The old saying is defense wins championships.
For the game's most physically gifted player in LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, this has become a necessary mantra for teams that want to stop King James and thwart his ascendance in becoming one of the all-time greats.
Today, he is widely considered the most dominant player in the game, and at six feet, nine inches tall and 250 pounds, he has the passing and ball-handling skills of a point guard, the smooth jump shot of a shooting guard, and with his body, and the ability to guard all five positions depending on the opposing team's personnel on the floor.
With the NBA's Eastern Conference Finals set to begin Wednesday night in Cleveland against the Atlanta Hawks, James has his Cavaliers squad only four victories away from what would be his fifth straight NBA Finals appearance. James is often compared to Chicago Bulls' great Michael Jordan, because in their athletic primes, their talent level was considered head and shoulders above the next best players in the game. However, James has only two titles to show for his five NBA Finals appearances, compared to Jordan's 6-0 mark. But why is this so? Is it stiffer competition from the Western Conference or did Jordan simply have a greater killer instinct?
Part of what made Jordan great was when the Bulls assumed the reigns as the NBA's dynasty from the Detroit Pistons, Los Angeles Lakers, and Boston Celtics teams of the late 1980's, Jordan and the Bulls dominated the league. They captured six championships in eight years and in 1996 became the first team to win more than 70 games in a season. The two years the Bulls didn't win it all – 1994 and 1995 – were during a brief Jordan retirement.
Last season, powered by the emergence of the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) in small forward Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs, James was outclassed by a team that flawlessly executed their individual roles, and had a bonafide stopper break out in Leonard, who matched James at both ends of the court.
Leonard made his mark on the league last year in the five-game championship series by limiting James' shots. Through the first three games when Leonard covered James, only 17 percent of his touches resulted in a shot – which was half as much when James was covered by other defenders, according to ESPN. Leonard also did an exceptional job keeping James in front of him by limiting James to basket drives on only 13 percent of his touches.
Fortunately for James, the defending champion Spurs were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs this year, and he will not have to go toe-to-toe with Leonard again. But did Leonard provide a blueprint for how teams will mitigate James' impact? Which player on the remaining three teams would stand the best chance to execute that blueprint?
We'll start with the Cavs' conference finals opponent, and Wednesday's likely match-up with their quick forward DaMarre Carroll. The six foot, eight inch, 212 pound Carroll is a career NBA journeyman who has played for five other teams in addition to the Hawks since he came into the league for the 2009-2010 season. However after this season, it's safe to say Carroll has found a home in Atlanta.
Carroll has bought into his role as a wing-defender and in the Hawks' three wins in four tries against Cleveland this season, Carroll was on the court with James for a combined total of 57 minutes. In that time when Carroll was the primary defender on James, he only shot 1 of 8 from the floor, and in totality just under 42 percent while Carroll was in the game, according to CBS Sports. This was below James's season average, as he shot nearly 49 percent on the season, according to BasketballReference.com
In addition to his defensive prowess, Carroll has been the most consistent offensive player for the Hawks in the first two rounds of the playoffs. He led the team in scoring, averaging just over 17 points per game, and was the only starter to shoot over 50 percent from the floor, CBS Sports reported.
“DeMarre all year has taken the challenge of guarding the opponent's best wing and best perimeter player," coach Mike Budenholzer told CBS Sports after practice on Tuesday. "He has a high belief in his ability to guard.
This all amounts to a marquee match-up to see if the somewhat relatively unknown Carroll can channel his inner Kawhi Leonard and step up when it matters most. If Carroll can, expect James and the Cavs to be locked in a street fight to get back to the NBA Finals. Otherwise, the Hawks have little else they can throw defensively at James. It will be his series to lose.
Golden State Warriors
On the other side of the playoff bracket out in the Western Conference, the Golden State Warriors finished this season with the best record in the NBA, led by Most Valuable Player and sharpshooting point guard Stephen Curry. But at 6'3" Curry and James are not going to be going head-to-head unless James picks him up on defense in spells.
Therefore, the Warriors will have to rely on their role players to lock down James in a potential Finals match-up. The Warriors are in a slightly more advantageous position than the Hawks because they have more wing players on their roster that can match up size-wise with James, but the responsibility will fall primarily on third-year small forwards Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green.
Barnes is considered more of an offensive player, but at six feet, eight inches and weighing 225 pounds, he posses the body to pick up James to start, and allow coach Steve Kerr to get creative with who he dispatches to check James as the game progresses. Barnes finished fourth on the Warriors in defensive win shares (DWS) with 3, according to Basketball Reference. DWS is one number that seeks to identify how many wins one player is responsible for his defensive contributions.
Green was runner-up for NBA Defensive Player of the Year, losing out to Leonard of the Spurs, and second on his team in DWS with 5.2. Green may ultimately prove to be a more effective defender on James, if he is able to have his way with the more offensively-focused Barnes. According to a Bleacher Report story, Green is considered every bit as versatile a defender as James and his unparalleled defensive acumen may see him cash in on a big contract in a way that no player with his skill set has earned.
He ranked in the top-10 this year for real plus/minus, an umbrella stat that measures the net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions. However, what makes Green unique is that nearly all of his value comes on defense, whereas his contemporaries on the list provide a little more balance to the game, according to ESPN.
Finally, don't sleep on small forward Andre Iguodala coming off of the Golden State bench. The 11-year veteran is a two-time all-NBA defender, making the first team once in the 2013-2014 season. He has been giving opposing quick forwards fits for years, and one would have to think at the stage in his career where he has become a full-time role player, if given the chance, he would want to show that he still has what it takes to make life difficult for one of the game's best in James.
The Warriors' Western Conference Finals opponent is the worst statistical defensive team of the remaining four playoff clubs, with opponents scoring 102 points per game on the Houston defense, according to TeamRankings.com. However, that was due in part to the Rockets missing defensive-anchoring center Dwight Howard for half of the regular season. The problem for Houston is that Howard would not be guarding James in a potential Finals matchup. Also, Howard injured his left knee in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals Tuesday night and is questionable for Game 2.
That task will likely be left up to some combination of small forwards Trevor Ariza, Josh Smith and Corey Brewer off the bench. Ariza led Houston in steals per game with just under two per contest, and he was runner-up on the squad in DWS at 3.9, which was just .3 wins off of James Harden's team-leading mark. Ariza has a reputation as a defense-minded wing so he would most likely draw James for a majority of the time.
Smith nearly averaged a full steal a game (.9), and went up against James from his days with the Atlanta Hawks, though he's not the same player from back then. At six feet, nine inches, and 225 pounds, he still posses the body to square off against James.
Whether the Rockets sink or swim en route to a possible Finals berth hinges largely on Howard patching the holes in the defense in front of him. The Washington Post reported that in Houston's playoff wins, Howard posted a defensive rating of 96.2, but in playoff loses that number jumps to 122.2 points per 100 possessions. So the big man will have to put Houston's championship aspirations on his broad shoulders if the Rockets hope to knock off the Warriors, let alone James.