The best NBA defenders of 2021 and all time


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Who are the best defenders currently playing in the NBA?

It is impossible to say exactly who is the best defender in the NBA right now, but one player who certainly ranks among the elite is Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Antetokounmpo is one of the best all-round players in the league, and was named Defensive Player of the Year as well as Most Valuable Player in the 2019-20 season.

Antetokounmpo is recognised as an elite on-ball defender and a prolific shot blocker, with his Bucks team leading the NBA in defensive rating for two seasons running.

Also among the best defensive talents currently in the NBA is Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz.

The French center was denied a third-successive Defensive Player of the Year Award by Antetokounmpo, having won it in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Using his 7ft 1in frame, Gobert has developed into one of the best protectors of the rim in recent NBA history, leading the league in blocks in 2016-17 before his two award-winning campaigns.

Another player who is regularly talked about as being among the best NBA defenders is Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard.

Unlike Gobert, Leonard’s defensive skills mainly shine on the perimeter, with his athleticism and basketball IQ allowing him to lock down the best players in the league.

Leonard won Defensive Player of the Year in both 2014-15 and 2015-16.

Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers is also considered to be one of the best defenders in the NBA at the moment, after finishing runner-up to Antetokounmpo for DPOY in 2020.

Davis is comfortable guarding all five positions on the court and is part of a Lakers team that currently ranks top of the league in defensive rating so far this season.

Other players who are part of this conversation are Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers, Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics and Myles Turner of the Indiana Pacers.

Who are the best defenders in NBA history?

Much like ranking current players, it is hard to say who is definitively the best defender in NBA history, but there are several names who tend to come up in this debate.

First among those is Bill Russell, the legendary center who won 11 NBA titles with the Boston Celtics throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Russell operated in an era before blocks and steals – two crucial defensive metrics – were recorded, but comfortably leads everyone in defensive win shares with 133.64.

This essentially estimates that Russell won his team 133 games due to his defensive ability, while his Celtics led the league in defensive rating for all but one of his 13 seasons.

Also talked about as one of the best defenders ever is Hakeem Olajuwon, who ended his 18-year career with 3,830 blocks – nearly 600 more than anyone else.

Olajuwon, who won back-to-back titles with the Houston Rockets in the mid-1990s, was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team nine times.

He remains the only player to have won the MVP, DPOY and Finals MVP in the same season – achieved in 1993-94.

In terms of accolades, both Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace also deserve to be part of this conversation.

They are the only two players to win Defensive Player of the Year on four occasions, with Mutombo ranking second behind Olajuwon in blocks, while Wallace remains the only player to register 1,000 rebounds, 100 blocks and 100 steals in four consecutive NBA seasons.

Dennis Rodman, who was a key part of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls of the 1990s, is another player considered among the best defenders in NBA history.

Rodman was a two-time DPOY and led the league in rebounding for seven consecutive seasons, with his tenacity on defense marking him out as one of the best ever.

Michael Jordan himself is also among the best defenders to ever play in the NBA, although his achievements at that end of the court are often overlooked in favour of his offensive talent. 

Other honourable mentions include the San Antonio Spurs duo Tim Duncan – who made a record 15 All-Defensive Teams – and David Robinson, who averaged 2.99 blocks per game across his career.

Defensive stars are usually big men, but let’s not forget Gary Payton, who remains the only point guard to win Defensive Player of the Year.

Nicknamed ‘The Glove’, Payton smothered players with his defense, and ended his career with nine All-Defensive First Team selections.

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