Picking the eight greatest defenders in NBA history

Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeem Olajuwon was a lock to make our list of the best NBA defenders ever. Photo from The Dream Shake.

The greatest defenders in NBA history have two things in common: heart and hustle. After all, defense is what separates good basketball players from great basketball players. A player can drop 50 points in one night but if they can’t make a defensive stop, all his or her scoring effort is futile.

Best NBA defenders of all-time

Defense is more than just steals and blocks. Things such as taking charges, forcing a shot clock violation, hustling to dive for a loose ball, and holding down a player to less than ten points can’t be seen on the box score. But ultimately, these things are the most important in determining a team’s success. As the saying goes, “Defense wins championships”.

All things considered, let’s look at the top 8 best defenders in NBA history in no particular order.

Honorable Mentions: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kawhi Leonard

Gary Payton

9x All-Defensive team, 1x Defensive Player of the Year, 1x STL champion

Not many guards made it on the greatest defenders in NBA history list. Gary Payton is arguably the best defender for a point guard of all time.

Nicknamed “The Glove”, he could lock down any guards in the perimeter and put him at his mercy. Also, his trash talk was just as menacing as his defense and he doesn’t back down to any player. He won first-team all-defensive team nine years in a row in a star-studded 90s era.

Dennis Rodman

8x All-Defensive team, 2x Defensive Player of the Year, 7x TRB champion


Standing at just 6 foot 7, “The Worm” is arguably the greatest rebounder of all time. Not known for his offense, Dennis Rodman was the definition of “hustle”.

He constantly battled for position with opposing 7-foot centers and won it all the time just through pure effort. He dived for loose balls, held down the opposing team’s best big, and drew a lot of charges—something that the box score can’t show.

What’s more? He got into his opponent’s mind by constantly irritating them.

Dikembe Mutombo

6x All-Defensive team, 4x Defensive Player of the Year, 3x BLK champion, 2x TRB champion

“Don’t jump with Mt. Mutombo!” Dikembe Mutombo is one of the great defensive centers in NBA history.

The finger-waving center was a defensive force in the paint—securing rebounds and blocking shots like a volleyball. Over his career, he averaged 2.8 blocks per game. What a defensive beast.

Kevin Garnett

12x All-Defensive team, 1x Defensive Player of the Year, 4x TRB champion

Kevin Garnett is one of the greatest power forwards of all time. His post-defense and rebounding ability were out of this world, being able to guard players bigger than him.

His intensity is what makes him fun to watch on the defensive end. That’s why he is called “The Big Ticket”.

Scottie Pippen

10x All-Defensive team, 1x STL champ

It’s a crime that we didn’t see Scottie Pippen win at least one Defensive Player of the Year.

Scottie Pippen was considered to be one of the greatest perimeter defenders of all time. As a wing, he was versatile enough to guard smaller guards and bigger forwards and centers.

Ben Wallace

6x All-Defensive team, 4x Defensive Player of the Year, 2x TRB champion

At 6 foot 9, Ben Wallace was undersized as a center.

However, this doesn’t stop him from being one of the greatest defensive bigs of all time. Even though he was not known for his offense, he made it all up in his hustle and defense. Big Ben was tied with Dikembe Mutombo as the two players in NBA history to win the Defensive Player of the Year award 4 times.

He was one of the main reasons for the Bad Boy Pistons 2.0’s championship success in the 2000s.

Michael Jordan

9x All-Defensive team, 1x Defensive Player of the Year, 3x STL champ

Michael Jordan should always be on the list of the best NBA defenders of all time.

While we all know that he’s a beast in scoring, he was also a force to be reckoned with in defense, especially in stealing and swiping the ball.

His defense was a big reason the Chicago Bulls won six championships in the 90s. Remember, defense wins championships.

Hakeem Olajuwon

9x All-Defensive team, 2x Defensive Player of the Year, 3x BLK champion, 2x TRB champion

Hakeem Olajuwon is one of the greatest centers in NBA history.

While “The Dream” is known for being an offensive juggernaut with his silky smooth moves, he was very tough on the defensive end.

His strength, size, and shot-blocking ability were a nightmare for the opposing player.

He holds the record for 1st in total blocks and 9th in total steals in NBA history.

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About Jeremy Mallari 8 Articles
Jeremy lives and breathes basketball. He's an avid NBA fan for almost a decade now.

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