and had an extraordinary hang time.
In the 1988 dunk contest, Wilkins had an epic battle against Michael Jordan and although he lost that particular encounter (we can’t think of a better dunker to lose to if we’re honest), he won the dunk contest in both 1985 and 1990 and is one of the best dunkers in NBA history.
BLAKE GRIFFIN OF THE BROOKLYN NETS
6-time All-Star Blake Griffin combined physical domination with a high vertical jump ability and perfected the art of driving to the rim and throwing it down with a vengenace.
He also specialised in finising the alley oop and is one of the best in game dunkers in NBA history.
He dazzled fans consistently in dunk contests and in 2011 became the first rookie to play in an All-Star game since Yao MIng in 2003.
SHAWN KEMP OF THE SEATTLE SUPERSONICS
Shawn Kemp is a legend who made it normal for big men to be showy and creative with their in-game dunks.
His explosive speed and strength caused all kinds of problems for defenses throughout the league and he was among the more successful of the bigger guys who competed in dunk contests.
His power, skill and finesse were always a joy to behold.
JASON RICHARDSON OF THE GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Jason Richardson is the epitome of creativity in his style of play and his dunks in particular.
They were often extremely difficult to pull off and resulted in him being dunk contest champion twice.
In 2003 Richardson created his own unique dunk that had never been seen or attempted before. People named it the ‘J-Rich’ dunk, and it is still considered as one of the best dunks in contest history to this day.
DEANDRE JORDAN OF THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Jordan hasn’t had fewer than 227 dunks in each of the past three seasons and that alone justifies his inclusion here.
He’s also the first player in NBA history to record a 70% or better shooting percentage in more than one season.
LARRY BIRD OF THE BOSTON CELTICS
During his 13 seasons with the only NBA team that he ever played for, Bird carved himself an illustrious, ground-breaking career that saw him achieve many accolades.
He established himself as an all-time great behind his iconic career with the Celtics and helped the NBA to reach levels of popularity it hadn’t before through his intense rivalry with Magic Johnson.
His dunking wasn’t perhaps his greatest asset, but his opinions on them piqued our interest in The Jump Hub office and that’s all it really takes to get a mention.
“IF YOU LOOK AT OUR GAME, THE MID-RANGE GAME IS ALMOST GONE,” BIRD SAID. “EVEN CHARLES [BARKLEY] AND THEM, THEY ARE ALWAYS TALKING ABOUT DUNKING. CHARLES WAS A DUNKER, BUT HE WAS MORE OF A PASSER AND A POWER PLAYER, BUT EVERYONE GETS CAUGHT UP IN THESE DUNKS. IF SOMEBODY DUNKED ON YOU, THEN YOU GO HIT A THREE, WHO’S AHEAD? I NEVER DID GET THAT.”
Showboating is all very well, and we have enjoyed some incredible NBA slam dunk showdowns in our collective time here at The Jump Hub.
That’s all just the razzle-dazzle and bright lights of a contest that is set up to showcase the best dunks that can be created and practised beforehand.
The only distractions to contend with are the breath-holding pressure of the expectant crowd and the competition of showing off your own dunking prowess more effectively than the other guy.
For us, the true measure of an individual’s dunking ability comes in-game, when the real pressure is on.
As a guy faces up to three defenders in a competitive NBA game and still manages to pull off dunks that are worthy of a highlight reel?
Now that’s when we start to really get into the greatest dunkers who have ever played the game.