The NBA is home to some of the most famous and physically superior humans on the planet. We grow up celebrating them not only for their unmatched athleticism, skill, and dedication, but also for their big paychecks, lavish lifestyles, and the ability to command an entire room’s attention just by walking in the door. They smile at us from TVs, sell us shoes, and marry supermodels. To a kid looking for a role model, an NBA player can seem like the definition of success.
However, with great power comes great responsibility, and some strike this balance better than others. As physically flawless as they might appear, athletes are just as prone to mistakes as the rest of us, and NBA players are no exception. I mean, that’s kind of the whole premise of everyone’s favorite Hall of Fame-hosted blooper reel, Shaqtin' a Fool. On the court and sometimes off, even the most seasoned veterans can make decisions that leave us scratching our heads and wondering whether they really made the right career choice.
More often than not, these mistakes are of little consequence, merely acting as fodder for slow news days and tabloids, or endlessly looped Vines, but in the pressure cooker of the NBA, sometimes it’s the most intense moments that cause players to crack and bring out their worst. At the most critical junctures, even the tiniest lapse in judgement can cost a player a win, millions of dollars, or even his career. The taller they are, the harder they fall, and sometimes wanting something badly can backfire.
Whether it’s yelling at refs, throwing punches, or just missing shots you’re supposed to make, all of these players have had to endure moments in time they wish they could have back, moments that turned potential celebration into disaster because they just plain screwed up.
15 Chris Webber
Okay, I know this one’s a bit of a stretch since it didn’t take place during an NBA game, but I had to include it since it technically involved a soon-to-be NBA player and is also quite possibly the most infamous screw-up in basketball history. The date was April 5, 1993. Michigan’s “Fab Five,” the most heralded recruiting class to ever set foot on a college campus, had once again reached the NCAA title game, and was on a mission to avenge the previous year’s defeat. Down two points with less than 20 seconds left, the Wolverines were given one last shot at redemption after their star Chris Webber pulled down a rebound off a North Carolina missed free throw.
As he crossed the timeline with the ball, he was swarmed by defenders, so he instinctively did what 99% of us would have: He called a timeout. The only problem? Michigan had none left. The resulting technical foul free throws and possession for North Carolina crushed any hope of a last-second comeback, and Webber’s critical error has continued to haunt him long after the end of his playing days.
14 Vince Carter
While it’s impossible to say definitively that Vince Carter cost his team a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2001, I feel obliged to include him as a long-suffering Canadian Raptors fan. With a deciding Game 7 against Philadelphia looming, Carter opted to fly down to North Carolina for his college graduation ceremony, getting back just in time to go through pre-game preparation with the rest of his team. However, Carter had been warned that his actions might not be viewed favorably by fans or even some teammates due to concerns about jet lag and lack of focus so close to the most important game in franchise history.
Those concerns only deepened after Carter’s lackluster 20-point performance, which saw him miss what would have been a series-clinching corner jumper at the buzzer. Instead, Carter could only hang his head in defeat and later watch from home as Allen Iverson carried the 76ers to the Finals. At least Carter and the rest of Raptors nation could take solace in the fact that they wouldn’t have stood a chance against the Lakers, who demolished Philly in just five games.
13 Zach Randolph
Dating back to his start with the Portland “Jail-Blazers," Randolph’s always had the reputation for being a bit of a hot-head, but for the most part he’s been all bark, no bite. That changed very quickly in Game 6 of the 2014 Western Conference First Round when Randolph punched human piñata Steven Adams in the jaw during the fourth quarter of a blowout loss to the Thunder. Amazingly, Randolph was only assessed a common foul at the time, but his actions would not go unpunished.
The loss would force a deciding Game 7 back in Oklahoma City, and to make matters worse, further review of the blow from Z-Bo resulted in his suspension. Without their leading scorer and rebounder, Memphis predictably lost the contest, failing to repeat the feat of beating the Thunder and returning to the Western Conference Finals as they had the year before.
12 Amar’e Stoudemire
It feels a little cruel to put Stoudemire’s name on this list when much of the responsibility for his series-altering suspension lies elsewhere, but it just goes to show that even a momentary lapse in judgement can cost you dearly on the biggest stage. The Suns were putting the finishing touches on a Western Conference Semis-tying Game 4 victory when the Spurs’ Robert Horry barrelled into Steve Nash, sending him flying into the scorer’s table. Stoudemire and teammate Boris Diaw jumped off the bench to join the ensuing fracas before being restrained by coaching staff, but the damage was done. Leaving your bench for any reason during an altercation is a big no-no in the league’s eyes, and resulted in a one-game suspension for both Stoudemire and Diaw.
Horry, a minor role player, received a two-game suspension for starting the whole chain of events, but the lopsidedness of the punishments handed out was not lost on the Suns, who were furious at the ruling. Phoenix would lose Game 5 at home, and Stoudemire’s return for Game 6 proved too little, too late as the Suns bowed out to the eventual champs after coming into the series as favourites.
11 Gilbert Arenas
As a die-hard LeBron James fan, I remember this moment well, though I’m sure it’s one Wizards fans would rather forget. With 15 seconds remaining in Game 6 of the 2006 first round match-up between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards, Cleveland sent All-Star and noted clutch shooter Arenas to the line. Two makes would have given the Wizards a worst-case scenario of overtime. But after the first one bounced off the rim, LeBron James seized the opportunity to make Arenas fully aware of the gravity of his situation, promising Arenas that the series would be over if he missed a second time.
Sure enough, Arenas clanged the second off the back rim, giving Cleveland a shot at victory on the last possession of the game. True to James’ word, the Cavaliers made Arenas pay, finding Damon Jones in the corner for the game – and series – winner.
10 Rasheed Wallace
The league’s all-time leader in technical fouls was bound to make it onto this list for one reason or another; it was just a matter of choosing. Game 6 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals between Wallace’s Pistons and the Cleveland Cavaliers seems like a good place to start. Still reeling from LeBron James’s shocking and historic Game 5 performance, the heavily favoured Pistons had to regroup quickly if they hoped to stave off elimination and have a shot at reaching the Finals for the third time in four years.
Entering the fourth quarter down just one, the veteran Pistons should have had the edge, but Cleveland quickly built up a double-digit lead. With nearly eight minutes still remaining in a very winnable game, Wallace was called for an offensive foul. Visibly frustrated, he took a hard foul on James at the other end and continued to jaw at the refs, who predictably assessed him two quick techs and tossed him from the game. The ensuing free-throws and absence of one of their best players were the final nails in the coffin of Detroit’s season, robbing them of a rematch with the Spurs, who had beaten them two years prior.
9 Latrell Sprewell
One of the biggest loose cannons the league has ever seen, it was only a matter of time before one of Sprewell’s blowups cost him more than just a technical foul. Fresh off the best season of his career, and right in the middle of his prime, Sprewell seemed destined for great things. Those hopes, however, were quickly dashed just 14 games into his 1997-98 season when he went ballistic on coach P.J. Carlesimo during practice, choking and threatening to kill him, and later coming back to throw punches. He was immediately suspended for what ended up being 68 games, costing him $6.4 million in salary, not to mention his Converse shoe deal.
He wound up having a number of productive years with the Knicks upon returning, but the incident became the defining moment of his career. He continued to display more questionable behaviour right until the end, famously refusing a $21 million contract extension with the Timberwolves because he “[had his] family to feed” and he found the offer insultingly low. Unfortunately, no one else in the league agreed with him, and so instead of $21 million, he ended up with zero and never played again.
8 Blake Griffin
As one of the best players on one of the most talented teams in one of the biggest markets, expectations have always been high for Griffin to be a role model and team leader. Unfortunately, he failed on both those counts earlier this year when he got into an altercation with his friend, a team equipment staffer, at a Toronto restaurant. The scuffle resulted in Griffin throwing a punch and breaking his hand in the process, delaying his comeback from another injury which had already cost him a month of playing time.
The Clippers managed to keep winning without him, but the new injury and suspension for his actions cost him most of the rest of the regular season, and the rust showed in the playoffs when the Clippers bowed out in the first round to an upstart Trail Blazers squad, another disappointing end to a squandered season for a team that should have contended for a championship.
7 Charles Barkley
The quintessential superstar who never won a ring, Barkley was mostly a victim of circumstance, but on at least one occasion he was the architect of his own demise. In 1994, Barkley’s Suns held a 3-1 series lead over the Rockets, but lost three in a row to the eventual champions. The year 1995 presented a real shot at redemption and a title, with Jordan shaking off retirement rust and defending champs Houston just scraping into the playoffs as the sixth seed. Phoenix and Houston would once again clash in the second round, with the Suns again jumping out to a commanding 3-1 lead. Unfortunately for Barkley, history was destined to repeat itself.
In the pivotal Game 5, Phoenix had a golden opportunity to close out the series on their home court with opposing star Clyde Drexler battling severe illness. They held a narrow lead in the fourth quarter, and with 17.9 seconds left on the clock, Barkley stepped to the line for two. He missed one, the culmination of an impotent fourth quarter in which he scored just three points. That sliver of hope was all Hakeem Olajuwon needed to score a game-tying jumper on the other end, sending the game to overtime. The Rockets pulled out the victory, and would go on to win the series in a thrilling Game Seven en route to a second straight title. The defeat was crushing for Barkley, who would ironically join the Rockets two seasons later in his quest for a title, a quest that never wound up bearing any fruit.
6 Patrick Ewing
Another classic superstar with rotten luck, Ewing’s case is even more tragic and egregious than Barkley’s. Just days after Barkley’s Game 5 debacle, Ewing’s Knicks found themselves in a dogfight of a Game 7 against the Indiana Pacers after clawing back from a 3-1 series deficit. Down two with just five seconds left on the game clock, Ewing miraculously found a path directly to the basket, rose up for a finger roll – and watched helplessly as his point-blank shot bounced off the back rim and into the hands of the Knicks as the buzzer sounded. Ewing would fail several more times to win a championship, but to single-handedly (literally) erase his team’s chance at a rematch with the Rockets for the title must be the lowest point of his career.
5 Metta World Peace
The man formerly known as Ron Artest might have the most impressive résumé of any player on this list as far as doing wildly inappropriate things at wildly inopportune times, but we’ll stick to his starring role in the "Malice at the Palace." It was early in the season, and Artest was playing the best basketball of his life, building on his previous year's All-Star success. That’s when disaster struck, in the closing minute of a blowout road win over bitter rival Detroit. The tension and physical play had been escalating the entire game, leading to harder and harder fouls.
The result was Artest losing his temper and decking Ben Wallace, who immediately flew into a rage. Artest decided to nonchalantly lie down on the scorer’s table and was hit in the chest by a beer from a fan. Artest went berserk, bulldozing his way into the stands to attack fans and causing an all-out melee, one of the darkest days in the history of the league.
Artest received the harshest sentence of all the players involved, a suspension for the rest of the season, which cost him nearly $5 million in salary. He later reinvented himself as a role player for the Lakers to help them capture a title in 2010, but he never made another All-Star team.
4 Dirk Nowitzki
The year was 2006, and a certain sweet-shooting German power forward was at the height of his powers. Having averaged a career-high 26.6 points per game and leading his Mavericks to a 60-win season, Nowitzki was now practically on the verge of winning his first NBA title, up 2-0 in the series with a 13-point cushion in the fourth. But the Mavs soon learned that you can never count out Dwyane Wade, who led Miami on a furious comeback to take a two-point lead with under 10 seconds remaining. On the next possession, Dallas drew up a play that worked to perfection, getting the ball to Nowitzki, who drew a foul with three seconds left. With one of the all-time great shooters stepping to the line to tie the game; overtime seemed inevitable. He drained the first, as expected, but Nowitzki shockingly left the second one a little short, preserving the Heat’s lead and handing them the game.
Dallas never recovered from the deflating loss, and lost the next three games to give the Heat the title. Nowitzki would get the last laugh in 2011, when he bested the Heat in a Finals rematch, but I’m sure he’d like the first one back.
3 Nick Anderson
While previously mentioned players Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing saw their 1995 title runs cut short before the final round, one player who did make it to the Finals that year was Nick Anderson. Not quite a star, Anderson was nonetheless an integral member of the young Orlando Magic, and had turned himself into one of the most well-rounded shooting guards in the game. With just 10.5 seconds remaining in Game 1, the Magic held a three-point lead and Anderson stepped to the line for a pair of free-throws that should have been little more than a formality. He missed the first, then the second. Miraculously, he got the ball back off his own miss and was fouled again. With a second chance to put the game away, surely Anderson would redeem himself? Another miss. And finally, for good measure, one more. Four missed freebies in a matter of seconds, any one of which would have put the game out of reach.
The experienced Rockets made Anderson pay dearly, with a Kenny Smith three sending the game to overtime. Houston capitalized on their new lease on life, completing a 20-point comeback victory on the road and using that momentum to crush the still-dazed Magic in four straight games.
2 Draymond Green
I’m sure this one’s still fresh enough in everyone’s minds to not warrant a detailed explanation, but here’s a little refresher: The Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the 2016 Finals, and if it weren’t for some poor judgement by Draymond Green, we’d likely be celebrating them as the greatest team of all time instead of the greatest disappointment. The Warriors were just putting the finishing touches on a Game 4 victory to give them a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 lead in last season’s Finals when Green and LeBron James got tangled up. As James got up from the floor, he stepped over Green, to which Green foolishly responded by taking a couple swipes at James. The move was deemed a “Flagrant 1 foul,” and in keeping with league policy, Green was required to sit out the next game due to accumulating too many infractions over the course of the playoffs. Not only did Green have to sit out but his trash talking seemed to backfire on his team, as LeBron used his anger to reach a new gear in the series.
Green's absence was enough to let Cleveland steal one on the road to keep their hopes alive, and the rest is history. Expect Green to play with an extra chip on his shoulder come playoff time for letting his team down at the most crucial of times in the silliest of manners.
1 John Starks
It was a tough call choosing between Green and Starks for the number one spot, but Starks gets the nod because of how directly quantifiable his abject failure was in costing his team a championship. And not just any team: These were the New York Knicks -- darlings of the mecca of basketball. Starks had blossomed into an All-Star in 1994, helping to carry the team all the way to the NBA Finals for the first time in over 20 years. The close series would come down to a decisive Game 7, a time for the best of the best to demonstrate their worth and take control of their own destinies.
Starks definitely did that – but in all the wrong ways, going an abysmal 2-18 from the field for a measly eight points and two assists. The Knicks wound up losing by six points, a margin Starks could have easily closed by himself if he had performed even just slightly better than atrocious. Instead of going down as one of the great heroes of one of the most storied sports franchises, Starks will always be remembered as “2-18,” becoming a universal symbol of failing when it matters most.