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Top 10 Best NBA Defensive Teams Of All Time

Publish Date: 05/20/2024
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

The NBA has gone through many phases in its history, from the days of fast break free, flowing basketball of the 1970s and 1980s to the grind-it-out and get-in-a-fight defense of the 1990s. Today, we will look at the most outstanding defensive teams in NBA history and what made them such great defensive teams. This list, of course, is subjective, and many things can come into play when making a list like this. So, let’s go ahead and take a look at the top 10 NBA best defensive teams of all time.


Criteria is always essential when putting a list like this together. It would be easy to take the stats and list the greatest teams by defensive rating, but many other factors can play into it. Maybe the greatest when picking the most excellent NBA defenses is the competition the team faced. Also, how did they fare in the Playoffs? Did they win an NBA championship? You can be the most outstanding defense and not win it all, especially if you have offensive deficiencies, but remember the adage that defenses win championships, and it’s true in all sports. Also did the team have one of the greatest defensive players in NBA history?

Another factor is how many players made the all-defensive team for that season. Did that team have the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year that season?

10) 1974-75 Washington Bullets

The 1974-75 Washington Bullets are among the first pre-merger teams to appear, though they won’t be the last. Defense once dominated in the Association; today offense is taking over more frequently.

Take a moment and compare the differences in league-average defensive ratings between 1974-75 and forty years later; during 1974-75, the typical NBA squad allowed 97.7 points per 100 possessions, while 40 years later that number had skyrocketed up to 107.3.

However, these Bullets still stood out significantly.

At the core of their success was an incredibly potent interior featuring Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld; these two big men provided capable rim protection, and each posted an 88 defensive rating, second only to Dennis DuVal, whose rookie year seemed an outlier given his subsequent stint with Atlanta Hawks.

Opponents were forced to launch shots from outside, where Phil Chenier and Kevin Porter served as two effective defenders – which resulted in them shooting only 43.8 per cent against these Bullets, which is one of the best defensive marks in all of the NBA.

The Bullets were considered unbeatable until they ran into the Golden State Warriors, who surprisingly swept the Bullets in four games.

  • Second-Team All-Defense Elvin Hayes
  • Defensive Rating 91.3
  • Won/Loss Record 60-22
  • Lost NBA Finals
Video: Al Attles vs Mike Riordan fight NBA finals 1975 game 4

Al Attles vs Mike Riordan fight NBA finals 1975 game 4

9) 2013-14 Indiana Pacers

By late January, Indiana had held teams to 95.5 points per 100 possessions. At the same time, league-average marks stood at 105.2, giving Indiana an adjusted defensive efficiency score of 110.2.

At 110.2, they stood as one of the three highest modern-era scorers and were second only to two other teams throughout the history of the NBA. That gave the Pacers something special to be proud of then.

They remained formidable, yet their late-season collapse has diminished their ranking. Opposing teams learned how to draw Roy Hibbert away from the basket where he was less effective; Paul George, David West Lance Stephenson and George Hill started wearing down from increased responsibility on defense.

However, even after accounting for their decline, the Pacers still produced one of their greatest defensive campaigns ever.

Paul George and Roy Hibbert would be named to the All-Defensive team at the end of the season.

  • All-Defensive First-Team Paul George
  • All-Defensive Second-Team Roy Hibbert
  • Win/Loss Record 56-26
  • Lost Eastern Conference Finals
Video: When Paul George BECAME A LEGIT SUPERSTAR! BEST Highlights & Plays from 2013-14 NBA Season!

When Paul George BECAME A LEGIT SUPERSTAR! BEST Highlights & Plays from 2013-14 NBA Season!

8) 1998-99 San Antonio Spurs

In 1998-1999, The San Antonio Spurs were all about two men in their middle.

At 33, David Robinson established himself as a forceful presence in the paint while still using his athleticism to protect the rim, earning himself an 87.9 defensive rating and 4.4 defensive win shares, the former ranking first. At the same time, only one other player could match this figure during this lockout-shortened season.

Tim Duncan thrived next to him at 22.

Duncan posted some impressive statistics, such as a 91.5 defensive rating that trailed only Robinson and Patrick Ewing and led to him leading all league players with 4.7 defensive win shares.

Though these Spurs did not force many turnovers or keep teams off the offensive glass, they completely shut down opponents by forcing bad shots without fouling. It was a vicious combination in an unusually short season, further compromising offensive schemes.

Herein lies the other point.

The Spurs defeated another tremendous defensive team, the New York Knicks, in the finals, dominating the series in just five games and winning the Spurs their first NBA Championship.

  • All-Defensive First-Team Tim Duncan
  • Defensive Rating 95
  • Win/Loss Record 37-13
  • Won NBA Championship
Video: San Antonio Spurs Win First NBA Title! 1999 NBA Finals - Game 5 - Full Game Highlights

San Antonio Spurs Win First NBA Title! 1999 NBA Finals – Game 5 – Full Game Highlights

7) 1993-94 New York Knicks

Pat Riley enjoyed tremendous success as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, who were known as “Showtime” for their fast-break, free-flowing offenses, winning four NBA championships during his nine-year run as head coach; however, upon taking over as the New York Knicks head coach in 1991 and turned them into defensive specialists.

Not only did the Knicks’ roster look strong, but they also displayed an instinct for understanding the game. That year, they allowed only 91.5 points per game while finishing second in the Eastern Conference with a 57-25 record, notching 4.7 blocks and 9.2 steals daily! The Knicks would make it to the NBA Finals in 1994 for the first time in 21 years but came up short in seven games to the Houston Rockets; the loss was because of offensive issues, not defensive issues.

Charles Oakley was named first-team all-defense in 1994; surprisingly, he was the only Knick named to the team. The Franchise was center Patrick Ewing, one of the greatest defensive centers in NBA history. The defense picked up with the addition of guard Derek Harper, who was attained mid-season by trade. Greg Antony and John Starks were the other two backcourt defenders.

The playoffs were not easy for the Knicks as they had to go the full seven-game distance to make it to the finals as they disposed of both the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers in climatic seventh games in the Conference semi-finals and the Conference Finals.

The NBA Finals also went the distance, but the Houston Rockets and the great center Hakeem Olajuwon owned the hone-court advantage and took the Rockets down in a decisive game seven victory. In the end, offense did the Knicks in as guard John Starks shot just 3-18 in the deciding game. Opponents were held to under 95 and 100 points in 23 of their 24Β  playoff games.

  • All-Defensive first-team – Charles Oakley
  • Defensive rating 103.8
  • Win/Loss Record 57-25
  • Lost NBA Finals
Video: The 1994 Knicks Playoff Run | New York Knicks Greatest Moments

The 1994 Knicks Playoff Run | New York Knicks Greatest Moments

6) 2003-04 San Antonio Spurs

Although they fell short in their attempt at winning an NBA championship in 2003-04, Gregg Popovich led his San Antonio Spurs to several impressive defensive efforts during that season that still stand as benchmarks today. The Spurs attempted to win back-to-back championships but suffered numerous player departures after winning it all.

The San Antonio Spurs entered the season as reigning champions, having defeated the New Jersey Nets in six games to claim their second championship. Over the off-season, key figures including David Robinson, Danny Ferry, and Steve Kerr retired, Speedy Claxton signed with the Golden State Warriors while Stephen Jackson joined the Atlanta Hawks and Steve Smith signed with New Orleans Hornets; additionally, they acquired Hedo Turkoglu and Ron Mercer through three-team trade; signed free agent Robert Horry (who had won championships with both the Houston Rockets and Lakers), along with other free agents such as Radoslav Nesterovic; further additions like center Radoslav Nesterovic were acquired during these transitional periods. Tim Duncan, still considered one of the greatest power forwards of all time, was still on the roster.

San Antonio Spurs made their bid for another consecutive NBA title impressive, even without David Robinson, by limiting opponents to 84.3 points per game and posting 6.5 blocks and 8.1 assists per contest. They allowed only 84.3 points while compiling an incredible 8.9% blocked shots average and produced an 8.1 assist average. Unfortunately for them, though, Derek Fisher’s 0.4-second shot sealed an LA Lakers comeback in their Western Conference semi-final series comeback victory.

Bruce Bowen was named frit-team all-defense, and Tim Duncan was named second-team all-defense. The Spurs upgraded their defense from the year before, but the offense suffered with significant player departures.

  • First Team All-Defense- Bruce Bowen
  • Second Team All-Defense Tim Duncan
  • Defensive Rating 94.1
  • Win/Loss Record 57-25
  • Lost Western Conference Finals
Video: Tim Duncan vs Jermaine O'Neal / 2004 NBA Season / Spurs vs Pacers

Tim Duncan vs Jermaine O’Neal / 2004 NBA Season / Spurs vs Pacers

5) 1969-70 New York Knicks

The New York Knicks emerged as World Champions in 1970. Their defense, led by All-Star guard Walt Frazier, proved its effectiveness and allowed them to triumph in every way. Frazier is considered one of the greatest players of the 1970s.

Frazier remains one of history’s great defensive point guards, having become known for his physical play and quick hands. He amassed steals by fooling opponents into thinking their offense had the upper hand before swiftly pouncing on and seizing possession. Frazier was one of the NBA’s first players to turn thievery into an art form.

Unfortunately, we lack statistical data on teams from this early in the history of the NBA, yet their names remain unforgettable. New York was a complete defensive team at every position on the court.

Frazier was unquestionably the leader of this team, but we mustn’t overlook Dave DeBusschere and Willis Reed either; all three earned spots on the All-Defensive First Team that season – a squad which had only debuted previously and featured DeBusschere (who would eventually retire with six selections) and Frazier (the only player who made each of its first seven teams); Reed, however, would retire having earned only one nomination.

  • First-Team All-Defense Walt Frazier
  • First-Team All-Defense Dave DeBusschere
  • First-Team All-Defense Willis Reed
  • Defensive Rating 92.4
  • Win/Loss Record 60-22
  • NBA World Champions
Video: 1970 Knicks

1970 Knicks

4) 2007-08 Boston Celtics

Boston Celtics won their 17th NBA title during the 2007-08 season thanks to Kevin Garnett’s defensive prowess. Garnett joined three-point specialist Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo on Beantown’s roster. This Celtics team saw some of the best, single-game playoff performances in the history of the NBA.

As soon as they arrived at training camp, it became evident that the Celtics were more concerned with strengthening their defense than building on offense. After all, their roster included many All-Defense players from the past and future. The Celtics won their championship on the defensive side of the ball as they could suffocate you on defense.

Garnet made an immediate impact during his rookie campaign with the Boston Celtics, helping lead them to an impressive 66-16 mark and earning him the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award for his efforts. Garnett would finish his career as one of the greatest defenders in NBA history.

The Boston Celtics successfully limited opponents to 90.3 points per game while averaging 4.6 blocks and 8.5 steals on an impressive playoff run before beating the LA Lakers 4-2 in the NBA Finals.

The Celtics, headed into the 2008 season, had missed the playoffs in the previous two seasons. The Addition of first-round pick Garnett and the moves of new G.M. Danny Ainge turned that around quickly. Garnett was first-team all-defence and named the Defensive Rookie of the Year a rookie!

The season’s high point was game 6 of the NBA Finals, where they held the Lakers to just 92 points in a 131-92 series-clinching win.

  • Defensive Player of the Year- Kevin Garnett
  • First-Team All-Defense- Kevin Garnett
  • Defensive Rating 98.9
  • Win/Loss Record 66-16
  • NBA World Champions
Video: 2008 NBA Champions | Boston Celtics - Celtic Pride Returns

2008 NBA Champions | Boston Celtics – Celtic Pride Returns

3) 2003-04 Detroit Pistons

Rasheed Wallace was the final piece in elevating the Detroit Pistons defense into elite status, joining forces seamlessly with Ben Wallace for one of the most incredible defensive setups ever seen in NBA history.

The Detroit Pistons recently went on an extraordinary five-game win streak that saw opponents score less than 70 points against them towards the end of the season; they allowed just 83.4 points per game during the series.

If the Spurs had managed to overcome the Lakers and reach the finals, we might have witnessed an epic matchup between two highly accomplished defenses.

The Pistons had an elite defensive backcourt led by Tayshaun Price and Chauncey Billups, and Ben Wallace, a do-everything defender, directed the frontcourt.

The Pistons were consistently great on defense all season long. The Pistons averaged seven blocks and eight steals in each game, registering an Eastern Conference finals record 19 blocks against Indiana Pacers in Game 2. The Pistons were the greatest defensive team the NBA has ever seen; they were elite defensively in the front-court and the backcourt.

The Pistons quickly put away the Lakers in five games during the NBA Finals to claim their third franchise championship in five. The Lakers were expected to win the series going away with their big four of Shaq, Kobe, Payton, and Malone. The series was a mismatch, just not in the way people expected, as the Pistons quickly dominated the Lakers.

  • First-Team All-Defense Ben Wallace
  • Second-Team All-Defense Chauncey Billups
  • Secon-Team All-Defense Tayshaun Price
  • Defensive Rating 93.9
  • Win/Loss Record 54-28
  • NBA World Champions
Video: How The 04 Detroit Pistons Became The NBA Super Team!

How The 04 Detroit Pistons Became The NBA Super Team!

2) 1989-90 Detroit Pistons

The Detroit Pistons have had a few great defensive teams in franchise history. However, the Bad Boy era, which ran from 1986-1991, was the most dominant defensively. With players like All-Time great Detroit Pistons Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman on the roster, they practically bullied their way to championships. Dumars was known as the man who would defend Michael Jordan, but the whole team had a hand in it with the “Jordan Rules”. That meant being physical and relentless in guarding Jordan. That meant if Jordan drove to the basket, somebody would hit him and make him pay for operating in the lane.

In 1989, the Pistons went on a 33-10 run with the “worm” as a starter. However, they went 26-13 when he came off the bench.

The Detroit Pistons were the sole reason Michael Jordan did not win a championship early in his career. In the 1989-90 NBA season, they completed a back-to-back after defeating the Portland Trail Blazers 4-1 in the finals. The Pistons handled the Bulls in the 1988, 89, and 1990 playoffs.

The Detroit Pistons changed the game in the mid to late 80s with their physical style of defense, which was later emulated by teams like the Knicks of the early and mid-90s.

Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman were named to the first-team all-defensive unit in the 1989-90 season. Both men were considered elite defenders throughout their careers. Rodman was named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1990.

The game that revealed the Pistons’ defensive prowess was game 3 of the NBA Finals. In game 2, the Blazers beat the Pistons in overtime and looked poised to take control of the series as they travelled back to Portland for the next three games. In game three, the Pistons forced 20 turnovers and blew out the Blazers 121-106 to take control of the series. The Pistons would go on to win the next two games in Portland and claim an NBA Championship.

  • Defensive Player of the Year- Dennis Rodman
  • First-team All-Defense- Joe Dumars
  • First-team All-Defense- Dennis Rodman
  • Defensive Rating 103.5
  • Win/Loss Record 59-23
  • NBA World Champions
Video: 1989-90 Detroit Pistons: Pure Pistons

1989-90 Detroit Pistons: Pure Pistons

1) 1963-64 Boston Celtics

Russel’s defensive prowess earned Boston one of the top defenses in NBA history, and it was almost every year that Russel played.

If one year were removed from his Boston career, all remaining years would fall within the 95th percentile or better. Eleven of his thirteen seasons are among the 50 highest ranked.

However, this season was exceptional in many respects and stands out among the competition in these rankings.

Russell was 29 during the 1963-64 campaign and still earned 16 win shares on defense – an unparalleled mark that remains the benchmark. All other key components were in place, making this season K.C. Jones’ most effective campaign ever as a player.

The great Bob Cousy retired, and K. C. Jones was brought in as Cousy’s replacement; continuing Auerbach’s emphasis on defense were forward Tom ‘Satch’ Sanders and center Bill Russell. Though Boston could still pass and score, their impressive defensive play, led by Bill Russell, was vital in winning consecutive NBA titles – leading the league in rebounding with high-volume shot blockers dominating. They had six scorers over 10 per game, with Auerbach’s sixth man John Havlicek leading their scoring with 20 per game total; combined active defense with unselfish shooting gave Boston their league-high 59 wins in 80 NBA games! Cousy and Jones together were one of the greatest backcourts in NBA history.

If these rankings come across as favoring Russell more than most others, that’s likely because they should.

By far, this season was a triumphant highlight of his incredible defensive career. This season was Russel in his prime, and many consider him the greatest defensive big man to play the game. All NBA Defensive players were not even selected until after the 1968 season, so nobody made first or second team. In 1968 when All Defensive selections were first made Russel, Sanders, and Havlicheck made the team.

  • Defensive Rating 83.8
  • Win/Loss Record 59-21
  • NBA World Champions


Honorable Mentions

1965 Boston Celtics

K.C. Jones deserves far more credit for the work he did on the less-than-glamorous end of the court; Sam Jones never proved himself an albatross, and Tom Heinsohn, Tom Sanders and John Havlicek provided both depth and rim protection no matter where Russell found himself on the court.

All six Boston-area players listed above ranked within the top eight for defensive win shares during the 1964-65 season, Wilt Chamberlain and Nate Thurmond being exceptions.

1952 Minneapolis Lakers

George Mikan topped the 1951-52 defensive win shares rankings with an astounding total of eight-win shares; Vern Mikkelsen and Jim Pollard each achieved six; Slater Martin earned four defensive win shares to finish fourth overall.

All three athletes played for the Lakers. This Lakers team statistically belongs in the Top Ten, but the league was so different back then that it’s hard to compare these Lakers to the post-1960 teams.

2011 Chicago Bulls

All season, only 15 times did an opponent score triple figures during regulation play, while the Bulls held them under 80 five times. The 2011 Bulls had to deal with their share of injuries, and if they had been healthy all season long, they may have cracked this top ten.

1978 Phoenix Suns

The Phoenix Suns broke the all-time NBA steals record during their historic run in 1978 with 12.9 per game on average, as their backup point guard Ron Lee had four steals per game while starting point Don Buse collected five, as the Suns collected more steals than all but one NBA team combined. The Phoenix Suns have a great history and have had some great players through the years!

1992 Chicago Bulls

Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen formed one of the greatest perimeter defensive duos in NBA history. On this team, they were at their athletic peaks along with Horace Grant as power forwards. The Bulls were one of the greatest man-to-man defensive teams of all-time!

1997 Miami Heat

Miami Heat had an intimidating front line consisting of Jamal Mashburn, P.J. Brown and Alonzo Mourning, who all weighed at least 240 pounds each. Miami did not rank among the top five teams for blocks or steals but was second in opposition field goal percentage (43.2 per cent). The Miami Heat have had a lot of great players in their history, but this was the best defensive team they have had.

1982 Milwaukee Bucks

Quinn Buckner and Sidney Moncrief set an excellent defensive tone, garnering 10 All-Defense selections between them over their careers.

Bucks basketball was known for getting steals and forcing turnovers, ranking in the top five of both stats.

1996 Chicago Bulls

These Bulls were adept at switching on the perimeter. Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Ron Harper stood between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-8, allowing them to switch quickly on defense.

Jordan, Pippen and Rodman all made the All-Defensive first team for one season, becoming the only NBA team with three players receiving such honours simultaneously in one season.

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