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The Top 20 Dunkers in the History of the NBA

It goes without saying that this is yet another controversial sports topic. As G.O.A.T. Michael Jordan said, it’s impossible to say there is any one G.O.A.T. in any sport because of different generations, rules, etc. So what about the 20 greatest dunkers? The good news is, a dunk is a dunk is a dunk. No rule changes there – at least not in modern basketball history. For the record, modern history starts with the merger of the NBA and ABA in 1976. For you Wilt Chamberlain fans, he is excluded because his career ended in 1973.

A player can end up doing a rim hanging dunk, a glass shattering sunk, even a backboard bending dunk. All meet the criteria for a dunk. Of course, everything needs to be narrowed down, so to give everyone a fair shot the player does not have to be a prolific dunker. A single slam dunk will qualify as long as it is a rafter shattering, crowd pleasing, worthy of a replay movement. But no props allowed.

The problem with picking a videos for any of these guys is which video do you actually go with?  Here are our picks for the top 20 dunkers in NBA history.  And no, we did not put this in a particular order:

Michael Jordan

Chicago Bull and Washington Wizard player Michael Jordan is considered by many to be the NBA’s greatest player of all time. There wasn’t a single aspect of his game that had a major flaw. He won several NBA All Star Weekend Dunking Competitions, going head to head against several of the players on this list. But his dunking ability was just as prolific in regular season games as it was in dunking contests. His double clutch dunk from the free throw line earned him the name “Air Jordan.”

Dominique Wilkins

Wilkins has several of the most unique stories that surround his career than any NBA player ever. “Nique” as his friends and fans called him, never won an NBA championship and had the unfortunate timing of having to up against Michael Jordan and Spud Webb in two NBA dunking competitions. Yet friends and foes alike respected and admired his play in regular season and playoff games. His creativity and dunking power got him the name “the human highlight reel.”

Clyde Drexler

Houston Rocket and Portland Trailblazer Clyde “The Glide” Drexler was drafted out of the University of Houston in 1983, and was an ideal candidate to be a dunkster. With a 48” vertical jump, his athleticism and leaping ability made him one of the NBA’s premier talents. Though he arrived at the NBA Finals twice with his drafted team, it took his joining the Houston Rockets to finally get the ring in 1995.

Julius Irving

If you haven’t explored how the NBA came to be, all you need to do is follow the history of Julius “Dr. J.” Irving. Where did the 3 point shot come from? The former ABA (American Basketball Association) of which Irving had first played as a Virginia Squire. The first Slam Dunk Contest? That also originated in the ABA and was brought over in the merger of the two leagues back in 1976. Can you imagine a team that started Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, and Julius Irving? It actually happened when the Milwaukee Bucks drafted Irving but was barred from playing in the NBA due to a legal action by the Squires. (And you wonder why Virginia doesn’t have a professional basketball team anymore?) Irving became known as the best player of his generation, and is often considered in the top 5 of the G.O.A.T. lists. If a man was built to play basketball, it was Julius Irving.

Vince Carter

Vince Carter is an often overlooked player for a number of reasons. He played for some bad teams, and he is one of the most traded players in NBA history, yet his career still continues at age 40, playing for the Sacramento Kings. Though he is still productive, his best dunking days are behind him. But look at any highlight reel of his premier dunking days and you will find the kind of power and athleticism that has his name appearing on many of the top 10 lists for Best Dunker. When you think about Vince Carter’s career you need to pause and consider how much passion and commitment it takes to continue competing for almost 20 years, creating dunks that have him discussed in the company of Jordan and Irving.

Blake Griffin

This is another currently active player who makes the list but the news is not good. Officially listed by the Los Angeles Clippers as a strained MCL suffered in his game against the Lakers earlier this week, he is expected to miss somewhere in the area of 25 games. The current sentiment is that the Clippers holding a record of 8 – 11 will miss Griffin and any hopes of the playoffs given the highly competitive Western Conference. The good news is that he is only 28, so a full recovery and return back to full dunking power can be expected before the season is over. His dunks are especially worth watching as they often start from behind the restricted area in the paint and are thrown down with authority.

Kobe Bryant

The Los Angeles Lakers great was one of the youngest players to ever be drafted, but though there were others younger who came after him, none would achieve the heights that Bryant would during his 20 year career. When he came into the league in 1996, he would start being compared to Michael Jordan, to which he replied: “I don't want to be the next Michael Jordan, I only want to be Kobe Bryant.” What is scary is if you look at some of Bryant’s signature basketball moves you will find a strong reflection of Jordan in them. Bryant’s dunks were not in the stratosphere level, but they came early and often in his games.

Shawn Kemp

As I was going through the research for this list I noticed there were many people screaming why Kemp was not on a top 10 list for best dunkers. Originally I thought they were just disgruntled Sonics fans of yore, but when I watched the videos what is amazing about Kemp’s dunks that very few on this list can make claim to is that he always lands on his feet. No running into the stands; no falling to the ground. In the video clip provided, it seems he almost takes pride in always finishing upright. Pretty amazing stuff.

Spud Webb

At 5’ 7” tall, Spud Webb of the Atlanta Hawks played alongside of Dominique Wilkins, and actually competed against him in the 1986 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Yes, he won, but you have to think he was a sentimental favorite. But that doesn’t mean he can’t dunk. (Here he is dunking at age 47: His height didn’t give him many chances during regular season games to dunk, having to go in amongst the trees, and his major weapon was his ability to drive the lane and draw defenders away from the rim. He won’t make many Top Dunking lists but he should.

Dwayne Wade

Wade, along with LeBron James and Chris Bosh, formed one of the most controversial trios in NBA history. While much of the focus was on James bolting from the Cleveland Cavaliers, Wade had been very successful in his own right, being the centerpiece of the Miami Heat for years. Reunited with ex-teammate James in Cleveland in 2017 (things sometimes go in circles) Wade has the strength and power to drive the lane and create opportunities for the thunderous slam dunks that often show up in highlight reels. He may also be one of the most disrespected players in the league by his former home team, the Heat, as he left Miami and signed a contract with the Chicago Bulls in 2015 season because he could not come to financial terms with management. Really? Money? Come on Miami. Show some class.

David Thompson

When you talk about the Skywalker of the NBA, the name David Thompson will show up. He has been compared with greats like Julius Irving for his quickness and his explosiveness. He may be considered one of the first premier NBA talents to throw his life away on drugs and addiction. When he came out of college he was the number one pick of both drafts – the ABA and the NBA. (This kind of thing makes you wonder if returning to the 2 league format would be better for everybody. The whole free agency bidding system would have to be reconsidered, and players entering the draft would have the opportunity to actually have a choice.) He currently holds 4th place for the most points scored in a single game, at 73. By the way, it’s not that Thompson didn’t try addressing his addiction issues. He went into treatment and relapsed several times, but ended up on the short end. Apparently not all problems have a solution.

Larry Nance

Do not confuse this Larry Nance with his son, Larry Nance Jr. who has some great dunks of his own. (we’ll give some props here to the son showing a year’s worth of dunks: ( But he obviously learned a lot from his dad. Larry Nance was a model of consistency on the court, where he could do more than just dunk. He could play defense, score from the outside or inside. In winning the 1984 Slam Dunk contest he ended up with the name "The High-Ayatolla of Slamola." Not sure whether he ever liked the name, but that was back in the day. Nance has the misfortune of being traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Cleveland Cavs in 1988, the time when Jordan and the Chicago Bull juggernaut was rolling. Though he continued his success on the court, the Bulls would be the obstacle in attaining the championship every player pursues during their career.

LeBron James

I reluctantly included James on the list because his dunking talent is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s one reason Shaquille O’Neal didn’t make the list. Standing under the rim and jumping 6 inches off of the ground is really not a qualification to be considered among the NBA’s best dunkers. Maybe dunkin’ donuts, but not basketballs. Dunking is an art form, not simply jumping above the rim and slamming the basketball down. James has had a few dunking moments early in his career, but it seems the older he got, the lazier he got when it came to dunking creativity. If you doubt this, compare him to the first 5 on this list who are in a class all by themselves.

Tracy McGrady

Affectionately known as “T-Mac”, McGrady has been characterized as one of those players who ended up with the wrong team playing with the wrong players. Now this is not about being with bad players, but a basketball team needs the right mix of players and chemistry to achieve new heights. So it is understandable that the large toolkit of McGrady’s abilities would attract many teams. But McGrady had his own issues with coaches and management, and while fans wanted to see him display the full scope of his talents on one team, on a consistent basis, that was something that would never come to fruition. We often talk about how being unselfish on the court makes you a better player and the team better, but in McGrady’s case it seems to have simply been himself that got in the way of reaching new heights.

Russell Westbrook

Yes, there are some active players who are still in their prime who made the list. What can you say about Westbrook that hasn’t already been said? He has overcome adversity with the departure of Kevin Durant to up his game a notch further and shine even brighter as the leader and glue of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Westbrook’s triple-double frenzy was compared to Oscar Roberson’s play (if you don’t know your NBA history, now is a good time to catch up: Whether Westbrook will join many players who had consistent all-star talent but fail to get The Ring remains to be seen, but there is no doubt he will leave his mark on future Top 20 dunking lists.

Darryl Dawkins

Known by his on court name as “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins was the first to player to shatter the backboard so regularly with the broken glass dunk, the NBA took action to change the basket to have breakaway rims. Playing with teammate Charles Barkley, his dunks were some of the most powerful of his time. But unlike many who would later bring down the entire basket by breaking the goal standards, Dawkins was very athletic and would be out on the fast break ahead of the pack for the highlight reel dunk. In the 1979-1980 season, Dawkins broke the glass on two backboards during the regular season – one at home and one on the road.

DeAndre Jordan

As this is being written, DeAndre Jordan (another Jordan on the list?) is rumored to be a player of interest to the Bucks, Raptors, Wizards, and Timberwolves as trade bait. Playing for the Los Angeles Clippers has not been the most glamorous job until recent years, and at age 29 Jordan appears to have lost his value to the Clippers. Whatever the reason for offering him up as bait, there are fans from many teams who think he would be a great fit for their team. Though his departure may be imminent, we can still expect more of the dunking style that has put him on this list.

Harold Miner

OK, give this guy a break. When Miner came out of college he was labeled as “Baby Jordan.” Nope, no pressure. Why would anyone do that to a rookie? Obviously, he would not become the next Jordan. In fact, he would only last 3 and a half seasons in the NBA before retiring due to a right knee issue. Yet he won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest in 2 of his first 3 seasons. Go figure. He had immense potential, but like another NBA player, Derrick Rose, the knees are their obstacle to long term greatness. The NBA can be a cruel place for budding talents, while at the same time we should appreciate the guys who do play for 10 seasons or more given the toll professional basketball takes on a body.

Dwight Howard

We said it only took one dunk to make the list. Howard is mainly known for his defense but this was the NBA Dunking Contest back in 2009. The standard for making the list was to dunk in a game or NBA sponsored event – on a 10 foot high rim. Howard upped the ante in 2009 by extending the rim up to 12 feet. As you can see, his younger legs prevailed and actually made it look easy. Of course, with a 6’ 11” frame the 12 foot rim was much less of a challenge (Jordan’s height is 6’ 6”).

Isaiah Rider

Also known as J.R. Rider, he is an example of a complete waste of talent because he was (and apparently still is) hot headed. He played for 5 different NBA teams but consistently has run-ins with the law, making him more of a liability to a team than an asset. But he could definitely dunk the basketball. We have him on the bottom of the list because he deserves a spot, but is also an example of how talent can be wasted because of a lack of self-control and self-discipline. Not only did he cheat the fans out of an hour long dunking highlight reel, he also cheated himself.

As an added bonus, here is a clip of some of the best poster dunks in the NBA. You will likely find some people who didn’t make the list but still deserve at least an honorable mention.

The list didn’t make any distinction between positions. Not many centers made the list, while quite a few guards and shooting forwards did Iwe know about Nate Robinson). The nod has to go to the smaller players because many of their dunks were created in the course of play, while centers and power forwards made the list mainly on cleaning up missed shots or being out ahead on the fast break.

If you got anything from this list it is that players can be included despite their popularity (or lack thereof) and can be lacking in the kind of personal character that meets the standard NBA requirements. At the beginning of the list there was the clip of what basketball used to be like. While it is not likely we will return to those days, it is interesting that some of the best dunks came from that group of players. No props, no hype. It just makes you wonder why that is.

There are always going to be certain players that make the list – Jordan, Irving, James, Wilkins, Bryant, Carter, Westbrook – but it is filling in the empty slots that is both difficult and controversial. Take Spud Webb for example. He can definitely dunk, but how many opportunities would he have during a regular season game, especially considering he was playing with Wilkins? Does Shaquille O’Neal deserve to be on the list (we didn’t think so) because his size allowed him to hang around the rim and outmuscle everyone? No, it isn’t fair, but that’s why we play the game – and make the lists.

Garrett Parker

Written by Garrett Parker

Garrett by trade is a personal finance freelance writer and journalist. With over 10 years experience he's covered businesses, CEOs, and investments. However he does like to take on other topics involving some of his personal interests like automobiles, future technologies, and anything else that could change the world.

Read more posts by Garrett Parker

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