Who is the greatest NBA Slam Dunk Contest performer ever: Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Zach LaVine, Jason Richardson or Vince Carter?
This Saturday, the highlight event of NBA All-Star Saturday — the NBA Slam Dunk Contest — returns to Chicago for the first time since the infamous 1988 showdown between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins.
This year’s event features three players with prior Slam Dunk contestants (Aaron Gordon, Dwight Howard & Derrick Jones Jr.) as well as newcomer Pat Connaughton. Howard even has a Slam Dunk Contest championship to his name (2008), while Gordon has yet to take some hardware but was part of arguably the best Slam Dunk Contest showdown since 1988 between him and then-Minnesota Timberwolves high-flyer Zach LaVine in 2016.
While Gordon has never actually won a Slam Dunk Contest, he is one of a few names that can be mentioned among the best Slam Dunk Contest performers ever. That brings us to the topic at hand. We are going to figure out who the best dunk contest…dunker of all-time is. Who rose above the competition not only in the years they participated, but all-time?
Now there will be an obvious bias to those who have won Slam Dunk Contest in their careers, though I think we can safely eliminate a few past winners (apologies to Fred Jones and Jeremy Evans). Still, winning a Slam Dunk Contest is, of course, a great indicator that you’re a great Slam Dunk Contest performer. We know this.
Only a few times in history has a non-champion averaged more points per dunk than the actual year’s champion. In 1987, the perpetually underrated Slam Dunk Contest participant Terrance Stansbury averaged 48.6 points per dunk but lost out to eventual champion Michael Jordan (47.75 points per dunk).
In 2001 — objectively the worst Slam Dunk Contest in history — Corey Maggette finished with a higher points per dunk average (42.67) than champion Desmond Mason (42.2), but really, with a dunk contest like that, there are no winners.
Lastly, in 2006, Andre Iguodala‘s 47 points per dunk were not enough to beat out champion and guy-who-is-smaller-than-normal-NBA-players Nate Robinson. While Robinson’s 46.8 points per dunk average was nothing to scoff at, it was clear Iguodala deserved the crown that year.
So that’s it! Otherwise, the winners of the Slam Dunk Contest have arguably been the best dunkers in a given competition. That gives us a nice list of past champions to choose from. We’ll add a few more later on, but first, let’s separate the champions who really stood above the pack.
We’ll start with two-time (should be three-time) champion, The Human Highlight Reel, Dominique Wilkins.
‘Nique is an NBA Slam Dunk contest legend, participating in five contests, including the official return in 1984. Along the way, Wilkins won two competitions (1985 and 1990) and has the highest cumulative point total (1,651.8) in Slam Dunk Contest history — 489.8 points above No. 2, Michael Jordan. On a per-dunk basis, ‘Nique’s 47.15 ranks a respectable ninth all-time.
Point totals aside, the NBA Slam Dunk Contest simply does not exist without Wilkins. The aura of star power and respectability he brought to the event is unmatched. The artistry with which Wilkins dunked was a blend of ferocity and grace not seen since.
Wilkins didn’t blow you away with creativity; instead, he decided to make small, subtle changes to his dunks (adding two hands, dunking from a different direction, taking off in unique ways). It was these small, incremental changes that made him such a dynamic Slam Dunk Contest dunker. Even if you knew what was coming, even if you had seen the dunk before, Wilkins added just enough to get you excited each and every time.
No list of best NBA Slam Dunk contest participants is complete without including His Airness. Jordan is a two-time Slam Dunk Contest champion and while his average points per dunk (46.59) only ranks him 12th all-time, c’mon, he made the event iconic. If Wilkins was the one who brought it legitimacy in the NBA, Jordan made it THE event of All-Star Weekend. From taking Julius Erving‘s free-throw line dunk to the next level to understanding the event was equal parts dunking and showmanship, nobody competed in a Slam Dunk Contest quite like Jordan.
Jokes aside about the 1987 and 1988 Slam Dunk Contest and who should’ve won, make no mistake: Jordan deserved both championships. No matter what you feel about the 1988 NBA Slam Dunk Contest and the judges’ scoring, it was the most famous and arguably the best dunk contest in history.
Jordan’s Slam Dunk Contest repertoire, like Wilkins’, isn’t as diverse as others, but he was able to glide through the air like nobody before him. Even his free-throw line dunks, which were done by countless others since, have never truly been replicated. Jordan’s ability to glide through the air seemingly effortlessly was matched by his ability to add small wrinkles, small bits of flare to each of his dunks.
Baby Jordan himself, Harold Miner, was a two-time NBA Slam Dunk champion and ranks sixth all-time for points per dunk. While his wins came during a time when the contest was beginning to fall out of favor with the general population, we can’t take his accomplishments away from him.
Miner’s reverse dunk in 1993 sounded like a gunshot went off in the building and his performances ultimately put the young Miami Heat player on the national radar. While Miner could never live up to the expectations bestowed upon him, his Slam Dunk Contests are still all-around fantastic performances.
Miner flew to the basket with speed and power like Wilkins, but at only 6’5″, he appeared to glide and float to the rim more than his taller opponents. Miner’s dunks weren’t anything unforgettable, but his left-handed windmill and reverse 360 are underrated historically.
Nobody with a straight face will say Harold Miner is the best Slam Dunk Contest participant ever, but he deserves a least a bit of consideration.
Half-Man, Half-Amazing may only have one Slam Dunk Contest under his belt, but it’s arguably the singular greatest performance ever.
It was the kind of Slam Dunk Contest that made judge/commentator Kenny Smith scream, “Let’s go home! Let’s go home!” after his first dunk — a reverse 360 windmill, by the way.
Carter won’t be able to match the longevity of someone like Wilkins, but he doesn’t really need to. Carter came, saw and conquered. In his one and only Slam Dunk Contest, he averaged 49.4 points per dunk (second-most ever for a single competition). Carter received three 50-point dunks and his lone 49 was because Smith, who later declared the competition over, gave him a nine on the basis of “it wasn’t as good as his first dunk.”
Carter’s 2000 Slam Dunk Contest performance is legendary and arguably did more to create his star than any other player ever, including Jordan. More than that, Carter’s performance single-handedly put the Slam Dunk Contest back on the map after two years of exile. Sure, the 2001 contest was a dud, but after Carter’s theatrics, the contest could never and will never go away.
Vinsanity has it all: champion, spectacular performance, creativity, flair, power, showmanship … I’m getting sweaty just thinking about it again.
After the miserable 2001 Slam Dunk Contest, the annual event needed to be resurrected once more. The savior this time was a lengthy swingman from Golden State, Jason Richardson.
Richardson won back-to-back competitions in 2002 and 2003, wowing the crowd with his 360 windmills, reverse between-the-legs dunks and overall power. Not since Carter had we seen a dunk rise as high as Richardson did, seemingly looking down at the rim as he threw his dunks down.
Richardson’s famous windmills didn’t just remind us of Wilkins, they perfected the art form. They took Wilkins’ art forms and added even more height and velocity to them.
Held back only by the Slam Dunk Contest’s inane “wheel” rule where stars were forced to re-create dunks from year’s past, Richardson’s back-to-back performances hold up remarkably well, and his 49 points per dunk average in 2003 still ranks as the third-highest in history (behind only LaVine in 2016 and Carter in 2000).
Capping his 2003 performance with the between-the-legs reverse dunk is an all-time great contest-winning dunk as Richardson’s peers poured out onto the court to congratulate the winner.
Richardson’s task of following up Carter’s performances was no easy ask, and if not for Richardson, it’s hard to know what the future could have held for the Slam Dunk Contest. A few more stinkers like 2001 and questions may have been asked about its viability moving forward. Instead, Richardson proved that the contest was not only back, but it was here to stay.
After nearly a decade of the Slam Dunk Contest becoming more about theatrics, props and costumes, LaVine proved to all the doubters that, no, you haven’t seen it all. What LaVine did at the 2015 competition in Brooklyn was prove that the next generation of high-flyers was going to add its own spin to the tournament.
This is taking nothing away from the Slam Dunk Contest performances of past champions like Nate Robinson, Blake Griffin or Howard, but it seemed that a majority of their dunks were less “Oh my God, did you see what he just did?” and more about how the dunk was performed, the build-up to the dunk, what he dunked over. Howard wearing a Superman costume, Robinson dunked over Spud Webb, Griffin flew over a KIA. They were all great moments, but more about everything BUT the dunk. In 2014, the NBA unsuccessfully introduced an inane format featuring battle rounds and freestyle rounds and East/West competitions. Again, the future of the dunk contest and its viability was in doubt.
Then came LaVine, who so effortlessly floated through the air you were convinced the NBA rigged him up to cables to ensure they had a great contest. Bringing out the Quad City DJs and invoking Space Jam didn’t hurt either.
LaVine’s 2015 performance hasn’t entered the public conscience the same way Carter’s did, but it should. Going behind-his-back as he elevated towards the rim, throwing down a between-the-legs alley-oop from then-teammate Andrew Wiggins as he’s staring eye-level with the rim, and his contest clincher, off-the-basket-stanchion, between-the-legs dunk capped off a legendary performance.
Little did we know LaVine would follow that performance with another star-studded affair in 2016 as he and Aaron Gordon went blow-for-blow in the best Slam Dunk Contest showdown since Wilkins/Jordan in 1988.
LaVine went behind-his-back for a reverse dunk, did a free-throw line alley-oop and threw down a one-handed 360 windmill.
On the other side, Gordon was busting out moves we had never seen before, and his utilization of Orlando’s mascot Stuff the Magic Dragon (yes, I had to Google that and yes, that is its name) was the best use of props in Slam Dunk Contest history.
After Smith declared the contest “over” following Gordon’s under-the-legs alley-oop from Stuff, LaVine proved to the world that, no, we were only just getting started.
A freaking windmill from the free-throw line. Are you kidding me? After all the years of guys trying (and mostly failing) to recreate the greatness of Erving’s free-throw line dunk from the inaugural ABA Slam Dunk Contest, we finally had it. The next level, the new innovation. He did a WINDMILL FROM THE FREE-THROW LINE.
This led to a dunk-off that legitimately felt like it could go all night as the two traded off 50-point dunk after 50-point dunk. Finally, LaVine needed one more trick of his sleeve.
So remember when he changed the game with a windmill from the free-throw line?
Yeah, how about a between-the-legs dunk from the free-throw line?
Insanity. Absolute insanity. In 1993, just going between your legs for a dunk was enough to win Isaiah Rider the competition. Now in 2016, LaVine was combining the iconic dunks from multiple former winners into one contest winner.
LaVine’s statistical accolades are almost unmatched. His 49.83 points per dunk average in 2016 is the highest of all-time. His 48.5 average in 2015 is only good enough for ninth all-time. LaVine’s 49.17 overall Slam Dunk Contest average points per dunk is second all-time, putting him, Carter and Donovan Mitchell (49) in a class of their own.
Unfortunately, LaVine’s 2016 running mate Gordon had an uneven performance in 2017 (averaging just 36 points per dunk) and hasn’t competed since. 2020 would be a great opportunity for Gordon to enter himself back into this conversation, but for now, he’s out.
Okay, now pick one!
This is going to be tough. Each of the men listed above has some merit and some reason to be picked (well, maybe not Harold Miner).
Wilkins brought legitimacy to the contest and was one of the most prolific Slam Dunk Contest participants ever. Jordan brought the next-level star power and elevated the contest to must-see TV. Carter resurrected a dead contest and ensured that we would never forget it again. Richardson carried Carter’s momentum in the early 2000s and LaVine proved that we weren’t done with never-before-seen dunks and moments.
To me, nobody can touch Carter. While LaVine’s dunks are as spectacular as many of Carter’s, there’s something to be said for all of the narratives, all of the doubts and all of the whispers surrounding the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Carter quite literally needed to be the savior of the contest, and he was. LaVine took things to a new level altogether, but Carter laid the foundation, built the rocket, whatever you want to say.
This is taking nothing away from Wilkins, Jordan, Miner or any of those before him, but not a single one of them, in one night, made themselves into a star as Carter did. None of them had the commentators declaring (rightfully, so) that the contest over after their first dunk.
That Carter never participated in another contest that may help him in this case. The only memory we have is 2000. We can only think of the good. We can only remember Carter and the Slam Dunk Contest once again exploding into the public consciousness.
I’m comfortable in saying it: Vince Carter is the greatest NBA Slam Dunk Contest performer of all-time.