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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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