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60 Greatest Defensive Players in NBA History

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 5, 2011

60 Greatest Defensive Players in NBA History

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    Michael Jordan, like many other players and coaches in NBA history, loved to say that defense wins championships. In fact, he'd make that quite clear after each and every title that he won with the Chicago Bulls. 

    Even though that adage is slightly misleading, defense is indeed a very important part of the championship puzzle. 

    So, who are the best players on the defensive end of the court in the history of The Association? 

    At first, I set out to rank the 60 best such players, but ran into difficulties. After all, how am I supposed to compare the tenacious perimeter defense of Gary Payton to the unmatched fundamentals of Tim Duncan in the low post? 

    In the end, I compiled a list of my 60 best defenders in the history of the NBA and then sorted them into positions before ranking them by position. Read on to see how it unfolded. 

Point Guards

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    Generally some of the quickest players (both with hands and feet) on the court, the point guards are the first line of defense. 

    10 of them showed up in my top 60 defensive players of all time. 

    Read on for who they are. 

10. Fat Lever

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    Years Played: 1982-1994

    Position: Point guard

    Team: Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks

    Career Per-Game Stats: 2.2 steals and 0.3 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: One-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    If only we were judging names here. Then Fat Lever would find himself a lot higher up the point guard leaderboard. But as it stands, this terrific thief has to settle for last amongst the point guards. 

9. Rajon Rondo

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    Years Played: 2006-present

    Position: Point guard

    Team: Boston Celtics

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.9 steals and 0.1 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Two-time All-Defensive First Team, One-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    The best defensive point guard in the NBA, Rajon Rondo makes up for his lack of scoring abilities with his great nose for the ball and intense hustle on the less glamorous side of the court. 

8. Chris Paul

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    Years Played: 2005-present

    Position: Point Guard

    Team: New Orleans Hornets

    Career Per-Game Stats: 2.4 steals and 0.1 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: One-time All-Defensive First Team, Two-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    CP3 is always among the league leaders when it comes to steals, finishing atop the NBA multiple times in his still-young NBA career. Paul is the rare point guard capable of thoroughly dominating a game from either end of the court. 

7. Norm Van Lier

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    Years Played: 1969-1979

    Position: Point guard

    Team: Cincinnati Royals, Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.8 steals and 0.2 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Three-time All-Defensive First Team, Five-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Norm Van Lier may be a bit forgotten about nowadays, but the man most famous for his contributions to the Chicago Bulls in the 1970s remain very impressive. Stormin' Norman played with virtually unmatched intensity at all times. 

6. John Stockton

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    Years Played: 1984-2003

    Position: Point guard

    Team: Utah Jazz

    Career Per-Game Stats: 2.2 steals and 0.2 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Five-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Through a combination of dirty elbows (that went mostly unnoticed by referees) and a great nose for the basketball on the defensive end, John Stockton racked up a ton of his myriad assists thanks to stealing the ball away and hitting a wide open man on the ensuing fast break. 

5. Maurice Cheeks

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    Years Played: 1978-1993

    Position: Point guard

    Team: Philadelphia 76ers, San Antonio Spurs, New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks, New Jersey Nets

    Career Per-Game Stats: 2.1 steals and 0.3 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Four-time All-Defensive First Team, One-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Another great ballhawk, Maurice Cheeks played during the golden age of guards in the NBA and still managed to shut the vast majority of them down. No one wanted to go up against this guy during his prime. 

4. Jason Kidd

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    Years Played: 1994-present

    Position: Point guard

    Team: Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, New Jersey Nets

    Career Per-Game Stats: 2.0 steals and 0.3 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Four-time All-Defensive First Team, Five-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    It's hard to believe it now that Jason Kidd is pushing 40 years of age, but during his prime, Kidd was incredibly quick and just as effective on defense as offense. He remains a great rebounder and stealer of the basketball, but he's not as good as he once was anymore. 

3. Dennis Johnson

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    Years Played: 1976-1990

    Position: Point guard

    Team: Seattle SuperSonics, Phoenix Suns, Boston Celtics

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.3 steals and 0.6 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Six-time All-Defensive First Team, Three-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    During the beginning of his professional career with the Seattle SuperSonics, DJ didn't seem like much of a defender, but he bloomed as his career went on. With the Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics, Johnson was a mainstay on the All-Defensive squads thanks to his great on-ball defense and surprising blocking ability for a point guard. 

2. Gary Payton

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    Years Played: 1990-2007

    Position: Point guard

    Team: Seattle SuperSonics, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.8 steals and 0.2 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: One-time Defensive Player of the Year, Nine-time All-Defensive First Team

     

    Gary Payton was called The Glove because of his incredible defense, capable of smothering opposing players like a baseball glove does a baseball. Enough said. 

1. Walt Frazier

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    Years Played: 1967-1980

    Position: Point guard

    Team: New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.9 steals and 0.2 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Seven-time All-Defensive First Team

     

    Clyde was all about style, off the court, on the offensive end of the court and even on the defensive side of the court. With incredibly quick hands, Frazier would lure the player with the ball to sleep and then suddenly pounce to steal the ball away. He was really the first player to make thievery on the court into an art. 

Shooting Guards

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    Shooting guards are generally some of the best scorers in the NBA, which makes guarding them especially difficult.  

    13 shooting guards showed up in my top 60 defensive players of all time. 

    Read on for who they are. 

13. Dwyane Wade

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    Years Played: 2003-present

    Position: Shooting guard

    Team: Miami Heat

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.8 steals and 1.0 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Three-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Dwyane Wade is an unbelievable offensive player, which makes his contributions of defense go largely unnoticed. But Wade is a tenacious on-the-ball defender capable of shutting down even the best scorers in the current NBA. 

12. Nate McMillan

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    Years Played: 1986-1998

    Position: Shooting guard

    Team: Seattle SuperSonics

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.9 steals and 0.4 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Two-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Nate McMillan led the league in steals once and was a great their for the entire duration of his career. It's not surprise that he's a defensively oriented head coach now. 

11. Micheal Ray Richardson

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    Years Played: 1978-1986

    Position: Shooting guard

    Team: New York Knicks, Golden State Warriors, New Jersey Nets

    Career Per-Game Stats: 2.6 steals and 0.4 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Two-time All-Defensive First Team

     

    Micheal Ray Richardson's career average of 2.6 steals per game place him second all time. While that's pretty impressive, Richardson wasn't quite as good at preventing points as some of the other players on this list. 

10. Doug Christie

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    Years Played: 1992-2007

    Position: Shooting guard

    Team: Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings, Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.9 steals and 0.5 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: One-time All-Defensive First Team, Three-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Doug Christie was a good enough defender that he was once specifically thought of as a Kobe-stopper. While there were games like the contest in April of 2004 when he held Kobe to just eight points, he got torched and dunked on quite a few times. But then again, Kobe did that to everyone and Christie's reputation was so stellar for a reason. 

9. Kobe Bryant

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    Years Played: 1996-present

    Position: Shooting guard

    Team: Los Angeles Lakers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.5 steals and 0.5 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Nine-time All-Defensive First Team, Two-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Speaking of Kobe, there's no doubt that he's a great defender, but I can't help but feel as though he's a bit overrated on that end of the court thanks to his offensive contributions. He's a great perimeter defender. 

8. Jerry West

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    Years Played: 1960-1974

    Position: Shooting guard

    Team: Los Angeles Lakers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 2.6 steals and 0.7 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Four-time All-Defensive First Team, One-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    A terrific defender, Jerry West was an even better shooter, good enough that his silhouette is still used as the NBA logo. He was still an incredible defender, a fact that is often completely overlooked. 

7. Jerry Sloan

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    Years Played: 1965-1976

    Position: Shooting guard

    Team: Baltimore Bullets, Chicago Bulls

    Career Per-Game Stats: 2.2 steals and 0.2 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Four-time All-Defensive First Team, Two-Time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Jerry Sloan was a mainstay on the All-Defensive teams during his 11 seasons in the NBA. Before knee injuries ended his career, Sloan racked up enough steals to rank 10th all time in steals per game. 

6. Alvin Robertson

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    Years Played: 1984-1996

    Position: Shooting guard

    Team: San Antonio Spurs, Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors

    Career Per-Game Stats: 2.7 steals and 0.4 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: One-time Defensive Player of the Year, Two-time All-Defensive First Team, Four-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    You have to be a pretty good defender to become a Defensive Player of the Year. Alvin Robertson is actually the only player in NBA history to record a quadruple-double with steals as one of the four categories. 

5. Joe Dumars

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    Years Played: 1985-1999

    Position: Shooting guard

    Team: Detroit Pistons

    Career Per-Game Stats: 0.9 steals and 0.1 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Four-time All-Defensive First Team, One-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Joe Dumars was one of the best all-around shooting guards during basketball's golden age at the position. He was a very crucial part of Chuck Daly's "Jordan Rules," which were effective enough that the Bad Boys enjoyed some success against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the early stages of No. 23's career. 

4. John Havlicek

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    Years Played: 1962-1978

    Position: Shooting guard

    Team: Boston Celtics

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.2 steals and 0.3 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Five-time All-Defensive First Team, Three-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Hondo played out the majority of his career before steals and blocks were recorded, but he still managed to put up impressive numbers in the categories after his career was in decline. He is one of the more underrated defenders of all time thanks to the temporal distance we now have between the present and when Havlicek played. 

3. Michael Cooper

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    Years Played: 1978-1990

    Position: Shooting guard

    Team: Los Angeles Lakers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.2 steals and 0.6 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: One-time Defensive Player of the Year, Five-time All-Defensive First Team, Three-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Larry Bird once referred to Michael Cooper as the best defender he ever faced. 

2. Sidney Moncrief

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    Years Played: 1979-1991

    Position: Shooting guard

    Team: Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.2 steals and 0.3 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Four-time All-Defensive First Team, One-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    His great perimeter defense may not have translated into countable stats, but no one wanted to be guarded by Sidney Moncrief during the 1980s. And when I say no one, I really do mean no one. 

1. Michael Jordan

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    Years Played: 1984-2003

    Position: Shooting guard

    Team: Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards

    Career Per-Game Stats: 2.3 steals and 0.8 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: One-time Defensive Player of the Year, Nine-time All-Defensive First Team

     

    Michael Jordan was the best at everything. You shouldn't even question his placement here. 

Small Forwards

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    Versatility is the name of the game for these players on the defensive end of the court.

    Only seven small forwards showed up in my top 60 defensive players of all time. 

    Read on for who they are. 

7. Josh Smith

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    Years Played: 2004-present

    Position: Small forward

    Team: Atlanta Hawks

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.3 steals and 2.2 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: One-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Josh Smith hasn't received too much recognition yet for his defense in the accolades section, but he was the youngest player ever to reach the 500 and 1,000-block milestones. 

6. Grant Hill

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    Years Played: 1994-present

    Position: Small forward

    Team: Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.3 steals and 0.6 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: None

     

    At one point, Grant Hill was expected to be the best player in the NBA and potentially the next Michael Jordan. But then the injury imp had its way and Hill became a very good, but not ridiculously good player. His defensive prowess was omnipresent throughout his career though. 

5. Larry Bird

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    Years Played: 1979-1992

    Position: Small forward

    Team: Boston Celtics

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.7 steals and 0.8 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Three-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Larry Bird may not look athletic, but his unmatched hustle and love for the game more than made up for that. Bird was always there to guard anyone on the court and wasn't afraid to put his body on the line and draw a charge at any time. 

4. LeBron James

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    Years Played: 2003-present

    Position: Small forward

    Team: Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.7 steals and 0.8 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Three-time All-Defensive First Team

     

    An absolute athletic freak, LeBron James can capably guard any position on the court. He's as fast as the quickest point guard and physical enough to hang with even the lower-tier centers. No other player can really say that in today's game. 

3. Bruce Bowen

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    Years Played: 1996-2009

    Position: Small forward

    Team: Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, San Antonio Spurs

    Career Per-Game Stats: 0.8 steals and 0.4 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Five-time All-Defensive First Team, Three-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    An absolute defensive specialist, Bruce Bowen can hang with any offensive player he feels like guarding. His tenacious on-the-ball defense has caused nightmares for many superstars. 

2. Metta World Peace

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    Years Played: 1999-present

    Position: Small forward

    Team: Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.9 steals and 0.6 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: One-time Defensive Player of the Year, Two-time All-Defensive First Team, Two-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Whatever his name may be (Metta World Peace or Ron Artest), this guy is a terrific defender when he stays on the court and isn't suspended for running into the stands. No one in the modern game has been better at shutting down an opposing forward. 

1. Scottie Pippen

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    Years Played: 1987-2004

    Position: Small forward

    Team: Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 2.0 steals and 0.8 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Eight-time All-Defensive First Team, Two-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Michael Jordan and the rest of the Chicago Bulls definitely wouldn't have even had a single three-peat if it wasn't for Scottie Pippen's defense. He's one of the most versatile defenders and underrated players in the history of The Association thanks to the fact that he played in the shadow of the greatest player ever. 

Power Forwards

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    Power forwards have to guard the rim a lot of the time and they're one of the last lines of defense on the basketball court.  

    Eight power forwards showed up in my top 60 defensive players of all time. 

    Read on for who they are. 

8. Rasheed Wallace

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    Years Played: 1995-2010

    Position: Power forward

    Team: Washington Bullets, Portland Trail Blazers, Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, Boston Celtics

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.0 steals and 1.3 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: None

     

    If technical fouls counted towards defensive prowess, Rasheed Wallace would be unmatched on this list. But they're not, so his great score-stopping abilities will leave him last among the power forwards who wound up in my top 60. 

7. Karl Malone

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    Years Played: 1985-2004

    Position: Power forward

    Team: Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.4 steals and 0.8 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Three-time All-Defensive First Team, One-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    It would've been hard for Karl Malone to be a poor defender thanks to the incredibly physical body he was blessed with. The Mailman delivered seven days a week on both ends of the court until the playoffs rolled around. 

6. Kevin McHale

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    Years Played: 1980-1993

    Position: Power forward

    Team: Boston Celtics

    Career Per-Game Stats: 0.4 steals and 1.7 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Three-time All-Defensive First Team, Three-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    It only makes sense that the player with the most post moves in NBA history knew how to defend the moves that other players used. Such was the case for Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics. 

5. Dave DeBusschere

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    Years Played: 1962-1974

    Position: Power forward

    Team: Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks

    Career Per-Game Stats: 0.9 steals and 0.5 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Six-time All-Defensive First Team

     

    A tremendously underrated defender, Dave DeBusschere made the All-Defensive First Team in each of the first six seasons it existed. He would have made more had it been around prior to 1969. He was that good. 

4. Bobby Jones

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    Years Played: 1974-1986

    Position: Power forward

    Team: Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Two-time ABA All-Defensive First Team, Eight-time NBA All-Defensive First Team, One-time NBA All-Defensive Second Team

     

    While he wasn't as famous or successful as the golfer who shared his name, Bobby Jones was the best defensive power forward of the 1970s and early 1980s. In fact, it really wasn't even close. Both in the NBA and ABA, Jones dominated everyone he faced. 

3. Kevin Garnett

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    Years Played: 1995-present

    Position: Power forward

    Team: Minnesota Timberwolves, Boston Celtics

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: One-time Defensive Player of the Year, Nine-time All-Defensive First Team, Two-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Kevin Garnett's ridiculous combination of defensive skill, physical abilities and unmatched intensity have left him as not only one of the best all-time power forwards, but also the third-best defensive player at his position in the history of the league. 

2. Dennis Rodman

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    Years Played: 1986-2000

    Position: Power forward

    Team: Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks

    Career Per-Game Stats: 0.7 steals and 0.6 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Seven-time All-Defensive First Team, One-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    The Worm was known for three things: his flamboyant personality and hairstyles, his unmatched pound-for-pound rebounding ability and his incredible play on the defensive end of the court. 

1. Tim Duncan

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    Years Played: 1997-present

    Position: Power forward

    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Career Per-Game Stats: 0.7 steals and 2.3 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Eight-time All-Defensive First Team, Five-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Is there anything that Mr. Fundamental can't do? As good as Tim Duncan is on defense (obviously since he's made 13 All-Defensive teams), he's still underrated. Duncan has never led the league in blocked shots, but he generally manages to get the most value out of his blocks as they are often tipped to teammates to set up fast break opportunities. 

Centers

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    In the history of the NBA, there have been far more great defenders at the center position than anywhere else.  

    In fact, a whopping 22 centers showed up in my top 60 defensive players of all time. 

    Read on for who they are. 

22. Yao Ming

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    Years Played: 2002-present

    Position: Center

    Team: Houston Rockets

    Career Per-Game Stats: 0.4 steals and 1.9 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: None

     

    Yao Ming is 7'6". And unlike Manute Bol, Gheorge Muresan, Shawn Bradley and the other giants of NBA history, he was actually coordinated enough to be a consistent contributor for a long time. 

21. Wes Unseld

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    Years Played: 1968-1981

    Position: Center

    Team: Baltimore/Capitol/Washington Bullets

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.1 steals and 0.6 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: None

     

    After winning the MVP in his rookie season with a worst-to-first campaign for the Baltimore Bullets, Wes Unseld continued playing great defense throughout the rest of his NBA career. Does he really look like the kind of guy you want to run into in the paint? 

20. Robert Parish

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    Years Played: 1976-1997

    Position: Center

    Team: Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls

    Career Per-Game Stats: 0.8 steals and 1.5 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: None

     

    The Chief (as he was called for his stoic personality, reminiscent of Chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) was a very versatile and speedy center, two traits that helped him leave his mark on both ends of the court. 

19. Moses Malone

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    Years Played: 1974-1995

    Position: Center

    Team: Utah Stars, Spirits of St. Louis, Buffalo Braves, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, Washington Bullets, Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, San Antonio Spurs

    Career Per-Game Stats: 0.8 steals and 1.3 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: One-time All-Defensive First Team, One-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Most of his defensive reputation comes from the work he did cleaning up after missed shots. He was never a terrific shot-blocker or point-preventer, but Moses Malone still made his mark on that end of the court. 

18. Bill Walton

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    Years Played: 1974-1987

    Position: Center

    Team: Portland Trail Blazers, San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers, Boston Celtics

    Career Per-Game Stats: 0.8 steals and 2.2 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Two-time All-Defensive First Team

     

    His prime was pretty short lived because of the numerous injuries the hindered the Big Red-head's career, but it was also quite impressive. Walton could do it all on the basketball court and even turned defense into offense quite easily thanks to his great outlet passing. If he stayed healthy, he'd be one of the true all-time greats. 

17. Dave Cowens

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    Years Played: 1970-1983

    Position: Center

    Team: Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: One-time All-Defensive First Team, Two-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    His intensity made him an early, less-skilled version of Kevin Garnett. Dave Cowens played like a bull at some points during a game but he was not easy to get around at any point. 

16. Shaquille O'Neal

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    Years Played: 1992-2011

    Position: Center

    Team: Orland Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics

    Career Per-Game Stats: 0.6 steals and 2.3 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Three-time All-Defensive Second Teams

     

    Thanks to his huge body, Shaquille O'Neal simply could not be pushed around in the low post. No one really wanted to venture into the paint so long as The Big Aristotle was around. 

15. Patrick Ewing

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    Years Played: 1985-2002

    Position: Center

    Team: New York Knicks, Seattle Super Sonics, Orlando Magic

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.0 steals and 2.4 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Three-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    A terrific interior defender, Patrick Ewing was great at both blocking shots and grabbing defensive boards. He was never a good enough player to win a championship by himself, but his defensive contributions were invaluable to the New York Knicks' cause. 

14. Elvin Hayes

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    Years Played: 1968-1984

    Position: Center

    Team: San Diego/Houston Rockets, Baltimore/Capitol/Washington Bullets

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.0 steals and 2.0 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Two-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Only three players in NBA history have pulled down more rebounds than Elvin Hayes. On top of that, he averaged 1.0 steals and 2.0 blocks from the center position. Can you imagine just how stellar those numbers would have been if the NBA had kept track of them during the first five seasons of Hayes' career?

13. Artis Gilmore

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    Years Played: 1971-1988

    Position: Center

    Team: Kentucky Colonels, Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics

    Career Per-Game Stats: 0.6 steals and 2.4 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Four-time ABA All-Defensive First Team, One-time NBA All-Defensive Second Team

     

    If you include Artis Gilmore's ABA days along with his NBA days, only three players blocked more shots in the history of the sport and no one hauled in more boards on the defensive end. But unfortunately for Gilmore, they didn't count. 

12. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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    Years Played: 1969-1989

    Position: Center

    Team: Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 0.9 steals and 2.6 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Five-time All-Defensive First Team, Six-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    It's unbelievable that we're only at No. 12 in the center rankings and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's name is already coming up. He made 11 All-Defensive teams thanks to his incredible blocking prowess. 

11. Alonzo Mourning

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    Years Played: 1992-2008

    Position: Center

    Team: Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, New Jersey Nets

    Career Per-Game Stats: 0.5 steals and 2.8 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Two-time All-Defensive First Team

     

    Even more incredible than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar coming in at No. 12 is the fact that a two-time Defensive Player of the Year failed to make the top 10. His 2.8 blocks per game rank sixth all time and he failed to have more than two per game in only one season, which happened to be his final one with the New Jersey Nets. 

10. Marcus Camby

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    Years Played: 1996-present

    Position: Center

    Team: Toronto Raptors, New York Knicks, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.0 steals and 2.5 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: One-time Defensive Player of the Year, Two-time All-Defensive First Team, Two-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    He's no longer a star in the NBA, but Marcus Camby remains a terrific defender and shot blocker. In his prime, Camby was a force to be reckoned with in the paint. 

9. Mark Eaton

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    Years Played: 1982-1993

    Position: Center

    Team: Utah Jazz

    Career Per-Game Stats: 0.4 steals and 3.5 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Three-time All-Defensive First Team, Two-time All-Defensive First Team

     

    A two-time Defensive Player of the Year, the 7'4" Mark Eaton has two incredible records in NBA history. Not only do his 5.6 blocks per game in the 1984-1985 season place him first on the all-time seasonal leaderboard, but his career average of 3.5 blocks per game is tops all time. 

8. Dwight Howard

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    Years Played: 2004-present

    Position: Center

    Team: Orlando Magic

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.0 steals and 2.2 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Three-time All-Defensive First Team, Two-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    The best defender in the league may continue to move up these ranks as time progresses. After all, he's already won the past three Defensive Player of the Year awards. Now he just needs to learn how to direct blocked shots to teammates and not to fans. 

7. Wilt Chamberlain

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    Years Played: 1959-1973

    Position: Center

    Team: Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers

    Career Per-Game Stats: Unknown steals and blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Two-time All-Defensive First Team

     

    It would be interesting to see just how many blocks Wilt Chamberlain could have racked up if they had been tracked back then. He probably would have recorded even more than he already did because it would have been one more record for him to chase. Wilt the Stilt was't as good on defense as he was on offense, but he was still a damn good defender back in his day.  

6. Dikembe Mutombo

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    Years Played: 1991-2009

    Position: Center

    Team: Denver Nuggets, Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Houston Rockets

    Career Per-Game Stats: 0.4 steals and 2.8 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Four-time Defensive Player of the Year, Three-time All-Defensive First Team, Three-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    If you played during the 1990s and 2000s, you did not want to be at the base of Mt. Mutombo watching as the behemoth wagged his finger at you after sending the basketball back to where it came from. Unfortunately for the players that did play during those two decades, that was a pretty common scene. 

5. Nate Thurmond

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    Years Played: 1963-1977

    Position: Center

    Team: San Francisco/Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 0.5 steals and 2.1 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Two-time All-Defensive First Team, Three-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Nate the Great not only has one of the coolest looks in basketball history with the bald head and the full beard, but he also possessed one of the most impressive skill-sets on the defensive end of the court. Thurmond's defensive rebounding and shot-blocking abilities were both incredible. 

4. Ben Wallace

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    Years Played: 1996-present

    Position: Center

    Team: Washington Bullets, Washington Wizards, Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.3 steals and 2.0 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Four-time Defensive Player of the Year, Five-time All-Defensive First Team, One-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    He won four Defensive Player of the Year awards. Enough said. 

3. David Robinson

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    Years Played: 1989-2003

    Position: Center

    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.4 steals and 3.0 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: One-time Defensive Player of the Year, Four-time All-Defensive First Team, Four-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    The Admiral doesn't get enough credit as he deserves nowadays thanks to the quick takeover that Tim Duncan completed in the early 2000s. David Robinson actually managed to average not only 3.2 blocks or more, but also at least 1.4 steals per game in each of his first seven seasons in the NBA. 

2. Hakeem Olajuwon

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    Years Played: 1984-2002

    Position: Center

    Team: Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors

    Career Per-Game Stats: 1.7 steals and 3.1 blocks

    Defensive Accolades: Two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Five-time All-Defensive First Team, Four-time All-Defensive Second Team

     

    Hakeem the Dream averaged over four blocks per game during three separate seasons and never averaged less than two per game during any of his 15 seasons in the NBA. On top of that, he was a terrific thief from the center position and thoroughly dominated most players he faced not named Kevin Johnson. 

1. Bill Russell

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    Years Played: 1956-1969

    Position: Center

    Team: Boston Celtics

    Career Per-Game Stats: Unknown steals and blocks

    Defensive Accolades: One-time All-Defensive First Team

     

    Can you imagine the defensive reputation that Bill Russell would have now if the NBA had awarded Defensive Player of the Year awards and All-Defensive team selections during the majority of Russell's career? On top of that, could he really have averaged as many as six blocks per game? Could it have been even more?

    Bill Russell is not only the best defensive center of all time; he is also the greatest defensive player of all time.  

    * * *

    Adam Fromal is a syndicated writer and Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. Follow him on     Twitter.

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