The 6 Toughest Players I’ve Ever Guarded

Share
Share
Nazr Mohammed, Power Forward / NBA - The Players' Tribune

Everyone has a move.

When you play in the NBA, every night you’re facing a guy who’s one of the best in the world at something, whether it’s scoring, defending, passing or just bothering the hell out of you.

When it comes to defending, your options are to either double team or force them into their weakness — play the percentages. I believed in studying the scouting report and watching film so I knew what my opponent’s weaknesses were before every game. Knowing what to expect gave me confidence in the defensive positioning I could take in order to to make my opponent uncomfortable. Every player has tendencies, and knowing them well could sometimes be the difference in winning the battle that night.

But there are always players who are so good that your preparation ultimately doesn’t matter. The only defense against them is to pray they were having an off night.

In my 17 years in the NBA, I’ve encountered a lot of players with remarkable talent. But in my view, these select few were nearly unguardable. While there were a lot tough players in my era that I hated to cover, for this list I’m going to stick with the positions I know best: power forward and center.

GettyImages-455590676

1. Shaquille O’Neal

The morning after you played Shaq, it always felt like you were in a fight. You were sore from head to toe.

This probably won’t shock people, but Shaq was the most dominant big man I’ve ever faced. He’s in a class of his own. Shaq’s the player who kept me up at night wondering, “How the hell am I going to stop him?” Or, more realistically, slow him down, because nobody could stop him.

Taking away his move meant not giving him a dunk, which of course is setting your defensive bar pretty low. It also meant sacrificing your body by trying to stop a 320+ pound man from getting to his sweet spot on the court.

In order to guard him, or at least attempt to guard him, you had to do your work early. That meant getting back on defense quickly and trying to meet him at the free throw line. From there, you’d basically brace yourself for impact in a collision that you were physically incapable of winning.

When he was younger, you were able to double team him on the catch. Problem is, he got used to that over the years and eventually became a good passer. Then it came down to just hoping he missed the shot or using one of your fouls to make him earn points at the line.

Shaq was the most dominant big man I’ve ever faced. He’s in a class of his own.

Honestly, Shaq could have earned a foul call on pretty much every play of his career. I mean, the only way to guard the guy was to either push or hold him, which was usually considered a foul. It’s almost like he was being punished for being stronger than his opponents. If a defender stood in there and took the hit, he could draw the foul on Shaq. Sometimes being the loser in a battle for position was rewarded.

But refs couldn’t call games with Shaq the same way they called other games. They just couldn’t. Opposing teams would have fouled out all of their big men by the middle of the second quarter.

When I saw him on the schedule, my main goal was to just not let him dunk the ball.

That was it.

You knew he was going to get good shots, but trying to keep him from dunking ensured that I stayed aggressive. In his prime, it was a good night for you defensively if you held Shaq to 20 points and 10 rebounds with no dunks.

Hell, that was a great night defensively!

AP_070421031306

2A. Rasheed Wallace

Rasheed was an underappreciated talent.

His touch from anywhere on the floor was just ridiculous. You couldn’t ask for more from an inside-out guy. He could knock down the three-point shot — with both hands — or take you into the post.

I played with and against Sheed throughout my career, so I got a couple of different views of him.

As an opponent, he was tough to guard because he had this deadly shot with a really high release. He also perfected what I call “The High Booty Back Down.”

When you’re guarding in the post, basic strategy calls for getting low on defense and utilizing your forearm to hold your ground. Most defenders like to place their forearm above the hip or in the low back. But with Sheed, instead of bending at the knees, he’d bend at his waist to keep his butt high, and then he’d proceed to back you down ass first. That put you in an awkward situation deciding whether to use your forearm and off hand on his butt or use your chest to hold your ground. This doesn’t work unless you’re strong enough to stay balanced. With his high release and touch, he would turn to his right shoulder and it was a bucket.

I have never seen another player try the “High Booty Back Down,” so from this day forward it will now be renamed “The Sheed.”

When he got angry, there was no point even trying to stop him. Your only hope was for that anger to be channeled at the refs. A pissed Rasheed Wallace meant buckets when he focused. Shaq was the same way. With these elite big guys, you really didn’t want to poke the bear.

His touch from anywhere on the floor was just ridiculous. You couldn’t ask for more from an inside-out guy.

Plenty of fans were familiar with “Pissed Rasheed.” That was his persona to a lot of people. I think it’s really a shame that the fans outside of Detroit and Portland never got to see Rasheed in the same light as his teammates. A lot of people had this idea that he was some kind of hothead because of his technical fouls, but he was loved by his teammates because he was so fun to be around off the court.

When I first signed with Detroit, I knew of Sheed, but I hadn’t actually ever spent time around him. Professionally, there had always been a healthy mutual respect between us.

That year he hosted a New Year’s Eve party at his home. In all my years in the NBA, visiting different guys’ homes, I have never encountered a more hospitable person than Rasheed Wallace. He took care of every guest in that house, no matter who they were. He was the bartender, the coat check guy, the bus boy, the waiter, the butler… He just made sure everyone in attendance felt like they were at home.

The Rasheed I know is the kind of guy who would sit around the locker room and crack jokes with guys for hours.

He really became an entirely different person on the court. It was almost like he had an alter ego for basketball. He’d put on his game face and bump up his intensity level to 100. The way he approached the game of basketball was entirely different than the way he approached life. He’s pretty good at both, though.

USATSI_8921119

2B. Dirk Nowitzki

Frustrating.

That’s the word that comes to mind when I think about what it’s like to guard Dirk Nowitzki.

When you looked at Dirk, even when he was younger, you saw that he wasn’t fast, he wasn’t athletic and he wasn’t strong. You don’t encounter many guys at this level who don’t check off at least one of those boxes. So it was easy to go into the match up feeling pretty good about your odds. But the qualities that make Dirk one of the best players in history aren’t visible immediately. It’s his combination of skill, touch and balance that’s had big men saying “Damn!” for nearly 20 years now.

To get better acquainted with his uncanny abilities, just watch Dirk workout before a game. I never saw a guy spin on one foot before shooting until I watched him.

In fact, his patented fadeaway off one leg is a glimpse into what a special player he is.

That’s the kind of shot that would get the vast majority of big men pulled from a game immediately. Most coaches would probably try to strip that away from your game before you even made it to the NBA. In their eyes, it’s a soft shot for a big man. Traditional post players were taught to pound it in the paint, not back away from contact. But Dirk invented an entirely different idea of what a big man can be. You know there are a hell of a lot of guys in the NBA — some of which stuck, many who didn’t — who owed their job to a guy like Dirk Nowitzki paving the way. For a long time, it seemed like every team in the league was even trying to draft the next Dirk. Hell, some still are!

The only problem is that there’s no one else in the world who has the same game as Dirk. Probably never will be. With his unorthodox footwork and movements, there was really no way to prepare for a game against him.

We all know he’s one of the greatest shooting big men to ever play in the NBA, but what’s not accounted for is how many other things he was able to set up for himself on the floor because of his shot. He knows he can pull up with little or no space because of his height — and every guy in the league knows it as well. So he developed a game around it, based on the defender’s fear of him pulling up. Some guys like to make quick moves to get better positioning before the defense is set. But Dirk would let you close out on him, which was unusual. He wanted to know where you were and wasn’t going to rush his process because of the defense. Once he had you up close, he started to go to work, doing a series of subtle fakes and pivots before finally getting his look. Even perfect defense usually wasn’t perfect enough.

There’s no one else in the world who has the same game as Dirk. Probably never will be.

Dirk’s percentage against challenged shots is remarkable. It’s almost like he didn’t see the defender in front of him. But the truth is that’s exactly where he wanted him. He didn’t want to rush, and then be blindsided by defense he didn’t see or couldn’t react to. He wanted you right there up close and personal. If he could see or feel you, he knew what move he had to use.

Your only chance against him was hoping the refs let you play physical that night. If you could get away with a bump and grab here and there, you might be able to throw him off. But if the refs decided to use their whistles, you might as well pack it up. You knew he was going to sink his free throws, so you definitely didn’t want to foul him. He’s one of those guys that if he’s fouled, there’s no need to waste time shooting free throws. Just cut to the chase and add two points to the scoreboard so we can speed up the game.

Generally Bruce Bowen drew the Dirk assignment when I was with the Spurs, and I never protested that. He was probably one of the best at guarding Dirk.

But every now and then when I played for other teams, and have to switch, I’d always think the same thing: “Damn!”

AP_071124040669

2C. Yao Ming

Whenever a player comes into the NBA with hype, the rest of the league looks forward to seeing if the guy is for real. All those draft busts throughout the years were created by us. Players who come in with the most hype have to be ready for their opponents to come with their A-game, because everybody wants a piece of them.

When Yao was coming into the NBA, everyone was licking their chops. I was excited to play against him. You get up to play guys like that. I wanted to see if he was as good as he was built up to be. Everything you read about him made him sound almost like a folk hero.

Here you have one of the most fundamentally sound players in the world, and he comes in a 7-foot-6, 300-pound package.

Come on! Yeah, right.

The first time I sat down to watch him play a full game, the Rockets were facing Shaq’s Lakers on Christmas Day. Like a lot of people, I came away from that game thinking, “Damn, this guy can ball.” Guys his size generally just aren’t able to move like he could. There was a certain grace about him despite his size.

The natural defense for someone that big is to double him whenever he gets the ball, but Yao was such a good passer that he’d be able to find the open man as soon as you sent the help. He could literally see over the double teams.

Your best bet was to try to push him as far off the block as you could. But this guy’s lower body strength was just unreal. His legs were like tree trunks — really big tree trunks. Some plays he’d get to the post, plant his roots and then the offense would just run through him. Yao had the skills to play in this league regardless of his height, but it’s to his credit that he utilized his size and skill equally.

He improved more and more as he adjusted to the league’s physicality. He kind of shied away from contact at first, but then he realized exactly how strong he was, which every big guy in the league had hoped would never happen.

Here you have one of the most fundamentally sound players in the world, and he comes in a 7-foot-6, 300-pound package.

Yao’s post game was smooth, man. He’d face you up and hit the jumper, and he was accurate with both hands on hook shots. A great hook shot is the most important weapon in a post player’s arsenal — and once again, this guy was 7-foot-6. Problems.

He didn’t shoot from three — thank God — but you had to keep track of him from the free throw line extended because he could make those shots much more frequently than he missed them.

What made him particularly tough to guard is that you couldn’t force him into his weakness because he liked attacking with both hands. And of course you couldn’t block his shot unless you were behind him and he didn’t see you coming or you were Nate Robinson. Similar to Shaq, he’s a guy who didn’t draw as many fouls as he could have. Being physical was your only defense and his size hurt you as much as you hurt him.

The only thing that stopped Yao from completely dominating were his injuries. If you take those out of the equation, it’s incredible to imagine the kind of legacy he would have left. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to face such a tremendous talent. The hype was so real.

USATSI_8530554

2D. Tim Duncan

Most post-players are predictable. They have a go-to move and maybe a couple of counters.

When I was with the Spurs, the big men had this drill we would do after practice called “Follow the Leader.” How it worked was basically one guy would be the leader and perform a post-move on the block, and then the rest of the guys would try to do the same move — same number of dribbles, same footwork, same everything. Tim usually led the drill, and watching him perform it showed you why he was such a special player. We’d do this drill for 15 or 20 minutes, and Tim would never do the same move twice.

When you were guarding him, he had a move, and a counter, and another counter, and then about 50 other counters just in case the first three moves didn’t work out. And you could always tell that he had scouted you because he’d devise a unique way to attack you based on what you did to slow him down the last time you played. Tim is the perfect example of what happens when you combine skill, talent and work ethic.

Even when he was considered one of the top two or three players in the world, he was always expanding his game. He didn’t come into the league with that bank shot, but over time he mastered it. He’d face you up, jab you, measure you, then pull up and bank it off the corner of the painted square on the glass.

Defenders thought crowding him when he faced up was the way to stop this move. But of course Tim figured out this was a perfect way to draw fouls by starting his shooting motion when you reached in.

The low post was his office, and he had unlimited resources to do his job. Having long arms and big hands only helped his cause.

And as good as Tim is as a player, he was possibly even better as a teammate.

If he wanted to, I think he could make a fantastic coach one day — although I doubt he will go that route. But I think he’d excel because he’s the rare example of a great player who’s also able to explain the game to players on any level. Some great players can perform things that they can’t articulate or teach. But Tim is a natural teacher and was completely selfless with his knowledge. He could do something amazing, and then walk you through his thought process behind it. What more could you ask for in a teammate? What more can you ask for in a leader?

What more could you ask for in a coach?

AP_061107069157

2E. Kevin Garnett

Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan were really the yin and yang of my era in the NBA. In some ways, Kevin almost seemed like Tim Duncan’s evil twin. They were so similar, yet so different.

Both guys were crucial to their team’s mentalities on the floor. Tim is a calm and composed person, and that’s how the Spurs are conditioned to play. KG is fiery on the court with a ton of swagger, and the teams he was on would adopt that personality. Both guys were meticulous in their game preparations. The stuff they did on the floor didn’t happen by accident. Their domination in games was the culmination of a lot of work.

The first time I saw KG play was in high school. We came up through Chicago, and the buzz surrounding him was huge — and for very good reason. He was pretty much the same player then as he was in the prime of his career. A long, athletic, highly skilled ball of energy who played hard on both ends of the court.

KG could beat you with so many moves on the court, but his trash talking was a weapon too. It was like another move.

He was another guy with a high release point and an insane combination of length and athleticism. When he faced up in the post, there was no way of blocking his shot. His mid-range game just kept improving the longer he was in the league. He had this unorthodox side step he used when shooting his jump shot that created more distance from his defender.

But for all of his physical tools, what ultimately distinguished KG was his passion for the game. You just don’t come across many people in any field that have the kind of passion that KG has for the game of basketball.

It’s almost like he was possessed whenever he took the court.

His trash talking was renowned and it certainly wasn’t a novelty act. It actually made him a much more difficult player to guard. KG could beat you with so many moves on the court, but his trash talking was a weapon too. It was like another move.

His words, when combined with his skills, would cause opponents to overreact. They’d get so caught up in what he’d say that they’d lose focus on everything else going on around them. Players would eventually try to be more physical with him out of frustration and commit dumb fouls in the process. He’d face you up, hit a jump shot and verbally destroy you with his mastery of profane words in The King’s English. It actually gave him a tactical advantage in such an emotional game. His trash talk could make you a less effective player. It made you want to run through a screen set by him instead of around it.

Early in my career, I’d pick up fouls whenever I had to guard him. I took everything he said to me and about me personally. It was an attack on my manhood, and I felt the need to react. Even when I was ready for his trash talk, when I told myself beforehand that he was trying to bait me, it was always difficult to control my emotions against him on the court when I was younger.

As I got older and little more wiser, the trash talk didn’t get to me as much. After a while you learn that if you don’t approach this game with a clear mind, it’ll swallow you up.

Yes, that guy pissed me off a few times. But now, I tip my hat to him.

Honorable Mentions:
Antoine Walker, Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

nazr

Elite Bigs 101

When we talk about “bigs” nowadays, it’s hard to find a common ground for the conversation because the NBA is so fluid. People get so bent out of shape talking about the difference between a 4 and a 5, but to be honest, guys in the league rarely talk about it like that.

Read More