Dipsey doo dunkaroo! There’s nothing better than a great dunk in the NBA. A combination of attitude and style, the dunk, is the ultimate play on the court. Some dunkers use brute force, throwing down their jams while others mix in finesse. Both have the ability to make the crowd stand and pump their fists. This list includes examples of both and a few that have the perfect mix of finesse and throw down.
When looking at the great dunkers it’s impossible not to consider the NBA All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk Contest. Since 1984 this event has showcased the truly great leapers and jammers in the NBA. Keep in mind though, that being in the dunk contest could expose you as well, so there are both positive and negative factors in participating.
Not everyone made the list, a few honorable mentions include old-school dunkers Harold Minor and David Thompson as well as LeBron James, who has never participated in a slam dunk contest (not a prerequisite for the list, but suspicious nonetheless). Also, Blake Griffin isn’t here. Sure he dunks hard, but so do others and his “jumping over a car” in the 2011 dunk contest was too contrived for my taste. Also, Nate Robinson, winner of two dunk contests during a time when you were allowed to miss 1,000 dunks before one counted. It was dark times for dunking.
This list has old-school meets new-school, power versus style, tall and short and lessons from the past. Here are your 15 greatest dunkers of all time.
15 Dwight Howard
Howard just makes the list. A combination of power and length, Howard had the moves in 2008, enough to win the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Given he plays the center position; he rarely gets a chance to showcase his fun dunks. Instead, you will see more quick power dunks and put back slams. With the Magic, as the focal point, Howard had more freedom, but since playing with the Lakers and Rockets we have had to settle for more simple dunks. Personally, I’d like to see more lobs called for Howard, but that’s about as likely as seeing Howard on the break going coast to coast with a reverse jam.
14 Shawn Kemp
When you talk about power dunks, you can start and end your conversation with Shawn Kemp. The “Rain Man” would come out of nowhere and dunk in the face of defenders. Sometimes it was a setup from point guard Gary Payton, other times via put backs. Regardless of how Kemp got the ball he always had a knack of finding enough space to forego the layup and take the high percentage dunk. With Kemp there was an attitude and determination and the fun part as a fan we were in on it – knowing what was coming next. Kemp had hops, strength and length to make the toughest defender think twice about getting in front of him when he had the ball.
13 Jason Richardson
You could put an asterisk next to Richardson due to the fact that his dunks dominated during the time when the dunk contests allowed multiple “takes”, but he didn’t really need many opportunities before the “10” signs came out. Richardson won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest in 2002 and 2003 with unbelievable hops and a lot of creativity. The dunks I remember are Richardson palming the ball and wrapping it around his leg before throwing it through the rim. That’s a lot of hang time! Bonus for Richardson is that he often dunks during games off the break. Nothing gets a crowd charged up more than seeing him break away with the ball because you really don’t know what you are about to see, but you know it’s going to be awesome.
12 Kobe Bryant
Before Bryant was Kobe Bryant, the legend, he was a young rookie with limitless talent and an effortless dunker. The winner of the 1997 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, Bryant showed his quickness, power and killer instinct that eventually led to several championships. Even as a teenager, Bryant was able to reverse dunk, spin 180 degrees and straight up throw it down with authority. Even today, when healthy, Bryant is a threat to drive in the lane and make a statement by jamming with a defender right in his face. Even today, I’m guessing no one challenges Kobe to a contest, what’s the point. Bryant is just going to keep going until he finally wins.
11 Dee Brown
Unlike many in this list, Brown was not a NBA superstar; he wasn’t even an All-Star and didn’t have a very long career. Also, Brown was short. However, in 1991 Brown was a hero when he competed in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Brown understood the contest was as much about style as the actual dunk so when he stopped to “pump up” his Reebok high tops it was monumental moment when many collectively fell off their chairs. How do you follow that up? Easy, you cover your eyes and dunk. Brown brought the house down and won the contest. He also kept the “pumps” trend going a few months longer than it should have.
10 Tracy McGrady
McGrady never won a dunk contest, but in his prime he was always a threat to drive the lane, hang and rattle the rim. McGrady was made to play basketball and made to dunk basketballs. The talent was there, but it was his length, vertical leap and quickness that made guarding McGrady impossible. Whether out beyond the arc or down in the post he was always one spin move away from heading to the rim and dunking the ball, with authority and the “look” to let you know how easy that was for him. Had injuries not limited him, he probably would have competed in more dunk contests and probably would have won one, or three.
9 Larry Nance
NBA dunk contest trivia time, who was the first dunk champion? Answer: Larry Nance. In 1984 Nance won the first NBA Slam Dunk Contest. At 6’ 10”, Nance had the ability to glide to the hoop and dunk the ball with ease. It wasn’t just his height though; it was how smooth Nance made it look that made him a dunking legend and winner of the first contest. George Gervin was similar in dunking ability, but Nance separated himself with extra air and more power. Nance beat out a talented group in the inaugural contest that included elite dunker Dominique Wilkins. Nobody knew the dunk contest would provide the entertainment it has over the years and Nance was one of the trail blazers that made it happen.
8 Clyde Drexler
During his career, Drexler was always one of the best in-game dunkers in the league. As a guard, he often had the ball in his hands which was a huge benefit, allowing him to use his quickness and drive the lane, often ending in a monster dunk. What really makes Drexler one of the greatest dunkers though is the nicknames. He was part of “Phi Slama Jama” in college, playing for Houston with Hakeem Olajuwan. Even better though was this NBA nickname, known as Clyde “The Glide” for his ability to take off and take care of business. Drexler may have been named one of the Greatest 50 NBA Players of All Time, but many remember him most for his dunks, which were just magnificent.
7 Spud Webb
In 1986, the NBA Slam Dunk Contest had a lot of momentum. After Nance won the first competition, Wilkins, the consensus best dunker in the NBA won in 1985. So when Wilkin’s teammate, 5’ 7” Spud Webb was listed as a contestant it became must-see TV. The problem of course was that most never got to see it live; instead, we just saw highlights during half-time of the All-Star game. What happened, to the surprise of many was little Webb throwing down monster dunks. He beat Wilkins and won the contest. Obviously his height was a big part of this, but I think the name helped. By the way, isn’t Spud Webb the perfect name for an undersized dunking point guard? That’s a rhetorical question, of course it is.
6 Zach LaVine
Over the years the NBA Slam Dunk Contest has had good years and some not so good years. In 2015 it was unknown what would happen with only three, young contestants competing. What happened was one of the competitors stepping up and showcasing old school dunks. LaVine is known for his athleticism and hops, but he made it look too easy, blowing away the others and winning the contest. He didn’t need multiple takes; in fact, his dunks (windmill, reverse) were pretty straight forward, nothing that hasn’t been attempted before. It was how he executed his dunks that made jaws drop. Hopefully LaVine defends his title in 2016 because he will be the favorite. LaVine can bring the dunk contest back as must see TV, he is that good.
5 Dominique Wilkins
Wilkins, one of the greatest dunkers ever, combined power and finesse with his slams, setting a high bar for all future dunkers, in game and in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Wilkins won slam dunk titles in 1985 and 1990. In game he was always a threat to “posterize” anyone guarding him. Wilkins go to dunk in game was the power jam from the baseline, but during contests he relied on a plethora of reverse and “360” style dunks. When discussing the greatest dunkers of all time Wilkins name is always in the top 5 and sometimes number 1. He was one of the great dunkers during a time when the NBA was re-imaging the league with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Wilkins was one of the players that elevated not only dunking, but the NBA as a whole.
4 Darryl Dawkins
It must feel good to be the reason backboards are unbreakable today. Dawkins shattered backboards with his dunks (two in 1979). That’s really all you need to say, end of story. Seriously, go to YouTube and check it out. Dawkins was the original power dunker, there was nothing stopping him from getting to the hoop and dunking the ball hard! If that isn’t enough (and it should be) his nickname was “Chocolate Thunder” which is perfect for a monster dunker in the NBA. Remember, in the seventies players didn’t dunk often. Dawkins was a trendsetter and his shattered jams are still wonderful to watch. I suggest you set some time aside each week to check them out.
3 Vince Carter
Carter hit the league like a freight train, bringing a lot of talent and explosive dunking. He won the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest and was awarded with the “next Michael Jordan” tag when that was a thing (before the media realized that will never happen). Still, Carter was the complete package, able to get to the rim from anywhere on the floor. With Toronto he was known as “Air Canada” which obviously is awesome! Carter’s dunks ran the full gamut of power, creativity (reverse, under the leg) and hang time. A perennial All-Star, Carter continues to throw down when the opportunity arises. Many feel he is the greatest dunker of all-time.
2 Michael Jordan
If Bird and Magic made the NBA relevant then it was Jordan who brought it mainstream. Before he was winning titles, Jordan was a slam dunk phenomenon. Wearing the famous Air Jordan Nike shoes, Jordan “flew” from the free throw line to win NBA Slam Dunk Contest titles in 1987 and 1988. What is it about Jordan and back-to-back titles? Obviously the dunking was a prelude to a much larger greatness, but it was the dunking that initially made him a hero and the face of the NBA. I mean, “come fly with me” was the marketing, how perfect is that?
1 Julius “Dr. J.” Erving
He had the look, the ABA ball and the free throw dunk before Jordan. Would there have been a Jordan without Erving? That’s a debate for another time, but there is no doubt that Erving was the first dunker for show. Erving had such finesse and style that anytime I watch a highlight I hear Miles Davis in the background, that’s how smooth he was. Erving brought many dunks to the mainstream and showed everyone how much entertaining the slam dunk could be. Not only is he the greatest dunker of all time, he is the best at stopping short and going with the finger roll. He had so much influence the NBA should name the slam dunk contest after him.