The Best NBA Defender at Every Position
Calling all shot-erasers, straitjackets, glass-cleaners, pickpockets and rim protectors: Today is your day.
In a move sure to earn us brownie points with coaches across the basketball world, we're here to celebrate stoppers.
More specifically, we're here to identify the best NBA defender at every position. How do you make such a subjective decision? Easy. You turn it into an objective examination.
While number-crunchers still haven't found the perfect defensive stat, a decent number of catch-all categories can paint a clear picture together. Our favorites include ESPN.com's defensive real plus-minus (DRPM), defensive box plus/minus (DBPM), defensive win shares (DWS) and defensive rating (DRtg).
So, we're taking every player who averaged 20-plus minutes each of the past three seasons—146 of them, minus the retirees (Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki and Darren Collison), the unsigned (JR Smith, Carmelo Anthony), the banned (Tyreke Evans) and the Europe returnee (Nikola Mirotic)—and finding their average positional ranking in those four categories.
Sounds simple enough and impossible to argue against since numbers never lie, right? Well, take a look at which defenders came out on top, and then you can decide.
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Point Guard: Cory Joseph, Sacramento Kings
Average Rank: 2.875
Cory Joseph doesn't have a reliable three-point shot, advanced shot-creation skills or a go-to scoring move. What he does have is an NBA career approaching its ninth season, during which he'll pocket a cool $12 million.
How does that happen? Because he's a tenacious, tone-setting defender who just this past season trimmed the Indiana Pacers' defensive rating 4.7 points per 100 possessions by taking the floor and shaved nearly three percentage points off his matchup's perimeter conversion rate.
He proved especially pesky against pick-and-roll ball-handlers, allowing them just 0.70 points per possession (92nd percentile). As Kings.com's Alex Kramers noted, defensive dominance has become par for the course with the 28-year-old:
"Joseph's defense has been pivotal to his teams' success and among the most impactful the League has to offer.
"Sliding his feet with ball-handlers, chasing opponents up and down the floor, and getting a hand in the face of shooters, the tough-nosed guard has disrupted his counterparts' rhythm and forced off-balance jump shots, night after night."
Joseph's selection may surprise many, since he isn't a household name (95 starts in 528 career games) and hasn't always graded as an elite stopper (negative DBPMs in three seasons). But last season's stats made him a clear No. 1, as he finished fourth or better among floor generals in all four categories.
Rounding Out the Top Five...
2. Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee Bucks (Average Rank: 4.375)
An All-Defensive first-teamer this past season, Mini LeBron blends a searing competitive fire with the strength and athleticism his nickname implies to form a lethal point-preventing package.
3. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors (4.75)
Affectionately labeled as a bulldog, the Philly native brings a Broad Street brand of toughness and tenacity to basketball's less glamorous end.
4. Ricky Rubio, Phoenix Suns (5.625)
The Suns have staked their defensive success on the addition of Rubio, who uses his length and aggressiveness to hound opposing ball-handlers.
5. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets (6.75)
While the eye test has long believed Westbrook could better utilize his physical tools on defense, the numbers—specifically, DBPM and DWS, where he paced the position—say the Brodie is doing work.
Shooting Guard: Danny Green, Los Angeles Lakers
Average Rank: 2.125
Danny Green is a winner. He won a national championship with the 2008-09 North Carolina Tar Heels. He took home NBA titles with both the San Antonio Spurs (2013-14) and the Toronto Raptors (2018-19).
Part of that comes from perseverance. He was cut twice and grinded through the G League (and, during the 2011 lockout, in Slovenia) before securing an NBA rotation spot. Part of it comes from developing a lethal long-range shot. The same player who once shot 29.6 percent from distance as a college sophomore now owns one of the 40 best career three-point percentages in NBA history (40.41, 32nd).
But mostly, the success stems from a willingness to play his role, one most players struggle to embrace at this level after starring at all the previous ones.
"I'm not here to be a scorer," Green told reporters in 2013. "I was never here to be an offensive guy. Every one of my games is based on my energy and what I do on the defensive end."
Defensively, Green is the total package. He has size (6'6"), length (6'10" wingspan), athleticism, razor-sharp instincts and an unquenchable thirst for film study. He has the lateral quickness to pester point guards and the strength to battle bigger wings in the post. He's also become the Association's premier backcourt shot-blocker with 141 more rejections than any other guard over the previous eight seasons.
Even in his age-31 campaign, he was brilliant on the defensive end. He finished fourth or better among shooting guards in all four categories used in this evaluation and took the No. 1 spot in DRPM.
Rounding Out the Top Five...
2. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics (3.0)
A silver medal is more than fitting for the king of hustle, who ranked second among 2-guards in DRPM, DBPM and DWS.
3. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers (4.625)
The sweet-singing stopper lost more than half of the year to injury and still earned the position's third-highest marks. No wonder he took an All-Defensive first-team spot the season prior.
4. Garrett Temple, Brooklyn Nets (6.5)
While he's had better defensive campaigns in the past, the 33-year-old is fending off Father Time with a fully revved defensive motor and an ability to cycle through most perimeter assignments.
5. Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans (8.5)
Small Forward: Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
Average Rank: 3.5
Paul George turned the difficulty down and the sliders up in 2018-19, proving it's somehow possible for a 28-year-old, five-time All-Star to engineer a breakout season.
He had been a top-10(ish) talent before, but this was different. His offensive output climbed a couple of tiers and helped him secure his first top-eight finish in MVP voting (third). More impressively, he enjoyed that growth with nary a sacrifice at the opposite end.
On defense, he was seemingly everywhere at all times. He not only held pole position in total steals, he endeared himself to all basketball coaches with NBA-best marks in deflections and loose-ball recoveries. He tied for the sixth-most contested threes, took second in points off turnovers and made the Oklahoma City Thunder's fourth-ranked defense 4.8 points stingier per 100 possessions with his floor presence.
Moving away from the stat sheet, PG also aces the eye test, as ESPN.com's Kirk Goldsberry wrote:
"George is the prototype wing defender for today's pick-and-roll obsessed NBA. He's a Swiss Army knife athletic enough to wrangle over screens, but versatile enough to switch assignments, too. And he's willing enough to burn calories and do his job on defense. In a league that features many one-way superstars, including some with big, bushy beards, George stands apart as he excels in the inglorious art of defense."
George made his second career appearance on the All-Defensive first team this past season, finishing second in that voting and third in Defensive Player of the Year. There was not a better stopper at any perimeter position.
Rounding Out the Top Five...
2. Justise Winslow, Miami Heat (5.875)
Looking as comfortable and confident as ever, Winslow paired his best offensive season with a tie at the position for the second-best defensive rating.
3. Andre Iguodala, Memphis Grizzlies (6.875)
If this discussion was confined to playoff performance, the smart-enough-to-pace-himself Iguodala might be as good as it gets.
4. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (7.625)
Despite only sitting ninth in DWS and 13th in DRtg—and seeing his motor stall on several occasions—the King tied for second among small forwards in DBPM. He can silence a scorer when he dials it up.
T-5. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks; Robert Covington, Minnesota Timberwolves; Maurice Harkless, Los Angeles Clippers (8.25)
Middleton and Harkless are reliable and versatile, but Covington is the name to note here. If not for a nagging knee injury that shelved him after December, this could've been his position to lose. Even with the time lost, he landed first among perimeter players and 12th overall in DRPM.
Power Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Average Rank: 1.5
Remember when Giannis Antetokounmpo merely fascinated with his larger-than-life dimensions? For the past few seasons, he's used them to seize control of the basketball world.
His 2018-19 offensive numbers were incredible enough to garner MVP consideration on their own. The Association hadn't seen a stat line with 27 points, five assists, two offensive boards and 57 percent shooting since...well...ever. But considering his primary competition, James Harden, was maybe equally bananas on offense, Antetokounmpo needed something to push him over the top.
Morphing into a game-changing defender became that something. With the quickness to contain guards, the strength to tussle with centers and the wingspan to wreak havoc in passing lanes and at the rim as a chaos-creating free safety, he's a defensive force unlike any we have seen.
"There are no easy comparisons for the kind of defensive player Giannis is becoming; my best effort is a fusion of Lakers-era Lamar Odom and peak Richard Sherman," The Ringer's Danny Chau.
This was only Antetokounmpo's second All-Defensive selection. He collected the third-most voting points for that honor, and he took silver in the DPOY race. Among qualified power forwards, he was first in DBPM and DWS, and he landed second in DRPM and DRtg.
Going into the season, many would have reserved this spot for Draymond Green. Coming out of it, it's hard to put anyone else in this discussion—even a recent DPOY—with Antetokounmpo.
Rounding Out the Top Five...
2. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors (2.75)
Few can match his flexibility and impact, but he's had better defensive years and so have the Dubs.
3. Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets (5.0)
A healthy Millsap is a versatile defensive weapon, and the Nuggets used him to help engineer an eight-win improvement.
4. Al Horford, Philadelphia 76ers (5.625)
Yes, he's facing a position change when Joel Embiid mans the middle in Philly. No, it shouldn't matter, since a big part of Horford's brilliance has been his interchangeability in the frontcourt.
5. Thaddeus Young, Chicago Bulls (6.25)
An underrated stopper (and maybe forgotten one for casual fans), Young was credited with the second-most defensive win shares among qualified power forwards.
Center: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Average Rank: 1.875
If this selection surprised you in the slightest, let me be the first to welcome you to the internet. It's a potentially dangerous place, so be careful where you're browsing. We'd recommend starting in the basketball section, since you clearly have some catching up to do.
Rudy Gobert is the standard-setter for the modern interior anchor. It's not just about sporting a 7'8.5" wingspan or reaching 9'7" into the air without jumping, although those things don't hurt. It's having sharpened instincts, a perpetually improving awareness and enough lateral quickness to keep much smaller speedsters in front of him.
The Utah Jazz are tied for the league's best defensive rating since making Gobert a full-time starter for the 2015-16 season. That's not really a one-player phenomenon, but no one means more to this (or any) defense than the Stifle Tower.
"Rudy has become the most dominant defender in the world," Jazz executive vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey said, per The Athletic's Tony Jones. "He has become the backbone of our defense in a league that has become exceedingly difficult to guard, given the rules and exceptional offensive talent."
Gobert has taken home the last two DPOY trophies. He has held an All-Defensive first-team spot for three years running and posted the league's best DRPM in each of those seasons.
When it comes to defensive centers, Gobert sits on a throne and no one else is in the castle.
Rounding Out the Top Five...
2. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers (4.5)
The reigning shot-blocking champion was denied the top spot due to a less-than-elite ranking in DRPM (seventh among qualified centers) and the fact he shares a position with Gobert.
3. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic (6.125)
Subjectively, this feels like it should be Joel Embiid's spot (he was seventh), but the stats prefer Vucevic, who hit career-high marks in DBPM and DWS.
4. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks (6.625)
The Bucks helped their big man by finishing first in defensive efficiency, but he helped himself by shattering his previous best block percentage (6.5, was 5.2) and more than doubling his high in DBPM.
5. Hassan Whiteside, Portland Trail Blazers (8.0)
While hardly an analytics darling, Whiteside can thank a third-place finish in DRPM among qualified centers for helping him edge Derrick Favors (average rank 8.25) and Embiid (8.625).
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.