The NBA is a star-driven league. More than any other professional sports organization, it is a place where the individual player can contribute in a way that leads to a championship effort, awards, and maybe even a shoe deal. With all that attention, you can probably imagine that there are a few star players in the NBA who let it go to their heads and become jerks. You’d be right too. In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that the NBA produces bigger jerks than other organization in the world of professional sports.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t exceptions. The biggest jerks in the NBA may get all of the attention, but the very good news is that their exploits tend to pale in comparison to the good things being done by their sweetheart counterparts. There are great players in the NBA who manage to be even greater when they walk off the court.
They’re among the very best examples of how a player should act. Their jerk counterparts have no trouble getting attention, so maybe it’s time that these good guys got some love as well.
This list will be a mixture of former and current NBA players to display how the mixed bag of jerks and sweethearts goes for every generation.
20 Jerk – Karl Malone
It’s okay to feel a little bit bad that Karl Malone never won an NBA Championship. As one of the premiere big men of the big man era, Malone’s talent certainly justified a title run. If it makes you feel any better, it’s quite possible that karma deprived Malone of a championship because he’s a huge jerk. Much has been made of Malone’s off-the-court actions, especially as it relates to the illegitimate child Malone fathered as a result of his relationship with a 13-year-old girl. Somehow, that story seems to have slipped many minds.
Malone was in college at the time and narrowly avoided criminal charges. He spent most of his life ignoring the child, and the rest of his time being an all-around jerk to just about everyone he encountered.
19 Sweetheart – John Stockton
Just to show you that not every star member of the '80s and ‘90s Utah Jazz teams were jerks, let’s take a look at John Stockton. If you never saw Stockton play in his prime, you missed out on one of the best pure point guards that ever played the game. Stockton didn’t always light up the scoreboards, but his ability to find the perfect player with every pass was almost inhuman. Stockton’s generosity on the court extends to his off-the-court life where he is known as one of the most 'regular' superstars the league has ever produced. Stockton stayed away from the media spotlight, but every interaction he has ever had with fans has resulted in them coming away shocked that the humble man they just met is one of the greatest NBA players of all time.
18 Jerk – Nick Young
When Nick Young joined the Lakers, he was joining Kobe Bryant’s team. Although Kobe isn’t the most willing teacher in the world, you can’t play that close to one of the NBA’s all-time greats without learning a thing or two. In Young’s case, he might have learned how to be a huge jerk from Kobe along with the art of a proper pump fake. Nick Young has been accused of being a bit of a ball hog, but that’s nothing compared to the selfish way in which he constantly finds an excuse to fight opposing players on the court. Of course, that’s nothing compared to a 2005 incident that saw Young and his crew get into a fight with some of his fellow patrons at a Dave and Busters. Who gets angry at a place that has Skeeball?
17 Sweetheart - Pau Gasol
In an interview with The LA Times, Pau Gasol lamented how the NBA is a tough place to be a nice guy. He says that people will often take advantage of him for being a genuinely good human being. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could ever find it in their hearts to be mean to a guy who typically spends his off-season chilling with his band, visiting foreign countries to help displaced children, enjoying the wilderness, and contributing to as many charities as he can find the time and money for.
Yes, Gasol really is that kind of guy who really is as nice as he comes across as. As for those haters, he usually deals with them on the court, not off of it.
16 Jerk – Matt Barnes
Matt Barnes has gone on record to call out former fellow players like Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson for being jerks. That’s really a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Barnes’ legacy as a world class jerk began around the time that he started playing for the Sixers. Fellow teammates and coaches later spoke about Barnes’ incredibly awful attitude and the way he seemed to be immune from coaching and general life advice. From there, Barnes went on to at least attempt to fight nearly everyone that shared the court with him or otherwise trash talk them so bad that he later had to issue public apologies to the player’s mom. No seriously, the man had to issue an apology to James Harden’s mom due to his over-the-top trash talking.
15 Sweetheart – Andre Iguodala
There were some that felt Andre Iguodala could take over for Allen Iverson in Philadelphia and become the team’s driving force. The two players even shared initials. Iguodala never quite achieved the potential that some assigned to him early in his career, but at least he’ll always be a nicer guy than Iverson will ever be. Iguodala is honestly a pretty low-key guy all around who doesn’t have many unbelievably generous acts to his name, but there’s just something admirable about the guy. Maybe it’s the way that he always talks about his teammates and the praise they deserve before he ever mentions himself. Maybe it’s the way he always seems to rise above the trash talk that he receives. Honestly, it probably has more to do with his ability to consistently contribute without ever being the center of attention.
14 Jerk - Matthew Dellavedova
Matthew Dellavedova rose to a certain level of fame during his time on the Cavs by coming through with some big shots in clutch moments during the team’s playoff runs. He generated a bit of a sensation by seemingly being that guy who comes off the bench, does his job, and quietly exits the court. That might have been his image among some fans, but it couldn’t be further from who Dellavedova truly is. Dellavedova is one of the dirtiest players in the league. He will take whatever cheap shots are necessary to get the win for his team. That’s not the worst quality in the world, but it is made much worse when you couple it with the man’s constant need for attention off-the-court and the fights that that his attitude results in.
13 Sweetheart – Ricky Rubio
Ricky Rubio is another one of those guys who just never lived up to his full potential. It’s not that he’s a bad player by any means, but rather that he shown flashes of pure brilliance that never really became anything substantial. The really disappointing part about Rubio’s career shortcomings is that success couldn’t come to a nicer guy. The “Rubio is a saint” legend really started gaining steam when a video emerged that showed Rubio passing the ball back and forth with a young fan before a game. That’s really just a snapshot of the guy’s character, though. He has an intense desire to win, but it never really manifests itself in any negative kind of way. Instead, Rubio continues to just give it his all night in and night out.
12 Jerk – J.R. Smith
Ah, J.R. Smith. Smith, as a player, is one of those guys who is slightly above contributor status and slightly below superstar standing. Smith, as a human being, is an undeniable, world-class jerk. Take, for instance, the time that Smith was playing in a charity basketball game with some kids. When one of the kids received the ball at the other end of the court, everyone backed off to let him have the shot. J.R. Smith, sensing blood in the water, decided to run up and smack the ball out of the air in order to deny him the layup. Smith has argued that he is the victim of some character assassination, but the fact remains that he always seems to find himself on the wrong end of such situations.
11 Sweetheart – Zach Randolph
Every team needs a guy like Zach Randolph on the court. At a time when the big man has been relegated to a supporting role in the NBA, Randolph has managed to set something of a standard for how an almost 7 foot tall player can contribute without needing to dominate the game. His play is indicative of his character. Randolph got into some trouble early on in his life that straightened him out and taught him the value of being the kind of guy that your fellow teammates know they can rely on. He has no known ego, he regularly makes huge contributions to local charities, he’s previously helped in-need families in his area pay their bills, and he desperately wants to be someone who leads by example.
10 Jerk - Paul Pierce
A bad past doesn’t make you a bad person. There are many NBA players – and people in general – who grew up in a bad situation and went on to use the lessons they learned during that time as the foundation for personal rebuilding. Paul Pierce isn’t one of those people. In his youth, Pierce was a gang member who almost lost his life in 2000 when he was stabbed by a rival. Rather than use this view this as a wake-up call, it seemed to have only solidified Pierce’s violent personality. He has been fined for flashing gang symbols on the court – even though he denies that is what he was doing – and has earned a reputation as someone that finds pleasure in being outright rude to fans outside of the court.
9 Sweetheart – Joakim Noah
As a member of that legendary Florida Gators team, Joakim Noah quickly established himself as the guy you want on the court when you need someone to serve as the glue between traditional superstars. His exceptional defense and ability to contribute in a variety of ways inspired many people to label him as a future star. Noah may never reach the top of many NBA record columns, but he’s near the top of any list about NBA nice guys. Noah loves to have a good time, but it’s more of the “look at Noah do a crazy dance” kind of good time. He’s competitive, but almost never cocky. More than anything, he loves his fans, loves his community, and tends to be described as the best teammate you could ever have.
8 Jerk – Rajon Rondo
Rajon Rondo is an enigma. So far as his play goes, he’s does just about everything that you could want him to do from the point guard position. He’s an intense kind of player that knows the ins and outs of every play, every formation, and every situation. Rondo’s intensity has come back to haunt him on more than a few occasions, however. You might have heard about his fondness for trash talking on the court, but what you might not know is that Rondo has burned more than a few bridges with teammates in the past due to his seeming inability to lighten up. Rondo is a no-nonsense basketball player. He rarely interacts with fans, rarely cracks a joke, and isn’t usually described as a nice guy.
7 Sweetheart – Dwyane Wade
Calling Dwyane Wade a nice guy will come as a surprise to some people. There are more than a few stories out there about Dwyane Wade being the kind of arrogant superstar that his play suggests he might be. It’s easy to view these incidents as an anomaly when you weigh them against the many times that Wade has proven to be one of the league’s fabled good guys. First off, you’ll have a hard time finding anyone in Miami with a bad thing to say about Wade due largely to the NBA star’s fondness for contributing time and money to his community. Wade’s dramatic play has led to many superhero moments for the veteran star, which is the exact role Wade is happy to play. He wants to be a role model.
6 Jerk – Kobe Bryant
There’s a good chance that you knew this one was coming at some point. Like another legendary player that is soon to get his own entrant on this list, Bryant’s killer instinct as a player often manifests itself in negative ways. Bryant doesn’t care if you’re his teammate, his coach, or a fan; he is going to treat you with the same level of cocky indifference that has come to define him. It’s incredibly rare to hear anyone in the NBA refer to Kobe as their friend. He is, reportedly, a very introverted individual who prefers to do everything his own way whenever possible. Were it not for the fact that he possesses otherworldly talent, his complete inability to properly work with people in any context may have ended his career years ago.
5 Sweetheart – Stephen Curry
Much like Kobe Bryant, this entrant shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. Given that Stephen Curry does things on an NBA court that most people assumed a mere human being could never be capable of, it’s always a bit surprising to hear people describe him as such a shining example of human decency. When Curry isn’t doing what he does on the court, he prefers to spend his time away from the cameras and with his family. When he does venture out into the fandom wild, he displays the kind of genuine appreciation that suggests he is still overwhelmed by every good thing that has happened in his life. Curry is naturally talented to be sure, but he’s gotten to where he is today because he’s worked harder than most for it. If it feels like he’s showing off, it’s just because he’s that good.
4 Jerk – Kevin Garnett
Hearing that Kevin Garnett is regularly considered to be one of the league’s biggest jerks always seems to come as a surprise to fans. Garnett’s ability to contribute as either the star player or the role player seems to contradict any claim that his is a completely selfish jerk. However, there are many stories about how Garnett goes out of his way to big as big of a defensive burden on the court as he can be. Along with stellar play, this typically includes cheap shots, insults, and whining to the refs when necessary.
From calling Charlie Villanueva a cancer patient to berating teammates that he considers to be below him, Garnett just can’t seem to keep himself from being the bad guy...on and off the court.
3 Sweetheart – Kevin Durant
You’ve probably read several recent articles featured in publications such as Rolling Stone all about how Kevin Durant is, in fact, a jerk. Actually, what they’re specifically saying is that Kevin Durant is the next great NBA villain. The story is that Durant’s move from Oklahoma to Golden State showed that he’s not a loyal guy. Durant himself has said that he’s an absolute terror on the court who just wants to win. However, that shouldn’t be the story about Kevin Durant. The story about Kevin Durant should be the way that he spent years becoming the hero of Oklahoma City or the way that he acts like a gentleman to every fan and coach he’s ever met. Kevin Durant is perfectly willing to be cast as the villain, but it’s not who he is.
2 Jerk – Michael Jordan
Who else? The discussion regarding whether or not Michael Jordan is the greatest NBA player of all-time tends to hardly be a discussion at all. Based on nearly any metric, he’s the greatest athlete to ever step onto a basketball court. He’s also the biggest jerk to do the same. The legend of Michael Jordan’s cockiness is almost as infamous as the legend of his on-court play. Much like Kobe Bryant, Jordan’s bad attitude is directly related to his nearly inhuman competitiveness.
Jordan seems to be well aware that he is the absolute greatest basketball player of all-time, which he has unfortunately taken to mean that he’s better than most people flat out. From overcharging for autographs to using his Hall of Fame speech as an excuse to belittle nearly everyone he had the time to belittle, Jordan is the greatest of all-time when it comes to basketball jerks.
1 Sweetheart – Tim Duncan
In the same way that Michael Jordan is such an overwhelming jerk that you almost can’t help but respect it a little bit, Tim Duncan is such an incredibly nice guy that you almost can’t help but doubt the stories of his kindness just a little bit. Legend has it that Tim Duncan has been able to throw defenders off their game by being so nice to them that they get confused. You throw an elbow at Tim Duncan, he throws a smile at you. He just wants to help his team win every game so that he can leave the stadium with his head held high enough to spot all the autographs that people want him to sign. There’s never going to be another Tim Duncan.