Sleazy, sordid, shady, crooked, unscrupulous, shifty, crooked, shoddy. These are just a few of the many synonyms for dirty. There are euphemisms for “dirty” too, words like scrappy or reckless.
Whatever word you pick, some NBA players are just downright dirty. Maybe they’re dirty because they’re subverting the rules of the game or endlessly looking for loopholes. Maybe they’re dirty for trash talking or racking up technical fouls and ejections. And of course, some players are dirty for the way they use their elbows or their fists or the parts of the male opponent they “accidentally” find themselves running into on a regular basis.
Let’s run through the 25 dirtiest players in NBA history. Now where is that witness protection we ordered?
There was really no one in NBA history quite like The Worm, and that’s probably for the best. Rodman is the single most dominant rebounder in league history and one of the best defenders the league has ever seen. But part of what made him so good defensively was that he was so physical and dirty on defense.
No one took away your personal space like Dennis Rodman. He got up into your grill and took away your oxygen and got into your head mentally. Rodman was the defender Lance Stephenson thinks he is, and you can bet The Worm did plenty more than blow in a dude’s ear in his day.
Karl Malone ranks second all time in field goals, eighth in rebounds, and second in points. But he almost certainly ranks number one in elbows thrown. Malone was the king of the dirty elbow. He had big ones and he knew just where to place it for best contact to clear out enough space to get to the rim or grab a rebound. Malone was also known to pull the chair on guys in defense, but it was his mean screens and dirty elbows that got him on the list.
The meanest elbow the Mailman ever delivered may have been to Isiah Thomas. Seriously, you just need to watch the video. You can hear the sickening thud from here. Isiah required 40 stitches after the blow and later called it “the cheapest [expletive]… in the history of the game.”
But Karl Malone wasn’t the only dirty Jazz player. His teammate John Stockton had a reputation for being just as dirty. It’s just that he was smaller and smarter about it, so he got away with it more. Where Malone was dirty, Stockton got a reputation as being “scrappy” — and yes, you’re welcome to read some racial connotations into that, too.
Stockton did most of his work off camera. He set illegal screens and played dirty, physical defense, getting into the opponent physically and mentally. Turns out pick and rolls weren’t the only thing Stockton was assisting Malone on all those years.
They were called the Bad Boys for a reason, and Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer were two of the biggest reasons. Rodman was dirty mentally, but Laimbeer was dirty physically. He’s one of those guys that get discredited in today’s game because his overly physical defense would never fly in today’s game, and that much is certainly true. Laimbeer was so dirty they literally made a Super Nintendo game called Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball in which you could shove dudes halfway across the court.
Laimbeer was willing to do anything it took to win, and his opponents knew it. He was that guy at the YMCA that you knew would kick you in the groin driving to the rim and punch you in the kidney if you tried to post him up.
Speaking of kicking you in the groin, Draymond Green! Draymond would be the most popular answer if you took a poll of NBA fans for dirtiest player in the league today, and his title would be well deserved. He literally cost the Golden State Warriors a championship and an asterisk on their greatest season in NBA history because he reached out and punched LeBron James in The King’s jewels in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, earning a suspension.
Green seems to have a special propensity to hurting dudes where it matters most. He’s had multiple run ins with Steven Adams’s kiwis too, and it feels like he’s always just one technical or blow up away from the next killer suspension.
You know a team is dirty if they get three guys on the dirtiest 25 players in history list, and if you told an average NBA fan that was the case and asked them which team it was, they’d all know it was from the 80s Pistons. Rick Mahorn was the baddest Bad Boy of them all. Unlike Laimbeer and Rodman, Mahorn was not much to write home about as an NBA player. He averaged under seven points a game for his career and did little other than defend and rebound.
But he was the enforcer off the bench, the guy that used up his six fouls gleefully, wearing opponents down with his physicality in the post and banging on the boards.
Another popular answer to the dirtiest team in the NBA might be the 90s Knicks, who were kind of like the Bad Boys Pistons except for all the winning. You could probably make a case for at least 10 different Knicks on a list like this, but a guy who earned the nickname Dirty Kurt definitely makes the list. Kurt Thomas was what hockey teams call an enforcer. He had six fouls to his name and he knew how to use them, averaging 3.2 fouls per game for his career.
And like many hockey enforcers, Thomas made an entire career out of it, playing until his jersey number, 40. Thomas threw down in the post and made opponents pay for coming into his lane. And with those Crazy Eyes he had, not many opponents were willing to challenge him.
Few human beings on the planet are more intimidating than Charles Oakley. Oak was another of those 90s Knicks, though he had some well known tours with the Bulls and Raptors too. Oakley had a long running feud with Charles Barkley and he was always willing to go to war in the post.
Oakley played almost two full decades and made good use of all 4,421 fouls he committed in that stretch, and that’s not even counting the 503 playoff fouls or the litany or technicals, flagrants, and the infinite uncalled fouls. Oakley’s reputation preceded him, and he would often serve as Michael Jordan’s bodyguard when MJ went out to party, too. With Oak around, you couldn’t get much safer.
Metta World Peace
The artist formerly known as Ron Artest changed his name to Metta World Peace after a midlife crisis, and what an ironic name at was. Metta was anything but peaceful in his NBA days — just ask James Harden. Instead Metta was ejected 11 times in his career, three times in a playoff game, most all time, and he was suspended an incredible 13 different times in his career.
The longest suspension came after one of the NBA’s ugliest incidents, when Artest went into the crowd and punched a fan in the Malice at the Palace. That’s not who Metta is anymore, but it’s still pretty crazy that same dude changed his actual name to World Peace.
Stephen Jackson has always been pretty beloved… at least by the fans. He made quite a few enemies on an NBA court, and occasionally with a few fans too. Jackson was a trash talker, and his mouth got him into trouble even more than his constant physicality.
Jackson racked up 135 technical fouls and 11 ejections in his career, and of course, he too was involved in the Malice at the Palace. This is a different kind of dirty than many of the others on this list, but it gets Stack on the list nonetheless.
Delly was voted the dirtiest player in the NBA in a 2015 Los Angeles Times poll featuring NBA coaches, assistants, and players. Does it surprise you that little old Matthew Dellavedova would be voted as dirty? Perhaps you prefer to think of Delly as scrappy, which, you might notice, has a pretty strong correlation between little, white guards that are overly competitive and push the limits with their reckless play. And that’s what Dellavedova is — reckless.
Whether he’s being intentionally dirty or not doesn’t matter at some point when he’s consistently diving for loose balls and rolling up on guys ankles, like Kyle Korver. At some some point, reckless is just another synonym for dirty.
This list isn’t in any particular order or ranking, but if it was, Bruce Bowen would move darn near the top of the list. Bowen was an elite defender for three Spurs championship teams between 2003 and 2007, and he got away with murder. Bowen grabbed and pushed and fought his way onto 8 All Defense teams, and he earned the status, but he was also filthy in his ways.
Dirtiest of all was Bowen’s undercutting. He loved to get up into a jump shooter’s grill and then get his foot underneath the shooter’s feet, the cause of more than a handful of twisted knees and sprained ankles. Bowen would’ve been suspended several times a season with today’s landing zone rules. It was legal in his day — but filthy dirty nonetheless.
It’s only appropriate that Zaza be listed immediately after Bruce Bowen, following in Bowen’s footsteps and undercutting his “accomplishments” and landing zone in his own way. Zaza Pachulia is such a renowned dirty player that people have literally made YouTube compilations of his dirty deeds.
You remember Zaza undercutting Kawhi Leonard a la Bruce Bowen, ending his postseason and effectively his Spurs carer a few years back, but you might not remember that was the second purposefully dirty play Zaza made on Kawhi. He also had that dirty screen on Russell Westbrook a few years ago, the Warriors’ very own version of an enforcer.
Joakim Noah might have been Draymond Green before Draymond made it to the league. Noah plays with 120% energy at all times and he plays physical and dirty. Noah was an outstanding defender and the heart and soul of a great team, and he knew it was on him to set the tone with physicality and energy. Noah was downright dirty, and I don’t just mean the hair or the hideous jump shirt.
Noah leaves everything on the court on every possession, and if that just happens to mean that you get in his way doing it, so be it.
For over a decade, if an NBA team went into an offseason with a reputation for being soft, there was a very easy solution: just sign Matt Barnes. Barnes was an NBA thug. He talked a lot of trash and knew his role on the team was to come in and provide energy off the bench by any means possible, whether that meant firing up the home crowd or ticking off the opposing one.
Barnes was ejected 12 times and picked up 32 flagrant fouls, but his most memorable fight may have happened off the court when he drove 100 miles to fight Derek Fisher and the rest of the NBA world found out about it. Oops.
Olynyk is one of the newer names on a list of dirty players, but he’s earning his reputation in spades of late. Olynyk seems to save his dirtiest plays for the playoffs. There was the infamous Kelly Scuffle with fellow Kelly, Oubre Jr, in a physical, mean series with the Washington Wizards that featured a lot of bad blood.
But Kelly Olynyk’s real reputation came from trying to pull Kevin Love’s arm out of its shoulder socket, ending Love’s playoffs and giving him a shoulder injury it doesn’t seem he’s ever really fully healed from. That’s a new level of dirty all together.
Nobody was as prolific a trash talker as Gary Payton. The Glove may have been the greatest trash talker in NBA history, if there were such an award given. Payton racked up 270 technical fouls in his career, the third most all time. If you think Draymond Green or Chris Paul talk a lot, those guys ain’t got nothing on Gary Payton’s mouth.
He was always yapping at teammates, at opponents, at refs, at fans. It really didn’t matter who got in his way. Payton talked a lot of smack but backed it up with his defense, making nine All Defense teams and winning a Defensive Player of the Year to boot.
Patrick Beverley is the guy you’d give your left kidney for if he’s on your team, or the one you absolutely despise on your opponent. Beverley is like a modern guard version of Dennis Rodman. He’s perhaps not as dirty as he is pesky or annoying. Beverley loves to pick up guys full court, earning the moniker Mr. 94 Feet, and he plays physical and is willing to guard literally anyone on the court, as evidence by him giving the 7-foot Kevin Durant trouble in this year’s playoffs.
Of course, at times, Beverley’s competitiveness gets the best of him. His peskiness knocked Russell Westbrook right out of the playoffs, and he did a straight up suplex on Mike Conley at one point. Just another day in the life of Patrick Beverley.
Some guys are on this list because they’re dirty physically, and others are here because they cheat the rules. Chris Paul is an all of the above kind of guy. Chris Paul is always in search of the latest loophole in the NBA rule book. He’s always reaching in on defense, but the moment someone reaches in on him, he’ll pop that three quarter court shot hoping for three freebies at the line. CP3 is also the king of flops, with an embarrassing history of flopping highlights.
But Paul is just straight dirty too. He has a history of nut shots in the NBA on guys like Chris Kaman, Kevin Durant, and Rudy Gobert, and maybe that’s not surprising for a dude that literally got suspended for a March Madness game for nut punching an opponent in the ACC tournament. CP3 gonna CP3.
The fact that Chris Paul and James Harden so clearly belong on this list is what makes the Houston Rockets so utterly unwatchable and unlikable. It’s a real shame too, considering CP3 and Beard might be one of the greatest backcourts in NBA history. Harden is a walking loophole.
Drawing free throws is a skill, and man is James Harden good at it. Harden has led the league in free throw attempts five straight seasons and he’ll do just about anything to draw the foul, kicking his feet out or whipping his head back like he’s just been decapitated driving to the rim. If there’s a rule in the book, Harden will find a way to exploit it. It’s an insanely useful skill, if you can get away with it. And he usually does.
Was Shaq a dirty player? Maybe not, but you’d have a hard time convincing the endless string of 7-foot oafs that littered NBA rosters in the 90s and 2000s just so they could use up six more fouls on Shaquille O’Neal. Opponents would hack, elbow, and even bear hug Shaq to stop him from getting to the rim, but that’s because if they didn’t, they were getting a fat Shaq elbow right to the solar plexus as he plowed into and over them and dunked on their corpse.
Nobody was as impossible to ref as prime Shaq, and when he didn’t get the call, he retaliated to protect himself, racking up 10 ejections, 171 technical fouls, and 46 flagrant fouls in his day. Shaq was impossible.
Kevin Garnett is one of the most beloved NBA players of all time, but he’s also one of the dirtiest players of all time. Garnett was every definition of dirty. He was physical on both ends of the court. He threw elbows. He set dirty screens. He was even known to slap a dude in the nuts on a jump shot. If KG thought he could get away with it on a court, he would try it. He might even do it if he knew he’d get caught.
But the dirtiest part of Garnett’s game was his filthy mouth. Others may have trash talked more, but KG’s trash talk hurt. He was known to call opponents cancer patients and talked so much trash even the other trash talkers like Joakim Noah and Kendrick Perkins were intimidated by him.
One play does not define a career, nor does it make someone dirty. But Kevin McHale might be known for the single dirtiest play in NBA history, the clothesline heard ‘round the world. You can watch the video, but you’ve seen this replay a couple hundred times in your lifetime if not more.
The Lakers and Celtics are the longest, most hated rivals in the NBA, and this was the rivalry at its peak as Kurt Rambis drove into the lane and Kevin McHale made darn sure he couldn’t get to the rim. The benches cleared and a moment had been born. In today’s NBA, McHale might have been suspended half a season. In the 80s? Just a good hard common foul. Play on.
Would you have guessed that Paul Pierce ranks top 10 all time in most ejections with 10, including two from playoff games? Pierce didn’t rack up a ton of technicals but he made them count when he did get them. But the dirtiest thing Pierce ever did was a different kind of dirty altogether.
Pierce once sold a hard foul so much so that he sprawled on the court looking like he was dying, eventually carried off the court and taken to the locker room in a wheel chair… only to return to the court approximately two minutes later and start hitting shots again. Cheaters are dirty too.
Sheed may not have been as dirty as he was just plain irresponsible. Rasheed Wallace tallied 373 technical fouls in 18 seasons in the NBA, an average of more than 20 per season. He had an NBA record 41 techs in the 2000–01 season, literally one every other game. Wallace has been ejected so many times — 29!! — that he’s literally doubled the next closest competitor.
He was once suspended seven games for threatening a ref. But his most entertaining ejection of all came just 1:25 into a game. Sheed got a technical for arguing an early foul and when the opponent missed the ensuing free throw, Wallace barked out the words, “Ball don’t lie.” That was all the ref needed to hear, sending Sheed to the showers early and entering #BDL into the NBA vocabulary forever.