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 lockdown 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 Defensive Player of the Year Award, and here is every award winner by position in chronological order.
Point Guards - 2
1x Gary Payton (1995-96)
1x Marcus Smart (2021-22)
The first and one of two point guards to ever 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. Payton is easily one of the best point guards we have ever seen.
For the first time since 1996, a point guard was crowned and that man was Marcus Smart. The tough guard made his career out of playing defense and has been one of the top defensive players in the game for the last few years. Averaging 1.7 SPG and spearheading the number one ranked defense in the league in 2022, Smart was a deserving winner of the award.
Shooting Guards - 5
2x Sidney Moncrief (1982-83), (1983-84)
1x Alvin Robertson (1985-86)
1x Michael Cooper (1986-87)
1x Michael Jordan (1987-88)
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’s consistency on defense and overall talent and skill earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame and two straight Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Robertson was the best defender for the San Antonio Spurs, and often a forgotten member of one of the league’s best franchises. 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 was the first and only Laker to win the Defensive Player of the Year award in franchise history. The All-Star shooting guard was capable of scoring the ball, but his defense was the most important part of his game. Cooper consistently guarded the opposing team's best perimeter defender, and his defense was the reason he was on five championship teams in LA.
No doubt about it, MJ deserved the Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1988. Jordan would create a dynamic defensive duo with Scottie Pippen that picked offensive players up the entire length of the court. But Jordan’s defense in 1988 has to be the best we saw from the shooting guard as he made the big defensive plays to seal victories for his team throughout the year in which he also ran away with MVP.
Small Forwards - 3
2x Kawhi Leonard (2014-15), (2015-16)
1x Ron Artest (2003-04)
One of the greatest two-way wings of all time, Kawhi Leonard became an All-Star as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. Leonard’s powerful body, massive hands, and elite defensive IQ allowed him to control opposing offensive players every night. Capturing two straight Defensive Player of the Year awards as a member of one of the best defensive teams in the league, Leonard is also the last small forward to win the most prestigious award for perimeter defenders.
Ron Artest is one of the most powerful and competitive small forwards during his time because he wanted to take the best offensive player every night. Artest’s determination (and even enigmatic behavior) might have fueled him to be one of the best perimeter defensive players we have seen since he was very powerful and smart on defense. Artest was the best defensive player for a very good Pacers team, and he came up with the award in the 2003-2004 season.
Power Forwards - 5
2x Dennis Rodman (1989-90), (1990-91)
1x Kevin Garnett (2007-08)
1x Draymond Green (2016-17)
1x Giannis Antetokounmpo (2019-20)
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 10 different times over his career. Needless to say, Rodman was one of the most important players that allowed the Pistons to win NBA titles in 1990 and 1991. The Worm built a career off of the hustle and defensive tenacity and has two Defensive Player of the Year Awards to show for it.
Garnett is the greatest player in Timberwolves history, as he even won league MVP by carrying a relatively weak team to the best record in the West. But Garnett truly shined defensively in his first season with the Boston Celtics, as he completely revamped a Celtics squad on defense en route to their championship in 2008. 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 during the late 2000s.
Green captured his Defensive Player of the Year 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 small-ball center. His determination to impact the game made him the most dangerous defender in 2017 alongside offensive stars.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the most spectacular athletes we have ever seen, and his ability to defend all five positions during a game has to be his greatest attribute. The Greek Freak is nearly 7 feet tall yet moves like a guard, and he averaged 1.0 SPG and 1.0 BPG during the 2020 season when he captured the first Defensive Player of the Year for a power forward since Draymond Green.
Centers - 25
4x Dikembe Mutombo (1994-95), (1996-97), (1997-98), (2000-01)
4x Ben Wallace (2001-02), (2002-03), (2004-05), (2005-06)
3x Dwight Howard (2008-09), (2009-10), (2010-11)
3x Rudy Gobert (2017-18), (2018-19), (2020-21)
2x Mark Eaton (1984-85), (1988-89)
2x Hakeem Olajuwon (1992-93) (1993-94)
2x Alonzo Mourning (1998-99), (1999-00)
1x David Robinson (1991-92)
1x Marcus Camby (2006-07)
1x Tyson Chandler (2011-12)
1x Marc Gasol (2012-13)
1x Joakim Noah (2013-14)
Dikembe Mutombo is one of the NBA’s greatest defensive players, thanks to his rim protection and shot-blocking ability. Mutombo made a living protecting the rim, and even the game’s greatest scorers including Kobe Bryant had difficulty climbing Mt. Mutombo. Dikembe won four Defensive Player of the Year Awards, a record tied with Ben Wallace, and consistently was a defensive force for the Nuggets, Hawks, and 76ers.
When it comes to pure defensive ability, many will argue that Ben Wallace was the best big man to ever do it despite being undersized. Big Ben played bigger than his height thanks to his muscular build and incredible dedication to the defensive end. Wallace was a force with the Detroit Pistons by winning a record-tying four Defensive Player of the Year Awards, and he was a massive reason Detroit captured the NBA title in 2004.
One of the most underrated stars in the modern era, Dwight Howard was a force in the paint for the majority of the late 2000s and early 2010s. An elite shot-blocker and hungry rim protector, Dwight won three Defensive Player of the Year Awards and was easily the best big man and all-around defensive player in the league. An explosive athlete at 6’10”, Howard was one difficult player to score against when he played for the Orlando Magic.
The last center to win the award who captured Defensive Player of the Year 3 times, Rudy Gobert was the unquestioned best defensive player in the league over the past few years. Thanks to his length and shot-blocking prowess, the “Stifle Tower” completely encompassed the area around the basket and continues to do so as he looks to add to his 4 All-Defensive Team selections.
Mark Eaton won the Defensive Player of the Year Award twice in his career and was the first center to ever do it. The gigantic big man stood 7’4” and weighed 275 lbs, completely encompassing the lane and any shots coming around the basket. Eaton finished his career with an average of 3.5 BPG, and he put up 5.6 BPG and 3.8 BPG in each of his Defensive Player of the Year seasons. We have not seen many players larger than Eaton in NBA history and his shot-blocking ability was truly exceptional.
One of the greatest two-way centers of all time, Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon was a unique talent. He was a force on offense, revolutionizing what it means to have strong footwork in the post. But his defensive prowess was arguably just as great, as he won two straight Defensive Player of the Year Awards with his second one coming in his MVP season. Of course, Hakeem added a Finals MVP in the same season in 1994.
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. An elite shot-blocker, Alonzo finished with averages of 3.9 BPG and 3.7 BPG respectively.
The Admiral David Robinson won the Defensive Player of the Year for the Spurs in the 1991-92 season, averaging 4.5 BPG and 2.3 SPG while adding 12.2 RPG. The Spurs are known for their desire to be a franchise built on tough defensive play, and Robinson was the epitome of that in 1992. Robinson was not the last Spur to win the award, as Kawhi Leonard would continue the Spurs tradition.
Marcus Camby is often forgotten as an elite defensive player, as he had the length and basketball IQ to dominate the court on the defensive end at times. 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 Defensive Player of the Year Award at the end of the year.
Tyson Chandler has always been known as a defensive specialist, and he fully deserved the Defensive Player of the Year 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.
When Marc Gasol was included as part of the trade package for superstar player Pau Gasol, nobody expected him to be any good. That was because Pau was a bonafide star in the league, while Marc was still learning the ropes. Marc Gasol eventually developed into a strong and dominant big man, capturing the Defensive Player of the Year Award and leading the Grizzlies to a strong season in 2012-2013.
Joakim Noah made his name off defending the rim and also guarding smaller players when needed to. The active center was effective at blocking shots, poking the ball away, and hauling down rebounds. Noah knew he was not a talented offensive player, but he more than made up for it by playing the best defense in the league in 2014.
Big Men Dominant Defensively, Elite Defensive Guards Are Rare
It is obvious that elite centers have dominated the defensive side of the floor throughout NBA history, and that is no surprise considering the amount of space they take up. Big men are usually the first players to come up with the ball when rebounding and also the players mainly responsible for blocking shots or protecting the rim. Anytime a player is at least 6’10” with long arms, defending the rim should come naturally to them. That is why a whopping 25 centers have captured 40 Defensive Player of the Year awards throughout NBA history, and another 5 players have managed to win the award as power forwards. That means 30 out of the 40 award winners have been “big men” that brought size, length, and athleticism.
Of course, there will be anomalies. We have seen dominant wing players control the perimeter with their defense, with the latest being 2-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. Thanks to his elite basketball IQ and unbelievably-sized hands, Kawhi can lock up most players on most nights. In terms of guards, it is extremely rare for them to win Defensive Player of the Year. Perhaps the most impressive winner was Michael Jordan, a player who won 10 scoring titles but was still able to play some of the best perimeter defense of all time.
Alvin Robertson is a special defensive player at the shooting guard position as well, but the man who stands out as a defensive guard has to be Sidney Moncrief. Moncrief made the Hall of Fame mainly due to his elite on-ball ability because he ended up making 5 All-Defensive Teams and captured Defensive Player of the Year a whopping 2 times as a shooting guard. We have yet to see a guard do what Moncrief did on the defensive end because not even Gary Payton managed to win Defensive Player of the Year more than once.
Marcus Smart was the Defensive Player of the Year winner this year, and he joins Payton as the only point guard and only the 6th guard overall to achieve this feat. It is extremely rare when a guard wins the award, which is why Marcus Smart deserves a ton of credit for being the first guard since “The Glove” to do this.
Overall, big men have seemingly owned the NBA in multiple areas including MVP awards and defense is yet another example of that. Dominant big men in terms of size and skill often have the best chance to win Defensive Player of the Year, because they simply have greater capabilities to affect the game on defense better than smaller players. Guards and even small forwards cannot dominate through size alone, things which some bigs have been known to do. As things stand, the greatest defensive players throughout NBA history have been big men and that will likely never change.