The dunk. It is not always necessary, and often isn’t even practical, but there is no better crowd pleaser in the game of basketball. The origins of the slam dunk are somewhat disputed; some accounts say the first dunk was recorded in a game in 1936, but it was really the 60s and 70s that saw it come into the mainstream and helped the sport gain massive popularity. Whenever it started, the dunk is now a staple of the game and has an entire night devoted to it during All-Star weekend. Lots of players can dunk, but only a select few can be considered the best. Whether it be in-game, during the dunk contest, or both, these players have taken it to the level of an art form. Here are the 10 best dunkers of all time.
10 – Nate Robinson
Starting things off is a small man with a giant’s heart. Nate Robinson was among the shortest players in the NBA during his career, but that never stopped the 5’9” point guard from fearlessly challenging anyone on defense with his quick feet and driving ability. Spending 10 years in the league, half of those with the Knicks, Robinson was a ball-dominant player who struggled to find the starting minutes he wanted, but was super athletic and could seemingly jump many times his own body length. His short stature made his athleticism that much more entertaining, and he delivered some of the most memorable slam dunk contest moments, as well as many high-energy slams off the bench to rally his team. In 2010, Robinson became the first player to win 3 NBA slam dunk championships.
9 – Jason Richardson
Jason Richardson was selected in 2001 by Golden State as the fifth, 1st-round pick and immediately made his presence felt on the court and during all-star weekend. At 6’6”, he was tall for a shooting guard, and very strong. Richardson had a natural strength to him and he used that to bully his way through many big man defenders and perform explosive dunks with impressive flourish. Windmills, 360s, reverse dunks; all were in his bag of tricks and he could pull them out with frightening speed, even off the dribble. He won the Slam Dunk contest In 2002 and 2003, only his 2nd and 3rd years in the league, and thus became only the second player to win back-to-back dunk contests. Richardson’s dunk performances are still remembered fondly almost 20 years later, and will remain so for many years to come.
8 – Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin seems to have all the athletic gifts a basketball player could ask for. He has good height at 6’9”, has an elite level of athleticism, can score, pass, and rebound. He was never recognized as a superstar on the level of the very best, but his accomplishments speak for themselves. As a rookie, he was voted to the all-star game, won the slam dunk contest (by leaping clear over a car), and was named rookie of the year. Did we mention his dunking ability is absolutely spectacular? Huge and heavy, Griffin can fly like a man half his size and is a threat to any defense in the league. He’s slowed down a bit since moving to Detroit, and injuries have grounded him a bit, but he is arguably a better all around player now. Griffin is one of the most memorable dunkers of his generation.
7 – Shawn Kemp
Anyone who was around for the NBA in the 90s remembers this name. Among the very elite dunkers in the league during his prime, Shawn Kemp was an extremely strong and ferocious power forward who dazzled fans across the world with his slams and became one of the faces of his franchise. Teamed with elite point guard Gary Payton, Kemp was a major threat anywhere near the paint. Though mostly remembered for his spectacular slams, Kemp was also an excellent defender, consistently grabbing double-digit boards and 2 blocks per game. If Kemp caught a fast break, the play was only going to end 1 way – another highlight reel dunk for a man whose career was filled with them. Unfortunately, personal demons got the better of the Reign Man, and his ability declined rapidly after some years, but his star burned fiercely bright before it faded away.
6 – LeBron James
Certain players only come along once in a lifetime, and King James has long ago established himself as one of them. With a resume of accomplishments only a handful of players can hope to match, Lebron is arguably the most impressive athlete the game has ever seen. Unlike many other GOATs, LeBron has never taken part in a slam dunk contest, but his in-game power is undeniable. The speed at which he can drive to the basket is superhuman, and no matter if it’s one, two, or three defenders, King James will slam it over all. He is mostly thought of as a pure power dunker, but his finesse is underrated. At 6’8” and a build like a tank, he is unstoppable when given a lane to the basket. LeBron has consistently done all this against the greatest players of his era.
5 – Julius Erving
Records are meant to be broken and, as eras come and go, old legends make room for the new. For a long time, only one name was synonymous with the art of the slam dunk. Julius Erving was the very first slam dunk champion, claiming the title in the inaugural 1976 ABA contest.
Every highlight reel of greatest dunks contains perhaps the most famous – Dr. J’s cradle dunk on Michael Cooper in ‘83. Dr. J’s in-game dunks displayed an amazing level of control and athleticism that made him a nationwide superstar. He was an All-Star for every year of his career and won 4 MVP titles; three with the ABA and another one after the leagues merged. Dr. J was not just a great dunker and player, but a good personality and ambassador for the sport who players such as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson modeled themselves after.
4 – Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant will always be on any list of greatest players of all time. Yet it is his dunking prowess that is often neglected amongst his myriad of incredible abilities. Kobe was meant to be one of the greats from his teenage years, and ended up being the all time leading scorer on a franchise loaded with legends. He won the dunk contest at age 18 in 1997, becoming the youngest player to ever claim the title. His in-game dunk resume is perhaps the greatest ever, with memorable slams over the likes of Tim Duncan, Ben Wallace, Yao Ming, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, and many others. Like so much of his game, Kobe’s dunking would completely confound defenders and leave them wondering what had just happened as he was running back down the court on defense.
3 – Michael Jordan
What’s left to say about the man himself? The undisputed greatest player in NBA history has more accomplishments than we could possibly list in a single article, but everyone knows his nickname; Air. His dunking ability is legendary, and was part of perhaps the greatest dunk contest rivalry with another entry we will see further down the list. Besides his graceful slams during the dunk contests, Jordan attacked the rim with powerful slams through and over multiple defenders. His dunks weren’t always the flashiest in-game, but if he decided it was the right move at the time, no one was going to stop him. Jordan played against some of the greatest defenders of all time, and none of them ever found a way to contain him.
One does not get christened with the nickname ‘The Human Highlight Film’ for no reason. Dominique Wilkins’ name is synonymous with greatest dunkers of all time more than 20 years after his retirement. During his era, there was no better dunker in the league. He was part of perhaps the greatest dunk contest rivalry with Michael Jordan, whom he defeated in ‘85 and lost controversially to in ‘87. Wilkins went on to become a two-time contest champ in ‘90. Wilkins was a great scorer who could match points with almost anyone, and drive with the best of them. Also an underrated mid-range shooter, he had epic series’ with the likes of Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. Although not the winningest player on the list, Dominique Wilkins will forever be one of the most amazing and entertaining dunkers to ever set foot on an NBA court.
1 – Vince Carter
Although he was clearly a great dunker before, the moment the world knew who Vince Carter really was was in the now legendary 2000 slam dunk contest. Often cited as the greatest dunk contest performance in history, Carter dazzled fans and players alike with his repertoire of slams blending power, dexterity, and innovation in ways never seen before. That’s not even counting his in-game dunks, including jumping over a 7’ foot tall defender in what is possibly the most famous in-game dunk of all time. Vince Carter’s dunking resume is so prolific that one could make separate top lists for dunk contests, in-game, over defenders, fast breaks, and different style dunks and still not mention all of his best. He is essentially the perfect dunker, and while there have been other greats, none have matched the combination of speed, flash, dexterity, and style that Vinsanity had.