In the 25 years since, plenty of all-timers have made cases for crashing that list. Generally speaking, those cases are based on the offensive end of the floor.
For about as long as basketball has existed, defense has been the less glamorous half of the game. And that may be even more true in an era of truly outrageous offensive production—seven 2020-21 teams scored more points per 100 possessions than the former record holder, the 2019-20 Dallas Mavericks.
But there's a unique superstar in the West who annually showcases the impact a defensive specialist can have. And the league just awarded him with his third Defensive Player of the Year trophy.
Rudy Gobert is now on a list of three-time DPOYs that includes Dwight Howard, Ben Wallace and Dikembe Mutombo. The latter two have four—and are both Hall of Famers—which gives the 28-year-old Stifle Tower something to shoot for.
Eventually topping the aforementioned list would obviously bolster his case, but just like top 50 lists aren't solely about MVP shares, the all-time ladder for defensive players isn't all about DPOYs.
Defense is tougher to judge by numbers, too. Much of what we see on the offensive end can be encapsulated fairly well by points, assists, field-goal attempts and other numbers. Stats have a hard time putting an appropriate value on things like rotating, getting through screens, communicating and deterring actions from ever happening at all.
As catchall metrics like box plus/minus become increasingly popular, their proprietors generally acknowledge the difficulty in measuring defensive impact.
"Box Plus/Minus is good at measuring offense and solid overall, but the defensive numbers in particular should not be considered definitive," Daniel Myers wrote for Basketball Reference. "Look at the defensive values as a guide, but don't hesitate to discount them when a player is well known as a good or bad defender."
With that caveat in mind, consider what the impact numbers said about Gobert in 2020-21.
Now, it's also worth mentioning that most of those numbers are only tracked over the past 15-20 seasons (though FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR reaches all the way back to 1977), but they still paint a picture of dominance. And when they all agree, as they did in 2020-21, it probably means something.
"I think it goes way deeper than the box score," Gobert told FiveThirtyEight's Ben Dowsett. "I think those metrics, which are all different but all similar in a way—when you combine all of them, I think you have a pretty precise idea of how a player impacts the game of basketball on the court."
This most recent season may have been the peak for Gobert—which is impressive in itself, given the gaudy offensive production throughout the league—but it's hardly a breakout. His high-level impact on defense easily predates the first DPOY he won in 2018.
Gobert was the No. 27 pick in the 2013 draft (hence, his jersey number). Despite Utah's terrible record (the Jazz finished 25-57 that season) and encouraging defensive metrics, Gobert had to get most of his experience in what was then called the D-League that season. He didn't become a starter until Enes Kanter was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2014-15.
From that point on, Gobert has anchored the game's most consistent defense. Over those seven seasons, Utah is first in points allowed per 100 possessions, first in opponents' true shooting percentage and first in defensive rebounding percentage. And the team was better in all three of those marks when Gobert was on the floor.
As the NBA has rapidly transitioned to a style that is more about offense, threes, passing and positionless basketball, Gobert has held the Jazz steady with an old-school defensive impact.
He is a menace in the paint. And so much of what he does will never get recorded in any box score or by any catchall metric. What he does stops the things that get counted. When a player drives into the lane and U-turns out upon seeing Gobert, it generally goes unmeasured. No one is tallying how many times he calls out defensive instructions from the back line. Points aren't awarded for being the foundation on top of which an entire defensive scheme is built.
But we can see Gobert's impact on the defensive end by watching just about any Jazz possession. And the guides (those catchall metrics) popping up around the internet provide some supporting evidence for the sometimes unreliable eye test.
Even if there is no perfect measure for a player's defensive ability, it's clear that awards voters are aware of the impact. Again, he's now on a list that only includes himself and three other legendary defenders.
Gobert may not be known as quite the same level of shot-blocker as Mutombo, but the game isn't as paint-dominated today. Some might also think of Howard and Wallace as more prolific rebounders. When numbers from the five-year peaks of all three are compared, those distinctions are a bit tougher to make.
|Five-Year Peaks of the Three-Time DPOY Club|
|Basketball Reference & Stathead|
And again, when you account for stylistic changes that have occurred over the course of Gobert's career, his numbers start to take on a bit more meaning.
Of course, there are arguments for plenty of other types of defenders.
The classic rim protector/defensive anchor model accounts for everyone in the three-time DPOY club, but more versatile, wing defenders like Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green and Michael Jordan deserve consideration in this discussion. Guards like Gary Payton, Alvin Robertson and Sidney Moncrief need looks too. And we haven't even gotten to everyone who predates the award (which started in 1982-83) or numbers like blocked shots (tracked since 1973-74) like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Nate Thurmond, to name a few.
The fact that Gobert has established himself as the defensive face of the league in a time when offense reigns supreme has to be factored into the all-time debate. And though he's obviously nowhere near Russell's title count, it's worth remembering that the NBA is roughly three times as large (in terms of the number of teams) as it was during the Boston Celtics' legend's career.
Any list or ranking of basketball players is going to be subjective, and that's especially true when you're trying to zero in on defense. It may not be possible to definitively declare that Gobert is the most impactful defender ever, but after his third Defensive Player of the Year, it's also becoming increasingly difficult to declare he isn't.