Ranking the Most Polarizing Stars in the NBA Entering 2013-14 Training Camp
There's no shortage of polarizing players in today's NBA, least of all polarizing stars. The digital age has brought with it a much closer look at superstars both on and off the court, and unsurprisingly, that's helped lead to split opinions on particular players.
Some of these players have made questionable PR moves, some do things that can get under fans' skins on the court and some have even done a little of both. Whatever the case, they generate some strong opinions and have become the league's most polarizing stars.
DeMarcus Cousins isn't really a true star, so having him any higher than an honorable mention seemed unfair. Otherwise, he'd be near the top of the list.
Cousins is a young, 20-10 big man whose passing and off-the-dribble skills put him in rare company among seven-footers. However, his passion for taking long two-point jumpers makes him shockingly inefficient, he's generally clueless on defense and he's had numerous run-ins with officials and his own coaches alike.
There's a divide between people who think Cousins will eventually be worth a sizable amount of money and those who think he's nothing short of a franchise-killer. And only Cousins can change the opinions of those groups...one way or another.
Joakim Noah is one of those players that you love when they're on your team but hate when they're anywhere else.
Noah gives 100 percent every single time he steps out on the court, and while that's generally refreshing, his passion and endless trash talking can boil over into the realm of “annoying” (to some, anyways). Love him or hate him, it's hard not to admit that some of his antics can be pretty entertaining.
No. 8: Rajon Rondo
There have long been rumors of tension between Rajon Rondo and other members of the Boston Celtics' locker room, but since details are murky at best, let's instead concentrate on Rondo's on-court issues.
There's no question that Rondo's an incredible floor general with unmatched court vision. Or that only LeBron James and perhaps Kevin Durant can impact the game in as many ways. When Rondo is at his best—ripping off some kind of ridiculous triple-double in the playoffs, for example—you can't find a player in the NBA who's more fun to watch.
With that being said, Rondo's offensive inconsistency can be maddening—he shot solid percentages last season but tended to play hot potato with the ball unless he was wide open. There are also times when he clearly hunts for assists, sometimes to the detriment of his own team. Last season, the Celtics were actually significantly better offensively when Rondo was on the bench (per 82games.com).
Rondo's clearly a very talented player. But to be honest, no one really knows if he's good enough to build a franchise around, and it won't be until this season that we find out.
No. 7: Russell Westbrook
Last year, Russell Westbrook would have been far higher up on this list. But the Oklahoma City Thunder's drop-off in the playoffs sealed what many have known for a while now—he's way too important to OKC to complain about the imperfections in his game.
Still, Westbrook's high-usage, aggressive style of play isn't what most basketball traditionalists want to see from an All-NBA point guard. Heck, some people actually argue that Westbrook's willingness to pull the trigger prevents him from being a “real” point guard.
Westbrook also does a lot of the typical stuff that opposing fans hate—chest thumping after big dunks, finger guns after threes, complaining to officials after missed shots at the rim...the list goes on. Particularly striking was the time Westbrook (for no apparent reason) goaltended the half-court shot of the Denver Nuggets' mascot. Not a great way to endear yourself to opposing fans.
Westbrook plays his butt off, though, and there's no denying he's one of the best 10 or so players in the league. And that makes his on-court antics and strange sense of fashion very tolerable.
No. 6: Kevin Garnett
Remember everything I said about Joakim Noah? How pretty much every opposing fan hates him, but if he's on your team then he's impossible not to love? Kevin Garnett is the king of that category.
Garnett's trademarked intensity—unrivaled in the NBA today—makes him an easy target for vitriol. Garnett's not opposed to throwing the occasional cheap shot if it'll help his team to victory, and he's also one of the most vicious trash talkers in league history.
He allegedly once called Charlie Villanueva a “cancer patient." Last season, he riled Carmelo Anthony up to the extent that Anthony went after him following the game. Even Tim Duncan is said to hate him, and Duncan doesn't hate anybody (per Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard).
To be fair, it's hard to dislike Garnett's game. He's one of the greatest power forwards of all time and an absolutely devastating defender who would have excelled in any era. Minnesota Timberwolves, Boston Celtics and now Brooklyn Nets fans would likely defend Garnett to the death, but there's a big contingent of players and fans who feel pretty strongly the other way.
No. 5: Blake Griffin
All he can do is dunk. Or that's what everyone keeps saying, anyways.
In reality, Blake Griffin is a fabulous offensive player who can most definitely do more than just dunk (not that there's anything wrong with dunking). Griffin has a great off-the-bounce game, he's a superb pick-and-roll player and he's actually very efficient on the low block (per Synergy Sports Technology). It's just that no one notices that stuff.
Part of the problem might be oversaturation—it's hard to flip on the TV without seeing a highlight of Griffin dunking on someone. But some of it also comes down to the fact that fans are really starting to turn against Griffin, namely because he's built a reputation for flopping (deserved) and for being soft (not so deserved).
Griffin is one of the league's brightest young stars. Eventually, people will come around on the whole “he only dunks” thing if he cuts out some of the flopping and gets back to racking up boards (he was down to just eight a game last season). But if Griffin doesn't do either of those things, his reputation's going to continue dropping.
No. 4: Carmelo Anthony
Carmelo Anthony committed one of the cardinal sins of NBA superstars. He effectively ditched the Denver Nuggets, the team that drafted him and helped him grow into the player he is today. You can't do stuff like that without taking some hits to your reputation.
Even on the court, Anthony is one of the league's more controversial stars. Anthony's a potent scorer, but he's never had the shot-selection epiphany that LeBron James or Kevin Durant have experienced in recent years. He also doesn't bring much to the table aside from scoring and rebounding and has bouts where he looks lazy and disinterested on the defensive end.
To make matters worse, Anthony is starting to garner a reputation as a loser.
Anthony's career playoff record is a dreadful 23-42, and he's only had one deep postseason run (in 2008-09). Superstars who can't lead their teams deep into the playoffs aren't exactly highly regarded in today's NBA, and Anthony's going to have to turn things around fast if he wants to restore his reputation among the basketball community.
Anthony is an absolute blast to watch, especially when he's on one of those unconscious shooting streaks. But he's become a pretty polarizing figure in recent years, and considering how strong the Eastern Conference has become, the quickest fix (winning) might not be readily available to him.
No. 3: Kobe Bryant
Like Michael Jordan before him, Kobe Bryant is absurdly competitive. Guys like that tend to step on a few toes, and Bryant is no exception.
Bryant has butted heads with just about everyone in the Los Angeles Lakers organization at one point or another—Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol, Phil Jackson, Andrew Bynum and most recently, Dwight Howard.
Of course, not all of the Lakers' conflicts can be blamed on Bryant, but his desire to win at all costs makes him an ill fit with many players and fans. And I think we can all admit that the "Colorado Incident" didn't do much for his reputation either.
Bryant's shoot-first nature has been roundly criticized, as well, and to be honest, there are times when he chooses to hoist up difficult jumpers rather than make the easy pass. Bryant himself told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin:
I like shooting. I don't care how it comes. I like putting them up. It doesn't matter how it comes. I'm being honest.
I definitely much rather shoot it than pass it. That's just how I am.
Fair or not, that mentality has made Bryant Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of people who value team ball. Still, even the most ardent Bryant haters can't deny that he's phenomenally talented and has an impressive work ethic. Or that he could do just about anything and still have legions of fans willing to defend him.
Bryant's an MVP, a five-time champion and one of the greatest pure scorers in the history of the game. He may rub people the wrong way sometimes, but he's had one heck of a career doing it.
No. 2: LeBron James
This one's easy. “The Decision” cemented LeBron James' place in the “Polarizing Sports Figures” Hall of Fame, but in all honesty, he was pretty much destined to be there from the moment he was drafted.
LeBron is one of the best players of all time and essentially the first (and biggest) superstar to play his entire career in the digital age. Everything LeBron has done since his rookie season has been dissected countless times by talking heads, journalists, columnists, fans, announcers, players—everyone. And unlike when, say, Michael Jordan played, we now have instant access to all of that. It's unprecedented.
Of course LeBron is polarizing. He's all anyone talks about. Entire columns were devoted to whether or not he'd wear his headband in a playoff game. He deals with oversaturation to the Nth degree. Not being polarizing was never really an option, poor television special or not.
No.1: Dwight Howard
It took quite an effort to dethrone LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, but congratulations, Dwight Howard. You did it.
As was mentioned earlier, nothing affects an athlete's reputation quite like ditching a team for seemingly greener pastures, and Howard has now done that two years in a row. And that's not even getting into the way he held the Orlando Magic over the fire for a full year before he was eventually traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. Yikes.
It's really a question of productivity versus baggage for Howard. He's a once-in-a-generation defender, a great pick-and-roll big and however clunky his post game looks, it is efficient—when healthy, he shoots around 50 percent on the low block (per Synergy Sports Technology).
On the other hand, he got Stan Van Gundy fired, he refused to adjust to Mike D'Antoni's offense and apparently wanted the Lakers to end the Kobe Bryant era (per ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein).
Hard not to be a little bit polarizing with a rap sheet like that. Your turn, Houston.