Most people would recognize the all-time scoring leaders in the history of the NBA, but the defensive players are not necessarily as recognizable. Athletic scorers have always received their fair share of accolades in a league where scoring is still essential to a team’s success, however, when the games get tight it is often the defensive plays that can make a big difference.
The legendary Bill Russell used his superlative defense to elevate the Celtics to 11 NBA Championships, setting the standard for his defensive play. Bill Walton helped the Portland Trail Blazers win an NBA title in 1977 thanks in large part to his defense. Ben Wallace did the same for the Pistons in 2004 as he helped them defeat the LA Lakers for the title. Many good teams have players who can score, but when games get tight it can be great defense and great defensive players that ultimately can make the difference between winning and losing games.
When considering many of the great defensive players of the league, a nod was given to many of the modern era players who have to neutralize players with more athleticism. The following 10 defensive players were not necessarily the best players of their time but were the best defenders of all-time.
Honorable Mentions: Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Dennis Rodman, Bruce Bowen, Gary Payton, Sidney Moncrief, Alonzo Mourning, Shane Battier, Mookie Blaylock, Dwight Howard, Serge Ibaka, Walt Frazier, Jerry West, Joe Dumars
10. Chris Paul – G
Many might question this pick, but after seeing Chris Paul guard Kevin Durant during the LA Clippers playoff series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, his defensive skills encompass more than just stealing the ball. Although Paul has led the NBA in steals six of the last seven seasons, accumulating 1,485 steals in his nine year career, he has also been selected to the NBA’s All-Defensive Team 5 times so far in his career.
Chris Paul is a tremendous on ball defender and will seldom get beat off the dribble. He has the speed and quickness to stay in front of any point guard in the league and can make up ground if someone actually gets by him. His hands might even be as quick as his feet, helping him get many of his steals and forced turnovers. Paul is not a shot blocker, but can challenge shots and close out on shooters. He gets the nod over many old school point guards because of his superior quickness.
9. David Robinson – C
David “The Admiral” Robinson was a fixture in the paint for San Antonio for 14 NBA seasons. In his third season in the league, Robinson averaged an astounding 4.5 blocked shots per game. He finished his career with 2,954 blocked shots (3.0 per game) and 1,388 steals (1.4 per game), both impressive figures. Robinson was the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1992 and was a member of the NBA All-Defensive Team 8 times.
Robinson was athletic enough to steal the ball from opposing big men if they tried to beat him with the dribble or block their shot if they tried to shoot up over him. He was strong enough to hold his position in the paint, but was better at reacting to shots by swatting them away or using his quick hands to knock balls out of opponents hands. He was a smart defender who was good at positioning himself on the court and knowing when to help out on defense.
8. Scottie Pippen – F
Scottie Pippen was often considered to be Michael Jordan‘s sidekick, but a good argument could be made that Pippen was actually more valuable on defense. Pippen often had to draw the other team’s best forward and scoring leader on any given night. He managed to lead the NBA in steals once and get selected to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team 8 times. He finished his career with 2,307 steals and 947 blocked shots while also averaging 6.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game.
Pippen was equally effective at guarding the post or challenging a player driving to the basket. He was strong enough to keep players from backing him down and quick enough to knock the ball away or slide over to cut off drives through the lane. Pippen was a great athlete and his ability to play on ball defense as a forward was second to none. Players would routinely get frustrated and settle for undesirable outside shots.
7. Dikembe Mutombo – C
The finger waggle from Dikembe Mutombo often followed one of his many blocked shots through the course of a game. The NBA’s second best all-time shot blocker finished his career with 3,289 blocked shots (2.8 average per game). He was a force in the paint, earning the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year honor 4 times in his career. Mutombo was selected to the NBA All-Defensive Team 6 times and even led the league in rebounding two different seasons.
Mutombo led the league in blocked shots 3 times and was a downright intimidating presence inside. He had long arms, was a quick jumper for his size and had excellent timing for blocking shots. It was hard for any team to establish an inside game with Mutombo clogging up the paint. Even when he got beat, he could make up for it with his ability to track the ball and physical skills that would put him in position to block the shot.
6. Alvin Robertson – G
Alvin Robertson’s career was cut short by injury, but he still managed to get voted onto the NBA’s All-Defensive Team 6 times and win the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year Award once. In his ten seasons of play, Robertson amassed 2,112 steals and topped 200 steals in a season 6 times. As an average sized guard, he even managed to block 323 shots. Robertson led the NBA in steals 3 times during his career.
Robertson finished his career with a 2.7 steals per game average and was only one of four NBA players to ever record a quadruple-double (20 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, 10 steals). Robertson was an excellent defender who could force a dribbler to pick up his dribble or slap the ball away with his quick hands. He racked up all his defensive statistics playing shooting guard where he would pressure shooters to drive and force them into turning the ball over with his pesky defense.
5. Ben Wallace – C,F
Although Ben “Big Ben” Wallace had some struggles on the offensive end of the court, there was no denying how special he was on defense. Wallace was recognized as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year four times throughout his 16 year career. He led the NBA in blocked shots once, rebounding twice and was selected to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team on 5 separate occasions. Wallace led the Detroit Pistons to the NBA Championship in 2004 by shutting down the Lakers and Shaquille O’Neal.
Ben Wallace was not that big and was not exactly the best jumper on the court each and every night. What he brought to every game was an intensity and ability to be at the right place at the right time to help teammates who got beat off the dribble. Wallace was strong enough to force opposing big men off their favorite spots in the post and quick enough to fly to the weak side and stuff back door cuts. He was constantly smaller than many players he faced, but there were few who could outplay him or outwork him.
4. Bobby Jones – F
Bobby Jones was one of the greatest defensive players of his time. He could run and jump like a gazelle and did all the little things that included his share of diving after loose balls to either save them or knock them off an opponents body. He finished his career with over 1,300 steals and 1,300 blocked shots, playing in only 12 seasons and coming off the bench for the majority of his last 4 seasons in the NBA. Jones was selected to the NBA All-Defensive First Team 8 times.
Jones racked up all his steals and blocked shots as a power forward, doing his best to challenge every shot in the paint. He was quick enough to poke the ball away from larger power forwards and could jump high enough and use his long arms to block shots of opponents who thought they had good position on him. Jones could also help out on defense and take a charge all while guarding the opponent’s best scorer.
3. Michael Jordan – G,F
Most people would consider Michael Jordan to be one of the greatest basketball players of all-time with his 6 NBA Championships, 6 NBA Finals MVP Awards and 30.1 points per game career average. Not to be overshadowed by all his offensive prowess, his defensive accomplishments were quite impressive. The 1988 Defensive Player of the Year was selected to the NBA All-Defensive First Team 9 times. He finished his career with 2,514 steals and averaged over 2 steals per game in 10 different seasons.
Jordan was tenacious on defense and had the speed, quickness and will to shut down any guard or small forward. He was great at pressuring the ball, forcing shooters off their favorite spots on the floor or making it difficult to drive with their strong hand. If his shot happened to be off, he would play even harder on defense. Jordan averaged at least 1 block per game in 4 different seasons, but was better known for his ability to force difficult shots.
2. Hakeem Olajuwon – C
Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon was a far better defensive player than he probably was given credit for. The two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award winner was on the NBA’s All-Defensive First or Second Team 9 times throughout his 18 year career. Olajuwon averaged over 3 blocked shots per game in nine seasons and even had 5 seasons where he averaged at least 2 steals per game. He is the NBA’s all-time blocked shots leader with 3,83o blocked shots for his career.
Olajuwon led the Houston Rockets to two NBA titles shutting down a young Shaquille O’Neal to allow the Rockets to sweep the Orlando Magic 4-0 leading in one of the championship series. He could challenge any shot an opposing center might put up and was equally effective at helping out on defense. Olajuwon also had great instincts at knocking the ball away from players who would try to back him down and enough size to make moving him rather difficult.
1. Bill Russell – C
Bill Russell probably changed the outcomes of games with his defense more that any player in the history of the NBA. He led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA Championships and was the NBA MVP on 5 separate occasions. Russell accomplished all this by averaging only 15.1 points per game throughout his career, relying mostly on his rebounding and defense. He played in an era where statistics for steals and blocked shots were not kept, but was noted for getting his fair share of both.
Russell changed the game of basketball by flying over to help on defense and being quick enough to get back to his man if the ball rotated back to him. Help defense originated with Russell and his double teams resulted in numerous turnovers and blocked shots. He had some epic encounters with the scoring machine, Wilt Chamberlain, and on more occasions than not Russell’s Celtics prevailed.