Ranking the NBA's Toughest Ironmen

Grant RindnerContributor IIIDecember 16, 2012

Ranking the NBA's Toughest Ironmen

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    The NBA is not a league for the soft or the fragile. Every player, whether they are a sharpshooting guard or a bruising center, is going to take their fair share of hard fouls, unavoidable contact and hard falls during the course of each grueling season.

    Many incredibly talented players who had superstar potential simply could not hold up physically and were never capable of achieving their potential.

    However, there are a handful of players who not only survive the league's physicality, but thrive on it. They are among the game's most competitive, willing to play through pain and do whatever it takes to eek out a win for their squad.

    They may not possess the most skills or the best shooting stroke, but these players have made their living by being physically dominant.

    The "ironman" label is not one often applied to basketball, but these seven players certainly deserve it for the way they carry themselves on the court.

No. 7: Jason Kidd (New York Knicks)

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    Sure, he is beginning to break down and show signs of the superhuman minutes he has logged during his NBA career, but the New York Knicks' Jason Kidd undoubtedly deserves a spot on the ironman list.

    Kidd, who will turn 40 in March, is in his 19th year in the league and continues to be an impact player on both ends of the floor, even without the athleticism that made him a perennial MVP candidate. Kidd has remade himself as a three-point shooter and a game manager extraordinaire.

    In New York, Kidd was expecting to mentor Jeremy Lin and play spot minutes; instead, he has been thrust into a feature role, averaging 28.3 minutes per game and scoring 8.9 points while dishing out 3.7 assists.

    He is also still guarding the game's elite scorers on a nightly basis. Against the Los Angeles Lakers, he spent most of the game checking Kobe Bryant, making him work for every shot.

    Due to his veteran status, Kidd may never play a full 82 games again, but for what he has done during his time in the league, thanks to his physicality and immense skills and his ability to impact the game in so many ways, Jason Kidd is certainly an ironman in every form of the word.

No. 6: Andre Miller (Denver Nuggets)

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    Another veteran point guard who has been in the league for ages, Andre Miler might not be renowned for playing through injury, but the 36-year-old earns a nod because he has never missed more than two games in the course of one season during his career.

    Miller is widely considered one of the game's savviest players, but his ability to stay healthy and active is often forgotten or underrated by basketball fans. He is not a dominant athlete, but Miller knows how to get the most out of his body while staying healthy enough to suit up every night and make a meaningful contribution.

    He excels in the half court, has phenomenal court vision and passing ability and is one of the best post-up guards in the NBA. Miller is never rushed or harried by opponents, always taking his time and waiting for the perfect play to develop.

    Durability is a quality that is regularly overlooked when referring to point guards, but the fact that Miller is still playing with largely the same level of effectiveness as he did as a rookie is something truly astonishing.

    Because of the intelligence he plays with, Miller could play well into his 40s, and don't be surprised if that proves to be the case for this under-the-radar ironman.

No. 5: Derek Fisher (Dallas Mavericks)

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    You would be hard-pressed to find anyone that has ever considered Derek Fisher, the Dallas Mavericks' current starting point guard, a truly elite player, but no one can deny that Fisher is an absolute warrior and that his longevity is truly remarkable.

    Fisher is known most for his clutch shots in the playoffs and his rapport with Kobe Bryant, but prior to being traded by the Lakers and missing three games in 2011-12, Fisher had missed just eight games since the 2002-03 season.

    He does not possess a single unbelievable skill on the court, but his ability to elevate his game in key moments, provide battle-tested veteran leadership and keep his teammates engaged makes him a far more valuable piece than his stats alone would indicate.

    Derek Fisher did not begin the 2012-13 season with a team, but at 38 is currently logging nearly 28 minutes per game for the Mavs and has become their primary point guard with Darren Collison providing relief off the bench.

    He is not an overly aggressive or physical player offensively, preferring to camp out on the perimeter, but he can make his presence felt in big moments defensively and keeps himself in peak physical shape in order to stay effective through the course of the entire season.

No. 4: Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder)

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    In four-and-a-half seasons since entering the league with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook has not missed a single game.

    Westbrook has appeared in all 335 possible contests and averaged an impressive 34.3 minutes per game in them while playing at a constantly relentless pace on both ends of the floor.

    Because of his explosiveness and natural athleticism, Westbrook is always at full throttle, looking to push the pace at every available opportunity and playing physical defense, sometimes all the way up the court.

    Offensively, he is renowned for his driving ability and because of the amount that he gets in the paint, it is almost a guarantee that he has to shake off a few hard fouls and awkward falls each night.

    However, there is something almost superhuman about Russell Westbrook, who never missed a game during his time at UCLA either. He is an integral piece of this Thunder team that is vying for a championship, and his ability to play through pain and absorb contact for another year could very well decide how OKC's season goes.

No. 3: Gerald Wallace (Brookyln Nets)

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    Gerald "Crash" Wallace of the Brooklyn Nets misses his share of games, dropping his ranking on this list, but he also throws his body around with reckless abandon and plays through his fair share of pain during the course of any given season.

    Wallace does not have an elite skill set, he is a decent shooter and playmaker, but where he earns his money is with his staggering athleticism and his willingness to make hustle plays to win games.

    One of the league's more physical defenders, Wallace can cover both guards and forward with ease and is always aggressive in denying driving lanes and making opponents work for their shots.

    Where Wallace gets his famous nickname, though, is from his willingness to attack the glass and sacrifice his body, even if it does lead to frequent injuries and concussions.

    During the 2007-08 season, Wallace played after receiving a Grade 3 concussion, which is the most serious classification, and was his fourth in four seasons.

    Injuries will always be a by-product of Wallace's relentless style of play, and as long as he remains in the league and willing to throw himself around with abandon, he will be among the league's top iron men.

No. 2 Wesley Matthews (Portland Trail Blazers)

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    The Portland Trail Blazers' Wesley Matthews has missed his team's games against the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs with a hip flexor injury, but prior to that, had not missed a game in more than three NBA seasons.

    Matthews is one of the grittiest perimeter players in the league, someone who plays unbelievably tough outside defense and is also willing to absorb contact and find his way to the rim offensively.

    Though many know him as simply a three-point specialist, in actuality, Matthews, since entering the league from Marquette, has been one of the NBA's more durable shooting guards and has willingly played through his share of injuries.

    Matthews famously revealed that during the 2010-11 season he tore a tendon in his right ankle after a January practice and managed to play the rest of the campaign and the playoffs with little to no feeling in his foot.

    Currently in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career, averaging 16.1 points per game and shooting 38.9 percent from three-point range, it is safe to say that as long as Matthews can suit up, he will be out on the floor.

No. 1: Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers)

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    Lost among the historic numbers, unbelievable fourthquarter heroics and constant media attention, is the fact that the 34-year-old Kobe Bryant is currently the league's top ironman. He has missed some time over the past few campaigns, but his ability to play through pain and push his body to the breaking point is something no player in the league today can rival.

    Against the Knicks, Bryant played through back spasms and almost single-handedly got Los Angeles back into the game after New York blew it open. This is nothing new for Kobe, one of the NBA's fiercest competitors and someone who values helping his team win games over even his own health.

    He nursed a series of injuries in the 2011-12 season, including a torn ligament in his wrist that he played through for almost the entire campaign while vying for a scoring title and leading L.A. to the Western Conference's third seed. He did not miss time until a shin injury right before the playoffs forced Mike Brown to give him some rest heading into the most important stretch of the year.

    What makes Kobe unique is not just that he plays hurt, but that he is constantly willing to try new things to improve his health and make him a more effective and physically capable player. His decision to try a new form of therapy called platelet-rich plasma therapy in Germany was much discussed by the sports media, but it certainly had a positive impact for the perennial All-Star with knee issues.

    The NBA is a league with plenty of tough customers that can take a hit and get back up, but no one today is as dedicated to playing through pain as Kobe Bryant.