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The 20 Toughest Players In The NBA

By 09.19.13
Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Jodie Meeks

Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Jodie Meeks (photo. @KobeBryant)

Now this choice may irk some readers, but the fact that LeBron isn’t mentioned on more lists when discussing the NBA’s toughest players feels like another contrived attempt to belittle an athlete who has constantly absorbed shots about his character and mental toughness, and has still excelled beyond the yells of the naysayers. I mean, NHL players were out here questioning his toughness like their opinions held any true merit. No one in sports has been overanalyzed and condemned while accomplishing so much quite like James has.

I could make a case that LeBron is the toughest player in the NBA just off what he goes through mentally from critics and fans alike. The inevitable clichés that arise whenever the LeBron vs. Jordan debate is brought up will never cease because James is going against a generational fable. We’ve seen LeBron take a downright pathetic Cavaliers team to the NBA Finals, and average 38-8-8 in a playoff series. He’s won two consecutive NBA titles, four MVPs and attended nine consecutive All-Star Games. However, it won’t be adequate enough. LeBron could surpass MJ in all the vital categories deemed to make him the greatest, but Jordan will always hold the crown because to the NBA Old School, Jordan “played in a tougher era.” We’re faulting a player for not playing in an era that he probably would’ve dominated if he got the chance.

In all fairness, LeBron is playing against far greater athletic talent than those in previous eras, and LeBron still looks like a man among boys in 2013. At 6-8 and 270 pounds, he’s quite possibly the rarest athletic specimen in major sports. Because of his stature, James takes a pounding without getting the calls that the average NBA player receives (see: Kirk Hinrich foul on LeBron in a Heat/Bulls game in March). Teams have adopted the approach of wrapping up LeBron when he attacks the basket instead of guarding him, even though by rule, these aren’t basketball plays. A similar case can be made for Dwight Howard, who gets molly-whopped every time he attempts a post move in the paint.

I’m not advocating that we bring out the tissues and mope for LeBron. But the fact is being an imposing player doesn’t validate the excessive fouls he receives from his opponents. His ability to throw all that on the back burner and still go produce at such a high level says a lot about his character and mental solitude.

Known as the weak link during the Celtics championship run in 2008, Rajon Rondo has become one of the most versatile and exciting players in the NBA not just because of his talent, but his confidence, which vehemently teeters on arrogance. Never one to hold his tongue, the Celtics guard is known for his public spats with opposing players such as Chris Paul and Kris Humphries, as well as his former coach, Doc Rivers.

Whether his trash-talk is warranted or not, Rondo certainly walks the walk. And even if he can’t walk, he still finds a way to produce. In the last couple of years, Rondo has had legendary moments of perseverance that players dream of. After hyperextending and dislocating his elbow during Game 3 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals, he made an improbable return in the fourth quarter, practically playing with one hand for the reminder of the game, and establishing himself as a certifiable Boston folk hero. And who can forget about him tearing his ACL in the second quarter of a game against the Hawks in January, and not only finishing the game but dropping a triple-double? When you have balls like this kid, you can talk all you’d like.

Just like Jimmy Butler, we could put the whole Bulls roster on this list (I must say, I contemplated placing the homie Nate Robinson in here, but it felt like overkill), but it really goes to show how gritty these Chicago players are. During a season where most of the Bulls crucial starters dealt with injuries, Noah was the glue that held everything all together.

We all know of Derrick Rose‘s delayed return from his ACL tear, but during the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, their star forward Luol Deng was dealing with complications from a spinal tap, and veteran guard Kirk Hinrich was dealing with a nagging foot injury. However, it was Noah, struggling with debilitating plantar fasciitis, who gutted it out with two 25-minute outings that helped lead the Bulls to two wins and ultimately the series.

Noah compared the injury to having needles in your foot, which sounds absolutely terrible. But his ability to ignore the pain, and not only play but contribute to his team’s success is a testament to his coach and his unwavering hustle, which he’s displayed since his days at Florida.

Not really sure if there’s much I need to say about this one. The Mamba has had numerous injuries, many so debilitating to most that they’d be unable to play for months. Yet Kobe just fights through it. He’s the ultimate warrior not because of his physicality, but because of his mental toughness (which he’s made a few commercials on; you should check them out). After rupturing his Achilles tendon in the spring, Kobe has stated that he’ll certainly be ready for the upcoming NBA season. We know about his bouts with his ailing knees, or the pinky finger with no cartilage in it, but as a NBA fan, we brush his injuries away because we’re programmed to expect him to play every week regardless. That’s the type of standard he’s set for himself, week in and week out. And for that, he’s the ultimate tough guy.

Who are the NBA’s toughest players?

Follow Quenton on Twitter at @QGNarcisse.

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