Each NBA Teams' Most Competitive Player
Making it from the driveway hoop to an NBA hardwood floor requires a certain amount of determination. You don't put in thousands of hours of workouts, practices and studying without the hunger to do great things.
(Insert inspirational Michael Jordan quote here.)
Ask just about any NBA player (except for maybe Larry Hughes), and they'll say winning is most important to them. But sports is all about who's the best at this, or the most that. We have to grade, rank, categorize. So who wants it more?
That question has no scientific or numeric formula, and as such, no real solution. Competitive drive is one of those intangibles that you just know when you see it. The worst part? It manifests itself in a number of ways. Passion on the court. Crazy workouts off it. Sacrifices to personal life and even having the ability to swallow one's pride. Playing through pain or just still playing after 20 years.
With that in mind, after crunching the numbers, we've compiled a list of the most competitive player on each of the 30 NBA teams.
If you've got reason to believe your favorite competitor should be on here, but isn't, let us know in the comments section.
Atlanta Hawks: DeMarre Carroll
DeMarre Carroll doesn't blow you away in the box score.
He didn't lead the Hawks in any statistical category and was Atlanta's fourth-leading scorer with Al Horford sidelined most of the season.
But you don't receive the nickname "Junkyard Dog". You earn it, like Carroll did playing college ball at Missouri University. And that spirit hasn't faded after playing for five different teams in five seasons as a pro:
Who believes "Hard Work is a Talent"!!!RT— DeMarre Carroll (@DeMarreCarroll1) May 22, 2014
The scouting report on Carroll fits. Hoops Habit's Adam McGee points out in a season review that though it's difficult to quantify, Carroll was a key member of the Hawks' playoff run:
He contests every shot, and competes for every loose ball, running up and down the floor with an almost endless energy.
Carroll’s style of play is all about outworking and out-hustling the opposing team, and even when he comes off second best, it’s never for a lack of effort. The “Junkyard Dog” is as unselfish as they come in the NBA, and all he cares about is winning, making him a coach’s dream.
Carroll said himself in exit interviews with the media that he felt like a rookie at times and wants to play summer league to improve his game, though the team won't let him.
But don't just take Carroll's or McGee's word for it. The swingman has ingratiated himself with Atlanta's fans after just one season:
Regularly tasked with guarding the opponent's most athletic and best wing scorer in favor of Kyle Korver, Carroll was the heart and soul of an injury-riddled team that was one game away from becoming the sixth team in 30 years to oust a top-seeded team in the first round of the playoffs.
It's no wonder Atlanta went 1-8 this season when Carroll didn't play.
Boston Celtics: Kris Humphries
You can argue that Rajon Rondo deserves this honor for Boston, and there's a solid case behind it. He once said in a radio interview back in 2012 that he didn't have time for friends. And the former Kentucky Wildcat was desperate to return to the court this season after tearing his ACL in January 2013.
But no Celtic player showed more dedication in Year 1 of rebuilding than the guy Rondo feuded with before they became teammates. According to ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg, Kris Humphries' workouts didn't end when practice broke or a game ended.
The 10-year vet regularly courted the team's younger players and assistant coaches to compete in sprint drills after practice and hit the treadmill after games he spent on the bench to simulate the exercise. According to Forsberg, he regularly beat guys like rookie guard Phil Pressey in those baseline sprints.
From the get-go, Humph refused to buy into any tanking talk despite coming over from Brooklyn as the centerpiece of a trade that gutted Boston's roster. He told Jared Zwerling for ESPN Boston back in September that he, "wasn't looking to be part of any tanking situation...So it's just about competing and bringing it every night. We're going to have to figure out ways to win and continue to get better, and it starts with camp."
A career journeyman who has played more than 20 minutes a night in just three of his 10 seasons, the former Golden Gopher never seems to quit working on his game:
Wish I could find a gym to get shots up right now. 24hr gym with basketball court in ATL?— Kris Humphries (@KrisHumphries) November 23, 2013
To that end, Zwerling detailed how Humphries ramped up his offseason workout in preparation for this past season. The 29-year-old ran in pickup games with some of the league's top talent and practiced yoga and Pilates, per his normal routine. He took it a step further by pairing with a playe- development coach to improve his shot and committing to working out five days a week for two hours a day starting at 8:30 a.m.
And it led to a far more productive season than anyone could have expected from a guy who wasn't meant to figure into the team's plans when the blockbuster trade went down.
Brooklyn Nets: Kevin Garnett
If you've followed Kevin Garnett's career at all since he came out of Farragut Academy in 1995, then you're fully aware of just how intense the guy is on the court.
He cares so much about not giving his opponents even the most minute edge that Garnett invented the practice of blocking a shot after the play has been blown dead by the whistle. ESPN did a segment on the phenomenon that has since spread around the league.
Despite this being his 19th year in the league, KG had serious qualms with the prospect of seeing reduced minutes before the season started. According to Garnett, his discussion with head coach Jason Kidd back in October "didn't go too well," as reported by USA Today's Adi Joseph:
I understand what he's saying. He just wants to make sure I'm durable. ... I just don't want to be told anything. I think I've earned the right to have an opinion on something that I'm doing. From a chemistry standpoint, I think it's important for me to be out there with everybody.
Indeed, Garnett played the least minutes of his career at 20.5 per night, and the 54 games he played were the third fewest. But the NBA record holder for total salary earnings at over $325 million, according to Celebrity Net Worth, isn't quite ready to ride off into the sunset:
Report: Kevin Garnett expected to return to Nets for one more season http://t.co/bxs7ree5pT— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) May 22, 2014
KG is known league-wide for his laser-like death stares and exceptionally dirty mouth—all in the spirit of competition, of course. A broadcast veteran of 42 years calling you the most competitive player he's ever met in any sport like Craig Sager did just puts rubber stamp on that reputation.
If you're not totally convinced:
Kevin Garnett is an intense person, if you have not heard. Celebrated a scrimmage win louder than anyone has ever celebrated anything.— Andrew Keh (@andrewkeh) October 18, 2013
Charlotte Hornets: Al Jefferson
Don't let Al Jefferson's silky baritone voice and low-key demeanor fool you. The guy is a devilish competitor.
It takes a certain kind of streak within an athlete to play through injury and pain. Jefferson did just that after guiding Charlotte to its second playoff appearance in 10 years as a franchise and last as the Bobcats. Despite going up against the Miami Heat in the first round's biggest mismatch, Jefferson insisted on playing through a strained plantar fascia.
Al Jefferson required two painkiller shots to get back on the floor Sunday, felt something "rip" http://t.co/WVZHei3Ql1— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 20, 2014
Sure, the eighth seed got swept aside in four games (and yes Jefferson finally succumbed to his injury to miss Game 4). But the series was a true testament to Jefferson's competitive spirit after carrying around the reputation of being a black hole for nine seasons who only made the playoffs twice and never stuck around one franchise for more than three years.
Not only did Jefferson play through pain while spending his time off the court in a walking boot, but the 10th-year vet dropped nearly 19 points a game and shot almost 50 percent from the field on one foot.
Al Jefferson said yesterday his foot felt like he was "walking on hot coals." Feels better today.— Rick Bonnell (@rick_bonnell) April 25, 2014
Steve Clifford said Al Jefferson's foot simply can't get any healthier the balance of this series. Jefferson's off days limited to the bike.— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) April 26, 2014
The big man finally got the respect he deserves, evidenced by is eighth-place finish in MVP voting.
Congrats to Charlotte for a great season, and hopefully we appreciate and respect Al Jefferson more. It was overdue. Miami sweeps Cats— Shane Young (@YoungNBA) April 29, 2014
Chicago Bulls: Joakim Noah
Few players have created more enemies around the NBA and its various fanbases than Joakim Noah. How else do you elicit such a strong response from a blonde woman with a clutch purse?
By verbally dogging other franchises, that's how. He's heavily reviled in Boston, Cleveland and Miami for outspoken comments about their teams and cities. (Remember when he claimed in predraft workouts to have grown up hating Michael Jordan?). But it's Noah's on-court presence that garners so much negative attention outside of Chicago.
He's an enormous ball of passion and energy who beats you in spite of quirky fundamentals, including one of the goofiest shooting motions the Association has ever seen.
Say what you will about his lack of tact. But Noah, like several other guys on this list, is one of the league's premier warriors, and he only stamped that reputation further in his seventh season:
Jo put his desire to win on full display this season. Having to go through the second consecutive year of his prime without Derrick Rose, and losing Luol Deng along the way, Noah very publicly adapted his game to become the fulcrum of Chicago's offense as "point center." He set a number of assist records for players at the position along the way.
And even those outside of the Windy City have come to acknowledge the Defensive Player of the Year's hustle:
Every NBA player should be as competitive as Joakim Noah.— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) March 9, 2014
Cleveland Cavaliers: Matthew Dellavedova
Yes, an undrafted rookie who played just under 18 minutes a night off the bench gets the nod with apologies to all-world hustler Anderson Varejao. Though Varejao would probably vote for him given the chance.
Anderson Varejao on Matthew Dellavedova (actual quote): "He's like our pit bull. He gets into the game and he's like grrrrrrrr"— Conrad Kaczmarek (@ConradKazNBA) December 14, 2013
In the wake of injuries to Kyrie Irving and C.J. Miles, Dellavedova proved to be a welcome surprise for Cleveland:
The Cavs got Anthony Bennett at 1, Sergey Karasev 19, Carrick Felix 33. And undrafted Matthew Dellavedova was easily their best rookie.— Scott Howard-Cooper (@SHowardCooper) May 22, 2014
The scrappy Aussie earned the adoration of now-fired head coach Mike Brown, as quoted by Cleveland Plain-Dealer reporter Jodie Valade. "I can't say enough about Delly," Brown said of Delly after scoring 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting in a 97-96 victory over the Pistons. "He's just a tough, tough son of a gun. I'll take him on my team anywhere, any time, any place."
Defense has become Dellavedova's calling card. A post by Grant Richardson on Australian blog The Pick and Roll recalls Cleveland's matchup with Oklahoma City on March 20 when Brown called on the (generously labelled) 6'4" guard to face up Kevin Durant:
He forced Durant to miss five of his first six shots and, with his confidence brewing, Dellavedova went on to a record a double-double of 11 points and 10 assists. On his effort, Brown stated, “One thing Delly is going to do: He’s going to fight. He makes you work for points.” Although Durant wouldn’t admit it, the scoring champion was forced to adjust his game before eventually leading the Thunder to victory.
Delly successfully got under the skin of several opponents throughout the course of the season:
Norris Cole called for a technical foul for pointless forearm against Dellavedova.— Joseph Goodman (@JoeGoodmanJr) March 19, 2014
Add David West to the list of players that Matthew Dellavedova has pissed off this year.— Conrad Kaczmarek (@ConradKazNBA) March 30, 2014
The usually agnostic Spencer Hawes even came to his rescue in the David West incident.
Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki
Scrappy and energetic don't exactly describe the German Wunderkind. No, Nowitzki doesn't fit the bill of a classic competitor in the NBA. But don't let that diminish what he has done for 16 seasons and plans to continue doing for a few more.
The guy is 10th on the all-time scoring list with 26,786 points. He led Dallas in handing Miami its ONLY playoff series loss to date in the Big Three Era. And he got the Mavericks past the first round of the playoffs in seven of his 15 trips when his best help was Dallas' own short-lived "Big Three" with Michael Finley and Steve Nash.
Even this season, in which the Mavs took San Antonio to seven games in the first round, you never knew who would show up as the Robin to Dirk's Batman. He simply went about his business, dropping nearly 22 points a night in one of the most efficient shooting seasons of his career.
I'd say that's some competitive fire. Judging by this ad that ran before this season, Dirk seems to think so too.
Denver Nuggets: Kenneth Faried
It might surprise some that a guy nicknamed "The Manimal" grew up in a house with two mothers. In fact, as told by ESPN.com's Tom Friend, Kenneth Faried's relentless energy on the court has everything to do with his upbringing.
Just how much hustle does Faried bring to Denver? Let Gregg Popovich explain, via 48 Minutes of Hell's Matthew Tynan:
2) on Kenneth Faried: “Energy-wise, nobody plays every down the way he does. …tell your guys the way it’s gonna be, they don’t believe you…— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) March 26, 2014
“They get out on the court, he does it to ‘em, I crap on ‘em, they go back out on the court or they sit and somebody else goes out there."— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) March 26, 2014
But as the opening lines of Grantland writer Zach Lowe's feature on Faried suggest, the "energy guy" label wasn't enough.
Kenneth Faried has always tried to focus on the good qualities the term “energy guy” denotes, but as he entered his third NBA season, he increasingly found the descriptor a limiting backhanded compliment.
“They all used to say, ‘All he is, is an energy guy,’” Faried says. “That I was a guy who was gonna run and jump, and that I could only get you nine or 10 points, max.”
When Ty Lawson went down with an injury, Faried immediately volunteered to pick up the scoring slack. After two years as a 10-11 points per night guy, his scoring increased every month from December on. Faried ended the season topping 15 points in 23 of 25 games and has earned himself the right to ask for a fat raise over his $1.36 million haul this season.
Detroit Pistons: Jonas Jerebko
The Swede-shooting power forward has seen his minutes decline every year since he entered the league in 2009-10, not necessarily a consequence of his own play but the result of Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith clogging the rotation.
Indeed, Jerebko hit nearly 42 percent of his attempts from downtown this season and did all of the necessary things as a 6'10" guy to endear himself to interim head coach John Loyer after Detroit fired Maurice Cheeks midway through the year. Under Cheeks, Jerebko logged 17 DNP-CD's while fighting Charlie Villanueva, Gigi Datome and Josh Harrellson for minutes.
Jerebko playing well for the #Pistons. Always liked his game ... or his 'motor' if nothing else. High energy; always working.— Eric Smith (@Eric__Smith) April 13, 2014
As Lanlois notes, Jerebko balances his desperation to contribute with the brashness of a star:
“Whatever my team needs me to do,” Jerebko said of the added value he brings if he can fulfill “stretch four” obligations while remaining the hustle and energy force he’s always been. “I have confidence in my shot and I’m just going to let it fly when I’m open.”
Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry
The diminutive Stephen Curry blew America away with his stellar performance in the NCAA tournament as a sophomore, leading Davidson to the Elite Eight with four consecutive 30-point games.
But at 6'3" and 185 pounds, few people pegged him as not only the NBA's next great shooter, but a top point guard and top-20 player in the league.
Kevin Durant: Stephen Curry is the 'best shooter to ever play' http://t.co/0zB7dueJ6f— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) January 24, 2014
Chris Paul Tony Parker Russell Westbrook Stephen Curry John Wall In that order. #PointGuards— Shane Young (@YoungNBA) May 11, 2014
Only five players averaged at least 20 points, five assists and four rebounds this season: Kevin Durant, LeBron James, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Curry, per Basketball-Reference.com. Elite company.
According to San Jose Mercury News columnist Marcus Thompson II, Curry always asks to defend the opponent's top point guard, from Chris Paul to Tony Parker and everyone in between. Despite his best protests to former coach Marc Jackson, that assignment went to the longer and stronger Klay Thompson:
That's why Jackson sticks with the game plan. No matter how hard Curry lobbies.
This is the side of Curry people often don't see. The uber-competitive, super-confident, ever-so-resilient Curry. He does have an ego. It's usually suppressed by his humility, but it's there. And it hears the talk about his defense and who he can't guard. He'd love nothing more than to hush his critics, even at the risk of giving them more fuel.
That leads him to get in Jackson's ear, just as he does when he's trying to talk Jackson to let him play through an injury.
How serious is Curry about winning? He and Steve Blake nearly got into it with Los Angeles Clippers ball boys after losing in Game 7 of the first round, thinking they were being taunted by Clipper assistant coaches.
Houston Rockets: Partick Beverley
With Patrick Beverley, we'll start here:
Beverley's competitive nature sometimes gets the best of him, as some overzealous defense in the 2013 playoffs knocked Russell Westbrook out with a torn meniscus on a play in which Westbrook was calling for a timeout. Beverley didn't intend to hurt him and was disappointed that Westbrook would miss the rest of the series, according to Yahoo's Adrian Wojnaroski.
That feistiness has been a detriment to his own health. Beverley suffered a torn meniscus himself in late March, avoided surgery and rushed back to the court before the playoffs only to suffer a sprain of the same knee in Game 1 against Portland. But Beverley didn't miss a beat, passing an MRI and finishing out the series.
Affectionately named "Pest of the West" by Hoops Habit writer Mike De Moor, Beverley plays an old-school brand of basketball focusing on pressure defense. Damian Lillard agrees with the moniker. Eye On Basketball's Zach Harper breaks down what makes Beverley so relentless and effective on the defensive end:
What's the secret to Beverley's success and impact on defense? The easy answer is he's really annoying. I say that with the utmost respect for his game. While he can be reckless at times, his job is to go out there and bother the ball handler. He's supposed to make you feel uneasy when you have the ball and not allow for comfort. He's constantly looking for the right moment to pounce, calculating the timing of a dribble or pass and judging the space he has to reach for the ball.
It's crazy to think that Beverley just finished his second season in the NBA and that the Miami Heat cut him back in 2010 with the formation of the Big Three.
Indiana Pacers: Lance Stephenson
Few players wear a resting scowl like David West. The guy is all business.
But he doesn't go to the same lengths as Lance Stephenson to gain an edge on the competition (and he's been particularly busy at it of late).
Whether it's blowing sweet nothings into LeBron's ear:
Or spying on the opponent's huddle:
Unfortunately, Stephenson's tactics don't always pan out, to the detriment of his team. Take, for example, his attempt at Jedi mind tricking James after Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals that caused the four-time MVP to snap off in Game 4.
How long until someone fights Lance Stephenson? It could be a Heat player or Pacers player, I don't know. I just know he's fighting someone.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) May 29, 2014
And then there was the dustup in practice with Evan Turner before the first round of the playoffs.
He doesn't always channel the energy properly, but it's hard to deny Stephenson's spirit.
Los Angeles Clippers: Chris Paul
When Kobe Bryant calls someone the most competitive player in the league—other than himself, of course—it means something.
"Chris Paul is really the only other guy in the league, other than Derrick Rose, who has also that competitive edge." -- Kobe— J.E. Skeets (@jeskeets) January 15, 2012
Granted the comments were made over two years ago, but Paul still has legendary fire:
This Bad Boys documentary is just hammering home how similar Chris Paul is to Isiah Thomas. Small, feisty, deadly.— DeAntae Prince (@DeAntae) April 18, 2014
Who else would, as a rookie, relish the opportunity to play against Steve Nash after he was crowned MVP? Paul admitted in an ESPN The Magazine interview to not being able to sleep out of excitement the night before facing Nash in 2005.
Paul played through a fever and strained hamstring against Golden State in the first round of the playoffs and held Stephen Curry way below his regular-season shooting percentages. Nine years without even a conference finals appearance have done this to Paul, who shut out the outside world in the postseason and stressed his desire to defend on Tony Allen levels of grit.
His talk of retiring early? Don't expect it to happen until he's got at least one ring.
Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe Bryant
The face says it all.
Watching his Lakers lose 55 games this year was probably worse torture for Kobe Bryant than losing the 2008 finals to Boston. I can't say that for sure, but he had no problem expressing his frustration throughout the season:
Kobe: "I feel like Bruce Banner put in the middle of a bar fight & hope he doesn’t become The Hulk. That’s what I feel like watching games."— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) January 18, 2014
Bryant has no problem voicing his displeasure over the Lakers' personnel moves:
Or ripping the team's future plans.
If you need hard evidence before labeling Bryant the most driven player in the league, Business Insider came up with 17 outrageous examples that prove it to be so. No. 5: He counts all of his made shots in practice, and stops when he gets to 400.
Memphis Grizzlies: Tony Allen
It's one thing to hang your hat on being a defensive stopper in the NBA when scoring is so much sexier.
Dedicating yourself to shutting down the game's best scorers, as Tony Allen does better than all but a handful of guys, sits in a category all on its own. While nobody truly stops Kevin Durant, few guys have the guts to frustrate him the way Allen did in the playoffs this year. Sure, KD still got his, averaging 29.9 points per game for the series, but it didn't come easy:
KD came into tonight shooting about 47% when Tony Allen was on the sideline. Drops to 36% when Allen is playing. Big difference.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) May 2, 2014
How good has Tony Allen been defensively against Kevin Durant? KD is shooting 16% on shots at least 10 feet from basket in last two games.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) April 27, 2014
Allen doesn't really let things go either. Three weeks after teammate Zach Randolph was suspended for Game 7 for "punching" Steven Adams in the face during Memphis' first round series, he was still fuming. ESPN 92.9's Chris Vernon asked Allen how much he hated Adams on a scale of one-10 (h/t: Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman). His response:"Oh, man. I’m almost over that, man. I’m like 50, I’m like 50 right now."
There's no doubting someone's fight when they're used as a benchmark to measure Lance Stephenson's intensity:
Stephenson is showing Tony Allen-esque intensity tonight.— Jessica Camerato (@JCameratoNBA) May 29, 2014
Miami Heat: LeBron James
Ray Allen, at 38 years old and with one of the most dedicated routines, deserves an honorable mention here. Were he a member of the Heat a few years ago, he might have even gotten the nomination.
But LeBron James has stepped up his work ethic during his tenure in Miami. Remember that Business Insider list with 17 examples of Kobe Bryant's crazy drive? He must have taken notice because BI came up with one for James seven months later (though it only has 14 examples). "No. 1: He gets a special four-page scouting report before every game. His teammates get a two-page report."
LeBron often gets criticized for 1) passing up late-game shots or 2) drifting for portion of games. Addressing the former, he is so focused on winning that he always makes decisions to get his team (not himself) the right shot because his basketball IQ is so high. To the latter, all you can say is that sometimes being the most talented and athletically superior player gets old.
But then all it takes is Lance Stephenson suggesting he's gained any sort of mental advantage over him and James goes off for 32 points on 13-of-21 shooting, 10 rebounds, five assists and two steals the next game.
Prod him at your own risk, Lance.
Milwaukee Bucks: Jeff Adrien
After being traded from Charlotte to Milwaukee midseason, Jeff Adrien's minutes per game jumped from 10.2 to 25.2!
What in the world causes a coach to bump a former D-Leaguer's tick by 250 percent? Here's what Larry Drew had to say to NBA.com Bucks reporter Truman Reed: "Playing with physicality is something that is a part of my everyday speech before the game and before practice, and that is who Jeff is."
According to Reed, Drew called Adrien a pitbull while others have used terms like warrior, enforcer and throwback. He recorded double-digit rebounds in eight of 28 games with Milwaukee despite measuring in at 6'7".
Adrien's no-nonsense aggressiveness and ability to recognize his role as the hustle guy was a breath of fresh air in a difficult, loss-filled season for the Bucks.
Minnesota Timberwolves: J.J. Barea
Listed at a generous 6'0", Jose Juan Barea is probably closer to 5'10". Regardless, he still uses every inch of his 178-pound frame to piss off opposing teams. Just ask Ray Allen.
Apparently he's persona non grata among some writers as well:
Which NBA player would you throw through the moon door? Evan Turner, right? Or Andray Blatche?— Andrew Sharp (@andrewsharp) May 19, 2014
Also receiving moon door votes: Big Baby, Perkins, JJ Barea, basically the whole Knicks roster, and A LOT of Bynum— Andrew Sharp (@andrewsharp) May 19, 2014
Barea refuses to let his height define him, though not always to great success:
If the eight-year veteran drives opponents mad, he pushes his own team just as much. Before the season Barea made headlines in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, imploring his team to shed the nice-guy personalities and toughen up.
New Orleans Pelicans: Austin Rivers
Nick Collison measures in at 6'10", 255 pounds. Austin Rivers gives up half a foot and over 50 pounds. Apparently he has no idea what that means.
Coming out of high school, Austin Rivers was a Youtube sensation, one of the most hyped prospects since LeBron James. But Rivers didn't just want to be among James, he wanted to "destroy him on the court one day," as he told the Sporting News.
Rivers hasn't quite lived up to those expectations in two years as a pro. In fact, he's been underwhelming from a production standpoint, producing .372 and .405 field-goal percentages. While it would be easy to shrink away from the spotlight after one of the most dismal rookie campaigns ever, but the son of Clippers coach Doc Rivers has designs on being an impact player.
Pelicans head coach Monty Williams went so far as to say, per Nakia Hogan of The Times-Picayune, "he works his tail off. He's probably one of the most competitive guys in the league. He's hungry. He does some things you like from a young guy. He works hard. He's coachable. He's not afraid."
And though being Doc's son may have its advantages in theory, the younger Rivers had to do a lot of growing up in Orlando with his dad guiding the Boston Celtics since 2004.
"I think I'm more [self-made] than anybody, to tell you the truth," Rivers once said in an interview with Roanoke Times' Mark Berman.
New York Knicks: Iman Shumpert
Iman Shumpert doesn't just get after ballers on the basketball court; he goes for them in the studio too.
When rapper Kendrick Lamar released a controversial verse on a Big Sean track last summer, crowning himself the king of the genre, Shump felt compelled to respond with a track of his own. On it he proclaims, "Don't know why I'm so competitive, but I am."
The defensive ace jaws on the court with the best of them, and sometimes them is his own teammate. Shump reportedly got into a shouting match with Carmelo Anthony back in December over a miscommunication on defense, which got him benched for the fourth quarter of that game.
Nobody is safe from the Georgia Tech alum's wrath. While rocking a grill during a postgame interview, in the midst of a rough stretch of the season, he gave the reporters a piece of his mind:
Reporter asked Iman Shumpert what exactly he's "mad" at. Shumpert: "Everything. Including you."— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) December 7, 2013
Shumpert comes off as brash, but he's all business. According to BasketballInsiders.com's Alex Kennedy his offseason vacation was short-lived:
Good news for the New York Knicks: Iman Shumpert (@I_Am_Iman) is already in the gym working hard here at IMG Academy.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) May 12, 2014
Wondering why Carmelo didn't get the nod? We'll wait and see what he does this offseason to prove how winning a championship is really the only thing on his mind.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook
Kobe Bryant holds the title for most competitive player in absolute terms.
But pound-for-pound, nobody brings the same combination of energy and determination to the court as Russell Westbrook. And almost to a fault. Remember when he went for the double Kevin Garnett blocks after the whistle against the Pacers back in March? Observe the ego at it's finest:
But that feistiness also inspires this:
The three-time All-Star is playing in the conference finals after having three knee surgeries since April 2013! And with a chip on his shoulder thanks to Patrick Beverley, Westbrook now has a Marvel movie villain mean streak about him. As a Chicago Bulls fan it hurts dearly to see No. 0 tear it up while Derrick Rose looks fly in his street clothes for essentially two full years now.
Kendrick Perkins, not exactly the epitome of sunshines and rainbows, likens his current teammate to a certain former one. As reported by Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears:
Perkins often fondly talks about his days playing alongside Kevin Garnett with the Boston Celtics. Perkins respected Garnett's old-school approach where every opponent was the enemy. Westbrook has the same attitude, and Durant has noticed that his teammate no longer fraternizes with opponents during games.
'He always plays with a chip on his shoulder,' Durant said. 'Angry could be good and bad. But it's on the good side for Russ. He doesn't like anybody he is playing against. He plays with that edge and he plays at a high level.'
And he's channeling that rage toward his play. Durant may get his number called in the clutch more often, but Westbrook believes and has proven he can get you points with the game on the line.
With the amount of flack he must catch on court for the eccentric fashion choices, Westbrook has no choice but show everyone up. Just kidding, keep swaggin', Russ.
Orlando Magic: Kyle O'Quinn
To be completely honest I didn't know some teams gave sponsored "Hustle Player" awards until researching for this slideshow. But Orlando's Kyle O'Quinn was named the Aleve "Hustle Player of the Year" in an online vote for the second time in his two-year career. (Yes, the math means he's won it every year he's been in the league.)
Orlando Pinstriped Post's Evan Dunlap summed up O'Quinn's value to the Magic:
What makes O'Quinn valuable is that his hustle translates to productivity: his hard play results in rebounds and blocks, contributions that one can measure. He's also headier than one might expect, with an assist rate of 13.1 percent, which ranks highly among players of his size.
O'Quinn will probably never be more than an emergency option on offense, but that's OK: the Magic don't need him to fill a larger role than he already does. So long as he makes about 40 percent of his jumpers, hits the boards, and defends his position, he's doing his job.
The Norfolk State product led Orlando in blocks by a wide margin—Maurice Harkless' 50 trailed by 38—despite playing just 17.2 minutes per game and starting only 19 times.
He explained his outlook last summer to SLAM Magazine's Mirin Fader:
“I try to work as hard as I can so that when game time comes, all I want to do is show and show and show. It’s tough being on the bench when I know I can do something. So when I get in the game, I want to do anything I can to make the team better.”
That sounds like a guy who has something to prove.
Philadelphia 76ers: Michael Carter-Williams
Few rookies, especially those who entered the lottery discussion late in the process, are asked to carry a franchise right away.
Only Tyreke Evans, Damian Lillard and O.J. Mayo took more shots per game as first-year players than Michael Carter-Williams over the last 15 years, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Along with contributing 16.7 points per game (third best on the team), the 6'7" point guard was Philadelphia's only legitimate distributor after Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner were shipped out.
According to Sporting News' Sean Deveney, he's made head coach Brett Brown a big fan:
He asks highly intelligent questions about other point guards or game situations. There is a quiet competitiveness that I misjudged. I used to give a kick all the time, to say we need you to get going, we need you to get tougher, we need you to lead us. He slowly started doing that. I think that he is slowly starting to understand that.
Brown even went so far as to compare his edge to that of Rajon Rondo in an interview with SLAM Online's Jake Fischer.
Syracuse.com's Donna Ditota reports that his college teammates voted him the most competitive player on the team and that Jim Boeheim still sees the edge he had in getting to the Final Four a year ago.
Phoenix Suns: Channing Frye
Portland Trailblazers: Wesley Matthews
"That's been my personality, period," Wes Matthews responded when asked, in an interview on the team's YouTube page, if he's always been a "fireball type of guy" on the court.
The Marquette product wants to be around the team so much that he returned to the practice facility last May, two days after undergoing his second elbow surgery in two months, according to Oregonian reporter Joe Freeman. His shirt read, "I will step on you to win."
Apparently Matthews decided this season his nickname would be The Dark Knight, "in response to the perceived slight of the NBA leaving his name off of the All Star ballot," according to Joe Swede of Portland Roundball Society.
Tell us how you really feel Swede:
The Dark Knight may not be a strong enough comparison for the way Wes Matthews is playing right now. No disrespect to Bruce Wayne, but he’s just a dedicated guy with a lot of disposable income (say, that sounds like someone else I know). Wes is on some magical bit-by-a-bioengineered-spider-or-Kobe-Bryant-or-both-or-he-is-actually-the-dude-from-Taken-taking-over-the-body-of-Zeus type stuff.
He takes it upon himself to keep the most cohesive starting unit in the NBA together:
Sacramento Kings: Demarcus Cousins
Once upon a time, DeMarcus Cousins fell deep into the category of guys whose passion too often and too easily got the best of them negatively.
Boogie hasn't completely climbed out of that hole just yet—he compiled 16 technical fouls this season, but only four foul-outs, one ejection and zero flagrant fouls. The one time he went to the locker room early, he "punched" Patrick Beverley in the first quarter (which went unnoticed) then went ballistic on an official.
Cousins claims to be heading in the right direction with his leadership, and he's certainly got 17-year veteran Eddie Johnson in his corner. But until Boogie can avoid getting so worked up at things like getting snubbed from the All-Star Game, he's still just a hot-heated competitor with mad skills.
From an ESPN The Magazine piece by Tim Keown:
Asked whether he is hurt about not being named to the team, he answers, 'Absolutely. I hear it's because I'm on a losing team, but Kyrie Irving was a reserve with  wins. Anthony Davis? Same story. So you can't sell me on that.'
Agitated, he stops and sighs. He runs his hand across his forehead and down his face.
'[The fans] pick who they want to pick,' he says. 'That goes with the reputation. I can accept that. But I was flat done wrong [by the coaches]. And it's clear as day.'
San Antonio Spurs: Manu Ginobili
Gregg Popovich doesn't mince words. He means what he says about the prospect of Manu Ginobili coaching one day, a mailbag question he answered last year. "He’s so competitive I think it would be difficult for him to become like a Michael Jordan coach. It would probably drive him crazy," Pop wrote.
Even after 18 seasons of professional basketball, the Argentine sixth-man specialist dedicated last offseason to changing his shot in the wake of San Antonio's heart-breaking finals loss. And he was planning to retire last summer.
Still crushed after that series, Ginobili asked not to face the media in the Spurs' return to Miami this year.
In a roundabout way, Manu sparked the NBA's renewed interest in international competition as Kevin Arnovitz pointed out a few years ago. While Mike Krzyzewski made playing for the team sexy, watching Manu pump 29 points over the Americans in an Olympic semifinal and then take the gold medal didn't sit too well with the league's domestic stars.
At 35 years old, Ginobili was the third-highest scorer in the London Olympics. Two years later in these playoffs, as Sports On Earth's On Earth's Michael Pina dug up on SportVU, he's still as aggressive as he's ever been.
In 41 fewer minutes of action, Ginobili's driven the ball 17 more times than Dwyane Wade -- bad knees and all, Wade is Ginobili's junior by nearly half a decade. John Wall, who needs a verb like "warp" to describe how fast his legs run on a basketball court, has 12 less drives than Ginobili, despite 43 more minutes of opportunity.
He might be soft spoken—which feels like a prerequisite to play for the Spurs—but he's quietly one of the most ruthless competitors around.
Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry
As brash as they come in the NBA, Kyle Lowry perhaps lacks the national notoriety his play this year deserved. Deadspin writer Beckley Mason offers an answer.
To some degree, that's because, before this season's success, Lowry had a reputation for being a jerk, to coaches and teammates. He clashed with Kevin McHale in Houston, and there were rumors that he and Dwane Casey were on the outs early this season. After two productive seasons as a starter in Houston, the Rockets' stat-savvy front office sent Lowry away for Gary Forbes and a first-round pick...
Indeed, the Toronto brass held something of an intervention with Lowry before the season began, hoping to focus his stubbornness and penchant to butt heads with authority into positive energy. These lines from SI's Ian Thomsen get to the heart of the Lowry dichotomy:
At 6-feet and 175 pounds there was a hint of Isiah Thomas to his game: He fought so hard to compete against the bigger opponents that he created enemies. In Lowry's case he was blind to the negative impact he made on his own teams, which led to his departure from the Grizzlies (who picked him No. 24 out of Villanova in 2006) and the Rockets.
Fortunately for the Raptors, the point guard heeded the their message and channeled his bullish demeanor into legitimate leadership in guiding the team to its first playoff berth in six years.
Lacking the athleticism and leaping ability of point scorers like Russell Westbrook, Lowry relies on a more bullish brand of basketball. He works defenders with his physicality and does the dirty work without the ball. Perhaps that's why he's always out with injury or playing with one.
I'm guessing Kyle Lowry just glowered at his ankle at halftime and told it he was going to keep playing so better fall in line— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) March 29, 2014
Kyle Lowry is sitting on the bench, grimacing a bit. Looks like his left ankle is pretty heavily taped, but hard to tell.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) April 25, 2014
Anyone who doesn't think basketball players are tough, I give you Kyle Lowry pic.twitter.com/L74NnVZ0Ue— kirk taylor (@kirkles56) April 28, 2014
You get the point. The 6'0", eight-year veteran is tough as nails.
Utah Jazz: Trey Burke
Making the All-Rookie First Team was far from a cakewalk for Trey Burke, let alone getting his first NBA season underway.
Burke endured a difficult draft in which he fell to the ninth pick after he had it in his head he could be going as high as second. Before the night was through, Burke had already been a part of his first NBA trade, landing with the lowly, rebuilding Utah Jazz.
Then, the former Michigan star's career got temporarily derailed before it began:
Jazz make it official, announce Trey Burke will undergo surgery to repair broken right index finger.— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) October 14, 2013
But the diminutive guard, who nobody thought could successfully run point in the NBA, quickly showed that his elite talent could translate to the pros. Burke won three Rookie of the Month awards, finishing third in points and second in assists among first-year players.
More than compete, Burke took the reins of the Jazz franchise as a 21-year-old and took it personally.
Jazz rookie Trey Burke calls out the 'selfish' Utah fans who cheer for tanking. http://t.co/KXZGtBTWbQ— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) March 26, 2014
With LeBron James as a mentor (sorry, Paul George), Alphonso Clark Burke III has his mind in the right place.
Washington Wizards: John Wall
John Wall carries a heavy burden in Washington, D.C.
From his days a hard-headed kid who disrupted basketball camps to getting the Wizards back to the playoffs and winning a series (and everything in between), Wall has always played with fire.
Indeed, the one-and-done Kentucky star is a ball of energy. Deadspin's Albert Burneko strongly believes Wall, with apologies to LeBron, is the king of the chase-down block, perhaps the strongest display of competitiveness available in basketball. This is a marvel when you realize he's a wiry 6'4" and 195 pounds.
Don't take my word for it. Wall laid it out himself in a Q&A with NBA.com's Lang Whitaker last summer:
That’s all I know how to do, is go 110-percent when I play. Even when I play pick-up, I play against guys who are serious about it. This is a game I love, this is what I love to do, I don’t just do it for fun. So I feel like when I’m out there playing. Even if it’s just against a little kid, I end up playing harder than I’m supposed to. That’s a bad thing, but it’s just my competitive edge that I had growing up.
He even makes sure to dominate his nephew, a junior in high school.
How seriously does Wall take his job? The former No. 1 pick gets so locked in that his teammates know not to bother him during game day, that he just doesn't have anything to say to them.
Despite his status as one of the most athletic and dynamic scorers in the league, Wall cares about winning enough to do it all. He was the only point guard this season to finish in the top five in scoring and assists.
Wall loves to celebrate flashy plays as much as the next guy, but he backs it up.
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