Even though the emphasis on three-point shooting has reached a fever pitch, there are few plays in the game of basketball that illicit an emotional response more than slam dunks.
Taking rims out of the equation for an unquestioned basket puts emphasis and style on the end of offensive possession.
We’ll pay homage to the best dunkers the NBA has ever seen, who have given fans thrilling moments they’ll remember forever.
15. Spud Webb
This diminutive guard became something of a cult hero in the 1980’s, demonstrating that perceived physical limitations shouldn’t stop anyone from achieving their goals. Spud Webb of the Atlanta Hawks wasn’t viewed as a realistic candidate to compete for the 1986 dunk contest title, but he proved everyone wrong.
The 5’6” athlete wowed fans in the arena and on TV by displaying an impressive vertical leap. Webb’s forays to the rim seemed magical compared to some of his taller challengers.
He would go on to win the competition in 1986, and would put on a show in 1988 and 1989 as well.
Dunk Contest Competed In: 1986, 1988, 1989
Dunk Contest Won: 1986
14. Gerald Green
For many years, Gerald Green’s career served as a warning to overconfident players who wanted to jump straight into the NBA from high school. He managed to stick around in the league for 12 seasons, but was thought of as a raw prospect who never fully developed.
However, there was simply no questioning his ability as a dunker.
Green participated in three Slam Dunk Contests, and had some memorable moments. One was a dunk where he first blew out a birthday candle in a cupcake which was situated on the back of the rim before he threw it down.
Dunk Contest Competed In: 2007, 2008, 2013
Dunk Contest Won: 2007
13. Dwight Howard
Superman… is in the building! It’s hard not to think of TNT analyst Kenny Smith’s enthusiastic commentary as Dwight Howard would don a cape and get dressed up for his dunks in the late 2000’s.
The fact of the matter was, Howard was such an athletic freak in his younger days that he probably didn’t need to amplify his prowess with a costume. But the fact that he did drew viewers in and made the dunk contest entertaining.
With jaw-dropping power and hops, Howard would go on to win the 2008 competition.
Dunk Contest Competed In: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2020
Dunk Contest Won: 2008
12. Nate Robinson
If Spud Webb’s antics in the 1980’s were exciting, Nate Robinson took them to a whole different level 20 years later. The 5’9” Robinson had the body of a football player, with the skills of a hooper.
Robinson would end up winning the dunk contest three times, and embraced the Superman narrative that Dwight Howard created. When pitted against Howard, Robinson wore green to signify that he was his kryptonite.
In a cool callback to Webb’s accomplishments, Robinson brought the original little-man dunker out in 2006, and threw it down over him.
Dunk Contest Competed In: 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010
Dunk Contest Won: 2006, 2009, 2010
11. Jason Richardson
A lot of his most impressive finishes were overlooked while playing on the west coast for some rebuilding Golden State Warriors teams, but Jason Richardson could throw it down as well as anyone in his heyday. He finished a bounce pass alley-oop during the middle of a game against the Orlando Magic that’s still talked about to this day.
Richardson thrilled the crowd in his dunk contest appearances, as his body appeared to be horizontal with the rim at times.
J-Rich, as he was known, would average 17 points per game in his NBA career.
Dunk Contest Competed In: 2002, 2003, 2004
Dunk Contest Won: 2002, 2003
10. Aaron Gordon
It might seem a little counterintuitive to include a player on a list of greatest dunkers who has never won a Slam Dunk Contest. It’s a fair critique, but almost anyone who saw Aaron Gordon participate in the 2016 competition could make a legitimate argument that he should’ve won (and in 2020, for that matter).
He lost to Zach LaVine (more on him later), but Gordon would pull off some of the most insane jams in recent memory that night. In particular, he executed an under-the-legs, over-a-mascot finish that seemed impossible.
Now with the Denver Nuggets, Gordon continues to showcase his eye-popping athleticism for fans in the Mile High city.
Dunk Contest Competed In: 2016, 2017, 2020
Dunk Contest Won: None
9. Shawn Kemp
Even though he doesn’t have any dunk contest hardware in his name, former Seattle SuperSonics power forward Shawn Kemp brought the house down. Just ask Chris Gatling and Alton Lister.
Two relatively unknown players, amongst countless others, are featured on the wrong end of soul-snatching finishes put down by Kemp. Gatling even dapped Kemp up after being dunked on by “The Reign Man.”
Kemp was a 6-time NBA All-Star.
Dunk Contest Competed In: 1990, 1991, 1992, 1994
Dunk Contest Won: N/A
8. Zach LaVine
Well before he made it to the NBA, Zach LaVine had already garnered a ton of attention for the hops he brought to the court. Social media captured LaVine jamming basketballs through the hoop in informal settings, so it was only a matter of time before he’d do it on the biggest stage.
His chance would come in 2015 and 2016, and didn’t disappoint. Watching LaVine felt like someone pressed pause briefly on his ascent to the basket.
Lavine would hang in the air for longer than his contemporaries, and seemed to incorporate the perfect blend of timing and grace.
Dunk Contest Competed In: 2015, 2016
Dunk Contest Won: 2015, 2016
7. Kobe Bryant
Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant always had a sense for big moments, even as a teenager. He was starting to come into his own in 1997, but had a chance to showcase himself individually at the Slam Dunk Contest in front of some revered guests.
The NBA conducted a ceremony during All-Star Weekend that year to commemorate the 50 Greatest Players in the league’s history. Of course, Bryant would eventually etch his name into that club, and showed the legends what he was made of.
Bryant would defeat Michael Finley and Chris Carr to win the competition that year. As they say, the rest is history.
Dunk Contest Competed In: 1997
Dunk Contest Won: 1997
6. Blake Griffin
Many folks had been clamoring to see Los Angeles Clippers high-flyer Blake Griffin compete in a dunk contest. He had routinely been showcasing his talent with in-game dunks, and fans wanted to give him a full creative platform to come up with something unprecedented.
He got his chance in 2011, and he didn’t disappoint. Griffin would jump over the hood of a car to finish off an alley oop thrown by Baron Davis, who passed the ball from the open sunroof.
Griffin would make his mark that night, and be one of the instrumental finishers during Los Angeles’ “Lob City” era.
Dunk Contest Competed In: 2011
Dunk Contest Won: 2011
5. LeBron James
It’s one of the greatest “what if’s” in sports history. Fans clamored for generational athlete LeBron James to compete in the dunk contest at least once in his illustrious career, but it never ended up happening.
While that’s somewhat unfortunate, James often turned regulation basketball games into de facto dunk contests. TNT’s Kevin Harlan once described James’ aggression at the hoop as “having no regard for human life.”
James turned into a full-steam locomotive on the break, and no one was getting in the way of the freight train.
Dunk Contest Competed In: N/A
Dunk Contest Won: N/A
4. Julius Erving
By the time Julius Erving got to compete in an NBA dunk contest, he was already 34 years old. He still had enough hops to show some of the young guns what he could do, but it didn’t compare to the type of air he got in the ABA.
Erving was the pioneer of the free throw line dunk, where he got enough of a running start and sufficient hangtime to jam it in from the charity stripe. His performance in the 1976 ABA Slam Dunk Contest paved the way for the NBA to introduce its own version years later.
He’s viewed as the godfather of dunking and has been on hand to judge many dunk contests over the years.
Dunk Contest Competed In: 1984, 1985
Dunk Contest Won: 1976(ABA)
3. Vince Carter
After a two-year hiatus, the dunk contest returned to NBA All-Star weekend in 2000. Many were unsure about how much excitement it would generate when it resumed, but Vince Carter put all reservations to bed right away.
The Toronto Raptors star had a plethora of phenomenal finishes, including a 360-degree windmill dunk, and a jam where he put his elbow in the basket.
From start to finish, Carter had the crowd buzzing, and put the contest back on the map to stay.
Dunk Contest Competed In: 2000
Dunk Contest Won: 2000
2. Dominique Wilkins
Anyone nicknamed “The Human Highlight Film” has to be taken seriously as one of the greatest dunkers of all time. Atlanta Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins didn’t care what or who was in his way – he finished over and through them.
Wilkins won two dunk contests but is arguably the greatest in-game dunker the sport has ever seen. His fearlessness and ability to add something extra to his finishes while the game was on the line made him truly special.
It almost looked like the contact he absorbed at the rim propelled him just a little bit higher, which of course allowed him to dunk with that much more ferocity.
Dunk Contest Competed In: 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1990
Dunk Contest Won: 1985, 1990
1. Michael Jordan
In addition to arguably being the greatest player of all-time, there’s a strong case to be made that Michael Jordan is also the greatest dunker of all-time. He combined the power, leaping ability, and grace that many others on this list possessed, all in one body.
In the 1980’s, Jordan’s launchpad had seemingly infinite range, as he would be near the apex of his jump while taller players were just getting off the ground. This resulted in the posterization(definitely a word) of some supreme shot-blockers.
As he got older, Jordan’s athleticism naturally declined, but his timed burst still allowed him to get to the rim with power. His longevity and versatility as a dunker make him the best in NBA history.
Dunk Contest Competed In: 1985, 1987, 1988
Dunk Contest Won: 1987, 1988