Ranking the NBA's 20 Best In-Game Dunkers of All Time

Mandela Namaste@@mandiba13Contributor IApril 14, 2020

Ranking the NBA's 20 Best In-Game Dunkers of All Time

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    The most exciting play in basketball, barring buzzer-beaters, is a dunk.

    There's a reason All-Star Weekend's Slam Dunk Contest has been the last and most-hyped competition on Saturday night for as long as it's existed. The possibility and thrill of watching a dunk that seems to defy the laws of physics is ever present.

    However, the degree of difficulty multiplies exponentially when comparing an open gym to the intensity of a live NBA game. Translating your skills as a dunker in space, where mistakes are allowed, to a dunker in a team context, where those mistakes can add up, is difficult, and only the best of the best can be elite in-game dunkers.

    Here, we've put together the definitive list of the top 20 in-game dunkers of all time, which is sure to cause no debate at all.

    This may seem biased toward more recent players, but we tried to make it as balanced as possible given that the dunk only achieved its popularity in the last 40 years. We've also attached a video of each player's most exemplary in-game dunk to illustrate their prowess in the art of the slam.

    Without further ado, let's throw down.

20. Derrick Jones Jr.

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Example Dunk: Rude to Rudy

    Generally, we favor well-rounded players over guys known solely as dunkers. Jones' placement here is a nod to those dunk-first players—because he's so darn good at it.

    There are no advanced stats for dunking, but it's reasonable to guess no current player starts their dunks farther away from the basket than Jones. Even this in-traffic slam over Jonas Valanciunas, casual as it may seem, started way closer to the free-throw line than it seemed on first viewing.

    The man nicknamed Airplane Mode is either actively trying to make dunks more difficult or doesn't even realize how far and high he's jumping.

    Given that he was undrafted and doesn't have much of a skill set to speak of beyond his phenomenal aerial talent (though he is shooting 51.4 percent from the floor this season and averaging a career-best 8.9 points per game), it's unclear how much longer Jones will stick in the league. Let's hope the Miami Heat or another team keeps him soaring.

19. Dwight Howard

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Example Dunk: Jumping Through Jrue

    Even at 34, Dwight Howard is an elite athlete, so in case you've forgotten or didn't follow the NBA in his younger years, you can only imagine what those were like.

    While Howard's appropriation of Shaquille O'Neal's Superman nickname has always rubbed some the wrong way (including Shaq himself), the comparisons between the two were earned. At his peak, Howard's deity-esque physique combined with guard-like explosiveness made him virtually unstoppable.

    Whenever people dismiss him as a Hall of Famer, you need only show them highlights of his Orlando Magic years. The man was one of the NBA's greats and recorded all the necessary accolades to support his Springfield case (including a Slam Dunk Contest title).

    Additionally, much like O'Neal before him and Stephen Curry after, Howard used a singular skill set to define an era of basketball. The Magic made the Finals in his age-23 season and were perfectly constructed around him, so their title window seemed open for the foreseeable future.

    Of course, that window closed quickly for myriad reasons, but Howard's peak remains among the most exciting and groundbreaking periods for a star in recent history. In large part, it was because of his explosive slams.

18. Dwyane Wade

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    J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    Example Dunk: The Anderson Annihilation

    Dwyane Wade will rightly be remembered for incredible clutch moments and a mastery of mid-range and at-rim finishing, but it would be wrong to discuss his play without talking about the dunks. When he rose up, the game would momentarily turn into streetball, especially in Miami.

    There's something about Wade's particular flair when finishing a dunk that got people even more excited. Whether it's his Iverson-lite step over Anderson Varejao in the above video or his celebration after a throwdown on Kendrick Perkins, Wade would often turn up the swagger after a dunk, but not in an arrogant way. You always knew he was just having fun playing the game he loved and wanted others to share in that love.

    In that vein, Wade earned extra points for the now-iconic photo of his celebrating one of teammate LeBron James' many above-the-rim finishes. It's a memento of a superteam that knew it was super, but it's also a picture of a young man being excited as his friend made an awesome play.

    For constantly balancing the joyful with the ferocious, Wade lands on this illustrious list.

17. Zach LaVine

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Example Dunk: Messing Around and Ending Alex Len's Whole Career

    Zach LaVine's reputation is in a strangely negative place. He's averaging over 25 points per game this season yet is not considered a star. He has won two dunk contests, but one is widely considered fraudulent.

    Questions about his skill level aside, we can at least agree that LaVine is a master dunker.

    After the UCLA alum tore his ACL, one of the main concerns was whether he'd recover his athleticism. Thankfully for LaVine's longevity as an NBA player, he returned to the court in a year and has since improved as a scorer and ball-handler, and thankfully for fans, he has also regained his effortless bounce.

    Look at that dunk above. LaVine looks unbothered in the face of a 7-footer and never even seems to consider the possibility he might get stuffed. Now, maybe that's a dig at Len specifically, but how many people in the world can do a 360 this casually?

    A dunk contest rematch between LaVine and Aaron Gordon in February in Chicago would have been exciting, but we'll settle for his gravity-defying in-game slams.

16. Russell Westbrook

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    Example Dunk: Five Miles a Minute

    Nowadays, Russell Westbrook is often criticized for his erratic style of play, but when he came on the scene in 2008, his athleticism was a sight to behold.

    While Russ and Kevin Durant may not have had the best working relationship, watching the two of them together, especially in their younger days, was mind-blowing. Durant would use his once-in-a-generation scoring talent to make the Oklahoma City Thunder competitive, and Westbrook's ferocity and explosiveness would put teams away in equal measure.

    In addition, if you watch even a few minutes of any Westbrook dunk compilation video, you'll notice a pattern with his dunks. Nearly every single one of them is delivered with a unique intensity, and it's a wonder he's never been seriously injured during a throwdown given that wicked combination of explosiveness and passion.

    Theoretically, a torn meniscus and several offseason knee procedures should have taken their toll on the 31-year-old's explosiveness, but if you've watched the Houston Rockets this season, you know he's as good as ever.

    Let's hope Westbrook continues to snarl his way to the hole for years to come.

15. Steve Francis

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    Fernando Medina/Getty Images

    Example Dunk: Jahidi Who?

    Basketball Reference says Steve Francis is 6'3", but you can really tell how tall somebody is when you see them in the air, and there is no way Stevie Franchise is any bigger than 6'1". However, that only makes his portfolio of dunks even more impressive.

    When Francis jumped to dunk, it seemed like he was always attempting an impossible task. He had a reported 43-inch vertical, which is among the best ever recorded, but in the air, it often looked like he was jumping even higher, almost resembling Calvin Cambridge from Like Mike.

    Because of that leaping ability, Francis was a consistently excellent dunker.

    Sadly, Stevie Franchise is not really discussed anymore, though the reasons why make sense. He made the playoffs only once, lost in the first round and didn't even play 10 seasons in the league. But with the omnipresence of YouTube and Twitter, Francis' resume as an electric dunker should be common knowledge among fans young and old.

    If you don't think Francis is an all-time dunker, watch the slam on Jahidi White or his off-balance jam on Quentin Richardson, and you will then.

14. Kobe Bryant

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Example Dunk: The Baptism of Dwight Howard

    Much of the narrative surrounding Kobe Bryant's career has to do with esoterica such as mid-range footwork and the geometry of certain spots on the court in relation to the basket. However, the well-earned celebration of Kobe's IQ and work ethic comes at the expense of remembering just how explosive a dunker he was in his prime.

    He'd lull opponents into a (relatively) calm state by staying in his comfortable mid-range spots or slicing his way to the rim. Then, out of nowhere, he'd strike.

    Kobe posterized everybody from the aforementioned Howard to Yao Ming to Steve Nash, and the vicious nature of his dunks often surprised teammates and opponents alike.

    Of course, it's silly to say that Bryant, who won the Slam Dunk Contest in his rookie year, was an unheralded dunker. But he won that prize before emerging as one of the best players in history, so we can forgive opponents for forgetting about his above-the-rim dominance in the ensuing seasons.

    Kobe wouldn't forgive, though. He'd just quietly prepare for the next poster jam.

13. Scottie Pippen

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Example Dunk: The Most Disrespectful Dunk in NBA History

    In addition to being a versatile offensive player and one of the best perimeter defenders ever, Scottie Pippen had another particularly special talent: dunking. Pippen consistently humiliated opponents at the rim, and he posterized an unparalleled collection of stars, including Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Alonzo Mourning and Manute Bol.

    And Pippen's slams, while obviously disrespectful on their face, made for even deeper embarrassment too. They solidified in opponents' minds that not only was Michael Jordan ready and willing to beat them, as he was every night, but Scottie and the rest of the squad was also there to back him up.

    And when the Chicago Bulls were locked in, no other team stood a chance.

    In addition, the Bulls and Pippen understood their greatness. That's why, on his most famous dunk, Pippen tried to shove Ewing and stood over him for a moment.

    The New York Knicks were at the mercy of the Bulls, and though that particular matchup carried significant animosity, Pippen and the Bulls also metaphorically dunked on every one of the other 28 teams.      

12. Tracy McGrady

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Example Dunk: Playoff And-1 on Shawn Bradley

    If you can impress LeBron James with a dunk, you're doing something right.

    Granted, LeBron would soon surpass Tracy McGrady in just about every way, but the point remains. Early-career T-Mac was a titanic force.

    At 6'8”, 210 pounds and boasting a versatile skill set, McGrady was widely considered a future MVP candidate, and every time he deposited an emphatic slam, it offered a glimpse into the extent of his powers.

    McGrady famously had trouble achieving playoff success with the Magic, but every time he'd fight through three defenders and posterize a big man or brilliantly speed past a wing en route to a breakaway dunk, everything seemed possible. Oh, Orlando is starting Pat Garrity at center? Doesn't matter; T-Mac's on a mission to score 35 every night and drain the life from his opponents.

    A collection of injuries sapped McGrady's explosiveness, and he was past his prime before the age of 30. But for years, he seemed perpetually on the verge of conquering the league—one dunk at a time.

11. Jason Richardson

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    Example Dunk: We Found Wallace

    One of the most underrated players of the 21st century, Jason Richardson burst onto the scene as a dynamic athlete, becoming the first player since Michael Jordan to win back-to-back dunk contests. And while J-Rich was a nearly elite shooting guard for 10 seasons, we'll remember him for his dunking.

    Richardson achieved prominence after a dunking dark age. In previous seasons, bench players such as Harold Miner, Desmond Mason and Brent Barry had won the Slam Dunk Contest, and while Kobe Bryant was making his mark both as an elite flier and elite player, Richardson revitalized interest in both the dunk contest and the art of the dunk itself.

    When Richardson dunked, he dunked. Two of his most famous slams came against the 7'6" Shawn Bradley and on a reverse baseline jam on defensive legend Ben Wallace.

    You can pooh-pooh Bradley's lack of athleticism or Wallace's not directly blocking Richardson's path on that particular play, but the fact is, plays such as those are incredibly difficult to pull off. Richardson made them look easy year after year.

10. Clyde Drexler

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Example Dunk: The Glide Flies

    It's a shame that Michael Jordan neutralized Clyde Drexler's career as a star with the Shrug Game. While he, of course, was not even close to Jordan on a talent basis, Drexler was nevertheless spectacular, especially in the air.

    Drexler was given the nickname The Glide while at the University of Houston, and somehow, it always seemed appropriate. While he was a blistering, furious scorer on terra firma, Drexler was always much more graceful when flying through space.

    It seemed like dunking was no big feat for him, even though it's probably one of the hardest athletic achievements. The dunk linked above? It doesn't seem impressive at game speed, but slow motion reveals Drexler starts jumping before the hoop is even in the frame.

    Unlike many players on this list or otherwise, The Glide remained both productive and limber until his retirement, winning that elusive title in 1994-95 with the Rockets. If we celebrate LeBron James and Russell Westbrook for continuing to remain superathletes as they age, we owe Drexler the same retroactive appreciation.

9. Shaquille O'Neal

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    JEFF HAYNES/Getty Images

    Example Dunk: The Lakers Become Legends

    In recent years, there's been a groundswell of support for the idea that Shaquille O'Neal is underrated. And yes, Shaq's stats support the fact that he is likely a top-10 or top-15 player in NBA history. But what made him so special was his unique physique.

    Critics of Shaq, both during his heyday and in hindsight, point to his lackadaisical attitude as a reason to downplay his achievements. However, while Shaq was childish at times (warning: language NSFW), the main reason his behavior stood out was because of Kobe Bryant's ultra-serious approach to the game.

    Shaq locked in when necessary, and when he did, there was no tougher cover.

    There were players as big as Shaq, and there were players as quick as Shaq, but nobody was as big and as quick as Superman. Even today, there are very few players who can run a fast break from coast to coast on one possession and dunk opponents into the next century on the next one, and none of them, from LeBron James to Zion Williamson to Giannis Antetokounmpo, are as big as Shaq.

    We'll never see a player (or a dunker) like him again.

8. Shawn Kemp

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    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Example Dunk: Chris Gatling Shows Respect

    Shawn Kemp has become a figure of ignominy in the eyes of many since he retired. But say that in front of most Seattle SuperSonics fans, and they'll set you straight. At the team's peak, Kemp was arguably as important to its success as Gary Payton.

    The Reign Man was picked 17th overall in the 1989 draft, but not for any on-court reasons. His talent was obvious from day one, and it remained so in the NBA. Kemp was not only an extremely powerful dunker both in space and in traffic, but he boasted handles to match in an era where that was highly unusual for big men.

    Whenever Kemp got a rebound and started leading the fast break, opponents knew they were likely in big trouble.

    Kemp also heads the category of dunkers who oozed swagger. The linked dunk on Gatling is perhaps the shining example of that in recent NBA history. Slamming on someone and then shaking their hand is straight out of an AAU playbook and would probably never happen today.

    Only Kemp could credibly pull it off.

7. Darryl Dawkins

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    Mansoor Ahmed/Getty Images

    Example Dunk: Shattered Glass

    In comparison to some of the other illustrious names on this list, Darryl Dawkins' career averages of 12.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game seem small. But it would be a dereliction of duty to not mention him.

    In the 1970s, the dunk held a strange place in competitive basketball. After Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's overwhelming dominance at UCLA, the NCAA banned dunks for 10 years. In addition, the dunk was called the "stuff shot" and was almost never performed with any sort of flash or ceremony.

    This all changed when Dawkins achieved prominence.

    As you can see in the above clip, Dawkins threw down his dunks with an unprecedented level of force, breaking two backboards and making many others shake throughout his tenure in the NBA. He, along with David Thompson and Julius Erving, helped fans and other players realize that the dunk is one of the most exciting ways to score two points, though only Shaquille O'Neal would ever come close to breaking a backboard again.

    Dawkins is clearly one of the least accomplished players named, but this list wouldn't exist without his contributions. He fully deserves a top-10 slot.

6. Blake Griffin

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Example Dunk: Mozgov Becomes a Verb

    If you started following the NBA in the back half of the 2010s, you likely know Blake Griffin primarily as a floor-spacing, ball-handling big man. And while Griffin made the All-NBA third team last year and remains a star when healthy, he was a phenomenon in his younger years.

    Griffin became famous by jumping over a Kia in the Slam Dunk Contest, but he was an absolutely vicious in-game dunker as well. The Timofey Mozgov dunk above is the most famous from Griffin's early-career collection, but there are so many others that would be most players' defining moment in the league.

    If anybody else did these three dunks in one game, it would be talked about for weeks, but for Griffin, it was just another day at the office.

    We'd be remiss if we didn't mention Griffin's partnership with Chris Paul. While it ended on poor terms, pairing the greatest passer of the 21st century with the most athletic big man of his time yielded predictably awe-inspiring results night after night.

    The team failed to reach its championship potential, but those Lob City highlights are a sufficient consolation prize.

5. Dominique Wilkins

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    NBA Photos/Getty Images

    Example Dunk: Giving Larry Bird an Existential Crisis

    Dominique Wilkins had an unfulfilled NBA career. He never made the conference finals and was eclipsed by the Holy Trinity of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

    But there's no question he was one of the best dunkers in history.

    Wilkins burst onto the dunking scene with a shocking win at the stacked 1985 Slam Dunk Contest, defeating Jordan, Julius Erving, Larry Nance, Clyde Drexler and Darrell Griffith. As the Atlanta Hawks weren't very prominent in the 1980s (and without League Pass, he couldn't be seen by most people outside of Georgia), Wilkins' dunk contest victories (won again in 1990) solidified his status as one of the premier aerial athletes alive, and he began approaching Holy Trinity status as a must-see player when his team came to town.

    Of course, the dunks themselves were always spectacular too. Nique never cared who was in his way—just that if you stood between him and the basket, you'd be hurting in the morning (physically or psychologically).

    The more cavalier his attitude, the more vicious the dunk, and the greater the humiliation.

4. Julius Erving

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    Jim Cummins/Getty Images

    Example Dunk: Rock-a-Bye Michael Cooper

    If Darryl Dawkins made people fear the dunk, then Julius Erving made people gape at it.

    Erving was almost born to be the Father of the Dunk. He got his start in the fun-loving ABA, which showed basketball could be looser and more aesthetically interesting than the staid Knicks or Boston Celtics would have you think. Dr. J then brought those ideals to the NBA after the leagues merged in 1976, and the sport was never the same. Here was a guy who could make a complicated layup look as easy as breathing, and now he's going to dunk, too?

    Purists and cynics will look at the slam above, one of the most famous plays in history, and call a travel on Dr. J. For the record, that play was within the rules, but quibbling over it also obscures the point.

    Erving was one of the league's first above-the-rim stars, and he paved the way for Michael, Dominique, LeBron and so many others to feel comfortable showcasing their hops in live action. He's not the best in-game dunker ever, but he's the most important one.

3. Michael Jordan

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Example Dunk: Free-Throw Putback

    There's not much to say about Michael Jordan that either hasn't already been said or presumably won't be covered in the upcoming 10-part ESPN documentary. The man was a master of nearly every facet of basketball, and that includes the dunk.

    More than any other player on this list, Jordan understood dunks as an act of malice. You could argue that given Jordan's competitiveness, his general approach to basketball was malicious, but it especially extends to his aerial activities.

    While His Airness' throwdowns weren't as vicious as Russell Westbrook's, and he wasn't as jaw-droppingly athletic as Vince Carter, Jordan understood a dunk's psychological impact—and made sure his slams delivered a message.

    Interestingly enough, there's not much footage of Jordan showboating after a dunk, something that would make sense given his uber-sensitivity to even the smallest slights. But perhaps that was all part of his grander plan too.

    In those particular sequences, trash talk was unnecessary. The dunks spoke for themselves, and the lack of response from the GOAT signaled that he was laser-focused on destruction.

    His opponents had lost before they even knew it.

2. LeBron James

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Example Dunk: Poor Jason Terry

    As with nearly all LeBron James-related items, the most impressive part about his athleticism is its consistency. At age 35, he is nearly as bouncy as he was at 18.

    During his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron was arguably the greatest athlete in NBA history. His head regularly went above the rim on dunks, and he threw down consistently violent slams both in space and in traffic. There's a reason why the Dallas Mavericks shut him down in the 2011 NBA Finals: They tried everything to prevent him from reaching the paint.

    In the ensuing near decade, LeBron's dealt with minor injuries and major minutes, yet he remains one of the league's premiere dunkers. In November, he threw down a dunk of the year candidate on Nemanja Bjelica, and he put home a similarly awe-inspiring finish on Jusuf Nurkic in 2018. It's now well known that LeBron spends over a million dollars yearly on his body, but at a certain point, he's also a little lucky.

    King James' reign over the NBA will eventually end. But that doesn't appear imminent. Fans can hope he has a few more years of gravity defiance in him.

1. Vince Carter

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Example Dunk: Vinsanity Goes Global

    As you can tell, a lot of big names were also incredible dunkers. But Vince Carter is the best in-game dunker ever, and it's not close.

    In 2018, the NBA posted a YouTube video of Carter ranking his 10 best dunks, and it is a fascinating five minutes.

    He remembers each dunk and breaks down his thought process, revealing a player who's supremely confident in his game-breaking athleticism, almost to the point of fearing it. At one point, Carter says he didn't know where Jason Kidd would throw the ball on a particular play but that he'd figure it out mid-air. Several minutes later, he says he improvised a windmill slam on 7-footer Michael Olowokandi.

    Afterward, he shrugs and says, "It was just all instinct that took over."

    It would be annoying if Carter bragged or was wide-eyed about his dunking prowess, though nobody would blame him—we're all in awe too. But the way he's so casual about these breathtaking feats of athleticism is chilling.

    Though he didn't say it outright, it seems he's still somewhat mystified by his gifts, too.

    Join the club, Vince.