To the casual basketball observer, it’s generally much easier to recognize offensive success than defensive brilliance.
As the NBA’s hiatus continues, with a plan to resume the season at Disney World in late July, we figured we’d appreciate the 10 best defenders in Sixers history.
We mostly tried to answer a basic question: “How good were they (or are they) at defense?” Factors like career accomplishments and time spent with the Sixers are part of the equation but not considered as important as with previous rankings we’ve done. Our ranking looks at players who have worn a Sixers uniform since the franchise adopted that name in 1963.
10. Joel Embiid
As we’ve been doing these superlatives during the NBA’s hiatus, figuring out how to assess active players has been one of the main challenges. We want to properly respect those who had long, accomplished careers and not give too much weight to potential. With that said, Embiid has already made two All-Defensive Teams, meaning he’s one of five players in franchise history with multiple All-Defensive Team honors as a Sixer.
9. Ben Simmons
An agile, versatile defender with tremendous skills on and off the ball, Simmons is in the Defensive Player of the Year mix for this season.
8. Billy Cunningham
Cunningham was known for his tenacity and relentless effort, and he was a great defensive rebounder, as well. After leaving the Sixers for the Carolina Cougars for the 1972-73 season (where he was coached by Larry Brown), Cunningham led the ABA in steals.
7. Andre Iguodala
During his prime, Iguodala was one of the NBA’s best wing defenders. His talents received a much larger spotlight in Golden State, but he did rack up the fourth-most steals in franchise history and make an All-Defensive Team with the Sixers in the 2010-11 season.
6. Hal Greer
The team’s all-time leader in games played and points scored has to be on this list. While we don’t have the same defensive statistics available with Greer as we do with modern players, Marc Zumoff remembered the Hall of Fame guard as a “diligent defender” and stellar all-around player.
5. Julius Erving
Erving is second in franchise history in defensive win shares, behind only Dolph Schayes. His defense was artistic — apparently effortless strides that evaporated space so he could chase down blocks and come up with steals. In the 1983 NBA Finals, Erving led all players with 11 blocks at 33 years old, including five in an incredible Game 1 performance.
4. Maurice Cheeks
Cheeks has the most steals (and highest steal percentage) in Sixers history and was consistently strong on defense over his 11 seasons with the team as a player. He was a five-time All-Defensive Team selection.
3. Dikembe Mutombo
Seemingly every player who blocks a shot and is feeling good about themselves now wags their finger in the way Mutombo made famous. Though he only spent a season and a half in Philadelphia, Mutombo is clearly deserving of a high spot on our list, with four Defensive Player of the Year awards, tied for the most ever. He’s the only Sixer to ever win the award, though Embiid and Simmons might be able to change that.
2. Bobby Jones
For eight seasons in a row, Jones was named to the All-Defensive First Team. He didn’t play quite as many minutes as the other players in our ranking, but Jones earned a reputation as one of the top defenders in the sport, and the nickname “The Secretary of Defense.” The humble Hall of Famer was a tremendous sixth man for the 1982-83 champions and averaged 1.7 steals and 1.9 blocks over the Eastern Conference Finals and NBA Finals that year.
1. Wilt Chamberlain
If only we knew just how many shots Chamberlain blocked over his NBA career. Like most parts of his game, Chamberlain’s shot blocking was mythical. While we don’t have the exact statistics the same way we do with his scoring and rebounding, we do know he was an exceptional athlete and fearsome presence around the rim. With all due respect to Jones, “The Big Dipper” needs to be No. 1.
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