Ranking the Best NBA Defenders of the 2000s

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 3, 2020

Ranking the Best NBA Defenders of the 2000s

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    Offense gets all the attention, but it's no coincidence that each of the top three defenders from the 2000s led their teams to titles.

    Maybe defense really does win championships.

    The period we'll cover here, spanning from 1999-00 to 2008-09, was slow-paced and low-scoring by today's standards. While some of that stems from different rules and tactics (not to mention the unexploited offensive revelation that three-point shots are worth more than two-point shots), it's hard to avoid thinking the elite stoppers of the era also had something to do with it.

    We've got some all-timers here.

    We'll base the rankings on production, awards and impact on team success from this specific decade. That's a tough break for players whose careers began or ended midway through the 2000s. For example, Gary Payton was finished as a top-flight defender by 2003, and Dwight Howard only gets to count the first five years of his career, which were defensively valuable but certainly not his best. Neither appears on our list.

    Let's see who makes the cut.

Honorable Mention

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    Metta Sandiford-Artest

    The decade's leader with a 3.1 steal percentage and one of the most intimidating presences an opposing wing could ever hope to see lined up across from him, Metta Sandiford-Artest (his legal name since May 2020) thrived with remarkable strength and relentless energy while making the All-Defensive first team in 2003-04 and 2005-06.

    The burly 6'6" wing couldn't be screened or posted up, and his powerful hands helped him subtly redirect ball-handlers on the perimeter. For every year of the 2000s for which we have on-off data, Sandiford-Artest's teams were almost comically transformed on defense by his presence. The 2005-06 Sacramento Kings, for example, were 10.4 points per 100 possessions stingier whenever he was on the floor.


    Bruce Bowen

    While Sandiford-Artest cultivated a reputation as a loose cannon, Bowen was the more physically dangerous opponent. It's not a question of whether you can find montages of the gritty wing's dirty plays; it's a question of whether you've got the time to watch all of them. There are reels devoted specifically to Bowen's repeated step-under move—just against Vince Carter.

    The rotten sportsmanship came with undeniable production as Bowen made five All-Defensive first teams from 2004-2008. He doesn't make the top five because his block and steal numbers were never spectacular, and he benefitted from playing alongside an even better defender for most of his prime.


    Kobe Bryant

    Kobe Bryant ranks an eye-popping 204th in defensive box plus/minus for the decade, among those who played a minimum of 100 games, but he's 12th in defensive win shares (two spots ahead of Bowen) and leads all wings with seven All-Defensive first-team honors. There are some who'll cry foul that Bryant fails to crack the top five, but there's just not a statistical case to support his gaudy collection of awards.

    He was a consistently good defender and always willing to take on the challenge of guarding the opponent's top threat (at least during this decade, which spanned his 20s), no small feat for a guy also shouldering a massive scoring load.

5. Shawn Marion

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    Shawn Marion's inclusion here is a clear signal we're not going to make decisions based solely on awards.

    Despite a statistical case as the best non-center defender of the decade, the spring-loaded, long-limbed 6'7" forward never made a single All-Defensive team. His career-long exclusion from that club was a gross oversight by voters predisposed to laud bigger stars with worse defensive credentials (like, say, Kobe Bryant).

    We can't rectify a decade of voting malpractice, but we can say with certainty that Marion belongs here.

    First, the accessible stats: Marion led the league in total steals in both 2003-04 and 2006-07, ranking third for the decade with 1,363 total thefts. He's also the only player to log at least 700 games during the span we're studying while posting at least a 2.5 percent block rate and a 2.5 percent steal rate.

    Put simply, it just wasn't safe for offensive players to possess the ball when Marion was in the vicinity. The likelihood of turnovers, rejections and general embarrassment was high.

    With the fifth-most defensive win shares in our sample and the ability to smother everyone from point guards to power forwards, Marion has to go down as one of the most underrated defenders in recent memory. It's almost as if he was penalized for coming of age with a Phoenix Suns franchise pigeonholed as an all-offense operation. In reality, the Suns were a mid-pack defense during Marion's best years.

    If not for him, the myth that Phoenix couldn't stop anyone would have actually been true.

4. Andrei Kirilenko

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    In 2015, FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine, writing on some of the advanced metrics that emerged in the mid-2000s, summed it up like this: "During his best years, you could count on one hand the number of NBA players who more positively influenced their team's performance than [Andrei] Kirilenko."

    The vast majority of that positive influence came on the defensive end, where Kirilenko's block rate ranked above the 98th percentile in every year of the decade for which we have the data. In steal rate, he was above the 89th percentile in four of the six years from that same sample.

    AK-47 only made one All-Defensive first team (2005-06), a year in which he led the league with 220 blocks despite standing 6'9" and playing just 69 games. He ranks sixth in defensive box plus/minus for the decade (min. 100 games) and grades out as easily the top shot-blocker among non-centers. His 5.8 block percentage is higher than that of Ben Wallace, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett in our 10-year sample.

    A small forward who could guard on the perimeter and sneak down to clean up messes inside like this was a real weapon.

3. Tim Duncan

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    Maybe it's a coincidence that the San Antonio Spurs ranked worse than third in defensive efficiency just once (they were fifth in 2008-09) during the decade we're studying. Maybe Gregg Popovich, the NBA head coach with, unofficially, the most spycraft training, had designers imprint Spurs jerseys with a pattern that gave opponents vertigo and threw their shots off.

    Or maybe the Spurs just had Tim Duncan.

    In seven of the 10 seasons in our sample, Duncan was an All-Defensive first-team member. He and Kevin Garnett are the only players to make either the first or second team every year of the decade, and it will always feel like an oversight that Timmy never won a DPOY.

    Duncan tops our field with 1,313 blocks, ranks second to Garnett in defensive boards and led the NBA in defensive win shares in 2000-01, 2005-06 and 2006-07.

    Though there are reels and reels showcasing Duncan's preternatural timing and textbook positioning, he admittedly failed to match Ben Wallace and Garnett in the highlight department. A perfect rotation that forces a miss just doesn't have the same punch as a skyscraping swat. But that's pretty much on-brand for the most unassuming all-time great of the modern era.

    Duncan didn't leap through the rafters; he jumped exactly as high as he needed to. He didn't dart into the right spot at the last second; he got exactly where he needed to be at just the right time.

    One could have formed the impression that Duncan was just barely doing enough to affect the opponent—except that he did enough all the time. No big man displayed a greater economy of effort and motion, which helps explain why Duncan was a dominant defender for nearly 20 years.

    He never wasted a step.

2. Kevin Garnett

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    Kevin Garnett is among the most versatile defensive players in league history, and it's possible that just as we underrate him across the board because of so many wasted seasons with a hapless Minnesota Timberwolves franchise, we don't give him his due on D.

    And yes, if you're wondering, this is an argument that the guy who led the decade with eight All-Defensive first-team nods isn't getting enough acknowledgment.

    The 2007-08 DPOY is the only player other than Ben Wallace with at least 1,000 steals and 1,000 blocks for the decade, and he's well clear of the field with 7,257 defensive rebounds. That last one shouldn't be a surprise since Garnett is the NBA's all-time leader in defensive boards. Considering no defensive possession is complete until the ball is secure, all those rebounds mattered.

    In this decade or any other, there just weren't many guys who could anchor a championship defense inside and also ice games by ripping point guards near midcourt.

    At his very best, KG was a fearsome shot-blocker who could get down into a stance and slide his feet with high-scoring guards and wings. Think peak Draymond Green with more length and athleticism.

1. Ben Wallace

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    Generously listed at 6'9", the impossibly energetic Ben Wallace racked up four of the 10 Defensive Player of the Year awards available in the 2000s. The decade's leader in stocks (steals plus blocks) by a ridiculous margin, Wallace combined active hands, quick leaping and brute strength while putting together arguably the best five-year run of defense the league had seen since Bill Russell.

    Wallace's four DPOYs all came in a span between 2001-02 and 2005-06. But don't let that lead you to think he lacked value outside his peak.

    According to NBA Math, Wallace owns seven of the top 11 individual seasons in defensive points saved for the decade. In the sample we're studying, he ranks first among players at any position in defensive box plus-minus and second in defensive win shares

    The athleticism and competitive edge were undeniable, but the undrafted big man doesn't get enough credit for his ability to quickly scan the floor and diagnose potential threats in need of neutralization. We talk all the time about a great offensive player's court vision, but Wallace had it on the other end. He materialized so suddenly and forcefully as a help-side shot-blocker that his anticipation seemed to border on clairvoyance.

    You need one of those old Chuck Norris jokes to do his help defense justice: If you can see Ben Wallace, he can see you. If you cannot see Ben Wallace, you may be only seconds away from getting what you thought was a clean layup swatted into the second deck.


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass.