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The Hoop Doctors

Top 10 NBA Defensive Players Of All-time

Anklesnap June 19, 2009 Blogs 83 Comments

June 19, 2009 – Dr. J-Water

Throughout the whole Lebron vs. Kobe debate that took place during the playoffs, I was amazed at how often people focused in on their offensive skills and attributes, and how little people talked about how good these guys were defensively. They are both stoppers, probably stemming from the MJ effect of ‘hating to lose with a passion’.

It got me thinking. Who are the greatest defensive players of all-time in NBA history? Well, I had some chats with friends, and decided to put together a Top 10 list. Feel free to let me know who is missing. Some near misses were Moses Malone, Mark Eaton, Mo Cheeks, Scottie Pippen, etc.

10. Alonzo Mourning
If there was a definition for ‘intensity’ would you not expect to find Alonzo Mourning’s name in there somewhere? How about the word ‘Warrior’? This guy was an absolute beast on the defensive end. Although his offensive game was adequate, yet limited, he more than made up for it on the defensive end. He played with a purpose, and that was to shut people down. He seemingly put a lid on his teams basket. Most folks are aware of Alonzo’s kidney transplant that sidelined him for a few years, and about his almost miraculous comeback to the top with the Miami Heat. Keeping all of the missed games and limited minutes due to his health situations in mind, Mourning still is 10th all-time in blocked shots with 2,356. Even more impressive considering his limited minutes per game, he is 6th all-time in blocks per game at 2.81 over the course of his career. Simply astounding, Mourning is an inspiration, and one mean and intense defensive master. Alonzo is also a 2-time defensive player of the year recipient.

9. Ben Wallace
Some may question this pick for the top 10 of all-time due to the fact that Big Ben doesn’t make any NBA all-time leaders list in blocks, steals, or rebounds. In fact the only notable list he makes in the defensive area is the top 25 in blocks per game at just over 2 for the course of his career. But anyone who has followed his career realizes that there is not one player in NBA history that has dominated the defensive end in a period of 5 years as Ben Wallace did from 2001-2006. In that stretch he won the NBA Defensive Player of the year award 4 times (2002, 2003, 2005, 2006). During that stretch he also was either the leader or second in the league in both blocked shots and rebounds. Ben has surprisingly quick hands and was often getting as many if not more steals per game than blocks in that stretch. All of this from a player that NEVER got drafted to the NBA, instead had to work his way into the league. Ben, you are more than deserving of making the all-time defensive list in our books.

8. Bill Russell
If there was ever a ‘kryptonite’ for the original superman, Wilt Chamberlain, it was Bill Russell. Wilt could simply not be stopped, unless he was going head to head with Russell. The road to the title in those days went through Bill Russell, and only a very select few got through him. Although they didn’t record blocks back when Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were playing in the NBA, there are some tremendous stories circulating, among those who were fortunate enough to see them play live, that both giants blocked shots by the dozens. Although we have to take our elders word for it, they both did enough on defensive rebounds alone to land them on this list. Russell averaged 22.5 rebounds per game over the course of his career, which is more than 11 per game over the third all time on that list. The Celtics were a very tough team to score on in those days, and it all started and ended with Russell anchoring the paint.

7. John Stockton
Just on one factor alone you can put Stockton virtually anywhere on this list. Steals. The guy was the master of thievery. He has the NBA All-time record for steals at a mind-numbing 3,265 total steals over the course of his career. That is more than 700 more steals than MJ had in second place on that list. I wish there were more accurate numbers on charges taken by a guard as well. Because if there were, Stockton surely would be a top that list as well. The guy is the most unselfish player to ever grace a basketball court. Everyone knows this about his passing, but he would also sacrifice his body on countless plays to get a change in possession for his club. And given how long and healthy he was over the course of his career, talk about durable!

6. Dikembe Mutombo
If there was one prototype for a shot blocking machine, it would certainly look a lot like Dikembe Mutombo. He was built to block shots. His length, leaping ability, timing, and his wagging finger in the face of opponents after he shuts them down are what I always think about when people talk best shot blockers of all-time. Mutombo is second all-time on the total blocks list with 3,289, and has won the defensive player of the year award a record 4 times (tied with Ben Wallace). Mutombo led the league 5 times in total blocks, 4 times in total rebounds, and 2 times in defensive boards. Mutombo is certainly the scariest guy to be facing as an opposing guard driving into the paint. He has made a career of erasing the mistakes of his teammates at the rim.

5. Michael Jordan
MJ is definitely not the best defensive player to ever play the game. But given his will to win, and inability to accept losing, are probably the driving factors in his success as a defender. The intensity with which MJ played defense was motivating. He literally made playing defense and shutting down opponents ‘cool’ for guards. In the modern game, Josh Smith and Lebron James are often on highlight reels for hustling back on defense and erasing mistakes by blocking wide-open opposition lay-ups off the backboard. Well you can thank MJ for that, as he basically invented those highlights. MJ was the NBA’s defensive player of the year in 1988, and has the record 9 times on the NBA All-defensive First Team. Jordan is also second to only John Stockton on the All-time Steals list with 2,514 career steals.

4. Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt the stilt will probably be remembered for being the most dominant scorer the NBA has ever seen. His career and season per game averages in scoring are astounding. What people often forget is how much he changed the game defensively. He is the all-time leader in rebounds with a mind-blowing 23,924. They didn’t record blocks in his era, however rumor has it that Wilt would sometimes have upwards of 20 blocks in a single contest. The NBA didn’t start giving out the Defensive Player of the Year award until 1982, otherwise Wilt may have racked up quite a few of these to go along with his 4 NBA MVP awards.

3. Gary Payton
When this list was being constructed, the first players to come to mind were big men. The big fellas blocking shots and securing possessions with defensive rebounds are the first natural thoughts when talking about defense. But if there was one player that revolutionized the way we think about the top defensive players, it was Gary Payton. In fact he was even nicknamed ‘The Glove’ due to his ability to cover and wrap up opposing point guards like a baseball in a glove. A lot of guards will anticipate poor passes and fill the passing lanes for steals. Gary not only did that with great success, but where he differed from many guards was in his ability as an on-the-ball defender. He literally could shut down players at either the 1 or 2 position on any given night. Gary is third all-time on the NBA’s steals list with 2,445 career steals. Payton shares the record with Michael Jordan as the player with the most selections to the NBA’s all-defensive first team, at 9. Probably the most telling factor however for his dominance as a defender, Gary Payton is the only point guard in NBA history that has ever received the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.

2. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar
Due to the fact that KAJ is the All-time leading NBA scorer, people sometimes forget about just how good he was at the other end of the court. Kareem was an animal on the glass, and could change shots with the best of them. He was super long and although not bulky could hold his ground and block shots against even the biggest of opposing centers. Until just recently Kareem Abdul-Jabaar was second all-time in blocks with 3,189 before being surpassed by Dikembe Mutumbo. Kareem is also third all-time in total rebounds, and secured more than 9,300 defensive rebounds during his career. For those that followed his career closely, they would recognize most his ability to turn it up in close games and basically shut down the opposition from scoring in the paint.

1. Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeem Olajuwon finished his career as the NBA’s All-time leader in blocked shots with 3,830. That is almost 700 more blocked shots than the second place in total blocks, Dikembe Mutombo. That in itself would make Hakeem ‘The Dream’ worthy of our first spot as the best defensive basketball player of all-time. But there is something even more compelling about Olajuwon’s defensive abilities. He is 8th on the NBA’s All-time steals list, with 2,162 steals! That is very rare for a big man, in fact as evidence of this there is not even one other Center that has cracked the top 25 of the all-time steals list. Hakeem is also 11th on the All-time rebounds list. Between all the blocks, steals, and rebounds that Hakeem Olajuwon has logged think about how many ‘new’ possessions he has secured for his team without the opposition scoring! No wonder the Rockets won those NBA Championships.

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  • Hank

    Without Russell and Wilt at 1 and 2 this list means nothing. Russell was the best defender ever. They played for the love of the game, never taking a play off. Not like todays players. It’s hard telling how many blocks they would have recorded had they kept it as a statistic back then, but I imagine they would be 1 and 2 on the list.

  • BlancaG

    Who wrote this article?

    • Jeff

      @BlancaG, – pretty sure it’s Dr. J-Water as listed at top of post

    • http://thehoopdoctors.com/online2/ Dr. Anklesnap

      @BlancaG, – it was Dr. J-Water also known away from the site as Rob…

  • kennyb50

    Stockton and Jabbar were good defensive players, not great ones. Never use steals or blocked shots as the measurement for how good a player is defensively. Really great players on defense make it hard for the player they’re guarding to even get the ball or once they do get get it they have a hard time doing what they like to do on offense. Back in the day Walt Frazier, Jerry West and Jerry Sloan were examples of great defensive players at guard. Chamberlain and Jabbar were contemporaries for a short while and even as an old man Chamberlain was better defensively. Whoever made this list should stop reading press clippings and watch a game.

  • John

    This list completely sucks. First of all you didn’t list Dennis Rodman, one of the most phenomenal defensive forces of all time. You also listed Russell at number 8, despite the fact that it was solely his defense which made him a top 3 nba player of all time. Zo doesn’t deserve to be on this list, I can think of plenty of defenders who were much better and much more consistent than Zo was in terms of defense: Pippen, Artest, Duncan, even Kobe. Yes Zo was a warrior, but he’s not one top ten in terms of defense.

    Please do more research before you come up with a “greatest of all time” list, because this one just totally sucks.

  • vampiro

    no mames falto denis rodman para mi creo que es el mejor defensivo de toda la historia y creo que sera el mejor por siempre mientras que hay barios jugadores que salen con las caracteristicas de jordan como kobe y lebron entre otros creo que como denis rodman no abra ninguno igual

  • Glen

    How can Bill Russel not be #1…what are you 13 years old?

  • Bruce

    Russell is only 8th on your list?! And Wilt is only fourth!? That justifies Glen’s question about your age. Not to denigrate the other guys, but Wilt and Russell are so far out ahead of everyone else, there should be two lists: the top two defenders of all time, and then the next eight. Wilt once had 55 rebounds in a single game. Teams go an entire season without getting that many in one game. Wilt and Russell averaged over 22 rpg, over 1/3 more than third-leading rebounder Bob Pettit. They would indubitably lead career blocked shots by a similar margins were such records kept in their time. Wilt and Russell not only blocked shots, they directed their blocks as passes to their teammates to start the fast break. Also, how is Scottie Pippen not on your list?

  • johnny blaze

    To include John Stockton on any list due to his “great defense” is laughable. Stockton was a all time great, that’s not subject to debate, but his abilities at the defensive end were average, at best… Stockton, like Bird, was extremely intelligent yet he lacked the ability to stay in front of opposing players at his position. Ironically, this helped his steal totals due to the fact that he played off of his man & gave a ton of attention to passing lanes. Some would argue that this often illegal (hence, another reason that opponents routinely place Stockton on “dirtiest player” lists)… Great defenders – Artest, Sefolosha, 7-time 1st team all defensive team PG Walt Frazier – “lock up” their man… Can you imagine any coach putting a player on Kobe, Jordan, or Durant because they are a steals leader? It defies logic.
    You must have missed Darrick Martin’s career high 39 on Stockton… or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s 51 on him…

  • Keith

    Russell did not play against soft competition. The NBA had just 8 teams for much of his career so he played each opponent 11 or more times per year. He faced Chamberlain 14 times a season. During the 60-61 season, in addition to Wilt, he played Walt Bellamy and Clyde Lovelette, two future Hall of Fame players along with Wayne “The Wall” Embry, a four time All Star 11 times each per season. That added up to 47 games against top flight competion. By 1964, Lovelette was on his way out but Nate Thurmond and Zelmo Beaty were coming in. A year later Willis Reed entered the league. Thurmond and Reed are Hall of Fame centers while Beaty made 3 All Star teams before he jumped to the ABA. During his final years, Russell had to play against Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld and the nearly forgotten but explosive Bob Rule. He did not have it easy all of his career.

    Nate Thurmond certainly deserves a place among the defensive elite. He like Russell, was a master of the controlled blocked shot. He deflected the ball to team mates rather than slamming it out of bounds. Chamberlain and Kareem both called him the best defender they ever faced. Walton was a great defender as well and would be way up there in the rankings if he had been able to stay healthy.

    No disrespect to Hakeem, he’s one of my favorite players of all time, but he never had to face the same level of competition night after night. He played in an over sized league with watered down schedules. He played Robinson, Ewing, O’Neal, Mourning, Mutombo and Daugherty for a combined total of just 14 to 16 games per year. Smits and Divacs were capable of creating some challenges for him but they were 2nd tier centers. Yes, Parish, Malone, Sikma, Gilmore and Laimbeer were still around during the early parts of his career, but hey were well past their primes. Ruland and Seikaly were talented but oft injured. In total, Hakeem had perhaps 36 games in which he was truly forced to play a challenging man to man matchup. That gave him the chance to roam more freely than Russell or Thurmond. So to declare him the greatest is debatable. A top 10 guy for sure but the greatest?

    As a life long Sonic fan I admired the Glove a lot. But I think Dennis Johnson was the Sonics best defensive guard of all time. He was bigger and stronger than Payton, a better leaper, shot blocker and rebounder. His perimeter and on the ball D were superb and he was a tougher defender against bigger players in the paint than GP. Yes, Payton should be considered one of the 10 best defensive guards of all time, but DJ had an edge. I did see Moncrief and Alvin Roberston, and Frazier mentioned, But other great defenders at guard who were not named yet on this blog are Jerry Sloan, Jerry West, Norm Van Lier, KC Jones, Al Attles and Joe Dumars. Oh yeah, that other Robertson (Oscar) was pretty solid. Lenny Wilkens was a strong defender too: Walt Frazier described him as “pure hound” for his pesky, tight defense.

    At forward, Buck Williams, Maurice Lucas, Dave Debusschere, Gus Johnson, John Havlicek, Bobby Jones, Paul Silas and Joe Caldwell should be remembered.

  • David

    John Stockton? Gary Payton at 3? No Pippen? This list is terrible.

  • david

    okay you had to make a case for ben wallace to be on that list? i could name 100 reasons he should be in the top 3. hes one of only 2 people to win the dpoy award 4 times and he could have easily won it 5 times but they didnt want to keep giving it to him every year so they gave it to the undeserving ron artest in the middle of it. also i agree with everyone i dont see how rodman or pippen isnt on this list. why anyone would even let you make a list like this blows my mind. also ben wallace was only 6′ 9 too so everyone thats saying russels up there because he was only 6 9 needs to take a chill pill

  • kickstarter

    Rodman, as stated above. Pippen, too. And Dumars. Agree with blocks and steals being overrated in judging defense.

    How about Michael Cooper? And Bobby Jones? Dennis Johnson? Havlicek?

  • Omaum

    Wow, really? Where the fuck is Rodman? He is probably the greatest defensive player that there will ever be… He could have played in any era and dominated the boards on BOTH sides of the floor.

  • Guy

    You forgot Kevin Garnet and Dennis Rodman

  • Pipsunderrated

    Scottie Pippen anyone? He guarded them all from Mark Jackson and Magic Johnson to Charles Barkley and even Patrick Ewing.

  • Pipsunderrated

    Scottie Pippen anyone? He guarded them all from Mark Jackson and Magic Johnson to Charles Barkley and even Patrick Ewing.

  • Daprofecy

    ABSOLUTE WORST LIST EVER. YOU HAVE WILT OVER BILL RUSSEL, NO DENNIS RODMAN, THIS LIST IS JUST AWFUL

  • Stef40

    is this list only for the retired players cuz wtf what about “THE BIG TICKET” KEVIN GARNETT!! 

  • LL

    Dennis Rodman, Joe Dumars, Scottie Pippen? This list is seriously flawed.

  • Nix266

    Nate thurmond. He stopped Chamberlain for christ sake! hes one of the greatest if not the greatest. and i like to see ben wallece on a list. I think hes way underated

  • Manj

    Wow Dennis fucking rodman

  • Jmerek21

    SCOTTIE PIPPEN

  • Steve

    First off, I can’t pick Gary Payton over Michael Jordan defensively. He never had 200 steals and 100 blocks in a season which MJ did twice, his overall shot blocking numbers were low and so were his rebounding stats. Michael was much better in those categories. Also, could you imagine Gary Payton guarding a 6ft 9 Magic Johnson or a 7ft Vlade Divoc as Jordan did in the 1991 finals? No way! He was a great defender but he could only guard 2 positions effectively. I also can’t put Kareem Abdul Jabbar above Bill Russell. Not only was Russell the greatest shot blocker of all time and could shut down his opponents better than Jabbar, but he also averaged 22.5 rebounds for his career! They didn’t keep several stats in those days and they also didn’t have the DPOY award. If they did, Bill Russell would have one colorful defensive resume! There’s also no way on earth I’d forget to put Scottie Pippen on this list and have John Stockton ahead of him. Despite of the steals which Pippen was also great at, Pip was a much better rebounder, shot blocker and he could guard 5 positions! Stockton only has him in one category. I’d make other adjustments to this list but this would be the first place I would start.

  • Steve

    As for Dennis Rodman, how can you not have him on this list?

  • Steve

    My top 5…

    1. Bill Russell – Greatest shot blocker ever and one of the best rebounders of all time
    2. Hakeem Olajuwon – Great shot blocker and the only center in the top 10 in steals
    3. Dikembe Mutombo – 4 time defensive player of the year/2nd in blocked shots
    4. Dennis Rodman – 2 time DPOY/7 time rebounding champ/Could guard 5 postions
    5. Jordan/Pippen – The greatest defensive tandem ever. Hard to say who was better

  • chad

    Rodman shuld b top5 on list wich wuld bump off zo

  • ian elrick

    dog you had bill russell at number 8. the list is irrelevant.

  • WIll

    Ummm, pippen?

  • Christopher Land

    This list is a joke written by idiots. Where in the F is Scottie Pippen!!!!! And Wilt and Russell are the best rim protectors of all time! Kareem # 2 is insulting to the the late great Wilt! Wilt is # 1. Do some research, look at you tube videos or something before u judge. Ask Phil Jackson! Wilt only man to block Kareem’s hook shot.

  • Christopher Land

    Kareem never had his kryptonite ala arch nemesis rival, like Wilt vs Russell. Kareem was going up against 6-10 Dave Cowens, 6-9 Willis Reed, 6-10 Bill Walton, 6-10 Moses Malone. When Wilt retire in 73, Kareem was by himself when it comes to all time great talent. Who was a great center in the early mid 80s in the Western conference? Thank goodness Magic got drafted by Lakers or Kareem would have 1 ring. Here’s a tip, look at you tube video of wilt and Russell talking to Amahed Rashad they don’t even mention him on top 5.