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Feelings of Futility: Top-20 All-Time Dangerous Situations for Defenses

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Published under Cameron Purn, NBA, Sports

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February 7, 2013

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  • No adjustments for time period
  • Players in prime unless otherwise specified
  • Unguardability and conversion rate both considered
  • Not ranked in order


1. Steve Nash-operated pick and roll

A player who has completely mastered navigating around screens and throughout crowded areas, who possesses uncanny passing and the greatest shoot-off-the-dribble ability the game has ever seen. It was just last year that Nash had a zero-point, 20-assist game. The fact that he didn’t care that he got zero points is exactly what makes Nash as great as he is. If the defense is coming over the top and doubling the ballhandler (Nash), he’ll just get an easy assist. No one sees or creates openings from picks as well as Steve Nash, and he has several ways to make defenses pay.



2. Lebron James-led breakaway

An incredibly fast, strong-bodied player (and my pick for the second-best ever NBA athlete) with outstanding dunking and finishing ability. You can’t guard him, you can’t catch him, and you can’t foul him.


3. Magic Johnson-led fast-break

Mrrrrrooeeuuu! I don’t know what that means, but I know that Magic’s fast-break wizardry invokes my mouth to utter it. Probably because he was a pinpoint passer with extreme confidence, willing to throw one-handed heaves or snap quick bounce passes inches in front of defenders’ feet. Just when you were terrified of his pass, he would use superior athleticism and length to get to the rack in an instant.


4. Shaquille O’Neal drop step

The most dominant post presence in recent memory and possibly the most unguardable. Others were better at manipulating post defenses and moving around them, but Shaq was better at moving through them. Prime Shaq with deep post position was not scary for defenses — it was a death sentence.


5. Larry Bird open jumpshot

Bird with the ball in any situation was a terror for the opposition. However, given Larry Legend’s combination of shooting ability (top five all-time), his midrange game, his height, release, and all the options defenses had to anticipate from him (incredible passing, for one), once he caught the ball in an open area, panic ensued.


6. Michael Jordan isolation

The best player of all time dribbles at the top of the key, slowly inching closer as the time ticks down. He’s ready to execute his deadly first step and perform a quick dribble pull-up, back you down and fadeaway, pull up from long range, or utilize his unmatched driving and finishing game. Good luck, defense.


7. Stephen Curry open 3-pointer

What a gorgeous stroke — and how deadly it can be. With his long distance shooting alone, Curry tends to erase 15-point leads like they were nothing. Steve Kerr still remains the all-time leader in 3-point shooting percentage with a 0.011 percent advantage over Curry, but Steph gets the nod over he and other shooting specialists because not only is he already an all-time distance shooter, given his all-around game, he has many options when left open.


8. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skyhook

Maybe not the most consistent play of the bunch, but possibly the most unguardable play in the history of the NBA. Here’s a 7-foot-3 man holding the ball far above his head, shooting it in an upward fashion and hitting it at an incredible rate. He eventually added the ability to hit this shot from 15-plus feet out. Just unfair (see: here).


9. Hakeem Olajuwon postup

Agile, powerful, fine-tuned and highly reactive to defenses, an Olajuwon postup was a force that couldn’t be reckoned with. He moved with unmatched fluidity, often faking others out when they were already faked out.



10. Kevin McHale postup

A slightly worse version of an Olajuwon postup — less built on “freak ability” and more built on “unpredictable genius.” McHale wasn’t a great athlete, but with his gargantuan length, a million moves and an incredible knack for how and when to finish (he made 60 percent of his field goals in the 1987 season), McHale grabs the 10 spot.


11. Charles Barkley back-in

Here we see fadeaway jumpers, up-and-unders, pump fakes, superior athleticism, all-time post passing, great strength and a knack for breaking through double and triple teams. And if he missed, once Barkley had the rebound, forget it — you were coming down while he was on his way up again. Barkley is one of the best offensive players ever and his back-ins were where he could utilize all of his tools. See: here.


12. Dirk Nowitzki high post catch

Consider that Nowitzki is a consensus top-five power forward of all-time, and that this is largely predicated on his offensive ability alone. The ’11 playoffs  were a perfect representation of Nowitzki’s unguardability; by then he had developed a certain strength and toughness to go along with his ability to A) shoot over his smaller defender or B) drive past his slower defender. Surely feelings of futility are had once a defense faces a seven-footer with an impeccable shot,  high basketball IQ, great driving ability, and an all-time great fadeaway.




13. Karl Malone-containing pick-and-roll

The pick-and-roll alone probably accounted for 10,000 of Malone’s career points. He could drive to the rack, pull up immediately, or make a strong move and hit the jumper. He’s one of the game’s greatest scorers ever and this was his forte.


14. Allen Iverson crossover

Once Iverson decided he was going to perform this maneuver, the defense was at his complete mercy. This ultra-coordinated point guard/shooting guard hybrid executed the crossover like no one else: he pulled the ball from side to side with great range and did so with blurring speed — during such he would shift his body with the ball in an ultra convincing fashion so you always thought he was going with the ball until he pulled it back and it was too late. If it didn’t work the first time, he’d just do it again with his opposite hand. Unstoppable.


15. John Stockton-operated pick-and-roll

Did Stockton’s pick-and-roll expertise make Malone successful, or vice versa? I say neither. Here’s a sharp shooting point guard who had a perfect understanding of spacing, how to use a screen and  had picture–perfect passing. Put Stockton in a pick-and-roll offense with Charles Jones and even he’ll look good.


16. Final possession by Chris Paul

A marvelous thing: You’ll be watching Paul setup his teammates for an entire quarter and once the period winds down, without fail, he’s the one setting up himself. Every time, he picks apart the defense with amazing precision, winding his way through the lane or getting defenders on their heels only to connect on seemingly every shot as the buzzer sounds (See: 1 and 2). It’s as if he has complete control of when he can score. Truly amazing.


17. Kobe Bryant postup

This especially applies to Kobe late in his career — here we see a combination of a strong upper body with unparalleled footwork, a wide array of post moves, great usage of pump fakes, a deadly fadeaway and a solid passing game. Superstar Kobe Bryant in the post holds the 17 spot for most dangerous.


18. Transition Scottie Pippen

From day one, Pippen embodied a strong, lengthy and speedy athlete with great finishing ability and a knack for passing. As he grew older, he developed an outstanding pull-up 3-point shot that consistently abused defenses, especially as they were trotting back in transition. Given all his tools and abilities, Transition Pippen was even more dangerous than MJ, Erving, Drexler, Malone, and other greats.


19. Dwight Howard alley-oop

What does Dwight offer you on the receiving end of an alley-oop? Just a 6-foot-10 body with a 7-foot, 4.5-inch wingspan, a 39.5-inch vertical jump, exceptional dunking power, and great hands. That’s all, though.


20. Pumpfake-mode Dwyane Wade

The more I focus on him, the more I begin to think that Wade’s pump fake is the absolute best of all time. It’s a perfect replica of the start of his shooting form and he executes it with impeccable timing and great speed. He has a very mediocre shot from midrange and beyond, yet it’s no wonder that this man has been one of the best scorers for years when you consider the fouls he gets along via this fake and how he can freely drive to the basket once the defender bites.


Honorable Mentions:


1. Wilt Chamberlain finger roll

2. Impending Pistol Pete wrist pass

3. Manu Ginobili Euro Step

4. Tony Parker drive

5. Julius Erving-led breakaway


About the Author

Cameron Purn likes basketball, the discussion of athletics, and wearing socks. He's from Seattle, Wash., and currently lives in Nagoya, Japan. Follow him on the Twitter machine at @KeeperOTCourt or visit www.keeperofthecourt.com.
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