The dunk is the most primal play in all of sports: who wouldn’t want to be a 6’7 swingman throwing down a tomahawk dunk in the lane? The three has basically taken over and become the signature play in basketball, while superstars like Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard couldn’t care less about fancy dunks, instead (annoyingly) settling for boring, efficient stuffs. This makes the fun-sucking shooting fundamentalists happy – and in all honesty, it’s probably better for the game – but what happened to the days when superstars took their dunking really fucking seriously?
While we were waiting for them to come back, we ranked the best ever to do it. We weighted the rankings heavily towards in-game dunks, rather than the Dunk Contest, but we didn’t ignore it completely, either.
Have at it:
21. Tracy McGrady
He’s better know for scoring buckets – and for assisting his cousin Vince Carter in the 2000 Dunk Contest – but T-Mac was a pretty hellacious dunker in his own right. Besides throwing the occasional off-the-backboard alley-oop to himself, his specialty was posterizing (as you may have called it in the ’90s) fools, thanks to his long arms. Just like he did the Bulls here…
He’s a good dunker, his son is a good dunker, his son’s son will be a good dunker, etc. You get the point. Some families raise their children to play an instrument; the Nance clan raises their kids to make the rim bleed. Larry Sr. usually ends up higher on these lists because he won a dunk contest in 1984 (and most sportswriters unnecessarily fetishize the past), but he loses points with us for being really tall and for lacking aggression.
19. LeBron James
This GIF is fucking awesome: we had never seen it before and it makes us want to rank LeBron higher. However, the fact is that LeBron was never a very creative dunker. The verticality and physicality were always there (since about tenth grade), but the body of work over the years isn’t really varied or inspiring. Most of them looked alike and he never seemed to care that much about trying out new tricks. He also makes it look easier than it is, which doesn’t help his ranking.
Perhaps the most underrated dunker of his generation despite the multiple Dunk Contest trophies, Richardson was as good – or almost as good, considering we ranked him 17th – as anyone in front of the NBA gliteratti on All-Star Saturday night, but he also brought it hard during games for a number of years. Good combination of strength, ability, and imagination.
We generally hate the fetishizing of old players that goes on, but facts are facts and David Thompson was an absolutely devastating leaper who literally reached heights that no 6’4 guard has any business reaching. This took place in the 1970s, even if sometimes we treat it like the 1870s. There are people alive who saw the man remove a quarter off the top of the backboard. Michael Jordan grew up wanting to be him. Athleticism has clearly advanced, but Thompson was (way) ahead of his time.
When in doubt, we tried to favor established players who did it over and over and over again, rather than fly-by-night Dunk Contest winners, but Miner was a notable exception. He dominated during his two contest victories and threw down enough violent slams over crowded lanes to prove he wasn’t a fluke. As a player, on the other hand…
15. Dwight Howard
We originally had the delusional egomaniac who goes by the name of Dwight Howard ranked higher, but that would have given him too much credit for his Dunk Contest exploits, and for basically being a prolific dunker. Dwight had a LOT of unimaginative two-handed lob catches and showed very little of the explosive creativity demonstrated by other players his size (see #9 and #5 below).
14 + 13: Nate Robinson + Spud Webb
Care to guess how many career dunks Isaiah Thomas has been credited with? If you guessed zero, you deserve a prize. And that’s a guy who averages 30 a game: it’s not like he isn’t getting the opportunity. The reason being that it isn’t fucking easy to dunk when you’re shorter than half the local freshman girls volleyball team. Potato and Nate both may have been shorter than IT, and both won at least one Dunk Contest in impressive fashion, along with some in-game spice when the opportunity presented itself.
This lofty perch is almost entirely a result of the dunk in this clip. It probably rivals LeBron’s from above for the longest in-game dunk. No wonder they called this dude the “The Glide.” This is blasphemy, but watching this, it sort of makes sense, that back in an era when positions were WAY more rigidly defined, the Blazers passed up on MJ. Using the pick on Sam Bowie instead of John Stockton or Charles Barkley is slightly less defensible.
Yeah, so he’s a 6’1 white dude from Ontario who has “The Guy Who Dunked in Jeans” listed as an official nickname on Wikipedia, but the All-Stars in this clip look pretty fucking impressed, and once you watch his entire highlight reel, you will be too:
10. Blake Griffin
Blake has two things going for him: he’s willing to try almost anything and (almost) all his dunks are during live action, often with a defender between him and the rim (KIA sedans included). Consistent posterization is a rare skill and Blake is (or at least was) the league’s foremost practitioner. That means more than any Dunk Contest trophy, although his ability to clear a chassis is quite impressive.
9. Kobe Bryant
Kobe’s dunking was overshadowed by Kobe the complete player, Kobe the person, Kobe the winner, the Kobe and Shaq feud, etc. His dunking exploits weren’t fully appreciated, despite his highlight clips getting massive exposure due to his (and his team’s) success and notoriety. There was so much else about him to discuss, and his whole game was just so smooth, that his dunks seemed a natural progression, not a stand alone feat. Once you do evaluate them as a stand alone feat, you realize he’s one of the top ten dunkers of all time.
8. Aaron Gordon
Obviously the Dunk Contests factors in here, but when you consider that everything we’ve seen from him during the actual games backs up what we saw against Zach LaVine, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It was just a cool venue for him to perform a few tricks. He’s been bringing the pain with in-game gravity-defying exploits since he was 15 and he’s just getting started.
7. Zach LaVine
In the end, these rankings are about dunking talent, not longevity. The only advantage longevity gives is plenty of opportunity to show off your wares to our esteemed judging panel. We’ve already seen enough from Mr. Lavine to put him on the short list of the best ever to do it. He’s probably the most naturally springy player we’ve ever watched, and if he can take advantage of modern medical technology and not let his torn ACL slow him down, somewhere below the sky, but most definitely above the rim, is the limit.
Admit it: you just watched that GIF like 34 times. It’s impossible not to. Look at the dude’s frigging muscles. It’s as if someone took the most athletic running back in football, stretch them out to 6’10, and told him to focus on dunking the ball as hard as humanly possible instead of scoring touchdowns.
If he was just the founding father of the modern dunk as a weapon in the NBA (which he is), it wouldn’t be enough. He had to have the real goods for us to consider him this high on the list, and he did. He’s one the old-timers aren’t lying about when they tell us how great he was. The vertical leap, the grace, the creativity, and the occasional posterization are all there, and with Dr. J’s long arms and massive hands, there is every reason to expect he would do it the same way if he were to play today.
Zion Williamson hasn’t graduated from high school yet and he already has a portfolio of dunks that would put every current NBA player not named Vince Carter to shame. Unless something goes wrong, Zion should be #1 on this list in about ten years. It sounds weird putting a high school junior ahead of Dr. J, but if you watch his body of work with an open mind, we think you will agree.
You may have heard of him. Clearly you can’t go wrong ranking him the best dunker of all time, but those lists suffer from a slight whiff of “MJ has to be #1 at everything” thinking. The last two players on this list were slightly better dunkers than Jordan, even if they come up short in pretty much every
other meaningful category.
This dunk is almost rhythmic. Boom, BOOM. 1, 2. It’s also a great example of his bread and butter, the two-handed power dunk. It’s a lot harder than you would think to do anything other than a generic dunk with two hands on the ball. Dominique made it look easy, except that the other players knew it wasn’t, which intimidated the shit out of them.
1. Vince Carter
Need we say any more?