The first time someone dunked on me was in 2003. I was playing pickup basketball on a college campus and, after making three 3s in a row, I had started to run my mouth because I needed to let everyone know that they were playing basketball with the greatest basketball player of all time. I was shouting that the guy who was guarding me couldn’t guard me, and how nobody on their team could guard me, and how “PROBABLY NOBODY IN THIS WHOLE-ASS GYM CAN GUARD ME!”
On the possession immediately following my third made 3, a guy on my team drove into the paint, and when the defense sunk on him he kicked it out to me in the corner. I caught the ball and saw my defender realize his mistake. He charged at me as fast as he could, and so I pump-faked a shot and then drove to the rim. As I gathered my dribble, I noticed that their best player (a 6-foot-4 grasshopper made of muscle and steel) was there waiting for me, and so, like all of the great rim-attacking basketball prodigies that had come before me—Iverson, Jordan, Payton, Tony Parker, Rod Strickland, etc.—I jumped, closed my eyes, clumsily turned my body away from him in the air out of fear, and then lobbed the ball backward up toward the ceiling without even a hint of knowing where the rim might’ve been.
Here’s the thing of it, though: The shot actually, and incredibly, and miraculously, and unbelievably went in. It floated juuuuuuuust past the Grasshopper’s fingers as he swiped at it, caught juuuuuuuust enough of an edge of the backboard, and came off it at juuuuuuuust the right angle to send it through the net. The entire thing was ridiculous. It was almost like that play where Jordan hit that backward, spinning, no-look and-1 layup over Bill Laimbeer in the 1989 playoffs, except if you replaced all the artistry and brilliance of the play with incoordination and nacho cheese.
But the ball went in, and of course I didn’t care (a) how goofy the shot might’ve looked, or (b) how I wasn’t even trying to make it (I was trying only to not die). All that I cared about was that I’d scored. So, as I was jogging back up the court, I again started shouting about how unstoppable I was and how it didn’t matter how big someone was because “I’M COMING FOR EVERY MOTHERFUCKER’S THROAT TODAY!” But the mistake I made was, as I was making my way back up the court, I had turned my back because I’d assumed that the action had stopped behind me so that everyone could kneel down and pray at my feet. The Grasshopper, though—that son of a bitch had other plans.
Apparently, he’d immediately inbounded the ball, demanded it back, and then started charging up the court directly at me. By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late. I was, I think, 8 or so feet from the rim when I turned around, and when I did he was right there, and he had fury in his heart and a flaming death ax in his hand. He jumped, and I guess I just jumped out of instinct too, but he was way up in the sky and my feet were still close to the earth because the chains of arrogance are very heavy, and so my head was just a couple of inches above his belly button. He cocked the ball back, yammed it home, and my whole body exploded. There were chunks of me everywhere. My guts were everywhere. My blood was everywhere. People were picking my bone fragments out of their hair. It was a total mess. All my everything was all over the place. The only part of me that was missing was my pride because he had taken it and thrown it off a cliff into the Gulf of Mexico.
Now, the reason I’m telling you this anecdote is because I have a question that I’ve been thinking about since we ran the most recent version of our Disrespectful Dunk Index column that goes up after each quarter of the NBA season: Which player currently in the NBA is it that would you least like to get dunked on by?
Asked differently, but more specifically: Which player is the biggest threat to dunk on you in a way that lives forever? (That’s what’s at the center of all this: the everlasting infamy. The dunk that happened to me is fine and funny to talk about today because it’s not a thing that will live forever, or even a thing that lived longer than a week, really. I don’t remember the guy’s real name and I’m not even sure I ever saw him again, and nobody has brought it up to me one single time in at least 14 years. There are different stakes when you’re in the NBA. You can, on any given night, end up the other half of a play that doesn’t fade no matter how much time passes, like when Jordan dunked on Patrick Ewing or Dr. J dunked on Michael Cooper or LeBron dunked on Jason Terry, and so on and so forth.)
There are, by my count, 19 players in the NBA right now who are regular threats to dunk you into true oblivion. They are:
- James Johnson
- DeMar DeRozan
- Dennis Smith Jr.
- DeAndre Jordan
- LeBron James
- Russell Westbrook
- Joel Embiid
- Karl-Anthony Towns
- Zach LaVine
- Aaron Gordon
- John Wall
- Larry Nance Jr.
- Gerald Green
- Andrew Wiggins
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
- Terrence Ross
- Blake Griffin
- Donovan Mitchell
- Victor Oladipo
So, if we’re talking about a real legacy-shifting moment, which player of those would be the worst to get dunked on by? Let’s sort through everything in reverse order like we did when we tried to figure out which current NBA player had the best chance at breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s single-game scoring record. We’ll lay out some requirements that need to be met for our prospective doomsday dunker and then cross anyone off the list who doesn’t fit a particular one.
Requirement 1: It can’t be anyone who is listed as 7 feet or taller.
Three things here:
- This is an obvious rule, which is why it’s listed first. Dunks just always look better when it’s not a giant who’s doing the dunking. (This isn’t to say that a big guy is incapable of doing a big dunk or a great dunk, it’s just to say that, all things considered, dunks look better and cooler when they’re done by someone who has to jump more than a few inches to get to the rim.) That means we’re losing Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid. (I’m heartbroken that we’re losing Embiid this early, because a dunk from Embiid comes with the added potential threat of him posting something on Instagram or Twitter about it that embarrasses you even further.)
- Did you know that DeAndre Jordan is not listed as a 7-footer? He’s listed as 6-foot-11, so he avoids getting eliminated here. (A slightly weird thing: Giannis Antetokounmpo is also listed as 6-foot-11. I always forget that. I think it’s because he moves like a guard. In my head, he’s 6-foot-9 and DeAndre is 7-foot-6.)
- The ideal height range for a dunker is 6-foot-5 to 6-foot-8. Nearly all of the players who have a legitimate claim in the Greatest Dunkers of All-Time conversation fall somewhere in that range.
Remaining Dunkers: LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon, James Johnson, DeMar DeRozan, Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan, John Wall, Larry Nance Jr., Gerald Green, Andrew Wiggins, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Terrence Ross, Blake Griffin, Donovan Mitchell, Victor Oladipo
Requirement 2: It can’t be someone who plays in Detroit.
How can a dunk live forever if no one sees it?
(A real question: Have any dunks aged as badly as Blake Griffin’s greatest dunks? And I don’t mean “aged as badly” as in, “They’ve become less impressive as time goes on and humans have advanced,” because they haven’t. They’re still incredible. I mean “aged as badly” as in, “It feels a lot like as people have grown to like Blake less and less as his career has gone on, so too have they grown to view all of those very great, very electric early-in-his-career dunks as less than amazing.”)
Remaining Dunkers: LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon, James Johnson, DeMar DeRozan, Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan, John Wall, Larry Nance Jr., Gerald Green, Andrew Wiggins, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Terrence Ross, Donovan Mitchell, Victor Oladipo
Requirement 3: We need proof of concept.
Con Air is one of my favorite movies, and so I’m going to lean on it a bit here. In it, a bunch of deadly, dangerous prisoners are being flown on a prison plane to a new supermax prison. As the prisoners are being loaded onto the plane, John Cusack, who plays a U.S. marshal named Vince Larkin, runs through each of their rap sheets. “This one’s done it all,” says Larkin, when the movie’s main villain is being escorted onto the plane. “Kidnapping, robbery, murder, extortion. His name is Cyrus Grissom, a.k.a. Cyrus the Virus, 39 years old, 25 of them spent in our institution. But he’s bettered himself, earned two degrees, including his juris doctorate. He also killed 11 fellow inmates, incited three riots, and escaped twice. Likes to brag that he killed more men than cancer.”
Now, the reason Larkin gives those rundowns in Con Air (and, really, why anyone gives a similar sort of rundown in any movie), is because they want to establish clearly and firmly that the person being talked about should, without question, be feared and treated with great caution. (Another good example is the “If he’s in jail, it’s because he wants to be in jail” monologue from Law Abiding Citizen.) I think we need a similar thing here. We need someone to meet us in a dark alley and list off a bunch of old mega-dunks on people as proof of concept that each prospective dunker is capable of M.B.D. (murder by dunk). If that’s not a thing that can happen with any of the dunkers on the list, then it means they can’t be in contention. And that means that—and this is kind of surprising, but—we’re losing Aaron Gordon.
Gordon is a world-class dunker, and the show he put on in the 2016 dunk contest will live forever. That said, he hasn’t had a big, monstrous, crushing in-game dunk on someone in the NBA that we can look back to and go, “Oh, no, I definitely do not want that,” like all the other guys. (The closest is probably that put-back dunk he had on Bradley Beal that’s embedded at the top of this section, but put-back dunks don’t count.) So he’s out.
(You know what? I think this means we have to lose Donovan Mitchell and Dennis Smith Jr. here, too. Both of those guys have had impressive dunks this season, but I don’t know for certain that those dunks are going to be on their career highlights tape when they retire from basketball. They’re out, too.)
Remaining Dunkers: LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Zach LaVine, James Johnson, DeMar DeRozan, DeAndre Jordan, John Wall, Larry Nance Jr., Gerald Green, Andrew Wiggins, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Terrence Ross, Victor Oladipo
Requirement 4: We need a superstar.
This is probably the toughest category. But it’s also a necessary one, because if you’re talking about not wanting to be on the bad end of an ultra-dunk that’s going to live on forever, then you’re talking about not being on the bad end of an ultra-dunk delivered by a star, because those are the only ones that become iconic.
That means we’re losing a lot of guys who are capable of M.B.D. We’re losing Zach LaVine (I love him dearly and he is probably the best all-around dunker since Vince Carter, but he hasn’t been an All-Star yet); James Johnson (it is the hardest decision of my life to eliminate a guy nicknamed “Bloodsport” from this particular competition); DeAndre Jordan (also a sentimental favorite of mine, but he’s never broken into that upper echelon of NBA stardom); my beloved Larry Nance Jr.; Gerald Green (I would not buck back too much if you read that line earlier about Zach LaVine probably being the best all-around dunker since Vince Carter and shouted, “YOU FORGOT ABOUT GERALD GREEN, YOU IDIOT”); Andrew Wiggins (I honestly don’t understand why Andrew Wiggins hasn’t grown to become one of the 15 best players in the NBA yet); Terrence Ross; and Victor Oladipo (whom I’m sure I’ll regret cutting).
(You know what? I think we also have to lose DeMar DeRozan here, too. It sucks, because [a] he’s a good dark-horse pick in basically any NBA argument, especially this one; and [b] he possesses all the tools needed to dunk your brains out of your skull.)
(The whole “Is DeMar DeRozan a real superstar?” conversation is interesting to consider and talk about. Probably the best way to think about his place in the NBA is, OK, you know those big bags of Jolly Ranchers you can buy from Target or Walmart or whatever? There are several different flavors in there [grape, watermelon, cherry, etc.], and they all for sure belong, but then there’s green apple, and people either super ride for green apple or they super don’t. It’s either, “100 percent, yes, green apple belongs in here because it’s delicious and an elite flavor,” or it’s “100 percent, no, green apple does not belong in here because it’s so very clearly inferior to the other better, grander flavors.” That’s what it feels like when you’re trying to figure out whether DeRozan is a superstar. He’s the green apple of NBA superstars.) (I think.)
Remaining Dunkers: LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Giannis Antetokounmpo
Requirement 5: We need a superstar who’s a big-time leaper.
This is where John Wall gets nixed, which is especially devastating because he is so good at dunking on a person and then making that person look like a total asshole for even being in the way of his dunk.
Remaining Dunkers: LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo
Requirement 6: It has to be someone who has real menace, real vengeance, and real anger in his bones.
For a dunk to live forever, it needs to be rooted in something, be it released frustration (like the Dr. J dunk that I mentioned earlier, which happened in the 1983 Finals between the Sixers and the Lakers after the Sixers had lost their two previous matchups in the Finals to the Lakers) or actualized vengeance (like the LeBron dunk on Jason Terry, which came after Terry spent a couple of seasons talking about how LeBron had choked in the 2011 Finals against him and the Mavericks) or true disdain (like the Jordan dunk on Ewing). That’s why the winner here has to be Russell Westbrook.
LeBron activates the full strength of his superpowers only when he is personally attached to a person or a moment. And Giannis (who, frankly, I’m surprised has lasted this long) is good at making that angry sneer face, but right now it still feels more like a reflection of the type of player he’ll eventually become and less like who he is at this precise moment (like in The Wire when Kenard was pretending to be Omar). Russy, though, doesn’t need a reason to hate you, or a reason to be fully engaged and ready to destroy you. All he needs is for you to be in the way. You give him that, you might as well set yourself on fire. He’d be the worst person to be dunked on by in the NBA.
Winning Dunker: Russell Westbrook