The 60s Boston Celtics are statistically the greatest defensive teams in NBA history. A 2014 Bleacher Report Article ranking the best defenses in NBA history placed the ’57 to ’69 Celtics rosters as having eight of the top 20 defenses. These teams were so damn good defensively, that according to DRtng+, which measures defensive prowess compared to league average, they are literally in tiers above the rest of NBA history.
Now that being said, who was the anchor for these defenses? Well that would be Bill Russell. And in games where his defense wasn’t as impactful, his Celtics teams’ defense were atrocious. He had a stacked roster, but he was the single centerpiece of the roster — and he was anchoring his roster by his immaculate defensive greatness. We are talking about a guy who legitimately led his team to championships solely on defense alone. We’ve not really seen anything like that happen since. He won MVPs while being merely an average to slightly above-average offensive player. Because his team’s success was so dependent on how good he was in the defensive department. And his consistency, versatility, reliability, and performance in this department makes him the greatest to ever do it. Even the individual numbers (whatever we have) make Bill Russell seem like a cheat code to do it.
Using defensive win shares, which estimates a player’s individual impact on the number of points allowed by an opposing team, Bill Russell absolutely destroys his competition. Every single year of Bill Russell’s career cracks the top 20, with the exception of his rookie season.
So the stats and footage we have point to Bill Russell as the best defender of all time, and his defensive dominance is matched by no other. In his 13 years in the league, his worst finish (as a team) came in the 1967–68 season, where his Celtics team would finish in the top 100 of best defenses of all time. This means that in his worst defensive year, he was still in the 95th percentile of teams in NBA history, when ranking based on defense.
He didn’t have to be a great offensive player. He had Bob Cousy to facilitate, Bill Sharman and Sam Jones to shoot, and Havlicek to score the ball. He had Heinsohn to help score the ball in the post. But he excelled at defense. His combination of basketball IQ, athleticism, and competitiveness made him an electrifying force on that end. He would often use his leaping ability and lengthy frame to contest even the hardest of shots.
Hakeem is a great defensive player, and he might be the best defender of the modern era (though I might prefer KG), but he pales in comparison to Russell.