I have to go through this from time to time, but as Managing Editor of the website that bears Hakeem Olajuwon’s name, I feel it’s my moral duty to carry the torch for the legacy of the greatest big man of all time. So when I have to drop this article once every other year or so — like when the kids were saying Joel Embiid was the next Olajuwon (hint, he’s not, and it’s because of the defense) — not only doesn’t it bother me, but I actually consider it quite fun.
So when the NBA’s resident big mouth Draymond Green decided to say something asinine this week and declare himself the greatest defender in NBA history, I figured it time to plant my Olajuwon flag one more time.
Those that didn’t watch the guy play on a nightly basis — or maybe weren’t even born yet — have a tendency to focus primarily on Olajuwon’s prodigious offensive capabilities. And for good reason. We all know the history of the footwork, putting a murderer’s row of all-time centers in a blender. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal all fell in the playoffs. Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Vlade Divac, Rik Smits, Robert Parrish and others all got the business in the regular season from Dream.
It was the golden age of centers, and Hakeem lit them all up with The Dream Shake. This is actually the crux of my argument for Dream over Shaq all-time. O’Neal lacked the scale of elite competition at his position over his career span that Olajuwon had, but that’s a conversation for another day.
On top of that, Olajuwon had range. He could also cash mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper if you doubled-down on defending the paint. He obviously makes it very easy for people to focus on his offense, so I get that.
But occasionally lost in that blender with all those spin moves, ball fakes, and silky smooth jumpers is the real reason Hakeem was so amazing. It’s actually Dream who is the greatest defender of all-time.
With the size and strength to body up any of the aforementioned centers and the quickness both of foot and of hand to effectively guard positions one through five legit, Olajuwon racked up a cornucopia of defensive stats.
On top of being the all-time NBA leader in blocked shots, Olajuwon is 10th all-time in steals. He was ranked seventh when he retired.
We shouldn’t even have to get into blocked shots, but let’s do it. Green’s career high of 1.4 blocks per game in back-to-back seasons of 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 would rank dead last (yes, absolutely dead last) held up next to every season in Hakeem’s 18-year career.
Yes, I do get that the game has changed. But this is a common argument for addressing the reasons for the lost NBA art of shot blocking and I think it’s at least a partial cop-out. While I do agree that the game has become less post-centric, there’s still plenty of inside play. The rise of the three-pointer has not come at the expense of driving to the hoop. No, the three-pointer has primarily replaced the mid-range shot. Threes or inside, that’s the game. Because of the rise in scoring overall, points scored in the paint have actually increased in the modern game.
I was able to find points in the paint stats back to 2004. Not quite Hakeem’s time, but the game hadn’t taken much of a leap yet to the three-point line and beyond. In 2004, the Phoenix Suns were the league leaders with 44.1 points per game in the paint on average. Last year, Memphis lead the league with 56 points per game in the paint. That’s a 27 percent increase in paint scoring.
Now I totally understand that some of that huge increase in possible shot block opportunity volume is offset by new defensive rules and better offensive spacing by opponents to keep bigs out of the paint, but the point is that the “there’s less chance to get blocks today” argument isn’t as dramatic as some would like us to believe. Shot blocking truly is a lost art. Not only doesn’t Dray stack up in blocks, but as his absolute pinnacle, he doesn’t even stack up with the worst Olajuwon season ever.
Green competes a little better in steals, averaging 1.4 per game for his career, whereas Dream averaged 1.7, but the peak is where Olajuwon really separates himself. Green’s career high of 2 steals per night came in the 2016-2017 season. It was the only time he’s reached that mark. Olajuwon averaged 2 or more steals per game for six consecutive seasons.
The gap in stocks, which is combined steals and blocks, which according to Bill Simmons is the best way to gauge a defender’s dominance, is even higher. Dray’s top stocks season was again 2016-2017, racking up a respectable 260 stocks. Olajuwon, however, peaked at a ridiculous 550 stocks in 1989-1990 and had 13 consecutive seasons where he had more stocks than Green’s best season and didn’t sink to Green’s level until 1998, or well past his prime.
Well, what about advance metrics, you say? Who impacted wins more with their defense? Dray’s won more titles, right? Well, Hakeem is fourth all-time in defensive win shares, falling behind only Bill Russell (who played in the eight-team era), Tim Duncan, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Well, Hakeem’s played longer than Green has, right? So his total win shares would be be more, no?
Well, a quick look at individual seasons shows that Green’s best season for defensive win shares came with 5.4 again in the 2016-2017 season. Olajuwon had more than that per season every year from 1986 through 1995, leading the league in defensive win shares four times during that time frame, a feat Dray has never accomplished.
Olajuwon also led the league five times in defensive rating, again a feat Green never accomplished.
Both have won Defensive Player of the Year Awards, while Dream has two of them to Green’s one, and Olajuwon also has nine total All-Defense selections to Green’s five. Green does have one steals title to Hakeem’s none, but Dream owns three blocks titles and two rebounding titles to Green’s none.
Speaking of rebounds, that’s a defensive stat too. Hakeem averaged 11.1 for his career to Green’s 6.9. Basically a total domination.
Olajuwon also had what was and still is, in my opinion, the single greatest defensive season in the modern era of basketball in 1989-1990. He finished with unfathomable averages of a league-leading 14 rebounds, a league-leading 4.6 blocked shots, a league-leading 93 defensive rating, a league-leading +4.0 defensive RPM (what?!) and a league-leading 7.8 defensive win shares. Oh, and for good measure, he also snatched 2.1 steals per game, which again, is a higher number of steals than Green has ever achieved.
Perhaps even more unfathomable is that Olajuwon didn’t even win Defensive Player of the Year that season. That honor went to Dennis Rodman. In retrospect, it was a total robbery.
Look, Green is clearly a very good defender. Is he a great one? I think we can attach that label to anyone who has won DPOY. Is he the greatest defender off all-time? Not even close.
In addition to Hakeem, I’m taking Rodman, Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Mutombo, Gary Payton, Ben Wallace, Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, and even a prime Dwight Howard over Green, and that’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there’s more. I’d probably have Green somewhere in my top 20 or 30 all-time as a defender.
So absolutely great. I’m behind that. GOAT? Nope, sorry, Dray. That honor goes to the one and only Dream. The greatest, most versatile, and most impactful defender of the modern era of basketball.