Best NBA Dunk Contest Slams Ever
Topping the last two years of the Verizon Slam Dunk Contest will be a tall order for 2017's contestants.
Aaron Gordon, who pushed Zach LaVine to the brink in Toronto last year, will be the odds-on favorite to finish on top at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans. However, he'll have plenty of competition from one longtime contest target (DeAndre Jordan) and a pair of relative unknowns (Glenn Robinson III and Derrick Jones Jr.).
In truth, the tougher task for all involved will be coming up with—and pulling off—a move worthy of all-time consideration. Scroll through the history of the dunk contest—which began in 1984 and took a break in 1998 and 1999—and you'll see just about every shape and style of slam imaginable.
How, then, could the latest quartet of entrants hope to break new ground? It's a question fans have asked every year, and it's been answered affirmatively just as often. So long as there's fresh blood in the field, there will always be something new, different and downright unbelievable to behold.
But will any of the Crescent City's top dunks hold a candle to these 10, chosen and ranked according to a combination of degree of difficulty and creativity, with bonus points for broader impact? You'll have to check these out and then tune into TNT on Saturday night at 8 ET to find out.
2004: Jason Richardson Goes Off Glass and Between His Legs
Jason Richardson won back-to-back dunk contests in 2002 and 2003, but his greatest feat might've come the following year. At the 2004 competition in Los Angeles, he lobbed the ball to himself off the backboard, brought it through his legs and finished with a right-handed windmill in what TNT's Kenny Smith described as "the most incredible dunk I've ever seen."
2008: Gerald Green Blows Out the Candle
Props are part-and-parcel of the dunk contest nowadays, but rarely do players use edible ones in their acts. To that end, Gerald Green broke new ground when he threw down a two-handed jam while extinguishing the candle on a cupcake placed at the back of the rim in New Orleans.
2009: Nate Robinson Scales the Competition
What beats Superman? How about a 5'9", 180-pound ball of flying kryptonite? That's what Nate Robinson became when he soared over Dwight Howard to take back his title as the NBA's top dunker. The catch: Robinson used his off arm to propel himself over Howard's hulking 6'11" frame.
2011: DeMar DeRozan's Show Stopper
Blake Griffin's homage to Vince Carter (and leap over a Kia) pushed him to the slam dunk title as a rookie in Los Angles, but DeMar DeRozan did his part to put on a show in his hometown. The best of the bunch: a reverse windmill jam, titled the "Show Stopper," that earned a 50 from the judges for the Toronto Raptors wing.
10. 2009: Dwight Soars Super High
First, Howard summoned another basket onto the court, one that would stand at 12 feet—two feet higher than a regulation hoop. Then, he hopped into a phone booth and emerged with a red cape to reprise his role as basketball's new Superman, which he rode to the dunk title the previous year in New Orleans.
To top it off, Howard hopped off the floor to catch a lob off the backboard from Orlando Magic teammate and fellow All-Star Jameer Nelson for the flush. That he made it look so easy was a testament to Howard's superhuman athleticism at the time.
That the judges awarded him a 50 for pulling it off spoke to their appreciation of how wild that part of the spectacle was, theatrics aside.
Howard's heroic dunk, though, wasn't enough to secure a successful slam championship defense. Instead, the fan vote tilted toward a particular hunk of kryptonite.
9. 1986: Spud Webb Goes Reverse
Nate Robinson is the most decorated diminutive dunker of all time, with three All-Star Weekend crowns in his trophy case.
But the best slam ever pulled off by someone so far below 6'0" belongs to Spud Webb.
The Dallas native put on a show for his hometown at Reunion Arena, punctuated by a sky-high bouncing lob that Webb caught and converted into a reverse, spread-eagle slam. The jaw-dropping display helped the rookie outduel Dominique Wilkins, his Atlanta Hawks teammate and the NBA's defending dunk champion, in a face-off that was ultimately decided by just two points in the final.
"Spud kind of duped him," then-Hawks head coach Mike Fratello said, per Yahoo Sports' Jay Busbee. "He told Wilkins he never had anything prepared, didn't practice for it. So, Wilkins maybe thought his normal assortment would be good enough to get through."
Not against Webb, who, at 5'6", still stands as the shortest person to ever be the league's slam dunk champion.
8. 1991: Dee Brown Doesn't Peek
With one inspirational slam, Dee Brown may have set off two cultural phenomena.
During the 1991 Slam Dunk Contest in Charlotte, North Carolina, the then-Boston Celtics guard took off from inside the paint and dunked over his head with his left hand. The catch? He covered his eyes with his right arm, thereby popularizing—if not inventing—the no-look dunk.
Brown has since said that by putting his face in his elbow pit, he inspired the "Dab" dancing trend that took off 25 years later.
Whether that's the case is unclear. What's easier to discern, though, is that Brown's blind finish, which others have since imitated in the Slam Dunk Contest, was at once groundbreaking and vital to his eventual victory over Seattle SuperSonics slam artist Shawn Kemp.
7. 2000: Vince Carter's Honey Dip
You'd think that Vince Carter, arguably one of the greatest high-flying finishers in NBA history, would've had multiple Slam Dunk Contest trophies on his mantle.
The records show, though, that Vinsanity took flight just once on All-Star Saturday.
Not that he needed more chances than that. His lone appearance—at Oracle Arena in Oakland in 2000—may be the best dunk contest we've ever seen, in part because he pulled off tricks few (if any) had ever thought possible.
To tip off a daunting final round—against Houston Rockets guard Steve Francis and fellow Toronto Raptors wing (and cousin) Tracy McGrady—Carter jumped so high that he was able to jam his whole right forearm through the hoop. As he recalled to Sportsnet's Dave Zarum:
You see, at that point, I’m not looking for cheers. I want the arena to be silent.
Normally when you watch the dunk contest everybody goes crazy, it’s people screaming, going “Oh my God, did you see that?!!” But how many times did you see a dunk leave the crowd speechless? Where you couldn’t say a word until you saw the dunk a second time. Until then they’re just thinking, Wait a minute, did you just…? Twenty thousand people have to look up at the Jumbotron at the same time to see what happened. Then comes the roar. That’s what I was looking for. And I got it.
That one earned Carter a perfect 50 from the judges and put him in the driver's seat for his first and only Slam Dunk title. More than a decade later, Blake Griffin busted out the same move en route to his own dunk championship.
6. 2011: JaVale McGee's Double Dunk
The 2011 Slam Dunk Contest will forever be remembered as "that time Blake Griffin jumped over a Kia."
"He came prepared with the car," JaVale McGee said, that year's runner-up, per NBA.com's Steve Aschburner, "and nothing's going to beat the car unless I bring out a plane or something."
McGee didn't go quite that big, though his use of props might've been more impressive. Rather than leap over something, the L.A. native opted to put his massive mitts and 7'6" wingspan to good use by finishing on two hoops at the same time.
That one-of-a-kind slam earned McGee a perfect 50 from the judges and a spot in the final round, where he fell just short of Griffin's theatrics, despite dunking three balls on the same jump.
5. 1984: Dr. J Goes Back to the Beginning
With one soaring slam, Julius Erving changed the course of basketball history.
During the ABA's first and only Slam Dunk Contest in 1976, he outgunned David Thompson, George Gervin, Artis Gilmore and Larry Kenon with a daring leap from the free-throw line. The competition itself—and the dunk Erving pulled off—drew slews of eyeballs to the ABA and lent enough legitimacy to the fledgling league to set in motion a merger with the NBA later that year.
"We had to come up with a concept that would get everyone's attention," former Nuggets executive Carl Scheer told the Houston Chronicle in 1996 (via News Corp Australia's Sam Gardner). "We were in serious trouble. We knew that it was our last year, and we had to make a big impression."
Eight years later, Erving, just shy of his 34th birthday and well into his tenure with the Philadelphia 76ers, revived his free-throw flight at the NBA's inaugural dunk contest. That dunk went down as the first to earn a perfect score in the NBA, though it wasn't enough to propel Dr. J past Larry Nance for the title.
4. 1988: Air Jordan Takes Flight from the Free-Throw Line
Can an homage be better than the original? Just ask Michael Jordan, who channeled Julius Erving's original artistry to defend his home turf at the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest.
During the semifinal round, Jordan backed up toward the opposite baseline, dribbled inside the three-point arc and leaped from just inside the free-throw line to the basket, just as Dr. J had done four years earlier.
The dunk was so spectacular that it earned Jordan a perfect 50 not only then but also when he busted it out to fend off Dominique Wilkins in an epic final.
"I was trying to think of something to improvise," he said, per the New York Daily News' Fred Kerber. "I saw [teammate] Brad Sellers in the stands and some friends standing on the sidelines. They were all confused [about what dunk to try].
"Then I saw the man, Dr. J., who got it all started."
By paying respect to his predecessor, Jordan not only assured himself of a dunk title in Chicago but also avenged his 1985 loss to Wilkins and launched the Legend of the Jumpman into the stratosphere with one of the contest's most iconic images.
3. 2016: Zach LaVine Windmills from Way Out
Pour one out for Zach LaVine, who backed out of a potential Slam Dunk Contest three-peat before he tore his ACL.
(We'll touch on whether the UCLA product should've scored a second crown to begin with later.)
But don't let that debate distract from the fact he was spectacular from start to finish in Toronto. Aaron Gordon was a more-than-worthy challenger, pushing LaVine through a series of tiebreakers until the defending champ had no choice but to break out a paradigm-busting combination: a between-the-legs tomahawk dunk from the free-throw line.
That display of next-level artistry earned LaVine a perfect 50 and pushed him past Gordon to become the sixth repeat winner—and the fourth back-to-back champion—in dunk contest history. So while his challenger may have won the battle for single best dunk, LaVine was a worthy winner of the best Slam Dunk Contest war this side of MJ vs. 'Nique.
Chances are, that's the last we'll see of LaVine in a dunk contest. But if the 21-year-old recovers smoothly from his devastating knee injury, he'll have ample opportunity to put opponents on posters for years to come with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
2. 2000: Vince Carter's Dunk Contest Debut
When it comes to dunking, Vince Carter needn't save his best for last. Nor did he during his appearance at the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest in Oakland, California.
In truth, Vinsanity might've peaked at the outset. He wowed the crowd at Oracle Arena from the get-go with a reverse 360-degree windmill.
What's more impressive is he didn't have any clue he would do it until he stepped on the court for his first run. As he recounted to Sportsnet's Dave Zarum:
Right before I grabbed the basketball from the referee for my first dunk, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I really didn’t know. So I thought, What do I want to accomplish with the look? I’m looking for creativity, hang time, and all the things I had been studying many years before. All of these years are coming into one night, one moment. And here I am, minutes before it’s my chance to show the world, and it’s just like, Oh gosh, what should I do here?
I got the idea: 360 windmill. It was spur of the moment. I hadn’t really considered doing that one because, weeks before when I was trying it, I was barely making it. When I incorporated the 360, particularly the first couple of times I tried, I kept falling away from the basket. I wasn’t getting enough height. That’s why I scrapped it initially.
Nobody watching in the building or on TV could tell. All anyone could see was the birth of a dunking legend.
Carter would go on to cement his slamming legacy that summer at the 2000 Sydney Olympics—much to the chagrin of Frederic Weis.
1. 2016: Air Gordon Struts His Stuff
Timing is everything in the Slam Dunk Contest. Save your best for last, and you might get knocked out before you can show it. Bust it out too early, though, and who knows what you'll have left for the finale?
That, more than anything, explains how Aaron Gordon got "robbed" of his rightful crown during the 2016 Slam Dunk Contest in Toronto. The Orlando Magic forward unleashed what may be the most mind-blowing feat in dunk contest history...but he didn't do it last.
Rather than gripe about how Zach LaVine defended his title, let's take this opportunity to appreciate the slam that got everyone so worked up in the first place.
Gordon elevated the art of leaping over mascots by soaring over Stuff the Magic Dragon legs-first, grabbing the ball from Stuff's hands beneath his rear end and finishing with a left-handed windmill as he scooted on through.
"That's been my dream all my life to compete in an NBA Dunk Contest, and I'm at a loss for words," Gordon said, per Magic.com's Josh Cohen. "It's awesome, win or lose, I had so much fun. It's a dream come true. I'm really speechless."
As if anyone who witnessed that magic at the Air Canada Centre had more words to offer. Had LaVine not outlasted Gordon through a series of tiebreakers, this dunk would've gone down as the piece de resistance in his victorious performance.
Instead, it's merely the best slam ever seen on this stage.