Now more than ever, the NBA has placed an increased emphasis on being able to play defense. Through analytics and video breakdown technology, players are now under a microscope with very little wiggle room to excuse them from being below average defenders.
Regardless of how skilled the players are on the offensive end, without solid defense, there will always be the argument of ‘he’s not a complete player’. Just ask James Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, or Trae Young.
At the end of the day, defense is half the game of basketball. Defense should be valued and regarded just as highly as offense, no matter how difficult that might be. Making a three pointer is great, but if you can’t stop the opposition from scoring a three, you’re back at square one.
Over the years there have been plenty of premier defenders in the NBA who have worn the label of ‘best defender in the NBA’. Kawhi Leonard, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Scottie Pippen and plenty of other defensive juggernauts come to mind. However, there isn’t a definitive ‘best defensive player ever’.
This article will aim to find out who the best defender in NBA history is by comparing some of the greatest defenders to each other using the following categories: Defensive achievements, defensive statistics, defensive impact.
Each player will get a grade out of five in each category depending on their accomplishments. The player with the highest grade at the end will be crowned the best defender in NBA history.
Let’s begin by naming the honourable mentions who just missed out on being in the top five.
Honorable Mentions: Bill Russell, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Gary Payton.
Bill Russell kind of got the short end of the stick on this one. They didn’t start giving out all-defensive team honours until his last year in the NBA in 1969, so he’s only a one time winner. Russell was also one of the very few seven-footers in the NBA during his time in the NBA. This allowed him to completely dominate the paint in an era where scoring from the inside was coveted.
Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Gary Payton were all fantastic NBA perimeter defenders.
Although Kobe never won a DPOY, he received NBA All-Defensive Team Honours 12 times over his career. Tied for second most ever. Michael Jordan and Gary Payton both won defensive player of the year in their career, and were defensive anchors for their respective teams.
They are interchangeable in terms of making the top five, but for this article, they just missed out.
Here are the five NBA players in the conversation for being the best defensive players ever (In no particular order).
- Hakeem Olajuwon
- Tim Duncan
- Kevin Garnett
- Scottie Pippen
- Kawhi Leonard
Each of these NBA players demonstrated defensive excellence throughout their careers, and some still haven’t even finished their defensive legacy. Each of these players dominated games through their defensive presence and helped their team win championships as a result.
Category 1: Accolades
Hakeem Olajuwon: 9 x NBA All-Defense, 3 x BLK Champion, 2 x DPOY, All-time leader in in blocks (3,830)
Hakeem’s sustained greatness on the defensive end shows with his nine-time NBA all defensive team honours (Tied for 7th most ever). The fact that he is also a two-time defensive player of the year and the all-time blocks leader just speaks to his presence on the defensive end. Hakeem also ranks 9th all time in steals. Incredible.
Tim Duncan: 15 x All Defense
Duncan may not have any NBA defensive player of the year trophies, but his 15 x all defense is the most ever. Although he was never a block champion, he still ranks 5th all time in blocks recorded.
Kevin Garnett: 12 x All-Defense, 1 x DPOY
Garnett is tied for the second most NBA all-defensive team honours with 12, but he has also won a defensive player of the year award. Garnett’s trophy case gets a slight edge over Duncan’s.
Scottie Pippen: 10 x All Defense, 1 x STL Champ
Pippen surprisingly never won a defensive player of the year award throughout his career, however, he was widely regarded as the most feared defender in his era. The fact that Pippen was able to average the most steals per game in the NBA in a season is so impressive considering he is a forward.
Kawhi Leonard: 6 x All Defense, 1 x STL Champ, 2 x DPOY
Kawhi’s career isn’t over, so his defensive trophy room could add even more hardware. Leonard is currently the best two-way player in the NBA and has been over the last half-decade. At only 29, he is already a 2 x DPOY and 6 x All Defense. Very impressive defensive resume from Kawhi.
Category 2: Defensive Statistics
Here we will examine some of the advanced defensive statistics to see how these players rank against each other.
The defensive rating of an NBA player is a statistic used to measure the individual players efficiency in preventing the other team from scoring points. The lower your defensive rating is, the better.
Last year the average defensive rating in the NBA was 110.
Kawhi Leonard Defensive Rating: 100
100 is an excellent defensive rating for an NBA player’s career. Kawhi has also scored under 100 five times in nine seasons. This is a testament to Kawhi’s impact on the defensive end.
Scottie Pippen Defensive Rating: 102
Although slightly higher than Leonard, 102 is still a very good NBA defensive rating. Pippen, however, only scored under 100 four times in seventeen seasons.
Kevin Garnett Defensive Rating: 99
To score under 100 career long is extremely impressive. KG had 12 NBA seasons with a defensive rating under 100 which is completely unheard of. This stat illustrates Garnett’s excellence on the defensive end.
Tim Duncan Defensive Rating: 96
If you though Garnett’s 12 NBA seasons under 100 was impressive, Duncan had 16. In the three seasons that Duncan did eclipse 100, he scored 101, and 100 twice. Duncan is the epitome of defensive excellence.
Hakeem Olajuwon Defensive Rating: 98
Hakeem’s defensive rating of 98 career long is quite impressive. Over his 18 year career, Olajuwon only scored 100 or over six times, and actually had the best defensive rating in the NBA for five consecutive years. The Dream impresses even on the stat sheet.
Defensive Box Plus Minus (DBPM)
The defensive box plus minus is a statistic that shows you how much better the player is than the average NBA player on the defensive end. For example, if a player has a DBPM of one, he would allow one less point per game.
Kevin Garnett DBPM: 2.1 (career average)
Tim Duncan DBPM: 2.3 (career average)
Hakeem Olajuwon DBPM: 2.5 (career average)
Kawhi Leonard DBPM: 2.4 (career average)
Scottie Pippen DBPM: 1.8 (career average)
Category 3: Defensive Impact
This category isn’t measured by a single NBA stat, but is too important to be left out of this discussion. Defensive impact can be measured by the player’s versatility on the floor, and the different ways that they effect the game.
Duncan was an incredible NBA rim protector for decades, but outside of the paint, he didn’t really have much of an impact. His length allowed him to contest shots on the outside, but a lack of speed deterred him from being an effective perimeter defender.
Hakeem, like Duncan, was an incredible NBA rim protector but struggled to defend on the perimeter. Hakeem was a bit more agile than Duncan and was able to somewhat defend on the perimeter. In reality, he was most effective defending only centers and power forwards.
Although Garnett was an NBA power forward, he was still athletic enough to defend almost every position on the floor. Garnett’s impact goes beyond versatility as well. His unmatched intensity on the defensive end is what made KG such an incredible defender.
Kawhi may be silent off the court, but his impact on the court is definitely heard. Kawhi’s versatility on defense allows him to defend positions one through four with ease in the NBA. His length and exceptional defensive instincts also allows him to get into passing lanes and disrupt play sequences.
It would be nice, however, for Kawhi to show some more fire on the court. Especially on the defensive end.
If you had the opportunity to make your ideal NBA defender, it would probably look like Scottie Pippen. Pippen was athletic enough to defend guys on the perimeter, and strong enough to battle with the big men down low. Pippen was an absolute menace on the defensive end and is the first ever true ‘3 & D’ player.
Overall NBA all-time defenders
Let’s see how everyone ranked.
5th: Pippen: 16/20
4th: Duncan: 17/20
3rd: Kawhi: 17.25/20
2nd: Olajuwon: 18/20
1st: Garnett: 18.25
There you have it. Kevin Garnett is the best defender in NBA history.
Although this isn’t an absolute, Garnett has ranked the highest when it comes to some of the most significant NBA defensive measurements. Garnett played his entire career with limitless energy and 100% effort.
As a result, the Big Ticket is the best defender in NBA history.