It seems like an easy question. Who is the toughest player in the NBA to defend?
The Times recently polled two dozen NBA coaches, assistants and players about whom they consider the toughest player in the league to stop — and the picks varied.
Some voted for more than one player. Guards tended to pick other guards as the most dangerous player with the ball, while forwards often chose forwards.
Here are the top five offensive players, according to our anonymous survey:
1. Golden State point guard Stephen Curry.
2. Oklahoma City small forward Kevin Durant.
3. Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook.
4. Houston shooting guard James Harden.
5. Cleveland small forward LeBron James. Yes, the four-time most valuable player and two-time NBA champion was fifth in this poll.
It’s no surprise that Curry got 15 votes, topping any other player, as the toughest one to defend.
Across the board, players and coaches said they admire Curry’s legendary shooting. His range seems to be just a few feet past the half-court line, making defending him an all-out chore, one head coach said.
“He hits 35-foot three-pointers with people draped all over him. And he has elevated his game from last season, when he was MVP,” the coach said.
Curry can shoot the ball off the dribble going any direction. He can come off screens and curls, weaving through traffic and get his shot off in a flash. That’s what has made him one of the best shooters of all time.
“I don’t know what to do against him,” a Western Conference head coach said. “You better hope and pray that he misses the shot, because that dude is something. I have never seen anybody shoot the ball like that.”
He was averaging a league-best 29.2 points a game before Saturday night’s game, more than five points better than last season.
Curry is giving defenses plenty to worry about this season because his 44.3% three-point shooting is the sixth-best in the league, and he averages 13.5 points a game just from three-pointers.
“The thing … that people don’t understand is that Steph has a lot of freedom,” a Western Conference guard said. “It’s like they say to him, ‘In 40 minutes, do whatever you want in that time.’ He doesn’t have to worry about no turnovers, no shots, no nothing. Because of that, he gives you the greatest show on Earth, or one of them.”
Durant wasn’t far behind Curry, getting 12 votes as the hardest player to defend.
He has found his scoring touch again, after playing only 27 games last season because of a foot injury.
The first thing voters mention is Durant’s 6-foot-9 length and how when he rises up for a shot it’s like trying to guard a seven-footer shooting a jumper.
Durant can also put the basketball on the floor, he can shoot with as much range as anybody in the league and he’s added some post-up moves.
“KD is a walking mismatch. How you gonna guard him? If you’re too small he’s shooting over them. If you’re too big he’s going around them. It’s too easy for him,” one coach said.
Durant is averaging 26.5 points on 52.1% shooting.
“He’s so long,” said a veteran small forward, who has often defended Durant. “You can’t foul him. He can post up now. He can bring the ball up and cross you over, dunk on you and he can shoot it from 30 feet.”
Westbrook presents a whole different set of problems, the voters said. Forget scouting reports, they added, because Westbrook goes wherever he wants. He is considered the most athletic player in the NBA and he constantly attacks, going at his defender from every angle.
“The way they allow him to play there’s no structure or order.… That makes him very uncomfortable to guard. He can come running full-speed at you every play. Like Kobe [Bryant] was the hardest player to guard,” said an assistant coach on an East team. “Russell is hard to guard, but it is a byproduct of the way he’s allowed to do whatever he wants to do and just kind of be a wild man out there.”
And then there is Harden, who can shoot step-back threes or drive to the basket. He has perfected the “Euro-step,” in which he takes a step in one direction to get his defender moving that way and then goes in another direction once he has an opening.
He’s also adept at drawing fouls. Harden led the league in free-throws made and free-throw attempts last season and is the leader this season in both categories. He averages about nine points a game at the line.
“He can shoot, he can finish and you can’t touch him, you can’t breathe on him,” a West guard said. “He’s almost unguardable if the refs call it the way they call it.”
While James is still considered the best player, he was almost an afterthought as a major offensive threat.
At 31 and playing in his 13th season, James is still a dominant figure.
“He doesn’t jump as high as he used to, but his elevation is still pretty damn good,” said an assistant coach in the East.
“With LeBron, make him a jump shooter, and that will give you a small chance,” an Eastern Conference forward said. “Still, he gives me hell no matter what I do against him on defense.”
Follow Broderick Turner on Twitter @BA_Turner