It’s axiomatic in all major sports that defense wins championships. This is clearly true in hockey, basketball, and football. In baseball, the only game where the defense has the ball, the relevant mantra is “good pitching beats good hitting.”
So, then, here’s my all-time, all-defensive NBA squad. While three of the players were high-volume scorers, they qualify for inclusion primarily because of their defensive prowess.
BILL RUSSELL – Blocked shots were not recorded when he played (1956-69), but many sportswriters who covered Boston Celtics’ games of his era printed their own unofficial counts which averaged around ten per game. In addition, Russell would brush-block opponents’ shots, deflecting them toward teammates. Forget about his career per-game averages of 22.5 rebounds, 15.1 points, and 4.3 assists, Russell simply occupied a non-shooting zone within at least an eight-foot semi-circle that extended to the front and both sides of the rim.
At 6-10, 220, Russell had a tensile strength that opponents underrated at their peril. He never bought a fake, and had the quickness to hold his ground until a nearby shot was released before leaping to tap it away.
He was also one of the fastest players on the Celtics, enabling Boston to run a devastating five-man fastbreak.
Aside from dunks on the run, Russell scored on putbacks, mid-range jumpers, and rolling hook shots.
No wonder, the Celtics won eleven championships during his thirteen seasons on Boston.
NATE THURMOND – Measuring 6-11, 240, he was a powerhouse in the middle. Annual NBA All-Defense teams were not instituted until 1969, but Thurmond was named to the first two of these. Had the honors been in existence when he was a rookie (1963-64), Thurmond certainly would have been a first-team fixture. As his game began to deteriorate, Thurmond still qualified for NBA All-Defense Second Teams from 1972-74). For his career (1963-77), he averaged 15 points and 15 rebounds.
How good was his defense? Good enough to be the only opponent who could take away Wilt Chamberlain’s otherwise unstoppable finger-rolls, and force The Dipper to score only on dunked put-backs and fadeaway jumpers.
DAVE DeBUSSCHERE – The man with the Velcro chest was the ultimate stopper at this position. Even though he was a bullish 6-6, 240, DeBusschere frequently played point guard in his early years with Detroit—proof that he had the quickness to smother fleet-footed as well as powerful opponents. He shot only when he had to—long jumpers that would have been three-pointers today. Overall (1962-74), he averaged 16.1 points and 11 rebounds and was a six-time All-Defense teamer.
GUS JOHNSON – He was the only player who could seriously challenge DeBusschere’s status as being the very best defender ever at this position. The careers of these two defensive dreadnaughts overlapped (1963-73 for Johnson) and their physical dimension were identical. Because Johnson was somewhat quicker and had more scoring responsibility with the Washington Bullets, his lifetime stats were better (17.1 points, 12.7 rebounds). But watching DeBusschere and Johnson battle one another when the Knicks and the Bullets routinely squared off in the playoffs was an unmitigated delight.
Twice Johnson was named to an All-Defense team, and like nine of the other “rotation” players on this list, he’s a Hall-of-Famer.
DENNIS RODMAN could defend all five positions and is easily the most versatile defender ever. His being named to seven All-Defense first teams—and twice picked as Defensive Player of the Year–indicates the full range of his defensive game plan: quickness, relentlessness, always annoying, with some extra-curricular brutality often employed. He also led the NBA in rebounding from 1991 to 1998. They called him The Worm because he always found a way to get under an opponent’s skin. The ultimate role player, Rodman also ranks among the best athletes in NBA history.
BOBBY JONES was a lean 6-9, 210, but his intelligence, anticipation, toughness, long arms, and super-quickness befuddled opponents from 1976-86. BJ earned spots on eight All-D first teams, and just completing passes to whomever he was guarding was extremely difficult. Also, given Jones’ ability to rip opponents’ dribblings, steal their passes, and block their shots, it’s a crime that he isn’t in the Hall of Fame.
MICHAEL JORDAN – For sure he was a superlative point-maker, but MJ was also named to nine first NBA All-Defensive teams.
SCOTTIE PIPPEN – Credit him with eight first All-NBA Defensive teams. Like MJ, Pip could play point guard, shooting guard, and small forward.
JERRY WEST – He could jump and touch a star, pull-up hard right and bag unstoppable jumpers, but he was also a great defender—four All-D squads. His long arms were as quick as cobras to sting shots and eat passes. Indeed, more often than not, whenever he was the lone defender on 2-on-1 fastbreaks, opponents were so afraid to pass in his vicinity that they either resorted to taking jumpers or pulling the ball out and waiting for their full-bodied offensive sets to operate.
WALT FRAZIER – Seven All-D honors for Clyde. How good was his defense? He was the only defender on the planet who could control Jerry West’s dynamic scoring.
Filling out the roster: the eleventh and twelfth players would be SIDNEY MONCRIEF (an incredible two-way player who also belongs in the Hall of Fame. And MICHAEL COOPER, who could lock opponents in jail and throw away the key.
Through steals, softly-blocked shots, totally dominant rebounding, and routinely forcing opponents to take poor shots, this team’s defense would create easy breakaway points by the dozen. And MJ, Mr. Logo, and Clyde could also make their half-court offense light up the scoreboard.
It’s no stretch to claim that this team, if they competed today, would lose perhaps one or two games in the regular season (if any), and sweep undefeated through the playoffs.
Okay, let’s extend the fantasy by projecting a seven-game series against an All-Time All-Offense team. This roster might include (since MJ and West would be unavailable) Oscar Robertson, Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Elvin Hayes, and George Gervin. Feel free to make substitutions and/or fill out the remaining slots with players of you own choosing.
In any event, and no matter exactly who they’d face, it says here that the All-Time D team would win in six games.