Every sport has it’s very own play: that one play that separates the boys from the men, the minor leaguers from the pros, the good from the great.
In baseball, it’s the long ball. In football, it’s the long, arcing spiral that lands perfectly into the outstretched arms of a sprinting receiver. In hockey, it’s the ability to find a sliver of twine from anywhere on the ice, and scoring with a seemingly effortless flick of the wrist. In soccer, it’s the merciless strike of a free kick that travels along a frozen rope, only to curve violently at the last second into the corner of the net.
Perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing and resounding of them all, though, is a well executed slam dunk. We see dunks in every NBA game, but for the most part they are fairly pointed, in that it’s just another way of scoring. Then there are those who’ve separated themselves from the rest by carving out a reputation as the most graceful – or most ruthless – dunkers of all-time. Be it an exquisite off-the-backboard-between-the-legs-spin-o-rama-windmill dunk or a vicious posterizing of a helpless opponent, there aren’t many things that can rile up a crowd the way a slam dunk can.
The art of dunking, like anything else in sports, has evolved over time, but the basic concept remains the same; score the basketball with authority, emphatically, to stun an opponent or charge up your teammates and fans. We’ve seen plenty of great dunks and dunkers throughout the history of the sport, but this list will narrow it down to the legends, the guys who did it best, night in, night out; the top 10 NBA dunkers of all-time.
*This list takes into account “in-game” dunkers, not guys who carved out a niche in the dunk contest.
10. Tracy McGrady
Tracy McGrady was as versatile a dunker as they come. He could jump over people, around people, and through people. He could be rude just as he could be graceful, either with an obnoxious of the backboard dunk or with a acrobatic windmill – quite simply put, McGrady could do it all. He didn’t need the bright lights or a controlled setting to put on an airshow, either; McGrady could pull off the most ludicrous of jams in the opening minutes of a regular season game as easily as he could during an NBA All-Star game.
9. Clyde Drexler
Clyde “The Glide” Drexler had an apt nickname to go along with his reputation as one of the premier dunkers in the history of the NBA. He made his ridiculous dunks look ridiculously easy (hence the easygoing nickname), and often showed of incredible range of motion, not to mention legendary height and airtime, all topped off by authoritative finishes at the rim. If he needed too, though, he could go up and posterize defenders who thought they would try to get in his way.
8. Blake Griffin
In a few years Blake Griffin might be at the top of this list, but for now his reputation is nowhere big enough to surpass the likes of those ahead of him. That being said, Griffin has managed to elevate himself to superstar status with his highlight-reel dunking ability as the main attraction of the Los Angeles Clippers. Griffin not only makes the list because of how spectacular his dunks are, but also because he’s one of the few players you’ll find with monthly top 10 dunk videos, as opposed to the standard top 10 season or career dunks.
7. Kobe Bryant
There are few in the history of the league with the reputation that Kobe Bryant carries around. Love him or hate him, you have to respect Kobe’s uncanny ability to get buckets and, until their recent struggles, win championships for the Los Angeles Lakers. Part of his all-around talent is his ability to drop the hammer with a vicious dunk when he has to; not to mention the fact that he often starts from beyond the arc, drives to the baseline and makes at least one defender look silly before a big jam.
6. LeBron James
King James probably makes more top 10 categories than any other athlete on the planet, for various reasons – but he probably appreciates being on dunking lists a little more. James is perhaps the most notorious posterizer in the history of the league, and it’s hard to argue the claim. Not only are the dunks violent, the man is essentially an oncoming train to the vast majority of the rest of the league; and when it’s James providing the “facial,” the defenders hit the court a little harder than they normally would, which just adds to the overall dunk.
5. Shawn Kemp
Shawn Kemp earned a prestigious nickname – “The Rain Man” (or “Reign”, depending on who you talk to) during his NBA career: he either made it rain dunks or reigned the rim. Whatever way you look at it though, one thing that wasn’t disputable was Kemp’s dominating dunking ability. It helps that Kemp had a noticeable size advantage over most of his opponents, but it’s rare to see a man that size run as smoothly and quickly as he did, and then have the ability to fly through the air as gracefully as he did. Kemp could dunk in any number of different ways, and his versatility made him that much more dangerous.
4. Dominique Wilkins
Dominique Wilkins was scary in a number of ways; not only was he scary good, but he probably scared you if you were a fan of any NBA team. Opponents would cringe when he was anywhere near the basket, and Hawks fans probably cringed a few times watching his replays, because he might as well have been auditioning for a job as a contortionist the way Wilkins was able to twist and turn while flying through the air. His “cut on a dime” ability was unique among legendary dunkers, and it made him one of the best of all time.
3. Vince Carter
Vince Carter’s claim to fame was his insane performance at the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk contest, but he earned his money as a superstar with the Raptors in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Carter could do it all – sure, he could mesmerize fans and fellow dunkers with his crazy staged dunks, but it was his in-game dunk ability that got him to that stage in the first place. Posterizings, spin-o-ramas, baseline drives, alley-oops, put-back dunks; didn’t matter how he had to do it, Carter could slam however he liked, and he did it with authority.
2. Michael Jordan
There’s a reason Michael Jordan was nicknamed “His Airness,” and there’s a reason his Jordan brand’s logo is an image of him flying through the air as if he was about to dunk a basketball. For all the reasons he was legendary, Jordan was probably most well-known for his ability to fly (like an eagle?). Anytime a feature film (and an animated one, no less) is based around your dunking ability, you know you’ve reached the pinnacle of the art. Whether it was in Space Jam or on a real NBA court, no one was going to stop Air Jordan on his way to the rim – especially while in flight.
1. Julius Erving
Julius Erving was a trailblazer – no, not the Portland Trailblazers, but a real trailblazer with a very real legacy. Erving was dubbed Dr. J for a variety of reasons, but his legacy as the first great dunker is entrenched in NBA lore. As many others have put it, Erving turned dunking into an art-form. Most legends are renowned simply for being great; Erving was not only a legend, but one of the pioneers of the play that makes basketball so alluring to fans and players worldwide: the slam-dunk. He may not have been the very first to do it, but he was the very best, and he morphed the slam-dunk into an integral part of modern basketball
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