LeBron James is the toughest matchup in the NBA right now.
In a game where matchups dictate everything, James is an impossible matchup because of his unbelievable blend of size (6'8", 250 pounds), athleticism, skill and basketball IQ. James is truly one of the most unique players in NBA history.
As I recently wrote, I think LeBron James' move to power forward will change how basketball is played.
Like Magic Johnson (a 6'9" point guard) and Michael Jordan (a 6'6" ultra athletic shooting guard) before him, LeBron James is not only going to change the definition of his position, but he is going to alter how teams draft, how they substitute during games, and how coaches game plan. Simply put, if you don't have a "LeBron stopper" on your roster, you are playing for second place over the next several seasons.
Which players out there might qualify to guard LeBron James?
It's the ultimate trump card in basketball, whether you're playing at the park on a Monday night, or whether you're getting paid to ball in the NBA.
"He's too little."
LeBron James, for all his greatness, was a very "guardable player" before this season, when he finally decided to go post up smaller players. As soon as he did that, he took his game to a level where several players could no longer guard him.
When James takes a smaller, weaker player into the post, it forces defenses to adjust. Do they double him, leaving shooters open? Do they switch defenders, putting a bigger player on him? Or do they decide to substitute and drastically alter their lineup?
No matter what the defense decides to do, James, because he is now a deadly low post player, is dictating the game to his opponent. James is forcing the defense to adjust, instead of the other way around.
These players are too small, too weak, too old, or not athletic enough to compete with James on the low block (all height and weight information was obtained from ESPN.com):
Paul Pierce (6'7", 235), Jeffrey Taylor (6'7", 225), Luol Deng (6'9", 220), Shawn Marion (6'7", 228), Wilson Chandler (6'8", 225), Tayshaun Prince (6'9", 215), Richard Jefferson (6'7", 230), Paul George (6'8", 215), Nicolas Batum (6'8", 200), Caron Butler (6'7", 220), Mike Dunleavy (6'9", 230), Chase Buddinger (6'7", 218), Rashard Lewis (6'10", 230), Al-Farouq Aminu (6'9", 215), Carmelo Anthony (6'8", 230), Kevin Durant (6'9", 235), Thabo Sefalosha (6'7", 215), Andre Iguodala (6'6", 207), Evan Turner (6'7", 205), Josh Childress (6'8", 210), Jared Dudley (6'7", 235), Travis Outlaw (6'9", 207), Stephen Jackson (6'8", 220), Gordon Hayward (6'8", 210), Trevor Ariza (6'8", 210).
So when James goes into the post, what happens when the other team decides to guard him with a traditional power forward? This is when James probably causes the biggest mismatch in the NBA, because James can actually run the offense as a point guard.
When this happens, it allows the Heat to spot up their point guard, shooting guard, and small forward around the three point line, creating optimum spacing and floor balance. This is how Mike Miller and Shane Battier were able to get so many open looks throughout the NBA playoffs.
As a "point power forward," James can completely control a basketball game. James has always been able to do this, but his refusal to go into the low post allowed defenses to cover him with players like DeShawn Stevenson and Shawn Marion.
Now that James is comfortable in the post, it forces defenses to cover him with traditional power forwards from time to time, and these players are all too slow to defend James:
Kenneth Faried (6'8", 228), Draymond Green (6'7", 230), David Lee (6'9", 240), Patrick Patterson (6'9", 235), Royce White (6'8", 270), Tyler Hansbrough (6'9", 250), David West (6'9", 240), Blake Griffin (6'10", 251), Zach Randolph (6'9", 260), Amare Stoudemire (6'11", 260), Serge Ibaka (6'10", 235), Glen Davis (6'9", 289), Andrew Nicholson (6'9", 250), Hedo Turkoglu (6'10", 220), LaMarcus Aldridge (6'11", 240), Thomas Robinson (6'10", 237), Linas Kleiza (6'8", 234), Al Jefferson (6'10", 289).
If you look at all the big guards, small forwards and power forwards in the NBA, and you weed out those guys that are too weak, too slow, too little, not athletic enough, and just not tough enough, you're left with, in my opinion, 18 players that might really make LeBron James work in a seven game series.
Barnes is tall enough to make James work, and he is an explosive athlete. He is giving up a lot of pounds/strength on the block, but as Barnes gets older, he is exactly the kind of body teams will be looking for to cover LeBron James. Add to that his terrific scoring ability, and Barnes has a chance to have a terrific career.
Here is a guy that you wouldn't think could guard LeBron James, but just hear me out. Vesely is taller/longer than James, and he carries enough weight to at least make him work on the block. Vesely is a young guy that figures to only get stronger as he matures, and he is a terrific athlete. I think LeBron would probably leave the post and run "point forward" with Vesely guarding him, but since Vesely also plays small forward, this would allow Washington to keep it's base lineup on the floor.
I'm not saying Vesely can shut James down, just that he has the size, strength and athleticism to at least make James work, assuming Vesely commits to being a defensive stopper. If I were his agent, I'd tell Vesely to do just that, because there will be a lot of money to be made for guys that can match up to a hybrid forward like LeBron James.
Gomes is a tweener forward that might carve out a niche for himself in the NBA as a defensive stopper. He is very strong, and could at least make LeBron work on the low block. If Gomes could hold his own and force James to play on the perimeter, he would be a valuable asset to have on your roster.
Mbah a Moute has a defensive mindset, coming from a great defensive coach in college (Ben Howland, UCLA), and he has the quickness and size to battle James on the perimeter. I think Mbah a Moute could at least make James work on the low post. He would be a valuable asset to any team in a seven game series against James.
Marvin Williams is often called a bust, because as the No. 2 pick in the draft he hasn't become a superstar. To that, I say he could still be a very valuable player in the NBA. Williams is almost the exact same size as James, although he isn't nearly the athlete.
Williams has mainly struggled because he is a tweener forward without a clear cut role. With LeBron James redefining the forward position, Williams could be exactly the kind of tweener forward teams are looking for. He could be a 15-16 point per game scorer in the NBA, as well as a jack of all trades defensive player.
Here is a young guy that, as a mid first round pick, didn't pan out with the team that drafted him. Johnson had the misfortune of playing for the Bulls right as they got really good, and he was behind other forwards that were better (Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng).
However, Johnson is still a young player, and he is a terrific athlete with great size and strength. He is exactly the kind of body you need to throw at LeBron James. If Johnson commits to being a defensive stopper, I think he could play a critical role on a contending team.
Is he a power forward? Is he a small forward? Who cares? Derrick Williams is a phenomenal athlete, and I thought twice about moving him even higher on this list. He isn't the offensive player James is, but he has the type of body and athletic ability you need to guard LeBron James.
Williams could bang with James on the low block, fight with him for rebounds, or step out away from the goal and at least do a decent job of keeping James in front of him. I don't think Williams has a big future in Minnesota, where is trapped behind Kevin Love, but I do think Williams will be a guy we see guarding LeBron James in the playoffs, albeit on another team.
This guy might be the best leaper in the NBA. Josh Smith is a freak athlete, he is long, and he no doubt has the ability to chase LeBron James around. This is a guy, if he were motivated all the time, that could be one of the best defenders in the NBA.
Unfortunately, Smith is better coming from the weak side, where he leaves his own man to block a shot. I don't know if he could focus long enough to guard James straight up. However, if I were a team that was serious about winning a title, this is one player I'd ask about. Playing for the right coach, in the right system, Smith could be an elite defender.
Rudy Gay is another terrific, long, athletic player that could absolutely make James work on the perimeter. Could he guard him in the post? He is giving up a lot of strength, but I believe Gay has the length and jumping ability to at least make James work for what he gets down there.
Like Josh Smith, I could see Gay being a great defender playing for the right coach in the right system. He would be a weapon to use against James in a playoff series.
Odom is a terrific all around player, and like James, is a truly unique type of forward. Odom could definitely make James adjust his low post game, and he could also battle James on the glass. There is no doubt in my mind Odom is also the type of player that could bother James on the perimeter, because he is long enough to give James enough space so that he wouldn't just blow by him.
Odom has a ton of championship experience, and if the Clippers can get 100 percent healthy, it would be fascinating watching Odom and James go at it in the NBA Finals.
Jones took a nose dive down so many draft boards because teams questioned his passion for the game, and there were also red flags about a knee injury. While I also wouldn't have drafted Jones in the lottery, because I too had questions about his heart, there is no denying his talent.
Jones landing on a good team with proven stars is the best thing that could have happened to him. He is about to learn about working hard from players like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And while Jones is a tweener on offense, there is no denying his talent. With his size, quickness, length and leaping ability, he could be a force on defense.
You can't tell me that coach Scott Brooks isn't already thinking of how to better guard LeBron James. Jones isn't a great perimeter defender yet, but trust me when I say Oklahoma City knew what they were doing when they drafted Jones. He is their secret weapon against James.
Leonard is a defensive stopper, period. While a bit undersized to guard James, Leonard is a very strong player, and he is a great athlete. Having Leonard on their roster allows the Spurs to cover all kinds of hybrid guards and forwards, from Kobe Bryant to Kevin Durant to Carmelo Anthony.
Could he stop LeBron James? No, but he would at least make James work for his points, and that would allow the Spurs to keep their base lineup on the floor.
I know this is a rookie, but of all the tweener forwards we've discussed so far, he might be the biggest, strongest and best athlete of the bunch. For all the hype about Anthony Davis, and he deserved it, you have to remember that Kentucky had another elite athlete that could block shots, and that was Terrence Jones.
There is no doubt about it that with proper coaching, Jones could cover James in the low post. The question would then come down to Jones chasing LeBron on the perimeter. Again, it would take some coaching, because this kid is just a rookie, but Jones is a great athlete.
Jones could force LeBron into "point forward" mode, and I think he could at least keep James honest. With Houston looking to make some trades to acquire a star player, I think Jones is one of their best trade chips.
Here is a guy who really makes LeBron work for his points. Granger isn't as strong or explosive as James, but with enough help, he does a really nice job. Granger is the type of player teams should be looking for to guard LeBron. He is just big enough, athletic, tough and competitive.
This kid is going to be a star. He is ultra competitive, a terrific athlete, and you know he is only going to get stronger as he matures. This is the LeBron stopper of the future.
I'm not saying he can guard James tomorrow. I know he's still just a young pup. Having said that, MKG gives the Bobcats an elite defender who is going to be able to cover a hybrid forward like James, and the other hybrid forwards that you'll see around the league as other teams try to copy the Heat's small ball formula.
Wallace is basically a poor man's LeBron James. While he doesn't have James' all around perimeter game, especially as a decision maker, he has a very similar physical makeup. Wallace is a great athlete, a physical, tough, highly competitive forward who is very comfortable guarding the perimeter or banging inside.
If the Nets are trying to build a contending team, that means they will have to go through Miami. In order to do that, they'll need somebody to match up to LeBron James. Gerald Wallace fits that description almost as well as any player in the NBA.
If Derek Rose is healthy, and the Chicago Bulls meet up with the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, it is going to be a defensive slug fest. The Bulls will really struggle to score against the Heat, who have an elite defense. The Heat, who create mismatches all over the floor most nights because of their elite athleticism, will not be able to exploit those mismatches against the Bulls.
The biggest reason for this is Taj Gibson, who is a phenomenal defensive player. Gibson can really move his feet on the perimeter, and he is a big, physical presence in the post. Two years ago, the Bulls were able to cover LeBron James with players like Luol Deng, mainly because James refused to post up.
Because of the evolution of James' overall floor game, and his ability to punish smaller, weaker athletes on the block, players like Deng would struggle to cover James. That is why Taj Gibson is critical to the Bulls' chances at an NBA championship. He is almost the best matchup in the league for LeBron James.
The Artist Formerly Known As Ron Artest is the best candidate in the NBA to be a "LeBron Stopper."
He is perhaps the only small forward in the league that has the ability to stick to James on the perimeter, while also being stronger and more physical around the goal. World Peace is not the leaper James is, but he is very physical and has a tremendous understanding of defensive positioning and angles.
The only thing World Peace is missing, perhaps, is that edge that he used to have, the whole "Queensbridge" thing. That guy, Artest, not Metta World Peace, would have looked at LeBron James and said "that guy, he's good, but I'm about to shut him down."
Can he still be that guy?
If I'm a contending team, I roll the dice. I call up the Lakers, who might be interested in moving World Peace, and try to trade for him. I know he's had his issues. I know he has baggage. I don't care. If you want to win an NBA championship, you need somebody that can neutralize LeBron James, and there is nobody in the league that has a better chance at stopping LeBron James in his tracks, one on one, with no help, than The Artist Formerly Know as Ron Artest.
Ron-Ron. Queensbridge. Not Metta World Peace.
If there is even a one percent chance that I could trade for that guy, then I'm making that deal, because he could be the difference maker in a series against the Miami Heat. That guy, is the best LeBron stopper in the NBA.