The San Antonio Spurs have seen some of the top defenders play for their organization. Here’s a look at the best defenders in franchise history.
The San Antonio Spurs have won five NBA titles in their history with defense routinely being one of their main keys. Head coach Gregg Popovich has built a philosophy that has seen the likes of Mike Budenholzer, Steve Kerr and Brett Brown go on to create their own brand of basketball with other NBA organizations.
While some might consider it boring basketball, the San Antonio Spurs have built quite the dynasty playing team basketball. Their style of team basketball has been defined with making the extra pass on offense and gritty, aggressive defense.
The Spurs have made the playoffs in 22 consecutive seasons under head coach Gregg Popovich’s philosophy and in that time — and even before then — the Spurs have had some of the best defensive players in the game.
The franchise has seen three different players win the Defensive Player of the Award, nine different players earn All-Defensive honors and one was even been snubbed of the Defensive Player of the Year award (we’ll get to that).
San Antonio has a rich history of defensive players, each with their own style they brought to the game. Some came before the Popovich era, but many as you will find are prodigies of his system. Here’s a look at the 15 best defenders in San Antonio Spurs franchise history.
Next: No. 15
15. George Johnson, Center
Spurs center George Johnson was one of the early big men to create a dominating presence in the paint with his shot-blocking ability. He only spent two seasons with the Spurs franchise, but his impact was felt nonetheless. He led the league in blocks per game in three seasons during his career, twice with the Spurs
Johnson was one of the members of the “Bruise Brothers”, a stout frontcourt of Dave Corzine, Mark Olberding, Reggie Johnson and Kevin Restani. Their nickname was an ode to “The Blues Brothers”, a movie that came out in the summer of 1980. They were responsible for creating an atmosphere of bone-rattling physical play in the paint for the Spurs on defense during the early 1980s.
During the 1980-81 season, Johnson was named to the NBA All-Defensive second-team as the team posted a 52-30 record. He blocked a career-high 13 shots against the Golden State Warriors on February 24 that season.
His style of play allowed him to lead the league in blocks per game in back-to-back seasons from 1980-82 with 3.4 blocks per game and 3.1 per contest respectively. During his short stint, he blocked a total of 512 shots as a member of the Spurs, ranking sixth all-time in franchise history.
Next: No. 14
No. 14 Dennis Rodman, Power Forward
Hall of Fame power forward Dennis Rodman only played two seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, but his time there allowed him to join one of the best teams in NBA history later on. Prior to his time with the Spurs, Rodman was a member of the Detroit Pistons from 1986-93.
As a member of the Pistons, he won two Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1990 and 1991 and made first-team All-Defensive honors in five straight seasons from 1988-93. Sensing his value, he joined the Spurs in October 1993 as part of a trade that sent Sean Elliott and David Wood to the Pistons.
From 1993-95, Rodman picked up where he left off with San Antonio. He didn’t need to focus much on scoring with David Robinson in the frontcourt, allowing him to give greater focus on the defensive end. His streak of first-team All-Defensive honors ended his first year when he made second-team in 1993-94 but in 1994-95, he made first-team once again despite the shortened season.
He led the league in rebounds per game from 1991-98 and will go down as one of the best rebounders in NBA history. In his two seasons with the Spurs, he snagged 17.3 rebounds and 16.8 rebounds per game, respectively. He recorded up 47 games with 20 rebounds or more as a member of the Spurs and sits at 159 for his career.
He holds the franchise record for most rebounds in a game (32) set back on January 22, 1994 in a 103-83 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. As one of the greatest rebounders, his presence on the interior was hard to ignore. Even when players tried to ignore him, he made his presence felt.
Next: No. 13
13. Dejounte Murray, Point Guard
Dejounte Murray is just getting started in his young NBA career. His 2018-19 season was cut short before it even started due to a torn right ACL injury but when he’s back, his presence will certainly be felt.
Murray ultimately won over the starting point guard role from future Hall of Famer Tony Parker during the 2017-18 season. With his 6-foot-5, 170-pound frame, he’s emerged as one of the rising two-way guards to keep an eye on in the league since then.
Through 81 contests during the 2017-18 campaign, he recorded a defensive rating of 98.0. In their 47 victories, he turned in a defensive rating of 92.6. He snagged a career-high seven steals to go along with 19 points and 10 rebounds in a 114-102 victory over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 23, 2018.
Murray ranked 12th in the NBA in defensive rating and put himself on the map as one of the top defenders in the league that season. His performance was enough to get the attention of the media as well as he earned All-Defensive second-team honors.
The Spurs have certainly missed his presence during the 2019 NBA Playoffs but when he returns, look for him to pick up where he left off. In big games, it’s his defense that tends to set him apart from the rest of the pack. He’s got fans buzzing on social media, now he’ll just need to translate it to the same defensive effort.
Next: No. 12
12. Danny Green, Guard
Aside from being one of the best sharpshooters in Spurs franchise history, guard Danny Green emerged as one of their better defenders as well. Green spent eight seasons as a member of the Spurs and evolved into a solid two-way threat on the wing.
With his sneaky athleticism and lateral quickness, Green used what he learned as a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers with his new team when he joined in 2010. Since then, his performance on defense improved by the season.
His defensive rating stayed below 100 in his first five seasons with the Spurs as he emerged as one of their best two-way players. His role coming in originally was as a reserve, but he slowly blossomed into a starter by his second season with the team.
In their run to an NBA title during the 2014 NBA Finals, Green recorded a defensive rating of 97.6, offensive rating of 108.0 and a net rating of 10.4 through 23 games, showing just how valuable he was on both ends. He averaged a career-high 1.2 steals per contest during the 2012-13 campaign. During the 2015-16 season, he registered a career-best defensive rating 94.8 through 79 appearances.
Whether it was coming up with stops, blocks or timely steals, Green showed tremendous growth in the Spurs’ system as a valuable asset on the wing. In 2016-17, he made the only All-Defensive team of his career, earning All-Defensive second team honors. A lot of his contributions didn’t show up on the stat sheet on defense, but his impact was still felt.
Next: No. 12
11. Larry Kenon, Forward
Versatile forward Larry Kenon spent five seasons with the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA. Prior to the NBA, he wreaked havoc in the ABA from 1973-76. He made three All-Star appearances and won the ABA championship as a rookie during the 1973-74 season with the New York Nets.
When the ABA merged with the league, he played alongside “The Iceman” George Gervin, emerging as one of the best forwards in the league. With his 6-foot-9 frame, he was one of those players who used his rebounding to his advantage, developing himself into a walking double-double in the process.
In the paint, every ball off the rim was his as his defensive rebounding and steals became his biggest assets. He averaged 20.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.6 steals per contest through 399 appearances with the Spurs.
During the 1976-77 season, he averaged a career-high 11.3 rebounds (7.7 defensive) and 2.1 steals per game, though he missed the All-Star game that year. From 1977-79, he made two straight All-Star appearances with San Antonio as one of the top players in the league.
By the end of his tenure, he recorded 4,114 total rebounds, fourth All-Time in franchise history. He also ranks seventh all-time in rebounds per game (10.3). In the steals category, he racked up 638 total, which ranks 11th among the career leaders in Spurs history. He averaged at least 1.4 steals per game during his time with San Antonio and remains in a tie with Kendall Gill (New Jersey Nets) for most steals in a single game with 11.
Next: No. 10
10. Artis Gilmore, Center
Artis Gilmore joined the San Antonio Spurs toward the back-end of his career but he still proved to be a solid contributor from 1982-87. During five seasons, Gilmore managed to stretch his value with his defensive ability.
As their defensive anchor, he averaged 16.1 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game through 380 appearances. In his first season in 1982-83, he made an All-Star appearance as he put up 18.0 points, 12.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game as a force to be reckoned with on both ends.
Owning the glass and rim protection were his main areas of focus as one of the best defensive players in the team’s history.
During the 1984-85 campaign, he recorded a career-high 10 blocks against the Golden State Warriors on February 4, 1985, in a 114-109 victory. His rebounds carried him to the 20+ rebound club a few times. He snagged 21 rebounds in the same game, his personal high with the Spurs as well.
Gilmore didn’t earn any All-Defensive honors, but he ranked Top 5 in the NBA in blocks per game from 1982-85 as a member of San Antonio’s frontcourt. He is currently fifth in franchise history in total blocks (700) and seventh all-time in total rebounds (3,671).
His contributions with the Spurs weren’t as impactful as his glory days in the ABA with the Kentucky Colonels from 1971-76, but they were productive nonetheless and eventually earned him a nod in the Hall of Fame.
Next: No. 9
9. Johnny Moore, Point Guard
Point guard Johnny Moore is one of only eight players in San Antonio’s franchise history to have his jersey retired. No. 00 was a pest on both ends of the floor with his ability to do the dirty work as the floor general from 1980-90.
Moore was a terror on the defensive end, leading the way with his ability to steal the basketball, always finding a way to turn it into points on the other end. He led the NBA in assists (762) and assists per game (9.6) during the 1981-82 season while also averaging 9.4 points and 2.1 steals per contest.
In the postseason, his play elevated even more given the implications of an NBA title. He averaged a career-best 22.5 points, 14.6 assists and 2.5 steals per game on 52.9 percent shooting from behind the arc during the 1983 NBA Playoffs as the Spurs made an impressive run.
Moore dished out 3,865 assists during his time with San Antonio, fifth all-time among franchise leaders. He is one of only seven players in franchise history to accumulate over 1,000 steals during his career. He racked up 1,017 while donning a Spurs uniform, which ranks seventh in franchise history. His career-high number in steals was set at 10 on March 6, 1985, against the Indiana Pacers in a 108-102 victory.
Moore will go down as one of the best players in franchise history and his play on defense is one reason why he’s so honored now.
Next: No. 8
8. Billy Paultz, Center
Billy Paultz wasn’t a member of “The Bruise Brothers” since he came ahead of their time, but with a nickname like “The Whopper”, he would have fit right in. Paultz only spent four seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, but in his time, his physical style and rim-protecting ways set a tone in the paint.
With his 6-foot-11, 265-pound frame, Paultz was a burden on the interior for his opponents. He was as talented on offense as he was on defense with his physical play down low. As one of the better big men of his day, his presence was known on the hardwood every time he touched it.
Prior to their merging with the NBA, Paultz led the ABA in blocks per game (3.0) with the San Antonio franchise. He averaged 2.1 blocks per game their first season in the league in 1976-77, ranking him ninth among shot blocking leaders. The following season, he ranked fifth among shot blockers with 2.4 blocks per contest. In total, Paultz blocked 796 shots through 380 appearances, which ranks fourth all-time in the Spurs history books.
He was useful on the boards as well, averaging 8.5 rebounds per game during his time in San Antonio. He snagged a total 3,203 rebounds during his four seasons with the Spurs, putting him at ninth all-time in that category.
Paultz didn’t make any All-Defensive squads, but his impact remains memorable nonetheless as one of the more physical players in the paint.
Next: No. 7
7. George Gervin, Shooting Guard
“The Iceman” George Gervin didn’t earn any All-Defensive honors but his All-NBA selections should suffice. He was one of the better two-way guards in his tenure in the NBA from 1976-83 with the San Antonio Spurs.
On offense, Gervin was a sure-thing, scoring over 23,000 points and taking home four scoring titles in five seasons from 1977-81. In terms of impact, Gervin was eerily close to Tim Duncan and David Robinson, especially on offense, and his defense was an underappreciated asset, especially during a time when analytics weren’t prevalent. He was more known for his scoring than anything else, but by the end of things, his impact all-around was noticed.
He turned defense into offense in multiple ways while averaging 4.6 rebounds,1.3 steals and 1.0 blocks per game and earning All-Star selections in every season he donned the black and silver. He racked up 4,841 rebounds, 1,159 steals and 938 blocks, ranking third in franchise history in all three categories by the end of his career.
In the postseason, he was unable to turn his success in an NBA Title, but as always, he was a force to be reckoned with, averaging 27.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 steals per contest in 77 postseason games. His No. 44 jersey has since been retired by the Spurs and in 1996, he was named to the NBA’s All-Time team as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.
Next: No. 6
6. Manu Ginobili, Guard
Manu Ginobili was the ultimate two-way star for the San Antonio Spurs during his career from 2002-18. He recently retired following the 2017-18 season at the age of 40 years old. Aside from winning the Sixth Man of the Year award, he was also a master of stealing the basketball and taking charges.
He averaged 1.32 steals per contest and took 314 charges during his 16-year career in the NBA. During the 2005-06 season, he took a career-high 48 offensive fouls as one of the key cogs in the Spurs dynasty. His IQ on both ends of the floor is one of the reasons he could play so late into his career.
During his Sixth Man of the Year season (2007-08), he recorded a career-high eight steals in a 103-91 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on January 23. He leads the Spurs franchise in total steals for his career with 1,392.
Before his retirement, he reminded one of the new stars of the NBA of his abilities in the playoffs. In a decisive ending, he blocked James Harden’s 3-point attempt as time expired in Game 5 of the 2017 NBA Playoffs to give San Antonio a 110-107 victory and a 3-2 series lead. He blocked 319 shots during his career, which ranks 11th all-time in team history.
After winning three NBA titles and a number of other accolades, Ginobili’s No. 20 jersey was retired on March 28 and aside from his euro-step, he’ll also go down as one of the best defenders in team history.
Next: No. 5
5. Alvin Robertson, Shooting Guard
Shooting guard Alvin Robertson was a whole lot more than a shooter during his career with the San Antonio Spurs. He played as a reserve during his rookie year in 1984-85 then after that, he hit the ground running, winning the league’s Most Improved Player and the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1985-86.
He produced 17.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 3.7 steals per game that season, showing his value as a two-way threat on the hardwood.
He earned All-Defensive honors six times during his career, four times on second-team and twice on first-team and is one of only three players in Spurs history to earn Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Robertson is one of four players in NBA history to record a quadruple-double. On February 18, 1986, he poured in 20 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals against the Phoenix Suns in a 120-114 victory.
Robertson led the league in steals and steals per game in back-to-back seasons from 1985-87 as he made two of his three All-Star appearances with the Spurs those years. He holds the all-time record for steals in a season (301) and steals per game (3.7), which he set back in 1985-86.
For his career, he remains the all-time leader in steals per game (2.7) in league history and his 2,112 steals rank 10th all-time. In five seasons, his defensive impact was made and he still remains as one of the memorable defenders in Spurs franchise history.
Next: No. 4
4. Tim Duncan, Center
Tim Duncan had a quiet demeanor throughout his NBA career with the San Antonio Spurs but that didn’t make him a bad defender. In fact, he was one of their best interior defenders during his 19-year career with the Spurs. He earned All-Defensive honors 15 times during his time in San Antonio, no small feat given the current NBA climate.
As a rookie, he established himself as both a post scorer and rim protector, averaging 2.5 blocks per game and earning the 1997-98 Rookie of the Year award in the process. He averaged at least 1.0 blocks per contest in every season and at least 2.0 blocks per game from 1997-2007.
During the 2006-07 season, he recorded a career-high nine blocks against the Memphis Grizzlies in a 112-96 victory on January 26, 2007. For his career, he sent away 2.2 blocks per contest and a total of 3,020 blocks.
Duncan won back-to-back MVP awards from 2002 and 2003 during the regular season. He averaged 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.5 blocks per game during the 2001-02 campaign. During the 2003 NBA Finals, he blocked 5.3 shots per contest and won one of his three NBA Finals MVP awards.
In rebounds, he ranks first in franchise history with 15,091. In steals, he ranks sixth all-time with 1,025. He was a member of all five of the Spurs title squads and also has seen his No. 21 jersey retired since stepping away from the game following the 2015-16 season. He found value in the bank shot and stayed true on the other end with his play on defense.
Next: No. 3
3. Bruce Bowen, Forward
San Antonio Spurs forward Bruce Bowen is one of the best defenders in Spurs history to never win a Defensive Player of the Year award. Surprisingly, he was undrafted coming out of college, but he didn’t let that stop him from finding his niche with the Spurs in 2001-02.
He was good at making corner 3-pointers and locking down top players like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Paul Pierce. He finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting twice behind Ben Wallace. It’s hard to mention the best defensive players in the league without mentioning Bowen.
Bowen earned All-Defensive first team honors five times and All-Defensive second team three times during his NBA career as he made a living making life miserable night in and night out against some of the league’s top players.
He burst onto the scene during the 2007 NBA Finals when the Spurs swept the Cleveland Cavaliers and a young LeBron James. Bowen forced James into 5.7 turnovers per game that series.
As one of the premier defenders, Bowen went on to win three NBA titles with the Spurs. A lot of his contributions didn’t show up on the stat sheet but through 630 appearances, he did manage to lead the NBA in 3-point field goal percentage (44.1 percent) during the 2002-03 season. He’s the prototype for 3-and-D players now when scouts discuss upside and potential and for good reason. Any player that can defend at a high level and knock down 3-pointers efficiently is destined for a long career in the NBA nowadays.
Next: No. 2
2. Kawhi Leonard, Forward
Kawhi Leonard is no longer a member of the San Antonio Spurs but during his time with the team, he was a very strong defensive player. In seven seasons with the Spurs, Leonard earned the nickname of “The Claw” with his aggressive on-ball defense and overall prowess on the defensive end.
He’s the only player in franchise history to win two Defensive Player of the Year awards, winning in 2014-15 and 2015-16. Leonard led the league in steals per game (2.3) during the 2014-15 season and in 2015-16, he made the first All-Star appearance of his career.
During their 2014 NBA Finals run, he was named the Finals MVP as they sealed a revenge series win over the Miami Heat and LeBron James. Leonard produced 17.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks per contest and shot 61.2 percent from the field and 57.9 percent from behind the arc as he showed the league why he was the best player on both ends of the floor.
He turned in a defensive rating below 100 in four of the seven seasons including a career-best 95.4 during the 2015-16 season, the year he won Defensive Player of the Year. In the playoffs, his defensive rating has elevated slightly but as a member of the Toronto Raptors, he’s currently boasting a defensive rating of 94.1.
Leonard went elsewhere with his talents, but his contributions to the San Antonio Spurs are hard to ignore. He’s one of the best two-way superstars in the NBA and is beginning to come into his own on both ends.
Next: No. 1
1. David Robinson, Center
Big man David Robinson earned the moniker “The Admiral” given the decorated career he had on the hardwood as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. Robinson won the Defensive Player of the Year award during the 1991-92 season, the year he led the league in blocks per game (4.5). He led the league in rebounds per game (13.0) the year prior.
As one of the best shot blockers in the NBA, he averaged at least 3.0 blocks per game through his first seven seasons in the league. He is another member of the quadruple-double club as he racked up 34 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 blocks against the Detroit Pistons on February 17, 1994. Even with 10 blocks, that wasn’t his career-high game. He swatted a career-high 12 blocks against the Minnesota Timberwolves on February 23, 1990, in a 105-95 victory.
Robinson was also quite the steals specialist during his time in the NBA, averaging a career-high 2.3 per contest the year he won the Defensive Player of the Year. He ranks second in franchise history in total steals (1388) and averaged 1.4 per game during his 14-year career with the Spurs.
Then there was his ability to rebound the basketball. Robinson is the only other player next to Tim Duncan to snag over 10,000 rebounds in a Spurs uniform. He registered 10,497 rebounds and averaged 10.6 per contest during his career. He’s regarded as one of the best centers to play in the NBA and with good reason. He was dominant in the paint on both ends as the number shows.