The DPOY award has always been for centers. The last non-rim protector to win the award before Leonard was Ron Artest back during the 2003-04 season. Since then the winners have been Ben Wallace (twice before Artest and then another two times after), Marcus Camby, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard (three-peat), Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol, and Joakim Noah … you get the idea by now.
The last perimeter defender to win DPOY back-to-back was actually a young Dennis Rodman from 1989-1991 with the Pistons — who even went on to play some center later in his career. Going back even further, the only other example is Sidney Moncrief of the Bucks, who was the DPOY from 1982-84 (the inaugural two seasons of the award).
Kawhi is a unicorn, as we say these days in the NBA, which inspired a list that rarely gets any love — the Top-10 Perimeter Defenders of All-Time
10. ALVIN ROBERTSON
Robertson came into the league as a first-round pick by the Spurs in 1984. After showing potential as a rookie, he broke out in his second season — winning the first ever Most Improved Player award and the DPOY. Robertson would make the All-Defensive First Team twice and Second Team four more times. Aside from leading the NBA in steals three times, he also played in four All-Star games.
9. MICHAEL COOPER
Cooper was the lockdown defender for the Showtime Lakers. Everyone remembers “Magic vs. Bird,” but Cooper was the guy that spent a lot of his time covering Larry Bird back in those days. Aside from winning the 1987 DPOY, Cooper was on five All-Defensive First Teams and won five championships in his career.
8. RON ARTEST
Metta World Peace, formerly known as Ron Artest was known as a great defender and a dirty player. Artest won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2004, as matched up against a tough 2000's era filled with players such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, and Allen Iverson.
7. Sidney Moncrief
If the Defensive Player of the Year award was made before 1982, then Moncrief probably would've won all of them. Not only was he a great shooting guard, but he was also the first major lockdown defender. He was so good at defense, that even Michael Jordan complimented his defense. Moncrief’s speed and quick hands would translate well to any era. He was one of the NBA’s absolute best perimeter stoppers in the 1980s, and he went toe-to-toe with some of the game’s greatest offensive weapons.
6. DENNIS RODMAN
What’s really amazing about Rodman, though, is the fact that he had the athleticism to play MJ so tough before totally changing his career after the two became teammates. Above is a film of Rodman on Jordan from his Pistons days, but as a member of the Bulls, you may recall Rodman holding his own against Shaquille O'Neal in Orlando and Karl Malone in those Utah Finals.
5. KAWHI LEONARD
It’s no coincidence that the Spurs returned to championship form when Leonard started to hit his prime. His defensive emergence was crucial for San Antonio to return to the Finals in 2013 and reclaim the title in 2014 after a six-year drought. Kawhi still has a lot more of his story to write before it’s over, but at 26-years old he may be off to the best start of the group.
4. KOBE BRYANT
Sometimes Kobe doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a defender. Maybe it’s because he never won a DPOY award, but let’s not forget he was on NINE All-Defensive First Teams. Maybe it’s because he was so great on offense, but much of it was fueled by the same competitiveness he brought on defense. Either way, there’s no question Kobe is a top-5 perimeter defender.
“The Glove” is the only point guard ever to win DPOY; however, it’s almost surprising that he wasn’t able to win more. The 6'4 Payton strengths were toughness, courage, strong footwork combined with rarely seen skills for a point guard to dominate on the other end of the court. He also played well on the lanes, as he did manage to lead twice in steals per game. And talk about consistency … Payton was on the All-Defensive First Team from 1994-2002 … “The Glove” was ruthless.
2. MICHAEL JORDAN
Jordan isn’t the greatest player of all time just for his offensive accomplishments. He might have been even better at defense when he needed to be. His Airness had the complete package of defense a coach would want from his 2-guard. Jordan had quick feet, bruising physicality, active hands, and a tireless motor. In the same season (1987-88) that he had a league-leading 35.0 points and 24 field-goal attempts per game, he also topped the league in steals (3.2) and won Defensive Player of the Year. No one has replicated that feat.
1. SCOTTIE PIPPEN
Like Kobe, Pippen shockingly never won DPOY but is widely renowned as one of the (if not the) greatest perimeter defender ever. His length combined with versatility and quickness made him a matchup nightmare for practically any opposing wing players. Pippin did make the All-Defensive First Team for eight consecutive seasons in the ’90s. Pippen led the league in steals in 1994-95, and he was in the top 10 in steals for five seasons.
If he played in today’s NBA, Pippen would still be an overwhelming defensive force, and arguably the best all-around defender. Even with today’s rules prohibiting hand checks, Pippen’s footwork and quickness would shine. His talent easily transcends generations.