5 Most Controversial NBA Players of All Time
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5 Most Controversial NBA Players of All Time

Whether it’s for their actions on the court or off it, the following might not be the most hated NBA players ever, yet simply the ones that raise eyebrows and drop jaws in seemingly every way.

J.R. Smith

A talented scorer, flashy dunker, and three-point ace notwithstanding, Smith has had his share of NBA controversy. Smith has served 24 days in jail for reckless driving, suspended for throwing soup at an assistant coach in Cleveland (actually true), and fined $50,000 for untying other players’ shoelaces at the free throw line.

The biggest incident that would make Smith one of the most hated NBA players, at least by Cleveland fans, was when he played for the Cavs during the 2018 NBA Finals against the Warriors. In Game 1 of the Finals, the score was tied at 107 with less than five seconds left. George Hill is at the free throw line and misses a potentially game-winning shot, but out comes Smith with the rebound and the easiest chance to put the ball through the hoop… only, he doesn’t.

Smith later admitted he thought the Cavs were up by one point, which explains why he dribbled away from the basket to run out the clock. In the end, the game went into overtime where the Cavs lost 124-114 and would lose the Finals 4-0 to the Warriors.

Latrell Sprewell

When he entered the NBA playing for the Warriors, Sprewell looked unstoppable and was lighting up the league. But then… that infamous practice session happened.

On December 1st 1997, Warriors coach, PJ Carlesimo, reprimanded Sprewell for not putting in enough effort during practice. Sprewell told him to back off, Carlesimo didn’t listen, so Sprewell grabbed his coach by the throat, threw him to the floor and threatened to kill him. Teammates dragged him off and Sprewell left the practice, but he surprised everyone by returning attacking Carlesimo with some punches to the face.

Sprewell was suspended for 68 games by the league and lost one of his major sponsors in Converse. Unsurprisingly, the Warriors traded Sprewell to the Knicks, where he actually performed great again on the court and somewhat remade his public image.

Sprewell played five solid seasons for the Knicks – even reaching the 1999 Finals where they lost to the Spurs 4-1 – before being traded to the Timberwolves in 2003. Again, Sprewell showed his talent on the basketball floor, helping Minnesota reach the Western Conference Finals, although the team eventually lost to the Lakers 4-2.

The Timberwolves offered Sprewell a new contract in 2004 to the sum of $21 million for three years, yet Sprewell declined the proposal and demanded more, reportedly saying, “I have a family to feed.” In the end, Sprewell refused to play until another team would pay him the money he desired. He tried the waiting game and lost, never playing in an NBA game after 2005.

Metta Sandiford-Artest

Metta is one of the most controversial NBA players for his involvement in perhaps the biggest on-court fight of all time, “The Malice at the Palace,” back in 2004. Formerly called Ron Artest, he changed his name to Metta World Peace in 2011 and then Metta Sandiford-Artest in 2020.

While always an unpredictable and hotheaded player, Metta was nevertheless a huge part of the Indiana Pacers from 2002-2006, scoring close to 20 PPG and displaying a strong defensive presence. The Palace incident would change everything, turning Metta into one of the most hated NBA players for his role in the fight.

In the infamous game between the Pacers and Pistons in Detroit, Metta gave a hard foul to Ben Wallace with just minutes left in the final quarter. Wallace shoved Metta and a brawl broke out between most of the players on each team. It all died down until a Detroit fan threw a drink at Metta, which made the irate player jump into the stands and attack the person responsible. All hell broke loose and fans and players were simultaneously trying to fight and calm things down. The NBA suspended Metta for 86 games.

Afterward, Metta found a solid spot in the Lakers roster from 2009 to 2013, helping the team win a championship in 2010. Most of his NBA controversy days were behind him, until 2012 when Metta was suspended for seven games for swinging his elbow and connecting with the head of OKC’s James Harden after a dunk celebration. 

Isiah Thomas 

While he’ll be remembered as a truly incredible point guard and inspiring leader, there are a few more strings on Thomas’ bow. Thomas won two career-defining championships for the Detroit Pistons in 1989 and 1990, as well as grabbing 12 All Star appearances and generally dazzling the NBA with his lightning quickness and ease of scoring. Still, Thomas will be one of the most hated NBA players if you’re a Bulls supporter.

The Isiah Thomas/Michael Jordan rivalry is pretty famous at this point. Jordan had a major grudge against Thomas for most of his career for various incidents, but it was the Pistons’ Bad Boys that really made headlines.

In a bid to stop Jordan’s brilliance on the court, Thomas, Pistons coach Chuck Daly, and hard-nosed players like Rick Mahorn, Bill Laimbeer, and Dennis Rodman would foul the living daylights out of Jordan if he got anywhere near the basket.

It was perhaps the 1992 Dream Team that made Isiah’s legacy so controversial. For the 1992 Olympics, the USA sent one of the best squads to Barcelona, including Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson. Who was left out but still in his prime? Isiah Thomas. This NBA controversy was huge at the time, and while Jordan would never admit it, most people believe there was no way he would play on the Dream Team if Thomas was involved.

Dennis Rodman

Perhaps the most controversial NBA player, yet always interesting and exciting, was Dennis Rodman. Winning five NBA championships, making two All Star games, earning two Defensive Player of the Year awards, and being entered into the Hall of Fame in 2011, Rodman was a hugely successful player. He was also, well, simply Dennis Rodman.

Larger than life still to this day, Rodman’s many piercings, tattoos, and constant vibrant hair colors made him stick out like a sore thumb. However, Rodman was a fierce competitor and was known for his hustle style of play, especially for rebounding and defense. Clashes with teammates, opposing players, and even team management were not unheard of. Rodman was an integral part of the Pistons’ Bad Boy team in the 90s.

Apart from his many tabloid-worthy headlines like marrying himself, wrestling in the WWE, relationships with Madonna and Carmen Electra, and even taking a wild 48-hour party trip to Las Vegas during the 1998 NBA Finals, there’s more controversy to Rodman.

On January 15th 1997, Rodman tripped over cameraman, Eugene Amos, during a game and, in apparent retaliation, kicked Amos in the groin. The incident caused an uproar, with Rodman suspended 11 games and paying Amos an out-of-court settlement of $200,000. Rodman also made the news when he head-butted a referee during a game in 1996, for which he was fined $20,000 and suspended six games.

Author: Joe Garland