The NBA season has begun and we’ve already had some highlight dunks to get people jumping out of their seats. While the three-pointer and small-ball is the current fad everyone loves, the best moment in a basketball game is still, and always will be, when a player tries to dunk on a defender.
Don’t get me wrong: some dunk attempts look awful. Some of them don’t come close, or the attempt gets swatted away like a mosquito, or it might be a successful dunk that is just so meek and mild that a layup would have been less boring.
However, there is fun to judging both sides of this. It might be terrible for your eyes, but sometimes watching a terrible dunker attempt to dunk is good for the soul. Here are the eight best and seven worst dunkers of all-time.
16 Best: Shaquille O’Neal
At his absolute apex, there wasn’t any player capable of stopping Shaq from dunking the ball. The man could break basketball hoops, literally, when he decided he was going to smash on someone. He was a mixture of strength, agility, size, and leaping ability that the league has never seen—before or after his career—and he was just enough of a bully to embarrass poor defenders while they were down. If you want to have a good laugh and feel bad at the same time, google “Shaq+Chris Dudley+dunk” or “Shaq+David Robinson+dunk” and watch the biggest basketball bully do his worst.
15 Worst: Shawn Bradley
When Shawn Bradley dunked, you thought, “he’s 7’6, who cares?” When he got dunked on you thought, “he’s 7’6, how?” except one of these things happened a lot and the other one happened not as often. [Hint: getting dunked on happened a lot.] Basically, because of his inability to look cool while dunking, while being a full six inches taller than what the tallest player on most teams might be, makes him truly one of the absolute worst dunkers ever. Way to go, Shawn! May you prosper in the real life, and may no one see a trash can, laundry basket, vase, or bed of a pickup truck near you and think, “I bet I can dunk something over that enormous guy.”
14 Best: Michael Jordan
MJ simply glided on the court and floated up and up and up when he jumped. When defenders jumped with him they simply couldn’t hang in the air for as long, and ended up getting dunked on. Like, literally, people would jump with him and then fall to the ground, and he would still be rising. Jordan’s drives to the hoop would often result in a fancy no-look layup that only he could even attempt, or they included a pull-up jumper that were un-guardable, but when they ended in dunks it was an event; MJ always seemed to know when someone thought they could challenge him, and he had a habit of embarrassing those players. Of his many dunks, spinning baseline and dunking on Ewing against the Knicks, blowing by Chris Mullin and soaring over two Warriors players, and multiple legendary dunk contests stand out. He could jump off one foot or two, finish with either hand, and had a preternatural gift for contorting his take-offs to look cooler than anything ever seen before.
13 Worst: Metta World Peace
It seems like for every made dunk he has on YouTube he also has a missed one, often from the same game. Look up his missed dunks compilation if you want to laugh for a bit. Despite being an incredibly useful player in his prime, he was never known for his hops. MWP had a tendency to get rim-checked and fall on his butt after a dunk attempt, then come back a few plays later and get a good one down. It was almost endearing the way he could be an embarrassing and incredibly effective NBA player in the same game. Good luck this season, MWP. Fingers crossed we get a breakaway dunk attempt at some point.
12 Best: Dominique Wilkins
Nobody threw it down quite like ‘Nique. It was sort of like every time he dunked it he was trying to make it count as three points instead of two. Dominique’s style was unique: it was a tomahawk every time, but he simultaneously made it seem easy and otherworldly. If a defender jumped with ‘Nique, he would double-clutch them out of the way and then throw it down. If they tried to take an angle that would force him into a difficult shot, he would simply outjump them and throw down a reverse. When a player stood in his way and legitimately attempted to get their hands on the ball, he would just put it behind his head and then add a little extra something when he threw it down.
11 Worst: JJ Redick
One of the best shooters in the game, one of the great podcast hosts, an essential member of the L.A. Clippers, but a very bad dunker. Like, he can dunk, but it looks pretty dumb. In warmups as a member of the beloved Duke Blue Devil basketball team, Redick successfully dunked the ball and it was somehow less cool than a regular layup. Like, if Redick could do that then maybe regular people can dunk as well. Could a bagger at Albertsons at least get a tip-in slam? Or what about an investment banker? Pick a tall eighth grader and they might have a chance! JJ Redick is an extremely talented person at many things and it’s obvious that he is talented. But when he sprints up to the hoop, gets a little hop in to gather, and climbs the ladder up to the tippy-top of the rim for a nice little two points, the magic of the dunk dies a little bit. For some on this list, I say keep on dunking. For JJ, I say don’t worry about it, man.
10 Best: Julius Erving
Dr. J may be the coolest player we’ve ever seen. He had a bomb afro, the longest arms and biggest hands imaginable, the best nickname of all-time, and somehow always found space to take off for a dunk. It was as if the entire court was just a super-long runway for him. Dr. J’s iconic dunk moment could be rising up and throwing it down on Bill Walton, it could be dunking on Michael Cooper, or it could be dunking from the free-throw line. Pick whichever you’d like, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Some people have an indefinable coolness whenever they do something, and the leader of that group might be Dr. J.
9 Worst: Kendrick Perkins
It’s sort of like watching Metal Mario from Super Smash Bros. jump in the air and then immediately plummet. Or like if someone threw an anvil into a pond. Or if one of those grand pianos fell through an apartment ceiling and then through the one below that apartment, and then the one below that one, and so on. Perkins was originally a tough guy for the Big Three Celtics, but a major knee injury and trade to the Thunder ruined his reputation a bit. Flash forward a few years, and suddenly Perkins became a borderline unplayable player that has been posterized and done no such posterizing himself. The most exciting play in hoops might be a Steph Curry step back or a Clippers alley-oop to some fans, but to others it’s Kendrick Perkins attempting to drive into the lane for some sort of finish. It’s probably more dangerous than exciting, but who doesn’t want to see an aging, injury-riddled big man try for one more tomahawk slam?
8 Best: LeBron James
After 12 seasons, LeBron’s fast-break dunks are still as exciting as they’ve ever been. His right-handed tomahawk cocked to the side will go down as one of the most iconic signature plays in league history. What has made LeBron so devastating as a dunker is his sustained athleticism and the ability to absorb contact from defenders before finishing over and through them. Some highlights include dunking over Kevin Garnett in the playoffs, poor Jason Terry bouncing off of him on an alley-oop, Daniel Gibson’s errant lob pass that James still somehow reaches, and the steal-pass-pass-flush he put down in the Finals last season. He may be more judicious in the amount of times he attempts to throw down over defenders, but he is still one of the most electrifying leapers around.
7 Worst: Kyle Korver
He knows threes are better than twos, so maybe that’s it. Or, maybe he just isn’t good at dunking. Korver literally went from 2012 to 2015 without dunking in a game. Most people in the world go their entire lives without dunking in an NBA game, but for a 6’7 all-star wing, it’s really lame. Korver’s effectiveness on the court is behind the three-point line or cutting around screens, but come on, man. Give the people what they want, and I don’t mean another three-pointer. Well, if you’re some sort of basketball nerd then sure, three is more than two. But to people that know what is exciting and what isn’t, perhaps Korver should spend a little more time practicing jumping from the free-throw line than shooting from it.
6 Best: Vince Carter
Air Canada jumped higher, dunked harder, and tried more difficult dunks during a game than pretty much everyone else. Hell, he might even compete in this year’s dunk contest. You know, at age 40, in his 17th season, and he’ll probably win it if he has anything left. At 6’6 and with a seemingly immeasurable vertical, Carter has done things no one else even thought of, mainly because of all that time in the air. Putting his arm inside the rim during a dunk contest, jumping over a 7-footer, and delivering 360s, windmills and tomahawks on a nightly basis made Vince Carter one of the most exciting players to have ever stepped foot on a basketball court. [If he competes and wins the dunk contest this year against a talented field such as Zach Levine, Jaylen Brown and Aaron Gordon, I might pull out the back-of-the-door nerf hoop and 360 through a wall.]
4 Worst: Joe Johnson
JJ tried to dunk as a member of the Phoenix Suns and ended up breaking his face on the court floor. His memory of the fall probably serves as the best reason anyone has ever had to not dunk a basketball, but still: dunks are better than everything else. Say what you will about the giant contract he received from the Atlanta Hawks, say what you will about his disappointing seasons in Brooklyn, and say what you will about his effectiveness against faster wings, but the only thing to say to the seven-time all-star that really matters is this: do not fear the dunk, my friend. Befriend the dunk, embrace the du—actually, you’re 35. I’m not sure you can dunk anymore anyway. Sorry again about your face, Joe.
3 Best: Shawn Kemp
Kemp was arguably the most ferocious dunker the league has ever seen. It was sort of like he could soar, and he could power through people, but only if he completely destroyed a defender along the way. I mean, he has a dunk known as the “Lister Blister” for God’ s sake. Kemp’s all-around game made him a tough cover in the pick-and-roll with Gary Payton, and his explosiveness as a leaper made him just about impossible to stop. Even if a dude got in his way, he was capable of cradling the ball and simply leaping over them. [Again: see “Lister Blister.”] There have been similar big man athletes since Reign Man, but none of them pointed at posterized defenders to express how awesome the dunk was, which is what Kemp did.
2 Worst: Andrea Bargnani
Sure, he’s put some dunks down. But he might be the worst-looking dunker of all-time while still being able to dunk over people occasionally. Big one that comes to mind: trying to dunk on the Sixers as a New York Knick. Bargs drove from the arc, found himself hanging mid-air, took a little tumble down to the court floor, and the ball—as if a group of slapstick comedy writers had planned it out—bounced off poor Bargnani’s head. The former first overall pick always looked terrible when trying to do something athletic, but when it came to dunking, the man was just about in a class of his own.
1 Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bean Bryant could jump out the gym. Some people have done cooler things while in the air, some people had a signature dunk that has been baked into the collective memory of basketball fans. But during a game, on every play, there was a chance that Kobe would rise up to do something special. He jumped over Steve Nash once, he had baseline windmill dunks in Minnesota and New York, and he put Dwight Howard, Emeka Okafor, and Todd MacCulloch on very mean posters. The point is, Kobe will be known for 81 points, 60 points in his final game, and trying to emulate Jordan every single night, but we should never forget that his play-to-play highlight potential is up there with the very best.