One of the most important accolades a player can capture during their career is a Defensive Player of the Year Award. Only one player wins it each year, and only a few have captured it over the entirety of the NBA. Defense has always been the calling card of major NBA teams in the past, and oftentimes the best defensive team will be one of the best teams in the entire league.
Even today, when rule changes and freedom of movement have limited defensive players from truly shining, it is still relevant as the teams who have won the NBA titles are still great defensive teams. The Warriors had multiple lock-down defenders on the team, while the Raptors had one of the best defensive lineups in the entire league last season. Defense still wins championships, and this will never change.
We have witnessed some incredible defensive players dating back to the very first winner of the DPOY Award, and here is every award winner by position in chronological order.
Gary Payton (1995-1996) Seattle SuperSonics
The first and only point guard to win the award, Payton was a very special defensive player who made a living on that end of the floor. “The Glove” is one of the greatest defensive players ever, since he had incredible hands to come up with steals and a sharp defensive stance to make life difficult for ball handlers. Easily one of the best point guards we have ever seen.
Sidney Moncrief (1982-1983), (1983-1984) Milwaukee Bucks
Moncrief was a special player because he had a special tenacity on both ends of the floor. Moncrief was a freakishly dedicated defender, always sticking to his man and playing with pride when he was tasked with guarding the league’s best players every single night.
Moncrief was so dominant that many regarded him as the best player in the league behind Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Moncrief’s consistency on defense and overall talent and skill earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame which is well-deserved.
Alvin Robertson (1985-1986) San Antonio Spurs
Robertson was the best defender for the San Antonio Spurs, and often a forgotten member for one of the league’s best franchises. He was consistently tasked with guarding very tough offensive players in their primes.
In fact, Robertson has a unique physical mix of strength and dexterity which allowed him to contest shots and always create tough looks for opponents. Robertson averaged 2.7 SPG for his career and is recognized as one of the best shot-blocking guards in NBA history.
Michael Cooper (1986-1987) Los Angeles Lakers
Michael Cooper was the first and only Laker to win the DPOY award in franchise history. Cooper did not have dominant stats defensively, as he did not even average over 1 steal per game, but his impact was beyond what was on the box score. Cooper consistently guarded the opposing team’s best perimeter defender, and his defense was the reason he was on five championship teams in LA.
Michael Jordan (1987-88) Chicago Bulls
No doubt about it, MJ deserved the Defensive Player of the Year Award he won. Jordan was part of a dynamic defensive duo with Scottie Pippen that picked offensive players up the entire length of the court. But it was Jordan’s clutch performances defensively that gave him an edge in 1998, as he usually made the big defensive plays to seal victories for his team. Jordan’s DPOY Award was one of his greatest achievements.
Ron Artest (2003-2004) Indiana Pacers
Ron Artest was another enigma, who simply could burst at any moment, especially in his younger days. That may have fueled him to be one of the best perimeter defensive players we have seen since he was very powerful and used his body to make offensive players’ lives a living hell. Artest was the best defensive player for a very good Pacers team, and he came up with the award in the 2003-2004 season.
Kawhi Leonard (2014-2015), (2015-2016) San Antonio Spurs
There seems to be a trend of enigmatic small forwards who won the DPOY Award since no one really understood Kawhi Leonard during his time with the Spurs. What we all knew was that he was arguably the best defender in the league for two straight seasons.
The Spurs were a stout defensive team, with the likes of Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich leading the charge. But Leonard was the main man defensively, guarding the best players in the world and making sure the Spurs usually came out on top.
Dennis Rodman (1989-1990), (1990-1991) Detroit Pistons
Rodman is often regarded as the best rebounder of all time, and one of the best defensive players of all time as well. Rodman was a consistent force on the defensive glass, hauling down 10+ rebounds per game for his entire career. Needless to say, Rodman was one of the most important players that allowed the Pistons to win NBA titles.
Even though he was very enigmatic and very popular among the NBA community, his play was as tough-nosed and basic as it came. He built a career off of the hustle and defensive tenacity and has two DPOY Awards to show for it.
Kevin Garnett (2007-2008) Boston Celtics
Garnett is probably the greatest player in Timberwolves history, as he even won league MVP by carrying a relatively weak team into the Playoffs in 2004. But Garnett truly shined defensively in his first season with the Boston Celtics.
He was the defensive leader for the Celts who ended up winning the NBA title in the same year, and there was nobody more impactful than KG the entire season. Thanks to the scoring of Ray Allen and Paul Pierce along with the complete dominance by Garnett on the defensive end, the Celtics were a very fun team to watch.
Draymond Green (2016-2017) Golden State Warriors
Green captured his DPOY Award by being the main cog in the Golden State Warriors system on the defensive end. In fact, it was because of Green’s versatility on the defensive end that allowed the Warriors to field the “Death Lineup” with Green at the center.
Green could literally guard and lock down all five positions and was the main reason why the Warriors were not push-overs defensively despite their superstar players being of smaller structures.
Mark Eaton (1984-1985), (1988-1989) Utah Jazz
Mark Eaton won the Defensive Player of the Year Award twice in his career and was the first center to ever do it. He was one of the best blockers in NBA history, averaging amazing 3.5 blocks per game.
Utah Jazz had the NBA’s best defensive rating four times (’85, ’87, ’88 and ’89) over that span and never finished worse than seventh from ’84 to ’92.
Eaton was an elite defensive player and probably the best in the 80s.
David Robinson (1991-1992) San Antonio Spurs
The Admiral David Robinson won the DPOY for the Spurs in 1991-1992 season, by averaging BPG and RPG. Robinson was a unique talent, who could do it on both ends of the floor on a consistent basis. The Spurs are known for their desire to be a franchise built on tough defensive play, and Robinson was the epitome of this in 1992.
Hakeem Olajuwon (1992-1993), (1993-1994) Houston Rockets
Without a doubt, Hakeem Olajuwon was a special player, as he managed to win two straight NBA titles for the Houston Rockets. Hakeem was a force on offense, revolutionizing what it means to have strong footwork in the post. But his defensive prowess often goes unremembered, as he won two straight DPOY Awards to add to his first-ballot HOF resume.
Olajuwon could block shots with the best of them, rebound the ball, and spearhead a strong defensive squad which included the likes of Vernon Maxwell.
Dikembe Mutombo (1994-1995) Denver Nuggets, (1996-1997), (1997-1998) Atlanta Hawks, (2000-2001) Philadelphia 76ers
Dikembe Mutombo is one of the NBA’s legends, and one of the greatest defensive players of all time. Mutombo made a living protecting the rim, and even the game’s greatest scorers including Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant had difficulty finishing around the rim against Mutombo.
Dikembe won a record four DPOY Awards, a record tied with Ben Wallace, and consistently was a defensive force for the Nuggets, Hawks, and 76ers. While there are some great defensive players in the league, Mutombo will go down in history as one of the best ever.
Alonzo Mourning (1998-1999), (1999-2000) Miami Heat
While Mourning was an effective scorer in his prime, his defensive ability never truly left him as he was able to use his defensive skills to help the Miami Heat win an NBA title in 2006. But Alonzo was a true defensive specialist in his prime as well, winning the award two straight times. Mourning averaged 2.8 BPG over his entire career, which lasted 16 seasons.
In fact, Pat Riley often credits Mourning for being one of the most critical players in the Heat’s history- and his defense was a big part of it.
Ben Wallace (2001-2002), (2002-2003), (2004-2005), (2005-2006) Detroit Pistons
When it comes to pure defensive ability, many will argue that Ben Wallace was the best big man to ever do it. Despite being shorter than most centers, Wallace played bigger than his height thanks to his muscular build and incredible dedication to the defensive end.
Wallace was extremely limited on offense, often staying within five feet of the basket, so he had to make up for it by being a monster on defense. And he certainly did that, by winning a record-tying four DPOY Awards. Even though Wallace could hardly score, his defense and ability to block shots will likely place him in the Hall of Fame.
Marcus Camby (2006-2007) Denver Nuggets
Camby had quite a long NBA career, and it was mainly because of his defensive abilities. In his prime, Camby was a real problem. He was tall and long and had a knack for swatting shots that came his way.
As part of the Denver Nuggets, Camby averaged the most blocks per game for the entire 2006-2007 season. He was very consistent in making the Nuggets one of the toughest teams in the league, and he got his recognition by claiming the DPOY Award at the end of the season.
Dwight Howard (2008-2009), (2009-2010), (2010-2011) Orlando Magic
Howard had every tool in the bag to be a top-five center the game had ever seen. It is a shame he never got there, but he was still a beast in his prime. Dwight won three DPOY Awards, and he was easily the best big man and all-around defensive player in the league.
Howard was extremely athletic, and would always seem to be there to alter any shots that came around the rim. He was also an amazing shot-blocker, averaging nearly three blocks per game during his run. Even though Dwight will always be remembered as a massive “what-if”, he was easily one of the best defensive players of his time.
Tyson Chandler (2011-2012) New York Knicks
Tyson Chandler has always been known as a defensive specialist, and he fully deserved the DPOY Award he received in 2011-2012 as part of a strong New York Knicks cast.
Even though Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire took the credit for a successful Knicks team that year, they wouldn’t be as close to effective without Chandler’s shot-blocking and defensive leadership. Chandler held the fort for them all season long and finally defeated dominant Dwight Howard to win the award.
Marc Gasol (2012-2013) Memphis Grizzlies
When Marc Gasol was included as part of the trade package for superstar player Pau Gasol, nobody expected him to be any good. After all, it is hard to find brothers who play like All-Stars in the NBA together. But Marc developed into a strong and dominant big man, especially on the defensive end.
Marc easily captured the DPOY Award by leading the Grizzlies to a strong season in 2012-2013, and basically had every advanced metric on his side to give him an edge over LeBron James.
Joakim Noah (2013-2014) Chicago Bulls
Even though recent memories of Joakim Noah include air-balled free throws and max money despite being injured the majority of the time, Noah was a force in his prime. As part of the Derrick Rose era, the Bulls had one of the best defensive teams in the league led by the likes of Luol Deng and Joakim Noah.
But Noah was the main man, patrolling the paint and doing all the little things on defense that do not show up in the box score including making hustle plays, deflecting passes, and contesting shots. Noah was a special defensive player when he was healthy.
Rudy Gobert (2017-2018), (2018-2019) Utah Jazz
The last center to win the award and the reigning DPOY, Gobert was the unquestioned best defensive player in the league in the league last year. Thanks to his length and shot-blocking press, Gobert averaged 2.3 BPG for a Utah Jazz team that was one of the best defensive teams in the league.
Gobert will likely make a case for yet another DPOY Award this season, as he aims to spearhead a strong defensive Jazz unit once again.