It goes by many names; the dunk, the slam, the jam, the stuff. Basketball is unique in that the game’s most exhilarating method of scoring, is also the easiest for the players to do. Each night during the regular season you could make a Top 10 list of the best dunks that night and have plenty of entries to choose from. The apparent ease of this high-percentage shot forces players to constantly push themselves to the limits of their creativity and athletic ability, and find new ways of getting the fans out of their seat
The art of dunking (and it is an art-form) has been a part of the game for 50 years. Fans expect to see it. A single dunk is capable of completely changing the course of a game, or even a series. A single dunk can, in the case of players like John Starks, define a career.
Different players use the dunk in different ways to express themselves. Some are into power and show the rim, and players around them, no mercy. Some choose to glide gracefully, like a ballerina. The greatest dunkers usually combine the two.
This list countdown’s the Top 5 dunkers in each position, the players who most contributed to the development of the most exciting of play in all of sports.
25 Point Guard: Spud Webb
Arena security used to turn away the 5’ 7” Spud Webb when he tried to report to NBA locker rooms, so unlikely was it that a man of that size could play professional basketball. But what happened at the 1986 Slam Dunk contest left everybody not quite believing their eyes. Spud Webb dueled with teammate, and one of the greatest dunkers in history Dominique Wilkins, to win the contest putting on one of the most memorable shows in Dunk Contest history. Footage from that night show Webb almost seeming to defy gravity. Webb was also capable of dunking in-game, but opportunities were obviously rare. His achievement in the 1986 Dunk Contest more than justifies his place on this list and proves that we should never underestimate anybody.
24 Point Guard: Robert Pack
If you ever need to appreciate the impact a slam dunk can have on a game, or even a series, look no further than Robert Pack in 1994. His eighth seed Denver Nuggets were down 2-0 against the number one Ranked Seattle Supersonics, when midway through the fourth quarter, the 6’ 2” Pack took the ball coast-to-coast before seeming to leap high enough to touch the roof of the McNichols Sports Arena, before slamming the ball down hard on Shawn Kemp. The Nuggets went onto win the series 3-2, in one of the great comebacks of the decade.
The series was a high point in an otherwise terrible decade for the Nuggets, but Pacman’s explosive ability to take it to the rim and dunk over big men was always a joy to watch.
23 Point Guard: Steve Francis
Before Russell Westbrook, and before Derrick Rose, there was Stevie Franchise. Now, despite his obvious God-given ability Steve Francis will never go down as one of the all-time great point guards, but he could be considered the greatest in-game dunking point guard. The “Franchise” put on a show in Houston during his early years with sensational in-game dunks, and he really paved the way for explosive players like Westbrook, Rose, and Damian Lillard. Francis taking second place to Vince Carter in the 2000 Dunk Contest is second only to Dominique in 1988 as the greatest runner-up Slam Dunk performances. It's a shame things didn't quite go as they were supposed to for Francis but he still managed to have a solid NBA career in the process.
22 Point Guard: Kevin Johnson
When a little guy dunks over a big man it’s always special to see, and one of the most fondly remembered dunks in this genre would be Phoenix Suns point guard Kevin Johnson taking it down the baseline against the Rockets slamming home a thunderous dunk over the great Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1994 playoffs (it sure was pretty). The dunk is so fondly remembered by Suns fans, they celebrated the 20 year anniversary at a half-time game in 2014. But the dunk was not a one-off for Johnson, Suns fans were used to watching their PG take it high over the big men. Watch also his huge slam over John Hot Rod Williams. At 6’ 0” Johnson is one of the game’s greatest little man dunkers.
21 Point Guard: Russell Westbrook
Kevin Durant dominated the summer when he betrayed Oklahoma City fans in search of a ring with the Warriors. The only good news to come out of that is we get to see Russell Westbrook take the central role at the Thunder. Westbrook has raged against NBA defenses with his ferocious style of play since he joined the league in 2008. Westbrook rampages around the court looking much bigger than his 6’ 3” frame would otherwise suggest, and has developed into one of the league’s most exciting dunkers. On his own he is the frontrunner for the this season’s MVP and has potential to be the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double through the season. One thing for sure he won't ever waste the opportunity to put down the exclamation point on his opponents with a huge dunk, particularly when the Warriors are in town.
20 Shooting Guard: Jason Richardson
There are some who will tell you that Jason Richardson is an overrated dunker, who never dunked in a game, and collected his two Slam Dunk wins during the events most uninspiring years (the Slam Dunk contest had seemingly taken a slide around this time in NBA history). These people are wrong.
And yes, his career numbers were pretty average, but that’s not what Richardson will be remembered for. He’ll be remembered for his freakish leaping ability, and the way he could lift the roof off an arena when given the chance on the open court. And his head-to-head with Desmond Mason at the 2002 Dunk contest was a classic. (While there are more highlight-filled contests out there, this is is still worth checking out.)
19 Shooting Guard: Tracy McGrady
There was a time when Tracy McGrady was talked of in the same breath as Kobe Bryant. In the mid-2000’s for the Rockets T-Mac was at times unstoppable, and he enthralled crowds with some insane dunks. His dunk over 7’ 6” Shawn Bradley in the 2005 playoffs was a thing of raw beauty, Bradley is still probably having nightmares over it.
While McGrady's career after Toronto was not quite the same, T-Mac was still able to put together a solid run South of the border. For what it's worth, McGrady made the most of his NBA career. Does anybody remember his signature T-Mac shoes? Those things were a hot commodity as one point as young basketball players far and wide were begging for a pair in order to ball like T-Mac.
18 Shooting Guard: David Thompson
When Michael Jordan was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he asked David Thompson to introduce him. Jordan considered him his favorite player growing up, and even suggested that in his prime Thompson may have been the only other player to have lived that could have beaten him one-on-one.
Nicknamed the “Skywalker,” Thompson is one of the great “what could have been,” stories in basketball history. He lit up the ABA with the Denver Nuggets, finishing second behind Dr. J in the first ever dunk contest. When the Nuggets moved to the NBA Thompson showed that his scoring powers were unrivalled even at the highest level, scoring 73 points in one game against the Pistons. Substance abuse and injuries, however, meant Thompson never fulfilled his potential.
With an explosive style of play Thompson was one of the game’s first high-flying dunkers. He and his college teammate at NC State Monte Towe are credited with inventing the alley-oop pass. Rather than using the alley-oop for showmanship, it was genuinely an effective way of scoring due to Thompson’s incredible jumping ability. Thompson was a pioneer in the dunk history.
17 Shooting Guard: Kobe Bryant
To watch Kobe Bryant in his prime was to see a player possessed. Nobody in the league soared higher and came down harder than the Black Mamba. He swaggered his way to winning the 1997 Slam Dunk Contest as a rookie, while throwing down more impressive dunks during the regular season. He would quickly evolve into one of the most complete players, but it was as one of the game’s greatest practitioner of the slam dunk that made Kobe must-see TV at the start of his career. Even during his season long farewell tour at the age of 37, despite suffering a ruptured Achilles, a broken left knee ,and a torn right rotator cuff Kobe was able to slam during a game, which is pretty impressive.
16 Shooting Guard: Michael Jordan
When you watch Michael Jordan’s dunks slowed down on replay, it almost becomes a piece of performance art. He floats so gracefully. He does so much with the ball while suspended in air. Jordan was unstoppable in his prime, and was celebrated almost like a superhero. Jordan did unimaginable things on a nightly basis, such was his endless creativity. The term “Posterizer” was invented for him. You’ll still find posters of his dunks from nearly 30 years ago on walls across America. The iconic Air Jordan logo is of Jordan dunking the ball.
Jordan could do things that would leave the jaws hanging of people who otherwise had no interest in basketball. No other superstar in any other sporting arena could do that. It is that ability that makes him unique among sporting legends.
Most players are lucky to have one dunk that puts them into folklore (John Starks, Chris Webber etc.). Jordan has about 30 such moments. There has never been a more thrilling spectacle in basketball than watching Michael Jordan pick up the ball somewhere on the perimeter, the defense helplessly trying to assemble before him, before unleashing to the ring for the slam dunk.
15 Small Forward: Scottie Pippen
Jordan saw most of the ball, and headlines, during the 1990s Chicago Bulls dynasty, but Scottie Pippen was a master dunker in his own right with a mind-blowing highlight reel of his own.
Pippen’s dunk on Patrick Ewing in 1994 remains one of the most memorable moments of dunk brutality in NBA history. With Jordan retired and the Bulls facing elimination in Game 6 at a feverish Chicago Stadium, Pippen picked up a bounce pass on a fast break, and launched himself to the ring, leaving Ewing in a ravaged heap on the floor. Pippen rose with such force it looked as if he could have gone through a brick wall. Caught up in the moment, Pippen had words for Ewing on his way down, and Spike Lee leapt up to chirp some words of his own. With a smirk Pippen simply pointed at his seat and told Lee to sit down. The dunk is so good, and arguably more fondly remembered by Bulls fans than any dunk Jordan produced (how MJ would hate to hear that).
14 Small Forward: Lebron James
LeBron James is possibly the most gifted athlete to ever step foot on the court. His dunking ability is overshadowed by the fact he does everything else so well, but he still manages to produce two or three posterizing moments a game. It is sad that he always felt himself above the Slam Dunk Contest, but much like Vince Carter in 2000, he would be entering with such expectations. Needless to say, the King has provided enough incredible in-game dunks to make up for it. Perhaps James is simply worried about exposing himself in a Dunk Contest? Or perhaps it is simply safety concerns. Whatever the case may be, you will just have to watch out for LeBron drunks during Cavs games when the baskets actually count.
13 Small Forward: Julius "Dr. J" Erving
There are some things in sports that are just perfect, that go beyond the competition or the final score. Dr. J dunking the basketball was one of these things. His teammate Billy Cunningham said, “If Dr. J got to the open court to dunk the basketball, it didn’t matter what the score was.” Dr. J was also winner of the first ever Slam Dunk Contest, where he dueled David Thompson during half-time at the 1976 ABA All-Star Game. Before anyone on this list, the Good Doctor did it first. Julius Erving as a whole will go down as one of the greatest basketball players to ever suite up and take to the hardwood. While we love those dunks, keep in mind that Dr. J was so much more during his playing years.
12 Small Forward: Vince Carter
There has never been an atmosphere at a dunk contest quite like the electricity felt in the room at the Oakland Arena in 2000. Vince Carter had been thrilling fans across the country, already dubbed “Air Canada” and “Air Apparent” he was viewed as the next great in-game dunker now Michael Jordan had retired. Expectations were big, and somehow Carter exceeded them. NBA stars crammed along the baselines to get the best view. His opening 360° windmill dunk had the crowd in a frenzy. The place practically erupted after he took a bounce pass from his teammate Tracy McGrady and put the ball between the legs dunk for his third dunk. VC turned to the camera and announced “it’s over.” It was the perfect moment, encapsulation incredible athleticism, power, plus the attitude to go with it. The judges were climbing over the table to shake his hand.
Carter encapsulated why the NBA’s popularity has endured. Fans tune into see players do incredible things. Carter had his faults as a player, but fans who were lucky enough to witness “Vinsanity,” at the start of the century, won’t soon forget it.
11 Small Forward: Dominique Wilkins
“In the open floor I felt like I was in my own world.” Dominique Wilkins was more than a basketball player. He was an entertainer. Even in a one-point game in the fourth quarter, if there was an opportunity to do something crazy ‘Nique would do it.
A freak of nature at 6’ 8” 230 pounds, Dominque could leap like an acrobat before destroying the rim. Nicknamed the “Human Highlight Film” Dominque was the Louis Armstrong of dunk history. He invented the Windmill which he showcased at the 1984 Slam Dunk Contest. Almost everything you see from people like LeBron and Aaron Gordon today, can be traced back to what Wilkins was doing in the 1980s.
His duel with Michael Jordan in the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest is the most iconic dunk contest of all time. Both men wanted to win bad and pushed each other to create feats of creativity and athleticism no one thought possible.
10 Power Forward: Amare Stoudemire
Injuries mean there is so much of this man's ability we didn't get to see. But during the early parts of his career Amare Stoudemire was one of the most destructive basketball players around the ring. The seven-second-or-less Phoenix Suns captivated NBA fans during the mid-2000's, and Stoudemire sick dunking ability helped assert their dominance. His dunk over Michael Olow0kandi in 2003 is one the nastiest dunks ever seen. Unfortunately for Stoudemire, like many others before him, the NBA didn't exactly work out as it was supposed to for a budding superstar. Of course, fans can always look back on Stoudemire at his best which includes that ferocious dunking style. At least there is something to remember, right? Many players faded away without provided any memories.
9 Power Forward: Karl Malone
One of the great Power Forwards, Karl Malone was one of the strongest players in the league during his career. Malone throwing down a one-handed hammer dunk with ferocity was a familiar site to opponents. The “Mailman” or “Special Delivery” dunk (left hand behind the head) became one of the iconic images of NBA in the 1990’s, which has been imitated many times by the likes of LeBron James and Blake Griffin in recent times. Karl Malone may have bene weird but he is widely considered to be on of the greatest basketball players ever and will crack most top-five all-time lists. Malone was different and stood out among the crowd. Although, he was never able to overcome Michael Jordan and the dominant Bulls of the '90s.
8 Power Forward: Charles Barkley
No one took the ball coast-to-coast quite like Sir Charles. Shorter than most Power Forwards, Charles Barkley played the game with unbridled intensity and hunger that always gave him the edge. Barkley tore through defenses like a wrecking ball, and if he had the chance to take it to the rim and slam down his famous “Gorilla Dunk,” it would be lights for whoever was beneath him. Barkley was also a controversial figure during his time. In fact Barkley would even let all of America know that he was "not a role model." During a Nike commercial, Barkley would look directly into the camera and state: "I don't want to raise your kids." But would you really want that anyway? Nowadays, Barley sits and talks basketball on television.
7 Power Forward: Blake Griffin
Since entering the league in 2010 after being injured his rookie year, Blake Griffin has established himself as one of the top dunkers in NBA history, winning the Dunk Contest in his first year. With Chris Paul at PG feeding himself off the screen has made for some sensational moments. There was criticism early in his career that Blake Griffin offered little more than show-dunker, but has since flourished into an MVP caliber player by improving his playmaking skills, and mid-range shot. If you go see the Clippers you still expect to see Blake fly, and he won’t let you down. Griffin may finally take the Clippers to the promised land in the near future. And then, finally, the Clippers can escape the shadow of their big brother Lakers franchise.
6 Power Forward: Shawn Kemp
His Seattle Supersonics teammate Michael Cage described him as like a “Hurricaine.” When he went airborne to throw down a tomahawk jam it would feel like a natural disaster had hit the arena.
As well as being athlete, Shawn Kemp considered himself an entertainer, and there were few players who thrilled crowds quite as much as the “Reignman” during the 1990s. Always looking to go hard to the rim, he and Gary Payton took the alley-oop to another level. There would be those who would argue Kemp never fulfilled his potential, but next to Jordan he was for many years the league’s most exciting player of the '90s. Not to mention, Shawn Kemp is considered to be one of the most underrated players the NBA has ever seen.
5 Center: Alonzo Mourning
“Dunking on people, that’s what I’m into,” was what a young Alonzo Mourning said he liked to do on the court, and throughout his career he found plenty of opportunities to do his favorite thing. A big trash-talker, Zo’s mouth could sometimes lead him to being on the other end of a dunk, as in his rookie year in 1990 when Michael Jordan famously made sure Mourning was on posters across America (like many others) when he dunked on him hard to shut his mouth. But throughout his time at the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat, Mourning used his immense power to be one of the dominant dunking centers in the league. Mourning could thrown down with the best big men in the league and dunk with authority.
4 Center: Dwight Howard
Entering straight out of high school Dwight Howard was supposed to take the torch from Shaq and be the next dominant big man in the league. Howard says the game has changed that the traditional big man is becoming “extinct.” But, while Howard’s defensive skills have been valued wherever he has played, he has shown he can still command the inside like great men of the past, and is still one of the best power dunkers in the league. His victory in the 2008 Dunk Contest was remarkable. At 6’ 11” he showed the athleticism of someone half a foot shorter. Like him or not, Howard can showcase his skills on any given night and that includes slamming the ball with much force through the hoop.
3 Center: David Robinson
For such a big man (7’ 1”) David Robinson was an incredibly versatile dunker. His two-hand flushes were always devastating, but it wouldn’t be uncommon to Spurs fans to see The Admiral throw down a windmill or even a 360. Robinson was very much the star of the pre-Popovich era in San Antonio, but did get two rings towards the end of his career. Robinson is one of the most gifted centers, and definitely in the conversation for the greatest in-game dunking center. While there was never too much flash in a David Robinson dunk, there was certainly enough power to rattle any rim. And while people do enjoy fancy (which has become common in today's game), sometimes powerful is more than enough to entertain.
2 Center: Darryl Dawkins
Darryl Dawkins was given the name “Chocolate Thunder” by Stevie Wonder. Even though the great singer-songwriter couldn’t physically see Dawkins in action, he could still sense the ferocious manner in which Dawkins performed on the court (talk about a great nickname story). When Dawkins slammed down the ball it would seem like the arena shook. He gave his dunks nicknames such as “Look Out Below” and “Yo Mama.” A huge personality on and off the court, the “Rim-Wrecker” was hugely popular during his 14 seasons in the NBA and is sorely missed after passing away from a heart attack last year. Of course, fans can look back fondly on the career and dunks of Dawkins as they remember one of the greatest big men to ever take to the court.
1 Center: Shaquille O'Neal
During his 19 years in the league, the last place you wanted to find yourself was anywhere near or around the rim while Shaquille O’Neil was on the court. When he threw down a monster jam opponents would be laid waste to the floor like a pile of rubble it would feel like the reverberations would be felt long after the game had ended. In the paint it seemed like he could do whatever he wanted, and most of the time he just wanted to throw down the ball. Hard. Shaq was a phenomenon, and right celebrated today as the greatest power dunker in NBA history. With his larger-than-life personality, Shaq will not only be remembered as one of the greatest dunkers to ever play the game but one of the greatest to ever play the game, period.
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