Let me just get one thing out of the way before we jump in here: I know a bunch of people are about to skim this article without really reading it and then tweet me, “Hey, how could you not mention [this dude]? Come on, man!”
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. Positions are so flexible now, and from a defensive perspective, there aren’t many Tony Allens in the league who are going to lock down on one player. The NBA now is a lot about help defense and switching because the offenses are so sophisticated.
So, with that out of the way, here’s my list of guys who do certain things better than anyone else in the world. It’s not all centers and power forwards, but also guys who come to the paint. And if you think I’m lying about positions not existing anymore, let’s take a look at the first guy on my list.
There is simply no game plan for this guy. His skill set is so pure and smooth. What I love about him is that you could drop him on any court and he’s going to get you 20 points and 12 rebounds just off of playing the game. They don’t even have to run plays for him. That’s not to say that they don’t go through him a lot in New Orleans, but it’s within a system. It’s not about set isolation plays. There’s certain bigs where you can sense, “OK, here comes his go-to play.” For example, if I’m guarding Tim Duncan and I hear “wedge roll,” I know that he’s going to get a screen, and go to his favorite block and get to his move (more on that later).
With Anthony Davis, he’s not necessarily going to be in the high post where Chris Bosh used to operate, or on the left block where so many conventional bigs like to operate. Davis is all over the floor. The thing that makes him so special is that he has a sense of timing that is completely unique for a big man. He’s a guy who hit his growth spurt really late, so he has the timing of a guard. He’ll start out on the wing and then make a cut into open space that a guard would make. Watch his movement before this dunk against the Thunder.
As a shot blocker, he’s unlike anyone I’ve seen in the NBA in a long time. I think about shot blocking in all different ways. Serge Ibaka is a great weak-side shot blocker. Myself, I’m more of a rim protector. I’m trying to make you miss. I’m very calculated about how many shots I’ll actually try to block. I’m going to use the rule of verticality to the best of my ability. Verticality is kind of a fuzzy rule, but basically if a big jumps with his arms extended straight up, he’s entitled to his ground. So I tend to jump straight up instead of going for the ball, because I know that will alter their shot. Roy Hibbert is another verticality guy.
Anthony Davis is not a verticality guy. He’s a timing guy. He has a long wingspan and he’s developed great timing on when to go for the ball. The only other person that I’ve seen that was similar was Marcus Camby. Those guys time the shot before it gets to its peak, and they swing from low and bat it out of the air. I saw him doing it at the Olympics for the first time and I was like, “Huh. That’s interesting. That’s an effective way to block a shot.” I feel like maybe he picked it up from watching Marcus as a kid.
Check out this block to see what I mean.
I don’t want to leave out Marc Gasol here, because he’s an unbelievable player and he leads that team in scoring. But to me, Zach is an even tougher guard in the technical sense. He’s so hard to keep track of because he’s constantly working from block to block, ducking into spaces and battling for rebound positioning. He has a knack of bumping you at just the right time to get you off balance.
They run this one play, and you know it’s coming—they’re going to run the misdirection where the ball goes to the right side and then it comes back to Zach in the paint. You know he’s going to duck in and then do his little baby hook with the left hand. He’s just so good off the ball. Watch him working underneath the basket here to establish body position.
The toughest players to guard are the guys who you can’t take your concentration off of for even a split second. Zach is one of those guys. For me, he’s especially tough to deal with because I have to jump out on help D and challenge shots, and Zach is smart enough to eat up that space the moment I step away. His spacial awareness is very underappreciated. He’s what I would refer to as a great chess player on the floor.
If I’m playing Zach, I’m trying to keep him off the glass. I know that night I’m not getting many rebounds, but he’s not getting many either. It’ll be up to my teammates to grab the boards because I’m going to sacrifice by neutralizing him.
When you think of DeMarcus, you think of raw power. But he’s also very skilled for his size. For a guy to have that kind of mass and strength, and be able to move the way he does and shoot the ball from the perimeter is very rare. He can also operate from the block. Versatility is what makes a guy tough to guard. Anthony Davis is lean, fast, athletic and long. He’s going to run the floor and find open creases to cut through. He’s going to use angles to catch defenders off balance and score. DeMarcus Cousins is a big body. He’s not going to use angles. He’s going to bring it right to you. He’s most effective when he can use his power to muscle you. Davis wants to get around you or above you. Cousins wants to get into you.
Sometimes, if you’re just watching on TV, you might think that a guy has perfect defense on DeMarcus because he’s right up on him. But that’s exactly what he wants. He loves to body up on guys, and then use the spin move to roll toward the hoop and finish at the rim. He might have the best post-spin move in the league. Check it out here.
I laughed when I read CJ McCollum’s Elite Guards piece when he mentioned that you might know exactly what move a player is going to use, but it’s still impossible to stop. I immediately thought of Tim Duncan. His moves are so calculated that he’ll lure you right into the trap. He knows how to lure you into playing quote-unquote “correct” defense. But correct defense isn’t going to help you stop his signature bank shot. I mean, what would you rather give up: the bank shot when he’s facing you up, or give up the hook shot when he brings it to the middle? There is no right answer because he has practiced both shots so many times that they’re essentially unblockable.
In terms of pure technical skill for a big, Pau might be the best in the game. And that’s no offense to Tim Duncan, it’s just that Pau is years younger. On the block, Pau can beat you with his right or left, with the face-up jump shot. He’s super long—one of those guys who’s taller than you think. He’s able to palm the ball and shoot hook shots that are impossible to get to.
Pau takes advantage of the fact that officials limit the contact you can have in the post. So he’s able to face you up and then take his dribble to the middle, and then turn back to the baseline for the finish. A skinnier guy like Pau—if the officials see any contact, he’s going to the line. Any time you lean on him, he’s going to show it to the ref. So it’s a fine line guarding him because you have to be strong but you can’t be overly aggressive.
LaMarcus is extremely underrated. He’s been one of the best power forwards in the game for the last four years. He’s a master of establishing body position and spacing the floor. When he catches in the post, he does one really hard dribble and then goes to his right, and either draws the contact or goes into his step-back jumper.
LaMarcus is a guy who plays great team basketball. He does those small things it takes to win that you don’t notice. I’ll give you an example: I started tipping the ball on the offensive glass a few years ago and now it’s become a thing. I stumbled onto it accidentally. They didn’t keep that tip stat for a long time. It would just go to whoever I tipped the ball to. Dudes were getting free rebounds! Every rebound, of course you’re trying to get it with two hands, but once I started getting double-teamed and boxed out, I realized, OK, I can’t get to my full jump—I’ll be getting over-the-back calls all the time. So I started jumping like I do on a jump ball and batting it with one hand to my teammates. Now it’s funny because I see other big men do it.
The Blazers are tough to play because of their team mentality. Their two-guard combo is very, very good. Wesley Matthews is a guy you don’t hear enough about. Him and Damian Lillard have the most 3s in the NBA. Portland can beat you inside and outside.
Like I said, if you’re a big in the NBA in 2015, you’re not just guarding other bigs—you spend a lot of time challenging the shots of wings and guards, too.
Melo is another guy with an unstoppable move. He takes one hard dribble to the baseline, and then spins to the middle and explodes into you. He’ll catch you off balance with the hard dribble, so it’s either you foul him or you give up the bucket.
James Harden’s Euro step also drives you crazy because he puts the ball out in front of you. Your instinct is to grab the ball and then he throws his hands up to get the foul.
How do you deal with these guys? To me, a solid defender stays sound and forces guys to make low-percentage shots all game long. But you’re not necessarily getting on SportsCenter that way. Maybe I’m just turning into a grumpy vet or whatever, but I think being fundamentally sound is being taken away from the art of basketball.
Whenever you’re playing against these elite players, you have to play the long game. You have to accept that you’re going to give up some buckets, but you want to wear down their stamina for the fourth quarter. I might sprint hard into the pick-and-rolls in the first half so that by the second half, the guy isn’t mentally up for it anymore. Maybe a guy is getting his buckets on me, but if they’re hard buckets, it’s wearing him out. By the fourth quarter, the shoulders are getting heavy and the hard buckets don’t fall as easily.
I realize I’ve missed some great players here, so I’ll try to be back before the end of the season with some more film. If you have guys you want me to break down, hit me up on Twitter @TysonChandler.