The Best NBA Defenders of All Time that Never Made an All-Defense Team

Have you ever had one of those moments where you’re talking with someone about how good at something a player from your childhood was at something and they want to check if you’re just looking at it with nostalgia goggles? That happened to me recently while talking about the defensive play of Shawn “The Matrix” Marion in the early 2000s.

I remember as a fan of a Western Conference team that we could barely score on him at all when we played the Suns. During the course of this conversation, it came up the question that started this whole rabbit hole… “How many All-Defense teams did he make?” I looked it up… ZERO! I was floored and flabbergasted… How could that have happened? Did he only play defense against my Rockets? Was I just misremembering how much Glenn Rice, Jim Jackson, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Juwon Howard, and all-time great Chuck Hayes (it’s my article I will refer to him how I want to) couldn’t score against him?

Desperately I jumped to the advanced metrics section of to try to find some clarity and there I found my answer. Shawn Marion was 30th all-time in NBA Defensive Win Shares! I was so happy I could cry. But then I started to notice how many of these players at the top of this list had never made an All-Defense team and it got the wheels turning.

Of the 11 players in the top 50 for Career Defensive Win shares to never make an all-defensive team they fit into four categories:

  1. Guys who played before All-Defensive teams were invented.
  2. Centers that suffer from the fact that only two guys per year could make it.
  3. Guys who were on great defensive teams but clearly weren’t the best defensive player on those teams.
  4. Guys who played forward in the 2000s when Duncan and Garnett owned two spots and made it impossible for others to get them.

It is important to note that due to the NBA’s tracking of stats changing over the course of time, there are four different categories of how win shares are calculated… Before the 1949-50 season the NBA (and precursor leagues) didn’t credit rebounds as either defensive or offensive so it’s almost impossible to get a good reading on it. Before the 1950-51 season they didn’t track minutes played so we are still in the same boat. Blocks and Steals aren’t even tracked until the 1973-74 season. So older players are not judged by the same system. We will count them in our rankings but we should also note that their numbers could be higher or lower if stats were counted the same way in their careers.

Category 1: The Old Timers

The first group we will look at is two of the NBA’s elder statesmen. Because both of these players spent their entire careers before the NBA tracked steals and blocks they fall under a different system for determining Defensive Rating… in fact, at the time these guys played… the NBA didn’t even track opponents’ field goal attempts so it’s almost impossible to get any sort of real range of defensive effort from either guy from a purely Numbers perspective. With that in mind… Let’s dive into their careers.

Dolph Schayes

Defensive Win Shares Ranking: 36 (56.15)

A fiery 6’7” Forward… Schayes is most often remembered for his offense but defensive win shares (one of the few stats defensively we can even get from his career at the time) say he was pretty good! In fact, Schayes led the league in 54-55 and had a career-high 6.3 the year prior. It’s hard not to think of Dolph as a good offensive presence (he retired as the number 2 point scorer of all time) but he was regarded as a good defender in his time and the metrics show us that he would have probably been recognized with the honor of an All-Defense team if they had existed in his time.

(Editor’s Note: Syracuse Nationals, bayyyyybeeee!!)

Bob Cousy

Defensive Win Shares Ranking: 48 (50.48)

Let’s put this politely… Bob… doesn’t deserve to be on this list… he wasn’t a good individual defender… He’s only on this list because of the time period he played in… we only have access to a simple formula for defensive win shares due to the lack of stat tracking data from the time and it tells us without Bill Russell (who happens to be number one in career defensive win shares by the way) he had a career-high of 2.8 in 51-52 which would be a mediocre guard relative to the league… then Bill Russell joined the team and his Defensive win shares ballooned to the 4.6-6.3 a year range.

His career high of 6.3 came in 60-61 which was actually a league-wide top-five finish but dwarfed in comparison to his teammate Russell’s 11.3. Cousy led the league in assists 8 times and was a 13-time all-star… it’s safe to say we remember him for his offense for a reason and I doubt he would have been seriously considered for an All-Defense team in the past.

Category 2: The Big Guys 

The Center Position suffers from the fact that traditionally Centers have the biggest defensive impact on the floor while also only getting two slots per year on the All-Defense team due to the GGFFC format. Two players in the top 50 of career DWS seem to have lost out to this due to being listed at the Center position.

Wes Unseld

Defensive Win Shares Ranking: 24 (64.11)

Wes Unseld burst onto the scene in his rookie year of 68-69 and it’s not wrong to say he peaked there… Wes won Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same year… I feel like the basketball karma felt like it gave him too much because despite being second in the league in Defensive Win Shares at 7.0 (his career high, I told you he peaked as a rookie) he was not rewarded with being a member of the inaugural All-Defense teams… to add insult to injury because we didn’t know how to reward defense at that time the All-Defense second team Center was Bill Bridges who was only 22nd in DWS and was traditionally a Power Forward…

 This would prove to be Unseld’s best chance to get onto an All-Defense team too as during his career Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens, Nate Thurmond, Wilt Chamberlain, and Bill Walton would all make multiple All-Defense teams which effectively kept him off of them.

Vlade Divac

Defensive Win Shares Ranking: 43 (52.90)

It’s probably going to surprise some people that Vlade is on this list because his reputation is more for flopping defensively than actually playing defense… However, when you think about a few factors it does make sense… DWS factors in defensive rebounding pretty heavily, it’s why guards tend to do worse on this list than Forwards or Centers (the highest ranking guard is one of the best rebounding guards ever, Jason Kidd at 14 and he also benefits from point two). Vlade also played for a LONG time. He played 15 years and tied for the league leader in games played 3 times.

Vlade’s best career DWS season came in his sophomore season with the Finals-bound Los Angeles Lakers in 90-91 where he had a respectable 4.8. He was eighth in the league that year but he was the fourth-ranking Center behind awardees David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon, as well as Patrick Ewing. This was kind of the story of Vlade’s career… He was a good defensive center but he was never a top-two defensive center in the league.

Category 3: Hideaway Hitters

One of the major issues with Defensive Win Shares as a stat is that sometimes players who played for prolific defensive teams can get a huge boost to their defensive rating when they themselves may or may not be great individual defenders. The 1990s saw two of these such players, also both guys lost the Finals series’ to Michael Jordan where they either weren’t his primary defender or they struggled against him defensively so it did taint their defensive reputations.

Shawn Kemp

Defensive Win Shares Ranking: 44 (52.17)

Shawn is similar to Vlade in the fact that he played for a long time and grabbed a lot of defensive rebounds. However unlike Vlade, he, at least by Win Shares, had a few years he could have easily made an All-Defensive team… Shawn was top four forward in defensive win shares in 92-93 (2nd), 93-94 (3rd), 94-95 (3rd), 95-96 (1st with a career-high 6.1), 96-97 (4th), and 97-98 (2nd). Shawn suffers from being a big man in an era where the defense was judged largely on blocks and steals numbers where he didn’t rack them up like competition and the fact that his teammate Garry Payton was considered one of the best defensive guards of all time (including winning Defensive Player of the year in Kemps career year of 95-96.) I think it is fair to say that if voting took place like it did today Kemp would have gotten a lot more credit for his fantastic defensive positioning and versatility than he did in the 90s.

Clyde Drexler

Defensive Win Shares Ranking: 49 (49.94)

Clyde Drexler suffers from the same problem that Shawn Kemp had with other people getting credit for his defense… His teammates Hakeem Olajuwon, Buck Williams, and Cliff Robinson were all highly decorated defensive players. Clyde wasn’t a defensive slouch though. He leveraged his athleticism well and for about three years put up respectable guard numbers of over four Defensive Win Shares per year from 1990-1993. In 89-90, he finished with the highest Defensive Win Shares of any guard but was left off the teams. He would finish third amongst guards in 90-91, and the next year was third as well. Clyde would suffer a knee injury in 93-94 and his defense would never recover (in the regular season, he would still be very effective during the playoffs though.) Clyde’s biggest reason he never made an all-defense team is because he was so good offensively but he wasn’t Michael Jordan. Sadly this plagued him most of his career and voters chose to believe defense was the difference between the two and never rewarded Clyde for his good defense.

Category 4: The 2000s Forward Bloodbath

The 2000s had a lot of rule changes that allowed for tougher defense which artificially inflated these numbers (hand-checking and zone defense allowed at the same time early on caused brutal defensive numbers) and the slow pace of play also inflates these. However, there’s a reason people remember how crushing some of these defenses were. People were just good. The fact that Category 4 contains over 45% of all of our examples is just proof of that. The depth of players in the forward category that earned spots during these guys’ prime is there. Almost every year Tim Duncan (2) and Kevin Garnett (7) take up two spots. Then guys like Bruce Bowen (177), Andrei Kirilenko (168), Ron Artest (105), Tayshaun Prince (Outside top 250, 28.0 total), and LeBron James (11 and still going!) all got multiple selections as well.

Paul Pierce

Defensive Win Shares Ranking: 26 (63.11)

Pierce suffers not only from playing in this era but he also suffers from having multiple defense-first teammates who got accolades during this time. Teammates Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo get most of the credit for the Celtics defense during his tenure but Paul was no slouch either. In 2001-02 he actually placed second amongst forwards (fourth overall) in defensive win shares but was beaten out by players with better defensive reputations on the team (the aforementioned Ducan and Garnett, as well as Bruce Bowen and Cliff Robinson making repeat appearances). 

After that, his defense falls off quickly as the Celtics decided to rebuild by trading Antoine Walker and it wasn’t until the team returned to relevance by acquiring Garnett and all-star shooting guard Ray Allen that Pierce is even on a good defensive team again. He put up a career-high DWS in that first year of the super team (2007-2008) with 5.7, finishing second amongst forwards and fifth overall (they also won a title and Garnett won Defensive Player of the Year). Pierce would finish fourth amongst forwards in 08-09 and 10-11 before father time began to sap his athleticism.

Dirk Nowitzki

Defensive Win Shares Ranking: 27 (62.57)

Now we get to the oddest name on this list. Dirk Nowitzki is the person on our list that is least likely to be considered a good defender… I’ll save you some time… Dirk Never finished top four amongst forwards in Defensive Win Shares (although this doesn’t mean he’s a bad defender he had over 5 in 2003 and 2005.) Dirk was a part of some very good teams, he accumulated a ton of defensive rebounds (see the Vlade Divac entry where I mention that can be a problem with Defensive Win Shares as a statistic), and most importantly… HE PLAYED A LOT! Defensive Win Shares is a cumulative stat… it means players who played a lot of minutes tend to start accumulating that by virtue of just being on the court more.

On a per-minute basis, Dirk’s Defensive win shares put him relative to big guys like Bob McAdoo and Al Jefferson who aren’t bad defensively but aren’t the stalwarts that this number kind of betrays. Dirk should get credit for being a really good positional defender in his 20s and early 30s who only became a liability as his athleticism waned in his later career.

Shawn Marion

Defensive Win Shares Ranking: 30 (61.27)

Shawn is the purpose of this whole exercise… The Matrix’s ability to guard bigs at his size revolutionized the way NBA basketball was played. His ability to guard up created the “small ball four” as we know it. He was arguably a more important piece to the “Seven Seconds Suns” than MVP Steve Nash or Amar’e Stoudemire who got higher All-NBA nods on that team.

Shawn’s career high in defensive win shares came a little earlier than those teams when he put up 6.4 as a sophomore in 00-01 and was second in the league to Tim Duncan. Shawn would be third amongst forwards in 01-02, Third in 02-03, fourth in 04-05, Third (fourth total) in 05-06, and fourth in 07-08 before trailing off when he got traded from Phoenix. Honestly, you can make an argument that Shawn was the fourth-best defender in the entire league from 2001-2008 behind Ben Wallace, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett. We should be questioning why Shawn never won a Defensive Player of the Year instead of questioning why he didn’t make an All-Defense team.

Rasheed Wallace

Defensive Win Shares Ranking: 34 (57.12)

While “Sheed” is probably remembered more for being one of the original outside-in big men and having a shooting stroke at 6’11” he was also a phenomenal defender. One of the first “Unicorn” players. He is tied with Brook Lopez for the most seasons with both 100 3pt field goals made and 100 blocks at 4 different times. Sheed’s best defensive memories are probably splitting time guarding Shaq in the 2004 finals with Ben Wallace. 

Sheed might not quite have the numbers on his side though. He was fourth amongst forwards in DWS in 99-00. But it took him 8 years to crack the top 4 forwards again… that’s right he was 3rd in 07-08 and by 08 there was the serious question of if he (and Tim Duncan) should have been considered Centers.

Pau Gasol

Defensive Win Shares Ranking: 41 (54.14)

Pau is a little underrated as a defender but he’s also on this list for the same reason that Vlade and Dirk are… big man grabs boards. Pau was a good positional defender and his 7’1” frame was very good at deterring people in the paint. However, his career-high 5.4 DWS in 05-06 would have placed him just outside the top 4 forwards in the NBA, which coupled with an earlier move to Center than Dirk, Duncan or Wallace means he was never in serious consideration for an All-Defense team.

In conclusion, at least by the numbers, Dolph Schayes, Wes Unseld, Shawn Kemp, Clyde Drexler, Paul Pierce, and Shawn Marion should have all made at least one all-defensive team. Rasheed Wallace should have been at least close, and Bob Cousy, Vlade Divac. Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol experienced some stat inflation that makes them more anomalies on this list than actual players who should have been considered for All-Defense teams.

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Jonathan is a former basketball coach and current mega fan. He’s the co-host of the Assisted Development Podcast and can be found on Twitter at @PastorPostUp!