Past NBA Defensive Stars with Best Shot to Stop Today's Biggest Offensive Force
What would happen in a hypothetical world where the greatest defensive players from bygone eras could time-travel to the present and guard the elite scorers of today? If you could pick one person from the past to guard a current star, who would it be?
I pondered this question, and these are my answers.
Then, I considered the specific style of play of the past defenders and deliberated over who could best challenge the present-day scorers. So this is not a list history’s top defensive players but rather the ones particularly suited to each of the top scorers.
The lone qualification for the past defenders was that they were eligible for the Hall of Fame.
They are listed here in reverse order of where the contemporary players finished in the scoring race last season.
10. Bruce Bowen on DeMar DeRozan
Bruce Bowen is one of the great perimeter defenders of all time. He was the perfect blend of natural ability, lateral quickness, aggressiveness and “dirty.”
Tracy McGrady described him for Jesse Blanchard of 48 Minutes of Hell:
He was relentless with his defense, it was a pleasure competing against him every year. He was a fierce competitor. What I liked best about him is it didn’t matter who it was, whether it was a guy that averaged 30 points or a guy that averaged 10, he gave them his best efforts.
Even some of the greatest penetrators of all time, like McGrady (at his peak), Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade had trouble getting around Bowen. If they did, you better believe DeRozan would.
And DeRozan’s game really depends on his penetration. Last season, per NBA.com/STATS, 31.3 percent of his field goals came less than five feet from the rim, and he shot 62.0 percent from there. He shot .377 from more than five feet away.
DeRozan was decent from mid-range but needs the penetration to set it up. That wouldn’t happen with Bowen guarding him.
9. Hakeem Olajuwon on DeMarcus Cousins
DeMarcus Cousins is one of the most versatile big men in the NBA. Last year, his box-score numbers were impressive all the way around: 1,614 points, 207 assists, 831 rebounds, 109 steals and 91 blocks.
That feat has been accomplished just 20 times in the history of the NBA, and with the exception of Kevin Garnett, everyone who else who has done it is already in the Hall of Fame. There’s little doubt that Garnett will be there someday, too.
So, why not fight versatility with versatility here? Olajuwon did everything that Cousins does, but he did it better. More than anything, that’s true with his defense. Olajuwon had a unique combination of athleticism, length and strength that made him, in my opinion, the greatest defensive center in history.
Asked by Marvin R. Shanken of Cigar Aficionado to name the starters on his personal Dream Team, Michael Jordan answered:
But if I had to pick a center, I would take Olajuwon. That leaves out Shaq, Patrick Ewing. It leaves out Wilt Chamberlain. It leaves out a lot of people. And the reason I would take Olajuwon is very simple: he is so versatile because of what he can give you from that position. It's not just his scoring, not just his rebounding or not just his blocked shots. People don't realize he was in the top seven in steals. He always made great decisions on the court. For all facets of the game, I have to give it to him.
There were all those positive numbers, but Cousins was not so good with the turnovers, committing 3.5 per game.
In addition, his scoring strengths are on post-up plays and as the roll man in the pick-and-roll, per MySynergySports.com (subscription required). A full 50 percent of his field goals came on those two types of plays.
But Olajuwon was an amazing low-post defender, even handling all-time greats Shaquille O’Neal and Patrick Ewing in the NBA Finals. Certainly, he would handle Cousins, too.
Both in terms of stopping what Cousins does well and exploiting his weaknesses, Olajuwon would assure that Cousins has a very bad day.
8. Bobby Jones on LaMarcus Aldridge
LaMarcus Aldridge is more agile than athletic, more skilled than dynamic, more smooth than explosive and more cerebral than physical. That’s not to dismiss the latter in each comparison, but to emphasize the former.
When you’re watching him play, you’re not so much impressed with the moves he throws down as the consistency, the steadiness of effort and the manner in which he plays.
The perfect person to guard him is a similar type of player: Bobby Jones.
Jones began his pro career from 1974-76 with the ABA's Denver Nuggets, then stayed with them in their first two years in the NBA. In 1978 he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers.
His first eight years in the NBA, he was First-Team All-Defensive team. This is all the more remarkable in that he was possibly the cleanest player ever.
According to Michael Louthian in his book 30 Christian Impact Athletes, contrary to most players today who get the shocked, “Who me?” look on their faces when whistled for a foul, Jones went to the extreme of even correcting the refs when they didn’t call him for one.
Jones used the same sorts of skills, persistent effort, hard work, agility and consistency in his defense that Aldridge is noted for. With both players, much of what they offer doesn’t show in the box scores. The great Julius Erving said of Jones, per Sam Goldaper of The New York Times:
Bobby can complement anybody's game. I'm learning from him. So many of the things he does are difficult for the fans to understand or appreciate. His contributions can't always be measured by what shows up in the stats. Just Bobby's mere court presence is enough to beat you.
As matchups go, this would be one of the most enjoyable to watch: a contest between gentlemen.
7. Sidney Moncrief on Stephen Curry
When we talk about the great players of the past, one of the most overlooked is Sidney Moncrief, who may have been the greatest defensive point guard in NBA history, even over Gary Payton.
Payton was a great defender, but the better three-point-shooting point guards of his era, Tim Hardaway (35.5 percent) and Mookie Blaylock (37.7 percent), shot as well or better from deep when playing Payton.
He’s a great defender, but not the ideal to defend a shooter with the range of Curry. That distinction goes to Moncrief.
His NBA.com bio page explains:
Although he was a legitimate offensive threat, Moncrief may have been best known for his unrelenting defensive play. The 6-4 guard stayed in a textbook crouch, using his lithe, sinewy frame to keep within an eyelash of his opponent. His springy legs (he had a 36-inch vertical leap) gave him above-average shotblocking abilities, and the compact Moncrief could bench-press his body weight plus 30 pounds, which gave him the needed muscle to be a force underneath the basket. And he was always among the first players back on defense after a basket or turnover. The NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award was seemingly created just for him in 1982; he won the award its first two years of existence.
Last season, per Synergy, Curry had 98 of his 281 threes (postseason and regular season combined) come off the pick-and-roll. Another 58 came in transition.
Combining aggressiveness and strength, Moncrief was excellent at fighting over picks. That’s one of the reasons it was so hard to create space against him. That would limit Curry’s threes off screens.
Moncrief’s alacrity in getting back on defense would cut down Curry’s success in transition threes as well. Combined, that’s more than half of Curry’s deep balls. And if you take that away from Curry, his scoring suffers.
Last season, when he made two or fewer treys he scored just 17.1 points per game on 39.7 percent shooting and 24.9 percent from deep. Moncrief would stick on Curry all game, take away his shooting and make him an inefficient scorer.
6. Bill Russell on Blake Griffin
What makes Blake Griffin such a special player is his unique combination of size and athleticism. The defenders who can match him in both areas are few and far between. First on that short list is Bill Russell.
There’s a tendency to underrate the athleticism of some of history’s greatest players. Certainly, training advances have helped modern-day players to be more athletic, but if Russell had the same advantages he would benefit accordingly.
I mean, how many centers do you see grab the ball, drive it full-court, then jump over an opposing player to finish with a finger roll? That was athletic then, and it’s athletic now. It’s the type of splendid ridiculousnes you expect from Griffin.
Another aspect of Russell’s defense was a tremendous understanding of the game. He literally changed the way it was played. Per his bio on NBA.com:
Russell's impact on the game can't really be tracked through NBA statistics. Blocked shots were not an official statistic until 1973-74, and the league only recorded total rebounds, without distinguishing between offensive and defensive boards until that same season.
Russell was revolutionizing the game in ways that were clearly understood, even if they weren't measured. His ability to leave his man and slide over to cover an opponent driving to the hoop was startling. He was unmatched at swooping across the lane like a big bird to block and alter shots. The rest of the Celtics defenders began to funnel their men toward Russell and become more daring with their perimeter defense, knowing that he was looming behind.
Much of what Griffin does well is position himself to get the ball and score it. Defending Griffin is not just about going up and blocking his alley-oop dunks; it’s about not letting him have the opportunity to get the easy looks.
Russell’s highly intelligent play would keep him positioned to prevent Griffin from getting the ball in the air. His athleticism and strength would slow down if not stop Griffin in the post. And when Griffin did slip by, Russell could always “swoop like a bird.”
5. Michael Jordan on James Harden
Perhaps this is a little too easy, but that doesn't make it untrue. Michael Jordan wasn't just the greatest offensive shooting guard of all-time, he was the greatest defensive 2 as well.
Pay no attention to the 20-somethings who, with their exhaustive research of YouTube clips, argue that Jordan’s defense was overrated. I’m here to tell you that it wasn't. Jordan just didn't let the ball-handler get past him, and he didn't give them any space to shoot either. He was worthy of all nine of his First Team All-Defensive nominations and worthy of his Defensive Player of the Year award (1987-88).
In his entire career with the Bulls, only four opposing shooting guards scored 40 or more points in a game, and only 49 scored at least 30 (with nine of those coming in his rookie season). That’s out of 930 games. By contrast, Jordan scored 40 165 times and 30 537 times.
James Harden is an elite scorer, but the facts are working against him here. First, there’s a problem that he would have a very hard time scoring on Jordan directly. Jordan is just bigger, faster and stronger. He stopped better guards than Harden.
Exacerbating the problem is that Harden won’t score indirectly either.
Last year, 576 of Harden’s points came from free throws. He’s very good at drawing fouls. However, Jordan is equally adept at not fouling. He averaged just 2.6 fouls per game for his career. Jordan was able to play physical defense without fouling, and that’s the perfect combination to stop Harden.
4. Kevin McHale on Kevin Love
It takes a Kevin from Minnesota to stop a Kevin in Minnesota.
Minnesota Timberwolf Kevin Love is a phenomenal player, and it’s possible that his particular blend of talents goes underappreciated. According to Synergy, 180 of his plays were offensive rebounds, and 190 of his shots were from three.
Combined, that means 38.9 percent of his points came from deep or were put-backs. The reason this is a remarkable thing is the contrast in space. Spending time behind the three-point line, you’re going to have a harder time getting offensive boards. Somehow, Love is able to do both, though.
Ergo, to defend him well requires possessing both the quickness and agility to get out to the arc to challenge his dead-eye shooting, as well as the size and strength to body up with him inside and keep him off the glass.
Minnesota native and Boston Celtic great Kevin McHale would have those tools at his disposal. While he’s mostly known more for his array of low-post moves (many of which he invented), McHale was very much a two-way player.
He was named to three First Team All-Defensive teams and to the Second Team thrice.
He was a banger inside. While the stretch 4 wasn't really something to deal with yet, he would have been able to hold his own against most shooters. It wasn't uncommon for McHale to guard 3s who were too quick for his teammate, Larry Bird.
Both inside and out, Mchale could stick with Love, and that's saying something.
Now if there’s only some way to get Kevin Garnett in this conversation.
3. Dennis Rodman on LeBron James
LeBron James is a tough player to “stop,” but we have seen him struggle at times, and there’s a commonality with the defenders who frustrate him: They are all strong, aggressive and have great lateral quickness.
Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard have both successfully defended him with that combination of strengths.
And a little bit of “blow-in-your-ear” crazy doesn’t hurt; just ask Lance Stephenson.
If you were to design the perfect player to defend James, it would be Dennis Rodman. He had the right blend of everything.
He was just as strong as James. He was tremendous at knowing how to use his weight, which is why he was always in position to secure the rebound. He worked relentlessly on the defensive end of the court.
People talk about how LeBron can defend all five positions, but Rodman consistently shut down anyone and everyone he was asked to guard. The players he shut down ranged from Jason Kidd to Shaquille O’Neal.
His ability to guard players who were bigger and stronger was almost surreal. Scottie Pippen wrote about him for Bulls.com:
He was one of those guys that played so much bigger than his size allowed. Most of the power forwards he played against were not only taller, but much stronger. Utah’s Karl Malone comes to mind. Yet Dennis was always one of the top defenders—twice named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year (1990 and 1991) and a seven-time member of the All-Defensive First Team. He would utilize his quickness to his advantage in terms of getting position or creating fast break opportunities. Those were his strengths as a player and he mastered them. He deserves credit for that—it’s who Dennis was and he never tried to change it.
Rodman would physically impose his will on James. And then he’d confuse him with just a little bit of crazy. He wouldn’t get inside James’ head; he would dance in it wearing a wedding dress.
It’s my belief that if we had on/off stats during Rodman’s era, we could truly appreciate how great he was on defense.
2. Michael Cooper on Carmelo Anthony
I grew up in the '80s, the era of the Los Angeles "Showtime" Lakers and Boston "Big Three" Celtics. The Lakers were mostly known for their offense, and the Celtics for their defense. But there was one dude on the Lakers who was a designated stopper. His name was Michael Cooper.
Cooper wasn’t a starter for most his career. He wasn’t a great scorer, either, averaging just 8.9 points. What he was, though, is a championship-level defensive specialist.
Pretty much, this is the way things worked: If a perimeter player was going nuts against L.A., Cooper would check in, promptly and completely shut down said opponent, then sit back down.
If it was the fourth quarter, that opponent might as well give up scoring for the duration of the game. Cooper stopped everyone.
Anthony is an incredibly skilled offensive player, but I don’t think there is an on-the-ball defender in the NBA today who matches Cooper. He might have been the best ever, in part because he was able to do everything defensively.
He’d stop opponents from driving by, from stepping back and burying shots or from posting him up. Anthony might have a diverse number of weapons, but Cooper would know how to stop them all.
It would be a great matchup, but eventually Anthony would get frustrated and just start hurling up bad shots.
1. Scottie Pippen on Kevin Durant
Asking what would happen if Kevin Durant were guarded by Scottie Pippen is the basketball equivalent of the question: What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
Durant is listed at 6’9”, but his wingspan is 7’4.75,” according to Draft Express.com. He’s almost a 40 percent three-point shooter. He scored the second-most points in the NBA on drives last season with 504. And he has a 47.7 percent free-throw rate, making his freebies 87 percent of the time.
In other words, Durant can go over you (jumper), around you (drive) or through you (draw the foul). That makes him really tough to defend, which might be why he’s collecting scoring championships (four already, and he's only 25!) like a kid collects stamps.
Scottie Pippen was 6’8”, 228 pounds and had a 88-inch wingspan, per his Wikipedia article. That would make him nearly as long as Durant. It certainly wouldn't be so easy for Durant to just shoot over Pippen.
Pippen also had remarkable instincts, reaction time and lateral quickness. His ability to stay in front of opponents was arguably the thing which stood out most on his defense. As good as Durant is, Pippen shut down even better ball-handlers in his day.
In the 1991 NBA Finals, Pippen took over the primary responsibility of guarding Magic Johnson starting in Game 2. For the duration of the series, Johnson shot just 39.6 percent from the field.
So Durant wouldn’t be going around Pippen.
Finally, in spite of his aggressive defense, Pippen only committed 2.8 fouls per game over the course of his career. Durant’s not likely to rack up points going through Pippen either.
No one is going to “stop” Durant, but Pippen would sure slow him down. And while Durant will still get some points, he’s not lighting up Pippen. Durant would get some points, but inefficiently. Either way, it sure would be fun to watch.