While going through the list of NBA Defensive Players of the Year of all-time, it becomes evident that every once in a while, there is a unique player who is polyvalent enough to cover all five positions.
Not to take anything away from elite defensive players such as Sidney Moncrief, Gary Payton, Mark Eaton, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Ben Wallace, Dwight Howard, and Rudy Gobert but players such as Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Ron Artest, Kawhi Leonard, and Draymond Green were real game-changers, especially due to their unique capacity to cover positions 1-5 anytime needed!
Those players were unique to their championship teams because they provided great defense every night! Most of all, they were always reliable to their coaches, doing everything in their power to stop the player in front of them, while operating in their team defensive frames. In the late 1980s, the evolution of Michael Jordan as a global basketball phenomenon not only changed the perception of a guard position but also redefined the meaning of a term basketball player!
As the 1980s NBA most dominant offensive player progressed, he also began to dominate on the defensive end as well. Not only that, he was outmatching the players at his position, but his was all over the floor. His smothering defense led to bunches of steals and rejections for the raging Chicago Bulls.
Coming into Jordan’s neighborhood, the Bulls import from the University of Central Arkansas by the name of Scottie Pippen displayed the jordanesque levels of competitiveness and fearlessness. MJ embraced him, and soon the Bulls ‘Batman and Robin’ were on a mission to conquer the rest of the NBA.
Today, Pippen’s defensive masterpiece remains the smothering defense on the L.A. Lakers superstar Magic Johnson in the 1991 NBA finals. But make no mistake ‘Pip’ did it night in and night during his 11 remarkable seasons with the six-time NBA champions Chicago Bulls.
“A lot of times, Phil wants me to be a help defender. I’m trying to get them away from the basket and out of sets when I stop Stockton at the half-court mark. Defense is something I take a lot of pride in. In this series, I’m playing more power forward or maybe center.”Scottie Pippen, Chicago Tribune
While never being awarded The Defensive Player of the Year award, Pippen’s great defensive play was certainly hidden but yet invaluable asset of the 1990s Bulls. Although once he led the league in steals, with the 2.9 per game in 1994-95, Pippen’s defensive numbers were never overwhelming.
But his play certainly was, in a quiet way. Night in and night out, he would do exactly what the Bulls head coach Phil Jackson told him to do. Using his tremendous 7’3” wingspan, he would stop players he was matched with, quickly switching and covering the smaller/taller players, while often coming up with a game decisive defensive contribution!
“There have been terrific defenders in the history of the Finals,” Jackson said. “You can go back to (Michael) Cooper for the Lakers and Bobby Jones with the 76ers and other players who have played outstanding defense. The majority of those players are great one-on-one players. Scottie can be a one-man wrecking crew.”Phil Jackson, Chicago Tribune
Never was this Pippen’s unique ability to take over the game on the defensive end more evident than in the 1998 NBA finals when he almost single-handedly disrupted Utah Jazz offensive schemes.
In game 3 of that series, ‘Pip’ posted only 10 points, 4 boards, and 4 dimes, but his overall defensive presence made the leading Jazz players nervous and uncertain in their offensive decisions.
“The luxury for us is to have a defender like Scottie who can cover probably more than one situation at a time. Play a man, play a play. And he’s able to hang tight to whomever he is playing if it’s a (Greg) Foster or a (Bryon) Russell, (Greg) Ostertag. And recover to help on the defensive set so they can’t operate. And he’s big enough to handle (Karl) Malone outside off the pick-and-roll.”Phil Jackson, Chicago Tribune
The 1996-98 Chicago Bulls championship teams featured as many as five polyvalent defensive players in Ron Harper, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc and Dennis Rodman. As such, those teams are unique in basketball history.