Who are the best dunkers in NBA history?
It's a simple question yet one fraught with complexity. Spend even five minutes racking your brain and suddenly you'll start to feel dizzy. Attempt to talk it through with someone else who likewise worked themselves into a tizzy and you might come to blows.
And by "might" I mean you 100% will unless your spirited debate takes place over Zoom in which case you might accidentally launch your computer into a wall or out of the window in disgust. I can relate because, well... let's just say that almost happened when attempting to hold a similar civil discussion with co-workers, which quickly devolved into an absolute madhouse.
That madhouse of a unproductive Zoom call didn't really get us anywhere so I just decided to roll solo and make this a one-man job.
A couple of ground rules:
- In-game dunking only. Look, the Slam Dunk Contest is cute but do yourself a favour and YouTube 'Spud Webb greatest dunks' then try look in the mirror and honestly try to convince yourself he's one of the best dunkers ever. Spoiler alert: he isn't.
- I belong to the Church of Dunking Showmanship. Dunking is an art. It's about putting on a show and so yes... emotion, tenacity, anticipation... all of that matters! When Shawn Kemp threw down on Alton Lister, it was just as much about the emphatic point afterwards as it was the dunk itself.
- Dunking on someone in traffic > dunking on fastbreaks.
- Unless you're literally dunking OVER someone on said fastbreak.
- History matters. If I'm being completely honest, after watching scores of YouTube videos in an effort to finalize this list, there were several snubs from recent years that are unequivocally better dunkers than many who made the cut from past generations. Put Derrick Jones Jr. in the 1970s and your 70-year-old Grandfather would still be raving about his otherworldly dunking ability. But standing out in a crowd and shepherding in a new wave as a pioneer matters even if in today's game it wouldn't come close to resonating as much.
- Zion. Look I know he's played 19 games and only just turned 20 but there aren't 25 better dunkers than him. Some more truth serum? He should be way higher than he is, but for now the rook can be happy to simply crack the list.
Isaiah Rider, Steve Francis, DeMar DeRozan, Nate Robinson, Desmond Mason, Gerald Green, Dwight Howard, Derrick Jones Jr, Cedric Ceballos, Kenny Walker, Terrence Ross, J.R. Smith, George Gervin and Wilt Chamberlain.
The four hardest for me here were Rider, Francis, Green and Howard who all did it differently. Rider in particular dunked with a degree of tenacity that would have made him a cult favourite in today's age of YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.
It also seems ludicrous to leave out Chamberlain, though for as powerful and athletic as he was - especially compared to his contemporaries - he was actually more well known for his deft touch and endless array of flip shots, lay ins and floaters.
Mad? Good! But you know the rules. If you're going to complain about why someone should be in, you have to take someone out. And with all due respect to these great dunkers, there's nobody I could stomach dropping off.
10. David Thompson
The first-ever dunk contest in the ABA featured Thompson and Julius Erving (along with George Gervin, Artis Gilmore and Larry Kenon). But again... we're not here to talk about dunk contests!
It's impossible to mention the first generation of high flyers without mentioning Thompson, who would have gone down as perhaps the greatest dunker in college basketball history had he not played during the time when dunking was outlawed.
Above all else, the 6'4" Thompson loved nothing more than to posterize any and all challengers.
"When you throw one down, especially over a bigger man, you get a psychological advantage," Thompson recalled in an old story for ESPN's Page 2. "When you can dunk on somebody, on somebody's head, those are the ones you like."
9. Jason Richardson
For my money, the single most underappreciated dunker ever.
He did it all. 360s with ease on fastbreaks. Game-winning putbacks at the buzzer. Tomahawks in traffic. Double-clutch reverses.
Richardson brought an element of excitement to two of his era's most exciting teams, first as a member of the 'We Believe' Warriors and then alongside Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire with the Phoenix Suns.
He's a sneaky candidate for the Mt. Rushmore of perimeter dunkers.
8. Shawn Kemp
Alton Lister is still laying on the baseline in Seattle.
Without question the most famous play of Kemp's career is the vicious dunk and point over Lister during a 1992 playoff game between the Seattle SuperSonics and Golden State Warriors.
No player of his era enjoyed putting people on posters as much as Kemp, who seemingly enjoyed contact and would routinely partake in above the rim demolition derbies with wannabe shot blockers. Kemp consistently dunked with a ferocity rarely matched by anyone. The No. 10 dunk on this clip might be No. 1 for the vast majority of power forwards in NBA history.
Kemp is part of a trio of power dunkers. Ultimately, I placed him third among this group because he didn't quite jump as high as Griffin nor as powerfully as Dawkins. But make no mistake, when it comes to power dunking, Kemp reigns as one of the best to ever do it.
7. Darryl Dawkins
I defy anyone to present a more perfect nickname that encapsulates the entirety of a player's persona. The first preps to pros player, Dawkins was truly ahead of his time as a showman of the highest order. Before Magic Johnson and Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley and any of the other supersized personalities, there was the booming centre who smashed backboards and gave nicknames to each of his dunks.
In a game in November of 1979, Dawkins literally brought down the basket and shattered the backboard which caused a 90 minute delay. What did Chocolate Thunder name that dunk after the fact? "The If-You-Ain't-Groovin', Best-Get-Movin', Chocolate-Thunder-Flyin', Robinzine-Cryin', Teeth-Shakin', Glass-Breakin', Rump-Roastin', Bun-Toastin', Glass-Still Flyin', Wham-Bam-I-Am-Jam."
His assaults on rims continue to impact the game today. The rule about no hanging on rims? Implemented because of Dawkins.
"Everybody says a dunk is only two points, but it gets your team hyped, gets the crowd all excited and takes the starch out of other teams, especially when you dunk on somebody," Dawkins said in an interview with The New York Times in 2004. "And I always dunked on somebody."
6. Blake Griffin
This might be too low.
And I'll admit, the only reason he's not two spots higher is out of respect for two legends from the 70s and 80s that simply mean more to the art of the dunk. Based solely on reliving the best of the best through YouTube, it's hard to fathom five better in-game dunkers than Griffin, who at times appeared as if his entire existence was for the sole purpose of dunking anything and everything.
Everyone remembers the dunk over Timofey Mozgov and it's spectacular. But count me among the minority of the crowd more impressed with this yam on Kendrick Perkins.
Moreso than anyone else with the possible exception of Kemp, Griffin's "near dunks" are almost better than his actual dunks if only because they speak to the extent he'd go in an effort to throw down.
5. Dominique Wilkins
From here on out, there are legitimate cases to be made for each to be number one.
Hoop heads from the 80s that like to cut against the grain will swear that Wilkins was the better dunker than Michael Jordan. And who knows, if Wilkins walked away with the 1988 Slam Dunk title instead of Jordan, perhaps the Hall of Famer is remembered even more fondly than he already is.
But beyond anything he did in any dunk contest, Wilkins was known for his high-flying in-game acrobatics. Want to get lost in a sea on 'Nique highlights?
Here's 10 minutes of him dunking. I'll wait.
So yeah... if you want to move him higher, by all means be my guest. Wilkins always added in a little extra flair even when entirely unnecessary. Perhaps more than anyone, Wilkins served as the precursor for Vinsanity.
4. Julius Erving
The most influential dunker of all-time and it's not even close.
Dr. J brought dunking into the mainstream and ushered in a new era of basketball both in terms of style and substance. Though there were certainly others, Erving represented a shift in the explosiveness of the game with an above the rim flair that captured imaginations and elevated the NBA's entertainment factor to another stratosphere.
Erving - like Wilt Chamberlain or Stephen Curry - simply played unlike anyone that came before him and it's impossible to overstate what his dunking represented for the evolution of the league.
3. LeBron James
OK so I know what you're thinking: I was born yesterday.
Just because we don't typically think of LeBron James as an all-time dunker - in part because he's famously never done the dunk contest - doesn't mean he isn't one of the best to ever do it. Fact of the matter is that he sometimes makes it look so effortless that we take for granted just how high he jumps and how hard he throws it down.
MORE: LeBron's year in images
Nobody - and I mean NOBODY - throws down a tomahawk quite like LeBron.
Here's a look back back through the years at some of his best dunks from every year up until joining the Los Angeles Lakers.
2. Michael Jordan
One of the best parts of 'The Last Dance'? The dunking montage towards the start of Episode 3 that shows Jordan in the late 80s just swooping in and dunking everything in sight. Although he didn't quite reach the same level of power dunking as either Carter or Wilkins, MJ seemed to hang in a manner that made time stand still and might be the best double clutch dunker ever for his ability to move the ball in the air and around defenders.
Jordan's reputation as a dunker is understandably propped up by his dunk contest exploits. But I'd argue that the dunk contests and the late career shift into the league's quintessential fadeaway artist actually takes away from just how incredible he was as an in-game dunker. Including the one man ahead of him, Jordan is the most artistic and graceful of dunkers on this list.
1. Vince Carter
Nobody would just casually bust out windmills in traffic like Carter, who at his peak would simply turn regular NBA games into his own miniature slam dunk contests. If Dr. J brought dunking into the NBA mainstream, Vinsanity brought it into the digital age as the first star to truly make his mark on the YouTube generation.
While players like Zion Williamson might someday give him a run for his money, there's no player with more dunking inventory online than Carter. There are mixtapes about his days dunking in college at UNC. There are entire documentaries about him jumping over Frederic Weis at the Olympics. There are 10-minute reels of his best in-game dunks with the Raptors and Nets. And none of that even includes his performance in the 2000 Slam Dunk contest, which - again - we're not even considering for the purposes of this exercise.
You want a specific type of Vince dunk? It's there! Facials on centres. 360s on fastbreaks. The aforementioned windmills in traffic. Carter played an integral role in reinjecting excitement back into the NBA in the immediate aftermath of Michael Jordan's second retirement with the Chicago Bulls. His dunking ability helped the NBA move on from MJ and into a world in which a new wave of fans often consume popcorn highlights instead of entire games. There's a case to be made that Carter's impact as a dunker supersede his actual ability as a dunker, which is and of itself a ridiculous notion.
MORE: Ranking the best Vince and MJ dunks
Vince Carter is the greatest dunker ever and honestly... it's not close.
The entire top 25
Here's the best of the rest.
- It's impossible to separate Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine who are the peanut butter and jelly of the dunking conversation.
- Hawkins could probably be higher and honestly if you wanted to place him inside the top 10, I wouldn't begrudge you for it.
- Nance gets in out of respect. You can't do this list without him, but go watch some of his in-game dunking and you'll walk away underwhelmed.
- Baron Davis and Harold Miner are my two favourite "little" dunkers ever.
- Josh Smith is an all-time NBA athlete and on my short list for "players who I would most want to see travel to 1960 in a time machine."
- Russell Westbrook but no Derrick Rose? While D-Rose has some A+ dunks, he never came close to regularly inviting and attacking like Westbrook.
- Orlando Magic Shaq running the floor and dunking in transition was truly a sight to behold.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.