Baseball has the homerun; hockey has the shootout; soccer has the penalty shot; basketball has, well, the dunk. Indeed, nothing galvanizes a crowd of NBA fans like a thunderous, awe-inspiring dunk. The annual dunk contest, which takes place during All-Star Weekend, showcases the league’s best dunkers, but oftentimes the dunks are gimmicky and impossible to imagine happening in a real game. In-game dunks, however, are spectacular in that they cannot be predicted—only hoped for. When a good dunker enters the game, fans wait with bated breath, sitting on the edge of their seats, sometimes invoking their respective deities in hopes of seeing a rim-rattling jam.
And that unpredictability is what gives the in-game dunk its power to amaze fans. The context is always different. The defense might break down, which might enable a player to cut to the basket to receive an alley-oop. Or maybe an athletic winger will beat his defender one-on-one, drive to the basket, and finish with a big dunk. “Might” and “maybe”—these are the words of expectant fans who eagerly await the next big dunk.
The best in-game dunkers are nothing short of incredible, combining sublime athletic ability with unflappable willpower. In his early days, Vince Carter always looked to be on the brink of throwing down an electrifying dunk. Just a little space here, a misstep by the defense there, and Carter was going to make someone look silly. Each spectacular dunk prompted spectators to ask: what will he do next?
This list looks at the top 10 in-game dunkers in NBA history. If available, each player’s career earnings have been listed, and as this list shows, some of these players have been paid handsomely for their services. An honourable mention should go to Lebron James, who did not make this list.
10. Tracy McGrady – Career Earning: $162,978,278
In the early 2000s, Tracy McGrady was one of the NBA’s most dominant scorers, averaging 32.1 points per game in 2002-2003. At the time, many fans and experts argued that he was better than Kobe. Those arguments seem laughable in hindsight, but they were not farfetched back then. With his rare combination of length and athleticism, McGrady electrified fans during his prime. If he got a step on his defender, there was a good chance he was going finish with a slam.
9. Clyde Drexler – Career Earnings: $29,872,000
Over his career, Clyde Drexler averaged 20.4 points per game. He was one of the NBA’s best dunkers in the same era as Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins. “Clyde the Glide,” as he was affectionately nicknamed, won a championship with Houston and a gold medal with the 1992 American “Dream Team.” As his nickname suggests, Drexler had a fluid way of taking off and dunking the ball, as if he was meant to fly.
8. Shannon Brown – Career Earnings: $17,512,981
Though he dropped off the radar, Shannon Brown was a dominant dunker throughout his short career. The former Michigan State Spartan incited many riotous responses from fans when he dunked. Unlike Drexler, Brown gave off the impression that he had springs in his shoes. His dunks were never punctuations, but powerful exclamation marks. Otherwise, Brown was never dominant on offense, as he averaged 7.0 points per game over his career.
7. Deandre Jordan – Career Earnings: $33,739,740
Deandre Jordan’s dunk over Brandon Knight last year is enough to get him on this list. Though not otherwise dominant, Jordan has developed into one of the most feared dunkers, as he dunks the ball with intensity that few others can match. He benefits from playing with Chris Paul, who serves Jordan well-placed alley-oops on a nightly basis. If Jordan can improve his terrible free-throw shooting, he will get more chances to amaze fans and embarrass defenders with explosive dunks.
6. Dominique Wilkins – Career Earnings: $20,027,500
Wilkins is perhaps the most underrated player in NBA history, but as a dunker, no one can deny his dominance. Over his 15 years in the NBA, Wilkins averaged 24.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Had Wilkins not played in the same era as the Bird-led Celtics and Jordan-led Bulls, he probably would have won a championship, but he will be remembered for his incredible dunks, which earned him the nickname “The Human Highlight Film.”
5. Shawn Kemp – Career Earnings: $91,572,963
Shawn Kemp will be remembered as one of the most powerful dunkers of all-time. He dunked the ball with unmatched ferocity. Over his career, he averaged 14.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. He played his best basketball in Seattle, where he teamed up with Gary Payton as one of the most dominant duos in the league. Though his vices got the better of him towards the end of his career, somewhat tarnishing his image, his dunks left a lasting impression on NBA fans.
4. Julius Erving – 1985-1986 salary: $1,485,000
Nickanmed “Dr. J,” Julius Erving was the first player who brought a personal flavour to dunking, electrifying fans in the early years of the league. Before Erving, no player had dared to try the kinds of dunks that he did in games. He paved the way for future generations of dunkers, as he put dunking on the map and helped make basketball a profitable spectator sport.
3. Blake Griffin – Career Earnings: $39,740,232
Since entering the league, Griffin has dazzled fans with his dunking ability. He has many poster-worthy dunks, not the least of which being his dunk on Kendrick Perkins, which must have vexed the supposedly intimidating center. This season, Griffin is averaging 22.8 points and 9.9 rebounds, shooting over 52% from the floor. For fans, the best thing about Griffin is his age; at only 24, Griffin will be dunking on defenders for many years to come.
2. Michael Jordan – $90,235,000
Like Drexler’s, Michael Jordan’s dunks were less thunderous and more elegant, if a dunk can ever be called elegant. On top of his athleticism, Jordan was very crafty, often dunking when most thought he would not be able to. Though he has an exorbitant list of famous dunks, his most famous dunk came in the 1991 playoffs, when he dribbled past two defenders and dunked on one of the league’s best centers, Patrick Ewing. Of course, Michael could do so much more than dunk, but his in-game dunks are still amazing to watch.
1. Vince Carter – Career Earnings: $161,663,315
Unfortunately, when Vince Carter retires, experts will remember him as one of the biggest wastes of raw talent. He made an exciting entry into the league, winning the rookie of the year award in 1999, but he slowly developed a reputation for being self-involved and lazy. Despite this criticism, Carter is the greatest in-game dunker in NBA history—period. Those who disagree should go back and look at the tapes, especially his early years in Toronto. Even as he becomes a geriatric by the NBA’s standards—he is 37—Carter still surprises fans with his dunking ability.