LeBron James is guarding Kevin Durant in the 2012 Finals.
In order for a player to be recognized as one of the greatest basketball players in the world, he must be one of the best defenders in the game as well. LeBron James is recognized as arguably the most versatile offensive weapon in the NBA, but where does he rank among the league's top frontcourt defenders?
In the breakdown of my current top five frontcourt defenders, only players who primarily play the small forward, power forward or center positions on their respective teams will be considered. Players like Andre Iguodala and Tony Allen are labeled as swingmen, but they spend most of their time playing shooting guard so they will not be considered on this list.
Versatile defenders are favored over one-dimensional defenders. The NBA today is evolving right before our eyes. Versatile defenders capable of guarding multiple positions are more valued than traditional, position-special defenders. For example, an Andrei Kirilenko-type player is much more valuable defensively when compared to a Kendrick Perkins-type player.
Tim Duncan going up for a block against the Rockets Jeremy Lin
Ibaka became one of the best frontcourt defenders in the NBA last season, which was supported by his second-place finish in the Defensive Player of the Year award.
At 6'10, 240 pounds and a body that looks like it was carved out of marble, Ibaka is a tremendous athlete and will only improve on the defensive end of the court. As of right now, Ibaka is more renown for his tendency to go for a highlight block rather than staying down and defending his man.
Timmy D remains one of the top frontcourt defenders in the league. Had this list been extended to 10 players, he would definitely be on it.
In his late thirties, Duncan is still a fabulous post defender, but he seems to have lost a step against quicker power forwards. In retrospect to Ibaka, Duncan has never been an elite athlete. Instead, he positions his body to stay in front of post-players and registers 2.5 blocks per game while hardly ever jumping more than six inches off of the ground.
Yes, the DPOY last year is not one of the top five frontcourt defenders in the NBA.
Although he changed the Knicks team from a ranked 27 defense in 2010-11 to a top 11 defense in 2011-12, he has not been doing quite as well this year. The Knicks actually have a defensive rating of 99.3 when Chandler is on the bench, which is 5.6 points better than when Chandler is on the court. That is not to say that Chandler has regressed defensively, but opposing frontcourt players are beginning to exploit one of Chandler's weaknesses, which is his inability to play effective defense outside of the paint.
This season however, Howard looks like he has lost a step. Back surgery is a long process to recover from, and maybe that's why he seems slower than his usual self back in Orlando. With and without him on the floor, the Lakers are right around the same defensive rating, which is rather intriguing considering that the Lakers don't have a capable defender off the bench other than World Peace. In past seasons, Howard would definitely be in the top five, but this list is based on the current play around the league.
Smith has always been a great defender since he came into the league.
In recent years however, he's been more known for his bad shot selection on offense instead of his incredible defensive prowess. At 6'9", 230 pounds, Smith can guard quicker forwards and has the length to defend bigger power forwards in the post. This year, he is right on his career averages of 1.4 steals and 2.3 blocks per game, but those numbers are an understatement when talking about Smith's defensive game.
Like Ibaka, Smith is also a tremendous athlete. His athleticism and length allow him to play solid defense on guards as well. In the slide video, Smith uses his long body to block the layup attempt of Derrick Rose, the 2011 MVP, and then proceeds to record several blocks after that.
In this season, with the Hawks at the top of the East standings, Smith is finally being recognized as an elite defender in his own right. According to NBA.com, the Hawks allow 105.2 points per 100 possessions when Smith is on the bench, as opposed to just 97.6 points when Smith is on the floor. Smith is one of the big reasons why the Atlanta Hawks have been a top 10 defensive team the past five seasons.
Noah is one of the best defenders in the NBA when healthy, but that has been hard to say in the past few years with all of the nagging injuries he has had. In this season, Noah's game has gone to a whole different level both offensively and defensively, and he is the reason why the Bulls are still afloat with Derrick Rose still working his way back from his injury last season.
The bristly, fleet-footed center forward can move as quickly as anyone. Noah is also one of the most physical players in the league and can bang with any strong power forward or center down in the paint. When he is on the floor, the Bulls are allowing just 96.2 points per 100 possessions. However, when he's on the bench the team is allowing nearly 10 points more per 100 possessions.
Noah is arguably the best pick-and-roll defender in the league. His combination of quick feet and physical body allow him to defend anybody in the league. Noah's defensive play has propelled him into All-Star candidacy this season, and he may very well be the third-best frontcourt player this season.
When Kirilenko came into the league, he was instantly recognized as a versatile defender because of his length and quickness. After a few down years in Utah and a season of playing in Russia again, Kirilenko looks rejuvenated and ready to take on the likes of Kevin Durant and LeBron James (defensively, that is).
Last season, Minnesota was ranked 24th in defensive efficiency, while giving up over 100 points per game. This season, with the addition of Kirilenko, the Wolves are ranked sixth in defensive efficiency and allow the sixth fewest opponent's points per game at 94.6.
It's not a coincidence that Kirilenko improved the Wolves' overall defense by this much once he joined the team. It's similar to Tyson Chandler's arrival in New York and how he was able to turn a team's defense around in a single season. Kirilenko also has the highest defensive plays per foul rating so far this season, ahead of both Tim Duncan and LeBron James.
As great as LeBron James is, I feel like he isn't as appreciated on the defensive end of the floor as he is bulldozing through defenders on offense.
There are very few players who can match up to James' strength, quickness, athleticism and intelligence on defense. In the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals against the Bulls, James guarded the reigning MVP, Derrick Rose, at the end of games and forced him into difficult, contested shots.
At 6'8", 260 pounds, it's simply unfair for a guy to be as fast as Derrick Rose and as strong as Dwight Howard. However, the guy ahead of him on this list may not have the talent that LeBron possesses, but he defends through sheer toughness and determination.
Kevin Garnett is the toughest, meanest and most physical defender in the NBA.
By no means is he as talented a defender as LeBron James, but this list is not determined by levels of talent. Garnett has been a great defender throughout his career. He is not as strong as Dwight Howard, but he balances it out with his length and toughness.
When Garnett is on the floor, the Celtics are only allowing 95.9 points per 100 possessions. But when Garnett is on the bench, the Celtics are giving up an unprecedented 111.1 points per 100 possessions. That's over a 15 point difference because of just one player.
The 17-year veteran has been in the league long enough to know all of the little tricks to get in the heads of players on defense. If an opposing player does happen to score a basket on Garnett, he would have a nightmare while trying to do it again.