Who made the best slam dunks in NBA history?

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Answered by: Chuck, An Expert in the NBA Basketball Category
For many, the slam dunk is the signature shot of the NBA. It combines superior athleticism with creativity, elegance and power.

No one player can lay a claim on the best slam dunks in NBA history. The mantle of basketball's top slam-dunk artist has been passed down through the generations.

In the league's early days, the dunk was seen as an unwelcome act of showmanship. Anyone who tried one during a game was subject to painful retribution from angry opponents. Throughout the 1950s and '60s, few dared to jump high enough to dunk.

Those who did dunk were tall centers like Wilt Chamberlain, who didn't need to put much space between their feet and the floor to reach the basket. The best slam dunks of the 1960s went largely unseen, as would-be superstar Connie Hawkins was banned from the league for most of the decade because of a tangential connection to point-shaving.

The American Basketball Association, which debuted in 1967, helped popularize the dunk. In addition to opening its doors to Hawkins, it also was the first stage for Julius Erving, or Dr. J., as he was better known.

The first widely recognized slam-dunk contest, at the 1976 ABA All-Star Game, became the perfect showcase for the Doctor. He demonstrated just how far the dunk had evolved when he leaped from the free-throw line and flew all the way to the hoop to jam the ball through, winning the contest.

Even as the divide between the ABA and NBA left plenty of room for debate over the best players and teams, there was no doubting who could pull off the best slam dunks.

When the ABA was absorbed by the NBA later that year, dunking stars like Erving, David "Skywalker" Thompson and others brought their airborne panache to the NBA. Still, it wasn't until 1984 that another All-Star Game dunk contest took place. Erving was the sentimental favorite to win the first NBA contest, but Larry Nance of the Phoenix Suns outdueled the Doctor in the finals.

The next year, the two most prominent heirs to the slam-dunk throne emerged. Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins, dubbed "The Human Highlight Film," turned back rookie Chicago Michael Jordan in the finals of the 1985 contest.

Though injuries to both prevented a rematch the next two years, it was clear that Wilkins and Jordan were a cut above the rest.

The 1988 contest was perhaps the dramatic and artistic peak of the slam dunk. Wilkins and Jordan again met in the finals, this time before a partisan Chicago Stadium crowd. Wilkins displayed his signature windmill move, but Jordan's last dunk, a liftoff from the free-throw line that recalled Dr. J's ABA days, proved the clincher. The judging, perhaps influenced by Jordan's home fans, was controversial, but it didn't stand in the way of the brilliance of some of the best slam dunks the NBA has ever seen.

Jordan never returned to the dunk contest, and Wilkins appeared just once more, winning again in 1990. The event soon became the domain of more obscure players who often relied upon gimmicks, like Dee Brown and his pump-up shoes, and Cedric Ceballos and his blindfold.

An 18-year-old future superstar named Kobe Bryant won the contest in 1997, but his presence was not enough to prevent its discontinuation the next year. Yet with a lockout-shortened season, the end of Jordan's Chicago dynasty and the arrival of acrobatic "Half-Man, Half-Amazing" Vince Carter all happening soon thereafter, the league brought back the competition in 2000.

Carter unsurprisingly won the revived contest, staking his claim to the best slam dunks of a new century. He never returned to defend his title, however, and the contest was again dominated by lesser-known players in the early 2000s.

Diminutive, 5-foot-9-inch Nate Robinson broke up the monotony with a surprising victory in 2006, evoking memories of 5-foot-7 Spud Webb, who had won 20 years prior. What Robinson did for shorter players, the next great dunk artist did for tall men.

Dwight Howard often led the league in dunks during regular game play, the latest in the progeny of muscular post players like Chamberlain and Shaquille O'Neal to do so. Yet when he donned a Superman cape and put his superior leaping ability on display in the 2008 contest, he became the first center to also be recognized as pro basketball's most artistic dunk-maker.

Howard was the favorite to win the next year as well, but when he agreed to stand in front of Robinson and let the tiny former champ jump over his 6-foot-11 frame, Howard ceded the throne. With the deposed "Superman" declining to compete in 2010, Robinson became the first player to win three dunk contests.

In 2011, rookie Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers brought renewed interest to dunking during games. An early-season jam in the face of New York center Timofey Mozgov made Griffin a national name. Griffin's fans eagerly posted videos of his best slam dunks online, and the mediocre Clippers made an uncommon number of appearances on national television.

With a long career seemingly ahead of him, Griffin gives NBA fans hope that the best slam dunks are yet to come.

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