Ranking the 10 Most Feared Shot-Blockers in NBA History

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistApril 22, 2020

Ranking the 10 Most Feared Shot-Blockers in NBA History

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    A timely block can be as demoralizing as anything in the NBA.

    A player may think he has a wide-open lane to the rim, only to have his shot erased at the last second. Plenty have looked to dunk on a big man, only to be stuffed at the last moment. Plenty of floaters have been tossed into the crowd. LeBron James' chase-down block of Andre Iguodala in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals is one of the lasting images from that series.

    Here, we're paying homage to those players who did all of the above more than anyone else. From the 1973-74 season (when blocks were first tracked), through the early to mid-2000s, these rim protectors were the game's best.

    To find them, we considered a handful of numbers. First, we sorted every player in league history by the average of their ranks in career block percentage, blocks per game, blocks per 100 possessions and total blocks. Then, the top 40 from that exercise had their peak seasons in each of those categories added to the equation, as well as a fan vote.

    The resulting top 10 is missing names like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. It's also devoid of any active players.

    The first omissions are easy to explain.

    "There's always that asterisk that they didn't keep the stat till '73," former Utah Jazz center Mark Eaton told Bleacher Report. "So, you miss a lot of Wilt and Bill Russell's careers."

    To make an objective list of shot-blockers, you have to rule out players who did the bulk of their damage before the stat was tracked.

    As for the modern 5s, the game is a lot different now. Shot-blocking isn't nearly as big of a factor as it once was. Offenses are far more spread out, and plenty of centers now play on the perimeter. It's difficult to keep a dedicated shot-blocker under the rim at all times when he's facing a big man who can light it up from deep.

    That led to the temptation to include things like relative block percentage (the player's block percentage compared to the league average of the time), but the headline here is "Most Feared Shot-Blockers," and the evolution of the game has alleviated some of that fear leaguewide.

    Sure, players like Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside and others still leave their imprint on games, but their ability to block shots doesn't strike terror into opponents the way these legends did with that skill. Being able to better game-plan around rim protectors has changed that dynamic.

    With that out of the way, let's jump into the top 10.

10. Marcus Camby

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    If you go with the season after which the player retired, Marcus Camby represents the most recent inclusion in this top 10.

    From the 1996-97 season through 2012-13, Camby was a dominant rim protector. He led the league in blocks per game in four different seasons, including three straight with the Denver Nuggets in the mid-2000s.

    Over the course of his career, he trailed only Tim Duncan, who played nearly 13,000 more minutes, in total blocks.

    "Coming out of UMass, Camby was supposed to be a franchise big man around whom you could build for the next 15 years," Andrew Sharp wrote for Grantland. "... Instead of an All-Star who could carry a team, he was just a killer role player who allowed teams to play at warp speed without missing a beat on defense."

    That's exactly what he did for a high-octane Nuggets squad that used altitude to its advantage. Even with the run-and-gun style it played, Denver had the league's eighth-best defense over the years when Camby was there.

    For his entire 17-year career, Camby's teams were plus-0.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and minus-1.8 with him off. His ability to protect the rim and swat incoming drivers was a big part of that overall impact.

9. Tree Rollins

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    Over the first 10 years of his career, Tree Rollins averaged 4.1 blocks per 75 possessions, a mark that trailed only Mark Eaton (5.3) and George Johnson (4.3) over that span.

    In 1982-83, Rollins averaged a league-leading 4.3 blocks in only 30.9 minutes. But unfortunately, he may be most remembered for an incident from that postseason.

    Following a dunk in Game 3 of the first-round series between the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics, Rollins clocked Danny Ainge in the face with an elbow, then bit his finger.

    "Then Danny came at me (later) and all hell broke loose," Rollins told I.J. Rosenberg of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "In the pile, somebody stuck their finger in my eye, and I didn't know it was Danny, but I bit his finger."

    Rollins' ability to protect the rim made a much bigger impact than the skirmish he was involved in with Ainge, but the latter follows him to this day.

    He was much more than the guy who fought Ainge. For a decade-plus, he was one of the game's best rim protectors.

8. Theo Ratliff

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    Like Camby, Theo Ratliff's ability to protect the rim made his overall impact on the game a clear plus.

    From 1997-98 to 2003-04, Ratliff averaged 3.3 blocks in 31.7 minutes per game. He led the league in blocks per game in three of those seven seasons.

    Over that same stretch, Ratliff's teams were plus-1.1 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor and minus-1.6 when he was off.

    And when he was in the game, he wanted opportunities to turn shots away.

    "When I foul someone who has a lane to the basket, that drives Theo crazy," former Philadelphia 76ers center Todd MacCulloch told Sports Illustrated's Jeff Pearlman. "He'll say, 'C'mon, let the guy go through. I'm back here waiting for him.' Theo's the most graceful, most artistic shot-blocker there is."

    That artistry was never awarded with a Defensive Player of the Year, and Ratliff got only two second-team All-Defense nods, but his own teammates clearly understood the value his shot-blocking provided.

7. David Robinson

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    David Robinson is one of the most underrated players in NBA history. Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Magic Johnson are the only ones in front of him on the all-time box plus/minus leaderboard.

    Over his first seven seasons, he averaged an eye-popping 25.6 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.7 steals. Perhaps most impressive, though, was the 3.6 blocks per game he averaged over that stretch.

    When a player does so many other things, it's easy for one skill, especially a defensive one, to get lost in the shuffle. Most of the players featured here didn't score, pass or even rebound as much as The Admiral.

    That he was able to carry the load he did on offense and protect the rim at an all-time level is a testament to his versatility.

    In 1991-92, Robinson was named Defensive Player of the Year (his 23.2 points per game are the fourth-most for a DPOY). He also made eight All-Defense squads over the course of his career.

    Even without the shot-blocking, Robinson would've been an all-time great. Mixing several seasons with more than three blocks per game (and one with 4.5) into that career is about as thick as gravy gets.

6. Shawn Bradley

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    It's a shame that most modern fans know Shawn Bradley from YouTube videos of him being dunked on. Those small sample sizes don't do his career justice.

    Over his first six seasons, he averaged 11.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in only 29.0 minutes per game. For his career, he's first all-time in block percentage.

    Basketball Reference's play-by-play data only goes back to 1996-97, but his career net rating swing of 6.3 is better than that of Kawhi Leonard (5.1) and James Harden (4.9), among other stars.

    A defensive anchor who takes up that much space—both vertically and horizontally—was exceptionally valuable in the 1990s and 2000s. That was true to the very end for Bradley.

    Over his last five seasons, the Dallas Mavericks were plus-12.0 points per 100 possessions when Bradley shared the floor with Dirk Nowitzki. They were plus-7.3 points per 100 possessions when Dirk was on the floor without the 7'6" rim protector.

    The biggest reason for that swing was a defense that allowed fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions when both bigs were in.

    Those early-2000s Mavs teams are largely known for the offensive exploits of Dirk, Steve Nash and Michael Finley, but they were a championship-caliber defense when Bradley played.

5. Hakeem Olajuwon

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    As was the case with The Admiral, Hakeem Olajuwon shouldered a bigger offensive load than most of the others on this list. In the seasons in which he won Defensive Player of the Year, he averaged 26.1 and 27.3 points, respectively.

    But the burden Hakeem carried as a scorer (he ranks 35th all-time in career usage percentage) didn't detract from his ability to protect the paint.

    Olajuwon led the league in blocks per game on three different occasions. He has four of the top 20 marks for single-season blocks per game. And he's the all-time leader, by an overwhelming margin, in total three-block games.

    Between the regular season and playoffs, Olajuwon blocked at least three shots in a whopping 757 games. Tim Duncan is second on that list with 621. For further context, Blake Griffin has appeared in a total of 675 regular and postseason games.

    Olajuwon's combination of longevity and an absurd peak makes him one of the five best shot-blockers ever. Add that to the fact that he was a bona fide No. 1 option, and it isn't hard to see why he's a regular in conversations about the game's best centers.

4. Alonzo Mourning

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    Prior to the emergence of health issues that eventually led to a kidney transplant, Alonzo Mourning was among the game's most dominant centers during glory years for that position.

    From 1992-93 to 1999-2000, he averaged 21.1 points, 10.1 rebounds and a whopping 3.1 blocks. During that stretch, Dikembe Mutombo and Bradley were the only players who averaged more blocks per game.

    After missing all of the 2002-03 season, Mourning returned to a much smaller role, but he remained a defensive powerhouse. During his last five seasons, he still blocked 2.2 shots in only 19.4 minutes per game.

    And he was a solid role player for the 2005-06 champion Miami Heat.

    "I just want him to experience a championship," Heat coach Pat Riley told Liz Robbins of The New York Times. "These guys that haven't done it, that would be the greatest gift for me. It would. I'm just an old codger now. I mean it. There's a lot of guys in that locker room, a lot of stories in that locker room, and they're very motivated about this opportunity."

    In those Finals, Mourning averaged 1.5 blocks in only 11.0 minutes while posting a positive plus-minus in five of six games.

3. Dikembe Mutombo

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    Nearly every NBA fan of a certain age knows about Dikembe Mutombo's iconic finger wag. For almost two decades, it was his calling card after a block. And he had plenty of opportunities to do it.

    Mutombo trails only Olajuwon in career blocks. He had two seasons with more than four blocks per game, eight seasons with at least three blocks per game and 11 seasons with more than two blocks per game.

    Like Hakeem, longevity was key for Mutombo in rising this high up the list. But being seventh all-time in career blocks per game and fifth in block percentage show he had a heck of a peak, too.

    For a decade-and-a-half, the four-time Defensive Player of the Year dominated the interior. And he eventually became a model for stars transitioning to role-player status.

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish are the only players in league history who had more blocks from an age-40 season onward.

2. Manute Bol

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    The numbers from Manute Bol's shot-blocking peak are wild.

    There are seven seasons in NBA history with at least 500 minutes and a block percentage of 10 or higher. Five of those seasons, including each of the top four, belong to Bol.

    He had more blocks than field-goal attempts in each of his first seven seasons, a stretch in which he averaged 3.6 blocks and 2.7 points in only 19.5 minutes per game.

    Over the same stretch, he averaged a mind-bending and league-leading 6.6 blocks per 75 possessions. Robinson's 4.0 was a distant second during those years.

    "He's got a nice sense for blocking shots," Bill Walton, who finished 27th in this exercise, said of Bol during the 1985-86 preseason. "His range is pretty far and pretty high."

    For a 7'7" player with an 8'6" wingspan, "pretty far and pretty high" is probably an understatement. No one in league history was a sight quite like Bol.

    Although he never led the Washington Bullets to a title, as Boston Celtics head coach K.C. Jones once thought he might, there's little doubt that Bol was one of the best shot-blockers in NBA history.

1. Mark Eaton

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    Mark Eaton barely played for his high school basketball team. Yes, 7'4" Mark Eaton, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, described himself as an end-of-the-bench player.

    He didn't head off to college basketball until after a turn as an auto mechanic near Cypress College. At that shop, Cypress assistant coach Tom Lubin eventually convinced Eaton to give basketball another shot.

    Once he was in the gym, the coaching staff went about teaching him how to use the physical gift few other players possessed: his size.

    "Just get in the way." Eaton's coaches told him. "It's not about jumping. It's not about throwing the shot in the fourth row. It's really about impeding the progress of the offense."

    Eaton's progress at Cypress was good enough to earn him a spot on the roster of the vaunted UCLA Bruins. But he again struggled to find playing time there.

    Eventually, a discouraged Eaton had a conversation with a legend that changed everything.

    "You know, I had this interaction with Wilt Chamberlain one day," Eaton recalled. "He said, 'Look, stop trying to chase the smaller players. ... Your job really is to guard the basket. That's something you can be really good at.'"

    He was indeed really good at guarding the basket. Over his first seven seasons, Eaton averaged 4.2 blocks. His career-high 5.6 blocks in 1984-85 remain an NBA record for a single season.

    Over that stretch, he won two DPOYs, made five All-Defense teams, led the league in blocks four times and made an All-Star team. In 1984-85 and 1988-89, he even collected a few points in MVP voting. And he compiled those accolades mostly on the back of his stellar rim protection and his overall approach to defense.

    "I didn't look at my job as just guarding my player," Eaton said. "I really looked at my job as guarding the other team and anyone that came into the paint, that was kind of my domain. And so, I felt a responsibility to do what I could do to try and stop the players getting to the basket, as well as be there for my teammates."

    Despite his great success at preventing opponents from getting to the rim, Eaton doesn't see himself as the greatest shot-blocker of all time. He quickly defaults to his defensive progenitors, Russell and Chamberlain, when asked that question.

    But the numbers back Eaton. And the legends appreciated the ability that led to those numbers.

    "What I do kind of consider a stamp of validation now is that both Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain talked to me, and visited with me about the art of shot-blocking," Eaton said. "And so, it was clear they thought I did it well."

    All statistics via Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.