There are few plays which are as electrifying and exciting in sports as a high flying dunk. A slam dunk has the ability to galvanize the entire team, entertain and fire up the crowd, intimidate and demoralize the opposition and even leave those watching at home leaping off their seats. Attacking the rim and throwing one down shows that no defender is going to stop you, and a dunk can change the course of the entire game because they are a play with so much intensity, authority and athleticism. Over the years there have been hundreds of great dunks and dunkers, including a crop of elite dunkers too.
Some of these players put down dunks which show off their remarkable athletic ability, whilst some show off their grace and make dunking look more like an art form than anything else. There are also many of the best dunkers that show no mercy and throw down vicious dunks full of raw power and attitude, and of course there are even some players that manage to combine these three styles. Players have also proven that size is not an issue, as the smaller players to have played in the league have embarrassed defenders and even won the slam dunk contest.
The most important and impressive dunks are not the ones done at All-Star weekend however, they are the ones put down when it matters. Pretty much everyone in the NBA can dunk, but it is the ones in traffic or on a fast break that can alter the course of a game and give fans something to talk about for a few days. Therefore, this list will primarily focus on the best dunkers in the history of the NBA that have proven that they can get it done in games each night and when it matters. This will see the likes of Spud Webb and Nate Robinson left off, who are two excellent undersized dunkers but rarely demonstrated this during games.
15 15. Tracy McGrady
14 David Thompson
13 Jason Richardson
12 Shaquille O’Neal
When Shaq went up for a dunk you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the person tasked with stopping him. Not only would the defender be on a highlight reel, but they would often have a 300 pound sweaty Shaquille O’Neal all over them. During the early stages of his career where you would see him run the floor, Shaq would put down some enormous dunks as he exploded towards the basket, but as he aged he would instead use his massive frame to move people out of the way before throwing one down. Due to his size and strength, there were a few occasions over his career where Shaq would throw down two-handed dunks so heavily that the stanchion collapsed on itself, or even shatter the backboard.
11 Gerald Green
10 Kobe Bryant
9 LeBron James
If it wasn’t so frowned upon and most likely result in a benching, I think a lot of defenders would simply let LeBron go when he picks up a full head of steam on a fast break. Like a freight train running down court, it is only going to end badly for the defender who will either foul LeBron who has the strength to shrug it off, foul LeBron and potentially cause an injury, or end up on the receiving end of a top 10 play of the week. LeBron has an enormous vertical leap to go along with his strength and speed, making him an elite dunker in this league and one that seems to be looking down at the hoop on some dunks. In addition to attacking the ring with incredible power on the break, he has also proven that he can finish in traffic and on players much taller than him and in the most important games of the season.
8 Clyde Drexler
7 Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin has worked tirelessly at his game to become a more complete player, which means that we do not see him attack the basket quite as often as we did earlier in his career. He used to attack the hoop at every opportunity as he was limited offensively, but his extraordinary athleticism and strength make him one of the better dunkers in NBA history. With such power and aggression going to the hoop there are few that could stop Griffin, and playing alongside a great passer in Chris Paul it means that we have been treated to hundreds of jaw dropping dunks and alley-oops from Griffin over the years.
6 Darryl Dawkins
5 Julius Irving
It was Julius Erving, AKA Dr. J, who helped to popularize dunking back during his ABA days, as he came up with a wide variety of dunks which are still replicated today. Dr J is also famous for his jaw dropping free-throw line dunk, which not too many players have been able to replicate since (despite many trying). His enormous hands enabled him to palm the ball with ease, and this allowed him to move the ball around as he approached the basket, bamboozling defenders before throwing the ball down with authority. He is one of the more exciting players on a fast break to play the game, but he could also rise above defenders in a half court situation for a stunning jam.
4 Michael Jordan
There are not many top NBA lists that don’t contain Michael Jordan, and dunking is certainly no exception. A key part of his game was his extraordinary ability to attack the basket, and his incredible vertical leap and “hang time” was like no other. This enabled him to throw down hundreds of dunks which had people leaping out of their chairs in the arena and back at home, and MJ was another dunker that made it look like an art form as well as a display of amazing athleticism.
3 Shawn Kemp
When Kemp was attacking the basket the wisest thing to do would be to get out of the way, as he threw them down harder than anybody. “Reign Man” as he became known was incredibly athletic and could run the floor well, but it was the aggression that he dunked with that made him one of the all-time great dunkers. After embarrassing a defender after a high flying alley-oop, tomahawk jam or viscous two handed dunk he would often taunt his defender afterwards, adding to their embarrassment.
2 Dominique Wilkins
Like Kemp, Dominique Wilkins became famous for throwing his dunks down hard and over multiple defenders, but was also a 2-time dunk champion. His nickname “The Human Highlight Film” says it all, as he must have one of the longest highlight reels to date as it seemed in every game he would rise up for a monster dunk. This could be a windmill, tomahawk dunk, double pump in traffic, a reverse dunk, huge putback, alley-oop or a facial over some of the biggest and best defenders in the league.
1 Vince Carter
You won’t see him putting many defenders on posters these days, but earlier in Carter’s career he was a truly astounding dunker. Unlike the other dunkers on this list, Carter could combine sheer power, grace, athleticism, creativity and flair all in one dunk. In the 2000 dunk contest he left the world speechless with a few of his efforts, including putting his entire forearm in the ring, a 360 windmill and a through the legs dunk off a pass from teammate and cousin Tracy McGrady.
More impressive, however, are Carter’s in game dunks. These electrified crowds and left his teammates and even defenders in complete awe. He has dunked on everyone from Dikembe Mutumbo to Alonzo Mourning, and of course leapt over 7-foot-2 Frederic Weis in the 2000 Olympics. On fast breaks we have seen “Vinsanity” come up with all kinds of flashy, creative dunks you would find in a video game, which have left coaches pulling out their hair but simultaneously applauding his incredible ability . Powerful, graceful, stylish and athletic, Carter has provided the league and fans around the world with an enormous amount of entertainment and is the greatest dunker in the history of the NBA.
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