Blueprint for Each 2013 NBA Playoff Team to Counter LeBron James
If only it were that easy.
In his 10th NBA season, James is playing better than ever. He's become virtually unstoppable in the post and on the fast break while also ranking as one of the league's most efficient jump-shooters in 2012-13, according to ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh.
Assuming James maintains his recent dominance, the Miami Heat project to be the favorites to win the 2013 championship. Having a strong wing defender, a la Andre Iguodala or Tony Allen, won't be enough to shut James down in a seven-game series.
It'll take a concentrated team-wide effort to put a dent in James' production. Even then, there's no guarantee anyone can truly shut him down.
Using the playoff standings as of Feb. 27, here's what each projected playoff team must do against the Miami Heat to have a shot at winning the 2013 NBA championship.
Honorable Mention: Los Angeles Lakers (9th, Western Conference)
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Although the Los Angeles Lakers aren't currently projected to make the playoffs, they earn an honorable mention here on the off-chance that they can beat out Houston or Utah for the last seed in the Western Conference playoff field.
The Lakers wouldn't run into Miami until the NBA Finals, giving David Stern his long-awaited showdown between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in his last NBA Finals as commissioner (start your conspiracy theories in three...two...one...).
Even with their star-studded roster, the Lakers will struggle to counter James in a seven-game series.
The Lakers, first and foremost, need a healthy Pau Gasol to stand any chance of stopping James. Without two bigs in Gasol and Dwight Howard on the floor to punish Miami's lack of size, James will dissect the Lakers much like he did in a 107-97 win back on Feb. 10.
Metta World Peace isn't the defender he once was, but he'd be L.A.'s first line of defense against James. If and when he blows past World Peace, Gasol and Howard would have to rotate and pick up the defensive slack.
Honorable Mention: Toronto Raptors (10th, Eastern Conference)
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If the Toronto Raptors end up squeaking into the Eastern Conference playoffs ahead of Milwaukee or Boston, the newly acquired Rudy Gay may end up proving more clutch than ever.
In Gay's second game as a Raptor back on Feb. 3, he faced off against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. The Heat emerged with a 100-85 victory, but Gay (29 points, four rebounds, three steals and two assists) went nearly blow-for-blow with James (30 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and two steals) that night.
In the two meetings between Gay and James this season, the latter finished below his averages in points, three-point attempts, three-point shooting percentage and plus-minus in the 73 minutes Gay was on the court, according to NBA.com's advanced stats tool.
When committed on both ends of the court, Gay is one of the few players in the league with the athleticism to attempt to match LeBron. He can't do it alone, though.
The Raptors will need Jonas Valanciunas to serve as the last line of defense against James for when Gay slips up defensively. If Valanciunas can stay out of foul trouble—he averages 4.9 fouls per 36 minutes—the combination of he and Gay could at least occasionally disrupt James.
Houston Rockets (8th, Western Conference)
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If the Houston Rockets somehow emerge from the Western Conference playoffs as the conference champion, it's likely not going to be because of their defense.
The Rockets allow opponents to average 103.5 points per game, which ranks 29th in the league ahead of only the dismal Sacramento Kings. A lot of that comes down to pace, as the Rockets average 106.3 points per game, second in the league only to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In other words, a Rockets-Miami Heat NBA Finals matchup would be a shootout each night.
James Harden, the Rockets' breakout star, proved back on Feb. 6 that he's fully capable of taking over a game against Miami in the fourth quarter. He dropped 16 points in the final 8:15 of that 114-108 loss, going 3-of-4 from three-point range and 5-of-6 from the field overall.
Defensively, the Rockets don't have a wing stopper who can match James. Chandler Parsons, the newly acquired Thomas Robinson, Carlos Delfino and Omer Asik would all likely take turns dealing with LeBron on the defensive end, but none would stand much of a chance.
Milwaukee Bucks (8th, Eastern Conference)
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Despite being under .500, the Milwaukee Bucks hold more than a five-game lead over the Philadelphia 76ers for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (God bless you, Eastern Conference.)
If Milwaukee holds on to that eighth seed, that means a first-round matchup with LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute would be the Bucks' best hope of slowing down James. Mbah a Moute has allowed opponents to score only 0.74 points per possession in the 245 plays he's been directly involved with this year, good for 28th in the league, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).
When the defense on the perimeter fails against LeBron, the Bucks do tout the league's shot-blocking leader, Larry Sanders, who averages 3.2 blocks per game. Even if Sanders affects only a few of James' attempts each night, it could be enough to help the Bucks steal a game or two from Miami.
Utah Jazz (7th, Western Conference)
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By not making any moves at the trade deadline, the Utah Jazz signaled their intent to overwhelm opponents with their big-man depth once the playoffs begin.
On the off-chance that the Jazz emerge as the Western Conference champion, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap would be the keys to containing LeBron James in the NBA Finals.
Marvin Williams, Utah's starting small forward, stands little chance of reeling James in defensively. Williams also isn't much of a threat on offense, which would allow LeBron to conserve some of his energy when guarding him.
Jefferson and Millsap, and to a lesser extent Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, would be Utah's best hopes of staying competitive. The presence of two bigs on the floor at all times could at least deter James from driving to the basket so frequently, and instead encourage him into taking jump shots.
Although James has significantly improved as a shooter, every team in the league would trade him taking a mid-range jumper for him driving to the basket with a full head of steam. Fortified post defense would be Utah's one and only hope.
Boston Celtics (7th, Eastern Conference)
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LeBron James and the Boston Celtics have engaged in some epic battles over the years, but this year's depleted Celtics roster likely won't add to that list if they cross paths in the 2013 playoffs.
The recent season-ending ACL tear of Rajon Rondo negated the Celtics' biggest advantage over the Miami Heat. Kevin Garnett may still be a tough cover for Chris Bosh, but James and Dwyane Wade should prove to be too much for Paul Pierce and Avery Bradley to handle, respectively.
Rookie Jared Sullinger being out for the season due to back surgery only further digs Boston's grave against Miami. Brandon Bass and Jeff Green are just about the only workable backups for Pierce and Garnett against LeBron.
The Celtics did beat Miami 100-98 back on Jan. 27 without Rajon Rondo, proving they could at least steal a game from Miami in a playoff series.
The combination of James, Wade, Bosh and Ray Allen will be too much for this wounded Celtics team to take down, however.
Golden State Warriors (6th, Western Conference)
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If the Golden State Warriors were to meet the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, LeBron James would all but certainly be walking out of that series with his second championship ring.
The Warriors' major flaw as of late has been allowing opponents to attempt too many corner three-point shots. The Heat happen to specialize in corner threes, ranking third in the league with 233 attempts and first in the league in field-goal percentage (.451) from that range, according to NBA.com/stats.
James has only taken 37 of those corner three-point attempts, meaning he'll likely do most of his damage down low against the Warriors. If the Dubs can't get a healthy Andrew Bogut back to counteract James' driving ability, it'll be a long series for David Lee and Festus Ezeli.
Rookie Harrison Barnes would likely draw the assignment of James on the perimeter, but at only 210 pounds, LeBron can and will physically overpower him.
If Barnes can force James into taking somewhat-contested jumpers instead of driving to the rim on every touch, the Warriors could at least steal a game from Miami.
Chicago Bulls (6th, Eastern Conference)
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The Chicago Bulls, despite currently ranking sixth in the Eastern Conference, could present one of the toughest matchup challenges for Miami out of any Eastern Conference team.
That's all contingent upon the return of star point guard Derrick Rose, which still appears to be up in the air at this point.
If Rose comes back, Mario Chalmers would stand no chance against him. The Heat would need to switch Dwyane Wade onto Rose and pray that Chalmers could cover Rip Hamilton.
Luol Deng would draw the defensive assignment against LeBron James, and that's not actually too much of a mismatch. Deng has long been one of the league's more underrated defenders, and he's got the length, size and speed to at least put up a fight against James on the wing.
When LeBron breaks through to the basket, he'll have Joakim Noah's long arms to avoid. Not having Omer Asik as a backup anymore could hurt against the size-deficient Heat, but the Bulls' chances against Miami all depend upon Rose's return anyway.
Denver Nuggets (5th, Western Conference)
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If the Denver Nuggets advance to the NBA Finals to meet the Miami Heat, they've got one of the few wing defenders in the league that can actually match up well with LeBron James.
In trading for Andre Iguodala in the summer of 2012, the Nuggets acquired the best available defense against James, Kevin Durant and other talented forwards. Iguodala spent the summer in London with those guys as Team USA's defensive specialist.
He's long, he's athletic and he's young enough that keeping up with James for 48 minutes won't kill him. Best of all, he's a smart defender, as evidenced by this interview with CBSsports.com's Matt Moore.
Iguodala knows there's no way to completely shut James down, but he also has a few tricks up his sleeve to pressure James into taking lower-percentage shots. That's the type of defense that could allow Denver to stay competitive in a series with Miami.
At the rim, JaVale McGee and Kosta Koufos give Denver two legitimate shot-blocking presences, which is always critical to protect against LeBron's drives to the hoop. Ultimately, though, a Denver-Miami series would all come down to how well Iguodala could guard the reigning MVP.
Atlanta Hawks (5th, Eastern Conference)
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As the playoff seedings currently stand, the Atlanta Hawks would face off against the Miami Heat in the second round if both teams advance that far.
Having beaten the Hawks in all three regular-season matchups this year, here's guessing the Heat wouldn't be sweating that second-round series too hard.
The Hawks' first line of defense against LeBron James has been Josh Smith, who found himself immersed in trade rumors throughout February. The Hawks didn't end up pulling the trigger and could be glad they didn't if they cross paths with Miami in the playoffs.
Smith is one of the rare forwards in the league athletic enough to present challenges for James. However, as Grantland's Zach Lowe recently noted, he's also sometimes lacking in the focus and fundamental departments defensively, which can't be afforded against a player like LeBron.
Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia and Anthony Tolliver provide the size inside for Atlanta, which could deter James from driving so frequently to the basket. The Hawks won't be able to shut down both James and Dwyane Wade, though, and that will be their undoing against Miami.
Memphis Grizzlies (4th, Western Conference)
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The Memphis Grizzlies have bounced back after the initial shock settled from the Rudy Gay trade, but still represent a long shot to emerge as the Western Conference champion.
If the Grizzlies do end up meeting the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, that Gay trade could come back to bite them.
Tayshaun Prince has long been renowned as one of the league's better wing defenders, but at the age of 32, it'll be tough for him to keep up with LeBron James for an entire series. Gay wasn't a better defender than Prince by any means, but he does have youth and athleticism in his favor.
The Grizzlies could try sticking Tony Allen on James at times, but LeBron has four inches and 50 pounds on Allen. Besides, Memphis will likely need to put Allen on the resurgent Dwyane Wade to stand any chance in a series against Miami.
When Prince can't handle James alone, he'll have Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol backing him up in the paint. The Memphis bigs will have to extend their defensive coverage to the perimeter to account for Chris Bosh's shooting ability, however, which should open driving lanes for James and Wade.
Brooklyn Nets (4th, Eastern Conference)
The Brooklyn Nets were doomed against the Miami Heat the second Reggie Evans opened his mouth.
Before the two teams clashed on Jan. 30, Evans told the New York Daily News that the Heat's 2012 championship "doesn't prove nothing" because it came during a lockout season. James didn't take kindly to that.
The Heat have blown out the Nets in each of their three meetings this season, with 13 points being the closest Brooklyn has finished. James, in particular, has been a well-rounded dynamo in all three games.
The Nets can throw Gerald Wallace at James on the wing, but that's hardly a problem for the reigning MVP. Wallace has been struggling through most of the season while LeBron is looking more dominant than ever.
Brooklyn also lacks a true shot-blocking presence on the interior, despite what Brook Lopez has been doing this season (2.2 blocks in only 30.3 minutes per game).
The combination of having no one capable of locking James down on the perimeter with a weak interior defense will spell a quick demise for Brooklyn if they meet the Heat in the playoffs.
Los Angeles Clippers (3rd, Western Conference)
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Now that we've reached the Los Angeles Clippers, we're finally getting to the teams that could send shivers down the spines of Miami Heat players this spring.
The Clippers have two hyper-athletic freaks down in the post in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Neither are elite defenders, but both players (especially Jordan) aren't afraid to mix it up inside.
Having Griffin and Jordan looming in the paint will be the Clippers' last line of defense against LeBron James and the Heat. Like Memphis, however, the Clippers' bigs will have to drift out to the perimeter at times to respect Chris Bosh's ability to knock down a mid-range jumper.
Caron Butler and Matt Barnes will be the two Clippers who draw most of the defensive responsibility against James on the perimeter. Neither player will be able to contain James on their own, so they'll need to funnel him into Griffin and Jordan in the post at times.
As long as the Clippers' defensive rotations are sound, they would stand a chance of going blow-for-blow with the Heat in the NBA Finals. Not trading for Kevin Garnett at the trade deadline could haunt them if they make it that far and meet Miami, though.
New York Knicks (3rd, Eastern Conference)
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Early in the 2012-13 season, the New York Knicks appeared to pose the greatest matchup challenge out of any Eastern Conference team for LeBron James and Miami Heat.
The Knicks have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Tyson Chandler, manning the paint and setting the tone defensively for them. Before he got knocked out for the year with a foot injury, the Knicks had Rasheed Wallace as a backup big with Amar'e Stoudemire sidelined.
New York also hit a boatload of three-pointers in the first month of the season, but it was clear even then that the pace was unsustainable.
Carmelo Anthony has cooled off a bit since the start of the year, but he's one of the few players with the size and athleticism to cover James one-on-one when committed. He wouldn't be able to completely contain James, but he's also not going to be completely helpless against the reigning MVP.
The Knicks at this point should be more concerned with staying healthy through the rest of the season and rediscovering their groove on both ends of the court.
To have any chance of stopping James and the Heat, the Knicks must regain their mojo on defense and seal off the paint.
Oklahoma City Thunder (2nd, Western Conference)
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The Oklahoma City Thunder clashed with the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals, but had few answers for LeBron James and the Miami Heat after Game 1.
A year later, Kevin Durant may finally be up for the challenge of drawing James as his main defensive assignment.
Durant's lack of bulk has been his downfall defensively since he entered the league in 2007, but he's more than made up for it by leading the league in scoring for each of the past three years. As much as James could bully him physically, he can torment LeBron with the quick release on his jump shot.
When Thunder coach Scott Brooks decides to give Durant a rest on defense, he'll sic either Thabo Sefolosha or the newly acquired Ronnie Brewer on James.
Having Serge Ibaka, one of the league's best shot-blockers, and Kendrick Perkins guarding the paint won't hurt for Oklahoma City, either. The two bigs can deter James (and Dwyane Wade) from penetrating and taking high-percentage looks, which is about all a defense can ask for against Miami.
Keep in mind, however, that the Thunder weren't able to limit James' damage in last year's NBA Finals. He's been only more dominant in the teams' two matchups this season, which doesn't bode well for Oklahoma City if a rematch unfolds in 2013.
Indiana Pacers (2nd, Eastern Conference)
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Of any team in the Eastern Conference, the Indiana Pacers may be most well-equipped to battle LeBron James and the Miami Heat over a seven-game series.
The Pacers have two excellent wing players in Paul George and Danny Granger, the latter of whom just played his first game of the season toward the end of February. By the time the playoffs roll around in late April, Granger should just be getting his game legs fully under him.
George, on the other hand, has emerged as the Pacers' breakout star in the third year of his NBA career. He's averaged nearly two steals and a block per game for Indiana this year, along with 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game.
With George and Granger swapping turns taking James on defensively, neither player will likely wear down too much over the course of the series.
Down low, Indiana has the 7'2" Roy Hibbert as its last line of defense. The presence of both he and David West will present matchup challenges for Chris Bosh and the other Heat bigs, which could cause James to play more at the 4 than typical.
The Pacers rank first in the league in defensive efficiency, according to ESPN.com, and that's been without Granger for all but a few games. The Heat should be hoping to avoid the Pacers until the conference finals, if at all possible.
San Antonio Spurs (1st, Western Conference)
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If any team in the NBA looks like it can take down LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2013, it's the San Antonio Spurs.
Despite once again falling under the national radar, the Spurs tout the league's best record at 45-13 as of the morning of Feb. 27. Point guard Tony Parker is playing at an MVP level, while the 36-year-old Tim Duncan has looked a decade younger this season when healthy.
Against James, the Spurs would first throw out their young pup, Kawhi Leonard, as the initial defensive assignment on the perimeter. Leonard's quick hands help him generate nearly two steals in only 30 minutes per game, which could prove invaluable against LeBron.
At only 6'7" and 225 pounds, Leonard won't be able to single-handedly guard the 6'8", 250-pound James. That's where Duncan, the Big Fundamental, comes in.
Despite only playing roughly 30 minutes per game, Duncan's been blocking nearly three shots per night. He's not prone to gambling defensively; he'll just stand back by the basket and wait until the opponent forces the action there.
Forcing James into contested jump shots is the best (only?) strategy against him. With Leonard and Duncan as the two primary defensive forces against James, the Spurs are relatively well positioned to keep him off-balance in a seven-game series.