The responsibilities of a defender in today’s NBA are taxing. With the rise of three-point shooting and modern rules which favor offenses, NBA defenses have more responsibility than ever. Defenders have to be able to excel in different defensive schemes. Versatility is paramount, and the best defenders are the ones that show up at the most important times.
Apologies go out to Jonathan Isaac and Klay Thompson, who would probably make this list any other year, but Isaac and Thompson are out for the season due to injury. There were also other defenders worthy of recognition, but the NBA is filled with players who have a case to make this list. From Rudy Gobert to Giannis Antetokounmpo, here’s a look at the best defenders in the NBA right now.
A two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert has been patrolling the paint for the Utah Jazz for several years now. Teams at this point are afraid to even step in the paint with the Stifle Tower. Gobert has averaged at least two blocks per game for seven consecutive years. His mere presence alters what shots opponents take. Gobert’s ability to cover a lot of ground and to wall up the paint makes him one of the best defensive centers of all time already.
Davis put on a defensive showcase last season as he went on to win his first NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers. The ultimate weapon on both ends, Davis’s ability to guard all five positions, is the key to Los Angeles’s number-one ranked defense. The seven-time All-Star can excel in any defensive scheme, and his offensive versatility combined with his defensive capabilities makes for a lethal talent. It’s a surprise that Davis still has yet to win a Defensive Player of the Year Award.
The reigning two-time MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, receives an exhaustive amount of attention for his rim runs and fascinating forays into the paint on offense. He is also a fearsome defender. With his 7-foot-3 wingspan and quickness, Antetokounmpo covers so much ground and is the perfect help defender. His abilities on defense led to his first Defensive Player of the Year Award this past season.
The Indiana Pacers rely heavily on Myles Turner to protect the rim and clean up any drives from opposing offenses. A six-year vet, Turner led the NBA in blocks two seasons ago and is headed to another blocks crown this season. He’s swatting nearly four shots a game. Though Turner hasn’t been decorated with any defensive awards, he’s been consistent, blocking at least two shots a game in four of the last five seasons. With his recent block party, Turner just might get that Defensive Player of the Year award soon.
A 6-foot-10 point guard is an extremely unique weapon to have. Ben Simmons gets some flack for his lack of perimeter shooting, but he does everything else well. Defense is where Simmons’ is such a nightmare to deal with. He can guard all five positions and can excel in any scheme. Just recently, Simmons at the top of a 2-3 zone defense disrupted the Indiana Pacers into just six points in the final eight minutes. Just last year, Simmons led the NBA in steals and earned his first berth on the NBA’s All-Defensive First team. It probably won’t be his last.
Nicknamed “the Claw,” Kawhi Leonard’s hands and wingspan are a problem for any offensive player. A two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard has never averaged less than a steal a game in a season and he’s always put on the best offensive players. As he has gained more attention for his rise as an offensive superstar, it can be easily forgotten how difficult Leonard’s made it for offensive players with his standout defense.
Smart is the heart and soul of the Boston Celtics. Though he’s solid on offense, Smart makes his most significant impact on the defensive end. For the Celtics, Smart usually will check the toughest perimeter assignment all while providing the proper help defense for his teammates. A notable flopper, Smart has also been able to turn that display of trickery into a work of art.
The Miami Heat found a gem late in the lottery of the 2017 NBA Draft with the selection of Bam Adebayo. The former Kentucky product’s ability to switch on to smaller guards and contain larger centers makes him a unique feature piece in Miami’s defensive scheme. Adebayo made huge play after huge play in Miami’s run to the NBA Finals in the bubble. His game-saving block on Jayson Tatum is up there as one of the best moments in the playoffs from last season.
Joel Embiid’s seven-foot, 280-pound frame makes it nearly impossible to enter the paint as an offensive player when he’s patrolling. Embiid has made the NBA’s All-Defensive second team on two separate occasions. A dominant presence, Embiid has averaged at least 1.3 blocks per game throughout his career.
Even at the age of 36, LeBron James is still the GOAT of the league. His offensive abilities are unquestioned, but the four-time champion and three-time MVP also gets the job done on the defensive end. At 6’9”, and 250 pounds, James can guard multiple positions and create havoc.
James is the perfect example of All-Defensive teams being a regular season award. He hasn’t been named to an All-Defensive team since 2014. James routinely saves his energy for the postseason, where he dials up his defensive aggression on the biggest of stages. James’ ability to read opponents play calls and study the tendencies of opponents is bar none.
Jimmy Butler is the ultimate competitor. Picking his spots on offense and worming his way to the basket stand out. On defense though, Butler’s always up for the toughest assignment. His fiery personality and two-way excellence certainly helped Miami to their NBA Finals berth in the bubble. Though Butler and the Heat have gotten off to a slow start due to injuries and a string of COVID-related absences, you can be sure that they are not going down without a fight.
One of the most fiery competitors in the league right now, Patrick Beverley’s path to the NBA is one of hard work. A second round pick, Beverley played in the Ukraine and Greece before making it in the league. The guard brings it every night with elite level rebounding for a guard, hustle and that sticky defense. A three-time All-Defense player, opponents go into games concerned at the damage Beverley does as an on-ball hound.
It’s hard for any guard to shake off Eric Bledsoe’s strong defense. Bledsoe made the NBA’s All-Defensive first and second teams in the past two seasons. A part of two teams in Milwaukee that had great defenses, Bledsoe’s aggressive ability to read passing lanes, contain drives on the perimeter and gum up offenses makes him special on the defensive end.
Though he might get clowned from time to time by the NBA Twitter brigade for a failed nickname (See: Playoff P), there’s no denying what Paul George brings to the table. One of the best two-way players of this current NBA generation, George’s ability to contain guards and other wings on the perimeter combined with his slithery ability on the offensive end to nail shots all over the floor has made him a six-time All-Star. George’s partnership with Kawhi Leonard in Los Angeles makes for a special combination on the defensive end.
Jrue Holiday is probably your favorite player’s favorite player. Respected for his abilities on both ends of the floor, Holiday has done a great job in his first season with the Milwaukee Bucks. A one-time All-Star, Holiday is one of the best one on one defenders in the league and he’s able to get the job done. An NBA All-Defensive team member in 2018 and 2019, the crowning moment in Holiday’s defensive highlight reel was when he—and the Pelicans’ trapping scheme—held Portland’s Damian Lillard to 18.5 points and 35 percent shooting in a 2018 first round series.
Not the same athlete he was a few years ago, Draymond Green is still one of the tougher defenders in the NBA. Arguably the smartest player in the game right now, Green has helped propel the Golden State Warriors into a top-10 defensive team this season.
The defensive anchor of three Warrior championship teams, Green does all of the little things to help his team win. A former Defensive Player of the Year and five-time All-Defensive team member, Green might be able to earn more plaudits if he can get the Warriors to the playoffs despite being without Klay Thompson.
Early on in his career, Brook Lopez was known more for his offensive contributions in the low-post, but he revitalized his career through developing the long distance shot and utilizing his large stature as a deterrent at the rim. Lopez earned his first All-Defensive team nod and has been top-five in blocks the past two seasons. A former one-time All-Star, Lopez also might be on the list for biggest NBA player Disney Fan.
The NBA’s resident sneaker king, PJ Tucker has made a living doing the dirty work. Last year was a testament to Tucker’s sacrifice. After the Houston Rockets traded center Clint Capela for forward Robert Covington in a four-team deal, the 6-foot-5 Tucker became the team’s starting center.
Matched up at times with behemoths like Steven Adams and Rudy Gobert, Tucker was at a height and weight disadvantage much of last year. Now, back into his regular role as power forward this season, Tucker is still making the hustle plays on defense, taking charges and diving for loose balls.
Though Anunoby is just 6-foot-7, he’s able to guard everyone from wings to strong centers. In his fourth NBA season, Anunoby is tied for the lead in steals in the NBA this season. Though the Raptors have had a rough start to their 2020-21 season, Anunoby’s development as a solid two-way player has been a bright spot. If he keeps it up, he might be able to make his first All-Defensive team.
A long-armed guard on the perimeter for the San Antonio Spurs, Dejounte Murray is one of the brightest young defenders in the NBA. An All-Defensive team member in 2018, Murray finished top-10 in steals last season (1.9 steals). Recovered from a torn ACL suffered two years ago, Murray is a very strong defensive rebounder for a guard, and his stock is going up.
A one-man wrecking crew on the perimeter, Dort emerged last year out of seemingly nowhere. He gained some notice around the league for the job he did sticking like glue to star James Harden in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first round series against the Houston Rockets.
Even in the series loss, Dort’s defense propelled him into a starting spot during this current season. Bolstered by an improved jump shot, Dort still has that same invasive, gnat-like defensive pressure. It’s led to a more crystallized view of what the 21-year old Dort can become in the future.
Jaylen Brown is one half of the Boston Celtics’ star tandem with Jayson Tatum. A lock to make his first All-Star team this season, Brown is the complete package. Defensively, Brown is one of the better on-ball defenders and can switch and guard four different positions. Brown’s capabilities have been a huge factor in the Celtics having a top-10 defense over the past three seasons.
A known impact player on defense from his days with the switch-heavy Houston Rockets, Clint Capela has played a part in the Atlanta Hawks’ solid start early this season. The center recently had a 10-block game and has swatted at least two shots a night on 10 different occasions. Atlanta might’ve had one of the worst center rotations last season, but Capela has provided a huge upgrade with mobility, rim protection and elite defensive rebounding.
One of the best low key defenders in the league is the second coming of his father, Larry Nance. With his ability to switch and guard multiple positions, Nance has contributed to the Cavaliers’ rise to top-10 in defense this season. He leads the NBA in deflections so far this season and is tied for the lead in steals. Between Nance’s improved skills as a defender and his improved three-point shooting, he’s established himself as a top notch role player in the NBA.
The former Most Improved Player, Siakam is able to use his length and mobility to make plays on the floor defensively. A wiry athlete, Siakam can switch on to waterbug point guards, but also mix it up in the paint. Siakam’s 7-foot-3 wingspan wrecks the schemes of opposing offenses and is a luxury for a Toronto Raptors team that plays small in the backcourt with Kyle Lowry and Fred Vanvleet.