Top 10 best defensive players in NBA history

Profile Picture: Andrew Champagne

January 21st, 2021

Offense may win games, but defense wins championships. Even in an age where teams are scoring more points than ever, those who stand out on the defensive end are usually the biggest winners of all.

Join us now as we salute the top 10 defensive players in NBA history.

10. Tim Duncan

Position: Power Forward/Center
Team: San Antonio Spurs
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 15x All-Star, 15x All-Defensive Team, 2x MVP, 5x NBA Champion 

People don’t necessarily remember Duncan for his defense, but the Spurs stalwart made 15 NBA All-Defensive Teams in 19 seasons. He averaged more than two blocks per game during his illustrious career, one that included five NBA championships and two Most Valuable Player awards.

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David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs talks to the media after practice. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Icon SMI)

9. David Robinson

Position: Center
Team: San Antonio Spurs
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 10x All-Star, 8x All-Defensive Team, Defensive Player of the Year, MVP, 2x NBA Champion

Duncan’s first few seasons in the NBA were spent alongside the man known as "The Admiral," who himself was a tremendous stopper. He led the league in blocks during the 1991-92 season, made eight NBA All-Defensive Teams, and finished his career in style by winning his second ring in 2003.

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Gary Payton of the Seattle Supersonics dribbles the ball. (Photo by Matt A. Brown/Icon Sportswire)

8. Gary Payton

Position: Point Guard
Teams: Seattle SuperSonics, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 9x All-Star, 9x All-Defensive Team, Defensive Player of the Year, NBA Champion

When your nickname is "The Glove," you’d better be a strong defender, and Payton more than lived up to the moniker. He guarded some of the top playmakers in the game during the 1990’s and 2000’s, made nine NBA All-Defensive Teams, and was seen as one of the best to never win a title before he won a ring with the Miami Heat in 2006.

7. Kevin Garnett

Position: Power forward
Teams: Minnesota Timberwolves, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 15x All-Star, 12x All-Defensive Team, MVP, NBA Champion

If you like fierce intensity from your big men, Garnett was probably someone you really enjoyed watching. Incredibly gifted on both ends of the floor, "The Big Ticket" was selected to 12 All-Defensive Teams. He won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008, the same year he, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen led the Boston Celtics to an NBA championship.

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Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls. (Photo by Camera 4/Imago/Icon Sportswire)

6. Michael Jordan

Position: Shooting Guard
Teams: Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 14x All-Star, 10x scoring leader, 9x All-Defensive Team, Defensive Player of the Year, 6x NBA Champion

M.J. is seen as the greatest player of all-time by many due in large part to his offensive output. However, Jordan was also a brilliant defender who led the NBA in steals three times and was the 1988 Defensive Player of the Year. He finished his career with nine All-Defensive Team selections, the last of which came in 1998 when he led the Bulls to their sixth title.

5. Dikembe Mutombo

Position: Center
Teams: Denver Nuggets, Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks, Houston Rockets
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 8x All-Star, 6x All Defensive Team, 4x Defensive Player of the Year

Go ahead and do the finger-wag. When you’re done, admire the resume of one of the premier shot-blockers in NBA history. He won four Defensive Player of the Year awards, led the league in blocks for three consecutive years, and twice led the league in rebounding. He was never a top-tier scorer, but he didn’t have to be in order to have a Hall of Fame career.

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Dennis Rodman (91), Michael Jordan (23) and Scottie Pippen (33) of the Chicago Bulls. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

4. Scottie Pippen

Position: Small Forward
Teams: Chicago Bulls, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 7x All-Star, 10x All-Defensive Team, 6x NBA Champion

Best known as the Robin to Michael Jordan’s Batman, Pippen did outshine his legendary teammate on the defensive end. His emergence helped propel Chicago past the "Bad Boys" Detroit Pistons teams, and he finished his career with 10 All-Defensive Team selections. Jordan may have been considered one of the best players of all-time without Pippen, but does he achieve GOAT-level status without his talented running mate? It’s a legitimate question.

3. Dennis Rodman

Position: Power Forward
Teams: Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 2x All-Star, 8x All-Defensive Team, 2x Defensive Player of the Year, 5x NBA Champion

Love him or hate him, one cannot deny Rodman’s legacy as perhaps the best "dirty work" player in NBA history. He dove for every loose ball, he studied the rotations of shots in pre-game warmups to work on his timing, and his contributions aided two different dynasties (the late-80’s Detroit Pistons and the mid-90’s Chicago Bulls) as they made their contributions to basketball history.

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Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers and Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets. (Photo by Matt A. Brown/Icon Sportswire)

2. Hakeem Olajuwon

Position: Center
Teams: Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 12x All-Star, 9x All-Defensive Team, 2x Defensive Player of the Year, MVP, 2x NBA Champion

Some would put "The Dream" atop this list, and for good reason. He’s the NBA’s all-time leader in blocked shots, and the two-time NBA champion also won a pair of Defensive Player of the Year awards and led the league in rebounding in both 1989 and 1990. He ranks fourth all-time in defensive win shares, and we may never see another player with his background and path to basketball again.

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Bill Russell defends Wilt Chamberlain. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

1. Bill Russell

Position: Center
Team: Boston Celtics
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 12x All-Star, 5x MVP, 11x NBA Champion

Russell played in an era where most defensive stats were not kept. However, if you go by defensive win shares, the man who would be considered an undersized center in today’s game is head and shoulders above the rest. His 133.64 defensive win shares are 27 ahead of Tim Duncan, who in turn is 12 ahead of the next-closest player. Russell’s defense and team-first mentality were driving forces behind that era’s Boston Celtics, which won 11 titles in 13 seasons.