Anyone can make a list of the toughest guys in the NBA, but what about a list of the toughest guys on one team? As such the list must be limited to 15 players and they must be the toughest at their position.
But what does tough mean? First, let's clarify what it isn't. Tough isn't simply intimidation. It likewise isn't who would win in a fight or who could be in the UFC, though several players listed below would make anyone's lists in those arenas as well.
Our definition of tough for the purposes of selecting this team is someone with the will to impact the game when things aren't going well (mental toughness). Someone who isn't afraid to rebound and mix it up in the paint when they're overmatched. Someone who is committed and fearless defensively no matter the assignment.
And last but not least, someone who doesn't make a point of bragging about how tough he is.
Point Guard – Rajon Rondo – The silent assassin. Just look at him. Sporting a look that is equal parts menacing and poker face, think he's not tough? At 6'1” 171 lbs., Rondo is living proof that small and tough are not mutually exclusive.
Moreover, if actions speak louder than words, his actions speak volumes. In 2010 he became the first Celtic to lead the league in steals. Displaying an almost feral unwillingness to back down, Rondo is the ultimate scrapper. On any given night, he regularly mixes it up with bigs down low, hanging around the basket for steals, rebounds and the occasional shove.
Remember the hard face smack he gave Brad Miller when the Celtics played the Bulls in '09? Bulls fans do. In a game shortly thereafter, he barreled into 7-foot, 265 pound Dwight Howard to grab a rebound.
In some ways, if you're the opposition, Rondo's toughness is the worst kind to face. He's so quiet you just know something is bubbling beneath the surface.
Shooting Guard – Kobe Bryant – Bryant has long been considered one of the dirtiest players in the league. His exploits against Ron Artest among others are well documented. He won't back down from a challenge and he often gives as good as he gets.
His mental toughness is legendary and often seen as only second to His Airness. Tony Stark is not the only Iron Man around. Bryant is also known for rarely, if ever missing games, despite a litany of injuries (including a finger that may never be the same again)—if that's not tough what is?
Center – Dwight Howard – This was a tough one. No he doesn't look tough, but he is. Don't let that smile fool you. You don't really want to mess with him do you?
Known for swinging those monster sized elbows around, should one connect, it's lights out. That said, It's best for everyone involved that Howard continues smiling.
Defensively Howard is a beast, snatching rebounds, swatting shots and in April of 2010 he became the consensus two-time NBA defensive player of the year.
Power Forward – Kevin Garnett – Garnett is almost singlehandedly credited for changing the culture of the Boston Celtics. When he arrived, they went from perennial losers to in your face, grabbing, shoving, pushing, stifling defenders that almost nobody wants to face.
I truly believe he and Doc Rivers are responsible for the resurgence of 80's style hard fouls the Celtics unleash on a nightly basis. KG's passion is legendary, as such each and every night, he lays it all out there on the floor. For some however, Garnett's passion walks a fine line bordering on crazy. Case in point, google “Garnett on all fours.”
As an intimidator, Garnett's defense and nightly in your face tactics rattle more than a few players. Garnett is so determined defensively he refuses to let players score even during a dead ball.
Small Forward – Ron Artest – Of course he's here. It's Ron. He doesn't back down from anyone. He broke MJ's rib remember? MJ does.
Ron's always been a bit off and probably would be voted the player most on this list that no one wants to mess with.
Some might feel a little emboldened these days because he's on his best behavior, but everyone, including his teammates and perhaps his shrink knows that a tiger can't really change his stripes.
Point Guard – Chris Paul – Despite his diminutive size, Paul is pound for pound one of the toughest guys in the league. Never afraid to mix it up, he's often involved in more than his fair share of dust ups and not surprisingly the recipient of many technicals.
Paul is fearless when approaching the hoop and is not afraid to thrust his body into opposing players. There's a reason he's often called the best point guard in the league.
Paul possesses the heart of a warrior and in the heat of battle is more than capable of putting massive points on the board as he is going toe-to-toe with virtually anyone.
Shooting Guard – Dwyane Wade – Takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Flash is nothing if not relentless. Remember those “Fall down seven times, stand up eight” commercial spots a few years back displaying Wade crashing to the ground and springing up with regularity? Despite season ending knee surgery, he's still at it, seemingly more than before.
When everyone (including me) thought he was done, Wade returned better than ever. In the championship game of the '08 Olympics, Wade (sixth man no less), was chiefly responsible for keeping the U.S. In it. How much longer he can keep it up is anyone's guess. Still, Wade is fearless (reckless?) and shows know signs of slowing down. Perhaps it's because he doesn't know any other way to play.
Center – Kendrick Perkins – This one is a no-brainer. The only struggle I had was whether or not he should go first. Simply put the Celtics have more than a few tough guys on their team and Perkins is one of the toughest.
It's not just the grimace. Not just his ability to engulf rebounds from the glass. Nor is it simply his workmanlike, lunch pail attitude as he patrols the paint for one of the leagues stingiest defenses. It's all of those things and...
Despite going unheralded in the shadow of the big three, Perkin's one of the few Centers in the league that doesn't fear Howard's elbows and has the ability to neutralize him 1-on-1.
Power Forward – Carl Landry – The former Houston Rocket now Sacramento King is the epitome of tough. The 2009 season was tough for the power forward as he was shot in the leg after a hit-and-run at 4 am. Landry returned to the court less than threee weeks later.
Moreover, in December '09 while attempting to draw a charge, he lost three teeth In a collision with Dirk Nowitzki. The following game against the Los Angeles Clippers, he matched a career high 27 points. Despite being undersized and over matched at 6'9", Landry filled in early and often at center after Yao Ming went down.
The Kings will be tougher for acquiring Landry and his grit.
Small Forward – Paul Pierce – The Truth – Pierce has played in a studly 884 out of a possible 952 games over his career despite how often he takes it to the rim and goes to the line (25th all-time). Even more impressive is that he's never missed a playoff game playing in 94 out of 94 games.
If none of those factoids is enough to convince you that the Truth is tough, consider this: Despite being stabbed 11 times in the face, neck and back and having a bottle smashed over his head at a late night club in Boston, Pierce was the only Celtic to start all 82 games for the Celtics during the 00-01.
Tough enough for you?
Point Guard – Deron Williams – Easily the most powerful of today's point guards, Williams is a beast by anyone's standards. At 6'3" 205 lbs he's solid, a throwback, possessing a size and strength that disguises something more—his speed. As quick as the smaller guards, it's Williams stocky, athletic build that allows him to shed defenders much larger than him.
He's a quality defender and because of his all around offensive game, is something of an enigma in the world of point guards today. Want to bang? Williams relishes that. Give him an opening and he'll blow by you or drain a 20 footer.
Of all the guards in today's game, Williams would most benefit from a return to the hand-checking bruising rules of the '80s and '90s. Not that he's losing sleep over it.
In the mold of his coach Jerry Sloan, Williams is a relentless competitor with a near peerless ability to set up his teammates and dominate the game on both ends of the floor.
Shooting Guard – Stephen Jackson – Captain Jack. Like many players eligible for this list you have to ask yourself if he's tough or crazy? Jumping into the stands during the Malice at the Palace will cause you to suspect the latter.
Truthfully however, Jackson is one of the truly versatile players in the NBA and according to many...genuinely tough. Several anecdotes serve to support this label.
One such story has an injured and plain-clothed Jackson stepping onto the arena floor to challenge Kevin Garnett who was verbally abusing a teammate. In essence, Jackson told KG to stop talking or start fighting. Guess what? KG shut up.
Lastly, NBA legend Larry Bird (tough by all accounts), has repeatedly stated that he's never encountered a tougher person marveling at Jackson's ability to play through injuries.
Center – Shaquille O'Neal – Simply put, no player has taken more abuse and been tougher to officiate in NBA history than the Diesel.
Despite his age, he continues to be a nightmare to defend. Shaq remains a dominant force in the paint. Although his numbers have decreased, he continues to more than hold his own.
For any naysayers questioning O'Neal's inclusion on this list, I have one thing to say: Imagine going down the lane and having Shaq lay the wood on you.
Power Forward – Kurt Thomas – Thomas is a big body and has a reputation for being a hard nosed defender. Despite being undersized he bangs down low with the best of them.
In his own words “Basically, I’m a good person out there until you tick me off,” Thomas told the Times. ”If you mess with me, I’ll mess with you. If you want to push and shove and throw elbows, I can do that, too. My job is to be physical on the floor. If that means knocking a person coming down the lane, I’ll have to bop them. I’m not Charles Oakley. I’m Kurt Thomas.”
Small Forward – Matt Barnes - Barnes is a no-nonsense, tough as nails, take no prisoners defender. An NBA journeyman, Matt Barnes has earned every bit of his reputation by playing the game with a zeal for physicality.
When it came time for Barnes to face Kobe Bryant as a member of the Magic, he pushed, shoved, bumped, elbowed, and glared toe-to-toe with the Mamba for every inch of real estate on the floor.
So, what did that battle earn him? Respect of the Mamba and, a spot with the two time defending champion Lakers.
Coach – Jerry Sloan – With 20 years under his belt, who better to manage this team than the longest tenured coach in NBA history. These are tough minded, physical, high IQ players and as a former tough man himself, Sloan is the perfect choice to lead this team into battle.
Notable Apologies to: J Kidd, Russell Westbrook, Raja Bell, Derrick Fisher, Joquim Noah, Josh Smith, Chris Kaman, Jeff Foster, and JR Smith.