Three-point shots are impressive, and the gravity-defying creativity of a layup is borderline acrobatic, but there is nothing more emphatically awe-inspiring than someone attacking the rim with a thunderous dunk. Since 1984 the main attraction for NBA All-Star Weekend hasn’t been the exhibition game featuring all of the league’s stars, it has been the dunk contest. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dominique Wilkins, and Vince Carter are just a few of the Hall of Famers who have shown off the best dunks in All-Star Slam Dunk Contest history en route to a championship.
Bryant was an 18-year-old rookie when he had Brandy in the crowd losing her mind over a between-the-legs slam that helped him snag the championship at the 1997 NBA Dunk Contest, the first NBA award of his illustrious career.
Jordan had only shown his dunking prowess in 49 games before he did one of the best jams by dunking from the free-throw line, complete with his tongue hanging out and gold chain swinging in the air at the 1985 contest. Actually, before his face-offs with the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons and the Utah Jazz, his two dunking duels with Wilkins in 1985 and 1988 were Jordan’s first rivalry. The dunk contest has always been a rite of passage for young players to make a name for themselves — and many did.
Orland Magic high-flyer Aaron Gordon entered the league in 2014, and the two weeks he’s been Googled the most were the weeks of the 2016 and 2020 dunk contests when he put on quite a show. As of 2021, Zach LaVine has never been on a team that has made it to the playoffs, and outside of making the NBA All-Rookie Second Team in 2015, his back-to-back dunk contest titles in 2015 and 2016 have been his only successes in the league.
Out of hundreds of NBA dunks, here are Cassius’ picks for the best dunks in All-Star Slam Dunk Contest history.
5. Dominique Wilkins’ Up-and-Under Dunk From The Baseline (1985)
In the second-ever Dunk Contest, Atlanta Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins lived up to his nickname “The Human Highlight Reel” with one that, even decades later, still doesn’t seem humanly possible. With Michael Jordan as the last competitor on his way to his first championship, Wilkins started the final round by charging down the baseline from the right side of the basket, leaping in the air with the ball over his head in both hands before bringing it down to his waist in midair, and slamming it over his head from the left side of the basket.
Obviously, the shot garnered him a perfect score, helping him to become the only person to ever beat Michael Jordan in a dunk competition, in part, by treating gravity as a mere suggestion and not a limitation.
4. Zach LaVine’s Windmill Dunk From Free-Throw Line (2016)
Dr. J originated it, Michael Jordan made it iconic, and Zach LaVine remixed it. With Aaron Gordon threatening his chances at repeating as the Slam Dunk champion in 2016, LaVine put any doubt about the winner to rest by not only launching from the free-throw line as the greats have done, but he also spun the ball in a circle in midair for the contest’s first-ever windmill slam from the charity stripe.
No one has done this dunk in an actual NBA game, making LaVine’s 2016 Dunk Contest highlight the only time we’ve seen an NBA player remix one of the most difficult dunks anyone could do. Even though many thought Gordon deserved to win the title that year, LaVine wasn’t far from being worthy of the throne.
3. Aaron Gordon Sits On a Ball In Midair (2016)
There are fewer injustices in the NBA this century than Aaron Gordon not winning a single NBA Dunk Contest in his three attempts, despite sitting on a ball in midair in the 2016 competition. In the final round, with reigning champion LaVine hot on his heels, Gordon jumped over the Orlando Magic’s mascot, snatched the ball it was holding over its head with his right hand, went under his legs in midair to switch it to his left hand to slam dunk it over his head with his back to the basket, sending dunk contest judge Kevin Hart and everyone in the crowd into a frenzy.
Switching hands from under his leg made it look as if he was momentarily sitting on a basketball in midair, which, just putting it in writing, doesn’t seem human. LaVine might have won that contest, but Gordon had the best dunk.
2. Michael Jordan’s Dunk From The Free-Throw Line (1985)
While Vince Carter’s arm-in-the rim jam may be the greatest dunk in the contest’s history (see below), Michael Jordan launching from the foul line in the 1985 NBA Dunk Contest is unequivocally the most iconic. He had the gold chain swinging in the air, and put tape on the foul line like Babe Ruth pointing to where he was going to hit a home run.
Jordan would use the same move as his decisive dunk in the 1988 contest that served as a tiebreaker between him and Dominique Wilkins, who also had one Dunk Contest title as Jordan did before the ‘88 event. But, it was the first time Jordan ever dunked from the free-throw line in a contest. That was the move that made generations of people believe they wanted to fly and be like Mike.
1. Vince Carter Dunks Arm Into The Basket (2000)
Carter had the crowd at the 2000 NBA Dunk Contest erupting in pandemonium with a ridiculous 360-degree, one-handed windmill dunk that had prime Shaquille O’Neal lost for words. (A similar dunk starting behind the rim, and a between-the-legs jam off a short ball bounce were among his first three dunks that year.) After his fourth, when he jumped three feet in the air to cram his entire arm into the basket, all you heard was stunned silence. Nearly every dunk in Dunk Contest history that did not involve a prop has been done in a game, except this one, a testament to how rare a feat it was. Does anything really need to be said to explain how Vince Carter’s arm-in-the-rim dunk is the greatest in the history of the Dunk Contest? No.