Best Defenders in NBA History: Top 50 Best Defensive Players

The saying often goes in sports that “Defense Wins Championships”, and that is no exception in the NBA. With as many dominant scorers as there are in today’s game, having a lockdown defender on your team is critical for winning games, especially in the playoffs. We’ve seen talented defensive players carry their teams to championships, such as the 2004 Pistons or Kawhi Leonard in 2019 with the Raptors. I valued statistics, accolades, and the eye test when creating this list. With that being said, here is my list of the top 50 defenders in NBA history.

1. Hakeem Olajuwon

“The Dream” being atop this list should not come as a surprise to anybody. Throughout his 18-year career, Olajuwon blocked 3,830 shots, which is good for the most of any player in NBA history. Hakeem was a 9-time All-Defensive player, a 2-time DPOY, and led his Houston Rockets to two NBA Championships during his career.

Steals/GBLK/G All-DefenseDPOYNBA Champs
1.73.1922

2. Bill Russell

Even though Russell played in an era before defensive statistics were recorded, what he was able to accomplish during his career makes him #2 on this list. Russell only averaged 15.1 ppg for his career, but he was the best defender of his era and gave opposing teams nightmares. Russell won 11 NBA Championships in his career, and he has the highest defensive win shares in NBA history at 133.64.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
N/AN/A1011

3. Dennis Rodman

One of the most outlandish players in NBA history, “The Worm” certainly left his mark whenever he stepped on the floor. Rodman carved out his role in the NBA as the ultimate team player, grabbing boards and playing tough defense night in and night out without needing the ball. Playing this role led to much success for Rodman, who was a 7-time Rebounding Champ, 8-time All-Defensive Player, 2-time DPOY, and a 5-time NBA Champion.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
0.70.6825

4. Scottie Pippen

Although he is often remembered as Michael Jordan’s sidekick, Scottie Pippen was the better defender of the two and is perhaps the best perimeter defender ever. He is a 10-time All-Defensive Team selection and led the NBA in steals in 1994-95. His contributions on defense and to those Bulls teams as a whole cannot go unnoticed.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
2.00.81006

5. David Robinson

“The Admiral” certainly left his mark defensively during his time in the NBA. For his first seven seasons in the league, Robinson averaged three or more blocks per game. He is an 8-time All-Defensive selection, led the league in blocks in 1991-92, and was named DPOY that season.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.43.0812

6. Dikembe Mutombo

With the exception of Hakeem Olajuwon, Mutombo may have been the best shot-blocker that the NBA has ever seen. The man who made the finger wag famous led the NBA in blocks three times, made 6 All-Defensive Teams, and was a 4x DPOY. He sits at #2 in blocks all-time with 3,289, roughly 600 behind Olajuwon.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
0.42.8640

7. Kevin Garnett

kevin garnett e1591459955398“The Big Ticket” was one of the fiercest competitors the league has ever seen. Coming straight to the NBA out of high school, Garnett quickly became one of the best offensive and defensive players in the league. He made 12 All-Defensive teams in his career and was the 2007-08 DPOY with the Celtics. He also ranks #7 in defensive wins shares all-time with 91.48.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.31.41211

8. Gary Payton

Nicknamed “The Glove” for his fantastic defense, Gary Payton is perhaps the best defensive guard of all time. Payton was a 9-time All-Defensive Team selection, led the league in steals in 1995-96, and was the DPOY that season. He is also ranked #4 on the all-time steals list.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.80.2911

9. Michael Jordan

The man many regard as the GOAT was a whole lot more than just a scorer. Jordan is one the best defenders of all time, having led the league in steals three times, made 9 All-Defensive Teams, and won DPOY in 1987-88. He also has the 2nd most blocks of any guard in NBA history.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
2.30.8916

10. Kawhi Leonard

Leonard is the best defender currently in the NBA. He has made an All-Defensive Team 5 times and is a 2-time DPOY. Winning DPOY is not a small feat, especially as a small forward. Leonard’s elite perimeter defense has helped him win two NBA championships: one as a role player on the Spurs and another as the star on the Raptors.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.80.7522

11. Ben Wallace

Big Ben was one of the most intimidating players in NBA history. Despite being an undersized center at 6’9, he made up for it with his effort on defense. During his career, Wallace led the league in blocks in 2001-02, was a 6-time All-Defensive Team selection, and was a 4-time DPOY.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.32.0641

12. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem is known best for being the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, but he is also one of the game’s greatest defenders of all time. Kareem averaged over three blocks seven times in his career, and that includes his first four seasons in which blocks weren’t recorded. He is an 11-time All-Defensive Team selection and led the league in blocked shots four times.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
0.92.61106

13. Wilt Chamberlain

Wilt the Stilt was perhaps the most dominant player ever to play the game. Unfortunately for us basketball fans, he played in an era before defensive stats were recorded and only played five seasons when All-Defensive Teams existed. Despite this, Wilt should still be recognized as one of the game’s defensive greats due to his size and dominance over his opponents during his career.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
N/AN/A202

14. Tim Duncan

The Big Fundamental was not famous for his defense, but he was undoubtedly one of the game’s best defenders during his era. Duncan was voted to an NBA record 15 All-Defensive Teams, meaning he was not selected in only 4 of the seasons he played. Duncan’s consistency and skill make him one of the best players and defenders of all time.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
0.72.21505

15. Kobe Bryant

Bryant was most known for hitting tough shots and game-winners during his career. However, he was also one of the best defensive players of his era. Kobe was selected to 12 All-Defensive teams during his career and would routinely shut down top NBA players night in and night out.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.40.51205

16. Alonzo Mourning

Mourning is one of the best centers of all time, and his defensive accolades certainly reinforce that claim. He was named to 2 All-Defensive Teams, led the league in blocks twice, and was a 2-time DPOY. He also ranks 12th all-time in blocks.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
0.52.8221

17. Bruce Bowen

Bruce Bowen is the definition of a defensive specialist. Despite his highest scoring total of 8.2 ppg in 2004-05, Bowen was able to carve out a long and successful career in the NBA thanks to his elite perimeter defense. He was an All-Defensive selection eight times in his career and was a key contributor in 3 of the Spurs 5 championships.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
0.80.4803

18. Dwight Howard

Dwight Howard’s production has slowed down in recent years, however, that is not to take away from anything he accomplished during his prime. Howard is a 5-time All-Defensive selection, 2-time blocks leader, and 3-time DPOY. He was the premier shot-blocker of his era and continues to provide meaningful minutes and defense today with the Lakers.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
0.91.9530

19. Draymond Green

Draymond Green is often criticized or called overrated due to the fact that he is only a 9 ppg career scorer. However, he has made a name for himself from his defense. Green can guard any position on the floor and was a defensive anchor for the Warriors during their dynasty. He is a 5-time All-Defensive Team selection, led the league in steals in 2016-17, and was also named DPOY that season.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.41.1513

20. Ron Artest

Artest, who also went by Metta World Peace during his playing years, was one of the wildest personalities the game has ever seen. Despite being a somewhat controversial player, he is recognized as one of the game’s best defenders. Artest was selected to 4 All-Defensive Teams in his career and won DPOY with the Pacers in 2003-04.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.70.5411

21. Michael Cooper

Everyone remembers the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy. However, one of the most critical parts of that team was Michael Cooper. Cooper was a lengthy guard who was an elite defender and shooter, a perfect role player for Magic to work with. In his career, Cooper made an All-Defensive Team 8 times, won DPOY in 1986-87, and was a part of all 5 Showtime Lakers championships.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.20.6815

22. Tony Allen

It’s hard to be successful in the NBA as a guard without much of an offensive game. However, Tony Allen made a name for himself by playing elite defense night in and night out. In his 14 seasons in the NBA, Allen routinely guarded the opposing team’s best scorer and was a pest for opposing offenses. Even Kobe Bryant himself has stated the Tony Allen was the best defender that he ever had to face. Allen was selected to 6 All-Defensive Teams during his career.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.40.4601

23. Manute Bol

Standing at an impressive 7’7 feet tall, Bol is tied as the tallest player in NBA history. Bol used his unique size and length to become an elite shot blocker. He averaged three blocks per game during his career and is the #15 all-time shot blocker in NBA history.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
0.23.3100

24. Patrick Ewing

Ewing is one of the best big men of all time, although his name is often left out of debates since he never won a championship. Nonetheless, he was still a dominant defensive player with the Knicks. Ewing averaged three or more blocks for five straight seasons, including four blocks per game in 1989-90. He was selected to an All-Defensive Team 3 times in his career.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.02.4300

25. Shaquille O’Neal

Shaq is recognized as one of the most dominant players in NBA history. Standing at 7’1 325lbs, O’Neal was not exactly a pushover on the defensive side of the ball. Shaq’s size allowed him to out-muscle anyone who tried to post him up and was a great shot-blocker as well. He is a 3-time All-Defensive Team selection and ranks 9th in all-time blocks.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
0.62.3304

26. John Stockton

When it comes to getting steals, John Stockton was in a league of his own. Stockton is the all-time steals leader in NBA history with 3,265. The next closest on that list is Jason Kidd, who is over 700 steals behind him. Stockton was a true pickpocket, leading the NBA in steals twice and averaged over 2.4 steals per game eight times in his career. He was also a 5-time All-Defensive Team selection.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
2.20.2500

27. Walt Frazier

Frazier was one of the greatest defenders of his time, although statistics might not show that. He played from 1967-1980, and the NBA didn’t start recording defensive statistics until 1973. Despite this, Frazier is remembered as having some of the quickest hands in NBA history, allowing to snatch up plenty of steals. He made 7 All-Defensive Teams in his career.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.9*0.2*702

28. LeBron James

Seeing LeBron James ranked as 28th best at anything is strange, however, that’s not to say that he isn’t a great defender himself. At 6’9 250lbs, LeBron has the size, speed, and strength to guard any position on the floor. He’s an elite defender when he wants to be, although we’ve seen him slack off on defense a bit in recent years. He is a 6-time All-Defensive team selection and is arguably the greatest chase-down blocker the game has ever seen.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.60.8603

29. Elvin Hayes

“The Big E” is perhaps one of the most underrated stars in NBA history. In addition to winning the NBA Championship in 1978 with Washington and being the #10 all-time scorer, Hayes was a dominant defensive player. His defensive style was described as “aggressive,” as Hayes was a hound on the boards and an excellent post and perimeter defender. He was selected to 2 All-Defensive Teams during his career.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.0*2.0*201

30. Chris Paul

CP3 is one of the best point guards of all time, and the guy is still getting it done at 35 years old. Paul has led the NBA in steals six times and has been named to an All-Defensive Team 9 times in his career. He also ranks 7th on the all-time steals list. If he continues to play at the pace he is currently playing, Paul should easily finish his career within the top 5.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
2.20.1900

31. Sidney Moncrief

Sidney Moncrief was a nightmare for opposing players to match up against in the 80s. He was a premier on-ball defender who would cause fits for whoever he played. Moncrief was a 5-time All-Defensive Team selection and won back-to-back DPOY awards in 1983 and 1984 despite only being a 6’3 guard.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.20.3520

32. Wes Unseld

Wes Unseld proved that height isn’t the only thing that determines how great a center can be. Unseld stood at 6’7 245lbs and an intimidating force on defense. His wide frame and build allowed him to out-muscle many of his opponents, making him an excellent rebounder and post defender. He never made an All-Defensive Team, but Unseld helped the Washington Bullets/Wizards win their lone NBA Championship back in 1978.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.1*0.6*001

33. Larry Bird

Larry Bird is widely considered one of the greatest players of all time, and he didn’t get that reputation without playing defense. At 6’9, Bird had the size to guard several positions and was excellent at cutting off passing lanes. Larry Legend made 3 All-Defensive Teams during his 13-year career with the Celtics.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.70.8303

34. Mark Eaton

Standing at 7’4 275lbs, Mark Eaton was one of the most intimidating forces in NBA history. During his 11-year career with the Utah Jazz, Eaton made 5 All-Defensive Teams, led the league in blocks four times, and was a 2-time DPOY. His best season came in 1984-85, where he started all 82 games and averaged an absurd 5.6 blocks per game.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
0.43.5520

35. Rudy Gobert

Nicknamed “The Stifle Tower”, the French-born Gobert has undoubtedly made a name for himself defensively in the NBA. With the exception of his rookie season where he didn’t start a single game, Gobert has averaged two or more blocks every season of his career. He is a 3-time All-Defensive Team selection, two-time DPOY, and led the league in blocks in the 2016-17 season. At only 27 years old, Gobert has time to improve upon his already impressive resume.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
0.72.2320

36. Joe Dumars

Dumars was a key contributor on the Bad Boys Pistons teams that won consecutive NBA Championships in 1989 and 1990. The Pistons were known for their swarming defense, and Dumars was the team’s best on-ball defender. He was selected to 5 All-Defensive Teams in his career and was the 1989 Finals MVP for the first of Detroit’s back-to-back titles.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
0.90.1502

37. Paul George

Since coming into the league in 2011, Paul George has established himself as a star and one of the game’s premier defenders. George has the size and athleticism to guard most positions, making him a versatile defender. He has been named to 4 All-Defensive Teams in his career and led the NBA in steals during the 2018-19 season.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.70.4400

38. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Although it is still early in his career, I think that it is safe to say that Giannis Antetokounmpo is already one of the best defensive players ever to do it. Standing at 6’11 245lbs, Giannis has the size and speed to guard any position on the floor. He has been named to an All-Defensive team twice and won MVP in 2019. At only 25 years old, the sky is the limit for the Greek Freak.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.21.3200

39. Bobby Jones

Bobby Jones is not exactly a household name when it comes to Hall of Fame basketball players, but he should be remembered due to his outstanding play on defense. He was a consistent defender and solid role player on any team he played for. Jones was an 11-time All-Defensive Team selection during his career and won 6th Man of the Year in 1983, a season that his 76ers won the NBA championship.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.51.41101

40. Julius Erving

“Dr. J” was one of the most exciting players the game has ever seen, as his high-flying dunks amazed fans worldwide. However, he was also a solid defensive player. Although he only made one All-Defensive Team in 1976, Erving excelled in on-ball defense and is credited as one of the first players to perfect the chase-down block.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
2.01.7101

41. Dennis Johnson

Dennis Johnson played 14 seasons in the NBA and held crucial roles on three different NBA championship teams. He was a crafty guard known for being dominant on defense with the ability to guard many different positions. He was a 9-time All-Defensive Team selection in his career and won 1979 Finals MVP with the SuperSonics.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.30.6903

42. Jason Kidd

In addition to being one of the best playmakers and floor generals that the NBA has ever seen, Jason Kidd was also a great defensive guard. Kidd was named to 9 All-Defensive Teams during his career and averaged over two steals per game nine times. He ranks #2 in all-time steals, trailing only John Stockton.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.90.3901

43. Alvin Robertson

Robertson was a defensive stalwart with the Spurs and Bucks in the 1980s and 90s. He made 6 All-Defensive Teams, led the NBA in steals three times, and was the 1985-86 DPOY. He averaged three or more steals in 5 of his first seven seasons, a feat that very few players can say that they have done.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
2.70.4610

44. Marcus Camby

Many NBA fans remember Marcus Camby for his unusual jump-shot; however, he was also one of the best defensive players in the 2000s. Camby led the NBA in blocked shots four times, made an All-Defensive Team 4 times, and won the DPOY in 2006-07 with the Nuggets. He also ranks ahead of Dennis Rodman, Kobe Bryant, and Gary Payton in all-time defensive win shares.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.02.4410

45. Dave DeBusschere

Dave DeBusschere was known as one of the best defensive players of his era. However, having played in the 60s and 70s, DeBusschere played in a time where defensive statistics were not recorded. It was not until 1968 that the NBA began naming players to All-Defensive teams. DeBusschere made an All-Defensive Team each year of his career that the distinction existed.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
N/AN/A602

46. Moses Malone

One of the best big men of all time, Moses Malone’s career spanned from 1974 to 1995. In his 21 years playing, Malone made 2 All-Defensive Teams and was a 6x rebounding champ. He may not have been known for being a defensive stalwart, but I believe he deserves to be on this list due to his longevity and consistency throughout his career.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
0.81.3201

47. Dwyane Wade

Nicknamed “Flash” for his incredible speed and athleticism, Dwyane Wade is considered one of the greatest defensive guards in the history of the game. Wade holds the record for the most blocked shots by a guard in NBA history, a distinction he earned in 2019 by passing Michael Jordan. In addition to holding the record, Wade also was selected to 3 All-Defensive Teams during his 16-year career.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.50.8303

48. Andre Iguodala

Throughout his career, Andre Iguodala has been a stud on defense, whether it be in a starting role when he was with the 76ers or as a role player with the Warriors. Iguodala has made 2 All-Defensive Teams in his career and took home the 2015 Finals MVP largely in part to his work defensively guarding LeBron James. He currently plays on the Miami Heat and is still providing solid defense and leadership in his 16th season in the league.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
1.50.5203

49. Tayshaun Prince

The 2004 Pistons are remembered as a team that played excellent team basketball and defense led by four All-Stars. However, the arguably most important piece of that starting lineup is often forgotten by NBA fans. Tayshaun Prince was one of the best perimeter defenders of his time and was a huge contributor for the Pistons in that championship season. Prince played 14 seasons in the NBA and was named to an All-Defensive Team 4 times.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
0.60.5401

50. Tyson Chandler

Since coming out of high school to enter the NBA in 2001, Chandler has enjoyed a long and successful NBA career thanks to his defensive talents. Chandler won DPOY in 2011-12 with the Dallas Mavericks and has made an All-Defensive Team 3 times in his career. He has been a reliable defender and rebounder his whole career, and he still is playing in the league to this day.

Career STL per gameCareer BLK per gameAll-Defensive Team SelectionsDefensive Player of the Year AwardsNBA Championships
0.51.2311
  
I am a rising junior at Butler University with a Sports Media major and a minor in Strategic Communication. I was born and raised in Bethesda, MD right outside Washington DC, and I’ve been a huge DC sports fan my whole life. I’ve been lucky enough to see both the Nats and Caps win titles in my lifetime, however I have a feeling that my Redskins and Wizards won’t be joining them as champions anytime soon.

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