LeBron James is preparing to face the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals again. Or, perhaps more accurately, the Warriors are preparing to face him.
For the first time in NBA Finals history, two teams are meeting for a third consecutive year. And while the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers split the two series so far, James didn’t split anything but wigs. He’s been the best player in both series, to the point that he had a strong case for 2015 Finals MVP despite his Cavs losing in six games.
James has averaged 32.5 points, 12.2 rebounds and 8.8 assists a game in the 13 Finals games these past two years. It wasn’t always efficient, and that’s a tremendous credit to the Warriors’ defense — one player in particular. But it was dominant; James made sure his play decided the outcome of games in a way that (should have) silenced anyone who ever questioned his killer instinct.
How will the Warriors respond this time (Game 1: Thursday, 9 p.m. ET, ABC)? Well, they’ve got some new tricks up their sleeve, including Steve Kerr’s fill-in coach Mike Brown, who was James’ coach when he reached his prime in the late 2000s. But this ultimately will come down to finding the right players who can attempt to slow down James without leaving massive holes in the rest of the defense.
With that said, let’s rank every player on the Warriors based on how they’d do matched up against the best player in the world.
1. Andre Iguodala
There’s only one player in the NBA who can handle James better than fully healthy Iguodala: Kawhi Leonard. Iguodala was 2015 Finals MVP for his efforts on James, and he would have been a frontrunner for 2016 Finals MVP had the Wariors not blown it. Iguodala and James were gold medal teammates at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, and they are less than a year apart in age.
But while healthy Iguodala has the combination of size (6-7 with a 6-11 wingspan), strength, athleticism and instincts required to be great on James, he hasn’t been anywhere near his normal self this postseason. He’s dealt with ankle and knee injuries that have both kept him out of the lineup occasionally and limited his ability when he does play.
That’s why this list is so important. Iguodala may not be able to take his normal role as small forward on the Warriors’ small-ball Death Lineup, meaning someone else will have to step up on the best player in the world.
2. Draymond Green
Green has the most of the physical tools required to be a tough matchup for LeBron. He has great on-ball instincts that make it difficult for faster players to get past him, and he’s one of the few players in the league who might be stronger than James without being a million times slower. In a vacuum, for a single isolation possession, Green probably would be the ideal Warriors defender on James. And after being roasted in the 2015 Finals, he appeared to have more success last year in this matchup.
But this would be playing right into the Cavaliers’ hopes. Sure, LeBron would be forced off ball a bit or forced to pass earlier than he’d like by having arguably the best defender in the NBA on him. But Green would sacrifice his most valuable assets — his ability to cause chaos and his strength in the paint. Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love would dominate the boards, and the Cavs would bleed the Warriors dry by having LeBron create from the perimeter — where he’s still more than dangerous enough to require constant attention.
3. Kevin Durant
The second-best player in the world definitely will spend a lot of time on James, as he always has. The problem? He’s just not great at it. Perhaps because James recognizes that Durant is his one true rival at his position, he tends to clean up in this matchup, holding an 18-5 lifetime record against Durant. He’s a lot stronger than Durant, which is one of the issues, but he also seems to recognize how to keep the taller, longer forward on his heels in on-ball defense.
Also, like Green, Durant’s best defensive talents would be wasted if he were shadowing James all game. He’s the Warriors’ best shot-blocker and arguably their best rebounder, too. His rim protection is a huge part of making the Warriors’ small-ball lineups work. Expect to see him playing his best defense on Love or even Thompson, not James.
4. Shaun Livingston
There’s some fun history in this matchup: James shoved Livingston in the 2015 Finals, and Livingston dunked on James last year. The 31-year-old is a point guard by listed position, but he’s 6-7 and has lanky strength. There’s no doubt that he can’t stop James on a full-time basis, but he’s also smart enough to force LeBron to beat him with his jumper, which is the only way to handle him.
5. Stephen Curry
Curry is a relentlessly annoying defender. He’s much stronger than he looks, and he’s ridiculously crafty. As he seems to have the ball on a string on offense, he also has a knack for grabbing it on defense, not only to force steals but also to poke the ball out and keep opponents uncomfortable. James loves posting up Curry and other point guards when they step on him, but Curry’s quick hands and instincts actually work well in the post. The Warriors wouldn’t want to use this matchup too frequently, but they are OK with Curry switching onto James. And it’s quite fun to watch.
6. David West
Probably among the five strongest players in the NBA, West entered the NBA in 2003 like James and has been one of the best defenders in the league for years. He’s also roughly the same size as LeBron. He’s just nowhere near fast enough to handle James in space. Still, West is the Warriors’ best option on the switch other than Green.
7. Klay Thompson
Thompson has a mostly deserved reputation as an ace defender, but those matchups come on opposing point guards. He’s always struggled with bigger players, and James makes that even more challenging by being faster than Thompson, too.
8. Zaza Pachulia
Whether or not you think he’s a dirty player, Pachulia certainly is physical and strong. He’s had a great defensive season in large part because he knows how to handle switches. He’ll never start a possession on LeBron, but in some ways, the Warriors’ defense might rather him take the switch than Green or Durant.
9. Matt Barnes
In his day, Barnes was a solid defender. And even then, James owned him. These days, Barnes is one of the NBA’s toughest players, but he no longer has the physical abilities to deal with LeBron. He might have to take this matchup at times, especially if Iguodala is out, but don’t be surprised to see James licking his lips at the matchup.
10. Patrick McCaw
You’d hate to see a rookie tackle this assignment, especially a 180-pound rookie. McCaw has the potential to be an amazing defender, but like Thompson, he does most of that work on opposing guards.
11. James Michael McAdoo
McAdoo actually ended up defending James in a couple Finals games last season. It was simply miserable. He had five fouls in 18 minutes and was roasted several times. Still, he’s a year older now and definitely had a better defensive season this year.
12. Kevon Looney
Looney only played 447 minutes this season, but he actually showed some occasional defensive chops in that time. Still, he’s the youngest player on the Warriors and was dealing with a hip injury, so he may not be available anyway.
13. Ian Clark
Clark is a solid backup for Curry, in that he can run some of the same plays and hits his open shots for the most part. But he’s the worst defender on the Warriors, bar none.
14. Damian Jones
On one hand, the rookie center only played 85 minutes all season and almost certainly won’t see any time in the Finals. On the other, he was drafted for his defensive potential, was solid on that end in the NBA Development League and serves as a direct replacement for fellow Vanderbilt alumnus Festus Ezeli, who handled switches well. So, not now, but maybe in two years?
15. JaVale McGee
This really isn’t about old “Shaqtin a Fool” clips. McGee’s actually be terrific for the Warriors, playing a small role and turning himself into a DeAndre Jordan-like presence on offense as well as a solid rim protector on defense. But he’s absolutely lost on every switch onto a perimeter player, to the point that the Warriors go out of their way to break their switch-constantly scheme at times with him on the court. He lacks the defensive instincts and reaction time to handle quick ballhandlers.