The NBA is a league with some very dominant defensive players. Even when the NBA has become a high-scoring league known for its flashy buckets and offensive plays, the defenders often make the most impact. There is a reason why each of the NBA champions in NBA history have all been excellent defensive teams, because defense simply wins championships.
Just as how teams play better defense than others, individual defenders stand out as the most impactful and dominant at this end of the floor.
This past season, we witnessed one of the greatest defensive players in history in Kawhi Leonard capture his second NBA Championship. His dominance on the defensive end is profound, as he can lock-up almost all offensive players with ease, and just be a nuisance to the game’s very best offensive players.
But is he the number one defender in the league?
By separating the league’s top defenders into tiers, here are the 30 best defensive players ranked by skill and ability.
Pascal Siakam, Mitchell Robinson, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela, Jaren Jackson Jr, Jerami Grant, Serge Ibaka, Al Horford
Level one defensive players are above average defenders who often revolve their entire game by playing defense. Their impact offensively comes in spurts, but their defense is often consistent.
Siakam was the most improved player last year, and his defense was a big reason why. He is long, tall, and athletic enough to legitimately switch to defend all five positions. His ability to remain consistent on defense is a big reason why the Raptors are reigning NBA Champions.
Robinson, Capela, and Grant are all offensively limited but make their impact known on the defensive end. Robinson is a great shot-blocker and rebounder, who has shown tremendous promise with the New York Knicks. Capela is very effective at challenging shots at the rim, and is quick enough to defend guards on an island. Not to mention, he is a quality rebounder and shot-blocker. Grant is mainly a shot-blocking extraordinaire who often denies points on the board thanks to his ability to get out of defenders and recover to block shots.
Tucker and Jackson both man the power forward position, and play extremely hard on the defensive end. Jackson can be the piece that the Grizzlies build around, and his toughness on defense is a key reason why. While Jackson is very young with a very high ceiling, Tucker is older and brings consistency each and every night. He is a valuable piece to the Rockets and one of the most underrated players in the league.
Both Serge Ibaka and Al Horford are experienced big men who have made a living on playing solid defense. Ibaka was originally one of the best shot blockers in the game and has turned into a very smart defender who can provide valuable minutes for his team when he's on the floor. Horford is often the best man in the league to guard Joel Embiid, who is considered the best big man in the NBA, but he no longer has to worry about that since they are teammates. Now, Horford will show how he can be a defensive leader for the Sixers as he has been his entire career.
DeAndre Jordan, Jrue Holiday, Josh Richardson, Montrezl Harrell, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Mike Conley, Hassan Whiteside
These guys are a step above the rest in defense, and are often the main men when it comes to stopping the ball from entering the rim. Whether this is from on-ball defense or toughness in the paint, these guys are monsters on the defensive end.
DeAndre Jordan, Hassan Whiteside, and Montrezl Harrell are all big men who make an impact by playing hard-nosed defense. Jordan is a widely known high-flying shot blocker, who is also long enough to challenge most of the guards driving to the paint. Whiteside also made a name for himself by blocking shots and protecting the rim thanks to his large 7-foot frame. Harrell, although not as big, plays with incredible energy on the defensive end of the floor. He plays hard and takes pride in playing tough defense.
Richardson and Middleton are wing players that are decent two-way players as well. Richardson is expected to replace Jimmy Butler's defense as much as possible in Philly, while Middleton is often the main player that has to guard the opposing team's best offensive guard for the Bucks. Klay Thompson, when healthy, is a monster two-way player who is easily one of the best guards in the game. He can shut down most players on any given night but needs to be healthy first.
KD is also a great defender who has managed to increase his blocks as his career has progressed. At one point, he was even in the running for DPOY with the Warriors. While he is very slender, he is quick and adept at getting up in shooter's spaces.
Holiday, Bledsoe, and Conley are all effective two-way guards who often lead their teams on the defensive end. Since they guard the opposing ball handler most often, they set the tone defensively. Bledsoe relies on his athleticism and strength, while Conley and Holiday are just very skilled with great intangibles.
Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Patrick Beverley, Draymond Green, Marcus Smart, Jarrett Allen, Myles Turner
Level 3 defensive players are very effective on-ball defenders who can lock-up the best offensive players on their day. Jimmy Butler, is a player who became an All-Star thanks to his hard work and dedication to his craft- especially on the defensive end. Butler is strong and has all the intangibles to guard the best ball-handlers in the league on a consistent basis.
Marcus Smart and Patrick Beverley are two guards who make their names on the defensive end. Beverley and Smart can get very tight in a players grill, prevent them from having an inch of room to operate. Even when switched to bigger players, Beverely and Smart know how to get under their skin and bother their shots. Especially Beverely, these guys play hard every single night and are very valuable role players.
Anthony Davis can move like a guard despite playing both the power forward and center position. He has all the tools offensively, including a perimeter shot and an inside game, so Davis knows what moves a player will try on him. Davis has the potential to be the best defensive player in the league, and he will be out to prove it this year.
Davis can shoot from the perimeter, finish inside, and do everything else. He is easily a top-5 player in this game, and still has plenty of time to improve and become one of the best scorers we have ever seen.
Jarrett Allen and Myles Turner can both block shots, defend the rim, and use their size to bother anybody coming into the paint. Allen is more of a high-flying shot blocker while Turner thrives using his big body in the paint. Both players can defend very well, and are still very early in their careers.
Draymond Green is one of the most renowned defensive players in the league, and his ability to guard all 5 positions during a game was a key reason why the Warrior's small-ball lineup played so well. He was also one of the key reasons why the Warriors captured multiple championships with Green in the middle.
Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo
Level 4 defenders are the cream of the crop. While many guys can make an argument for being one of the top defenders in the league, only a select few can claim that they can lock-down any player in the league.
Kawhi Leonard is a defensive monster of the highest order. His unique ability to guard 4 positions really well, thanks to his size and strength, makes him invaluable to any team he is on. Leonard has massive hands that poke balls away and even block shots. Leonard might be the best defensive perimeter player in the league.
Leonard's teammate, Paul George is also a stout defender who has shown the ability to lock-up many guards and forwards. George is quick, strong, and very adept at getting around screens to challenge shots. He will form a tremendous defensive pairing with Kawhi Leonard with the Clippers.
Giannis Antetokounpo and Joel Embiid both rely on their tremendous physical gifts to be a very dominant defender. But that is not all they do since they both possess the talent to understand how other players score the ball and how to stop them. Giannis has freakish athleticism, and his size and length make him a perfect player to guard the opposing team's best offensive player.
Embiid is a very big body who is extremely mobile. He can move his feet on the perimeter when on an island, and block shots on the inside. Embiid is very long so it is very tough to score on him when he wants to lock you down. Embiid is probably aiming for a DPOY Award this season.
Best of the Best
Rudy Gobert, thanks to his consistency on defense, is the best defender in the league.
Gobert has a unique ability to impact the game without scoring the ball much. Standing 7-feet tall, Gobert becomes even longer thanks to his incredible wingspan. His ability to defend the rim makes him one of the game’s most impactful players in the paint. Anytime a player drives to the basket, Gobert is there waiting to challenge the shot and snatch rebounds off the rim. Gobert has a unique ability to use his verticality and long arms to use, altering shots and swatting away many more. He is the game’s best shot-blocker and also the best shot-alterer thanks to his defensive mindset.
Gobert proves night-in and night-out why he is the game’s best defender, and his consistency on that end of the floor is extraordinary. After winning two DPOY Awards, Gobert sits firmly on top as the game’s best defensive player.