Dominique Wilkins was a Human Highlight Film on offense but he was a poor defender. Wilkins’ offense sent him to the Hall of Fame, but his weak defense kept him off the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team. Dominique did not have a well-rounded game and defense was his biggest weakness as a player.
Dominique Wilkins on Defense: Stats
Advanced statistics allow us to look back at past players’ careers in an unbiased way. There is little doubt that these statistics are more effective at judging a player’s offensive game than their defense. But they can still be instructive and useful for judging a players’ skill on defense.
Basketball Reference lists five defensive statistics in its advanced statistics section. They also list defensive rating in their per 100 stats, which attempts to measure a player’s defensive effectiveness per 100 possessions.
In the case of Dominique Wilkins, advanced defensive statistics tell a very clear picture: he was a bad defender. I have written a number of these analyses of the defensive contributions of great offensive players. No other player has a weaker defensive statistical profile than Dominique Wilkins.
Individual Skill Advanced Defensive StatsEmbed from Getty Images
As a forward with great athleticism, you would expect Dominique Wilkins to grab his share of defensive rebounds. He did not. Wilkins’ 12.5% defensive rebounding percentage leaves him off the list of all-time NBA players and is a lower number than one would expect.
Okay, you say. Nique couldn’t rebound but his game was athleticism. Scouts generally expect that good athletes to get either steals or blocks on defense – often both.
Dominique was most certainly an outlier athlete, but he got neither. Wilkins career block percentage was 1.0% while his steal percentage was 1.8%. Neither of those numbers left him in the NBA all-time top 250 for either category. Both point to lackluster defense.
Dominique Wilkins’ single skill defensive statistics look bad. He was not a strong defensive rebounder and did not get many steals or blocks. You would expect a strong defender to have good numbers in one or more of those categories. But maybe the whole was greater than the sum of its parts? Maybe Dominique’s defense looks better when you add it all up? Let’s take a look.
Overall Advanced Defensive Stats
Defensive rating essentially measures how many baskets a player gives up per 100 possessions. Dominique finished with a career rating of 108. That is not good. He does not rank in the all time top 250 NBA players.
Defensive box plus/minus is an estimate of how many points a player gave up per possession when compared to a league average player & team. Wilkins’ -1.1 rating is really bad!
Compare that to Larry Bird, whose defense I believe is underrated. Bird finished with a 1.77. Or another superstar of the same general era who was noted for offense but not so much defense: Magic Johnson. Magic finished with 1.60.
Okay, what about some players not noted at all for defense: Steve Kerr, Warriors coach, long-distance bomber and very much non-lockdown defender. Kerr finished with a .32 career defensive box plus/minus.
Please note that all these numbers have been positive while Nique’s is negative. So, yeah, not a good statistic for our guy.
Defensive win shares is a complicated stat that attempts to measure how much a player contributes to his team while on the floor. This is the only remotely good stat for Dominique.
He finished with 35.1 career defensive win shares and is ranked 147th all time.
While that ranking seems high, and the top twenty in defensive win shares are nearly all excellent defenders, long careers tend to give a player more win shares.
Charles Barkley stands out as a great example here. He was not a very strong defender but his long career allowed him to rack up many defensive win shares and he finished 39th all time with 54 defensive win shares, well ahead of Wilkins.
Dominique Wilkins’ defensive statistics are very clear: he was a bad defender. There is simply no way someone with Dominique’s unique profile could be a positive defender.
His individual skill statistics are shockingly low and his major statistics are poor as well. The only positive in Dominique’s statistical profile on defense, win shares, is easily explained by the length of his career.
How does Dominique Wilkins’ defense compare to other great offensive players?Embed from Getty Images
The table belows puts Nique’s statistics into context. I chose to compare him to two other forwards who are both known as generally weaker defenders: Dirk Nowitzki and Charles Barkley.
Neither player is a strong comp for Dominique in their game, but both were great offensive forwards who did not defend nearly as well.
You will note that not only do both players have better statistics than Dominique, it is not even close! And while both players, like Wilkins, are clear Hall-of-Famers, they both got in strictly for offense.
Dominique’s defensive statistics are really woeful!
|Statistic||Charles Barkley||Dominique Wilkins||Dirk Nowitzki|
|Defensive Rebounding %||23.7% (43rd)||12.5% (NR)||21.9% (85th)|
|Block %||1.39% (206th)||1.0 % (NR)||1.9%(150th)|
|Steal %||2.09% (151th)||1.8% (NR)||1.2% (NR)|
|Defensive Rating (lower is better)||105 (199th)||108 (NR)||104 (186th)|
|Defensive Box +/-||.78 (130th)||-1.1 (NR)||.35 (228th)|
|Defensive Win Shares||54 (39th)||35.1 (147)||62.6 (25th)|
Did people think Dominique was a good defender while he was playing?
No. People did not think Nique was a good defender. Some people believed he could defend but just did not apply himself enough to it. Others just saw him as a weak defender who dominated on offense.
Kevin Willis, Hawks teammate, was in the first camp saying “on defense, when Nique wanted to play defense, he could play defense. Everybody didn’t want to give him credit on that end but Nique could play some defense for sure.”
More people fell into the second camp. They did not give him credit for a reason. Dominique was widely considered an uninterested defender.
Larry Bird, who famously dueled with ‘Nique in the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals, summed up this view with an absolutely killer dig at Wilkins after their playing careers were over.
The Hawks were unveiling a statue of Wilkins outside Phillips Arena when Bird quipped “I’m pretty sure it’s not made in a defensive stance”. Ouch. But Bird was not expressing some unique take. People agreed with the stats: Dominique wouldn’t or couldn’t play much defense.
“I’m pretty sure it’s not made in a defensive stance.”Larry Bird about the Dominique statue
It will not surprise you to learn that Dominique was never voted to any All-NBA defensive teams, nor was he ever given much consideration for them.Embed from Getty Images
Dominique Wilkins on Defense: Summary
Dominique Wilkins was a bad, and often uninterested, defender. While he had outlier athleticism, he did not use it to good effect on defense. Wilkins had awful defensive statistics and was not considered a strong defender by even the most generous observer. When compared to other great offensive players who were considered weak defenders, Wilkins comes up far short. He was bad on defense by nearly any measure.
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.