Ranking the Best NBA Defenders of the 2010s

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 10, 2020

Ranking the Best NBA Defenders of the 2010s

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    Maybe it's just the recency talking, but it felt a lot harder to settle on the top defenders of the 2010s than it was to narrow down the field for the 2000s. Part of the difficulty may have come from the fact that as offensive norms shifted and defensive versatility became more important, the types of defenders we had to consider expanded.

    For most decades, the exercise was as simple as finding the top interior stoppers and calling it good. Thanks to the rise in three-point shooting, the prevalence of wing-centric offenses and the resulting emphasis on switching schemes, the top defenders couldn't all be hulking rim-protectors this time around.

    We'll scan the league from 2009-10 to 2018-19, focusing on stats, awards and impact on team success in our search for the best of the best. Total production throughout the decade will matter, but so will the height of a player's peak years.

    In addition, because this decade was so notable for the way the game shifted, we have to give special attention to the defenders who either spurred those changes or, failing that, were best built to thrive in the altered landscape.

    At the risk of spoiling No. 1, let's just say the 2010s showed us it was possible for a positionless defender to dominate like never before.

Honorable Mention

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    Chris Paul

    Nobody had more than Chris Paul's six All-Defensive first-team nods during the 2010s, and nobody collected more than his 1,396 steals. There's really no question he was the top defender at the point for the decade, and he probably has a case as one of the best we've ever seen.

    The unfortunate reality for Paul is that it's just much harder for a player at his position to make a huge impact on defense. Yes, he can pester the ball-handler, fight through screens (drawing cheap fouls all the while) and do his best against post-ups down low. But Paul and other smallish guards can't regularly switch across multiple positions, protect the basket or end possessions with contested defensive rebounds inside.

    CP3 was better at his limited defensive job than anyone else at his position, but that job didn't matter as much to team defensive success as the ones performed by our top five.

           

    Serge Ibaka

    Serge Ibaka blocked 1,626 shots in our 10-year window, 335 more than anyone else. So although he only ranks 197th in defensive box plus/minus and 10th in defensive win shares, and even if he was never a very good defensive rebounder, he has to at least get a conciliatory mention here.

             

    Joakim Noah

    The Defensive Player of the Year and league leader in defensive win shares for the 2013-14 season, Joakim Noah doesn't quite have the staying power to warrant a spot in the top five. He was effectively done as an All-NBA defender by 2015-16, after which wear and tear slowed him down.

    Still, anyone who does enough on D to finish fourth in MVP voting while averaging just 12.6 points per game has to get some acknowledgment.

               

    Additional apologies to LeBron James, Tyson Chandler, Paul George, Marc Gasol, Andre Iguodala and Anthony Davis.

5. Tony Allen

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    Tony Allen belongs here on the basis of numbers and awards, but the true solidifier of his position in the top five comes from peer review.

    So instead of focusing on the fact that he led the league in steal percentage and tops all wings with six All-Defensive honors for the decade, let's drink in Kobe Bryant's 2014 assessment of Allen's defensive brilliance, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News: "He's fundamentally sound defensively and he plays harder than everybody else defensively. He has a competitive desire to compete individually. That's very uncommon. Most defensive players I face want help all the time. I've never heard him ask for help."

    That's Allen in a nutshell: ridiculously driven, uncompromising and always willing to take on the most threatening perimeter matchup.

    Immune to screens and utterly predatory in the passing lanes, the 6'4" wing brought extreme physicality and confidence to the defensive end of the floor. And while self-aggrandizing trash talk is typically the province of big-time scorers, Allen let everyone know how great he was on D.

4. Kawhi Leonard

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    The decade's only perimeter defender more intimidating than Allen, Kawhi Leonard's understated brand of ruthlessness validates an old axiom.

    It really is the quiet ones you have to watch out for.

    Leonard was named Defensive Player of the Year in both 2014-15 and 2015-16 and made an All-Defensive team five times in the eight years he played this decade, including the first team in three straight seasons from 2014-15 to 2016-17.

    He's sixth overall and the highest-ranked wing in defensive box plus/minus, not that he needs much statistical justification with all those awards reflecting broad recognition of his talents.

    If you were building the ideal shutdown wing, strength, length and great hands are three of the very first qualities you'd include. Leonard has all of them, and they combine to produce the rare defender who can genuinely upend the normal offense-defense dynamic. At his most dominant, Leonard turned ball-handlers from predator to prey.

    Sometimes defense seems complicated. It takes meticulous study, knowledge of opponent tendencies and an understanding of how one individual matchup fits into a larger scheme that involves eight other bodies. Leonard cut through all the noise, simplifying the operation by seeming to say, "How about I just take the ball away from the dude who has it?"

    It's hard to recall another defender who made the mere act of possessing the rock a high-risk maneuver.

3. Rudy Gobert

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    Though he didn't become a full-time starter until the last few weeks of the 2014-15 season, Rudy Gobert's status as the decade's best pure rim-protector is beyond question.

    The two-time Defensive Player of the Year (who, even if it doesn't count for the decade we're studying, is regarded by NBA coaches as one of the game's top two defenders this season) posted a block percentage above the 95th percentile for his position in every year considered for this project. It's no surprise that he leads our field in block rate among players who saw at least 10,000 minutes of action.

    He led the league in defensive win shares in 2016-17 and ranks ninth overall in defensive box plus/minus for the decade.

    Though his on-off defensive impact slipped a touch in 2018-19, Gobert's overall track record reveals a massive influence on his team's stopping power. In four of the six years he played this past decade, Gobert's presence on the floor coincided with an improvement in defensive rating of at least 7.0 points per 100 possessions.

    It's not difficult to understand why Gobert makes such a difference.

    At 7'1" and boasting a 7'9" wingspan, he simply towers over would-be scorers in the lane, blotting out hopes of a clean look. Though his block numbers are impressive (at least 2.0 per game every year since he was a rookie), Gobert's true impact might be better reflected in the way he deterred offensive players from even trying to score inside.

    Opponent attempt rates at the rim plummet whenever Gobert is in the game. The declines in close-range shot frequency during his minutes are elite, ranking above the 91st percentile among bigs in every year he's been a starter.

    Even during the decade defined by the three-point revolution, getting to the rim was still every offense's prime objective. Gobert made finding success there harder than anyone.

2. Dwight Howard

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    Dwight Howard got a raw deal in our ranking of the top defenders from the 2000s because his best years were split between decades—roughly half of them prior to 2010 and half of them after. We can't short him twice just because of when his career started and when he peaked.

    If we'd done a look back at the best defenders from, say, 2005 through 2015, Howard would have been No. 1 with a bullet.

    He's second here despite only getting two of his many elite defensive years into the time constraints with which we're working. Those seasons, 2009-10 and 2010-11, both resulted in DPOY awards and, obviously, All-Defensive first-team nods. Howard also snagged a third straight first-team distinction for the decade in 2011-12, a year in which he led the league in defensive rebounds for the fifth straight time.

    He'd make it six the following season.

    But wait, there's more. Howard also topped the NBA in defensive win shares in 2009-10 and 2010-11. He doubled up in that phenomenal 2009-10 season by also posting the league's highest defensive box plus/minus. Finally, despite the vast majority of this decade coming after his prime, Howard is still No. 1 in total defensive win shares from 2010-19, per NBA Math.

    Peak Howard's mobility separated him from more conventional shot-blockers like Gobert. You didn't have to station him right under the rim to get maximum value as he could move laterally with a guard's quickness, covering the width of the lane in half a breath.

    The embodiment of pure athletic dominance, Howard was an overwhelming physical force who could track down guards in transition, volleyball-spike shots above the square and always vault back off the floor in a blink to secure defensive rebounds.

1. Draymond Green

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    We didn't really talk about five-position defenders until Draymond Green came along and turned "tweener" from a pejorative into the league's most sought-after commodity.

    As the (generously listed) 6'6" forward helped elevate the Golden State Warriors during their dynastic run, everyone in the copycat NBA went looking for the next Green.

    Nobody ever found one.

    The 2016-17 DPOY, Green featured a unique combination of instinct and intellect. Among players with more than 300 games, he's first in our field with a 2.8 defensive box plus/minus for the decade, he ranked above the 91st percentile in steal rate for his position every year other than his first, and he improved the defensive rating of a 73-9 Warriors team by 11.9 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor.

    He made great greater.

    And yet, accolades (don't forget those five All-Defensive nods) and stats fail to capture Green's real impact.

    There are no highlight reels of Howard or Gobert shutting down the league's most dangerous backcourt scorers in isolation. There are plenty devoted to Green, just as there are clips that feature him sprinting all over the floor, directing traffic and guarding all five opponents on one possession.

    It sometimes felt like he could get stops in any situation by sheer force of will, no matter the circumstances that typically preclude success (like a two-on-one, for example). Watch that last one again and note how Green moves as fast as the pass while essentially shuffling sideways and turning all the way around, still mustering enough lift to meet Noah Vonleh at the top. There's just no one else capable of making that play.

    Green's ability to guard centers and switch every screen unlocked the Warriors' Death Lineup, keying their three titles and making them the most successful team of the decade. Nobody was more important to Golden State's run than Stephen Curry, who changed the league even more profoundly than Green did. But without the savviest and most versatile defender of the modern era, the Warriors wouldn't have won those rings.

    Tactical genius, maniacal competitiveness, unparalleled versatility and team-altering impact at the absolute highest levels of competition make Green the decade's top defensive player.

              

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