You can't stop LeBron James. You can only hope to contain him.
Or, if you're the Boston Celtics, you can sic Brandon Bass on him.
Now, you may be thinking, "Why Brandon Bass? Wouldn't the Celtics be better off assigning Paul Pierce to slow down the Miami Heat superstar?"
Not the worst idea, actually. According to 82games.com, Pierce held opposing small forwards to a below-par player efficiency rating (PER) of 13.3, with an effective field goal percentage (which weighs three-pointers more heavily) of 0.463.
As far as LeBron is concerned, he and Pierce are well-acquainted with one another. They've gone head-to-head 27 times in the regular season and 25 times in the playoffs over the course of their careers. James' shooting numbers against Pierce's C's in those games—from the field and from three, in the regular season and playoffs—are slightly worse than those of his overall career.
But, for all of his successes against King James, The Truth isn't the player he once was. He'll be 35 on October 13th and, given Pierce's pivotal role on the offensive end, having him expend so much of his energy guarding the best player in basketball may not be the most efficient way for Doc Rivers to use him. The C's did well to replace Ray Allen with Jason Terry and Courtney Lee, but neither player can completely mask his absence. As such, it'll likely be up to Pierce to make up some of the difference from the perimeter.
Which brings us back to Bass. He matches up much more naturally with LeBron as far as age (27), size (6'8", 250 pounds) and athleticism are concerned. His offensive tasks (i.e. setting screens, hitting midrange jumpers) are also relatively menial compared to those that Pierce typically shoulders. Hence, having Bass commit himself to handling James isn't nearly the detriment to Boston's overall pursuits that placing Pierce in such a role is.
And it's not as though Bass can't handle himself on that end of the floor, either. According to Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com, Bass held his opponents to 31.8 percent shooting from the field and 0.673 points per play in one-on-one situations last season, with the latter number placing him in the 95th percentile among his NBA peers. He also limited opposing power forwards—a position that LeBron frequented and figures to going forward with Chris Bosh at "center"—to a PER of 13.8 (per 82games.com).
Bass' performance against LeBron since the three-time MVP moved to Miami hasn't been too shabby, either. In 2010-11, as a member of the Orlando Magic, Bass held LeBron to 18.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists and an overall plus-minus of minus-3.9 in 56 minutes across three meetings (per NBA.com's advanced stats tool). Furthermore, LeBron shot a subpar 44 percent from the field and failed to nail a single three-point shot with Bass battling him.
Skip to the 2011-12 regular season, when Bass defended James for 89 minutes in three meetings between the C's and the Heat (not including a meaningless fourth game in which LeBron didn't play), and the numbers are similarly impressive. James' scoring (24.3 points), though better than 2010-11, still represented a drop-off from his lockout-shortened-season average of 26.0 and a massive improvement over the 39.1 points that he averaged while Bass sat. LeBron's shooting percentages (46 percent from the field, squadoosh from three), rebounds (5.7) and assists (4.0) were similarly subpar against Bass.
Most impressively, LeBron registered a plus-minus rating of minus-18.6 when Bass was on the court, compared to a plus-3.1 with Bass on the bench. All told, that means Bass accounted for a net difference of 21.7 points in Boston's favor over the course of 112 minutes.
Which is to say, Bass can hold his own against LeBron.
To be sure, LeBron had his way with Bass in the Eastern Conference Finals. His scoring, rebounding, shooting, assist and plus-minus numbers were all significantly better during the 212 minutes he spent tangling with Bass on the court than they were during the 108 minutes that LeBron played while Bass was on the bench.
Then again, LeBron had his way with anyone and everyone who attempted to impede him during last year's playoffs. He averaged a stunning 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists on the way to capturing his first NBA title, including an even more staggering 33.6 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists during the Heat's seven-game series against the C's.
Bass wasn't alone in this regard, then. Neither he nor Pierce (nor anyone else, for that matter) could stop the Heat's human freight train from charging down the tracks toward his championship destiny.
And, realistically, defending LeBron is a team-wide endeavor. No one man can reasonably shut down a player of LeBron's talent, physicality and versatility over any significant stretch of time.
That being said, if there's anyone on the Celtics whose own abilities and role on the team suit him well to the task of being the first line of defense against LeBron, it's Brandon Bass.
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