The slam dunk is more than just a play. It’s a cultural phenomenon.
While three-pointers, crossovers and buzzer-beaters may be as or even more impressive at times than the dunk, none of them have quite matched it in terms of cultural impact. There’s a reason the Jordan logo is the “Jumpman,” not the “Shootman” or the “Crossoverman.” The dunk is vastly different than other basketball plays.
Players’ legacies are often launched by their dunking abilities. Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Vince Carter and Blake Griffin are all guys who launched their status as the league’s most popular players not just because they were the best players, but because they were also the best dunkers. They became the subject of your childhood posters because they could dunk.
There are plenty of sports posters with plenty of pictures and moments from all leagues and sports. But posters often focus on dunks because of the picturesque snapshot images they provide. Jordan won six rings, but his most iconic picture is the one of him flying in the air in the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest. That contest might not have counted for anything of substance, but it was the best dunk show the league had ever seen. And in many ways, that makes it just as memorable as Jordan’s other great moments.
So this brings us to the greatest dunks of all time. A lot of these dunks are great because of how physically impressive they were. Others are great because of the sheer embarrassment they inflicted on the the player who got dunked on. And others are great for the destruction they caused to their surroundings—backboards in particular. Regardless, all of these dunks are perfect examples of the best parts of basketball.
So without further ado, here is a definitive list of the 23 greatest dunks in NBA history.