Much has been made of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s key block in Game 4 of the 2021 NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns. LeBron James’ rejection of Andre Iguodala in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals against the Golden State Warriors will forever be a highlight. Blocks might not be the most significant NBA stat, but they can certainly be a game-changer.
While points, assists, and rebounds get all the glory, blocks are an afterthought until a play from the Greek Freak or King James in the national spotlight gains the headlines. What player sits atop the list of most blocks in NBA history?
Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain considered the best shot-blockers in NBA history but aren’t among the all-time leaders
Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell is widely considered the best defensive center in NBA history. Russell spent 13 years in the NBA — all with the Celtics, who acquired him from the St. Louis Hawks in 1956. Russell won 11 championships as a player with the Celtics. He also was a 12-time All-Star and five-time MVP winner.
Russell retired from the league after the 1968-69 season. Blocks, however, weren’t an official stat until the 1973-74 season. According to Bleacher Report, some official scorers and sportswriters would chart the number of blocks Russell and Wilt Chamberlain had during their games because both frequently swatted away shot attempts. Some writers even believe Chamberlain may have had as many blocks as Russell. Chamberlain retired the year before blocks were an official stat.
In his first NBA game against the New York Knicks, press reports had Chamberlain blocking 17 shots to go along with his 43 points and 28 rebounds. Bleacher Report states referees who officiated their games claimed both Russell and Chamberlain averaged six to eight blocks per game.
Hakeem Olajuwon is the official all-time blocks leader
While Russell and Chamberlain racked up more blocks in their illustrious careers, the NBA doesn’t recognize them in the record books in that category. According to the NBA’s “official” blocks list, only six players have eclipsed the 3,000-block mark in their careers,
Leading the way is former Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon, who racked up 3,830 blocks in his 18 years in the NBA. Three times, Olajuwon led the league in swats, averaging a career-best 4.6 swats during the 1989-90 season. He repeated as blocks champ the following season, putting up 3.9.
For his career, Olajuwon, a 12-time All-Star and 2008 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, averaged 3.1 blocks.
Olajuwon has 541 more blocks than Dikembe Mutombo, who has 3,289 and sits second on the all-time list. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ranks third with 3,189. Rounding out the top six are Artis Gilmore (3,178), Mark Eaton (3,064), and Tim Duncan 3,020.
While Olajuwon is No. 1, Russell and Chamberlain were the best
Russell and Chamberlain are the unofficial blocks leaders, yet the two had distinctly different styles when altering their opponents’ shots. Chamberlain was more athletic and had much more flair while swatting shots. Russell always seemed to have a plan, often blocking a shot and coming down with the ball himself.
Russell also had a strong mental game. He tried to make his opponent alter his own shot.
“Basketball is a game that involves a great deal of psychology,” Russell said during the early part of the 1963 season, according to Sports Illustrated. “The psychology in defense is not blocking a shot or stealing a pass or getting the ball away. The psychology is to make the offensive team deviate from their normal habits.
“This is a game of habits, and the player with the most consistent habits is the best. What I try to do on defense is to make the offensive man do not what he wants but what I want.”
Olajuwon may be the official No. 1 blocker, but Russell and Chamberlain were the ones who perfected the block before it even became a statistic.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.