Dunking in a game is radically different than dunking in the Dunk Contest. As Eric Freeman pointed out at The Baseline — in game the “how” is often tightly defined as the dunker has a small window and defenders are closing in on him. It’s a race to the basket. The best dunks often come right on or over that defender who closed out a split second too late.
Part of the problem with the dunk contest is we pick great in-game dunkers and expect them to be able to be brilliant in a totally different setting — one without defenders, where creativity is prized as much or more than athleticism.
Personally, give me the in-game dunks any day. Which leads to the question: Who are the five best in-game dunkers in the league? I’d say:
1. LeBron James, Cleveland. He is athletically gifted like nobody in the league, he gets to the rim on drives nobody else could, and he finishes with thunderous, manly dunks on plays when everyone else would have settled for the pull-up jumper. LeBron would make my all-time, in-game dunkers list (along with Michael Jordan, young Kobe Bryant and Charles Barkley, to start).
2. Josh Smith, Atlanta. The best ally-oop finisher in the league, and maybe the second best athlete in the league. Like LeBron his finishes drives with dunks that nobody else really finishes — and he does it with the left hand, thank you very much. (Smith is the one guy who would make the blocks and dunks top five list.)
3. Shannon Brown, Lakers. He is the prototypical player made for in game dunks, but not the right personality for the dunk contest. But the LetShannonDunk movement started for a reason — this guy can throw down and often does it over people. He loses a couple points because so many of his best dunks come in garbage time, but you can’t hold that against him too much.
4. Rudy Gay, Memphis. Out in transition, maybe the best finisher in the league. When Memphis runs there is building electricity in the air because Gay may get the chance to finish and have the highlight of the game.
5. Dwyane Wade, Miami. He does not dunk as often as some of the others on the list, but his path to the basket is always crowded with defenders, so when he does dunk it is almost always over somebody. Plus, he plays with such a reckless abandon for his own well being that he also dunks balls he shouldn’t.
Honorable mention: Dwight Howard, Andre Iguodala.