Victor Oladipo, Larry Nance Jr., Dennis Smith Jr. and Donovan Mitchell will take to the sky at Staples Center on Saturday, looking to stun, stagger and mystify the masses and become the latest player crowned the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest champion. In so doing, the four high-risers will hope to not only etch their names on the 2018 Verizon Slam Dunk trophy, but also turn in a performance ranking among the greatest in competition history.
It won’t be easy. There have been a lot of great dunks in this contest over the years. Let’s revisit some of the coolest ones with a top-10 list that’s sure to thrill, infuriate, and spark plenty of inquiries about whether there’s something radically wrong with me. (And those’ll just be from my family.) Perhaps these are not your favorite dunks. That is fine! If nothing else, I hope we can agree on one thing: these dunks are awesome and fun to watch, and a great way to kill some time at work or while waiting in line somewhere.
Without further ado — and with apologies to Spud Webb’s reverse dunks, John Wall over G-Wiz, Steve Nash’s header pass, Dwight Howard’s double-tap, Dee Brown’s no-look and The Entire Dominique Wilkins Oeuvre, among others — here’s one dude’s view of the 10 coolest dunks in the 32-year history of the Slam Dunk Contest.
10. JaVale McGee’s double dunk
JaVale finished second to Blake Griffin in 2011, thanks in large part to capping the competition with his weakest dunk — a still very cool off-the-glass tomahawk on which the Washington Wizards center was eye-level with the rim, with his elbow damn near above the square, as he caught to crush — while Griffin finished with a choir and a car.
“Nothing is going to beat a car unless I bring a plane out or something,” McGee told our man Michael Lee.
But before the finale, McGee showcased both the creativity that results in alter-egos named Pierre and his remarkable physical gifts, throwing down three dunks in one leap and dunking on two separate 10-foot hoops at the same time. JaVale didn’t give us 360s or East Bay Funk; instead, he gave us something that, as Reggie Miller said, perhaps no one else in the world could.
9. Kenny Walker’s 360-degree windmill
There’s a reason they called the dude “Sky.”
The New York Knicks swingman wasn’t the only one throwing down windmills in ’89. (Clyde Drexler had a couple of doozies himself in that competition.) But Walker’s marriage of ups, malice and showmanship — few have ever brought better Dunk Legs to the party — blew away the field. That cuff, and the full extension on the right-handed thunderbolt, set a new standard for power and grace that future aerial artists would have to get up awful high to top.
8. Gerald Green’s “Birthday Cake”
I can’t blame Green for being sick of the Dunk Contest. He’s been on pretty much every side of the competition, winning it once, finishing second once, and bowing out early after an attempt to do something “no one has ever seen before” went spectacularly awry. At some point, you want to be known not as a dunker, but as A Complete Basketball Player; Green reached that point five years ago.
Before he did, though, he gave us one of the most ridiculous finishes in contest history: the Birthday Cake. My forever teammate Eric Freeman put it best here last year: “Nothing has ever been so delightfully nonsensical […] He expanded the possibilities of the collective dunk imagination and exposed the absurdity at the heart of the dunk contest itself, all in just a few seconds.”
7. Andre Iguodala, with an assist from AIlen Iverson
“He came up with it,” Iverson said later. “He just said, ‘Throw the ball at the backboard. I’ll do the rest.'”
Man, did he ever:
Iguodala wound up coming up just short in 2006, finishing second to Nate Robinson after the diminutive Knickerbocker dunked over Spud and went off the backboard (with a flourish) for a self-alley-oop windmill. The future NBA Finals MVP, for his part, wound up struggling a bit on his late-contest attempts, which rubbed some shine off his earlier explosions in the judges’ eyes.
But the arc of the dunking universe bends toward justice. A dozen years later, it’s plain to see that Iguodala taking a pass from his Philadelphia 76ers teammate behind the backboard, catching it, dropping the ball (and, just barely, his head) down below the glass, crossing the baseline and finishing forcefully with a right-handed reverse was the slam of the night, and one of the best in competition history.
6. DeMar DeRozan’s “Showstopper”
Before he was a midrange assassin (and burgeoning 3-point marksman, and sometime-point-guard, and All-NBA player), the USC standout-turned-Toronto Raptors lottery pick had more humble goals: shutting down All-Star Saturday.
Off the bounce from the right corner, catch it with the right hand on the way up, perform some kind of holy-terror reverse windmill/rock-the-cradle hybrid, and finish loudly on the far side of the rim. Bounce and creativity, power and elegance — something complex made to look blood simple, by dint of flat-out incredible athleticism and style. One try, and we’re out.
DeRozan didn’t make it to the finals of the 2011 competition; his first effort, a from-out-of-bounds variant on Isaiah Rider’s famed East Bay Funk Dunk, earned only a 44, allowing Griffin and McGee to skate past him to the championship despite a 50 for the Showstopper. It seemed back then like DeRozan got jobbed for not using props. It still feels that way. It’s like Aristotle said, though: “Gimmicks don’t stand the test of time. Jaw-dropping slam jams do.”
5. Jason Richardson updates the East Bay Funk Dunk
It might strike you as odd that the J-Rich dunk included here comes not from the two contests he won (2002, 2003) but rather from the one he lost (2004, when he fell to Indiana’s Fred Jones). If you preferred one from his victory in 2002 — say, the off-the-bounce two-hand reverse windmill to beat Gerald Wallace — I’d be hard-pressed to get too upset. And if your list would’ve included any of the awesome Dominique-inflected throwdowns from 2003, well, I wouldn’t fight you in a public square.
But … I mean … look at this:
What better way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of J.R. introducing us to the funk than by elevating it to a new stratosphere by going off the glass before going between your legs and spiking it? Bonus points, too, for making Kevin Harlan lose his mind right after telling us where Fred Jones was from. I’m pretty sure finding “Gresham, OregohereitGOOOOOOES!!!!” on a map requires absinthe and smelling salts.
Creativity, strength, swagger: Richardson had it all, in one of the most compelling packages the contest’s ever seen. So, too, did this dunk, for my money the coolest he threw down in competition.
4. Michael Jordan from the free-throw line
Yes, Dr. J did it first. Yes, many, many other players have done it since. None of that matters, though. This is the iconic version, the ideal form of the foul-line flush, the one forever burned into our memories:
Yep. Still cool as hell.
3. Zach LaVine’s tribute to “Space Jam”
Choosing just one dunk from LaVine’s two competitions feels absolutely criminal; there’s no wrong answer. For me, though, his opening salvo — his introduction to the nation, the teenager’s first chance to make good on all the highlight-reel hype heading into the event — stands apart.
After the prefatory pageantry of an introduction by the Quad City DJs and donning a Tune Squad jersey, LaVine stepped onto the court and promptly looked positively supernatural, putting his spin on J-Rich’s final dunk from ’03 with an off-the-bounce, through-the-legs, one-handed reverse:
The behind-the-back cuff reverse in 2016 was special. So was the free-throw line windmill. But the noise the fans at Barclays Center made when LaVine threw down that first dunk? When they realized what was about to hit them? That was the loudest I’ve ever heard it get at Barclays, and I covered a Game 7 there once. Willing that sound into existence is the entire point of this competition.
2. Aaron Gordon takes a seat
I honestly didn’t even know this was possible.
We’d seen many iterations of “Teammate/Mascot Holding Ball for Dunker to Grab as He Jumps” prior to 2016. We’d seen plenty of “Player Jumps Over Teammate/Mascot.” We’d never — ever — seen “Player Grabs Ball from Teammate/Mascot While Jumping Sideways Over Teammate/Mascot’s Head, Then Puts it Under Both Legs, and Then Slams it. With His Off Hand.” It was inventive, athletic, inarguably cool … and completely surprising.
In a competition that has often featured players offering incremental advancements over previous iterations of the form, Aaron Gordon gave us something wholly new. The relentlessness of LaVine kept Gordon from a championship (unjustly, in the minds of many). But nothing will prevent him from going down in history as one of the greatest performers the contest’s ever seen.
(That one where he grabbed it from Stuff on the hoverboard, cuffed it, put his hand behind his head like Karl Malone, spun and tomahawked it was pretty dope, too.)
1. Vince Carter’s 360-degree windmill
That’s the damnedest thing about it, really: the whole thing was backward.
Back in 1989, Kenny Walker ran in from the right and turned to his right, a more natural rotation for the 360 when you’re a right-handed dunker. (From what I gather, anyway. I’m sure as hell not speaking from experience.) Vince drove in reverse, stalking from the left and turning to his left … and still somehow managed to be rising as he whipped the ball all the way around and jackhammered it through the rim at 100 mph.
You’re not supposed to be able to do that. But traditional understandings of what was and wasn’t possible in the air never really applied to Vince Carter.
It was Carter’s first dunk of the night, and all Kenny Smith could think to say was, “Let’s go home.” (Well, all he could think of that he was allowed to say on live TV.) That, it turns out, was the point.
“Not only did I want the score, but I wanted to wow you,” Carter told Zach Harper back in 2015. “I want to strike fear into the next guy. Just let people know, ‘Yeah, you thought this is what I could do but now you’re getting to see it live and it’s better than expected.'”
Considering people still speak in hushed tones about the moment he took off, 18 years later, it’s safe to say that Vince got what he was looking for.
Thankfully, nobody listened to Kenny. Nobody went home. The night wasn’t over. The rest of the field — most notably Carter’s cousin, Tracy McGrady, and rookie star Steve Francis — came with their A games, too, ensuring that Carter couldn’t just sleepwalk the rest of the way.
The result: the greatest performance in the history of the competition, kickstarted by a switch-stance whirling windmill that stopped time and hearts. Come Saturday, we’ll all watch with bated breath to see this year’s competitors can enter the rarefied air through which Vince soared on that magical night. Good luck.
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