The 25 Dirtiest NBA Players in League History
Who are the 25 dirtiest players in NBA history? That's a question that's hard to answer because "dirty" is such a hard thing to define. Different people consider "dirty" in different ways.
Let me start this off by saying that dirty is not bad. If you want a list of the league's dirtiest players it's going to look very similar to a list of its best defensive players. Great defense is knowing how to get away with being dirty.
Some players have a reputation for being "dirty" because of a single hard foul or cheap shot but otherwise weren't necessarily dirty players. A perfect example of this is Kermit Washington and his infamous punch of Rudy Tomjanovich.
The punch was delivered in the middle of a brawl with Tomjanovich running at Washington.
Washington had already been punched by Kevin Kunnert and retaliated by punching Kunnert. Tomjanovich was rushing in to make peace. From Washington's perspective though, he was in a fight and Tomjanovich is running at him and so he throws a punch. It's a reasonable defensive action in the midst of a brawl.
However, the replays of the event didn't show the scuffle that led up to the punch and Washington's entire career has been defined by that single incident. He didn't throw the first punch in the fight, Kunnert did.
A lot of NBA players have thrown punches. Just none connected as hard, or did as much damage as Washington's did. It nearly killed Tomjanovich.
My point here is this. That single incident makes a lot of people call Washington one of the dirtiest players in NBA history, but that incident wasn't part of a play, and there's nothing to suggest that apart from that instance he was a dirty player.
There are other famous cheap shots. Bynum's inexcusable foul on J.J. Barea last year for instance, or the infamous Kevin McHale clotheslining of Kurt Rambis.
No single play defines a player. No single incident does.
It's as much about being persistently insidious. It's about doing little, bothersome things to gain position, and get steals or get an opponent off his game. It's not about Chris Kaman grabbing the junk of an opponent going for a rebound.
This list is more about who is good at being dirty than it is a recounting of the hardest fouls or most famous violent instances in NBA history.
Also "dirty" changes with time. Today's dirty players wouldn't have been dirty in the 80s. So how do you compare them? For that matter how do you compare players of the 50s and 60s with players of today? The rules were different and the idea of a dirty player didn't even exist.
Additionally, to really know if a player is dirty or not you have to actually watch him play. I suspect that by modern standards Bill Russell was probably one of the craftiest, dirtiest players of all time, but all I have are suspicions.
I can't watch the games that Russell played, and if anyone wrote about who was dirty back then, I can't find it, so it's hard to know who is really dirty from yesteryear.
That's why for the most part this list is going to be modern players within the last 30 years. The omission of earlier players is because it's just hard to know who should and shouldn't have been included.
So with that explanation, here are the 25 dirtiest players in NBA history.
25. Reggie Miller
Reggie Miller invented the leg kick on his jump shot to draw the "fake shooting foul" that had become so bothersome to the NBA that they finally decided to do something about it.
Miller was the master of kicking out his legs on his jumpshots to kick the defender and then have the defender get whistled for being kicked. With Reggie Miller on the line that's the equivalent of just putting points on the board.
In my book, that's dirty.
24. Kurt Thomas
How does a 39-year-old man get a two-year contract in the NBA? The easy answer is "dirty player."
Thomas is one of the great enforcer types in the history of the game, which is ironic because his off-court persona is that he's actually one of the nicest guys in the league.
Thomas uses his body to move opponents around, not to move around opponents. He's a steady influence on his teammates, but he's an intimidating presence to his opponents.
He's a controlled dirty player but he's dirty. If you need to fire a warning shot at a team, there's not many better players to have on your pine than Kurt Thomas.
23. Scottie Pippen
Before there was Bruce Bowen and Ron Artest/Metta World Peace there was Scottie Pippen.
Pippen was on the All-Defensive First Team eight times, and on the second team two times and a lot of that was because he, like his teammate Michael Jordan, knew how to get away with fouls.
Pippen was absolutely ubiquitous on the court and he was as fierce a wing defender as there was in the league. He bumped, prodded, slapped, snatched and scratched as much as anyone ever has. He is arguably the best defensive small forward in league history.
When you combine his athleticism, intensity and dirtiness, he's the perfect storm.
22. Isiah Thomas
Isiah Thomas is one of the greatest point guards in the history of the NBA and in large part it's because he was one of the dirtiest players.
Thomas was the captain of the dirtiest team in the league, and possibly the dirtiest team in the league's history.
He was constantly slapping at the hands and wrists of other players. He was dirty in a "yippy" sort of way. He was nuisance dirty, and he was good at it.
21. Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan is arguably the greatest power forward in the history of the game. As far as whether he's the greatest defensive power forward of all time, I don't even know there's an argument for anyone else.
Because of that he gets away with being dirty. If there were an official stat for sneaky little pushes in the small of the back to gain positioning for rebounds Duncan would be the NBA's all-time leader.
Part of being the "Big Fundamental" is knowing how to get away with fouling and Duncan is the master of that.
It's probably going to be controversial putting a player with the clean reputation Duncan has on this list but he belongs here.
20. Jerry Sloan
You know Jerry Sloan as a coach, and what you know of him as a coach actually is illustrative of him as a player.
The Jazz teams he coached over the years contained several players on this list. He coached players to be dirty because he was dirty. He wasn't just dirty physically, he was cerebrally dirty. He was the master of the psychics of dirty play.
He knew how to get under a player's skin and he did so. The he coached his players to do so. If you're going to give me a list of the smartest players of all time, Sloan would have to be near the top of the list.
19. Kenyon Martin
Look, there's a reason that Mark Cuban told Kenyon Martin's mom that her son is a thug. The primary reason for that is that her son is a thug. Remember all the debate about whether that was appropriate or not?
It's funny because in all that debate no one challenged the truth of the statement. They just argued about whether it was acceptable to tell the truth.
Martin came into the league as an athletic, high-flying player, but after injuries re-invented his game to be one of the most physical enforcers in the league.
18. Joakim Noah
There is a fine line between playing hard and playing dirty. You could almost say that Noah is the line as he plays with one foot in both worlds.
He is an extremely active, energetic player and a lot of times that frenetic nature of his play is misconstrued as "dirty" play. On the other hand he's constantly getting in other players' ears, and does an awful lot of shoving and pushing around.
Noah plays hard as heck. He also plays dirty. He is where the two worlds collide.
17. Chris Paul
Chris Paul is another one of those "yippy" point guards who is constantly reaching in, slapping wrists and hands, and getting away with a litany of fouls on the defensive end.
Then on the offensive end he manages to make any and every slight brush of contact look like he just got blown out of a cannon.
There's a way you can know that Paul got away with a dirty play. He smiles. Ever notice how much Paul smiles during the game?
16. Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan was the greatest player in the history of the game, and he'd be the first to tell you, if you're not cheating, you aren't really trying. No one ever argued that Michael Jordan didn't try.
Jordan was arguably the best ever at the "invisible foul." He knew how to foul while using his body to shield the foul from the refs. I wouldn't be surprised if he got away with 10 fouls for every one that he actually got called for.
15. Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson was the master of the physical point guard in a little man's body. He was 180 pounds but he played like he was 240 pounds.
By that I mean he had the little man complex. He had to "prove" that he was as tough as anyone on the court and because of that he played borderline mean, except without the borderline. He was the NBA version of Tommy DeVito.
14. Rajon Rondo
Celtics fans get mad when I say that Rajon Rondo is a nasty little gremlin, but I only say that because he's a nasty little gremlin.
This is the guy that slung Kirk Heinrich into the scorers table and got away with it. This is the guy who invaded the Miami Heat huddle. This is the chronic mean little brother who knows that he's protected by his big brothers.
Rondo plays with absolute nastiness, and if he's on your team you love him, but if he's on the other team you want to punch him.
13. Paul Pierce
Paul Pierce has a flair for the drama. In what is without question the single most monumental flop in the history of the game Pierce was literally carried off the court after feigning injury, and then wheeled to the locker room. Two minutes later he was on the court knocking down threes.
That's the very emblem of Pierce's dirty play. No one embellishes contact quite like Pierce.
On the other had he is guilty of a ton of contact himself, most of it illegal. If Paul Pierce ever had to guard Paul Pierce in the Fringe version of the playoffs, the guys who mop the floor would get so frustrated they'd throw down their mops and storm away.
12. Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant has taken everything he learned by emulating Michael Jordan into playing dirty without getting called. He has every bit of the savvy that Jordan had when it comes to getting away with fouls.
He's also added to that another wrinkle on the other end of the table.
For years he got away with jabbing players with his elbows on his jumper. He's also chronically slapping opponents on his follow through. Bryant doesn't just make you not want to guard him by scoring on you, he does it by physically abusing you and getting away with it while he scores on you.
11. Dwight Howard
Dwight Howard is seen as the nice guy, playing and joking and there is that side of him. On the other hand he pushes a lot, and having the physique of a seven-foot Michelangelo statue, that's a strong man to be shoving you around.
Howard is the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and he's a great defensive player but a lot of that has to do with the way he's able to establish position, often through illegal contact.
There's legal jockeying for position and there's illegal jockeying for position and a lot of times it's illegal with Howard. He just gets away with it because of his star status. When refs call the game tight, he often will be in foul trouble six minutes into the game.
10. Rasheed Wallace
Rasheed Wallace physically abused his opponents and verbally abused the officials for his entire career. He wasn't too subtle about it either which is why he is the NBA's all-time leader in technical fouls with 304. He also owns the single-season record with 40.
On the one hand he would commit some of the most egregious fouls and then on the other he would feign shock that he ever got called at all. If you asked Wallace, he never committed a single foul.
If you were to make a TV show about Rasheed Wallace it would be called Dirty Big Liars.
9. Karl Malone
Karl Malone was one of the master pupils in the Jerry Sloan School of Dirty Play. The Malone Jazz were such a dirty team that they didn't have showers in the locker room. Don't take that literally.
Malone is the epitome of what I mean when I say the aggregate of little cheap shots greatly exceeds the big cheap shot. He didn't ever deliver that Kevin McHale clothesline, but he was a far dirtier player.
I'm willing to wager that he easily hit 5,000 players with elbows in his career. He had over 11,000 boards, and virtually every time he went up for one he was hitting someone, so that's a conservative estimate.
8. Charles Oakley
Charles Oakley may very well be the toughest player in the history of the league. He is at the very least, the toughest I've ever seen. Oak Tree is the perfect nickname for him as it was about as easy to move one out of the way.
Oakley, who once said, "Oh well, that's basketball. It used to be basketball. I don't know what it is now" after being assessed with a flagrant foul would be one player who would be proud to be on this list, but insulted that he wasn't higher.
7. Kevin Garnett
Kevin Garnett could easily be on top of this list. He's been known to slap opponents in the testicles while they're going up for jump shots. He pushes players around. He talks trash that goes too far. He calls people "cancer patients."
His language on the court is about as vulgar as a sailor's. He blocks every shot that goes up when the shot clock ends just so the opponent can see it not go in. It's not so much about these things being as it is about his mental approach—he wants you to feel bad about yourself.
He's just mean.
If you want to see a great clip, here's Joakim Noah talking about his feelings about Garnett.
6. Dikembe Mutombo
Dikembe Mutombo might be one of the nicest, most gregarious players in the league's history when the game wasn't going on, but the man was utterly reckless with his elbows. Courtesy of ESPN, here is a list of 25 injuries he caused when he hit opponents with one of his elbows.
|April 20, 2004||Kenyon Martin, hit in the eye and retaliated by clubbing Mutombo across the arm. Received a technical foul|
|March 31, 2003||Yao Ming, hit in the throat. Mutombo assessed flagrant foul|
|Feb. 4, 2002||Vince Carter, hit in the gut|
|May 16, 2001||Vince Carter, hit in the head. Carter did not return to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference playoffs|
|May 6, 2001||Chris Childs, broken nose|
|Feb. 26, 2001||Ray Allen, broken nose|
|Jan. 13, 2001||Corey Maggette, eye trauma|
|Dec. 28, 2000||Chauncey Billups, hit in the mouth, four stitches, fractured front tooth|
|Feb. 6, 1999||Jayson Williams, broken nose|
|May 4, 1999||Mark Strickland, broken nose|
|May 8, 1999||Lindsey Hunter, left eye|
|May 8, 1999||Christian Laettner, cut on face|
|April 9, 1999||Chris Childs, lost a tooth; Marcus Camby, shot to throat; Larry Johnson, hit in the head; Patrick Ewing, hit in the head|
|March 4, 1999||Kevin Willis, injured shoulder. Missed several games|
|May 6, 1997||Dennis Rodman, retaliated and ejected with second technical foul|
|April 12, 1997||Tom Gugliotta, broken nose|
|Jan. 30, 1997||Antoine Carr, knocked senseless|
|Jan. 4, 1997||Charles Oakley, four stitches to the lip|
|Oct. 22, 1996||Michael Jordan, bloodied nose (preseason game)|
|April 10, 1994||Robert Horry, hit in the head, fell to the floor|
|Dec. 30, 1993||Chris Webber; Mutombo later ejected for taunting Chris Gatling|
|Dec. 28, 1991||Robert Parish, hit the floor|
|Nov. 29, 1991||Ricky Pierce, 12 stitches in forehead|
All I'm saying is once you get into the teens and you're still hurting people you need to consider what you can change. If you don't, it's just dirty.
The there was the whole finger-wag. Someone should have grabbed that finger and broken it.
5. John Stockton
John Stockton is the single biggest, most bothersome, most annoying pest in the history of the game. Don't get me wrong, I think he's one of the most underrated players in the history of the game too. I love the guy. He was as dirty as a third-world city though.
Again, I point to the Jerry Sloan School of Dirty Play. (Heck, Raja Bell isn't even on this list and I can guarantee I'll get "Where's Raja Bell?" comments).
Stockton was both a flopper and a fouler. Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul are merely learning what Stockton mastered. Stockton was a genius at getting away with fouls while making it look like he was fouled when he was not.
Where he truly excelled though was hiding contact when he was guarding the perimeter. He was able to absolutely mug opponents and steal the ball.
Stockton is the all-time leader in steals with 3,265. That's 1,006 more than Jason Kidd who is second on the list. That comes out to 39 percent more than the second best ever. In fact there are only 23 players who have even half as many steals as Stockton.
He wasn't exactly the quickest player in league history. He wasn't Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo, getting steals by jumping passing lanes. He got them by reaching in and getting away with it.
4. Metta World Peace
Here's a fun game. First think of an adjective that describes World Peace.
Now say the sentence "World Peace is ______."
Your sentence was an oxymoron. Feel free to post in the comments for a laugh.
Metta World Peace hardly even needs an explanation, does he? He does what Scottie Pippen did, only he does it with an element of meanness which borders at times on cruelty. The most recent example is his outrageous elbowing of James Harden.
I've talked about the distinction between dirty, cheap and intense. World Peace is all three.
He plays dirty and he plays cheap. He's been suspended 13 times for taking cheap shots.
Certainly he's a crafty, wily defender who knows how to foul without getting caught, but he's cheap too.
3. Dennis Rodman
Dennis Rodman was a member of two of the dirtiest teams in his NBA tenure, and by golly, he was a big part of the reason for their dirtiness.
Just as Stockton was the archetype of today's dirty point guards, and Scottie Pippen was the archetype of today's dirty wings, Dennis Rodman was the archetype of today's dirty power forwards.
Before Anderson Varejao, before Joakim Noah and before Kevin Garnett there was Dennis Rodman, the original high energy, high intensity big man.
If you take eras and rules into consideration, Rodman is the greatest rebounder in the history of the game. He averaged 13.1 rebounds per game over the course of his career, the most of any player in the three-point era.
Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, Moses Malone and Charles Barkley all lag behind him. From 1991 to 1998 he averaged 16.1 boards a game, nearly four more than anyone else in the league. The next best was Shaquille O'Neal with 12.3.
How does a player who is 6'7" and 210 pounds do that? By working for position. Rodman was an absolute master of that and a lot of that meant being dirty.
Elbows, feet, pushing and shoving, and so on. Pretty much anything short of biting was fair game to Rodman when it came to getting position for rebounds.
He applied the same tough, physical mentality to defense. Rebounding and defense are the two reasons he's the lowest scoring player in the Hall of Fame (unless you count Mel Daniels who only played 11 NBA games and is in there because of his ABA accomplishments.)
2. Bill Laimbeer
How bad was Bill Laimbeer? Let's put it this way. They made a video game titled, Bill Laimbeer's Combat Basketball. The game was a kind of a cross between Death Race 2000 and basketball. Violence was encouraged.
Laimbeer was the baddest of the Bad Boys and he offered no apologies for it. He just said he did what he had to in order to win. You can't argue with the results. He has two rings.
If there was an elbow to be thrown, Laimbeer was only too glad to throw it. He didn't just play dirty he was proud to play dirty.
In the single-most physical era of basketball, he was the game's most physical player.
1. Bruce Bowen
Bruce Bowen was the all time-dirtiest player in the history of the NBA. He was everything that Ron Artest was or Scottie Pippen was with one twist that can only be described as malicious.
Bowen had a tendency to slip his foot under opponents feet when they went up for a jump shot. When the players came down they would ruin ankles and knees.
Such a move can devastate a player's career and Bowen's habit resulted in several players, including Steve Francis and Vince Carter, getting injured.
Even when it's not resulting in injuries, the fear of an injury can throw a player off his rhythm.
Bowen, even without the move was one of the great defenders in the leagues history and didn't need to resort to the habit.
That tendency, along with the same kind of great but dirty play that the other great defensive wings on here had, earned him the top spot on the list.