Every NBA Team's Most Polarizing Player
Debates are one of the best things about sports.
That's why the NBA has NBA Twitter. That's why B/R's comments section erupts whenever a new article drops. That's why some of you will skip this section entirely and skip ahead to find something you can digitally yell about.
While all players can spark some kind of argument, the polarizing ones are most often at the center of them.
Some might affix that label to the love-them-or-hate-them elites, but here, we're focusing more on the players who can rile up a fanbase with inconsistency, undefined identities, and gaps between their perception and production. There's no formula to find these players; it's "more of a know it when you see it" kind of thing.
For reasons we'll explain as we go along, these are the most polarizing players on all 30 rosters.
Atlanta Hawks: Cam Reddish
Back in July, Hawks governor Tony Ressler could feel the financial crunch coming from the maturation of his franchise's young talent.
"I'm not sure we're going to be able to keep every single player that we want to keep," Ressler told The Athletic's Chris Kirschner. "Pretty good bet, pretty good assumption we will not."
Those words may have signaled the beginning of the end for Cam Reddish's run in Atlanta. The Hawks maxed out Trae Young, gave John Collins a $125 million deal and extended the contracts of both Clint Capela and Kevin Huerter. And all of this came after previous pricey pacts with Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic.
The funds are dwindling, and there may not be enough left for next offseason, when both Reddish and De'Andre Hunter become extension-eligible. If Atlanta has to choose between the pair, Reddish's inconsistency could make him the odd man out. There are flashes of multipositional defense, high-level shot-creation and three-point shooting, but there remains a wide gap between his floor and ceiling.
Boston Celtics: Marcus Smart
For the bulk of his career, Marcus Smart has been a shooting guard who struggles to shoot. Now, he's a lead guard who drops less than six dimes a night.
Obviously, there's plenty to his game that won't translate into statistical offensive success, so he'll always warrant some leeway with his numbers. That being said, it's tough to label any starter with a grisly 38.2/28.4/75.6 shooting slash as anything other than an offensive liability.
Smart's supporters will say the raw numbers lack nuance, and things like making the extra pass, stepping in to draw chargers and even speaking up when he deems it necessary elevate his impact far above what the stat sheet says. Still, there's a reason that virtually every trade machine maestro chooses to include Smart when hypothetically sending an impact player back to Boston.
Brooklyn Nets: Kyrie Irving
Where do we even start?
The cliche about the best ability being availability now essentially reads as a direct criticism of Kyrie Irving. Even setting aside his current unavailability, he has a lengthy injury history behind him and last season's two-week sabbatical.
But his polarity reaches inside the lines, too. He might be one of the greatest one-on-one scorers this league has ever seen, but he's not a particularly proficient playmaker (career 5.7 assists per game). Add leaky defense to the equation, and his overall impact on winning is debatable. To that end, his teams have only fared 3.0 points better per 100 possessions with him than without.
Charlotte Hornets: Kelly Oubre Jr.
There are moments when the light bulb clicks for Kelly Oubre Jr., and when he strings enough of them together, he can convince observers he's on the track to two-way stardom.
There are far more, though, where his defensive awareness wanes, his shots miss their mark and you wonder if he'll ever outgrow a reserve role. His physical tools are elite and his shooting form looks convincing, but the results have never quite been there, save perhaps for his 2019-20 effort for the Phoenix Suns.
As a 25-year-old in his seventh NBA season, Oubre might just be who he is at this point. If he is, that's someone who has only twice posted an above-average player efficiency rating and owns a negative career box plus/minus (minus-2.0).
Chicago Bulls: Coby White
Is Coby White good?
Not even deserving of being the seventh overall pick in 2019 good, but just generally good? The fact that question remains a head-scratcher two-plus seasons and 140 games into his NBA career speaks to his polarity.
He can look the part, as a 6'5" lead guard with an ignitable three-point stroke, blink-and-you'll-miss-him burst and enough bounce to finish above the rim. If he's going to be a scoring specialist, he needs to ratchet up the efficiency (career 40.4/35.2/84.3 slash). If he's going to grow beyond that label, then his defense and distributing both require major work.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Collin Sexton
Last season, Collin Sexton's third in the league and his age-22 campaign, he ranked 22nd among all scorers by netting 24.3 points per game on 47.5/37.1/81.5 shooting.
Given his age, production and theoretical upside, you might think those numbers would've made him a no-brainer keeper for the rebuilding Cavaliers. But the offseason came and went without an extension, and it wasn't as if he wanted an outlandish sum of money. Sexton's camp reportedly sought a deal worth around $100 million but "they were very much open and willing to finalize a deal with a lower total salary," Cleveland.com's Chris Fedor reported.
That still wasn't enough for the Cavaliers to bite, and Sexton's subsequent meniscus tear in his left knee will only further cloud future negotiations when he enters restricted free agency next summer. But those were bound to be tricky to begin with, since he's essentially an undersized scoring guard (6'1") with some major holes in the non-bucket-getting areas of his skill set.
Dallas Mavericks: Kristaps Porzingis
The idea of Kristaps Porzingis is intoxicating. A 7'3" unicorn who can shoot the three, erase shots at the rim and enough athleticism to finish above the cup? Even if you could create a basketball player in a laboratory, you might not dare to dream that big.
The reality of Porzingis can be similarly drool-worthy. In his last seven games, he has paired 26 points per game with a 50/40/90 shooting line, all while tracking down 9.3 rebounds and rejecting 1.4 blocks a night.
Still, the clearest seven-game memory on the mind of basketball junkies is probably Porzingis' rough run in last year's playoffs, when he scored just 13.1 points per game, inexplicably grabbed only 5.4 rebounds and lacked the lateral mobility to keep players in front of him.
If he could ever duck the injury bug for a significant amount of time, Porzingis could perhaps still emerge as the Luka Doncic sidekick Dallas needs him to be. But the hype around Porzingis has too often towered over his actual impact.
Denver Nuggets: Michael Porter Jr.
This is a bummer to write, because it seems we still haven't seen the real version of Michael Porter Jr.
Once the top-rated prospect in the loaded 2018 draft, Porter has failed to conquer the back injuries that plagued him in college and pushed him down to the 14th pick in that talent grab. While he made it through 61 of Denver's 72 games last season, he has since been shelved by another back problem, and this one, a nerve issue that could necessitate another surgery, "could jeopardize his season," per Mike Singer of the Denver Post.
This isn't just a commentary on Porter's health, though. As a 6'10", three-level scorer, he can get his shot off whenever he wants, but he seemingly never spent much developmental time on his passing as a result (133 career assists in 3,080 minutes). And while he can adequately defend when fully engaged, he can be harder to rev than a neglected, old lawn mower and less disciplined than an over-caffeinated five-year-old.
Detroit Pistons: Killian Hayes
As suggested by Detroit's 4-14 start, which notably follows a 20-52 season, there are no shortage of candidates in the Motor City. You could go all the way to the top, as Jerami Grant has regressed in a worrisome way and No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham has been slow off of the starting blocks. Even Saddiq Bey, who looked rock-solid as a rookie, can't throw one in Lake Michigan right now.
But the (dis)honor instead goes to Killian Hayes, who was drafted seventh overall in 2020 and has yet to offer any evidence why. Granted, injuries have largely prevented that, but his on-court action has almost all disappointed beyond some solid defending and small signs of life with his jumper (14-of-36 from range so far).
He has been reluctant to search for his own shot and underwhelming when finding them for teammates. To date, his NBA identity is only slightly more defined than a computer-generated 2K player. It's far too early to write him off, as there's still the rough outline of an interesting two-way contributor. But this league only waits so long for young players to find their footing, and Hayes needs to fans more reasons to practice patience.
Golden State Warriors: James Wiseman
With just 39 NBA games under James Wiseman's belt—and only three college contests before them—2020's No. 2 pick remains a massive question mark.
His physical tools jump off the screen. His 7'0" frame features a sweeping 7'6" wingspan, and he has enough bounce to live above the rim. His combination of size and athleticism should at least set him up for a rim-running role, and if his jump-shooting flashes become more consistent, his game could grow beyond that gig.
But what if the expansion never happens? Shooting success isn't promised, there's no reason to believe he'll add passing to his arsenal and his defensive impact could always be cut down by a lack of awareness. What if if he's just a DeAndre Jordan reboot? That's a fine player, but it's galaxies removed from the franchise talent Golden State hopes Wiseman can be.
Houston Rockets: Kevin Porter Jr.
Throw a dart at a Rockets player, and you'll almost certainly connect with a polarizing player. Christian Wood had trouble shaking the good-stats-on-a-bad-team label, and now his numbers aren't even that impressive. Jalen Green's bag of offensive tricks is deep but underdeveloped, and his defensive misfires shrink his margin for error on offense.
But Kevin Porter Jr. is the most polarizing of the lot, and his stat sheet suggests as much. He is a tough shot-maker, but too often a tough shot-taker, which basically destroys his shooting rates (36.4/31.7/62.7). The Rockets buy his shot-creation enough to deploy him almost exclusively at point guard, but that glosses over his 4.3 turnovers per game.
The game can come easily to him when he lets it, but when he forces the issue, he can bury his team under a mountain of bricks and turnovers. Maybe these are just the growing pains of a 21-year-old forced into a featured role, but there are enough road blocks to potentially box him into a microwave scoring role.
Indiana Pacers: Caris LeVert
Caris LeVert is intriguing, and that's not entirely a compliment.
On the one hand, he's an effortless shot-creator who often looks a step ahead of the defense without every really rushing. On the other, the talk of what he could become loses a lot of steam upon the realization that he is a 27-year-old in his sixth NBA season. Further growth isn't impossible, but he might be a lot closer to his peak than people think.
We might have a clearer answer if the injury bug didn't have a personal vendetta against him, but maybe the cumulative effect of his many injury issues won't allow him to ever level up. It's tempting to buy his skills as those of a future All-Star, but it's more likely he tops out as good-not-great.
Los Angeles Clippers: Eric Bledsoe
Remember those old concerns about whether Eric Bledsoe could carry over his regular-season success into the playoffs? Well, he might have found one way to silence them—by removing the regular-season success from the equation.
That's harsh, but the numbers might back it up. Between 2017-18 and 2019-20, he was a nightly supplier of 16.3 points and 5.3 assists, plus a 47.8/33.9/78.0 shooter. Since the start of last season, he's down to 11.7 points and 3.8 assists with a 41.5/32.4/71.4 slash line.
He still defends at a high level, of course, and his shooting has looked better after a disastrous start to his first season back in L.A. Still, he had his flaws even before hitting the statistical skids, and if he can't turn things around sooner than later, his days as an NBA starter could be dwindling.
Los Angeles Lakers: Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook is an all-timer—both as a wildly productive player and one of the most polarizing talents to ever pass through this league.
He's a former MVP who somehow normalized the triple-double. He's also a career 43.7/30.5/78.9 shooter who is 98th in career minutes and sixth in career turnovers. He has coexisted with some once-in-a-generation greats but perhaps never complemented them, as his erratic shooting shrinks the floor and his decision-making can be maddening.
His future will include both Hall of Fame enshrinement and an ongoing presence in barbershop debates among basketball junkies. His mile-a-minute play style is both his ferocious signature and maybe the biggest thing holding him back. Moving into the Hollywood spotlight—and onto a roster not exactly equipped to mask his shortcomings—has only upped the polarity...not that it needed a lift.
Memphis Grizzlies: Dillon Brooks
Some consideration was given to going with Jaren Jackson Jr. here, as his stats have never measured up to his future-star status. But the fourth-year big man has flashed enough between injury issues to buy his upside as a two-way force.
So, the focus instead falls on Dillon Brooks, despite his best effort to rid this label over the 10 games he has played since the start of the 2021 playoffs. This new version of Brooks looks electric, as his volume scoring is finally accompanied by previously elusive efficiency, and foul problems haven't quite pestered him as much as they have in the past.
Still, a 10-game stretch won't change the identity of a fifth-year vet, so Brooks is still dragging around the reputation of sometimes letting his all-the-way-turned-up intensity get the best of him. The motor is phenomenal, but not when he allows it to rush his shot selection and becomes overly handsy on defense.
Miami Heat: Tyler Herro
It's possible Tyler Herro is turning this into an outdated assessment, as he seemingly arrived to this season via cannon blast and hasn't slowed up since.
Having said that, it's still unclear where the 21-year-old's ceiling sits. He had a good rookie season, a great bubble run, a disappointing sophomore effort and has sent early hints of a third-year leap. It's almost all encouraging, but that doesn't mean he can, as Miami hopes, a better version of Devin Booker.
Defense could always be a challenge. Playmaking might always be of the secondary variety. The Heat will take that if he becomes an elite scorer and shooter, but he isn't consistent enough in those areas yet.
Milwaukee Bucks: Brook Lopez
The Bucks aren't exactly littered with polarizing players, just as you'd expect for the defending champs. Even this selection feels a little uncomfortable, because when Brook Lopez has it rolling, that's when Milwaukee can be at its best.
His ability to space the floor as a 7'0" center helps clear attack lanes for Giannis Antetokounmpo, while Lopez's length and instincts help him anchor the defensive interior. But his skill set is pretty rigid, which can be a challenge in a league that increasingly values versatility.
He is becoming more of a specialist, which limits what the Bucks can do when he is on the floor. They're essentially married to drop pick-and-roll coverage with him, and while he executes it at a high level, opposing offenses still know what's coming. On offense, he does most of his work from distance, which is helpful when his shots are falling, but they haven't dropped frequently enough of late (32.6 percent since the start of 2019-20).
Minnesota Timberwolves: D'Angelo Russell
D'Angelo Russell has previously booked an All-Star trip and twice averaged better than 20 points. More than one team has placed difference-maker hopes on his shoulders. The Lakers took him second overall in the 2015 draft. The Warriors maxed him out after getting him in a sign-and-trade deal for Kevin Durant. The Timberwolves sent a lightly protected first-round pick to get Russell out of Golden State.
There are some big believers in Russell.
"I put D-Lo with the same skill set, don't take my words and twist them around, but the same skill set as the James Harden types. The Kyrie Irving types," Patrick Beverley said, per Zone Coverage's Ethan Thomas. "A player that is God-gifted skillwise, can pass the ball, can shoot, can get to the free-throw line."
Russell sometimes matches that description, and on those nights, he looks like an offensive star. On too many others, though, he battles bouts of tunnel vision, streaky shooting and close-range finishing that's hindered by a lack of explosiveness. His teams have historically played better without him, which might be the most damning thing on his resume.
New Orleans Pelicans: Nickeil Alexander-Walker
There have been a few fun moments in the Nickeil Alexander-Walker experience so far, but it's more frustration than anything. Catching him on the right night shows the many layers of his game; catching him on a typical night makes you wonder why he can't summon those layers more consistently.
He has battled against everything from an inconsistent shot, some turnover troubles and spotty defensive awareness. This is the first time he has truly been trusted with a significant role, and if anything, he has shown why the initial hesitations existed. Inconsistency is his biggest hurdle, and it was best encapsulated by a four-game stretch in which he produced point totals of 21, 4, 24 and 8 in that order.
He has jack-of-all-trades potential and the chance to becoming a greater scoring threat than that label implies. But his game must grow across the board to make that happen and cement himself into the organization's long-term plans.
New York Knicks: Julius Randle
For anyone thinking the regression gods would come for Julius Randle after his All-Star emergence last season, his choppy start to the 2021-22 campaign might be something of a victory lap.
Truth be told, it's far more likely this is a cold spell than an identity change, and even if he's not quite what he showed last season, he's still one of three players averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. His talent is clear, and there are elements of his game that are beyond reproach.
Having said that, his place among the hoops hierarchy is very much up for debate, especially if last season's shooting success (41.1 percent from three) proves to be the outlier his career rate says it probably was (34.2). Some might have been tempted to move him near top-20 status after last season, but others could have him on their top-50 bubble.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Darius Bazley
It was tempting to just go with "Anyone Not Named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander," but that undermines Josh Giddey's quick start and Luguentz Dort's offensive growth. Take those three out of the mix, though, and it's one polarizing (or, in some cases, forgettable) player after the next.
This label should maybe land with Aleksej Pokusevski, who looks like he could one day average 20 points, wash out of the league before his rookie contract expires or anything in between. The range of outcomes aren't quite as extreme with Darius Bazley, but he seems like more of a potential contributor than a simple curiosity.
His physical gifts are for real; his defensive energy is high; and when his three-balls are falling, imaginations can get carried away inside OKC's front office. But Bazley is so rough around the edges offensively (5.6 points on 9.4 shots over his last seven outings), that it's fair to wonder whether that's a hurdle he can ever clear.
Orlando Magic: Markelle Fultz
Remember him? Of course you do.
Even if Markelle Fultz hadn't been the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, his name would still resonate with fans for all of the bizarre twists and turns taken during his one-plus seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers. His shooting form changed, his percentages flat-lined, there was talk of the yips, and a shoulder injury haunted him for nearly two years.
He's back on the injury report, although his recovery from this ailment (a torn ACL in his left knee) should be a lot more straightforward. Once he makes it back to the hardwood, we can finally tackle the real question in all of this: Can he play? He impresses with his downhill attacking and defense, but his shooting has shown no signs of recovery, and his passing has been closer to adequate than elite.
Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons
The fact that Ben Simmons, a 25-year-old All-Star, has been on the trade market for months and still hasn't found a new home speaks to his polarity. Some might say the biggest obstacle are unrealistic trade demands from Philadelphia, but even that speaks to his strange place in the NBA galaxy.
His defense might be the best in the business, at least the most versatile. His playmaking is absurd for a 6'11", 240-pounder. His transition attacks deserve their own pyrotechnics.
And yet, his inability to shoot—and reluctance to even look at the rim from outside of the paint—can be a complete offense-killer. It robs him of a half-court role when he's not on the ball, and it can torpedo his aggressiveness when he has no confidence in his foul shots. Just about every other tool at his disposal is razor-sharp, but the lack of any discernible development with his shooting could be a deal-breaker.
Phoenix Suns: Deandre Ayton
The Suns won't rise in the West without Deandre Ayton doing the same last season. His counting categories dropped a bit, but he more consistently made his presence felt as a solid screener, reliable anchor and active glass-cleaner.
So, where does the polarizing come in? Well, he's clearly good, but the question is whether his skill set and approach can yield true greatness. Just ask the Suns, who balked at his request for a full five-year max extension. He might be a vital piece of the organization, but he isn't necessarily ticketed to all-caps STARDOM.
He mostly plays inside the arc. He hardly ever gets to the free-throw line. He doesn't always embrace the physicality of the center position. Statistically speaking, he's more likely to turn the ball over than to get an assist. No one is asking him to be perfect, but the bigger worry is it's unclear how his perfect form should look and how impactful it would be.
Portland Trail Blazers: Robert Covington
Robert Covington sounds like the perfect role player. A versatile wing defender who buries open threes and always empties his fuel tank? That's someone who could find his way into any rotation.
But the three-point shooting is less reliable than you think. In two of the last six seasons, it has simply abandoned him (sub-34 percent shooting). And the defense probably isn't what you have in mind, either. He's an off-ball disruptor who can fly around passing lanes and get his hands on the basketball. He's not someone who can silence an elite scorer, as strength and speed can both give him problems.
Can he start for a championship contender? It would take one heck of a lineup around him to say yes. The spot-up sniping and off-ball chaos are helpful, but good teams can scheme his weaknesses to the surface.
Sacramento Kings: De'Aaron Fox
We could go the safe route and throw out Marvin Bagley III or Buddy Hield here, but there's a more interesting decision with De'Aaron Fox. Given the expectations on 2017's No. 5 pick and the sky-high ceiling he has occasionally shown, he's probably the better choice, especially since Hield is established as a specialist and no one is racing to tackle Bagley's development.
Maybe this isn't fair to Fox, as this franchise doesn't have the rosiest reputation on the developmental front. Then again, perhaps it's notable that after watching him lead an offense for three seasons, the Kings spent a lottery pick on fellow point guards in consecutive drafts (Tyrese Haliburton 12th overall in 2020, Davion Mitchell ninth in 2021).
On a perhaps related note, Fox's numbers are all down this season, which is the first of his five-year, $163 max extension signed last November. His shooting is trending down, the gap between his assists and turnovers is shrinking, and even his signature speed doesn't seem to have quite the same zip.
He has been the best player on some bad teams before. Maybe he's just over his skis as a franchise focal point.
San Antonio Spurs: Lonnie Walker IV
Lonnie Walker IV makes you want to believe. His explosiveness can drop jaws. His three-point shot can erupt at any moment. His handles are tight enough to entrust him with some offensive control. His defense can bother even the NBA's best and brightest.
However, the numbers have never lived up to the hype, and they're actually backtracking at the worst possible time. With restricted free agency awaiting him next offseason, it's time to go get the bag. Instead, he's posting his worst field-goal percentage in three seasons, the worst three-point splash rate of his career and his highest turnover percentage.
Like a lot of players in this discussion, he has yet to find the keys to consistency.
"Most people know I have the talent, the materials to do it," Walker said before the season, per KENS 5's Tom Petrini. "It's all about putting that through the entire 48 minutes, not just one quarter or two quarters, every single game, every single quarter, just dominating."
Hope isn't lost for Walker, but it's getting harder to hold onto.
Toronto Raptors: Chris Boucher
Last season, Chris Boucher was one of three players to average at least 1.5 threes and 1.5 blocks. That's an impressive feat for anyone, but a borderline astounding one for a player who would only become a rotation regular the season prior. Given the NBA's obsession with floor-spacing, shot-blocking unicorn bigs, you might have assumed his future was too bright to view without some form of eye protection.
Instead, Boucher has moved down the pecking order in Toronto, and it's possible he'll get squeezed out of the rotation when the roster is whole. It doesn't help that his three-ball has disappeared (19.1 percent), but he's just tricky to fit in most matchups anyway. He doesn't have the bulk to bang with bigs or the lateral quickness to keep in front of wings.
His skill set should be interesting, and there are times when it is. He scored 20-plus points 13 times last season, and he logged fewer than 30 minutes in six of those games. But he chucks shots at a ridiculous rate without the shooting success to justify it, and if he's not blocking shots, he probably isn't helping the defense.
Utah Jazz: Jordan Clarkson
This is tricky, because the Jazz have helped bring out Jordan Clarkson's best since landing him in December 2019. They have embraced his quick trigger and offered him a neon-green light to attack, and he responded by capturing last season's Sixth Man of the Year honors.
However, giving Clarkson this much freedom requires preparation for some ugly moments. He'll take all the shots that come his way, whether those are easy catch-and-release options or extremely difficult ones on the move against tight defense. He's not quite a black hole, but it's obvious that scoring ranks as his first, second and third priorities.
The shot volume seems fine when he finds his mark, but it can be maddening when it's not. While he is a natural scorer, he's not exactly a natural shooter. For someone who launches from long range as often as he does, his 33.8 percent career connection rate leaves plenty to be desired.
Washington Wizards: Kyle Kuzma
Kyle Kuzma isn't the only ex-Laker to surface on this list. That's probably not a coincidence. The Hollywood spotlight is a force unlike any other in the NBA, so Purple and Gold players are almost always praised and criticized more than they should be.
Kuzma's game plays into this, too, though. So does his production. He rarely, if ever, impresses as a passer. His scoring isn't superefficient, and in terms of per-game production, it spiked in his second season. His defense has been disastrous in the past. It's not anymore, but reputations are hard to change on that end.
Stardom almost certainly won't be in the cards, but he has quietly settled into a helpful two-way role. He can create offense in a pinch, makes enough of his threes to keep opponents honest and usually holds his own defensively. He is settling in as a solid player, but his name carries more weight and draws bigger reactions than most players in similar roles.
Statistics through Friday's games. Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.