The NBA has always been a game of match ups. Winning teams usually have one or two players that give even the best of defenders a hard time. These players eventually become legends by getting the best of each and every defender that is thrown their way. The hardest players to guard in the NBA also tend to possess more than their fair share of championship rings.
Many defenders could get in Larry Bird’s way, but few could stop him from taking and making a shot. Magic Johnson could be slowed down, but defenders that fell asleep for a split second might have a ball passed right by their ear. LeBron James and Kevin Durant are two of the most impressive athletes to play the game, but there have been others who have presented opponents with similar problems before them.
The 12 hardest to guard players of all-time are mostly pure scorers who were productive on any part of the court. There might be some better scorers who are not on this list, but some guys like Karl Malone were not the greatest at creating their own shots. Many of the older players might also struggle to get off their shots in today’s fast paced game. These 12 players could score and dominate during any era. This was a difficult list to form and is subjective to a certain degree, so feel free to chime in below!
These are the 12 hardest to guard players of all-time:
12. Larry Bird, F – 6-9, 220 pounds / 21,791 points
Unlike many of the players on this list, Larry Bird was seldom the best athlete to step out on the floor. What made Larry “The Legend” so hard to guard was his body control and coordination with the timing and release of his shot. Many players could stay in front of Bird, but his fade away jumpers and one armed shots in the paint made him one of the most frustrating players to guard. He could get his shot off in a forest of full grown trees and could routinely make shots in critical situations when his team needed them most.
Larry Bird could be stopped but still had the knack of getting off a good shot, making him one of the most frustrating player to guard.
11. Nate Archibald, G 6-1, 160 pounds / 16,481 points
Nate “Tiny” Archibald was a blur out on the court. At a time when the game was geared towards big men, Archibald was always the quickest guy out on the court. Archibald was an amazing athlete, but his less than solid body was always subjected to lots of abuse. He does still have the distinction of being the only man to lead the league in scoring and assists in the same season. What made “Tiny” so hard to guard was his quickness and shiftiness that were unparalleled at the time. He was also more than willing to pass the ball when he routinely torched the initial defender who stood in his way.
During his time, there was no one man who could stay in front of Nate Archibald. Archibald was so quick that he could probably still leave players searching for their shorts in today’s NBA game.
10. Kevin Durant, F – 6-9, 240 pounds / 14,575 points
Kevin Durant can shoot from anywhere on the court and can rise up over most small forwards with his 6 foot 9 inch long-armed frame. Durant has become one of the top scorers in the NBA thanks in large part to his ability to shoot and quickness that allows him to drive on just about any defender. Durant is comfortable outside, driving through the paint or even working in the post. This gives defenders very few options when it comes to taking away any one facet of his game.
Kevin Durant is a shooter with the wingspan of a seven footer who is also adept at dribbling the ball. As his career progresses, he will easily move up this list.
9. Magic Johnson, G – 6-9, 225 pounds / 17,707 points
Earvin “Magic” Johnson was far from a scoring machine. He was more of a freak of nature who had no equal during his time. With his long frame and ability to dribble the ball, Johnson had vision and court awareness that made him one of the best passers of all-time. Johnson could post up smaller defenders and find the open player when the defense came with the double team. With his size and impressive control of the ball, “Magic” could always dictate what he wanted to do offensively. Staying in front of him seldom equated to stopping him.
“Magic” Johnson was a match up problem for any NBA guard, but it was the inability to control him that lands him on this list.
8. Kobe Bryant, G/F – 6-6, 205 pounds / 31,700 points
Kobe Bryant has an amazing first step. He uses it to get by defenders or create space for his jump shot. Coupled with a nice vertical leap, there is little a defender can do but try to put a hand in his face. Bryant is one of the most explosive scorers to ever play the game and he is always a threat to take the ball directly to the rim, so through the years he has developed a step-back jump shot to make him even harder to guard. Defenders must now routinely pick their poison when matched up against Bryant as he can torch even the best of them with his all-around game.
Kobe Bryant has a first step that is second to none. This explosive step is what creates separation from defenders and lands him on this list.
7. LeBron James, F – 6-8, 250 pounds / 22,969 points
LeBron James is one of the most incredible physical players to ever play the NBA game. Built like a football linebacker and yet as graceful as a gazelle, James is close to impossible to control when his outside shot is going down. He can score on quick drives through the paint or post up when he doesn’t have the ball. James also can’t be left alone at the 3-point line. A man of his stature has never been so athletically gifted. On top of all that, James is also always a threat to pass the ball, making him difficult to double team.
James will only get harder to guard as he keeps developing his outside shot. His size, speed, athleticism and ability to pass the ball, lands him firmly on this list.
6. Dirk Nowitzki, F – 7-0, 245 pounds / 26,625 points
Dirk Nowitzki has been a match-up nightmare even since he entered the league. He can dribble like a guard with his seven foot frame and shoot the lights out on any given night. He can shoot from the 3-point line, step back, hit any mid-range jumper and also post up in the paint. He even has a fade away jumper that rivals that of Larry Bird. Nowitzki has mad skills and a long body that makes him impossible to guard. When fouled, he then makes about 88% of his free throw attempts.
Dirk Nowitzki has been a remarkable seven footer, redefining the limitations that used to be associated with a big man’s game. He is one of the most gifted seven footers to ever play and also a headache for any opponent who has the unfortunate task of guarding him alone.
5. Shaquille O’Neal, C – 7-1, 325 pounds / 28,596 points
Shaquille O’Neal stands as one of the last dominant big men to ever play the game. What made “Shaq” so special was more than just his enormous size. He had soft hands and could even get his large frame off the ground, but make no mistake, there were no men in the NBA who could prevent him from backing them down. O’Neal basically had no outside shot, but could score in and around the paint. With thunderous dunks and his baby hook shot, he was an unstoppable presence in the paint.
Shaquille O’Neal was big and strong, but it was his athleticism for his size that made him a load for any defender. The league caught up to him and figured out that fouling him made the most sense, but he was still one of the hardest players to guard in the history of the NBA.
4. Oscar Robertson, G – 6-5, 220 pounds / 26,710 points
Oscar “The Big O” Robertson was a match up nightmare during his time. Robertson played both guard positions, but the offense routinely went through his capable hands. He had the body to post up or drive through the paint and the athleticism to fly by defenders who would try to get too close. What made Robertson even more irritating is his ability to pass, especially when it looked like his path to the basket was blocked. Robertson even became the only player in NBA history to average a triple double for an entire season.
Oscar Robertson was a blend of scorer, point guard and small power forward all in one powerful and athletic body. At the time, there was little any one defender could do.
3. Kareem Abdul Jabbar, C – 7-2, 267 pounds / 38,387 points
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of the best scoring big men to ever play the game. He was lean, athletic and the reason why the dunk was banned in college basketball from 1968 to 1976. Early in his career, opposing centers could not keep up with his ability to score in the paint. What made him even harder to guard throughout his career was his sky hook shot that was virtually impossible to block. With his seven foot plus frame and long arms, he could put an elbow into a defender’s chest and launch his hook shot from just about anywhere on the court.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar managed to have a long career thanks in large part to his sky hook shot. His ability to shoot it over any opponent on any given night made him impossible to guard throughout his long and very productive NBA career.
2. Michael Jordan, G – 6-6, 216 pounds / 32,292 points
Michael Jordan has been recognized as one of the best to ever play the NBA game. The fact that he could pass and rebound too, often goes unnoticed. Jordan was a super athletic player who also had an incredible feel for the game. He knew when to drive or when to pull up for a shot and also had the awareness to spot open teammates when he was on the move. Sure he could dunk and yes he could sink the 3, but he knew when to attack, where to attack and when to settle for the outside shot. Jordan was a master technician and had a whole toolbox of talent to leave defenders grasping at the air.
Michael Jordan could post up in the paint, drive on anyone and shoot the outside shot. What made Jordan impossible to guard is that he knew how to break down any defender and had the complement of skills to constantly vary his attack.
1. Wilt Chamberlain, C – 7-1, 275 pounds / 31,419 points
Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain was one of the most incredible athletes to ever play in the NBA. The fact that his height was over seven feet, just made him that much harder for defenders to face. In college, Wilt ran a 10.9 100-yard dash, won the NCAA high jump three years in a row and throw the shotput up to 56 feet. In basketball, there was no one man on the planet who could guard him one on one. Wilt averaged 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game to go along with numerous blocked shots. He was one of the few players of his time to constantly get double and even triple teamed.
Wilt Chamberlain was the most dominant player to probably play the game and there is not a man on this Earth who could say he could guard him. Even in today’s era of supreme athleticism, Chamberlain would be at the top of just about any list.