NBA's Most Misunderstood Players
"But I'm just a soul whose intentions are good.
Oh Lord! Please don't let me be misunderstood."
In some ways, our understanding of who NBA players are and what their intentions are is worse than it's ever been. Even with social media as ubiquitous as it is within the Association, and despite (or due to?) the league's best efforts to market its stars, the best ballers on planet Earth are still prone to doing things, both on and off the court, that paint them into unflattering corners.
If a guy lashes out on the court, he's considered a "hot head." If he complains to the officials, he's a "whiner." If he takes a lot of tough, contested shots, he's "selfish." If his incessant physicality riles up his opponents, he's called a "dirty" player.
Of course, these labels aren't applied by the players themselves. It's us, those who watch and follow the sport, who brand them as such. In doing so, we conveniently gloss over just how insanely competitive these guys are and how that flammable drive, when thrown into the heat of battle, can yield explosive results.
Not to deflect blame for "bad behavior" or anything, but these guys have all seen their public images complicated by actions and attitudes that, fairly or unfairly (but mostly unfairly), tarnish their reputations and obscure just how great they are as basketball players.
DeMarcus Cousins has become the poster child for petulance in today's NBA. He's gotten multiple head coaches fired, kept teammates from interacting with opponents, dispensed his own brand of vigilante justice on the court and confronted TV analysts after games.
And that's to say nothing of his more standard violations. Since he turned pro in 2010, Boogie's led the league in personal fouls per game and has ranked among the top five in technical fouls every year. One more tech, and Cousins will all but seal his second straight outright title as the most T'd up player in the Association.
The optics of all of this are none too complimentary, as you might imagine. Cousins' antics come off as a cause for his Sacramento Kings' perennial mediocrity—even though they were terrible before Boogie got there and despite the spectacular, All-Star-worthy numbers (22.3 points, 11.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.8 combined steals and blocks) he's posted in support of a (failed) turnaround this season.
Lost in the Cousins finger-pointing is the extent to which Sacramento's once-poisonous atmosphere is to blame for the way in which Boogie's actions are interpreted. The person we see on TV looks like a 23-year-old kid with a bad attitude but might actually be a supremely talented young player who's simply frustrated by his team's interminable futility. Perhaps his desire to win is so intense that the incessant losing has combined with it to concoct a combustible combination.
To be sure, Cousins doesn't do himself many (if any) favors. According to ESPN The Magazine's Tim McKeown, Cousins prefers not to publicize the work he does in the community out of a distaste for phony posturing. "If you judge me only by my profession, you don't know me at all," Cousins told McKeown. "Those people who do that? They'll never know me."
Trouble is, Cousins' profession is the only prism through which outsiders can see him right now.
Seemingly everything about Joakim Noah on a basketball court is unsettling to observe, at least for the uninitiated.
His shaggy ponytail. His gap-toothed grin. His awkward gallop. His side-spinning jump shot.
None of those factors help his Q score among casual fans. Neither do his propensity for trash talk, his yells and gestures, his pestering physicality or his willingness to "mix it up" with his opponents.
But all of those characteristics are part-and-parcel of what makes Noah not only unique, but also MVP-caliber between the lines. "My father was a competitor, a fiery player, and I'm that way, too," Noah told CBS Sports' Ken Berger. "The way I am on the court is completely different from who I am off the court."
The latter, per Berger, is a cultured, open-minded citizen of the world-type who loves to travel and indulge in the arts during the offseason. The former is a fierce competitor who's essentially held the Chicago Bulls together over the past three seasons while Derrick Rose has battled his own body.
And even more so since Luol Deng was traded away.
Even Noah's numbers, while impressive, don't entirely do him justice. His 12.5 points, 11.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists put him on pace to become just the fifth center in NBA history to post such a line. The others? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Bill Walton and Wilt Chamberlain.
That's some solid company to keep, to say the least. It's the kind of company that a player who plays as hard and as unselfishly as Noah does deserves.
Whether it's enough to sanitize his sometimes suspect public image is another story entirely.
The Indiana Pacers' recent slide has thrust the entire team back under the microscope, with Lance Stephenson catching plenty of the resulting flak. His sideline spat with George Hill has become a case-in-point of the discord within the Pacers' huddle, just as his penchant for playing with unnecessary flair (which often leads to head-scratching turnovers) has been made emblematic of the team's creeping selfishness.
As the story goes, Stephenson, like Indy as a whole, doesn't seem to know how to handle the bright lights into which this season of great expectations has thrust him and his teammates. He's been given too much too soon, and the attention has spoiled him rotten.
Which is ironic because if there's anyone who should be and is comfortable under the sort of pressure that the Pacers are facing, it's Stephenson. "I think I’ve always had that pressure," Stephenson told Bleacher Report. "Growing up, cameras were following me every day. Being young and having all that attention at a young age. You’re going to have people jealous and wanting to play their hardest against me."
To his credit, Stephenson is always ready to match, if not exceed, the effort and intensity with which the opposition confronts him. Say what you will about Stephenson's hotdogging, the results of said hotdogging or his habit of getting into it with friends and foes alike, but there's no denying that he brings the energy and the passion every night. If their regression is any indication, Stephenson's fellow Pacers could stand to learn a thing or two about toughness and intensity from the 23-year-old and one-time child phenom.
In a way, the flood of negative publicity might actually work in Stephenson's favor. Like so many of his peers, Stephenson uses the doubt to fuel his fiery game.
"I feel like, by me being in the NBA, I’m the underdog," Stephenson added. "Everybody’s criticizing me. They don’t believe in my game. I just try to prove them wrong. I don’t feel like I have that spotlight that I had back then on me now."
The three-game rut into which the Houston Rockets had recently fallen wasn't merely the byproduct of Dwight Howard's ankle injury-related absence. Losing their All-Star center hurt, but seeing Patrick Beverley—the heart and soul of this Rockets squad and the one from whom Kevin McHale's offensive juggernaut derives its defensive nastiness—succumb to a knee injury compounded the problem to a crippling extent.
According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Beverley is expected to return from the torn meniscus in his right knee in time for Houston's playoff run.
Much to the chagrin of opposing point guards everywhere. Beverley is nothing if not a pest on the court. He hounds players of all shapes, sizes and speeds, forcing miscues and getting under the opposition's skin in the process.
That trademark intensity has often cast Beverley in a negative light, though. His aggressive—some would say flagrantly so—pursuit of Russell Westbrook in last year's playoffs was the genesis of the knee injury that's forced Westbrook under the knife three times in the past year. It didn't just start a beef between Beverley and Westbrook; it triggered some to call Beverley a "dirty" player, one who might even intend to maim the players he guards.
For some, that characterization couldn't be further from the truth. "I don't believe there's anything malicious about his play," a scout who's tracked Beverley recently told Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling. "He just loves to compete and is a team player, so I think any coach and player would appreciate that. I wish more guys played 48 minutes like he does. He appears to be an emotional guy and at times that can affect his play, but overall I have much respect for his defense and determination."
Beverley's competitive spirit is the product not of evil ambitions, but rather of necessity for survival. "I just had so much aggression and so much built up and so much anger, especially because many other teams passed up on me," Beverley told Zwerling. "I just wanted to go out there and every single night just make it hard for the opponent to dribble the ball up the court—be fearless out there and do whatever it takes to try to put my team in a position to win basketball games."
Russell Westbrook's feud with Beverley is amply justifiable. That collision between the two last spring derailed the Oklahoma City Thunder's title hopes and darn near changed the entire course of Westbrook's pro career.
As far as reputation is concerned, Westbrook's reaction fits all too neatly into the long-running narrative that would characterize him as someone who's touchy, overly sensitive and emotionally volatile. His on-court celebrations and gestures are as much the stuff of legend as are his physical confrontations with opposing players and verbal spats with beat reporters.
That's to say nothing of the tiff that supposedly existed between Westbrook and Kevin Durant once upon a time.
The picture painted of Russ, then, is one of a petulant child, a runty little brother out to prove that he's the better of the two by jacking up shots and flying around the floor, occasionally to the detriment of his club. Every time Westbrook screws up, his mistakes are cast not only as poor plays for their own sake, but also for whatever presumably superior result would've come from having the ball in Durant's hands instead.
How this is at all still how Westbrook is perceived bottles the mind. Was his 43-point performance in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals not enough to turn the tide? What about OKC's failure to return to the Finals without him last spring? Or the Thunder's 24-10 record in his absence this season, as opposed to its 31-11 mark with him?
And would we hold Westbrook's recklessness against him so much if he didn't have Durant standing next to him? Few ever seemed to criticize Derrick Rose, another uber-athletic playmaker who doesn't quite qualify as a "pure point guard," for the turnovers he tallied and the bad shots he took as the Chicago Bulls' leading man prior to his knee injuries.
Grantland's Bill Simmons summed up Westbrook's game best, after his huge Finals showing, with "The 10 Percent Theory":
Even the best NBA players have holes; in a best-case scenario, they’re tapping into about 90 percent of their total potential, with the holes representing the other 10 percent. We can either dwell on the 90 percent or the 10 percent … and some holes are less glaring than others.
Indeed, the holes in Westbrook's game may be as glaring as those apparently in his personality, but the driving force behind those holes (i.e. his competitive zeal) propels him to such great heights in most regards that the relatively minor downside is well worth the incredible upside to which it's attached.
Pau Gasol might seem a strange fit for this list. After all, he's never been one to pick fights, talk trash or hunt for bad shots. If anything, he's proven to be a tremendous citizen whose consummate team-first attitude and resultant on-court successes have merely mirrored (and paled in comparison to) the inspiring humanitarian work he's done in his spare time.
Yet, even a "goody two-shoes" like Gasol hasn't always escaped criticism. He's long been considered "soft" up front, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary (see: Game 7, 2010 NBA Finals). As such, the legitimacy of his bouts with injury and illness has been called into question. Somehow, Gasol's skill and intelligence have been used as cudgels against him as well.
There's certainly some truth to the notion that Gasol isn't the toughest guy around. His game is much more finesse than physicality in both ends of the floor. In his defense, though, that's probably more the product of his build (7'0", 227 pounds) than it is of any mental or emotional deficiency.
And, frankly, if you were the subject of trade rumors as often as Gasol's been since joining the Los Angeles Lakers in 2008—and if you were stuck on a terrible team, playing for a coach who doesn't understand how to use you properly, as has been the case for Gasol under Mike D'Antoni—you'd probably be pretty cranky too.
Despite all that, Gasol hasn't yet ruled out a return to L.A. in free agency this summer. "My priority is basketball," he told Marca.com (via Hoops Hype). "I want to be on a team with real chances of winning the championship next season. I don't rule out staying in Los Angeles if the circumstances are appropriate."
Winning has always been Gasol's M.O. This spring will mark just the fourth of his career without a postseason appearance and his first since donning the purple and gold. If there's any label that can be appropriately applied to Gasol, it's that of a winner.
Carmelo Anthony can't seem to win anything in its entirety these days. He hasn't won a championship since his lone year at Syracuse and has advanced in the NBA playoffs just twice since coming into the league in 2003.
Even Anthony's upcoming free-agent decision could turn out to be a no-win situation for him. Ever since telling The New York Observer's Rafi Kohan last October that he "want[s] to be a free agent," Anthony has seen his past, present and future dissected in more excruciating detail than ever by the media mob that follows the New York Knicks from place to place.
If 'Melo stays, he might be mocked for taking the money rather than trying to win. The Knicks can offer Anthony an extra year and about $30 million more than any other team can. New York, though, won't likely have the flexibility to fashion a contender around Anthony until 2015, at the earliest, and the team's current state of affairs (33-45, two games out of a playoff spot with four to play) isn't exactly conducive to immediate contentment.
But if Anthony leaves, the backlash could be even worse. He'd be seen as selfishly turning his back on the franchise to which he pushed to be traded back in 2011. Anthony could've waited to join the Knicks as a free agent after that season but feared he'd lose out on a big payday, with the specter of the lockout looming. As a result, the Knicks had to deplete the rest of their roster—against then-GM Donnie Walsh's wishes, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski—just to make 'Melo their new centerpiece.
All of which points to Anthony as the culprit behind New York's season of mediocrity.
Perhaps 'Melo deserves some disdain for forcing his own exit from the Denver Nuggets. Perhaps that move was one borne of a selfish desire to play for the Knicks.
But who wouldn't want to play for his hometown team? And why would Knicks fans turn on Anthony for wanting to be the local boy who made good?
Especially with Anthony averaging 27.5 points and a career-high 8.2 rebounds while leading the league in minutes.
Simply put, the guy's a winner. This year may well be the first in Anthony's time as a pro that doesn't end in the postseason. If he stays in New York, he'll do so as much out of a love for his city, a loyalty to his favorite boyhood team and a faith in Phil Jackson's ability to turn the team around as he will for the beaucoup bucks that'll attend his retention.
And if he bolts? He'll be leaving money on the table in order to join an organization on whose championship pursuits his remaining prime (Anthony turns 30 in May) will hardly have been wasted.
Who else belongs on this list? Tweet me your choices!