The slam dunk is the most exciting play in basketball. It’s the ultimate showcase of athleticism in the NBA and fans clamor for the league’s most explosive players to throw at least one down when watching a game.
In the past, a “posterizing” dunk would immortalize one’s slam in the form of an actual poster on the walls of basketball lovers everywhere. Now, players’ slams go viral on social media and live on the Internet forever, allowing many fans to enjoy the play without watching it live.
The league sees great dunkers come and go, but a select few spectacular showmen ingrain themselves in the minds of many for their athletics displays both on the court and in the annual Slam Dunk Contest. To commemorate the game’s highest flyers, let’s look at the all-time NBA dunking hierarchy, separating players based both on their in-game dunks and performance in the Dunk Contest if they participated.
Russell Westbrook, Spud Webb, Tracy McGrady, Nate Robinson, DeMar DeRozan, Shaquille O’Neal, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeAndre Jordan, Derrick Rose
This tier features three vastly different types of dunkers. Webb and Robinson rarely dunked in a game — Robinson had just 26 career dunks over 11 seasons, according to basketball-reference — but both shined in the dunk contest. These two are the only sub-6 feet winners of the contest, with Robinson also being the only player to win three times. Not true dunkers, these two earn a spot in this tier from their sheer showmanship and verticality.
McGrady and DeRozan are both spectacular in-game dunkers, as well as Dunk Contest participants. Both put on strong displays in their lone appearances but came up short to superior competition in Vince Carter and Blake Griffin, respectfully. Each had the skill to drive to the rim and finish with authority. They just didn’t do it as frequently as some others on this list.
O’Neal and Antetokounmpo are not flashy high-flyers, yet manage to dunk in games at some of the highest rates in history. Both have at least one season with over 250 slams, many coming at the expense of a helpless defender under the basket. Antetokounmpo did participate in the 2015 dunk contest but came in last. These two don’t dunk to entertain. They want to send a message to their opponents that they’re unstoppable.
LeBron James, Clyde Drexler, David Thompson, Aaron Gordon, Blake Griffin, Kobe Bryant, Shawn Kemp, Darryl Dawkins, Larry Nance, Jason Richardson, Gerald Green
The third tier includes both powerful and agile dunkers, most of whom routinely threw down dunks both in games and in the Dunk Contest. Dawkins, Griffin, Gordon and Kemp didn’t dunk frequently off the dribble but instead were always threats for lobs and putbacks. All four slammed with power and at seemingly impossible angles, which emphasized their extreme combination of size and athleticism. Dawkins’ thunderous slams were so powerful that the NBA invented the breakaway rim in the 1979-1980 season to prevent him from shattering more backboards.
James, Drexler, Thompson, Lance, Bryant, Green and Richardson were some of the most versatile dunkers from the shooting guard and small forward positions. Each had an elite vertical and could throw it down over centers, dazzle on a fastbreak and catch alley-oops. James is the only one never to participate in a Dunk Contest, and if he had he’d likely rank in the next tier since he’s the most frequent dunker of this bunch. The rest, though, either won or performed admirably, except Drexler who holds the record with five contest losses.
James, Drexler, Thompson and Bryant, in particular, managed to frequently dunk while also being their team’s primary scoring threat. This is quite impressive for perimeter players because they often had to weave through multiple defenders on their way to the rim, which frequently led to even more exciting slams.
Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkens, Zach LaVine
These four were truly special high-flyers who converted dunks no one ever had previously or even thought possible. Erving was perhaps basketball’s first modern dunker and became the ABA’s main attraction with his acrobatics. He even won the first-ever Dunk Contest in 1976 and introduced the world to the free-throw line slam.
Jordan, Wilkens and LaVine all participated in some of the best Dunk Contest battles in history and are each two-time winners. All reinvented what fans thought possible of a dunker and brought innovation to their slams in addition to spectacle. Wilkens and Jordan posterized more players in their careers than LaVine has thus far, but the 25-year-old just had his best in-game dunking pace ever in 2019-2020, finishing with 88 slams in just 60 games.
No list of the best dunkers ever is correct without “Vinsanity” at the top. The Toronto legend single-handedly made the Raptors Canada’s team with his unbelievable dunking ability to go along with his overall stardom. His 2000 Dunk Contest is the best performance in the event’s history and dropped the jaws of all those in attendance and watching at home. Go watch it if you haven’t. It’s truly a part of NBA history.
Carter achieved in-game dunks no one else in the league’s history ever thought of trying. He could finish alley-oops, posters, baseline jams and mid-flight adjustment dunks. Carter is perhaps the top windmill dunker ever and can still throw one down today at age 43. The fact that he just now retired after 22 seasons is a testament to his otherworldly athleticism.
One, in particular, stands out in his career. His “Dunk of Death” in the 2000 Olympics, when he somehow jumped over the head of a seven-footer to dunk, will be replayed until the end of time. He’s said that he didn’t even know he cleared the man until he watched the highlight after the game. Dunking was that effortless for him.