Top 10 Best Defensive Players in NBA History

The guys who weren't just flashy scorers (if at all) but really knew how to intimidate an offense.
The Top Ten
1 Bill Russell William Felton "Bill" Russell was an American retired professional basketball player. Russell played center for the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association from 1956 to 1969.

He pretty much gave birth to blocking, in which he would have too many blocks for Wikipedia to remember if the NBA recorded blocking as a stat back then. The second-best rebounder ever, maybe first, but still, Bill Russell is at least in the top 5 of the greatest NBA players ever. He might be better than Michael Jordan overall.

It is believed by many that if blocks were a recorded stat during his playing time, Bill Russell would have averaged double digits in blocks per game. Add that to the 15.1 points per game and the 22.5 rebounds per game, more than likely Bill Russell averaged a triple-double throughout his career.

2 Hakeem Olajuwon Hakeem Abdul Olajuwon, formerly known as Akeem Olajuwon, is a Nigerian-American retired professional basketball player.

Hakeem was a complete and versatile defender. You could not run pick and roll with Hakeem. He could legitimately guard any player on the floor, even the fastest point guards, and shut them down and get turnovers off them. Very agile and quick player with long arms. Combined, that quickness and instincts from playing soccer goalie as a youth helped him find steals in the lane and strip balls in the paint. That's why he was top 10 in steals all time, getting 2-2.6 steals per game a year for five years. Compare that to Kobe Bryant at 2.2 SPG only once. That quickness also allowed him to surprise players and get into position for blocks, recover from being out of position, or being potentially beat to get blocks.

3 Dennis Rodman Dennis Keith Rodman is an American retired professional basketball player who played for the Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, and Dallas Mavericks in the National Basketball Association.

Dennis has shut down everybody on the inside, short-range, and mid-range when the NBA was at its most competitive. A stat that is not measured is forcing the best players to pass the ball to someone else because they were being too well guarded, reducing the team's overall point totals. And Rodman did that to EVERYONE and every team. Now, Larry Bird did torch Rodman from the outside in his rookie season, but Rodman learned quickly and became the best defender and one of the best rebounders of all time.

Personally, Rodman just got on my nerves after his decision to "be himself." With Detroit, he was awesome, but then he just got so annoying and stupid. However, you cannot deny this guy's ability to play defense. He's got 2 DPOY awards to show for it.

4 Scottie Pippen Scottie Maurice Pippen is an American retired professional basketball player who played in the National Basketball Association.

Best all-around defender ever. You can argue some better interior defenders and maybe better perimeter defenders. But I can't think of anyone who does it all at an elite level like Scottie -- not to mention hounding the passing lanes and elite team/help defense. Most steals from a forward by far. Second-most playoff steals all-time. Etc.

Best all-around defender ever, on and off the ball. Scottie is so underrated! He was the best defender on a team that had Jordan and Rodman! That's saying a lot! Chuck Daly said Scottie was the best player on the Dream Team! Players and coaches, who would know, are the ones who rank him so highly. Fans tend to underrate Scottie, partly because he played next to the greatest player ever.

5 Michael Jordan Michael Jeffrey Jordan, also known by his initials, MJ, is an American retired professional basketball player.

I saw Jordan's entire career. I grew up in Boston and was a huge Celtics and Larry Bird fan. I also played basketball my whole life through college. Michael Jordan is by far the best basketball player of all time. People can argue for #2, but there is a big gap between #2 and #1.

Every night, when it came time to take over the game, he took the game over. Every single night! There was no answer for this guy, plain and simple. The Detroit Pistons of the late '80s were probably the greatest defensive team of all time, and Isaiah Thomas said Jordan made them look like high school kids. His defense doesn't get the recognition it deserves because they usually put Pippen on the other team's best defender. That wasn't because Pippen was a better defender. It was to keep Jordan fresh for the offensive end. But when Jordan locked you down, that was it! Your scoring streak and hot hand quickly cooled. He was smothering on defense, quicker and more explosive than Pippen. If somebody had a good game against the Bulls, you could bet your paycheck that Jordan would shut them down the next game. He did every single time.

6 Gary Payton Gary Dwayne Payton Sr. is an American retired professional basketball player. He started at the point guard position. He is best known for his 13-year tenure with the Seattle SuperSonics, and holds Seattle franchise records in points, assists, and steals.

The Glove is definitely the best defensive guard in NBA history, locked down 3 positions at point guard, and didn't take risks. If you watched tape you would know he's a better defender than Jordan.

He is a beast. He held Jordan to 23 points. If not the best defensive player, then the best defensive point guard!

His shoes were always on the floor, moving, and his mind was completely in the game.

7 Dikembe Mutombo

Four DPotY awards! Big Ben is the only other player to accomplish that.

He invented the finger wag because of all the shots he blocked.

8 Ben Wallace Ben Camey Wallace is an American retired professional basketball player. A native of Alabama, Wallace attended Cuyahoga Community College and Virginia Union University and signed with the Washington Bullets as an undrafted free agent in 1996. In his NBA career, Wallace played with the Washington Bullets/Wizards,... read more

4 DPOY awards! Dikembe Mutombo was the only other player to get 4! But the difference is that Mutombo got his 4 over a stretch of 7 seasons, while it only took Ben 5 seasons to do so, as both pairs of awards were back-to-back. I'm so glad to see Big Ben back in Detroit, even if he is getting old.

Best defensive center of all time. Had the quickness to pickpocket guards, the strength to hold back oversized centers like Shaq, and led his team to an NBA championship just off his defense. Very underrated player and should be higher on this list.

9 Kevin Garnett Kevin Maurice Garnett is a former professional basketball player who played for 21 seasons in the National Basketball Association, for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Boston Celtics, and Brooklyn Nets.

No one can match KG's intensity on defense! He turned Boston, which was the worst defensive team, into one of the best defensive teams ever. He is one of the best defensive leaders in NBA history.

Defensive anchor! This guy has both offensive and defensive fundamentals!

This is the best defensive player ever. Consistent defensive player KG blocks, steals, rebounds, all sorts of stuff. The crowd is like, KG did this and that. Steals now. Blocks now. And rebounds now.

10 Tim Duncan Timothy Theodore "Tim" Duncan is an American professional basketball player who has played his entire career for the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association.

In the last 30 years, Spurs teams with Duncan had 3 of the 4 top best defense team ratings, allowing the lowest amount of buckets in 100 possessions. Duncan had the #1 individual defensive rating for four seasons. He has 8 all-defense first team and 7 all-defense second team awards. Even the current old version is a solid defender. Just watch him carefully, and he always made the right rotation, at the right time, and got one or two hands straight up to affect the shot. A strong man-to-man defender but excellent team help defender.

The Contenders
11 Wilt Chamberlain Wilton Norman "Wilt" Chamberlain was an American basketball player. He was born on August 21, 1936 in Philadelphia and died on October 12, 1999 in Los Angeles due to heart failure... read more

By far the leading shot-blocker in NBA history. Yes, even a little ahead of Bill Russell, and miles ahead of everyone else. Although blocks were not an "official" NBA stat when he played, they were an official team stat for a number of clubs.

In those games where blocks were tallied, he averaged an incredible 8.8 blocks per game, and in several games, he had over 20. Not that much of a surprise, since he had the highest "touch," which is vertical plus length, in NBA history.

Damn, the amount of disrespect shown towards the Big Dipper is unbelievable. All you millennials don't have a clue about how great of a player Wilt was on the defensive side of the floor. This brother probably blocked 4000+ shots, but the NBA, being the stubborn fools they are, didn't have the courtesy to count blocks or steals, especially when guys like Russell and Thurmond were playing. Nonetheless, Wilt goes unnoticed when it comes to recognizing defensive ability!

12 Lebron James LeBron Raymone James is an American professional basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association. LeBron has played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, and the Lakers.

LeBron's athleticism makes him a great on-ball and off-ball defender. His footwork is not the best, but because of speed against guards and strength against big men, he can guard all 5 positions like an all-defensive first teamer. If he could hand check like Jordan and Pippen, he would be remembered as one of the best on-ball defenders ever. He can intercept passing lanes because of his speed and can take it to the other end with no trouble. Let's also not forget he is the best chasedown blocker ever, with his superhuman chasedown block on Iggy.

13 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an American retired professional basketball player who played 20 seasons in the National Basketball Association for the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers.

Kareem is the best. Plain and simple. He owned the key and rarely there exist highlights of non-centers making him look bad, except for Doc J. 13 times All-Defense, won rebounding titles, embarrassed Patrick Ewing who was much younger, blocked shots of both The Dream and Ralph Sampson in the same game! Blocked Wilt's shot, then dunked in his face. Not too many people want to mention that though. For all his accomplishments, he still gets hate for his defense.

One of the greatest shot-blockers of all time. His career total of blocks is the 3rd highest of all time, and it doesn't even include his first 4 seasons, as the league did not start recording blocks until the 1973-74 season. Disappointing that he didn't earn any DPOY awards. He deserved at least one.

14 Nate Thurmond Nathaniel Thurmond was an American basketball player who spent the majority of his 14-year career in the National Basketball Association with the Golden State Warriors. He played the center and power forward positions.

Here lies the greatest defensive player of all time. Ask ANY center that played against him, and you will hear them all say Nate was the toughest. Only man able to block Kareem's skyhook. First man to record a quadruple-double and would have had many more if blocks were recorded in his time. Even at 35, when he played against the Celtics in the Eastern Finals in '76, Cowens said it was like having a curtain in front of him.

15 Kawhi Leonard Kawhi Anthony Leonard is an American professional basketball player for the Los Angeles Clippers of the National Basketball Association. He has played for the San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors, and the Clippers.

You're going to say he isn't number one? He locked up LeBron in the finals and took Finals MVP. His huge hands and long wingspan make him such a great defender. Also, the stats prove it. He led the league in steals in the 2015 NBA season and can play monster defense both off and on the ball!

He's not just the best defender right now, maybe the best of all time. That's saying a lot!

16 Michael Cooper

Toughest defender according to Larry Bird.

In the 1980s "Showtime" Lakers, his job was to stop the young MJ, and he did a great job.

17 Moses Malone Moses Eugene Malone was an American basketball player who played in both the American Basketball Association and the National Basketball Association from 1974 through 1995. The center was named the NBA Most Valuable Player three times and was a 12-time NBA All-Star and an eight-time All-NBA selection... read more
18 Kobe Bryant Kobe Bryant (1978 - 2020) was an American retired professional basketball player. He played his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association. Kobe Bryant has won 5 NBA championships with the Lakers and was the all-time leading scorer in Lakers franchise history... read more

Kobe is the greatest perimeter lockdown defender ever. He could defend 3 positions, that's why he was 12 times All-Defensive Team.

Kobe's defense has won playoff series for his team! Locked up CP3 and Westbrook. What he did to Reggie Miller in game 1 of the finals was something none of the 90s defenders could do. Would have continued it if Jalen Rose wasn't hunting for Kobe's ankle.

He blocks with his left hand... Remember that Ray Allen, Deron Williams, and the new guy in Portland!

19 Dwyane Wade Dwyane Tyrone Wade Jr. is an American professional basketball player for the Miami Heat of the National Basketball Association.

A very underrated defensive player. His unreal athleticism for a two helped him get a lot of blocks and steals. He also had a great transition game and lockdown potential.

Most blocks in history for a guard! Enough said!

20 Alonzo Mourning

Wow. If you've seen this guy play defense, then you know why he's on the list. He's also got two DPOY awards to show for it.

21 David Robinson David Maurice Robinson is an American former professional basketball player, who played center for the San Antonio Spurs in the National Basketball Association for his entire career.

Defensive Player of the Year, that season he had 4.5 blocks per game to go along with 2.3 steals per game, and yes that is an all-time NBA record for BPG + SPG in a season (not counting Wilt and Russell). Consistently around 3.5 BPG and 1.6 SPG for 6 other seasons. Really should be around #10-11, ahead of easily ahead of LeBron, Kobe, Garnett, Jerry West, Bruce Bowen, Wade, and Nash... and probably Moses Malone and Artest as well.

DPOY 91-92, in that year he averaged 4.5 bpg + 2.3 spg, which is the all-time NBA record for bpg + spg in a season (not counting Wilt and Russell). Also averaged 3.5 bpg + 1.6 spg for the other 6 of his first 7 seasons. Really should be around number 10-11.

22 Jerry West Jerry Alan West was an American basketball player who played his entire professional career for the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association.

Should be ranked higher than Jordan and Kobe but not higher than Payton all-time in defense. Some folks need to go back to AP NBA History and get their facts straight. This guy was the best defensive guard besides Payton, and maybe a case can be made for some that aren't even on this list.

Steals were not recorded during his playing days, but he is likely in the top three all-time.

23 Maurice Lucas
24 Draymond Green Draymond Jamal Green Sr. is an American professional basketball player for the Golden State Warriors of the National Basketball Association.

Good defensive player, high basketball IQ allows him to read plays and be in good position to try and stop them. Hustles to make defensive plays.

With consistent defensive performance, he should be in the top 20 by the end of the 2015-2016 season.

25 Ron Artest

This is a top 5 defensive player of all time. At the very least he is a top 3 wing/guard defender. This is mind-boggling to have him off the top ten list.

Severely underrated. Offense is a lot about getting to spots, and he was just too strong to be pushed away.

Incredibly versatile, naturally strong athletic defender, closest thing to Rodman since Rodman. Deservedly won DPOY award.

8Load More
PSearch List