It takes a village to take down LeBron.
The Golden State Warriors had to withstand superhuman efforts from LeBron James in last year's NBA Finals, but they also dragged James down to 39.8 percent shooting and 3.5 turnovers per game. That went a long way towards pushing the Warriors to their NBA championship in six games, but it also came on the back of the absence of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love due to injury.
With the Finals tipping off Thursday night, here's a ranking of the Warriors' individual defenders against LeBron and how they have done/will do against the King, with the caveat that everytime James beats his man, he'll see another.
I mean, come on, the Finals MVP goes first. Iguodala just did everything right last June. He contested with long arms on the post-entry catch to take time off the clock. He bodies James on the catch to knock him a step or two off where he wanted to be. He took the beating of getting slammed into by 6-8, 250 lbs., kept him from going baseline while keeping a hand up to contest the turnaround, drove him to help, and swiped at the ball.
That's incredible anticipation. Iguodala is strong enough to take those hits and force James off-balance with his strength on drives:
Iguodala will spend the most time on him in this series. Iguodala struggled with Durant early in the Western Conference Finals, but as it went on, he dragged down KD's efficiency more and more. Iguodala doesn't shut you down from the get go. He creates drag on your speedboat. It's about the end of 100 possessions, not any single one. There's a big gap between Iguodala and ...
I know. I know. It's crazy. And the "Stephen Curry is an underrated defender and actually great and wait, maybe he's one of the five best in the league!" thing drives me nuts, too. We have this bizarre obsession where if a player is great offensively, particularly as a shooter, we want to assign all sorts of other elite-level attributes to him.
However, Curry was awesome vs. James last year. Just terrific, especially for a guy his size. Curry's not guarding James one on one in the post. If the Cavs find that mismatch, the Warriors are going to send help to cause a pass out and then switch him back off. The Warriors don't let you exploit the mismatch, and that's crucial.
But watch Curry here:
He stays with him, bothers him, drives him to help and forces the miss. (You can talk about fouls, but this is the Finals and Curry is like half of his size, hard to complain there.)
Curry stays within the team concept, and the fact that he's so small helps him vs. James. LeBron is always worried about "pity fouls" as I call them, where he gets punished for being physically superior. He hits Curry, and Curry goes flying, it's likely he picks up an offensive foul.
This doesn't mean that the Warriors should welcome switches of Curry onto James, they should actively avoid it for any number of reasons. But if we're ranking who did a great job on him, Curry's No. 2 on this list.
Ezeli's not switching onto James on the perimeter, he's just a help defender, but he's incredible at it. He helps over on James and contests him. With his size and athleticism, he doesn't get bumped off by James and is able to distract him at the rim just enough. Just his presence was enough to get James to pumpfake. This is entirely as a help defender, but he did have the most impact of any big inside.
Bougt's an elite rim protector, and will block James a few times in this series. But he's also foul prone, and letting James get to the foul line, even with a less-than-stellar free throw rate, is pure doom. It lets him rest for a minute and gets Bogut off the floor.
Thompson knows it's a losing proposition going against James. He doesn't have the size to bump him or the speed to hang with him. But Thompson gets up into James' dribble and gives him problems. He's an active, smart defender who doesn't get caught out of position too often. Sometimes he helps too much inside so that when he's switched on James he can get caught off-guard by how fast James is... but that's LeBron James being LeBron James for the most part. Thompson's long enough to contest James on his turnarounds.
Thompson can get taken to the rack off the perimeter by James, though. He does a good job of not fouling to compound the situation, but you have to have help behind him. The biggest problem is that on drives, he can't deter James from getting to his spots. Iguodala forces him just enough out of his comfort zone to disrupt. Doesn't happen with Thompson.
Similar to Thompson. He has the length to contest James, but not the strength to prevent him from getting to spots. Livingston's a really good defender, but James' athleticism makes it a tough cover. He can handle for stretches. Much of this depends on how James' jumper is falling. Livingston dares James to shoot more than the other wings, and James made him pay a few times in the Finals, despite his abysmal percentage.
Green's a superb defender, Defensive-Player-of-the-Year worthy. He can guard little tiny guards and contain them, big huge centers and body them out. He struggles with James. James is built like Draymond, if you put rocket boosters on Green. James is also quick and long enough to get quick flip layups on Green when he's helping.
To be sure, Green will have his moments vs. James; Green has them on everyone. He'll have huge blocks on James at the rim, steal the ball from him and lead to big transition 3-pointers. This is not a knock on Green to put him in this spot, it's just a tough matchup for him with the areas that James is good in. By the end of this series, I could have him as second-best. That's how good Green is.
I almost left him off this list because he struggles with James. Barnes is not as strong as Iguodala to pressure James out of his spots, and he's not long or athletic enough to contest the way he needs to on his jumper. He gives up fouls, can't contain on the perimeter, and in general is overmatched by James.
This ranking, more than anything, is simply a product of how much time Barnes has to spend on him. He'll likely start on James, and he's going to spend way more times defending him one on one without help than Curry, Thompson, Livingston, or Green. The Warriors put Barnes on an island with James when he's on the floor without Iguodala, and he's facing the best player in the NBA over the past ten years. That's a murderous assignment.
But Barnes struggles with it, so he winds up here.
Mo is not there to defend. Mo is there to get buckets. He's Mo Buckets. (He also can't contain James in any sense and will give up fouls. The Warriors will want to keep him as far away from James as possible.)