Honoring the NBA's Greatest In-Game Dunkers of All Time

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 27, 2019

OAKLAND - FEBRUARY 11:  Vince Carter #15 of the Toronto Raptors poses for a photo with Julius
Andy Hayt/Getty Images

Forget about the three-point revolution, the post-up plays of old or even the all-eyes-on-them isolation game.

Dunking remains king of the NBA. It's right there in the name: d-u-n-k-i-n-g.

Nothing better captures the jaw-dropping, physics-defying athleticism of the Association than above-the-rim artwork. Through power, grace or a combination of the two, high-flying acrobats wow crowds, spark viral fires and keep us talking, texting and tweeting for weeks.

Since we're all jonesing for NBA action—training camps open in September!—this is the perfect time to celebrate the greatest in-game rim-rockers of all time.


Honorable Mentions

Narrowing down history's best dunk artists to its (unordered) top 10 is objectively impossible. But subjectively, it can be done by eliminating a host of rim-rockers we'd be remiss not to mention.

The late Wilt Chamberlain was such a proficient interior force the NBA widened the lane and instituted offensive goaltending. David Thompson logged so much flight time he was dubbed Skywalker. David Robinson raised the athletic bar for 7-footers. Kevin Garnett forced a similar recalibration for frontcourt players. Larry Nance Sr. owned real estate above the rim.

Kobe Bryant was the closest we've seen to a Michael Jordan clone. Tracy McGrady juxtaposed his butter-smooth style with ferocious flushes. Jason Richardson bounced around like he was rocking moon boots. Before injuries got the best of him, Baron Davis was must-watch television when attacking the rack (ask Andrei Kirilenko). Gerald Green made highlight hammers his calling card.

The list of superhuman high-fliers keeps expanding as today's athletes continue to challenge the notion of what's humanly possible. Assemble a top 10 five years from now and maybe one or more of Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon commands a spot.

For now, though, these are our 10 most memorable in-game dunk artists.


Vince Carter

There are at least a million different ways to celebrate the aerial accomplishments of the artist known as Half-Man/Half-Amazing, but this might top the rest: He made Frederic Weis a household name.

During the 2000 Olympics, Carter sky-rocketed over the top of the 7'2" French center and wowed even the player on the wrong side of the poster.

"[Carter] deserves to make history," Weis told ESPN's Michael Wallace and Rob Peterson in 2015. "Sadly for me, I was on the video, too. I learned people can fly."

Even if you remove Carter's Olympic exploits from this discussion, his NBA dunk reel is legendary. He had the total package of explosive athleticism, creativity, fearlessness, grace and showmanship. Every known dunk was part of his arsenal, and he wouldn't hesitate to go in his bag during a game.


Darryl Dawkins

The late, great Darryl Dawkins didn't rock rims; he wrecked them and shattered backboards, too.

He pioneered the NBA's prep-to-pro leap and fully embraced the entertainment side of professional sports. His personality was twice the size of his 6'11", 251-pound frame, and his Basketball Reference page features seven different nicknames: Chocolate Thunder, Double D, Dawk, Dr. Dunk, Sir Slam, Zandokan the Mad Dunker.

He even named his throwdowns. He dubbed his first backboard-breaker "The If-You-Ain't-Groovin', Best-Get-Movin', Chocolate-Thunder-Flyin', Robinzine-Cryin', Teeth-Shakin', Glass-Breakin', Rump-Roastin', Bun-Toastin', Glass-Still Flyin', Wham-Bam-I-Am-Jam." The second was "The-Chocolate-Thunder-Ain't-Playin', Get-Out-Of-the-Wayin,' Backboard-Swayin', Game-Delayin' Super Spike."

His slams sparked the NBA to introduce breakaway rims, and the rule against hanging on the rim became known as the Dawkins rule. Between his size, strength and theatrics, he was a sight to behold both in the open court and over a brave defender lurking near the basket.


Clyde Drexler

The greatest sports nicknames need no explanation. Clyde Drexler had an all-timer with "Clyde the Glide," a slick-sounding ode to his effortless hops.

His hang time could be measured by an hourglass. Once he lifted off, air traffic control had time to land several other aircrafts before clearing his runway.

"His dunks came about in such a gliding ease," Pro Hoops History's Curtis Harris wrote. "He rose majestically and flowed seamlessly through the atmospheric fluid flushing home the jam."

It's easy to equate Drexler with grace since he made the aerial art form look so easy. But remember, he played in an era defined by size, strength and physicality, and he dunked on many of the league's biggest, strongest and most physical players.


Julius Erving

Immortalized as Dr. J, Julius Erving helped take the ABA airborne and later did the same for the NBA. His Association predecessors might have been dunking before him, but not like this.

"The Doctor not only leaps and stays aloft longer than most players dream possible, but he uses his air time to transform his sport into graceful ballet, breath-taking drama or science-fiction fantasy depending upon his mood of the moment and the needs of his team," the late Pete Axthelm once wrote for Newsweek (via ESPN.com).

The basketball looked softball-sized in Erving's massive mitts, which allowed him to manipulate the rock like he was brushing paint strokes on a canvas. He moved it in all directions, most famously cradling it from his hip to behind his head before yamming over Michael Cooper, an eight-time All-Defensive selection and 1986-87's Defensive Player of the Year.

Erving had enough jet fuel to launch from the free-throw line, and his midair displays were museum-quality masterpieces. He had finesse with an uncontested rim and ferocity when a defender was in his path, plus undeniable originality that many mimicked but none duplicated.


Blake Griffin

Blake Griffin knows how to make an entrance. While his NBA arrival was delayed by the broken kneecap that wiped out his 2009-10 season, he rewarded patient Los Angeles Clippers fans by opening his rookie campaign with a tone-setting, one-handed flush on the back end of an alley-oop.

Herald trumpets could be heard all across Hollywood, announcing both Griffin's entrance and the rise of Lob City. The springy 6'10" forward has been catching bodies ever since. He will be prominently featured in the basketball obituaries of Timofey Mozgov and Kendrick Perkins.

Griffin can uncork some contest-worthy gems when he has open space, but he's at his best when someone tries to meet him at the rim. His top highlights are all about unfair athleticism for a player his size and ruthless displays of brute force.

"He's definitely among the best dunkers ever," John Starks said in 2011, per Bill Haisten of the Tulsa World. "... As far as leaping ability and strength, he has to be one of the best ever."


LeBron James

LeBron James isn't fair.

Players aren't supposed to be this big, this strong and powered by a jet pack. When he has a head of steam, he's a Mack truck motoring down the highway. Anyone in his path is either clearing out of said path or getting bulldozed (or leapfrogged).

"He'll probably go down as the greatest athlete ever," JR Smith said in 2016, per ESPN's Dave McMenamin. "To be 31 and still doing the things he's doing, jumping ... his dunks have been outrageous."

Power and toughness define James' best work, which should probably be expected of a 6'8", 250-pounder who's an All-Pro tight end in a different universe. His cocked-back, one-handed hammers are the real-life equivalents of video-game cheat codes.


Michael Jordan

Few two-word combinations bring a clearer image to hoops-obsessed minds than "Air Jordan." You either see the iconic look of Michael Jordan majestically soaring to the basket or the legendary logo those slams spawned.

Time stopped when Jordan took off. Fans held their breath. Cameras snapped as many photos as possible. Defenders braced for the worst. He just stuck his tongue out as the embodiment of the calm before the storm.

Then the magic happened.

He might cradle the ball into a windmill one trip then hammer one home over an all-world defender the next. He remapped basketball geography by dunking from every conceivable angle, and he not only kept the poster-printing business alive, but he also had it humming across the globe.

"I think I fell in love with the game because of Mike," LeBron told reporters in 2017. "... When you're growing up and you're seeing Michael Jordan, it's almost like a god."


Shawn Kemp

Here's a pro tip for uncovering the NBA's greatest dunkers: Try to find a player who not only motivated the NBA to put together a top 50 of his leading aerial exploits but also had so many spectacular slams that honorable mentions preceded the list.

Yeah, Shawn Kemp was something else. His posterization of Alton Lister (and subsequent celebration) in the 1992 playoffs belongs in any and every basketball-related time capsule.

"[The dunk] was the culmination of what we had seen from Shawn Kemp, just the power, the grace, the ability to get up and down the floor, to make a catch, get to the rim, sail to the hole and finish with just a fury," former Seattle SuperSonics broadcaster Kevin Calabro told Bleacher Report's Jonathan Abrams.

Kemp had the hops, power and agility to put some razzle-dazzle into his throwdowns. Some dunkers showcase strength, skill, explosiveness or flair. He did all of the above.


Shaquille O'Neal

The above video features 10 plays from a four-season snapshot of a 19-year career. It features the following:

  • Two dunks over Hakeem Olajuwon
  • Two dunks over Alonzo Mourning
  • One dunk over Dikembe Mutombo
  • Two broken basketball hoops (yes, the entire hoops)
  • One fast break executed and finished by a 7'1" center

"Shaq was a phenomenon," TNT's Ernie Johnson said, per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. "He came into the league with this ridiculous skill set of size, strength and agility combined with a magnetic personality and was simply a marvel to watch."

O'Neal was overpowering and a dominant force right from the start. If players his size weren't rare enough, his mobility and athleticism separated him from even that exclusive company.

In his later years, his aerial antics waned as he became more defined by the size-strength portion of his arsenal. But when he hit the ground sprinting in Orlando, his above-the-rim work was in a class of its own.


Dominique Wilkins

Dominique Wilkins was a walking highlight machine. Scratch that, he was The Human Highlight Film, another all-time NBA nickname that perfectly captured a career defined by frequent flier mileage and legendary flight plans over, around or straight through some of the league's best rim protectors.

The 6'8" swingman was Jordan's biggest above-the-rim rival. Like MJ, Wilkins was the total package. He dropped tomahawks, windmills, double-pumps, reverses and even double-clutch dunks on defenders' heads.

"He was a fascinating dunker, a phenomenal dunker," Kevin Willis, Wilkins' former teammate, told Hawks.com's Micah Hart. "... He was so gifted athletically, he could do anything he wanted."

Wilkins, 1985-86's scoring champ, was almost unstoppable going to the rim, and he knew it. That knowledge spurred him to test his creativity in games, and the results were some of the most incredible highlights this league has ever seen.


Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.