People often talk about the artistry of NBA basketball, but the best teams possess players who do the non-glorified hard work. From flying in to get a rebound over the towers in the paint, to diving on the floor for a loose ball, these types of plays contribute to what team wins the NBA title every year. Unfortunately, some players take grit too far and become synonymous with dirty play. When an athlete does something they know could hurt another player, they’ve crossed the line.
1. Bill Laimbeer
The entire Detroit Pistons roster during the 1980s and early 1990s set out to turn the game into a lawless backyard affair, but Bill Laimbeer became the poster boy of their motto. The bruising center MoTown was the first person to start and end a fight, and he most famously became the number one combatant against Michael Jordan when the team employed a specific set of rules against the Chicago star.
2. Karl Malone
Karl Malone attacked the glass and became the fiercest power forward of his era. Along the way, he also broke noses, bloodied faces, and shattered eye sockets with devastating elbows. Anytime the Mailman went up and corralled a board, opponents knew to clear the area as fast as they could, lest they get hit with a signature Karl Malone bow.
3. Chris Paul
CP3 tries to hide his dirty antics behind his height. Standing just over 6 feet tall, Paul doesn’t look like he could hurt anyone, but his ruthless drive to win has resulted in some of the dirtiest plays of the 21st century. From throwing his body into Mike Conley’s legs to targeting the unmentionables, the Point God’s two-decade career has been overshadowed by unethical play.
4. Bruce Bowen
Bruce Bowen could defend any guard in the NBA during the 2000s. He frequently stalled the scoring efforts of Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, and Reggie Miller. Bowen also became the most feared perimeter deterrent in the league because he would stand underneath offensive players while they were trying to land, oftentimes spraining their ankles. Bowen’s malicious intent was never properly punished by the NBA.
5. John Stockton
John Stockton, much like Chris Paul, took advantage of his small frame to wreak havoc in the backcourt. From grabbing arms to tripping legs, Stockton keyed in on whatever would allow him an edge in the rough-and-tumble era of 1990s basketball. With Karl Malone by his side, the pair transformed Utah into a nightmare matchup in more ways than one.
6. Ron Artest
Ron Artest infamously received the most prolonged suspension in NBA history for an event dubbed “Malice at the Palace.” In 2004, Artest went into the stands and fist-fought fans at the Detroit Pistons arena while playing for the Indiana Pacers. Even without any other anger issues, this incident makes Artest one of the dirtiest players ever.
7. Charles Oakley
Some players garner a dirty reputation because they make sure everyone knows to never mess with their teammates. Charles Oakley fought and protected all his Bulls and Knicks players with unregulated juncture, even following Michael Jordan around off the basketball court to serve as his de-facto bodyguard in the early part of Jordan’s career.
8. Draymond Green
No player gets NBA social media more riled up than Draymond Green. The Golden State Warriors’ best defensive player often leverages the power of unpredictability when guarding opposing players. From kicking Steven Adams down below the belt to choking Rudy Gobert during a tussle, Green’s penchant for violence made him the preeminent enforcer of the modern age.
9. Kermit Washington
Kermit Washington caused more harm on the court with one single punch than any other player in NBA history. During a fight with the Houston Rockets, Washington threw a blow that nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich. The rest of Washington’s career felt like a black cloud hanging over it, with many fans remembering the event decades later.
10. Patrick Beverly
Patrick Beverly makes every team he’s on better, but his methods of contribution seem questionable. Beverly talks a lot of smack and dishes out dirty fouls while he’s at it. His most infamous play remains running into Russell Westbrook’s knee and causing a season-ending injury in the early 2010s.
11. Marcus Morris
Marcus Morris has accumulated a number of flagrant fouls during his career, from kneeing opponents to shoving and elbowing them behind their back. He was once the recipient of a shove from Denver Nuggets’ star Nikola Jokic, but Morris instigated the fight with a dirty shove above the shoulder.
12. Rick Mahorn
Rick Mahorn often felt like more of a fighter than a basketball player. Part of the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys teams in the 1980s, Mahorn teamed with fellow dirty players Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer to instigate confrontation and fight whoever got in his way. Mahorn threw massive punches that became symbolic of Detroit’s style under coach Chuck Daly.
13. Isiah Thomas
Isiah Thomas let big men Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn take the majority of the dirty reputation in Detroit, but the point guard shouldn’t be left off the hook for his own contributions to the team’s unethical standards. Thomas often started fights or got hits in before hiding behind the weight of his centers.
14. Manu Ginobili
Is flopping really considered a dirty play? It sure is if you basically invented it. Manu Ginobili brought European flair in all its glory to the United States while playing for the San Antonio Spurs. His falling to the ground and faking fouls earned him more than a few invalid trips to the free throw line and intimated the age of flopping in the NBA. Vlade Divac should also get some blame for this, but Ginobili perfected it.
15. Grayson Allen
Grayson Allen got the reputation of being dirty while playing college basketball at Duke, and he continues to validate it in the NBA. Allen kicks, trips, and hits opposing players while they air airborne, often causing fear and hostility along the way. He once broke Alex Caruso’s wrist while fouling him at the basket.
16. Derek Fisher
Derek Fisher tried to keep angrier teammates like Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in check, but he often did so at the cost of ethics. Fisher was known for dirty shoulders and moving screens. He also used his daughter’s eye cancer as an excuse to move from one team to another, something that makes him a dirty player off the court, too.
17. Kelly Olynyk
Kelly Olynyk sneaks his way onto the list with the occasional dirty foul that sometimes results in injury. Olynyk’s most famous indiscretion came when he twisted Kevin Love’s arm during the NBA playoffs, and Love missed the rest of the series with a dislocated shoulder.
18. Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant secretly loved elbowing players on both the offensive and defensive side of the court, but his legion of fans tried to erase his dirty reputation from the history books. Bryant’s most famous elbow came during the 2002 playoffs against Mike Bibby and the Sacramento Kings, a play in which the referees didn’t even call a foul.
19. Reggie Miller
Reggie Miller created new ways to be dirty when shooting the basketball. His infamous kick-out of his legs while launching a three was his attempt at drawing a foul, but it only made defenders angry and increased the risk of an injury to their lower legs. Miller’s tactics are sometimes emulated by modern shooting guards.
20. Dwyane Wade
Dwyane Wade flopped and fouled at a high rate throughout his career, but he maintained a good reputation by going a long time between incidents. Wade’s association with dirty plays took on a new definition when he broke Kobe Bryant’s nose during an All-Star game.
21. Zaza Pachulia
Zaza Pachulia famously injured Kawhi Leonard during the Western Conference Finals in 2017 when he pulled a Bruce Bowen. He got underneath Leonard’s feet on a three-pointer; the rest is history. Pachulia loved to bang in the low post and protect his teammates during fights.
22. Kevin McHale
Kevin McHale owns the most influential dirty play in NBA Finals history. With the Celtics reeling against the Lakers in 1984, McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis, sending a message that Boston was the more physical team. It spearheaded a run that resulted in the C’s winning their second title of the decade.