Ranking the NBA's Scariest On-Ball Defenders
It's hard to strike fear into the heart of an NBA player, but there are a handful of terrifying defenders who manage to do it.
These are the intimidators, the on-ball menaces who blend technique and effort with just a touch of feral unpredictability. They might just make you turn two or three times bringing the ball up the court, but they might also try to eat you.
They're scary, and they want that ball you've got.
Tony Allen, the Memphis Grizzlies' heralded stopper on the wing, routinely flips the normal offense-defense dynamic, putting the guy trying to score on his heels. And Patrick Beverley often unleashes 94 feet of hell on opposing point guards.
Ranking on-ball defenders in order of scariness takes misleading statistics like steals and blocks out of the equation. And while we could incorporate useful but imperfect measures like opponents' PER into the discussion, even advanced metrics like those don't encapsulate the visceral feeling of facing down a rabid defender.
So, the parameters here are pretty simple: We simply ask which player you'd least like to see staring back at you when you've got the rock.
Honorable Mention: Paul George and Larry Sanders
Pour some out for Paul George, easily one of the league's most imposing perimeter defenders before suffering an ugly injury while training with Team USA for the FIBA Basketball World Cup.
Quick hands, supreme lateral quickness, length and a clear desire to make a name for himself on D made George a monster.
We may not see him play this season, so it's not fair to include him in the official portion of these rankings. Based on the fact that he's already taking jumpers less than 90 after surgery, we should expect his return to full health (and defensive dominance) by 2015-16.
By then, the Indiana Pacers might look a little different.
Sanders, unlike George, will play this year. The problem for him is that he didn't play much at all last season—just 23 games in an injury-marred, off-court distraction-riddled campaign that made everyone forget his past dominance.
Sanders is a phenomenal rim protector, but he's also remarkably capable when switching out onto smaller players. He has excellent feet, long arms and an innate knack for anticipating offensive players' moves.
Here's hoping he reminds the league he's a man to be feared in 2014-15.
10. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
Most big men aren't intimidating on-ball defenders.
Joakim Noah is not most big men.
For his twitchy, manic episode against Chris Paul in the 2013 All-Star Game alone, the Chicago Bulls center earns a place here. This guy cares. He's committed. And even if it was only an exhibition game, CP3 wanted no part of him.
Could Paul have gone around Noah if he'd really wanted to? Probably.
But that's the thing: Noah was so agitated, so worked up and so dialed in that Paul thought it better to diffuse the whole situation by casting off a contested jumper.
Oh, and Noah also won Defensive Player of the Year last season. You don't want any part of him.
9. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
His offensive game is more often discussed and scrutinized, but Russell Westbrook has quietly earned a reputation as a sturdy stopper as well.
“Yes,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said when asked if Westbrook was an elite defender, per Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman. “Because of his size, his quickness, his athleticism, his toughness. He can cause a lot of problems at that position. He can pressure the ball. He's hard to go by. He creates steals. So yeah, I would put him in that category.”
Elite defense and scary defense are two different things, though.
Know what's scary about being guarded by Russell Westbrook?
He's relentlessly competitive, faster and stronger than any guard he's likely to come in contact with and, most importantly, possibly shares a gene or two with the wolverine. The raw ferocity of his game makes him a phenomenal offensive player, but that same trait serves Westbrook well on defense.
Though prone to off-ball lapses and too eager to gamble in the passing lanes, Westbrook accepts every challenge on the ball. And he really, really wants to turn your offensive possession into a dunk on the other end.
8. Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
Unlike Westbrook, Andre Iguodala's defensive fearsomeness isn't rooted in red-hot competitive spirit or quick-strike bursts of athleticism.
The Golden State Warriors wing is cool and impassive. He moves with languid grace, his mind calm as it dispassionately cycles through all the ways in which he's about to embarrass you. He figures out how to beat you before you've even made a move.
If watching Dwight Howard play defense is like watching a killer hippo flashdance, and if watching Tony Allen defend is like watching a lion track down caribou as it tries a futile effort at escape, watching Iguodala is watching an architect build a skyscraper in minutes. The angles, the accuracy and the careful blend of creativity and required pragmatics are stunning. And so much of it springs from what goes on in his head.
Iguodala inspires a different kind of fear.
He knows your tendencies better than you do.
Your basketball preferences are familiar to him, and he will deny them to you.
He reads your thoughts, and he laughs at them silently, shifting a foot a half-inch this way or angling his hips a quarter-turn that way, daring you to try something stupid.
That's creepy, which, for our purposes, is close enough to the conventional definition of scary to count.
7. Anthony Davis, New Orleand Pelicans
If you've ever been set upon by a giant octopus in heat, you understand what it's like to be defended by Anthony Davis.
Though it makes far more sense to use the league's brightest young star in a scheme that allows him to drop down to the foul line on pick-and-roll defense, it's a whole lot more fun to marvel wide-eyed when he switches out to ensnare guards on a hard show or switch.
His arms are everywhere, obscuring passing lanes and making dribbling a far more dangerous act than it would be against any other 6'10" opponent. His mobility isn't spectacular, but even if you've managed to elude him momentarily, his incomprehensible length means you haven't really escaped.
And as our friend Robin Lopez learned in the photo above, it is unwise to attack Davis in one-on-one situations inside.
Scariest of all: Davis is only getting better.
6. Matt Barnes, Los Angeles Clippers
Enter the wild card.
Matt Barnes is a perfectly fine defender, even at the age of 34. That's because what he's gradually lost in quickness and lift he has replaced with an earned reputation as a dude who will, without hesitation, knock you out of the air.
The track record is real: Matt Barnes will happily administer excessive, unnecessary and possibly unsportsmanlike contact to your person. Though many of the journeyman's hardest fouls have come as a help defender, he's worthy of a spot in our list of scary on-ball defenders because of the way he seeks out the rock and punishes whoever has it.
If you're not scared of that, well...you probably should be.
5. Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
Do electrified, heat-seeking bowling balls made out of fast-twitch muscle fiber concern you?
If so, give Eric Bledsoe a wide berth.
We only saw him as a reserve for the Los Angeles Clippers, and his first season with the Phoenix Suns was cut in half by injury, but even the limited sample leaves little doubt that Bledsoe is among the most terrifying on-ball pests in the game.
Actually, "pest" isn't really the right word. Bledsoe's not an annoyance. He's not bothersome. He's much scarier than that.
And of course, Bledsoe is a beast on defense—what I like to call a Mirror Guy. A Mirror Guy reacts to the moves of his mark, both on and off the ball, with such perfect timing and balance that it almost appears as if the offensive player is working against his own reflection.
Attempts to escape Bledsoe are futile. Submit if you wish to survive.
4. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Fact: Kawhi Leonard's hands are illegal in nine states.
Fact: Leonard stole the Larry O'Brien Trophy from four different San Antonio Spurs teammates during the post-title celebration because, as he explained, "It had a basketball on it, and my instincts just took over." (Not really).
Fact: Leonard's cornrows are actually sonic receptors designed to sense the elevated heartbeats of frightened opponents, whom he then steals the ball from.
Fact: Leonard is immune to fear. We know this because he coolly accepts the toughest matchup every night and never changes his facial expression.
Fact: Leonard only sweats on command, when it suits him. This selective self-lubrication allows him to slip through screens more easily, thereby maximizing close contact with his assignment.
Fact: Kawhi Leonard is the best young wing defender in the league, and he is an absolute nightmare to play against. Just ask LeBron James.
3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Speaking of which...
James may be at a point in his career when energy conservation is becoming a priority, but when fully engaged, there's still not a more versatile, imposing stopper on the planet.
James, as you may have heard, moves pretty well for a guy his size. He's still remarkably quick, has good footwork and understands where an offensive player wants to go because he is, himself, an offensive genius.
That combination of mind and body make James a potent defender against four positions, and when he ramps up the effort (sadly, less and less often these days) he can shut down point guards and power forwards alike.
That whole "best player in the world" label also helps. Offensive players go into games against him knowing they're up against equal parts man and reputation, and that alone can give the psychological edge to LBJ.
James' mere presence on the floor strikes fear into his matchups. Because if he's guarding you, there's a good chance somebody else has failed in the task, and he's pissed about it.
Good luck, friend.
2. Patrick Beverley, Houston Rockets and Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics
Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley get the unique distinction of sharing a ranking because their terror-inducing skills are so similar.
We'll call them Nos. 2(a) and 2(b), just so nobody feels slighted.
Both guards routinely glue themselves to ball-handlers in one-man full-court presses, making point guards break a serious sweat just to get the rock over the time line.
Both also have blinding lateral quickness, active hands and a hard-to-quantify desire to take your candy.
They love the thrill of gambling for a steal at half court. The relish the chance to pick your pocket, thereby forcing you to focus more on keeping the ball than initiating the offense.
Life as an NBA point guard is terrible when either of these two are involved.
1. Tony Allen, Memphis Grizzlies
You'll never get the game's great scorers to admit they're afraid of a defender. But Kevin Durant, fresh off a Tony Allen-induced 5-of-21 performance in last year's postseason, came close.
"I'm worrying about a guy coming from behind trying to block the shot," Durant said, per Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com. "I've just got to focus in on the rim and my shot. I can't go out there and think too much, I have to let my instincts take over."
Windhorst opined that Allen had made it into Durant's head: "Allen wasn't even on him and yet the tenacious defense played that night had forced Durant to rush the important shot."
Hard to argue, especially after Durant told B/R over the ensuing summer that Allen was the toughest defender he'd ever faced.
Allen isn't particularly big (he's listed at 6'4"), and at 32, he's not particularly athletic (thanks, torn ACL). But he's a defensive savant.
He cannot be screened, refuses to yield an inch in the post and is, by all accounts, the single most intimidating perimeter defender in the NBA. Dribbling around him is a dangerous exercise, and passing isn't much safer. He's always among the league leaders in steals.
And you might not even get the chance to try either of those risky moves at all because Allen is so adept at denying possession in the first place.
When you think about it, Allen has to be the scariest on-ball defender in the NBA. Nothing frightens offensive players more than being completely shut down, and the Grizzlies guard is better at powering off opponents than anyone.