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Professional sports remain the peak of reality television, and few leagues offer quite as much drama as the NBA.
Like any good story, it has good guys and villains. You can’t really have that tension without having both. And for today’s slideshow, we’re only looking at one side of that coin.
Villain, of course, is a relative term. For this exercise, we’re only looking at players, and a lot of their placement here focuses on their on-court antics, though off-court activities directly related to the game will probably come up on each slide.
We’re also not going to delve into legal matters or non-basketball issues. This isn’t the appropriate spot for those deep dives. This is about villains within the context of the actual games.
Whether it’s flops, team-hopping, plays that could be perceived as dirty or some combination of all of the above, everyone below has had their fair share of villainous behavior over the past 10 years.
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Peak Villainy: His 2018 Tour de Force
Jimmy Butler only spent one season and change with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but the exit he orchestrated was enough to earn him a spot here.
Butler had already provided plenty of examples of publicly calling out teammates and coaches over the years, but nothing compared to what he did in October 2018.
Just a few weeks after requesting a trade from the Wolves, he showed up at a practice, dominated everyone in sight and essentially turned ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski into the league’s version of “Mean” Gene Okerlund.
The stream of tweets Woj unleashed after that infamous practice contains some of the most colorful descriptions he’s ever offered on that platform.
Adrian Wojnarowski @wojespn
All-Star Jimmy Butler participated in Minnesota’s practice, a session that included him verbally challenging teammates, coaches and front office, league sources told ESPN. Butler was vociferous and emotional at times, targeting Thibodeau/Layden/Towns/Wiggins. Story soon on ESPN.
Adrian Wojnarowski @wojespn
A lot of Minnesota players left Timberwolves practice today energized by Butler’s performance, mesmerized with him taking end-of-the-bench players and running the table on the regulars, sources said. At the end, he walked out like if a mic drop. Butler delivered a tour de force.
Ten games into the 2018 season, Butler was off to the Philadelphia 76ers. As we all know, that partnership didn’t last long, either.
And though he seems to have found the right fit for his aggressive leadership style within the Miami Heat’s “culture,” he’s even had his moments there.
As recently as March, fan footage of an altercation with coach Erik Spoelstra went viral.
The organization seemed to get past it in time for the postseason, but it was another reminder that working with Butler can lead to fireworks at a moment’s notice.
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Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
Peak Villainy: The Miami Heat Years
Rewind exactly 10 years, and we’re on the verge of the 2012-13 season. LeBron James had already played two seasons with the Miami Heat. Much of the reaction to 2010’s “The Decision” and the subsequent introductory party had died down, but it was far from gone.
The “Heatles” were still the undisputed heels of the league, and LeBron was the Hollywood Hogan of this faction.
Of course, his homecoming with the Cleveland Cavaliers garnered plenty of goodwill, especially when he won the title in 2016. But a jump to the Los Angeles Lakers felt like another heel turn.
Team-hopping isn’t LeBron’s only source of villainy, either.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who truly enjoys flopping, and James has a abstract in that department that can go toe-to-toe with just about anyone.
And there’s no metric for this, but LeBron’s level of complaining and incredulous gasping is prime Tim Duncan-esque.
Ultimately, though, a big part of being a sports villain (in most cases) is being good. And for much of the past 20 years (let alone 10), no one was better than LeBron.
Going back to the Hogan analogy, he was the singles heavyweight champ for most of the time period in question, and there are typically plenty of people hoping to knock out the champ.
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Peak Villainy: The Los Angeles Clippers Years
Remember that line about LeBron’s flopping resume? Chris Paul has one of those reals that can go toe-to-toe with (and probably surpass) that of James.
But this isn’t just about flopping, though that’s a big part of it. CP3 is unquestionably one of the greatest players in the history of basketball, but much of his career has been spent incessantly complaining to referees, deploying generally dirty antics, beating teammates and, perhaps the greatest sin of all, winning.
All of that was never on more vivid display than when he was with the Los Angeles Clippers, who seemed to adopt his abrasive style.
“People hate the Clippers, and by ‘people,’ we mean everyone: players, coaches, scouts, owners, executives, scalpers, ushers, popcorn vendors,” Howard Beck wrote for Bleacher Report in 2015. “Probably the Dalai Lama, though he could not be reached for comment.”
Beck surveyed people from just about every category laid out above. He didn’t get much pushback on the assertion.
And, like LeBron with the nWo…er, Heat…CP3 was the head of this snake.
Then, of course, he joined James Harden with the Houston Rockets, who wasn’t exactly adored at the time, either. That team’s ability to push the Golden State Warriors won them a little support, but it certainly didn’t make Paul a good guy.
That didn’t happen until he went to the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2019, where he seemed to play with significantly less nonsense. Since then, CP3 has looked like a sort of toned down version of the villain he was at the peak of his powers, but that’s far from enough to knock him from the list.
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Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
Peak Villainy: 2016 to Now
As the absurdly talented leading scorer of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kevin Durant’s approval rating seemed about as high as an NBA player’s can get.
Then, in 2016, he signed with the Warriors.
He had every right to do that. He was an unrestricted free agent. Sharing the ball with Russell Westbrook may have been, well, difficult.
But a former MVP in the middle of his prime joining a team that had already won a title and just went 73-9 was always going to draw a ton of criticism. And the lead photo on the Player’s Tribune article announcing the move almost instantly became a same.
For much of the next three years, the Warriors looked borderline invincible. That level of winning is a pretty common target of ire, but KD compounded it by going at fans with burner accounts on social media, struggling to coexist with one of the most selfless superstars of all time in Stephen Curry and heading to another supposed superteam in 2019.
With the Brooklyn Nets, Durant has been largely unavailable because of injuries, playing 80 total regular-season games over three seasons. After being swept by the Boston Celtics in 2022, he requested a trade and subsequently issued the team an ultimatum: pick me or the coach I handpicked and the general manager who brought me here.
Brooklyn didn’t relent, and Durant has a chance for some redemption this season. He’s also earned some goodwill, at least from American fans, for two dominant Olympic gold-medal runs since 2016.
Over the past half-decade and change, though, he seems to have fully embraced the villain’s role.
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Peak Villainy: The Rockets Years
Much of the disdain for Harden during his run with the Houston Rockets seemed to be based on two main factors: flopping and aesthetics.
Harden did a ton of the former. And having a game so exclusively built on isolations and trips to the free-throw line was just hard to watch.
Of course, you can’t really fault him or the Rockets for doing it. During his eight full seasons in Houston, the team was third in the league in winning percentage and first in points per 100 possessions.
That just didn’t endear him to many fans outside the Rockets’ base.
And then, he turned on them, too.
Prior to the start of the 2020-21 season, Harden ditched training camp for extravagant celebrity birthday parties and trips to Las Vegas. He appeared to sleepwalk through much of his eight regular-season appearances with Houston that season before he was traded to the Nets.
About a year later, when he’d grown tired of that situation, he loafed his way into another trade, this time to the Philadelphia 76ers. Shortly after that move, ESPN’s Tim MacMahon quipped that Harden was “an elite quitter,” an assertion that wasn’t without merit.
Like everyone else here, Harden should have some opportunities to change the perception of him, but his post-OKC run has made it pretty easy to call him a villain.
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Peak Villainy: His Entire Career?
Unlike everyone profiled so far, Patrick Beverley’s placement on the list has nothing to do with dominance of his peers.
It’s not that Beverly’s bad. He’s obviously not, though Russell Westbrook might disagree. His 438 starts and 37.8 career three-point percentage prove that, but he’s never been a star-level player.
What vaults him up to No. 2 on this list is near constant, unabashed antics whenever he’s on an NBA floor.
Wildly physical defense bordering on reckless or dangerous, incessant chattering and a seemingly insatiable desire to drive every opponent mad make Beverley perhaps the game’s quintessential “love him if he’s on your team, but hate him otherwise” player.
On more than one occasion, that attitude has pushed Beverley over the line.
Everyone remembers when he clipped Westbrook, who was calling a timeout, and tore his meniscus in 2013. He’s gotten into it with Joel Embiid and K.D.. he once snapped Anthony Davis’ shoe off the floor and got T’d up for walking it over to his bench.
More recently, he delivered a blatant cheap shot to CP3’s back as the Suns were blowing his Clippers off the floor.
Beverley’s teams have almost always been better when he’s on the floor, but that certainly doesn’t erase his villainous behavior.
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Peak Villainy: The Height of the Lightyears Dynasty
One could argue that the Warriors’ 2022 title means we’re still in the middle of their dynasty, but this one was far from the foregone conclusion the previous two titles were.
Over the five-year stretch from 2014-15 to 2018-19, Golden State won 44 more regular-season games than any team in the league. They won three championships. In the 2017 playoffs, they went 16-1.
Their dominance made them one of the easiest targets in the league for hate (or the villain’s label), and much of that was understandably directed at Draymond Green.
Like Beverley, he played—and usually still plays—with an intensity that has often boiled over into controversy.
There’s the swipe at LeBron that cost him a game (and likely a championship) in the 2016 Finals. There are numerous examples of him kicking opponents. He may have plausible deniability on those (that’s just where my leg goes naturally!), but that’s a tough sell on some of the clips. He’s been finished nearly $1 million by the league over the course of his career for various incidents and technical fouls.
In that sense, his resume for this slideshow looks an awful lot like Beverley’s. What sets him apart is that he’s also a four-time All-Star who should be in the Hall of Fame some day.
In a story, the villain isn’t worth much if you know the hero is just going to squash him. With Draymond, that’s never felt like a possibility.
He doesn’t tally a lot of the glamorous numbers like points and threes, but Green has completely controlled countless possessions as a multipositional defender and playmaker.
For years, the Warriors were the Empire, and Draymond was Palpatine.