The 5 Toughest Players I’ve Ever Guarded

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Listen, it’s almost 7 p.m. in Miami, and all I really want to do is get some dinner. But I got my editor over at The Players’ Tribune trying to put me to work on my off night. That’s messed up, right? And he don’t play when it comes to deadlines. So I’mma handle my business here — get in and get out, but still bring the heat for y’all with this 5 Toughest. 

I’ll start with a story. 

Something you may not know about Jimmy Butler.

When I was younger — growing up, and really all the way through high school — I didn’t take the game of basketball very seriously. I was never the best player on my team. Wasn’t highly ranked or highly recruited. Probably because … I wasn’t that good at basketball. So when I somehow made it to Marquette, I had a terrible work ethic. I wasn’t hustling, or trying to be the best player I could be and make it to the league. Nah … my mindset was basically: Let me go get this free education, then use my degree to get a job making six figures, and then I’ll be good.

Then one day my senior year a couple of Marquette guys who were in the NBA — Wes Matthews and Lazar Hayward — came back for some pickup, and they were like, “Jimmy, you got what it takes to play in the league.” Talking me up, saying this and that, and yada yada yada….

So I worked harder. Started really studying my craft. Watching other players, especially D-Wade. He was the sh*t as far as Marquette guys in the league. And just knowing that he came from the same place I was at made me think … maybe I did have what it took to be a pro. Like, not an NBA pro, cause I was no D-Wade. But maybe I could go to Europe or Australia or wherever and be a pretty good player.

And hell … look at me now!

Today, I have all the confidence in the world in my ability. Because Wes and L had that belief in me. Because D-Wade set the standard. Because Coach Buzz taught me that confidence comes from the work you do when nobody’s watching — when you really need a stop or a bucket, you can bank on that work. So now, I pride myself on my work ethic. On believing in my ability. That’s what carries me every night.

That, and the fact that … I really just don’t give a damn. I don’t care who you are. I’m not scared of you. I don’t care if you average 40, or if you’re supposed to be the best player in the world. I’m here to battle every night. And I think I can play with the best of them.

That’s the Jimmy Butler you guys see today.

A lot different from that that quiet kid from Tomball, Texas, who showed up at Marquette.

Alright, my bad … I said I was gonna keep this tight, and here I am just rambling.

But y’all gotta know me by now. I can’t do anything halfway.

So … the five toughest players I’ve ever guarded.

Let’s get to it.

LeBron James, Positionless, Los Angeles Lakers

I didn’t want to talk about LeBron here. I really didn’t. I wanted to give some other guys some shine.

But you can’t have a 5 Toughest list and not have LeBron on it. 

He’s still the best all-around player in the league. He literally does everything well. He can shoot. Pass. Attack the rim. Defend. You need a bucket? LeBron’s got you. You need a rebound, a steal or a block? He’s got you. Whatever you need, whenever you need it.

Bron’s got you.

When you talk about a combination of speed and athleticism, plus a combo of strength and explosiveness, you gotta start with LeBron. He’s one of the most dynamic players this league has ever seen. He can literally play every position on the court and be elite at all of them. That makes him a matchup nightmare because the smaller, faster guys can’t body up with him — he just overpowers them — and the bigger guys who can bang with him in the post aren’t quick enough to keep him from getting to the rim. 

He’s always looking to get other guys involved, too. He’ll defer to his teammates and play unselfish basketball, and then when it’s time to win the game and be LeBron, he miraculously puts the cape on and … BAM!

Game’s over.

He’s one of those guys you want to match up with because you measure yourself against him. Like, if you can best LeBron, you’re doing something right. 

And if you can’t, it’s just because you’re human, like the rest of us.

Kyrie Irving, PG, Brooklyn Nets

Probably one of my favorite players to watch. He’s so shifty and crafty with his dribble, like he’s got the ball on a string. Crossover, behind-the-back, spin move, going right, going left — however he needs to do it, he always gets where he wants to go. And he’s so precise that you would think he practices all these different combinations of dribble moves. But he’s really just making it up as he goes along. It’s stupid.

And he toys with guys. 

Like, he’ll have you beat, but instead of taking the bucket, he’ll pull it back and reset, like, No, no, no. Not yet. I’m not done. I got something else for you….

It’s disrespectful.

But there are so many other elements to his game, too. He can shoot the three. He’s a great passer. He can post guys up — he’s not gonna post me up. He’s too little. But he can post most guys. He’s incredible with both hands when it comes to finishing at the rim. He hits a lot of tough shots — floaters, fadeaways, contested shots, layups over bigs in the paint … any which way you want it, he can finish. 

So when you talk about unstoppable guys in the league right now, Kyrie is definitely in that category.

Kevin Durant, F, Brooklyn Nets

First of all, he’s seven foot.

Wait … is it seven feet, or seven foot

I think it’s seven foot, because you wouldn’t say, “He’s a seven-feeter….”

You know what? We’re just gonna say seven.

KD is seven.

It’s like, he can post you up because he’s seven. He can dunk on you because he’s seven. And he can shoot over you — he’ll be like, “You’re there? Don’t care … still shooting.” And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Because he’s seven.

He’ll be like, “You’re there? Don’t care … still shooting.” And there’s nothing you can do about it.

I don’t really remember a lot of the one-on-one matchups I’ve had against KD. I mean, I’m 30 now. I’m getting old. My memory is losing itself. But one thing I do remember was watching him my rookie year when he was in OKC. I was on the bench, watching him run the floor, and it looked so … effortless. And what was most impressive was that he dictated the pace of the entire game. Everyone else was at his mercy. And that’s the mark of a great player. In this league, with so many talented and athletic guys on the floor, for one guy to be like, I’m in control here. We’re going to do what I want to do and play at my speed….

It’s pretty ridiculous.

And he’s been doing that since he came into the league.

KD is a legit offensive weapon. To shoot like he can and also have the speed to run the floor, handles like a point guard and the athleticism to finish at the rim … and do it all at seven?

That’s cheat-code stuff.

Steph Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors

Steph is a generational talent in that he can legit shoot the ball from anywhere on the court. I mean, how do you guard a guy when you’re sprinting back on defense like, I can’t let him get to his spot!

Then you realize that it doesn’t matter because wherever he is, he’s already at his spot.

Because he can shoot — and hit — from anywhere.

He has the ultimate green light, too, and he doesn’t abuse it. He’s not out there just jacking up shots. He’s super calculated. Sometimes he barely even crosses half-court and pulls it. And for anybody else in the league, that’s a bad shot. But for him, it’s a good shot. It’s routine.

Throw in the fact that if you try to press up on him and contest his shot, he has the ability to blow by you and get to the rim, or to distribute the ball and get his teammates involved?

A guy like Steph is about as unstoppable as it gets in this league.

He can shoot — and hit — from anywhere.

He’s a special talent.

James Harden, PG, Houston Rockets

Step-back. Floater. Euro step. He has so much in his package, and he’s always hitting tough shots. I mean, he’s creating new sh*t in the off-season where he’s shooting one-legged, step-back, side-step … pretty soon he’s gonna do a handstand and kick the motherf***er in the basket.

I’m just being real.

This is what James Harden does.

Everything he does starts with his step-back. He’s legendary for it. Some people say it’s a travel. I say if the ref doesn’t call it, I’m all for it. Find a way to stop it, travel or not. But his whole attack is built off that step-back. He hangs the ball out there and teases you with it, and then he waits for you to make a move. He’s reading you. Whatever you decide to do, he’s got a counter for it. Because if you give him too much space, he’s gonna take the step-back, and probably make it. If you get too close to him — if you try to get up into him and take the shot away — he’s either going to lean into you and draw a foul or blow right by you and take it to the basket.

He’s one of those guys you game plan for. Like you go into the game saying, “We’re not gonna let James drop 40 on us.”

And he still drops 40 on you.

That’s the mark of an unstoppable player.

I think if you asked multiple people who the most unstoppable player in the league is right now, it would be a toss-up between a healthy KD and James.

But if you ask me?

It’s James Harden, for the win.

Alright. What do you think? Good enough to submit and get my editor off my back?

I think so.

Then I’m gonna go get some dinner, ASAP. 

Some seafood, maybe hit one of these Cuban spots down here. Whatever you’re into, we got it here in Miami.

Just another reason I love it here.

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