Judging by all the crazy scoring in these NBA playoffs, the axiom that “defence win championships” doesn’t necessarily apply.
Sure, there have been some great defensive plays, however, they have been overshadowed by even better offensive performances all around.
Where defence really comes into play is in the regular season, when the grind of a 82-game schedule mandates that often-tired teams go into lockdown mode at certain times.
In the history of the league, awards for the NBA All-Defensive First and Second team players have been given out since 1969. Many greats, including Hall of Famers and soon-to-be Hall of Famers, have been so honored. And since 1982-83, the league has bestowed Defensive Player of the Year on one candidate.
Typically, they have been big men who can rebound and block shots, with only seven total perimeter defenders being so honored.
We looked at the honorees in both categories since 1969 and have come up with a list of 15 we think were and are the NBA’s all-time best defenders.
15. Chris Paul
Not only can point guard CP3 score, but the 12-year veteran can defend with the best of them. He’s a ball hawk without peer, having led the NBA in steals on six occasions, including four seasons in a row between 2010-11 and 2013-14. His career average in steals is 2.3, or a total of 1,911 in 834 games. For a smaller player (6’0″) Paul has also been an adept rebounder, logging a 4.4 per game average. The proof that he isn’t just a regular season wiz can be seen in his playoff stats, where he has stolen the ball at a rate of 2.2 per game through 76 career post-season contacts. Six times he has been named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, including the last five seasons in a row up to 2016. And when he wasn’t named to the First Team, he’s been on the Second Team twice.
14. Kawhi Leonard
It really is unfortunate for the Spurs that the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year still isn’t available to the San Antonio Spurs with his team down 2-0 to the Golden State Warriors. The “Claw” has won the DPOY award back-to-back and in 2015 and 2016 and will be in the running again this season. Before he was injured, Leonard had logged 1.7 steals per game in 12 games, as well as 7.8 total rebounds. He was tops in steals during last year’s post-season, grabbing 26 errant balls in 10 games. Lifetime in the post-season, he has recorded 1.7 steals and 7.3 rebounds in 87 games. In the regular season, the six-year veteran has registered 1.8 steals an, 0.7 blocks and 6.2 rebounds. In addition to being DPOY twice, he made the All-Defensive First Team twice and the Second Team once. A defensive stalwart with plenty of career ahead of him.
13. John Havlicek
How is this for a personal (and team) record? In eight NBA final series with the Boston Celtics, Hall of Fame SF/SG John Havlicek never lost. Of note, only two players in in league history have also won more championships than Havlicek, they being his teammates Bill Russell (11) and Sam Jones (10). Havlicek, in addition to being a superior perimeter shooter (lifetime 20.8 points per game), was a defensive workhorse with few peers in the ’60s and ’70s. For five years running in the early 1970s (1972-76), Havlicek was on the All-Defensive First Team and would no doubt have copped a couple of DPOY awards had it been given out then. Before he made the First Team, too, he was named to the All-Defensive Second Team three years in a row from 1969 to 1971.
12. Hakeem Olajuwon
The first, but not the last, of the big men on this list was just the third back-to-back winner of the Defensive Player of the Year award. Hakeem Olajuwon grabbed the DPOY mantle in 1993, logging a league leading 4.2 blocks along with 13.0 rebounds and 1.8 steals, and again in 1994, when he blocked 3.7 shots per game and had 1.6 steals and 11.9 blocks. Twice in his illustrious 18 season career Olajuwon was tops in rebounds (13.5 in 1988-89 and 14.0 in 1989-90) and three times he was the block king. He retired in 2002 with 13,748 total rebounds, which is 13th highest all-time and is still the career leader in blocks at 3,830 (3.1 per game). The two-time champion made the All-Defensive First Team five times and the Second Team four times and is just one of four players ever to record a quadruple-double. Olajuwon was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016.
11. Michael Cooper
As part of five exceptional championship teams with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s, Michael Cooper was one of those bread-and-butter unsung heroes the league likes to celebrate. On a team that featured future Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, Cooper’s efforts did not go unappreciated or unrecognized. Cooper spent his entire 12-year career with the Lakers and while he started just 94 of 873 games, he was a staunch defender off the bench. He was the 1987 Defensive Player of the Year, beating out the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, and was named to the All-Defensive First Team five times between 1982 and 1988. Cooper was also honored with Second Team nominations on three other occasions. Cooper averaged 3.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 0.6 blocks per game in his career, in just a shade over 27 minutes of playing time per game. Larry Bird gave him the ultimate compliment, calling him “the best defender he faced.”
10. Kevin Garnett
For 21 years, K.G. was a force at both ends of the hardwood. The 2008 Defensive Player of the Year could score (17.8 points per game) and defend (10.0 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 1.4 blocks) equally well. For four years in a row the “Big Ticket” led the NBA in rebounds per game, from 2004 (13.9) to 2007 (12.8). Nine times he was voted on to the All-Defensive First Team and three times to the Second Team. During his NBA MVP season in 2004, Garnett scored 24.2 points per game, grabbed a league high and personal best 1,139 rebounds, as well as 120 steals and 178 blocks. When he won his only championship with the Celtics in 2008, Garnett was a leader in many categories, including total rebounds (274 in 26 games) and two point shots attempted (430) and made (215). A 15-time All-Star, Garnett ended his surfire Hall of Fame career 10th in total rebounds (14,662) and 19th in blocks (2,037).
9. Walt Frazier
Clyde, as he is known to many, has the distinction of owning two championship rings that say “New York Knicks” on them, having run the floor for the squad in their only two title years, 1970 and 1973. Now a commentator for the Knicks and a Hall of Famer, Frazier and Earl “the Pearl” Monroe formed probably the best Knicks back court of all-time in the 1970s. Before they handed out Defensive Player of the Year awards — or tracked stats like steals and blocks for that matter — Frazier was a seven-time recipient of All-Defensive First Team honors in straight years, 1969-1975. During the Knicks two championship runs, Frazier snared 273 total rebounds in 36 games, while also contributing 16.0 points per game in 1970 and 21.9 PPG in 1973. He was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1987.
8. Michael Jordan
When people think of Air Jordan, they think about incredible clutch game-winning shots and feats of derring-do on the hardwood. What many overlooked was the fact that MJ was a superior defender capable of being a huge shutdown presence. Jordan packed much into his amazing 15-year career, including six championships, five MVP awards, six finals MVP awards, 14 all-star games, Rookie of the Year and 10 scoring championships. However, when he wasn’t pouring in buckets like they were going out of style, Jordan was a tenacious defender who led the NBA three times in steals, including a career high 259 during the 1987-88 season (3.2 per game). In addition to all that personal hardware, Jordan was the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1988, as well as a nine-time All-Defensive First team nominee. Definitely a basketball GOAT.
7. Bobby Jones
It really speaks to the greatness of the players enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame that Bobby Jones isn’t also included there. The native of Charlotte, North Carolina spent 12 years in the NBA with Denver and Philadelphia and was so astute a defensive player he made the All-Defensive First Team eight times, in consecutive years from 1977 to 1984. He added a Second Team nomination in his second last year in the league, 1984-85. In addition to being great in his own end, Jones was a sharp-shooting power forward who led the league in field goal percentage three times, including personal high 60.4 percent in his rookie season (1974-75). Jones won a championship with the 76ers in 1983, contributing 8.6 points, 1.5 blocks, 1.3 steals and 4.8 rebounds in 12 games.
6. Kobe Bryant
The Black Mamba had game. Whether it was dropping threes, stealing loose balls or yapping, he could do it all. Kobe Bryant was all-time from the moment he stepped onto the floor as an 18-year-old with the Lakers in 1996 right to the end, when he was 37. A five-time champion, MVP and two-time finals MVP, there was precious little one of the greatest of all-time didn’t do. In addition with being the league’s highest scorer two years in a row (2006 and 2007), he was a nine-time All-Defensive First Team member and three-time Second Team honoree. He recorded 25.0 points per game, career, as well as 5.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 0.5 blocks. As a testament to his greatness, his playoff numbers in 220 games were as good as his regular season totals, including 25.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 0.7 blocks per game. A five-tool player, if ever there was one.
5. Gary Payton
The Glove became a Hall of Famer for being a trash-talking, ball-hawking scoring machine throughout his 18-year NBA career with five different clubs. He has the distinction of being the only point guard ever to win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, doing so in 1996 with the Seattle SuperSonics. He scored 19.3 points per game that season, and was the leader in steals with 231 in 81 games (3.2 per game). For good measure he grabbed 339 rebounds and made 19 blocks. An NBA champion in 2006 with Miami, Payton made the All-Defensive First Team nine years in a row, from 1994 to 2002. His defensive greatness was described perfectly by Kevin Johnson: “You think of guys with great hands, like Maurice Cheeks and Derek Harper. Gary is like that. But he’s also a great individual defender and a great team defender. He has all three components covered. That’s very rare.”
4. Dennis Rodman
Whether one of Detroit’s “Nasty Boys” during the Pistons’ championship years in 1989 and 1990 or part of a superb Chicago Bulls squad that won three titles in a row between 1996 and 1998, the Worm was a superior defender. So much so that someone once stated he “could shut down any opposing player, from point guard to center.” The outspoken and often times bizarre Rodman won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1990 and 1991 and made the All-Defensive First Team seven times and the Second Team once. Few have been more dominant than the Hall of Famer was as a rebounder, as Rodman led the league seven years in a row in total rebounds, from 1991-92 to 1997-98. He was especially prolific as an offensive rebounder, finishing his career with the fourth most at 4,329. Rodman took his rebounding game to another level in the post-season, too, four times grabbing the most total rebounds (including offensive rebounds).
3. Ben Wallace
Only two players have won the NBA Defensive Player of he Year award four times, and Wallace was one of them. Twice he won it back to back, in 2002 and 2003 and then 2005 and 2006. Smallish for a center (6’9″), Wallace was a ferocious rebounder and shot blocker. The first year he was DPOY, Wallace topped the NBA in total rebounds with 13 per game (1,039 in 80 games) as well as 3.5 blocks (278 total). Wallace won a championship with the Detroit Pistons in 2004 and was huge in 23 games, snaring 328 rebounds and adding 44 steals (best) and 56 blocks. In fact, he led all players in steals in three straight playoff years from 2003 to 2005 and also topped the loop in blocks with 59 in 2005. Wallace made the All-Defensive First team five years in a row (2002 to 2006) and the Second Team once in 2007. His 2,137 regular season blocks currently rank 15th all-time.
2. Dikembe Mutombo
Mutombo is the only other player than Ben Wallace to be named Defensive Player of the Year four times. He was so honored in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001. Deke, a native of the Congo, was a shot-blocking nightmare for much of his 18-year career, three times leading the NBA in blocks per game (1993-94 to 1995-96) and in total blocks five times (1993-94 to 1997-98). He was also king in total rebounds four times and rebounds per game twice. For his 1,196-game Hall of Fame career, he recorded 10.3 total rebounds per game, 0.4 steals and 2.8 blocks. All-time, Mutombo is second in blocks with 3,289 and 19th in rebounds at 12,359. Though he never did win a championship, Mutombo did make the All Defensive First Team three times and the Second Team three times as well. He truly earned his nickname, “Mt. Mutombo.”
1. Dwight Howard
Seven players have won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, but only one, Dwight Howard, went back-to-back-to-back. Superman copped DPOY honors in 2009, 2010 and 2011, due to his outstanding work in the paint to grab rebounds and block shots. Six times in his career so far Howard has nabbed the most total rebounds, including five seasons running from 2005-06 to 2009-10. He was also the leader in defensive rebounds six years in a row (2007-08 to 2012-13) and was the blocks leader two years running (2008-09 and 2009-10). In 954 career games so far, Howard’s per game numbers stack up with the all-time greats at the center position, including total rebounds (12.7), blocks (2.0) and points (17.5). Even though he has yet to win a championship, Howard has twice been the leader in the post-season in total rebounds and three times in blocks.