Ranking the Greatest NBA Defenders of All Time
Enough messing around with small samples and arbitrary cutoffs. It's time to slice through the qualifiers and anoint the greatest NBA defenders of all time.
In decade-based rankings, we weighted peak and longevity relatively evenly. A guy could be a top-five defender for a 10-year stretch with three or four elite seasons, even if he wasn't nearly as good for the majority of that span. But here, cracking the top five requires something more: a sustained peak.
No flashes in the pan. No terrific three-year runs followed (or, less commonly, preceded) by significantly less dominant play. This is a ranking of the absolute best, which means we don't have to choose between brilliant primes and long-lasting performance.
Entry into this club requires both.
We still have to consider eras to some extent, as the league didn't record blocks or steals until 1973-74. And there was no such thing as Defensive Player of the Year until 1982-83. All-Defensive teams showed up earlier, in 1968-69.
We'll factor in awards, statistics and impact on winning to determine which stoppers made the biggest difference.
Let's D up.
One of two players with four Defensive Player of the Year honors, Ben Wallace had a 2003-04 campaign that included 9.1 defensive win shares, the highest single-season figure produced since 1973. A tenacious rebounder and elite shot-blocker who overcame a relative lack of size with high energy and serious vertical athleticism, the 6'9" Wallace falls just short of the top five. His seven-year peak from age 26 to 32 was phenomenal, but he's a little light on volume, ranking 15th in defensive win shares.
Scottie Pippen is probably the best perimeter defender the league's ever seen, a claim validated by his eight All-Defensive first-team honors and status as the only player to record at least 2,300 steals and 900 blocks in his career. Made famous for living inside Magic Johnson's jersey during the 1991 NBA Finals, the 6'8" forward had exceptional length, quickness and intelligence. As we'll see, it's just difficult for a wing stopper to produce the stats and impact on winning a dominant big man can.
The only man besides Wallace to win four DPOYs, Dikembe Mutombo is No. 2 on the all-time shot-blocking list. He made six All-Defensive teams and added the finger wag to the basketball hand-gesture lexicon. Top-notch rim protection made Mutombo a defensive star, but he wasn't particularly mobile and looks like a one-dimensional force compared to the guys who made our top five.
Though better known for his play on the other end, Michael Jordan was the DPOY in 1988 (and the MVP, a feat duplicated by just one other player in NBA history: Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994) and made nine All-Defensive teams from 1988 to 1998. He led the league in steals three times and defensive box plus/minus twice, which isn't bad for a guy who shouldered, let's say, a signifiant scoring load.
5. David Robinson
If it feels wrong that David Robinson—and not Wallace—cracks the top five, please take a few minutes to absorb all these clips of the Admiral's breathtaking combination of speed, agility, power and anticipation.
Blazing fast in the open court, Robinson completed chase-down blocks from distances no 7-footer should have been able to cover. He was also exceptionally quick off the floor and could rise out of a defensive crouch to swat shots faster than anyone in the modern era. An expert at crashing down from the perimeter to help inside, Robinson registered tons of swats on unsuspecting would-be scorers who assumed he was out of the play.
That was one of Robinson's great gifts: He was never out of the play.
The league leader in defensive win shares three times, Robinson posted nine separate campaigns with at least 6.0 DWS. By comparison, Wallace had seven such seasons. As a means of further distinguishing the chiseled center, Robinson averaged at least 3.0 blocks per game in each of his first seven years and is one of two players with at least 7,000 defensive rebounds, 2,500 blocks and 1,300 steals for his career.
With the highest defensive box plus/minus figure of any player to log at least 700 games, four All-Defensive first-team nods (eight in total), the 1991-92 Defensive Player of the Year award, and a dozen seasons with an average of at least one block and one steal (the third-most since those stats were recorded), Robinson has the numbers and accolades to go with the film that shows him to be a profoundly potent defender.
4. Kevin Garnett
No, we're not sure exactly how many defensive boards players grabbed before 1973-74, but that's not KG's fault. We're working with the data we have.
Garnett's nine All-Defensive first-team honors are tied for the most ever, a feat driven by his remarkable versatility and unrelenting competitiveness. One of two players in Basketball Reference's database with at least 2,000 blocks and 1,800 steals for his career, Garnett ranks fourth all-time in defensive win shares.
And while Robinson registered 12 seasons averaging at least one block and one steal per game, Garnett had 14.
There was no such thing as a mismatch (in favor of the offensive player) when KG was involved in the sequence. Though he was a wiry 6'11" and defended the rim at an elite level, Garnett was perfectly comfortable sitting down in a stance and sliding his feet on the perimeter. He attacked opposing ball-handlers with the sort of aggression and physicality you'd typically see down low, and that viciousness often caught smaller players off guard. He craved high-profile assignments at any position.
As is a requirement for anyone ranking this high, KG could combine multiple defensive qualities on one play.
Watch here as a 34-year-old Garnett sprints from the elbow to the baseline when his teammate's man springs free underneath. He smothers Jared Jeffries, preventing any chance at a game-winning a layup attempt while simultaneously sensing the cutter, his original assignment, in open space behind him. With his other hand, Garnett obstructs the passing angle and steals what might have been a clean assist, completing the sequence with a dive on the floor (again, he's 34 here) to secure the ball and the win.
Few have ever had the body-brain-heart combo that made Garnett, the 2007-08 DPOY, such a force on D.
3. Hakeem Olajuwon
Let's start here: Hakeem Olajuwon is the only player in Basketball Reference's database with at least 3,000 blocks and 2,000 steals.
While those two categories are far from the only considerations for this exercise, Olajuwon's singular status is one good indicator of his unique capacity for disruption. His hands were just everywhere, transported into position by the best feet any big man has ever had.
A two-time DPOY who made nine Al-Defensive teams (five first teams), Olajuwon led the league in defensive win shares for four straight seasons from 1986-87 to 1989-90, topping the league in blocks per game three times, including an absurd average of 4.6 swats per contest in 1989-90. He's the only player with three career seasons of at least 8.0 defensive boards and 4.0 blocks per game.
The Dream registered 17 seasons with at least 1.0 block and 1.0 steal per game, the highest total ever. He also has four seasons with an average of at least 2.0 blocks and 2.0 steals, which is a big deal because there have only been six such campaigns in league history. Olajuwon strung that quartet of 2.0/2.0 seasons together consecutively from 1987-88 to 1990-91, putting that stretch on the short list of the best individual defensive runs the league's ever seen.
Preternatural timing and lightning-quick elevation made Olajuwon a fierce standstill shot-blocker. That he could also cover so much ground, smothering opponents' attempts with instantaneous help rotations, rendered his brand of defense unfair.
Sticking with a perimeter player was also no problem for him.
Gifted with balletic balance and agility, he was difficult to dislodge, despite lacking exceptional strength. And don't forget his ridiculous speed in the open floor, which made victims of many guards who thought they had clean breakaways.
In the post, nobody was better at leaning hard into the back of his man's shoulder on one side, suckering a guard into a post entry pass to the other...which Olajuwon, bait taken, would deftly slide over and steal, sometimes poking the ball away and sometimes using a slick swim move to (seemingly) teleport around his man, ending up all the way in front and receiving the pass as if it had been intended for him.
In the aftermath of that statistical tidal wave and accompanying aesthetic beauty, you're surely wondering why Olajuwon doesn't rank higher. Part of the reason is that his teams lacked the consistent excellence of our top two defenders, and part of it is because, well...we're in the rarest of air here. It's hardly a knock to say a guy is the third-best defender of all time.
2. Tim Duncan
No. 2 in career defensive win shares and the primary reason the San Antonio Spurs remained defensively dominant as the supporting cast changed around him, Tim Duncan is the perfect foil for Garnett. For while KG was all quick-twitch and frenzied intensity, Duncan was a positioning savant who never seemed to move all that fast but always—always—ended up where he needed to be at exactly the right moment.
Duncan's 15 All-Defensive teams are a record we may never see fall, and the Spurs ranked first in defensive efficiency in five of his first nine seasons, never slipping lower than third during that span. In fact, San Antonio fielded a top-five defense 16 times during Duncan's career. Its worst showing was 11th in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, so we can throw an asterisk next to that one and claim Duncan-led defenses were assured of finishing inside the top 10.
Garnett is one of two players with more than Duncan's 11,232 defensive boards, but Timmy has KG soundly beaten in blocks, 3,020 to 2,037—even though Garnett logged roughly 3,000 more career minutes.
Only one other player built a sustained stretch of defensive dominance like Duncan did in San Antonio, as Neil Paine explained on ESPN.com in 2012, when Duncan was only sixth in career defensive win shares:
"It's true, the Spurs' title years are matched only by the 1950s-60s Celtics in the pantheon of great defensive dynasties. In fact, they're the only two teams in the history of the NBA to sustain a defensive efficiency five points better than the league average over a 14-season span. For this reason alone, Duncan deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as Bill Russell when it comes to anchoring the greatest multiyear defenses ever built."
Duncan would go on to make two more All-Defensive teams after this assessment, solidifying his case as the longest-lasting impact defender in league history. Nobody can touch his achievement of landing on his final All-Defensive team 17 years after making his first.
1. Bill Russell
We're at an information disadvantage with Bill Russell, who played his entire career before blocks or steals were recorded, and who competed in an era that looked a lot different than the modern game, making comparisons tricky.
That said, we know enough.
Russell crushes the field in career defensive win shares and NBA Math's Defensive Points Saved. He led the league in DWS in 11 of his 13 years and owns seven of the 10-highest single-season figures ever recorded. Of course, rather than fixate on individual stats, we could simply note the 11 championships he produced—almost entirely on the strength of his defense.
The Boston Celtics were consistently terrible on offense during Russell's career, producing points-per-possession figures below the league average in all but one of the 13 years he played. They ranked last in scoring efficiency twice and won rings in both of those years. Conversely, the Russell-led Celtics ranked first in defensive rating every year but 1967-68...when Boston slipped to second.
Adjusted for the pace of the era, Russell's Celtics own five of the top seven defensive ratings in league history.
The best way to describe the full Russell package is to say he was a combination of the last two guys we covered. He produced even more consistent team success than Duncan while boasting greater athletic dominance than Olajuwon. If that last part sounds hyperbolic, understand that Russell was a world-class high-jumper and track athlete who, though listed at 6'10", might have actually been even taller.
He could run past and jump over anyone. Even if the overall athleticism of the era was well below that of today, it's difficult to overstate the impact of a player with a more muscular version of Garnett's body and better bounce than a young Blake Griffin.
There's never been a defensive player who combined otherworldly athletic ability, smarts and competitiveness like Russell, who changed the game (he basically made blocks a thing) and produced unmatched team success.
If the DPOY had existed during his career, Russell would probably have 13 of them, one for each season he played. Case closed.