Between the recent jam fest involving the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Clippers, Tobias Harris' game-winner against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the revealing of the stacked field for this year's Sprite Slam Dunk Contest, the NBA has been unusually aflutter with dunk talk of late. There will be plenty more next weekend, what with three All-Stars and two former dunk champs taking part in the Saturday night festivities.
Still, even the most carefully choreographed bits can and often do fall flat, albeit not for a lack of effort. Dunk contests can lose their luster in part because we know what the end result will be, even if we don't know how it will be achieved.
In-game dunks, though, are another story entirely. They're spontaneous, surprising and characteristic of the sort of athletic improvisation that sets basketball, particularly the NBA's brand, apart from most other sports.
Who's the best in-game dunker around today? Who might hold that title tomorrow? And which high risers have flown under the radar thus far?
Josh Martin, NBA Lead Writer: I may be in the minority here, but I've always enjoyed the NBA's annual Slam Dunk Contest. As someone who lacks the physical gifts to jam an Adam Silver-signed basketball through a 10-foot hoop, I appreciate the creative efforts of those who can not only execute the most exciting play the game has to offer but do so with some serious panache.
Still, as great as it'll be to see three All-Stars (Paul George, John Wall and Damian Lillard), the defending champ (Terrence Ross) and two high-flying wings (Harrison Barnes and Ben McLemore) partaking in this year's competition, nothing beats watching the best and brightest talents throw down when the results actually mean something.
Pulling off a great in-game dunk requires a confluence of confidence, ability and opportunity that's easy to take for granted on an empty court, but that doesn't always come around amidst live game action, when a dunker has other teammates to satisfy and a five-some of defenders standing in his way.
Who do you think is the best in-game finisher in the Association today, Adam?
Adam Fromal, National NBA Featured Columnist: This might not pull us out of the minority, but I'm completely on board with enjoying the Slam Dunk Contest. Sure, the last few years haven't exactly regaled us with as many legendary throw-downs—or names, for that matter—as the ones brought to us by Vince Carter in the early 2000s and the guys before him, but they're still pretty darn entertaining. Even when the relatively unknown players are missing their attempts, they're still doing things I can't even dream of with my Nerf ball and seven-foot hoop.
That said, rarely do I leave my couch. I might ooh and aah along with the rest of the spectators, but nothing brings me to my feet like an in-game dunk from—you guessed it—Blake Griffin.
Blake has been doing incredible things for the surprisingly competitive Los Angeles Clippers, and we can't overlook his dramatic improvements as a go-to post player and jump-shooter from the perimeter. But it's still his dunking that captivates fans and leaves opposing fans subconsciously rooting for him to make SportsCenter.
The fact that Blake can jump high enough to hit his head on the backboard is one thing. Sheer vertical impressiveness doesn't make a great dunker. It's more his desire on the court, as Griffin seems to play like he's actively seeking out the next victim of his posterizing skills.
You may as well consider him an artist who uses dunking as a medium, because he's always looking for an opportunity to create his next masterpiece. Whether he's spinning and elevating out of the post, running the court and practically begging for an alley-oop lob, rolling to the hoop after setting a screen or just deciding that he's a homing missile with targets set on the tin, Griffin is going to dunk.
Volume, quality, posters. You name it, he's got it.
JM: Don't forget about Kris Humphries. Nothing like a public embarrassment of the Ex-Mr. Humpdashian to stir up some good, ol' fashioned Schadenfreude among the masses.
I can't really argue with your choice of Blake Griffin (a.k.a. "Pumpkin Spice") here. The "Griffin Force" doesn't need the pop-culture cachet of Jack McBrayer leave a mark of his own. Just lob it up somewhere in his vicinity and he'll do the rest.
Even so, I'd still hesitate to say he's the best in-game finisher around. Not to pick too many nits or anything, but Griffin's short arms leave him surprisingly susceptible to getting stuffed by athletic shot-blockers—and not just while dunking, either. His unorthodox post game is as much the product of his fancy footwork and dizzying spin moves as it is a necessary invention borne of his inability to flip shots over the outstretched appendages of his opponents.
Length is of little, if any concern, to LeBron James. Heck, you'd be hard-pressed to find any flaw in James' dunk game. He's equal parts smooth and powerful, with the quickness and handles to create opportunities himself, the hops and hands to flush home those assisted by long-time alley-oop partner Dwyane Wade and the strength and fearlessness to slam over and through anyone who'd dare stand in his way.
James doesn't dunk as frequently as does Griffin, per CBS Sports, though he certainly makes each and every one count. And while LeBron's slams are characterized by the same raw, violent force that pervades all of Blake's, there's no denying the refined athletic beauty that attends James' finishes—not to mention nearly everything else he does on a basketball court.
AF: Griffin has done such a nice job learning to counter post defenders with head fakes and spins while keeping his body and dribble low to the ground, so I'll work in a similar vein here.
Your contention that Griffin's T-Rex arms lead to an unfortunate knack for drawing Thanksgiving-style stuffings is certainly a valid one. But does it matter? He might be rejected about as often as the shy kid trying to find a prom date, but that doesn't take away from the highlights he is able to produce.
I'd argue that the successes trump the failures when Griffin is trying to dunk, but that might be a philosophical difference. I'd rather see the guy who's constantly trying to leave an indelible mark on the game than the guy who's afraid of a miss and therefore hesitates when he has some semblance of an opportunity to attack the basket.
Regardless, it's tough to argue with LeBron as a premier in-game dunker. He's another one of those guys who seems to be able to look at the rim without tilting his eyes up, and that refined athleticism you mentioned is wondrous to behold. If we're going to talk about smooth beauty from an all-around player, though, we'd be remiss not to mention Paul George.
How many players can do that? A 360 windmill while spinning against the grain helped Vince Carter win the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest and establish himself as one of the greatest slam artists of all time, but George completed his replica in a game. During the fourth quarter of a game, in fact, which means his legs were probably tired.
George has created posters of his own, sure. But what I truly love about him is that he's recognized the tired nature of his tomahawk slams in transition—as if those could get boring—and reacted accordingly. He was already in the conversation for best in-game dunker beforehand, and now he's adding creativity into the equation. Evolution, baby.
JM: Evolution, indeed. If James and Griffin are the top two in-game dunkers—in whatever order you prefer—then George must be the next man up. He's a solid shooter, certainly good enough to be taken seriously as a perimeter threat, but his offensive game is still predicated on slashing and attacking, both of which are conducive to dunking.
Compare that to, say, Kevin Durant. Like George, this season's MVP front-runner is a fantastic athlete whose combination of long arms, crafty handles and pass-happy supporting cast make him a threat to throw down in impressive fashion whenever he takes the floor. But because Durant is a sharpshooter first and foremost (51.1 percent from the field, 41.5 percent from three), he spends so much of his time on the perimeter, from whence even his spider-like limbs can't quite reach the rim.
To be sure, George faces his own dunk-depriving "challenges." Contrary to the team's nickname, Indiana plays at one of the league's slower paces (95.84 possessions per game, according to NBA.com). That slow, deliberate, grind-it-out style practically buried Gerald Green, a high-flying act if there ever was one, at the end of Frank Vogel's bench during Green's single-season stint in the Circle City.
(It's no surprise, then, that Green is thriving with the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns.)
In that case, Paul George deserves some serious consideration for cementing his place among the NBA's best dunkers, considering how much his flashy flight patterns contrast with Indiana's preferred style of play. Can you imagine how many more YouTube highlights he'd have if the Pacers were more inclined to push the ball in transition, or if George suited up for a fast-breaking squad like the Suns, the Heat or his hometown Clippers?
AF: So far we've submitted Blake Griffin, LeBron James and Paul George as the top in-game dunkers. There's obviously nothing wrong with that, but we're getting in the habit of mentioning top-10 stars.
What about the guys who don't spend the majority of their time at the forefront of basketball fans' collective consciousness? What about the up-and-coming dunkers who are going to be spending the next decade (hopefully even longer) dazzling us with remarkable feats of athleticism?
I'm not talking about guys like Gerald Green, even though he's proving the desert can have as many highlights as cacti. I'm looking past Terrence Ross, seeing as he won last year's Slam Dunk Contest.
This year's rookie class is a great place to start, as it already has two premier masters of the slam—Victor Oladipo and Ben McLemore, who will be attempting to take down George, Damian Lillard, John Wall and Ross in New Orleans. They're young enough not to know any better, so they attack the hoop with reckless abandon. Filled with the vigor of youth, these two first-year pros are already creating quite the highlight reels for themselves.
However, in a way that would make Leonardo DiCaprio proud, I want to go deeper. I want to find the guy who is truly flying under the radar (pun intended), and my nomination is a man who calls the Mile High City home.
I bet you think I'm going with the one and only Kenneth Faried here, but I'm not. Playing alongside the Manimal, J.J. Hickson has been an absolute terror rolling to the basket after setting screens. There isn't all that much variety or creativity, but he goes hard in the paint, and he treats the rim as if it's a collection of every single player, coach and analyst who has slighted him throughout his NBA career.
Oh, and the general public might not know it, but CBS Sports' Dunk-o-Meter shows that only eight players have thrown down more often than Hickson during the 2013-14 campaign. Must be something about that altitude.
JM: Poor Marvin Williams! As if being one of the biggest busts in recent NBA draft history weren't embarrassing enough, the guy had to make the mistake of trying to stop J.J. Hickson (of all people) from flushing it home.
As fierce a force as Hickson can be, he's not someone who comes to mind when I think of guys who can really get up, be it for facials of their own creation or alley-oops assisted by savvy passing teammates. To that end, I'd probably pick the Manimal, though, with his recent participation in the Slam Dunk Contest, he's already something of a known quantity.
If the goal here is to go as far off the proverbial board as possible, I'd feel compelled to offer up the Flying Plumlees for your consideration. Older brother Miles has made a name for himself (and the family as a whole) as the Suns' starting center this season. Like Gerald Green, Plumlee was cooped up on Frank Vogel's bench as a rookie. The opportunity to play big minutes for this fast-paced Phoenix team has yielded more than a few impressive slams, including this pair over Thaddeus Young and Tony Wroten, respectively.
Mason, the middle child, has only played about 15 minutes per game as a rookie for the slow-footed Brooklyn Nets. Yet, he's managed to make a name for himself, thanks to his dunking exploits at nearly every level—from high school to college to the Summer League to the Association.
And don't forget about little brother Marshall, who could join Miles and Mason in the pros soon enough.
But as far as youngsters with next-level potential are concerned, I'd have to cast my lot with Oladipo. He's the complete package as a slam artist; he's got the confidence to posterize, the athleticism to show off and the ability, as both a ball-handler and an aggressive defender, to create opportunities for himself. We've yet to see much from 'Dipo as an ooper, though considering this kid's just a rookie, he'll get his licks in soon enough.
AF: As a tortured Atlanta Hawks fan, the words "poor Marvin Williams" will never escape from my lips without a serious sarcastic spin. So yes, poor Marvin Williams.
Any rookie who's precocious enough to attempt an in-game 360 deserves some credit and major hype. Oladipo deserves even more than that.
The present landscape is filled with quite a few masters of the slam. Between LeBron, George, Griffin and all the other studs who we simply haven't mentioned yet—as well as Hickson, the Plumlees and the scores of underrated dunk artists—we basketball fans are granted with plenty of highlights on a nightly basis. It's impossible to avoid the big slams at this point or at least so it seems.
Not that you'd want to, of course.
But the future is in good hands, and 'Dipo looms as a central figure of what's to come. While his first professional go-round has been underwhelming thanks to his jumper playing Houdini and completely disappearing, he's still punished the rim on multiple occasions.
We can only imagine what's going to come next, especially since he's just one member of a youthful class of dunkers ready to step into their predecessors' footsteps. In this case, those footsteps just happen to be way up in the air, to the point that I might have trouble touching them without getting on my toes.
If the former Indiana Hoosier produced an in-game 360 during the first half of his rookie season, here's hoping we don't have to wait long for the NBA's first 540.
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