Top 10 Defensive Players in Modern NBA History
When fans and pundits talk about the history of the NBA, they often celebrate and debate one side of the ball. Who is the best scorer of all-time? Who is the passer of all-time? Who besides Steph is the best shooter of all-time? Basketball is only half offense but for some reason a lot of us ignore the defensive side of the game. The cliche defense wins championships became a cliche for a reason. So let's start a debate about the best defensive players with this list of the top ten since 1980.
10. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis Antetokounmpo lands at number ten on the list because of his incredible versatility. When a player is listed at 6'11" , 240 pounds, you don't expect them to move like a gazelle going north to south and east to west. That unique ability is why Antetokounmpo is known as the Greek Freak. He has taken that freakish ability and translated it to the defensive end of the court in a major way. Giannis can switch and guard all five positions at times while also playing the passing lanes and protecting the rim. Greek Freak has been voted to the NBA All-defensive teams, five times, while also being named defensive player of the year for the 2019-2020 season.
9. Draymond Green
The "heart and soul" of the Golden State Warriors dynasty, Draymond Green lands at the number nine spot on the list. Green talks a lot of trash but backs it up with his basketball intelligence. Green is a great communicator on the court and always makes sure that everyone is in the right position. When we think about this great run by the Warriors, we think three point shooting and ball movement. Which, of course, are major parts of their success but they are not winning championships without great defense. Green is the leader of that great defense. He has been voted to seven NBA All-Defensive teams and was named the defensive player of the year for the 2016-2017 season.
8. Dwight Howard
Before Dwight Howard was shooting threes in Taiwan, he was a dominate defensive force in the NBA for a long time. Which landed him at the eight spot on the list. Howard got drafted right out of high school by the Orlando Magic and it didn't take him long at all to become a force in the league. The Magic ranked top six in defensive efficiency from Howard's third year to his seventh. Howard is a three-time defensive player of the year, led the league in blocks twice, led the league in rebounds five times, and was voted to the NBA All-Defensive team, five times.
7. Ben Wallace
If you watched NBA basketball in the early 2000's, you will never forget the tenacious defense of the Detroit Pistons during that time. That defense was anchored by Ben Wallace. Wallace lands at seven on this list because he did such a great job of protecting the rim and finishing off defensive possessions by grabbing rebounds. The Pistons ranked in the top 10 in defensive rating, every year that Wallace was the starting center. The four time defensive player of the year averaged at least 11 rebounds per game while also getting at least 2.2 blocks per game each year during his Detroit run. The Pistons were built on defense, that defense carried them to a championship and another finals appearance. That success does not happen without Ben Wallace.
6. Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard is a player who fans have very different opinions on due to his face being in the front of the load management debate but let's not forget why he became a star in the first place. Leonard made his name in the league by being a lock down defender. The Claw became a full time starter in the 2012-13 season and every year from 2012-13 through 2020-21 his team has ranked in the top five in defensive efficiency. Leonard being an absolute menace on the wing led to him being named defensive player of the year, twice, and being voted to seven all-defensive teams.
5. Dennis Rodman
Dennis Rodman had such a big time impact on the game without being an offensive threat. Rodman was a big part of a few of the greatest defensive teams of all-time. The "Bad Boy" Pistons were led by their defense and Rodman's tenacity, personified that time for Detroit. The two-time defensive player of the year is known for being one of, if not, the greatest rebounder of the modern era. Rodman became a starter in the 1987-88 season. Every team he was on from 87-88 to the 1997-98 season, outside of one season was ranked in the top ten in defensive efficiency. Rodman is not a five time NBA champion on accident.
4. Scottie Pippen
Scottie Pippen is known as the greatest "Robin" of all-time and his impact on the game is sometimes overshadowed by Michael Jordan's bat signal. Pippen has appeared to be "salty" about his legacy because of that huge shadow, so lets shine some light on him. Pippen is arguably the best perimeter defender of all-time and the fact that he never won defensive player of the year is a crime against basketball humanity. Pippen often had to guard the best player of the opposing team while also being a great off-ball defender as well. This led to the Bulls being ranked in the top ten in defensive efficiency every season from 1990-91 through 1997-98. Pippen is a ten-time member of all-defensive team and his defense was a huge part of six championship teams.
3. Tim Duncan
The image of Tim Duncan celebrating a championship became a common one as he did it, five times. He became known as "The Big Fundamental" for his "boring" offensive style but the true key to the San Antonio Spurs success was their defense. The defense was centered around the ability of the Wake Forest standout. Duncan was selected to the all-defense team, 15 times! Fifteen times! The ability to be one of the best defenders in the NBA for that long period of time is crazy! Tim Duncan never winning defensive player of the year is a black eye on the NBA media's face that will never heal. The Spurs were ranked in the top five in defensive efficiency every year from 1997-98 through 2008-09. Duncan ranks fifth all-time in total blocks.
2. Kevin Garnett
Kevin Garnett was ahead of his time when it comes to his versatility of guarding multiple positions. It was part of the reason he is known as "The Big Ticket". Garnett is a twelve time member of the all-defensive team and the 2007-08 defensive player of the year. The Boston Celtics were ranked in the top ten in defensive efficiency every year that Garnett was on the team. It's crazy to think Garnett wasn't even in his athletic prime during the Celtic years. The Big Ticket is 18th all time is blocks and steals, respectively. He is one of only two players who are top twenty all-time in both blocks and steals.
1. Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeem Olajuwon is the other player outside of Kevin Garnett who ranks in the top twenty all-time in both blocks and steals. While Garnett is 18th in each category, Olajuwon is the all-time leader in blocks with 3830, while Dikembe Mutombo is second all-time and is more than 500 blocks behind Olajuwon. Olajuwon is tenth all-time in steals. He is the only center ranked in the top 50 in steals all-time. The two-time defensive player of the year was selected to nine all-defensive teams. The Houston Rockets were top ten in defensive efficiency every year except for one during the first ten years of Olajuwon's career. The best defensive player in modern NBA history is Hakeem Olajuwon.
There are so many great defensive players in NBA history and I struggled with leaving a few off of this list. I struggled with: Gary Payton, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant among others. Who do you have as your top ten defensive players since 1980?