Shaquille O’Neal broke both the single-season and single-game dunk records in his rookie season. And none of it counts.
NBA official dunk stats show Dwight Howard as the all time career dunk leader with 2,950 career dunks. Rudy Gobert holds the single-season dunk record with 306 dunks in the 2018-19 season. Shaq holds the single-game record with 11 single-game dunks on 3 separate occasions, but none of those occasions were in his rookie season.
When you start digging into the official NBA dunk stats, you start to notice something. There’s a lot of missing data. And that means that none of the official NBA dunk records are accurate.
This is what’s going on…
Missing NBA Dunk Stats
Official dunk stats are actually pretty easy to reference. The NBA logs and distributes official dunk stats for every game. It used to be you had to buy books and track down newspapers to find reliable stats. Not today. Today they’re all searchable online.
But the NBA didn’t start counting dunks until the mid-90’s!
Yup, you read that right. As far as NBA record keeping is concerned, dunks didn’t exist until the 1996-97 season.
There are obvious problems with this.
First, there’s a long list of NBA legends who get big fat 0’s on their official dunks stat lines. Bill Russell has no dunks despite film footage proving otherwise. Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, two players who literally forced rule changes with their dunking prowess, have not a single official dunk between them.
There’s a decent argument that the OG’s were less interested in dunking, favoring finesse shots over the bombastic jam. So, maybe their stats wouldn’t upset the records as much as you might expect.
But the argument doesn’t exactly hold. Considering Kareem’s longevity, he would have had to maintain an unreasonably low dunk/FG percentage to not at least make the top 10 career dunks. And Wilt’s 100-point game (also unofficial) would be a prime candidate for a potential single-game dunk record.
Perhaps a more concerning issue, missing dunk data affects the first 4 seasons of Shaquille O’Neal’s career. This means that the most iconic dunker of all time, officially the second most prolific dunker in NBA history, is only getting credit for 9 of his 17 seasons in the league.
What’s more, there’s some strong indication that Shaq’s first 4 seasons were among his most dunk-centric. I’d go so far as to call it proof…
The Unofficial Shaq Dunk Data
Dunk data before 1996 isn’t officially acknowledged by the NBA, but it does exist. There were plenty of amateurs and professionals who were recording dunk stats prior to ’96. These stats are not all reliable, or easy to find.
The gold standard for unofficial NBA data can be found in Harvey Pollack’s 76ers media guides. Pollack was a legendary statistician with The Sixers, and he worked in the league from the very earliest days of its existence.
In the 60’s, Pollack started meticulously publishing some of his obscure NBA statistics in a yearly guide. Then and now, it’s not uncommon for teams to publish their own media guides. But Pollack’s media guides built a well-deserved reputation for including the coolest and most fascinating statistics.
In 1988, Pollack started including dunk data in these statistical yearbooks. I tracked down a copy of the 1993-94 release. This would have been the first issue where data for Shaq’s 1992-93 rookie season would have been available.
I found this on page 147…
O’Neal tops Pollack’s 1992-93 dunking totals. He’s credited with 322 dunks in his rookie season. It should be noted that the Magic did not make the playoffs that season.
This number is confirmed on a 1993 Topps Frequent Flyers basketball card.
You’ll notice a second column on Pollack’s stats entry though. The HG heading indicates a ‘Highest Game’. According to Pollack, Shaq had a game in his rookie season where he dropped 13 dunks. This would exceed the official record of 11 dunks, set by Shaq (on 3 separate occasions) later in his career.
There’s no reason to doubt either of these numbers. Pollack’s stats are highly reliable. I suppose it could be argued that Pollack may have had a slightly different definition of a dunk than the current accepted definition. But I don’t see any definition of a dunk that could rob Shaq of a 16 dunk lead over Gobert’s official 306.
The 13 dunks in a game record might be more questionable if we didn’t have video proof. It sure looks like rookie Shaq knocked down 13 dunks in an April, 1993 game against the Sixers (and Manute Bol, btw).
Harvey Pollack’s dunk stats reportedly go back to 1976 for Sixers players, starting with the 1977-78 media guides. This means that Dr J’s entire career is covered. A league-wide tally dates back to 1987 with the 1988-89 Sixers Media Guide. This gives us much more data on Jordan.
While I’m still in the process of acquiring these older guides, there is a youtube video from Dunkman827 that claims to have gleaned their dunk data from these Harvey Pollack stats.
It reports Shaq’s dunk stats from 3 of the missing years. I was able to get the 4th from a redditor.
I’d still like to confirm these numbers in print. The ’96-’97 guide is in the mail right now. I’m keeping an eye out for the others. This is a strong indication that the true single-season dunk record is closer to 381. I’m not positive yet whether that number includes the playoffs, but the magic were booted by the Pacers in the first round in a 3 game sweep. Even if some of those dunks were in the post-season, he still would have had to have at least 340 in the regular season.
If we add these missing numbers to Shaq’s official career total of 2626, we get 3,814. He’s credited with an additional 574 post-season dunks. The grand total is 4,388 career dunks. Some of those may have been in the playoffs, but Dwight Howard’s total, playoffs included, is 3252.
Shaq is definitely the rightful holder of the NBA dunk crown. He has the most legitimate claim on all three major dunk records: career, single-season and single-game.
It is possible that Wilt could have crushed Shaq’s single-game record at some point. Kareem has a decent shot at having rivaled his career dunk total. Still, both are unlikely.
Many point to Wilt’s 100-point game. That was actually a game that Harvey Pollack attended in person and ran stats for. But even Harvey wasn’t counting dunks that far back. There’s very little chance that we’ll ever be able to assemble conclusive data back into the 70’s.
Still, we do know Wilt hit 28 of those 100 points off of free throws. That leaves 36 field goals. For Wilt to hit 14 of those as dunks, he would have been running at nearly 40% dunks/field goals. That’s very unlikely.
It can be painfully frustrating and almost unbelievable in an age where fine-grained data is so readily available, to find these massive data gaps that stretch into what, for many of us, is recent memory. It would be amazing to maintain a central repository of game footage, that can be combed through and analyzed collectively. Probably not gonna happen.