The concept of team chemistry in the NBA has long been difficult to quantify and some will even go so far as to challenge its value altogether by noting that it is awfully easy for teammates to get along when they are winning games. Instead of believing that teams win because they have good chemistry, however, those who challenge the value of this concept point out the likelihood that losing teams have chemistry issues that are borne out of the frustration associated with losing.
While there is certainly some validity to the notion that winning breeds greater locker-room chemistry, it is also the case that many talented teams have failed to succeed due in part to an inability develop a rapport with teammates either on or off the court. Chemistry alone, of course, will not result in championship parades and any roster that ignores talent and skill in favor of assembling a collection of “solid locker-room guys” is likely to fail miserably. The absence of team chemistry, however, may derail even the most talent-laden rosters before a season even begins.
The most obvious example of how the right combination of talent and chemistry leads to sustained success can be found in San Antonio, where Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have consistently gotten the most out of just about every player that has bolstered the team’s strong core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, while also continuing to develop up-and-coming stars like Kawhi Leonard.
A team like San Antonio could likely absorb any one of the following players who appear on this list into their team culture without any detriment, but franchises that lack strong leadership are much more likely to experience acrimony and antagonism from players who carry the reputation of being a locker room cancer. These players’ antics make it difficult for their team to succeed due to disruption and distraction, whether it is related to off-court issues, fights with teammates, or repeated attempts to undermine the authority of the team and its coaching staff.
20. Derrick Coleman
Coleman was one of the most talented big men to ever come into the league, but his career is most remembered for how he was never quite able to live up to sizable expectations. During a feud with Karl Malone in which Coleman referred to the Hall of Famer as an “Uncle Tom,” Malone responded by saying that DC could easily be one of the greatest power forwards to play the game if he could just get out of his own way.
Instead, Coleman clashed with coaches and teammates in New Jersey, Charlotte, Detroit and during two separate stints in Philadelphia. Though Coleman averaged 16.5 points and 9.3 rebounds over 15 NBA seasons, he only managed one All-Star appearance and is remembered mostly for being a surly underachiever with a knack for getting his coaches fired and for showing up to training camp while carrying more than a few extra pounds.
19. O.J. Mayo
Mayo had a few incidents that raised questions about his character over the span of just few weeks in 2011. After winning $7,500 off teammate and friend Tony Allen in a card game, Mayo mercilessly taunted Allen about the victory before criticizing Allen’s basketball skills and boasting of his own status as a lottery pick. Despite the intervention of Zack Randolph, Mayo continued to goad Allen, so Allen decided to end the argument physically.
The altercation with Allen left Mayo with a black eye and it was only a few weeks later that he would be suspended for 10 games after testing positive for DHEA, an over-the-counter precursor to steroids. Not only did Mayo manage to find trouble due to gambling, fighting and banned substances over the course of a single month, but he also openly complained about how his role as sixth man would affect his value on the free agent market, solidifying his place on this list.
18. Vin Baker
Baker’s story has been a cautionary tale for hard-partying athletes who may not recognize the creeping impact of alcoholism. A four-time All-Star with the Bucks and Sonics, Baker’s talents faded fast due to his drinking problem, culminating in his being suspended indefinitely from the Boston Celtics when he showed up to practice smelling of alcohol. Though he had a 13-year NBA career, he was never able to give his team the full benefit of his talent due to his frequent and excessive alcohol abuse. Baker, who has been sober for over four years, recently expressed concern for Ty Lawson, who has been arrested twice for DUI in the past six months.
17. Ricky Davis
Davis never did anything particularly egregious as an NBAer, although he did chastise LeBron James on the court for failing to give up the ball and frequently drew the ire of Paul Silas, his coach with the Cavaliers. While criticizing one of the game’s greatest players for not passing to him is so delusional that it deserves more attention, Davis will probably remain known for the selfish style of play that earned him the nickname, “Wrong-Rim Ricky.”
The nickname stems from an incident in which Davis, one rebound shy of a triple-double late in a game, attempted a shot on his own basket and then grabbed the rebound in the hope of padding his stat line. The rebound did not count and DeShawn Stevenson responded by fouling Davis hard for his breach of basketball etiquette.
Davis also had a reputation for showboating, once missing on an attempt to go between his legs on a breakaway dunk opportunity. He recovered and grabbed the miss with enough time to land a windmill dunk before any defenders could catch up to him, but his reputation as a “me-first” player led to his playing for six different teams over a 12-year NBA career that saw him out of the league by the age of 30.
16. Andrea Bargnani
As an underachieving top overall draft pick, Bargnani has carried many labels during his career and has been criticized for what many observers see as a soft style of play. Just recently, Phil Jackson bestowed the label of locker-room cancer on Bargnani following his underwhelming stint with the New York Knicks. Jackson referred to Bargnani as a “big tease,” and a “malingerer,” while also noting that the Italian big man’s attitude had a “bad effect on the team, and also on the way the Knicks fans reacted to him.”
Jackson went on to call Bargnani “somewhat of an enigma,” while offering specific criticisms of his on-court habits: “When he was on the court, he had a hard time staying intense, didn’t hustle back in offense-to-defense transition, wasn’t active enough in defending screen-rolls.” As Jackson points out in his analysis, a player who lacks energy or is simply unwilling to work can have a detrimental effect on an entire team.
15. Goran Dragic
Just before the most recent trade deadline, Dragic went public with a trade request that had long been rumored to have been made privately. It’s not terribly uncommon for NBAers to request a trade and to even include preferred destinations, but to make those destinations publicly known while referencing a growing distrust in the team’s front office seemed to be emblematic of Dragic’s selfishness, which was mostly motivated out of concern for his ability to land a sizable contract in free agency.
The Suns, a better team with an arguably better future than any of Dragic’s preferred landing spots, were left with little leverage in trade negotiations but still managed to pluck two first-rounders in exchange for Dragic, a pending free agent. The reason for Dragic’s discontent mostly had to do with the other two point guards also on the Phoenix roster at the time – Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe – who Dragic believed were cutting into his playing time and adversely affecting his numbers, potentially devaluing him on the free agent market.
14. Rajon Rondo
Rondo’s status as a difficult and headstrong player was always obscured by the fact that he had guided the Boston Celtics to an NBA title alongside three future Hall of Famers in 2008 and was the best player on a roster that nearly won a second title in 2010. A few incidents leaked out of Boston, including one in which he threw a water bottle at a video screen during a playoff film session in which coach Doc Rivers referenced some of the mistakes Rondo had made in the previous game. The water bottle shattered the video screen and Rondo then went on to profanely call out his teammates for their own errors.
Of course, Rondo had another playoff meltdown more recently after being traded to the Dallas Mavericks. After clashing with Rick Carlisle during the regular season, the animosity spilled over into the playoffs and Rondo was ultimately sent home during the middle of the team’s first-round series. The Mavs claimed it was due to a back injury, but it was fairly evident that the club simply believed they would be better off without Rondo around. The situation was so acrimonious that none of the Dallas players objected to Rondo’s lack of inclusion on the list of players receiving a playoff share.
13. Sebastian Telfair
Apparently Sebastian Telfair believes that nothing fosters team chemistry better than making sure you are properly armed before taking off on a long road trip. Though Telfair claimed that the gun he brought onto a private plane carrying the Portland Trail Blazers belonged to his girlfriend and that he had simply grabbed the wrong bag, he would again find trouble when he was caught driving without a license in New York while carrying a loaded .45-caliber handgun in his Range Rover. Telfair was a member of the Boston Celtics at the time of his arrest and the team was so fed up with his antics that they immediately removed his nameplate from the locker room.
12. Lance Stephenson
Talent has never been a question with Lance Stephenson, but his behavior has played a role in the fact that he will now be joining his third team after just five seasons in the NBA. During his time with the Indiana Pacers, Stephenson and then-teammate Evan Turner got into a fight in which punches were reportedly thrown during a practice in the midst of the team’s first-round playoff series.
Stephenson’s recent inability to fit in with the Charlotte Hornets led to a reduced role and was so detrimental to the team that Hornets’ beat reporter Rick Bonnell noted that while Stephenson was handling it as professionally as he could, “The situation was sucking the energy out of that locker room.” The issue ultimately led to Stephenson being traded to the Los Angeles Clippers, the third franchise of his relatively brief career.
11. DeMarcus Cousins
“Boogie” is one of the most talented big men in the league, but he is also known as one of the most potentially volatile. Cousins established his poor reputation early on in his career, clashing with coaches Paul Westphal and Keith Smart while also earning a suspension for confronting Spurs broadcaster Sean Elliott after a game. He has demanded trades on multiple occasions and has most recently been involved in something of a feud with his current coach, George Karl.
While Cousins has certainly done enough to earn his place on this list, it is important to note that he is still a relatively young player who has already played for five different coaches since joining the NBA in 2010 (of course, some of the coaching turnover has to do with Cousins’ own demeanor). While playing for Team USA, Coach K had nothing but praise for Cousins, noting that his “attitude is tremendous.” The center has certainly matured during his time in the NBA, but how things play out in the 2015 season between Cousins, Karl and free agent addition Rajon Rondo should be nothing short of fascinating.
10. Ruben Patterson
A member of the infamous “Jail Blazers” squad, Patterson was involved in a number of scrapes with teammates, including an altercation with Qyntel Woods that ended when Zach Randolph punched Patterson in the face. Patterson was fined and suspended on several different occasions and had a penchant for complaining about his playing time and boasting about his ability, once giving himself the nickname, “The Kobe Stopper.”
In addition to the frequent issues with teammates and coaches, Patterson also ran afoul of the law throughout his career, earning multiple arrests, including one that was resolved with a plea of no contest to the charge of attempted sexual assault. Despite his status as a poor teammate and his frequent run-ins with police, Patterson still managed to carve out a 10-year NBA career.
9. Stephon Marbury
Marbury — along with Isiah Thomas, Larry Brown and James Dolan — was at the center of a period of extreme dysfunction in New York. The Coney Island native was supposed to thrive in New York after joining the Knicks, but the fact that he had failed to achieve any significant team success in each of his previous NBA stints should have served as a hint that he was unlikely to bring a winning culture to New York.
Marbury was rumored to have demanded a trade out of Minnesota over jealousy of Kevin Garnett’s contract and KG’s role as the undisputed alpha of the Timberwolves, and Kurt Thomas, a former teammate, once turned to Amare Stoudemire during a game and said, “I can’t stand playing with Stephon Marbury.” Now in China, Marbury has won three Chinese Basketball Association titles and was named the Finals MVP during the most recent season.
8. Shaquille O’Neal
It’s hard to list one of the all-time great big men among a group of players who will be best remembered for their ability to inspire team dysfunction, but O’Neal could have been a part of several different dynasties if not for his outsized ego. He feuded with Penny Hardaway in Orlando and again with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, targeting the latter in a profane rap verse that was captured on video.
Obviously, O’Neal’s feuds with teammates did not keep his teams from winning titles, but it is fair to wonder just how dominant his teams could have been – especially the Lakers squads coached by Phil Jackson– had he not engaged in so many petty squabbles over the years.
7. Kobe Bryant
Bryant was not an innocent party in the feud with Shaquille O’Neal, as he has developed a habit of being particularly aggressive in his critiques of teammates. After O’Neal left, Kobe drove Dwight Howard out of Los Angeles by attacking him relentlessly and constantly reminding him of his soft reputation throughout the NBA. Kobe also had difficulties with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Kwame Brown and Smush Parker, and some observers feel that Bryant’s harsh style may be part of the reason the Lakers have been unsuccessful in attracting recent free agents.
6. J.R. Smith
Smith has had plenty of run-ins with coaches, including a puzzling incident in the 2007 playoffs that led to George Karl benching him for a series of poor decisions, the most egregious of which saw Smith taking the shot late in the game on a play designed for either Allen Iverson or Carmelo Anthony. Smith has also earned suspensions for off-court and on-court incidents, including twice during the playoffs.
The most recent suspension came while playing for the Cavaliers, as Smith earned a two-game punishment for landing a punch to the face of Boston’s Jae Crowder during the playoffs. Though the Cavs ultimately moved on to the NBA Finals, Smith’s suspension was poorly timed due to the fact that injuries had already left the team shorthanded and could have easily contributed to a premature playoff exit.
5. Gilbert Arenas
Arenas, a three-time All-Star, was suspended for the remainder of the 2009-10 NBA season when he brought four guns into the Washington Wizards’ locker room. “Agent Zero” was angered after a dispute over a card game with Javaris Crittendon, so he laid out the weapons in front of his teammate’s locker in a not-so-veiled threat. Of course, the heavily implied threat of violence from Arenas led to Crittendon brandishing a gun of his own. The incident effectively ended Crittendon’s career, while Arenas came back after the suspension, but only for a few seasons due to a pair of balky knees.
4. Latrell Sprewell
Sprewell actually did a decent job rehabbing his image in the years following the infamous 1997 incident in which he choked P.J. Carlesimo, then the coach of the Golden State Warriors. The choking incident came after a slew of other altercations, including a fight with Jerome Kersey that somehow involved Sprewell bringing a two-by-four into the mix before reportedly telling Kersey he would return with a gun.
With the Knicks, Sprewell had several solid seasons, and he again enjoyed success with Kevin Garnett and the Minnesota Timberwolves despite some unfortunately tone-deaf comments regarding being insulted by a $21-million contract offer while citing his need to put food on the table for his children. In a recent episode of Open Court, Kevin McHale offered high praise for Sprewell, saying that the same guy who once choked his coach and threatened a teammate with a piece of lumber was also one of the smartest players he had ever coached.
3. Delonte West
West, who played an aggressive brand of basketball that endeared him to fans of all the teams he played for during his time in the NBA, had his career derailed by an off-court incident that began when he was pulled over by police. While riding his motorcycle, West was stopped for making an illegal lane change, and he then told police that he was carrying a slew of weapons, including a shotgun in a guitar case along with a 9 mm Beretta, a Ruger .357 magnum and a bowie knife.
While most cite the incident with the weapons and even the flatly denied rumor that West was sleeping with LeBron James’ mother as reason enough for West to have caused plenty of locker-room strife, some of his former coaches think that West was simply too competitive for his own good and therefore had trouble letting small issues go. Whatever the cause, it is clear he had a significant and frequently adverse effect on teammates.
2. Ron Artest
Artest is one of the most obvious candidates for topping this list, as he was at the center of one of the most infamous incidents in recent NBA history when he entered the stands during a game in Detroit now known as the “Malice at the Palace.” Artest was suspended for 86 games and the Indiana Pacers, who had legitimate title aspirations, entered a rebuilding phase around a new core group of players.
The Detroit incident was not the only reason for Artest, who changed his name to Metta World Peace, to land on this list. While with the Chicago Bulls early in his career, Artest admitted to drinking cognac at halftime, saying that he would store some Hennessy in his locker so he could have a drink while preparing for the second half. There were other incidents as well, including frequent technicals and ejections, including one in which he elbowed James Harden, causing a concussion.
Even after the end of his NBA career, Artest has continued to cause trouble for his teams, recently managing to get ejected from the last game of the Italian League season after he was assessed five fouls in just one minute for his involvement in a “skirmish,” which occurred while he wore a jersey referring to him as “The Panda’s Friend.”
1. Marvin Barnes
The second overall pick behind Bill Walton in the 1974 NBA Draft, Barnes had the kind of talent that should have landed him in the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, Barnes was never able to escape problems that appeared to stem from drug and alcohol abuse. Barnes, whose nickname was “Bad News,” admitted to using cocaine on the bench while playing for the Boston Celtics toward the end of his career and infamously attacked a college teammate with a tire iron.
Donald Schupak, the owner of the Spirits of St. Louis of the ABA, offered a telling and accurate description of Barnes to the New York Times in 1976, saying, “He’s a nice guy, a sweet guy, everybody likes him. He’s just totally unreliable. He’s probably in the top five players in basketball, talent-wise. In terms of value to a team, he’s probably in the bottom 10 percent.”
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