As Jimmy Butler found out, it's tough to shut down LeBron James. You can slow him down, sure, but can you completely corral him?
Shutting down a superstar during the 2013 NBA playoffs seems like a crazy proposition, but it actually is possible.
Well, truly shutting one down is a bit much to expect. Severely slowing them down is a more realistic goal, although sticking perfectly to these blueprints could allow defenders to minimize the impact of the opposing studs.
Even LeBron James can be contained.
A little luck needs to be involved, and the strategy won't work every night, but it's possible to lessen the impact of the league MVP. Jimmy Butler proved that for the Chicago Bulls even if the Miami Heat ultimately emerged victorious and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.
For this article, we're going to use a stricter definition of the word "superstar" than we do in the playoff superstar power rankings. Only a select few players on the remaining teams qualify, and stars like Mike Conley, Chris Bosh, David West and Manu Ginobili fall just shy.
NBA defenders, take note.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from ESPN and Basketball-Reference.com.
Having a lanky and athletic defender like Paul George is a luxury few teams possess, so shutting down Carmelo Anthony is usually a team-wide endeavor.
George has used his length to disrupt entry passes targeted at Melo, forcing him out further from the basket. By doing so, he's capitalized on a weakness few casual NBA fans are aware of: Anthony isn't an otherworldly jump-shooter. He's just an average one who shoots a lot.
No player gets from a dribble to the release of a shot in less time, and that enables Melo to get off cleaner looks than normal, but he still shot only 40.8 percent on the jumpers he lofted up during the 2012-13 season. The cleanliness of his releases, the beauty of his form and the frequency with which he lets fly—and thus the extra makes—all help mask the misses, no matter how much they pile up.
If you can fight for position early to keep Melo away from post-up opportunities, you're off to a great start.
But even that's not enough.
The next step involves the rest of the team. Once Anthony has the ball in a position from which he'll drive or go to work with his back to the basket, a second defender must provide help on that strong side. Even if it's not a double-team situation in the strictest sense of the term, that extra body limits the options for Melo.
If the remaining three members of the squad rotate properly, Anthony isn't a skilled enough passer to create a play out of nothing. He's forced to hoist up a bad look—something we know he's willing to do—or kick the ball out for a reset and a lower number on the shot clock.
The Association's newest scoring champion is going to put up points. That's almost as sure as death, taxes and Sean Bean's characters dying.
Defenders can't key in on his point total, but rather the field-goal attempts. Force him to take more shots from the hardwood, but less near the basket and even fewer from the charity stripe.
People have been trying to shut down Tim Duncan for well over a decade now, and precious few have been successful. Whenever there's a scouting report and game plan that works against The Big Fundamental, he just modifies or adds to his game, thus rendering the previous report ineffective.
This is obviously a hyperbolic statement, but doesn't it feel like you can count the truly awful games of Duncan's career on just one hand? That's one of the many reasons he's going to eventually retire (unless he truly is an alien) as one of the 10 best players to ever suit up on an NBA court.
Shutting down Duncan essentially means keeping him from taking over a game offensively and limiting him to serving as just another cog in Gregg Popovich's game of Mousetrap.
To do so, you have to keep the big man from setting up shop on the left end of the half-court set. Take a look at his heat map, and you'll quickly see why.
If Duncan catches the ball along the left baseline or from the left elbow, he's going to knock the ensuing shot down. More often than not, that square on the backboard is directly involved, and if you see the ball carom off the glass, you might as well start retreating to the other end of the court without checking to make sure it dropped through the net.
Duncan's spin move that leads to a bank is beyond deadly even when defenders are expecting it, but it's far less effective when he's not operating on the left.
Forcing him to the right side of the set and preventing any entry passes to the elbows is crucial. Frankly, it's better for Duncan to receive the ball on the low block.
As skilled as he is while posting up, you have to pick your poison, and Duncan's passing brilliance is limited when he's in such close proximity to the basket. No. 21 won't often single-handedly beat you with his scoring; it's the combination of his scoring and facilitating that makes him such a deadly offensive threat.
Additionally, old age is subtly sapping Duncan's ability to finish around the basket. He made 69.5 percent of his shots at the rim during the 2012-13 season, and that's a number fairly consistent with the percentages he's posted throughout the latter half of his legendary career. He's just doing so on far fewer attempts.
There's also a second strategy that can shut down Duncan: Just have Joey Crawford ref the game.
Usually it's the versatile players who are the most difficult to shut down, and no word describes Marc Gasol better than "versatile." His game is predicated upon contributions in every facet, as he dominates on defense and provides scoring from all areas, terrific passing and solid rebounding on the more glamorous end of the court.
Picking your poison isn't fun, but it's ultimately necessary against some players. Guys like Gasol, the ones who can make your life miserable even when they're struggling with one aspect of their game, fall into that category.
Letting Gasol beat you with both his scoring and passing is the equivalent of wandering into a black widow's nest. You'd like to avoid that at all costs.
But turning the 7-footer into a score-first center is more like accidentally swallowing a spoonful of some cleaning solution. It's not a good thing, but you can survive it.
If you push Gasol out onto the perimeter, give him space. Don't immediately feel like you have to be right up in his face, because the Spaniard will hesitate regardless of how close you are. He's naturally unselfish with the ball in his hands, which gives you a few more split seconds to close out.
By hanging back, you're forcing Gasol to consider the jumper—his mid-range shot is quite good, but it's not the type of shot that will consistently cause devastating scoring runs—and you're taking away the passing lanes around the basket.
Remember how defenders used to back off Rajon Rondo to limit the effectiveness and broad range of his passes? That's the strategy that we're utilizing here, although we're accepting that Gasol's jumper will be able to make you pay more often.
The center doesn't score an inordinately higher number of points when the Memphis Grizzlies win. But his distributing numbers are significantly better.
In wins during the 2012-13 season, Gasol averaged 14.2 points on 49.7 percent shooting while posting 4.1 assists and 1.9 turnovers per game. During losses, however, the big man shot 48.7 percent from the field en route to 13.8 points per game, and he averaged 3.7 assists and 2.1 turnovers.
Turning Gasol into a scorer and limiting the damage done by his passing is the only way to truly contain the Defensive Player of the Year.
Paul George is quickly developing into one of the best players in the NBA, but his jump shooting still needs a bit more work. Take a look at how he compares to both the league average and the average shooting guard/small forward who plays at least 20 minutes per game, per Hoopdata.com.
|At Rim %||3-9 Ft %||10-15 Ft %||16-23 Ft %||3P%|
George scores a lot of points—17.4 to be exact—but that doesn't mean he's an efficient scorer yet. In fact, he's well below the league average as he strays further and further from the rim.
In a lot of ways, he's similar to Rudy Gay in this sense. Points can be over-glamourized if you don't dig below the surface level in your analysis. Don't make the mistake of confusing gaudy point totals with terrific scoring abilities, as opportunities within a system can often create the former without the presence of the latter.
If you want to shut down the league's breakout star swingman, this is what you must capitalize on. Focus on taking away George's knack for penetrating and creating looks for the rest of the Indiana Pacers, but don't place as much of an emphasis on stopping his jumper.
Well, worry about his corner three-pointers, but don't fret as much when he's above the break out on the perimeter.
When George does have the ball in his hands, give him some space. Don't play like Iman Shumpert is up above, because the 23-year-old's athletic abilities will allow him to leave you in the dust. And yes, that still applies to elite perimeter defenders like the New York Knicks' flat-topped wonder.
Instead, force him to consider using the jumper.
And if he doesn't, you want him trying to drive into you instead of around you. George's aggressiveness and decision-making skills can often get him into trouble, as he tries to do too much and allows his weaknesses—passing where lanes don't exist and shooting off the dribble—to surface.
Fortunately, Michael Jordan has already given us a nice head start on how to effectively guard the best player in basketball (courtesy of ESPN's Wright Thompson):
The announcers gush about LeBron, mentioning him in the same sentence with Jordan, who hears every word. Those words have an effect on him. He stares at the TV and points out a flaw in LeBron's game.
"I study him," he says.
When LeBron goes right, he usually drives; when he goes left, he usually shoots a jumper. It has to do with his mechanics and how he loads the ball for release. "So if I have to guard him," Jordan says, "I'm gonna push him left so nine times out of 10, he's gonna shoot a jump shot. If he goes right, he's going to the hole and I can't stop him. So I ain't letting him go right."
For the rest of the game, when LeBron gets the ball and starts his move, Jordan will call out some variation of "drive" or "shoot."
Jordan is right, much to the surprise of absolutely no one. That's the starting point when you're guarding LeBron James.
To go a step further, though, it's all about baiting LeBron into shooting from the perimeter. Yes, he's becoming increasingly deadly outside the paint as his career progresses, but that's still a pleasant alternative to his dominance when driving or posting up.
A driving LeBron James is more dangerous than anything we've ever seen in basketball.
He's a freight train barreling down the lane and an extraordinarily adept finisher when he gets to the rim, but there's more to the above statement than that.
James also possesses nearly unparalleled court vision for a player of his height and stature. The threat of him finding a shooter spotting up or a cutter nearing the basket is nearly as great as him finishing the play on his own. If you feel like it (and that's a debate for another time and place), add in the possibility of superstar calls.
Next time you're out shooting hoops, tell a buddy to spot up behind the arc on the weak side. Then drive to your non-dominant hand and attempt to bullet a pocket pass directly into the awaiting arms of your friend. Even if you do successfully hit your target, it's impossible to make that play look as effortless as James does.
You're more likely to develop LeBron-level jump-shooting skills than that pass.
It's plays like that one that make it so crucial for defenders to keep James on the perimeter. Force him to shoot jumpers at all costs and load up the interior of the defensive set with plenty of defenders who are both ready to help out and unafraid of ending up on a poster. Fear is crippling when you're guarding LeBron.
He'll still beat you from the perimeter on some nights, but it's much less likely.
Other than that, good luck...
Tony Parker has a bevy of skills on the basketball court, but his most impressive one is the ability to run the San Antonio Spurs' offensive system to perfection. It's an offense predicated on ball movement, back-door cutting, dribble penetration and the unselfishness that leads to the extra pass.
If you can't pass up a good shot for a great one—ideally a look in the corner—you're not going to make it under Gregg Popovich.
Parker thrives because he's such a talented point guard, but also because he's a cerebral one capable of making great decisions each time he touches the rock.
When the San Antonio Spurs lose, the French floor general tends to display poor shot selection. He lets fly from the outside more often, and the results aren't pretty. Take his 2012-13 numbers, for example.
In 47 regular-season victories, Parker took 15.6 shots on average and knocked down 55.9 percent of them. This isn't just a case of catching fire more often, but also taking the right shots. During the 19 Spurs losses, though, Parker hit 41.8 percent of his 13.8 tries per contest.
The point guard has also never been much of a three-point shooter, so playing off him is acceptable. You can go under the screener whenever Parker runs a pick-and-roll, thereby forcing him to at least consider jacking up a deep look. The big man involved in the play also doesn't need to worry about hedging or showing, but can instead stick with the screener.
Parker hitting triples is something you can live with. If it happens, it happens.
Of the eight players featured in this article, Zach Randolph is the easiest to plan for. He has the most basic game, so it's not quite as difficult to figure out what strategies you should employ.
A quick caveat, though: Saying that it's easier to game-plan for Z-Bo does not mean that it's easier to stop him. Actually sticking to the plan and successfully shutting him down is quite difficult.
The three-part plan first involves establishing contact. Randolph is one of those physical beasts who seeks out bodily contact. He wants to be banging up against you and asserting dominance with his muscles and mind.
So, beat him to the punch. Start fighting for every inch before he does. That way you can either set him up further out on the perimeter and away from the bread-and-butter section of the court, or you can prevent him from establishing post position until the shot clock has ticked down nearer to the buzzer.
Of course, Z-Bo is still going to find himself on the blocks quite a bit. It's inevitable. And that takes us to the second part of the plan.
Once Randolph is working with his back to the basket, do not forget that he's left-handed. The power forward loves working to his left, but that's not always how he starts off his attack. Often times, Randolph probes on his right before quickly countering the defense with a move to his strong side. Somehow, someway, it catches players off guard.
Serge Ibaka found this out the hard way time and time again as the Memphis Grizzlies eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder. It's imperative that you force the southpaw both to go right and to stay right.
Finally, remember that the play isn't over after Randolph hoists up an attempt.
He's an incredible threat on the offensive glass despite his severely limited elevation skills. A possession doesn't end until the defensive team has firmly corralled a missed shot, and few players recognize this better than Z-Bo.
If you can't put a body on him, you're likely to repeat the first two steps all over again. And that's assuming he doesn't immediately punish you with a put-back from right under the basket.
The best way to stop Dwyane Wade is to put the ball in his hands.
This may sound counterintuitive, but worse things happen when the shooting guard isn't the one handling the rock. First, it opens up the possibility of LeBron James controlling the action, and that's a much worse alternative. Second, it prevents Wade from cutting to the hoop and living up to his reputation as a premier slasher.
Wade is still deadly when he's showing off his dribbling skills, but that's the better option, especially now that nagging injuries are detracting from his explosiveness and overall athleticism.
As is so often the case with many of these superstars, the next step involves turning Wade into a jump shooter. You don't want him attacking the rim because he's a great finisher and has a terrific knack for getting referees to blow the whistle.
Precious few teams have been able to force Wade into more than a few three-pointers, but keeping him on the perimeter is essential. During the 2012-13 season, the 2-guard shot 25.4 percent from three-point range, 40.6 percent from 16 to 23 feet, 37.3 percent from 10 to 16 feet and 41.4 percent from three to 10 feet.
It's the 72.4 percent at the rim that will kill you.