Bill Russell, who died on July 31, 2022 at the age of 88, didn’t need to remind folks how great he was. The man had a championship ring for each of his 10 fingers plus 1 more for good measure.
If owning championship rings is the standard in recognizing the greatest basketball player of all time, then William Felton Russell was the greatest of all time.
When Russell was snubbed by LeBron James in his mythical Mt. Rushmore of all-time great players, Russell didn’t throw a fit. He simply reminded LeBron, and the rest of the basketball world, his legendary credentials.
“Hey, thank you for leaving me off your Mount Rushmore. I’m glad you did,” Russell told TNT’s Craig Sager back in 2014. “Basketball is a team game, it’s not for individual honors. I won back-to-back state championships in high school, back-to-back NCAA championships in college, I won an NBA championship my first year in the league, an NBA championship in my last year, and nine in between. That, Mr. James, is etched in stone.”
In fairness to LeBron, his Mt. Rushmore included Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson. Those four are hard to knock. But not having a center in that group is a huge slap in the face to Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain. They made the NBA what it is today, and was very instrumental in paving the way for Jordan, Magic and Bird.
Over the course of NBA history, championships are won by dominant big men. And nearly all the great championship teams had a great center: Russell (11 titles), George Mikan (5), Chamberlain (2), Abdul-Jabbar (6), Hakeem Olajuwon (2), David Robinson (2), Tim Duncan (4) and Shaquille O’Neal (4).
There are a few exceptions, of course, such as Jordan’s Bulls, LeBron’s Heat, Isiah Thomas’ Pistons, and Stephen Curry’s Warriors. But Jordan couldn’t have won without the dirty work of power forwards Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman. LeBron would be ringless without the help of Chris Bosh. Isiah needs to thank Bill Laimbeer, James Edwards and Rick Mahorn for having his back. And Curry would not have multiple championships without Draymond Green, who may not have the ideal size for a center (6-6) but he does exactly what a center does.
Russell was also considered undersized compared to other dominant big men. He was listed at 6-foot-9, which is almost two inches shorter than his main counterpart Wilt Chamberlain (7-1).
Russell was ahead of his time. We often use the term “icon” whenever describing a superstar. Russell was truly an icon. He was also a pioneer. A defensive genius. A winner. A champion on and off the court. He was arguably the greatest champion in the history of team sports. He figured out during the infancy of his basketball journey that defense was the best path to winning. By focusing much of his attention defending the basket, Russell made a seismic shift and changed the game of basketball forever. Russell took the famous football adage “defense wins championships” from legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and applied it to basketball.
Russell won more championships than any athlete in team sports because he mastered the art of blocking shots and rebounding. He won two NCAA championships as the center of the San Francisco Dons and won 11 NBA titles in 13 years as the anchor of the Boston Celtics dynasty.
Russell understood that winning games eventually come down to which team can get the most stops. Shooting comes and goes, but playing defense is consistent and more sustainable.
Basketball was played horizontally until Russell entered the picture. Because of his otherworldly athletic talents — he was an Olympic-level high jumper — Russell made basketball a vertical game. He turned defense into an offensive weapon. Nobody know how to block a shot in basketball until Russell came along. When he blocked a shot, he kept the ball in play and often triggered a fastbreak. The Celtics, under head coach Red Auerbach, was the first team to use the fastbreak as a primary source of offense, and at the center of it was Russell’s ability to defend and rebound.
Blocks didn’t become an official statistic in the NBA until the 1973-74 season, four years after Russell retired. There’s no telling how many blocked shots Russell would have had in his illustrious career, but some believe he could have averaged eight blocks per game.
Where does Russell rank among the all-time best defensive players in NBA history? OneManFastBreak.net has Russell at the top. Here’s OMFB’s top 10 all-time defenders:
10) Ben Wallace — The Detroit Pistons captured the NBA title in 2003-04 using a suffocating defense anchored by Big Ben. In the NBA Finals, Wallace (who stands just 6-7, but 6-9 with his massive afro) guarded 7-1 Shaquille O’Neal and held his own without much of a double team and absorbed the beating from the 300-plus pound Shaq Diesel. Wallace was one of just two players in league history to win NBA Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) four times.
9) Michael Jordan — Jordan’s offensive skills were well documented, but his defense was vastly underrated. Jordan took pride on being a two-way player, making him one of few all-time great scorers who defended his position as well as anyone. MJ never backed down from a challenge, and he often volunteered to guard the other team’s best player.
8) Gary Payton — Nicknamed The Glove for the way he smothered his opponents, Payton won DPOY in 1996 and amassed 2,445 steals during his 17-year NBA career that included stints in Seattle, Milwaukee, L.A., Boston and Miami. The Glove was also one of the league’s best trash talkers, which gave him a huge psychological edge.
7) Draymond Green — Draymond may be the most important player on the Golden State Warriors outside of superstar guard Steph Curry. Green won’t blow you away with his individual statistics, but he brings a ton of intangibles that leads to winning. Green won DPOY in 2017, and should have won another in 2022 if it wasn’t for an injury that caused him to miss games. Green’s versatility is one of his best attributes, being able to guard all five positions, and does whatever his team needs in crucial situations.
6) Kevin Garnett — Garnett was a stat-sheet stuffer during his Hall of Fame career. He tallied 14,662 rebounds and 2,037 blocks. KG could guard all five positions and played each game with an intensity level that was off the charts. After serving as the Minnesota Timberwolves’ meal ticket for the first 12 years of his career, The Big Ticket joined the Celtics in 2007 and became the centerpiece of Boston’s 17th championship team. Garnett made the all-defensive team 12 times and won DPOY in 2008.
5) Tim Duncan — San Antonio won five NBA titles in Duncan’s 19-year career — all with the Spurs. Duncan was a phenomenal two-way player, who played power forward and center under head coach Gregg Popovich. The Big Fundamental was named to the NBA all-defensive team 15 times, and he is one of only two players in league history with over 15,000 rebounds (15,091) and over 3,000 blocks (3,020). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the other player in the 15K and 3K club.
4) Dikembe Mutombo — At 7-3 with arms as long as a redwood tree, Mutombo was a dominant rim protector. Few tried to challenge Mt. Mutombo at the rim. Those who challenged him found rejection and was the recipient of an embarrassing finger wag — Mutombo’s signature diss for anyone who dared to dunk on him. Mutombo blocked 3,289 shots in his career, second most in league history. He also won defensive player of the year four times.
3) Hakeem Olajuwon — Hakeem The Dream is the NBA’s all-time leader in blocked shots, rejecting 3,830 shots during his remarkable Hall of Fame career. Olajuwon and Michael Jordan were the only two players in league history to win MVP and defensive player of the year in the same season. Olajuwon won both in 1993-94, while Jordan pulled off the feat in 1987-88. Olajuwon is also the only center to rank in the top 10 in career steals (2,162).
2) Dennis Rodman — During his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Rodman admitted that all the glitz and glamor was an act. Underneath the body ink and the fancy outfits was a hard-working man who came from nothing and amounted to something. In the 1996 NBA Finals, then Seattle Sonics coach George Karl said Rodman could have easily been named the MVP of the Bulls-Sonics series. Karl pointed out that Rodman almost single-handedly won two games for the Bulls in the series with his energy and defense. His former Pistons teammate, Joe Dumars, said that Rodman may be flamboyant off the court but on the court he was all business.
1) Bill Russell — The 1960s began and ended with Russell walking off the court a champion. The Boston Celtics dynasty was built on defense, and Russell was front and center. He finished his career second all-time in rebounds with 21,620 and turned the blocked shot into an art form. Blocks weren’t kept during Russell’s playing days, but if they were he would easily rank in the top five. What made Russell a great shot-blocker was the way he kept the ball in play, which often ignited a Celtics fastbreak. Even though he lost the majority of his one-on-one battles with his nemesis Wilt Chamberlain, Russell’s Celtics teams often walked away ahead in the scoreboard. Great defensive centers are often compared to Russell, but the five-time NBA MVP was a once-in-a-lifetime player.
Joel Huerto is the publisher and editor of OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.