Take a look at most of the lists that rank the NBA’s greatest players and you will find the lists contain information pertaining to a player’s offensive prowess. Rarely does any author mention a player’s defensive contributions. As we know, defense wins championships. Michael Jordan only receives recognition for his acrobatic dunks and fade away jumpers. Yet, Jordan won the defensive players of the year award and league MVP during the same season. The only player who receives prominent mention of his defensive skills is Bill Russell, who makes everyone’s 10 best defensive players in NBA history list.
Playing strong defense in the NBA requires hours of practice that begins before high school. Astute basketball coaches run practices with a focus on drills than enhance player defensive abilities. If you ever have played competitive basketball, you know what I mean. Defense requires the use of an inordinate amount of energy, hence a drill such as back and forth sprints become the dominant theme of developing defensive skills. Coaches work on footwork, positioning on the floor, and agility drills to heighten defensive awareness. The 10 best defensive players in NBA history have pride in their defensive work ethic.
The 10 best defensive players in NBA history have or had quick feet and even quicker hands. They smothered opponents with end-to-end pressure that eventually caused turnovers. They beat their opponents to positions on the floor, often drawing charges in the process. They blocked out around their own rim and kept their arms up at all times to obscure the view of an opponent who was looking to dish off to a teammate. Above all, the 10 best defensive players in NBA history were game changers, in charge of shutting down an opponent’s best scorer when games were on the line.
You will not see Metta World Peace on the following list, but you will find someone who looks like him. Here are the 10 best defensive players in NBA history.
Before “Zo” succumbed to a kidney illness, he was the glue that held the Hornets, Net and Heat together. Despite having his career prematurely end, Mourning ranks tenth all-time in block shots and sixth in shots blocked per game. The intensity Mourning brought to the defensive end included in your face fronts of larger players. Mourning won the defensive player of the year award twice, and who knows how much more he would have contributed, if he played healthy at the end of his career.
Perhaps the most complete player to in the history of the NBA, Jordan’s incomparable will to win included a high octane defensive style predicated on gambling for steals. For his brazen play, Jordan garnered 2,514 career steals, second only to Utah’s John Stockton. Jordan was strong enough to guard players bigger than him and quick enough to smother smaller point guards. He was a terrific rebounder who often flew into a play to snare a board. Jordan was named to the NBA’s all-defensive first team a record nine times. His attention to defense rubbed off on his Bulls’ teammates, who helped Jordan win 6 NBA titles
The NBA assist king rarely receives credit for playing tenacious defense. Stockton owns the NBS record for steals, with 3,265. His uncanny anticipation of where a pass would go, combined with his ability to strip the ball from opposing players, enhanced his playmaking acumen on ensuing fast breaks. Diminutive by stature, Stockton was strong enough not to give ground to bigger players who tried to post him down low. Stockton dove for loose balls with reckless abandon, but he rarely missed a game because of injury.
“Dream” holds the all-time NBA blocked shot record. His 3,830 swats are over 700 more than the closest player on the list. Olajuwon’s shot blocking ability was so proficient, that he forced opposing teams to settle for long jump shots. He blocked the shots of opposing centers down low and he had the quickness of a cat to jump out and block the shots of opposing guards. He ranks 11th on the all-time rebounding list and an incredible 8th on the all-time steals list. No other center ranks in the top 25 of the all-time steals list.
Rodman did not make the Hall of Fame because of his good looks and efficient jump shot. He has the numbers, but his legacy is how he changed the complexion of games with his suffocating defense. No other player has been able to defend players of a wider range of sizes than Rodman. He rotated off his man to guard a center or he switched to the top of the key to defend a point guard. He had some of the quickest feet for a big man and an incomparable sixth sense as to where the ball was going on the court. Without Rodman, the Pistons probably would not have won their two championships.
“The Glove,” an appropriate moniker for Payton, played the type of in your face defense that coaches admire. Payton shares the record nine defensive first team selections with Jordan, and he has been the only point guard in NBA history named defensive player of the year. His 2,416 steals rank third all-time and he holds the point guard record for rebounds. Who knows how much better Payton would have been if he had played anywhere but in Seattle.
Apologies to Mr. Peace, but the new name chosen by the former Ron Artest does not do him justice. We remember the “Brawl at the Palace” more than we remember the way Artest plays defense. Like Rodman, Artest shuts down the best player on the opposing team during crunch time, regardless of position. The Lakers would not have won their most recent championship without Artest, who in Game 7, systematically shut down Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo.
The finger waving said it all: not in my house! Mutombo ranks second all-time in blocked shots. He quick bursts off the floor, coupled with his arm length, forced teams to adjust offensive plays, while he ruled the basketball floor. Mutombo won defensive player of the year a record four times and he led the league in rebounding four times. He was particularly dominant on the offensive glass.
Talk about Bob Cousy all you want, but the Celtic do not win eight NBA titles in a row without Russell roaming the paint. While his claim to fame was consistently shutting down Hall of Famer, Wilt Chamberlain, Russell also blocked more shots than any other player of his era. You only need one stat to realize the Russell is the greatest defensive player ever. He averaged 22.2 rebounds per game over his career, which is 11 more per game than the third ranked rebounder on the list.
The crazy looking man with the big ‘fro does not get enough credit for his defensive skills. Tied with Mutombo with four defensive player of the year selections, Wallace had amazingly quick hands that would strip opposing big men of the ball before they could maneuver into scoring position. Wallace ranks in the top ten in blocked shots per game. Like Rodman, the Pistons of Wallace’s era would not have won their championships, without this undrafted defensive wizard.
As the 2012 NBA playoffs draw near, the talk of playing defense will increase on the national broadcasts. Whenever the talking heads begin to discuss defense, they should point to one of the 10 best defensive players in NBA history as the model for defensive greatness.