LeBron James and the 15 Greatest Players in NBA History at Getting to the Rim
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There have been a litany of players throughout the years whose ball handling skills, speed, and determination made them impossible to stop from getting to the rim. LeBron James is the most recent example of a guy who there is just no way to stop from either scoring outright, getting fouled, or doing both and getting a three point play.
But who came before James? Who laid the groundwork for the style of play we see in James and others, like Derrick Rose, who find a way to get theirs every time, no matter what defenses do?
For the purposes of this slide show, I have chosen to only include perimeter players. Clearly, if you are a big man and already at the rim, then there is no getting to the rim. Sure, there are big guys who faced up and did it from the perimeter, but that requires an unfair edge, since they often operate from 12-14 feet and in, while point guards and wingmen have to break an opponent down from as far out as feet beyond the three point line. So, you won't find guys like Blake Griffin, Shawn Kemp, David Robinson, or any other great face-up big men in this slide show.
That said, let's look at 15 guys who defenders had no answer for, who could get to the rim with ease.
15) Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson's speed made it nearly impossible for defenders to stay between him and the basket. His crossover was quick, and his moves were slippery. Iverson could often split two defenders, squeeze through in traffic, and manage to get off good shots on moves that other players may have turned the ball over on.
Iverson's ball handling made it possible for him to fully use his blinding speed, and almost all other guards had trouble with the water bug Iverson. He was a true ankle breaker, so the YouTube clip is appropriately named.
14) Kevin Johnson
KJ had some of the nastiest takes in the entire decade of the 90s. Like Iverson and many in this slide show, KJ had a deadly crossover, and a quick first step. He broke defenders down quickly and took it straight at the rim. He drew a lot of fouls, dunked on a lot of opponents, and was one of the more underrated greats in NBA history.
Johnson was second in the league in assists in 1988-89, fourth in 1989-90, fourth in 1990-91, and second in 1991-92, while amassing 991 assists in 1988-89, when he averaged 12.2 per game. Johnson was a great passer, but the best highlights came breaking perimeter defenders' ankles.
His dunk on Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1994 Western Conference Finals (see: video) was one of the best dunks on possibly the best shot blocker in history.
13) Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose has now won an MVP at the youngest age ever. A two footed jumper, Rose attacks the rim and then stops to rise up for tomahawk dunks. He's not afraid to take it at any shot blocker, which is a prerequisite for the guys in this slide show.
Rose's strength makes it difficult to foul him and simply send him to the line; Rose gets a lot of three point plays.
It remains to be seen whether he can remain the same explosive player following this injury, but given Rose's work ethic, I wouldn't count it out. Either way, for the purposes of this slide show, I am mainly considering what guys have done, some only at their peaks.
12) Isiah Thomas
Whenever I think of Isiah, I can't help but think of his 1988 Finals performance against the Lakers, an iconic game in which Thomas hobbled around the court with a sprained ankle, except he wasn't hobbling at all. Thomas fought through immense pain, and hit 11 of 13 shots in the third quarter, setting an NBA Finals record for points in a quarter with 25, and giving the Pistons a two point edge going into the fourth. They went on to lose Game Six, but Isiah finished with 43 points, eight assists, six steals, and the admiration of Pistons fans and fans around the league.
Thomas playing through pain and his fearless attitude towards the game, enabled him to become the kind of player that could attack the rim with reckless abandon. He had excellent handles and blinding speed. It only helped further that he could share the ball with Joe Dumars, who enabled Isiah to play off the ball and get more creative with his offensive game.
Isiah and the aforementioned Iverson rank back-to-back on my personal list of all-time player rankings at No. 20 (Thomas) and No. 21 (Iverson). Both were similar in the sense that they were 6'0" (or less) and played with the heart to know they could take on players of any size.
11) George Gervin
"One thing I do, I loooove to finger roll…"
George Gervin was a version of Kevin Durant before modern times. He was so elusive, and is one of six small forwards to grace this list. Gervin's grace was a thing of beauty. His length enabled him to stretch out over the tops of defenders and shoot his patented finger roll, typified by the perfect flip of the wrist that Gervin made legendary. The "Iceman cometh."
10) Dwyane Wade
Dwyane Wade often ends up crashing so hard to the hole that we wonder if he might not be on his way to suffering life threatening injuries. And then he does it some more. Wade never slows down, always plays in fifth gear, or higher, and keeps his head to the hole when he penetrates, knowing he is going to either score or get slammed to the floor on his way for two free throws.
He's strong and, like Rose, who I mentioned earlier, capable of playing both the point and the two. Wade played a lot of point earlier in his career, and when LeBron isn't playing point-forward, Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra relies a lot upon Wade's ball handling abilities. It's that which enables him to lose defenders and break down opponents. His speed gets him to the hole. Wade is dangerous attacking the rim.
9) Elgin Baylor
Playing with Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, the Seattle product Elgin Baylor played much bigger than his 6'5" size. His excellent leaping ability and strong frame made it difficult for players to impede his progress towards the basket, and when they did get between him and the hole, he was acrobatic enough and had the coordination to slip around them in the air.
Baylor laid the foundation for many of the moves these players in the modern era are doing, about four decades ago.
8) Clyde Drexler
At one point I considered Clyde Drexler just a notch below Jordan. I was a kid. Of course, we have yet to see Jordan in this slide show, and we know I didn't forget about him, so Drexler being a notch down from Jordan substantiates his place this high in the rankings.
"Clyde the Glyde" couldn't leap quite as explosively as Jordan, but it always seemed that Drexler stayed in the air longer than anyone else. I don't know what really causes "hang time," but Drexler had it.
He knew how to use his power once he got to the rim, too, and his dunks were impressive all the way from the University of Houston, to Portland, and back to Houston as a pro. Even by the end with the Rockets, he was still dunking on people, as seen at 1:24 in the video above.
7) Tracy McGrady
T-Mac had a short-lived peak, but oh what a peak it was. During his time with the Orlando Magic, and even early into his days with the Rockets, McGrady's length and athleticism made him a difficult matchup for all shooting guards in the the league.
McGrady could get his shot off over any defender, and when he wasn't taking those jumpers, he was using the threat to make it that much easier to get around opponents. McGrady was an excellent finisher at the rim and could have been a Hall of Famer if his career wasn't derailed by back and knee injuries.
6) Julius Erving
Dr. J was the most acrobatic high flyer for over a decade before the days of the number one guy in this slide show.
And we don't even know how good he was in the ABA, as there was a lot less TV coverage than when he played in the NBA later in his career. Still, Erving persisted in the league until the 1986-87 season, and even at age 36, Erving was still getting to the basket. In his final season with the Sixers, at age 36, he averaged 16.8 points per game.
The 11-time NBA All-Star helped bring the dunk further as a symbol of greatness, as many clearly remember his rock the cradle dunk in the old Spectrum.
5) Kobe Bryant
Old Kobe, donning the mini-afro and the No. 8 jersey, was impossible to stop from getting to the basket. He's still good penetrating and pulling up, but his speed as a youngster and his awesome leaping ability made him one of the best finishers in the game.
Also, during the Shaq era, it wasn't as though help-side defense could always even come, because O'Neal would be lurking around the rim to clean up on the chance that his defender tried to come at Bryant. Even without Shaq drawing attention away, Kobe still had no problem scoring, and his 10-plus free throw attempts per game in the 2004-05 through 2006-07 seasons attest to how much trouble teams had keeping him away from the rim.
He certainly got to the basket enough in his 81 point performance against the Raptors, as you can see in the video, which features all 81 points of his in a three-minute clip.
4) Grant Hill
In his prime, Grant Hill did a lot of things well, not the least of which was getting to the basket. What made Hill so dangerous was that teams never knew if he would pass the ball before getting to the rim. His excellent court vision meant that teams could never relax and figure he'd put his head down going to the hole. He didn't put his head down.
Hill reacted well to defenses on the fly, had excellent footwork to go with his handles, and was able to move up and under and through traffic en route to getting right at the rim.
His size made him a point-forward, but he was more point than forward, and at 6'8", he posed all kinds of matchup nightmares for point guards, two-guards, and small forwards.
3) Dominique Wilkins
'Nique became known as the "Human Highlight Film," and the nickname could not be any more appropriate. Wilkins got to the hole with ease, and the thing was, if he didn't, he'd rise over the defenders anyway, elevating on two, even three defenders, and throwing it down hard.
Wilkins had the ball handling skills to shake most small forwards and no guards were big enough to handle him because, despite being only 6'7", his leaping ability and length always made it seem more like he was 6'9".
Wilkins is one of the most underrated legends and it was his ability to get to the rim that made him the player he was.
2) LeBron James
King James is unstoppable in the open court. And by unstoppable, I really mean "you may as well get out of the way, because you're only going to get dunked on."
The hardest fouls barely seem to slow James down, and once he gets a full head of steam from 15 feet or closer to the hoop, regardless of which side of the hoop he is on, he's going to find his way to the glass to lay it in, or rise up and dunk on whoever is foolish enough to get in the way.
Even Dwight Howard often decides it best to just let LBJ have it, rather than pick up a foul. There are certain plays that have low payout on rewards, and getting in front of No. 6 just isn't one of them.
1) Michael Jordan
Well, look at this: Another all-time list, with Jordan at the top. I think the correlation between getting to the rim and being a great scorer is high enough that this really shouldn't be much of a surprise.
But what do I really need to tell any basketball fan about Jordan that they don't already know? From his days as a tongue wagging teenager at North Carolina until his days as a bald (not by choice) aging man on the Washington Wizards, Jordan found a way to get to the hole.
As his career went on, he found himself relying less and less on the high flying acrobatic stunts that gained him his popularity and "Air Jordan" nickname, but his ability to get to the rim never was in question. He just increased his versatility and was able to get easier shots with less effort. All of it does nothing to negate the fact that prime Jordan got to the rim better than anyone in NBA history.
I provide you with a 13 minute YouTube video of Jordan doing the unthinkable, but if you can't entertain yourself for hours watching Jordan on YouTube, you're probably not much of a basketball fan to begin with. I could watch the dunk on Ewing and the Knicks (2:08) a few dozen times by itself.
The Best of the Rest
Francis was another two foot jumper who at 6'3" played more like he was 6'8". Stevie Franchise sometimes looked as though he was jumping off a trampoline.
The one who created the "UTEP two-step," Hardaway had a particularly deadly crossover in his young days as a member of the Golden State Warriors. Check it out in the video.
Rondo would get to the hole without any problems at all if he could shoot the ball. Even jump-shot-less, it's still difficult to stop Rondo from getting into the paint due to his immense speed.
If Pippen hadn't dwelled in Jordan's shadow, his ability to get to the rim might be even more appreciated. Pip was a great slasher, a prototypical small forward who had a quick first step and reached full speed in a few steps.
During his early days, Spree got to the hoop like none other. He always finished with the same two handed tomahawk jam, too.
With Davis it was more a question of whether he wanted to get to the rim or not. When he was in his prime, and he did, there was basically no stopping him.
Penny was basically the "Magic" that never was. At 6'7", quick, and with great handles, he gave all opposing point guards a lot of trouble and he knew how to either finish or dish once he got there. Like Grant Hill's slide, the same rule applied that because they knew Penny could dish at any time, it made it that much more difficult to stop him from getting all the way to the hoop.
It's a pity when players play past their primes and we only remember them as they were at the end, because Marbury when he was still on Minnesota was an excellent penetrator, and he was still pretty darn good at it into his days with the Knicks.
Vince Carter, like Davis, could get to the rack at will — but only when he felt like it. For most of his career, Carter was content to jack up jumpshots. Leave him out of the top 15? It isn't about who is the best dunker, so that's a different slide show for a different day.