The NBA’s popularity has long been predicated on incredible offensive feats. We all remember Kobe’s 81-point night, and Lebron’s historic triple doubles in the 2016 Finals. These feats are obviously remarkable, and worthy of historic perspective,but there is a whole other side to the game of basketball. We are of course talking about the defensive side of the ball. To be considered one of the greatest players of all-time, you have to be able to do more than just score the ball.
We have all heard the old expression “defense wins championships,” and that could not have been made more clear than it was last year in game seven of the Finals. Lebron James showed the world how important and impactful great defense can be. Obviously, Lebron is the kind of player that would be on a list like this.
Players like LeBron, players who demonstrate dominance on both offense and defense, are incredibly hard to find. There have been players such as Dominque Wilkins, Tracy McGrady, and Carmelo Anthony, who have carried teams on their back with their will to score, but players like that don’t make the cut on this list due to their lack of defensive toughness. It is rare to find a player who plays as hard on defense as they do on offense, but today we will countdown the top 20 all-time who were able to do it better than the rest.
20. David Robinson
The Admiral was the gold standard for centers during much of the 90s. He represented the blue collared, hard working big man every team desired. In his career he led the league in scoring, rebound and blocks at least one time. He was also the Defensive Player of the Year in 1992. Robinson was a perennial All-NBA Defensive Team member with eight selections.
When Robinson was paired with a young Tim Duncan the NBA had no answers. The duo was unstoppable on both ends of the floor, led by Robinson’s example. Duncan would go on to surpass the accolades of Robinson, but Tim himself would tell you that he owes a lot of what he earned to The Admiral. If you want the definition of an all-around player, look no further than David Robinson. The man averaged over 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks for his entire career.
19. Walt Frazier
It was clear Walt “Clyde” Frazier was going to be great from the moment he stepped on an NBA court. The Hall of Fame guard played the bulk of his career with the New York Knicks, a franchise he would lead to two NBA titles. During his thirteen years in the NBA, Frazier was named to the All-NBA Defensive First Team an amazing seven times.
To show his versatility Frazier would often times match up against the opposing team’s best offensive player, usually shutting them down while still putting up great numbers himself. In thirteen years, Clyde was able to maintain an average of 19 points, six assists, and six rebounds per game. He did all that while still being one of the very best defenders in the NBA.
18. Gary Payton
Since retiring in 2006, Payton has become more known for his defense than his offense. He was nicknamed “The Glove” for good reason. Nine Defensive First Team selections, and a Defensive Player of the Year Award will take away from anyone’s offensive abilities. It should not be overlooked, however, what a great talent GP was on the offensive end of the floor.
During the 1995-96 season, Payton led the Seattle SuperSonics to the NBA Finals. Ultimately, Payton and the Sonics were outmatched by the great Bulls team of the Michael Jordan era, but Payton did his part that season to earn serious consideration for league MVP. First of all, he was named Defensive Player of the year that season, but maybe more impressively he averaged twenty points, eight assists, and three steals per game. Payton would go on to capture that elusive title with the 2006 Miami Heat along side Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade, but his greatest seasons came as a member of the Seattle SuperSonics throughout the 90s.
17. Kawhi Leonard
At only 25 years old, Kwahi is only entering his prime. If he keeps on this trajectory, he could find himself atop a list like this someday.
His accomplishments are already on par with some of the all-time greats. He is the proud owner of back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, and looking for his third straight this season. Kawhi has also won an NBA championship, in which he was named Finals MVP. The 2014 Finals was a real coming out party for Leonard, he was able to establish himself as a bonafide elite defender. The work he did on Lebron James that series has never been duplicated. Kawhi is now the leader of a title contending San Antonio team, and Leonard is looking like an early MVP candidate. Give this kid a few more years and he could easily be rivaling some true NBA royalty.
16. Dwyane Wade
D-Wade is still writing his story, now back home in Chicago. Wade has been a superstar since the day he broke into the NBA back in 2003. When Shaquille O’Neal joined Wade in Miami back in 2006, it didn’t take O’Neal long to acknowledge that the team belonged to Wade. That simple acknowledgement from a future Hall of Famer is what enabled Wade to take flight and become one of the greatest players to ever play the game.
Wade was known as “flash” during his early years, mainly due to his ability to blow by defenders and attack the rim as very few could. Along the way, Wade has already captured three NBA Championships, including a finals MVP. Wade has seemingly done it all from championships to scoring titles, he even holds the all-time NBA record for blocks by a guard. His skills transcend every aspect of the game and he is now passing his wisdom onto the next generation of superstars.
15. John Stockton
Most people are aware of Stockton and the fact that he is the NBA all-time assist king. Many people are unaware of the fact that Stockton is also the NBA all-time steal king as well. The combination of Stockton and Malone is one of the greatest duos in league history, and clearly the greatest duo to never win a title. Malone and Stockton will forever be linked, even though Malone spent the twilight of his career chasing a title, while Stockton was at peace with his career and retired once it was clearly over for him.
The undersized guard out of Gonzaga was thought to be too small and too weak to be a very effective player in the league, but boy did he prove the doubters wrong. During his 19 years in the league, John was named to 10 All-Star games and he led the NBA in assists an astounding nine times. Many people say that Magic Johnson is the greatest point guard to ever play, but John Stockton definitely gives him a run for his money.
14. Dwight Howard
D-12 falls in at number 14th on the list. Howard is often viewed as an underachieving great player, which is fair to say at this point, since he has yet to win a championship. However, his talents on both ends of the court can not be discounted.
Howard is able to do everything you could ask of an elite big man. Aside from his incredible defense, including being the only player to ever win three consecutive Defensive Players of the Year Awards, Howard has always been a monster in the paint. Howard has led the NBA in rebounding five times, has been named to five All-NBA First Teams, and four All-Defensive First Teams. The career Dwight has put together is easily Hall of Fame caliber, and yet he has only been in the NBA for 14 seasons. If he is able to keep up this consistency for another four or five years, he could go down as one of the top centers in NBA history.
13. Magic Johnson
Although Magic was never really known for his defensive abilities, he did lead the NBA in steals on two separate seasons. Magic was the leader of the Showtime Lakers, and his legacy will forever be linked to the highlights and championships he was able to produce. It is impossible, however, to not have Magic close to the top ten on a list like this. I had a hard time finding the right place for his to fit in, so I decided he would fit best just outside the top 10.
Magic helped revolutionize the game of basketball and his ability to impact the game in so many different ways makes him easily one of the all-time greats. This list, however, is ranking the greatest two-way players, not just greatest in general. With that said, being second all-time in career triple doubles is a big plus for Magic. Also his versatility on offense is key. We all know the story of Magic, as a rookie, starting in place of Kareem at the center position and the iconic shot of Magic executing a perfect skyhook, ala Kareem.
12. Oscar Robertson
“The Big O” is the only player to average a triple double for an entire season. Similar to Magic Johnson, Robertson was never really known for his defensive abilities, but how the heck do you leave a man who averaged a triple double off a list like this? Robertson was obviously an incredible scorer, facilitator, and rebounder but I think we should highlight some of Oscar’s defensive skills.
Oh, wait…. steals and blocks were not a recorded stat until Robertson’s final season, and defensive rebounds were not made an official stat until after he retired. For all we know, Oscar could have been number one on this list. But, what we do know is that Oscar Robinson was one of the greatest players ever to play, and undoubtably he was at worst a quality defender.
11. Jason Kidd
When Jason Kidd broke into the NBA in 1994, he was often referred to as ‘”ason Kidd” due to his lack of a “J.” Well Jason ended up having the last laugh, when he helped lead the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA championship in 2011. But all jokes aside, Jason Kidd is easily one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, and his ability to do everything on the court is what separated him from many other greats in history. Kidd not only has the third most triples doubles in NBA history, he was also an incredible defender as well.
Kidd was named to the All-NBA Defensive First Team four times in his career, and he ranks second all-time in career steals. Jason Kidd was a lot like John Stockton, except Kidd was able to rebound the ball incredibly well as a point guard. His knack for grabbing boards enabled him to get out and run the break that much faster. For all you youngsters out there, you should go youtube some of Kidd’s highlight reels, you will be very impressed!
10. Scottie Pippen
Often overshadowed by the great Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen was an all-time great himself. Scottie enabled MJ to be MJ, and not have to worry about guarding the other team’s best player, although MJ often times insisted that he man up with the best player opposite him. Pippen also alleviated some of the offensive load for Jordan during their great run to six NBA titles.
Along with the six championships, Scottie was a seven-time All-Star, a three time All-NBA First Team selection, and an eye popping ten-time All-Defensive Team selection. Scottie is often viewed as a mostly defensive dominant player, but that is a common misconception. Pippen averaged over 16 points and five assists for his career, including 1994 when he averaged 22.8 points per game. Being the sidekick for all those years may have taken a toll on other players, but Scottie was the ultimate team first player and winning was always the most important thing for him. With that attitude and mentality, Pippen was able to become one of the greatest and most accomplished players the NBA has ever seen.
9. Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt Chamberlain is like the Babe Ruth of basketball. The man routinely outscored the entire opposing team by himself. Wilt is the only player to lead the NBA in scoring, rebounding, and assists at least once in their career. Obviously, his offensive accolades are second to none.
It is his defense that relegates him to just barely cracking the top ten. Like other players from his era on this list, Wilt suffers from the lack of statistics. During his time in the league, most defensive statistics were not kept, so we are almost left in the dark when it comes to assessing his defensive abilities. What we do know is that he was named to two All-NBA Defensive Teams in his career, that combined with eleven rebounding titles makes him an easy addition to this list.
8. Bill Russell
Many people view Bill Russell as the greatest winner in sports history. I mean the guy did win eleven titles in thirteen years… so yeah. But what made Russell so great was his work ethic on both ends of the floor. One thing that hurts Russell’s case for a high ranking on this list is the simple fact that most defensive stats were not kept during his time. However, it is clear that Bill was an incredible defender as we know by the stats he help Wilt Chamberlain to in their epic battles.
Russell would be even higher on this list if he had dominated the offensive end just a little more. His career average of 15.1 points per game is not as impressive as some of the other players in the top ten. It is his rebounding and the clear dominance he showcased on the defensive end of the floor that put him where he is. Many people from the Russell era vow that he could handle any bigman in the history of the NBA, and frankly I don’t doubt it. Anyone that could hold Wilt Chamberlain to 11.7 points per game in a seven game series is worthy of my respect.
7. Kevin Garnett
KG was a superstar in the NBA straight out of high school. As a 21-year-old, he was named to his first of 12 All-NBA Defensive Teams, including nine First Team selections. Garnett was the heart and soul of a very good Minnesota franchise for a dozen years before he went on to Boston and won an NBA title with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Again in Boston, Garnett was the heart of the team, leading the way with his energy and enthusiasm.
KG was more than just an emotional leader though. In 2004, he was the NBA MVP, and in 2008, when he led the Celtics to the title, he was the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. After 21 years in the NBA, Garnett called it quits prior to this season. He finished his Hall of Fame career averaging 18 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists per game.
6. Tim Duncan
Many people consider Duncan the greatest team player of the modern era. Duncan sacrificed individual success for the sake of team success from the first day of his career. When he broke into the league he joined David Robinson, a league MVP. He let Robinson be the leader of the team, but it quickly became apparent that the future belonged to Timmy.
Duncan was never the most exciting player to watch, but now that his career is finished, he could easily be viewed as the most efficient player of his era. During his 19 years, Tim won five rings, three finals MVPs, two league MVPs, Rookie of the Year, 15 All-Defensive Team selections, and 15 All-NBA Team selections. That is what you call a flawless resume.
5. Hakeem Olajuwon
Two-time champion, two-time league MVP, and two-time Defensive Player of the Year is pretty much all we need to know as to why Olajuwon is here. On top of these incredible feats, Olajuwon had one of the most unstoppable moves in league history, the Dream Shake.
When you think about the accomplishments listed above and you combine them with the fact Hakeem led the league in blocked shots three times, and was named to nine All-Defensive Teams, it is no wonder he ranks in the top five all time. When he retired in 2002, Hakeem ended one of the greatest careers with averages of 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, and an unheard of 3.1 blocks per game. Hakeem is now one of the most sought after personal coaches in the NBA, he has worked with some of the greatest players of the last decade, including Kobe, Lebron, and Dwight Howard.
4. Kobe Bryant
The Black Mamba! Kobe’s insane offensive talents almost play against him when people talk about the best two way players. There are many people out there who do not believe Kobe should be number four on this list; however, when you begin to examine the numbers it becomes overwhelmingly clear that he certainly belongs in the conversation.
His offensive accomplishments are well known. We all know about his 81 point game, and the fact that he was a multiple time scoring champion, and his eighteen all-star games. But, what people often overlook, or simply don’t know, is that Kobe was as much a killer on defense as he was on offense. Bryant was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team 12 times, including nine times being selected as the best defensive shooting guard. Just for comparison, that is the same amount of times as Michael Jordan.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabar
As the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, it is easy to overlook Kareem’s dominance on the defensive end. We all know Kareem made 19 all-star games, and that he led the league in scoring multiple times, and that he was a ten-time All-NBA First Team selection. What many people do not know is that Kareem was also a eleven-time All-NBA Defensive Team selection, or that he led the NBA in blocked shots four times.
When it comes to Kareem’s career stats, the list is seemingly endless. When people have the always fun “greatest player arguments,” it is almost always forgotten how great Kareem Abdul-Jabar was as a defender and rebounder. Much of the credit for the success Jabar experienced goes to his teammates, namely Oscar Robertson, and later Magic Johnson, but there is no question Kareem is just as responsible for their successes as they are for his.
2. LeBron James
LeBron is pretty much the epitome of what a renaissance man looks like. The dude has led lottery teams to NBA finals appearances. When he began his career, he was viewed as an incredibly athletic freak with enormous potential, but the fear was that he may never be able to put it all together. Well over the years, LeBron has surpassed even the highest of expectations. Having been in the finals for the past six years is something that the NBA has not seen since the glory days of the Red Auerbach Boston Celtics.
James has been the most dominant and most versatile offensive player over the past 13 years, and he still holds the title today. He also has been one of, if not the, best defender in the league during the same time period. James himself has said he is now chasing the ghost of number 23 from Chicago. The thing about James is that he is now a top 10 scorer all-time, as well as top 20 in assists, yet his career defining-play is a blocked shot in the final minutes of a Game 7 in the NBA Finals.
1. Michael Jordan
There can only be one MJ. The ultimate competitor, Jordan would not let anyone get in the way of his winning. Jordan was an unprecedented six for six in NBA Finals, winning MVP in all six championships. Jordan was the ultimate assassin when he had the ball in his hands, but what is sometimes forgotten is he was equally as dangerous and ferocious when his opponent had the ball.
MJ led the NBA in steals three times, including 1988 when he was the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Jordan also was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team that season, one of nine selections. Michael had one of the all-time great defenders on his team, Scottie Pippen, yet more often than not, Jordan would demand matching up with the opposition’s greatest offensive threat; he thrived on the challenge. For those reasons, Jordan is a pretty clear choice for the number one spot on this list.