Best NBA Defenders of All-Time – Who Are The Top 10 Best Defenders in NBA History?


27 minutes

Last Updated: October 18, 2023

Scott Kostov

Deciding on the best NBA defenders of all time is hard. We have to take in consideration a lot of things. Sometimes it’s not just about the raw stats. Deciphering the longest NBA winning streak is as simple as looking at the numbers.

So what makes a great defensive player, one of the best of all time? Longevity and experience certainly play a role. Some of the oldest NBA players are on this list because they’ve accumulated a lot of production.

But for this list, we’ve taken everything into consideration. You need the hardware, the intimidation, the versatility, and most importantly the impact. So who are the greatest defensive NBA players? Let’s find out!

Best NBA Defender of All Time

01. Hakeem Olajuwon

  • Career Stats: 26,946 points (21.8 ppg),13,747 rebounds (11.1 rpg), 3,830 blocks (3.1 bpg), 2162 steals (1,7 spg)
  • NBA Teams: Houston Rockets (1984–2001), Toronto Raptors (2001–2002)
  • Accolades: 2× NBA champion (1994, 1995), 2× NBA Finals MVP (1994, 1995), NBA Most Valuable Player (1994), 12× NBA All-Star (1985–1990, 1992–1997), 6× All-NBA First Team (1987–1989, 1993, 1994, 1997), 3× All-NBA Second Team (1986, 1990, 1996), 3× All-NBA Third Team (1991, 1995, 1999), 2× NBA Defensive Player of the Year (1993, 1994), 5× NBA All-Defensive First Team (1987, 1988, 1990, 1993, 1994), 4× NBA All-Defensive Second Team (1985, 1991, 1996, 1997), 2× NBA rebounding leader (1989, 1990) 3× NBA blocks leader (1990, 1991, 1993), No. 34 retired by Houston Rockets

Here’s why Hakeem stands above the best NBA defenders of all time. While the Dream Shake got most of the attention, Olajuwon was an absolute nightmare on defense. For all the praise that Giannis and Wembenyama get for their lateral quickness at that size, Hakeem was the first one to break the mold.

Hakeem Abdul Olajuwon is a legendary Nigerian-American basketball player, who is celebrated as one of the best defenders in NBA history. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, on January 21, 1963, Olajuwon became one of the greatest NBA centers ever during his playing career for the Houston Rockets and later the Toronto Raptors.

His NBA journey began after becoming the first overall pick in the 1984 NBA draft, courtesy of the Houston Rockets. Pairing him alongside Ralph Sampson, formed the original “Twin Towers” duo, albeit to little success. 

Despite initial setbacks, Olajuwon would soon emerge as the Rockets’ undisputed leader. He  showcased his brilliance in every aspect of the court on a nightly basis, treating NBA fans with his rebounding, shot-blocking, and overall defensive mastery. 

Dream Shake

While Olajuwon’s NBA legacy is defined by his exceptional footwork, his impact far supersedes  both ends of the court. Standing tall at 7 feet, he led the Rockets to consecutive NBA championships in 1994 and 1995. 

What sets Olajuwon apart from other best defensive NBA players of all time, is his ability to guard not only traditional big men but also perimeter players with remarkable ease. His agility, lateral quickness, and long arms made him a force to be reckoned on the defensive end.

His defensive prowess was highlighted by his nine selections to the NBA’s All-Defensive teams, his five-time league-leading defensive rating, and his fourth position in the all-time defensive win shares ranking.

A few years ago, the NBA DPOY award was renamed after him, which is finally some reparations for the most underrated of the best defenders in NBA history. He’s still the NBA all-time leader in blocks with 3830, while second place isn’t even close at 3290.

He’s also 10th all-time in NBA history for steals, which is insane to think of considering he’s a center. David Robinson is the next center on that list and he’s 64th. Despite winning the DPOY award just 2 times, he finished top 3 in the vote a whopping 6 times.

Although Olajuwon played in an era characterized by physical basketball, his exceptional skills would have allowed him to shine in today’s game. So stop comparing him to Joel Embiid, who is yet to win a second-round series. Hakeem’s contributions were instrumental in the Rockets’ success, particularly when MJ was playing baseball. All of this makes Hakeem Olajuwon stand above the best NBA defenders of all time. 

Top 5 Best NBA Defenders All Time

02. David Robinson

  • Career Stats: 20,790 points (21.1 ppg), 10,497 rebounds (10.6 rpg), 2,954 blocks (3.0 bpg), 1388 steals (1,4 spg)
  • NBA Teams: San Antonio Spurs (1989–2003)
  • Accolades: 2× NBA champion (1999, 2003), NBA Most Valuable Player (1995), 10× NBA All-Star (1990–1996, 1998, 2000, 2001). 4× All-NBA First Team (1991, 1992, 1995, 1996), 2× All-NBA Second Team (1994, 1998). 4× All-NBA Third Team (1990, 1993, 2000, 2001), NBA Defensive Player of the Year (1992). 4× NBA All-Defensive First Team (1991, 1992, 1995, 1996), 4× NBA All-Defensive Second Team (1990, 1993, 1994, 1998)

You might be surprised to see the Admiral at number 2 on our best NBA defenders of all time list. But this is where the disrespect ends. David Robinson might have played in the most competitive era of basketball there ever was. But his defense was transcending. 

Long before the Big Fundamental was orchestrating the Spurs’ defense under the greatest NBA coach of all time Greg Popovich, the Admiral was doing it at a higher level. Born on August 6, 1965, Robinson’s impact on the game as a defender and shot-blocker would have been even more memorable if he hadn’t made his NBA debut at 24 years of age.

Much like Hakeem, Robinson possessed a unique blend of speed, mobility, and size, making him a force to be reckoned with on both ends of the court. He had the ability to cover smaller players on the perimeter while also establishing the middle as a no-fly zone with his shot-blocking capabilities. 

Although he faced challenges against more physical opponents like Shaquille O’Neal later on in his career, his impact was staggering. He still holds the highest defensive Box Plus/Minus (BPM) rating in history, which speaks volumes.

The Admiral

From 1990 to 1996, for 6 straight years, Robinson was averaging an obscene 3,6 blocks per game. Many all-time great rim protectors never had seasons with this kind of defensive production. And this guy averaged it for 6 years straight. 

He was also regularly among the league leaders in steals, which is even more impressive considering he was a center. Peaking at 2,3 steals per game during the 1992 NBA season, which was 5th in the league overall. 

His exceptional performance that year earned him the title of NBA Defensive Player of the Year, a year in which he led the league with an impressive 4.5 blocked shots per game.

On top of this, he also had 9 All NBA defensive team selections. 

Robinson’s accolades extended beyond his defensive capabilities. He was a 10-time NBA All-Star, highlighting his consistency on both ends of the court. In 1995, he was honored as the NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP), a testament to his overall impact on the game. His contributions were also instrumental in leading the San Antonio Spurs to two NBA championships in 1999 and 2003.

Apart from being an officer in the United States Navy, Robinson also loved representing his country on the international stage. He won two Olympic Gold Medals in 1992 and 1996, showcasing his dedication to the sport.

His place in basketball history is entrenched as one of 4 NBA players, alongside Hakeem Olajuwon, to ever record a quadruple-double. For his efforts, he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame twice. Once in 2009 for his individual career and again in 2010 as a member of the 1992 Olympic basketball team.

03. Bill Russell

  • Career Stats: 14,522 points (15.1 ppg), 21,620 rebounds (22.5 rpg),4,100 Assists (4.3 apg).
  • NBA Teams: Boston Celtics (1956–1969)
  • Accolades: 11× NBA champion (1957, 1959–1966, 1968–1969), 5× NBA Most Valuable Player (1958, 1961–1963, 1965). 12× NBA All-Star (1958–1969), NBA All-Star Game MVP (1963), 3× All-NBA First Team (1959, 1963. 1965), 8× All-NBA Second Team (1958, 1960–1962, 1964, 1966–1968), NBA All-Defensive First Team (1969). 4× NBA rebounding champion (1958, 1959, 1964, 1965).

How can we make a list of the best NBA defenders of all time without Bill Russel? Back when Russel and the Celtics dominated the league, the DPOY award didn’t exist. So they often just gave him the MVP award instead. 

Bill Russell was born on February 12, 1934, and passed away on July 31, 2022. He was an iconic figure in NBA history, playing as a center for the Boston Celtics from 1956 to 1969, and leaving an indelible mark on the sport of basketball. 

During Russell’s era, defenses were simpler, often relying on dominant centers to guard the paint. While there were notable perimeter defenders, Russell and Wilt Chamberlain stood as the epitome of defensive excellence in the 1950s and ’60s.

Because Bill Russell’s defensive stats were never officially tracked, we probably can’t properly gauge their impact on that end of the court. And even if we could, it would be hard to quantify it to today’s NBA.

If blocks and steals were officially recorded during his era, his numbers would have been astronomical. Some even speculate that he might have averaged a triple-double throughout his career. With his Olympic-level athleticism, Russel won 5 MVPs despite averaging just 15 points per game.

11 Rings

So instead of wasting 2 slots lamenting how great 2 top 10 NBA players of all time were on defense, we’re just going to mention Russel here. In 11 of his 13 seasons, Russel led the league in defensive win shares.

That’s more than double of the second-placed George Mikan and Tim Duncan, who have just 5 respectively. Ben Wallace and Dikembe Mutombo are tied for the most NBA DPOY awards with 4. But if the award existed when Bill Russel played, he would probably have more than double that as well. 

With Russell in the lineup, the Celtics consistently dominated defensive ratings, finishing first in Defensive Rating for 11 consecutive seasons After all, he built a legacy for himself and won 11 rings through defense. All in the era when Wilt Chamberlain played.

Russell’s defensive acumen was not just about blocking shots. He reinvented shot-blocking by understanding the importance of keeping the ball in play and opening up transition opportunities.

He was a rather short NBA player compared to the greatest centers that have played this game, but his basketball IQ was unmatched. Beyond statistics, Russell embodied the essence of a team player and a leader.

Many basketball enthusiasts and experts believe that Russell’s contributions, especially on defense, were way ahead of his time. That probably helped him become a 12-time NBA All-Star. 

He also served as the cornerstone for the Celtics dynasty that clinched a staggering 11 NBA championships in his 13-year career. You can’t start listing the best defenders in NBA history without mentioning Bill Russel. But due to the ever-changing nature of the sport, he’s number 3 in our books.

04. Dikembe Mutombo

  • Career Stats: 11,729 points(9.8 ppg), 12,359 rebounds (10.3 rpg), 3,289 blocks (2.8 bpg)
  • NBA Teams: Denver Nuggets (1991–1996), Atlanta Hawks (1996–2001), Philadelphia 76ers (2001–2002). New Jersey Nets (2002–2003), New York Knicks (2003–2004), Houston Rockets (2004–2009)
  • Accolades: 8× NBA All-Star (1992, 1995–1998, 2000–2002), All-NBA Second Team (2001), 2× All-NBA Third Team (1998, 2002). 4× NBA Defensive Player of the Year (1995, 1997, 1998, 2001), 3× NBA All-Defensive First Team (1997, 1998, 2001). 3× NBA All-Defensive Second Team (1995, 1999, 2002), NBA All-Rookie First Team (1992). 2× NBA rebounding leader (2000, 2001), 3× NBA blocks leader (1994–1996)

Making a list of the top 10 best NBA defenders of all time without the inventor of finger wagging after denying a shot just doesn’t feel right.  Dikembe Mutombo was a 7 ft 2 in (2.18 m) 260 lb (120 kg) defensive powerhouse originating from the Congo.

Upon entering the league as a 25-year-old rookie, Mutombo quickly established himself as one of the most formidable paint protectors and best defenders in NBA history. Nicknamed “Mt. Mutombo,” he was a master of shot-blocking and rebounding. 

Properly using his exceptional height, power, and long arms earned him a record-tying 4 NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards, a feat only matched by Ben Wallace. His defensive prowess was consistently evident as he ranked among the top three players in Defensive Player of the Year voting for nine consecutive seasons from 1994 to 2002.

Mutombo Finger Wag

He led the league in blocks three times and averaged 2.8 blocks and 10.3 rebounds per game over his 18-season NBA career. With such a high clip of defensive production over such a long period of playing time, it’s no surprise his name is etched in NBA history books forever.

He’s second all-time in blocked shots behind Hakeem Olajuwon with 3,290 and sixth all time in terms of 20 rebound games. This makes him one of the greatest NBA rebounders ever, on top of being among the best defenders in NBA history.

Despite not being a high-scoring player, Mutombo’s value on the court was immeasurable. His defensive achievements were complemented by eight All-Star selections and his admission into three All-NBA and six All-Defensive Teams.

What made Mutombo exceptional was his unique ability to block shots without fouling opponents. His defensive brilliance was further underscored by his ability to lead defenses. Most notably, he played a crucial role in Philadelphia’s efforts during their 2001 NBA Finals run, against prime Shaq.

His finger-wagging gesture after a blocked shot became iconic and symbolized his defensive dominance. Mutombo’s impact was so severe, that players often refused to attack the paint altogether against him. But that didn’t stop Mike from climbing Mt Mutombo. 

Mutombo’s defensive value was so significant that he continued to play regular minutes until a career-ending knee injury at the age of 42. Despite being a virtual black hole on offense during the latter part of his career.

I guess that was acceptable in that era of NBA basketball. Today, one-dimensional specialists are getting exposed with different schemes left and right. But I guess that’s a risk coaches are willing to take when you have one of the best NBA defenders of all time on your roster.

05. Kevin Garnett

  • Career Stats: 26,071 points (17.8 ppg), 14,662 rebounds (10.0 rpg), 5,445 assists(3.7 apg), 2037 blocks (1,4 bpg), 1869 steals (1,3 spg)
  • NBA Teams: Minnesota Timberwolves (1995–2007), Boston Celtics (2007–2013), Brooklyn Nets (2013–2015)
  • Accolades: NBA champion (2008), NBA Most Valuable Player (2004), 15× NBA All-Star (1997, 1998, 2000–2011, 2013). 4× All-NBA First Team (2000, 2003, 2004, 2008), 3× All-NBA Second Team (2001, 2002, 2005). 2× All-NBA Third Team (1999, 2007), NBA Defensive Player of the Year (2008), 9× NBA All-Defensive First Team (2000–2005, 2008, 2009, 2011). 3× NBA All-Defensive Second Team (2006, 2007, 2012), 4× NBA rebounding champion (2004–2007)

KG never stopped bringing his intensity and energy to the defensive end of the court. That’s why he’s rounding out my top 5 best defenders in NBA history. Similarly to Olajuwon and Robinson, Garnett was among the league leaders in blocks and steals throughout his career.

Despite his slender physique, Garnett’s impact on the game was immense. Especially in an era where the league’s style of play was evolving rapidly. His long limbs, combined with his explosiveness and lateral quickness, made him a spider anchoring his defensive web around the paint. 

The combination of length and mobility allowed him to cover vast areas of the court, defending actions at the top of the key and swooping in for crucial defensive rebounds. Unfortunately, for much of his career, his defensive effort would go unnoticed on the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves. 

While the production was there, the wins were missing. Garnett’s journey began when he was selected as the fifth overall pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 1995 NBA draft. This made him the first player in 20 years to be drafted directly out of high school.

The Big Ticket

His impact on the Timberwolves was immediate, leading them to eight consecutive playoff appearances and eventually guiding them to the Western Conference Finals in 2004. During this period, Garnett displayed his defensive versatility as a forward, often guarding smaller players with remarkable ease. 

Throughout his illustrious 21-season NBA career, Garnett consistently showcased his defensive excellence, earning numerous accolades along the way. He made 12 NBA All-Defensive teams, which is tied for second-most all time.

Nine of those selections were also for the All-NBA Defensive First team. And that amount ties him with Michael Jordan, Gary Payton, and Kobe Bryant for the most of all time. Truly elite company when it comes to the best defensive NBA players of all time.

When he joined the Boston Celtics his impact grew even stronger. In the 2007-08 season, Garnett played a pivotal role in transforming the Celtics into an all-time great defensive team. They finished with a staggering 8.6 points per 100 possessions better than the league average, despite being one of the worst defenses in the league the year prior. 

His defensive leadership inspired his teammates, elevating their performance, and earned him the 2008 DPOY award. Beating their arch-rival LA Lakers with Kobe and Pau Gasol to claim the 2008 NBA championship while locking down the paint was just icing on the cake.

Garnett’s accomplishments extended beyond his defensive abilities. He was a 15-time All-Star, the 2004 NBA MVP, and led the league in rebounding four times. Also he stands alongside Hakeem Olajuwon as one of the only two players to be in the Top 20 in both steals and blocks in NBA history.

He retired as one of the oldest NBA players, which means we had plenty of opportunities to witness one of the best NBA defenders of all time.

Top 10 Best NBA Defenders All Time

06. Ben Wallace

  • Career Stats: 6,254 points(5.7 ppg), 10,482 rebounds(9.6 rpg), 2,137 blocks (2.0 bpg)
  • NBA Teams: Washington Bullets / Wizards (1996–1999), Orlando Magic (1999–2000), Detroit Pistons (2000–2006). Chicago Bulls (2006–2008), Cleveland Cavaliers (2008–2009), Detroit Pistons (2009–2012)
  • Accolades: NBA champion (2004), 4× NBA All-Star (2003–2006), 3× All-NBA Second Team (2003, 2004, 2006). 2× All-NBA Third Team (2002, 2005), 4× NBA Defensive Player of the Year (2002, 2003, 2005, 2006). 5× NBA All-Defensive First Team (2002–2006), NBA All-Defensive Second Team (2007). 2× NBA rebounding leader (2002, 2003), NBA blocks leader (2002)

If you love a good underdog story, then you’re in the same boat as me. Ben Wallace might just be your favorite player. But he’s without a doubt, one of the best NBA defenders of all time. 

Listed at 6 ‘9, but possibly even shorter, Ben Wallace played at center for the entirety of his career. 

His career started as an undrafted player, warming the bench for the Washington Bullets. Despite getting a small amount of playing time, he was able to make an impact. The Orlando Magic saw the potential and made him their full-time starter the following season.

Ben Wallace got fully unleashed once he arrived in Detroit under head coach Larry Brown. Wallace finally found a place where he belonged. Somewhere where the fans, coach, and his teammates fully appreciated Ben for all the effort he exerted.

Ben became an unstoppable force, known for his ferocious defense, shot-blocking, and rebounding capabilities. Despite his lack of height for a center, he compensated with incredible athleticism, making him a dominant force in the paint. 

Big Ben

Wallace’s prime, spanning six years in Detroit, marked him as the centerpiece of one of the most dominant defensive teams in NBA history. In the 2004 NBA Finals, he single-handedly shut down Shaquille O’Neal, who was just exiting his prime.

This reincarnation of the Bad Boy Pistons was composed of outlaws and underachievers who were always doubted. Point guard Chauncey Billups was a disappointing 3rd pick with the Celtics, Rasheed Wallace was on his way to getting the most techs in NBA history, and nobody gave Ben Wallace a shot to make the league.

But that didn’t stop him from receiving four NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards in just five years. Dikembe Mutombo is the only other player to achieve this, and he did it over a 7-year span.

Wallace’s impact on defense was immeasurable, mostly because players were afraid to attack the rim against him. He was one of only five players to collect more blocks than personal fouls and the sole player among them to have more steals than turnovers. 

During his peak years in Detroit, he led the team to remarkable defensive efficiency, finishing second, third, fourth, and fifth in defensive rankings during those seasons. Wallace made the Pistons paint a no-fly zone, and he was getting all ball every single time.

During his 5 year prime from 2002 to 2007, Ben Wallace was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team every single time, took the rebounding crown twice, led the NBA in blocks once, and received 4 All Star appearances.

Achieving this as an undrafted player, to single-handedly becoming the Shaw stopper and becoming one of the best defenders in NBA history, Ben Wallace is the most deserving admission on this list.

07. Tim Duncan

  • Career Stats: 26,496 points(19.0 ppg), 15,091 rebounds (10.8 rpg), 3,020 blocks (2.2 bpg)
  • NBA Teams: San Antonio Spurs (1997–2016)
  • Accolades: 5× NBA champion (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014), 3× NBA Finals MVP (1999, 2003, 2005), 2× NBA Most Valuable Player (2002, 2003), 15× NBA All-Star (1998, 2000–2011, 2013, 2015), 10× All-NBA First Team (1998–2005, 2007, 2013), 3× All-NBA Second Team (2006, 2008, 2009), 2× All-NBA Third Team (2010, 2015), 8× NBA All-Defensive First Team (1999–2003, 2005, 2007, 2008), 7× NBA All-Defensive Second Team (1998, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2015)

Similarly to Pippen, it’s a travesty Tim Duncan has never won the DPOY award. He’s also never led the league in steals or blocks. So how does he end up on a list of the best NBA defenders of all time?

Well, if you know anything about Tim Duncan and the Spurs’ approach to basketball, this wouldn’t surprise you. With Bruce Bowen collecting NBA All-Defensive First Team nods five years in a row alongside Duncan, you can also argue that Timmy wasn’t even the most important defender on his team.

The Spurs led the league in defense in 4 of those seasons, and a few times since then. But what Duncan lacked in flashy highlights and eye-popping numbers, he more than made up for it with his longevity and consistent performance.  

Tim Duncan was arguably the greatest power forward in NBA history. Standing tall at 6 feet 11 inches and weighing 250 pounds, Duncan managed to carve out his legacy through fundamentally sound offense and exceptional defense.

The Big Fundamental

Pairing him alongside David Robinson formed a formidable defensive frontcourt for the San Antonio Spurs. Despite Robinson’s back surgeries, Duncan was nimble enough to guard PFs in the early 2000s, en route to securing two championships.

During those years, the Spurs as mentioned, consistently ranked among the league’s top defensive teams.  He made an astonishing 15 appearances on the NBA All-Defensive Teams, with 8 first-team selections and one second-team selection even at the age of 38 in 2015.

These are arguably even more impressive than his 15 All-Star appearances and his 15 All-NBA nods, 10 of which were for the first team. He ranks second all-time in defensive win shares with 106.34 and holds the third-best defensive rating at 95.57.

Duncan’s impact on the Spurs’ defensive performance was absolutely staggering. Even later on in his career, he successfully anchored the paint for a team consistently boasting top defensive ratings and limiting opponents’ scoring opportunities. 

Even if we look past the 2 regular season MVPs and the 2 Finals MVPs, Tim Duncan’s career on the defensive end alone is worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. His ability to make the right rotations, contest shots effectively, and provide solid man-to-man defense highlighted his basketball IQ and defensive acumen.

Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili might have been two of the best ball handlers of their generation. But if Timmy hadn’t locked down the paint at age 37 in 2014, those 2 NBA Finals appearances might have not happened.

He’s one of the best defenders in NBA history on basketball IQ alone and is probably the most underrated of the best NBA defenders of all time.

08. Dwight Howard

  • Career Stats: 19 485 Points (15.7 ppg), 14 627 Rebounds (11.8 rpg), 2228 blocks(1.8 bpg)
  • NBA Teams: Orlando Magic (2004–2012), Los Angeles Lakers (2012–2013), Houston Rockets (2013–2016), Atlanta Hawks (2016–2017), Charlotte Hornets (2017–2018), Washington Wizards (2018–2019), Los Angeles Lakers (2019–2020), Philadelphia 76ers (2020–2021), Los Angeles Lakers (2021–2022)
  • Accolades: NBA champion (2020), 8× NBA All-Star (2007–2014), 5× All-NBA First Team (2008–2012), All-NBA Second Team (2014), 2× All-NBA Third Team (2007, 2013), 3× NBA Defensive Player of the Year (2009–2011), 4× NBA All-Defensive First Team (2009–2012), NBA All-Defensive Second Team (2008), NBA All-Rookie First Team (2005), 5× NBA rebounding leader (2008–2010, 2012, 2013), 2× NBA blocks leader (2009, 2010)

I’m still mad Dwight was left off the top 75 NBA players list. To me, it’s just blasphemous to not have one of the best NBA defenders of all time on such a prestigious list. He was the real-life version of Superman for Christ’s sake.

At 6 feet 10 inches and 265 pounds, Dwight left an indelible mark on the NBA through his extraordinary athleticism. Particularly his rebounding and shot-blocking at the center position were on par with most all time greats.

Howard’s journey began when he forwent college and was selected as the first overall pick by the Orlando Magic in the 2004 NBA draft. During his eight seasons with the Magic, Howard showcased his dominance. He led the team to the NBA Finals in 2009, before falling short against Kobe’s Lakers. 

But while Dwight is more often credited for robbing us of a Kobe vs LeBron finals, I’m not hearing enough praise for his defense. 

Dwight Superman Dunk

Mind you, this guy won 3 straight DPOY awards. Let’s not get it twisted, winning 3 in itself puts you in rarefied air. Only Dikembe Mutombo, Ben Wallace, and Rudy Gobert have done that. Three in a row are just Superman things.

In fact, only six centers in NBA history have achieved as many All-NBA First Team (5) selections as Howard. A remarkable feat considering the elite company including the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan.

Dwight was also an 8-time All-Star, and 8-time All-NBA Team honoree, with 5  All-Defensive Team nods to boot. During his short-lived prime, Howard led the league in rebounds six times and blocks twice, making him one of the league’s premier shot-blockers and rebounders of our generation.

Aside from his impressive defensive prowess, Howard’s offensive capabilities were notable, finishing second in MVP voting in 2011. And while Dwight gets a bad rap as a teammate, his defensive impact extends to his time with different teams. This included his second stint with the Lakers, where he played a vital role in their 2020 Playoff run, ultimately securing an NBA championship.

This might sound funny in retrospect given that Jokic just won the chip by beating the Lakers. But Dwight’s ability to get into Joker’s body and protect the rim was instrumental to their win in the 2020 Western Conference Finals.

Yeah, the Nuggets were short handed, but let’s not act like Dwight isn’t one of the best NBA defenders of all time. His resume speaks for itself, and the Magic haven’t sniffed success since he left. I guess that’s to be expected when one of the best defenders in NBA history asks for a trade on national television.

09. Gary Payton

  • Career Stats: 21,813 points(16.3 ppg), 5,269 rebounds(3.9 rpg), 8,966 assists(6.7 apg)
  • NBA Teams: Seattle SuperSonics (1990–2003), Milwaukee Bucks (2003), Los Angeles Lakers (2003–2004), Boston Celtics (2004–2005), Miami Heat (2005–2007)
  • Accolades: NBA champion (2006), 9× NBA All-Star (1994–1998, 2000–2003), 2× All-NBA First Team (1998, 2000), 5× All-NBA Second Team (1995–1997, 1999, 2002), 2× All-NBA Third Team (1994, 2001), NBA Defensive Player of the Year (1996), 9× NBA All-Defensive First Team (1994–2002), NBA steals leader (1996)

Before there were Rondo and Marcus Smart, the NBA had Gary Payton, as one of the best NBA defenders of all time at the point of attack. Often dubbed as “The Glove,” Payton stands as one of the best point guards in NBA history, predominantly due to his extraordinary defensive prowess.

Born on July 23, 1968, Payton made a name for himself during his 13-year tenure with the Seattle SuperSonics. There he broke franchise records in points, assists, and steals on his quest of becoming an NBA legend. 

His defensive capabilities set him apart from the rest of the field, earning him nine consecutive NBA All-Defensive First-Team selections. More importantly, he was the first and only point guard to win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, before Marcus Smart did it in 2022.

What made Payton truly exceptional was his ability to disrupt opponents’ offenses. If he wasn’t getting in your face during a full-court press, he was probably getting in your head with an all-time trash-talking session.

These attributes, coupled with his team’s strategic trapping and pressing style, alongside his physicality and exceptional hands, made him a nightmare for opponents. 

The Glove

Payton’s relentless pressure on the ball-handler and his knack for steals was instrumental to the Sonics’ success, with the team consistently ranking high in defensive efficiency and transition offense. Payton’s defensive abilities were not limited to individual matchups. He was a master of both individual and team defense, resulting in multiple defensive accreditations. 

From 1994 to 2002, Gary Payton was the best defender in the league at the point guard position. But before Jason Kidd took over, Payton was named to the All-Defensive First Team 9 times. Talk about elite company, with legendary players like Michael Jordan, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe Bryant being the only ones to match that feat.

He led the league in steals in 1996, averaging 2,9 per game, which was enough to earn him the DPOY award. Gary Payton’s play helped the Seattle Supersonics make the NBA Finals that year. Sadly, they lost to Jordan’s Bulls in 6 games.

But not before Payton earned his nickname “The Glove”. Payton’s defensive efforts significantly impacted Jordan’s performance. He limited Jordan to 27 points per game on 41% shooting, letting him score 30 only once in those 6 games.

To put things in perspective, Jordan averaged 36.3 points per game and had scored at least 30 points in 14 of his 17 previous Finals games. Although that high-flying Sonics roster coached by George Karl never won the chip, Gary himself became an NBA champion. 

Alongside Shaq and a young Dwayne Wade, Payton won the 2006 NBA championship against the Dallas Mavericks.  As one of the best NBA defenders of all time and greatest point guards in the history of the NBA, he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013 

10. Scottie Pippen

  • Career Stats: 18,940 points(16.1 ppg), 7,494 rebounds (6.4 rpg), 6,135 assists (5.2 apg)
  • NBA Teams: Chicago Bulls (1987–1998), Houston Rockets (1999), Portland Trail Blazers (1999–2003), Chicago Bulls (2003–2004)
  • Accolades: 6× NBA champion (1991–1993, 1996–1998), 7× NBA All-Star (1990, 1992–1997), 3× All-NBA First Team (1994–1996), 2× All-NBA Second Team (1992, 1997), 2× All-NBA Third Team (1993, 1998), 8× NBA All-Defensive First Team (1992–1999), 2× NBA All-Defensive Second Team (1991, 2000), NBA steals leader (1995)

Scottie Pippen was one of the best NBA small forwards to ever set foot on the court. And mostly due to the fact that he was one of the best NBA defenders of all time during his career. But somehow Scottie never won the DPOY.

Probably because there were so many all time great defensive centers in that era. But he was the runner-up to Dikembe Mutombo in the 1995 DPOY voting and Gary Payton in 1996.  Michael Jordan might have averaged slightly more steals and blocks, but without a doubt, Scottie was the Bulls’ best perimeter defender. His impact probably also gets skewed from playing alongside Dennis Rodman as well. 

Scottie Pippen, born on September 25, 1965, earned himself a spot on the NBA All-Defensive Team for ten consecutive years. Described by coach Phil Jackson as that of a “one-man wrecking crew,” capable of guarding players from point guards to centers, Scottie picked up the toughest defensive assignments every night. 

Of his 10 all defense teams, 8 were first team selections. This ties him for 5th most in NBA history.  He also led the league in steals during the 1994–95 season. His exceptional performance led him to record 200 steals and 100 blocks that year.

Pippen Jordan Combo

A feat accomplished by only three players throughout a season in NBA history. Those being Pippen, Michael Jordan, and Hakeem Olajuwon. Additionally, he holds the second-most career steals in playoff history, surpassed only by LeBron James.

His defensive prowess was not confined to specific positions. Pippen’s long arms and agility allowed him to disrupt passing lanes, block shots from behind, and hound opponents in a full-court press. Ask Magic Johnson, the greatest NBA passer ever, how that affected him in the 1991 NBA Finals.

His exceptional athleticism, combined with his intense work ethic, made him a tenacious on-ball defender. His ability to guard multiple positions also made him a Swiss army knife in the hands of Phil Jackson and his defensive scheme.

With a 2.2-meter wingspan enabling him to make extraordinary plays, Scottie was equipped and prepared to do anything needed to win. He was a selfless player, emphasizing teamwork which ultimately contributed to the Bulls’ championship victories. 

His career assists total of 6,135, ranking 23rd all-time among all players at the time of his retirement, reflected his team-focused approach to the game. He led the Bulls in defensive efficiency, Defensive Win Shares, and steals for most of their title runs.

For his efforts, he was rewarded with 7 All-Star nods and 7 All-NBA selections, which in turn led to 6 NBA championships. Pippen was so much more than Robin to Jordan’s Batman. His contributions to the Bulls franchise indirectly led to making the NBA a global phenomenon. Which is to be expected when you assemble some of the best defenders in NBA history.

Honorable Mentions: Kobe Bryant/ Michael Jordan

You’re probably wondering why 2 of the greatest players to ever grace the NBA hardwood are placed in the honorable mentions. It’s not like they were serviceable defenders. On the contrary, with an NBA record-tying 9 NBA All-Defensive First Team selections each, they are some of the best defenders the game has ever seen. 

So why are they here? Well, similarly to Wilt and Bill Russel, their greatness far supersedes their defensive acumen. Everyone knows how great these 2 shooting guards were on defense. They are some of the most fierce competitors the game has ever known. Mamba Mentality and Air Jordan themselves. 

What’s more impressive is that their offensive production was even more majestic. So instead of wasting words on legacies that are never forgotten, let’s cherish some of the other notable players. 

While I do love Marc Gasol, LeBron James should have had that 2013 DPOY award. Instead, Jordan’s 1988 DPOY trophy is one of the few things separating their legacies. MJ also led the league in steals, in three separate seasons! 

And if you think 9 NBA All-Defensive First Team selections are enough, well Kobe added 3 more on the Second Team. You probably don’t need any more proof that they are some of the best defensive NBA players of all time.

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