Swag can be defined in an almost infinite number of ways. It is an abstract term taken by some to mean confidence, skill or style. Most abstract concepts need to be applied in a consistent manner in order to have any relevance, but swag can’t be boxed in like that. It has to be different. It has to be infectious.
You can always look at a player and tell they have it, but you might not be able to say why. Swag exists in a Blake Griffin posterization, in a Kobe Bryant game-winner, and in an Andrew Bynum afro. It makes the NBA tick by making its players accessible and giving fans something to emulate. But who has the most swag? Is it the best players, the superstars or the players who have the best off-court demeanor? For me, on-court play has more importance. But you can’t ignore the off-court swag, either.
Here I will discuss the 10 players who I consider to have the most swag in the NBA. Remember that this list is anything from definitive. Disagreement is encouraged, but try to think about as you read, what is swag to you?
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10. KYRIE IRVING
The next generation face of NBA swag. You could say this is a homer pick, but I wholeheartedly believe that Kyrie Irving has all the talent and the balls to take over the league in a few years. He’s managed to become commercially relevant outside of Cleveland without being LeBron in his Uncle Drew campaign for Pepsi MAX. He forced media attention to a Cavaliers team that didn’t have one single nationally televised game last year by steamrolling the league, establishing himself as a fourth-quarter stud and winning the Rookie of the Year. Then he turned 20. Irving, if he can just stay healthy, will end the season as a top-five point guard. He’ll spend the rest of his career fluctuating between numbers one and five while giving the entire city of Cleveland its greatest shot at national media relevancy in years. The only modern athlete to be able to do that is currently the best basketball player in the world, which is good company for a 20-year-old to find himself in.
9. JEREMY LIN
Lin’s inclusion on this list speaks to the tremendous ability society has to create an image of swagger in a player. The Linsanity movement took a Harvard grad off of riding pine and into prime time faster than I’ve ever personally witnessed. A lot of it has to do with the media market of New York City, of course, and the classic underdog profile that Lin brought along with his sudden success. But credit him for playing as big as his profile became long enough for him to become a household name.
He’s a point guard that’s wonderful at running the pick-n-roll, and is the player that sunk a thousand columns over the summer when he ended up with the Houston Rockets. He will always be followed, to some degree, by those who saw even part of his rise to fame. He has the base following to display that he has his own swag, but the situational swag given to him by his rise will never leave him. His ascent was too dramatic.
8. JaVALE McGEE
There are some people who write about basketball that believe JaVale McGee is conducting his own form of social experiment by living his life. I am one of those people. Before I dive into that, there is one thing that I believe warrants automatic inclusion on this list â€“ his alter ego, Pierre. Anybody willing to go through the mental labor to commit to having an alter ego is clearly trying to get some point across. It’s also a guaranteed way to get people to take notice of you, which gets both JaVale and Pierre swag points.
Pierre contributes heavily to the paradox that is McGee, as does his tendency to clearly goaltend shots and run the wrong way (once!) down the court. Perhaps his errors are magnified by the social media machine, but McGee doesn’t seem to mind. He loves the Twitter machine, truthfully. He has a habit of speaking exclusively through retweets. He actually retweets himself in order to communicate with his followers. Whether his dedication to the retweet is a complex social commentary on how there is enough thought out in the tapestry of social media that one can simply recycle other’s words to represent what one is currently thinking or not is beyond me. It is unique, it is entertaining, and it does help contribute to a sort of mystique in JaVale McGee. It’s hard to be unique anymore, but he has figured out how to do it.
7. LeBRON JAMES
The man who may or may not have dubbed himself “The Chosen One” in his sophomore year of high school is perhaps the new-age definition of swag. His swag has evolved into a refined, ruthless, killer-type of glint in his eye. When he started out in the league, though, his swag was brash and unrefined. The powder, which still remains, was flamboyant and somewhat controversial. Dancing on the sidelines, joking around, and dominating on the court. Whatever he did, though, there was always room for more. His turning point was his Decision, a move made with his principal interests at heart. It was a move that could’ve been handled differently, yes, but it turned out to be the right one. It took King James a few years to learn that, though, as “not one, not two, not three…” turned into all-black uniforms, a blank stare, and a championship.
The new LeBron is a little colder to the touch, but just as hot on the court. It’s the reason why when people say “Swag is for kids, class is for men” I shake my head. Everyone can have swag, but there is such a thing as a man’s swag. That’s what LeBron James has come to possess in his continued tenure as best basketball player on Earth.
6. BLAKE GRIFFIN
The YouTube hero of a generation deserves a spot on almost any non-skill-related list. The highlight sports culture we find ourselves in today has made Griffin into a demigod, as dunk after dunk dominates top ten after top ten as he makes us forget that, regardless of Facebook shares, each slam is only worth two points. The sensationalization of his play has led to a weird gulf where we almost undervalue Griffin, thinking that all he can do is dunk. He is, in fact, a stud power forward. He does dunk more than almost every other player in the league, but this doesn’t distract from his ability to play the game. Instead of relying on a post hook, he just chooses to play with an aerial dominance that we haven’t seen displayed as proficiently and prolifically from a big man since Shawn Kemp. Truth is, if we still hung posters on our walls, Blake would be on the walls of every other adolescent’s wall. Instead, he’s just on their desktops.
5. CARMELO ANTHONY
The hottest player in the NBA right now. We’ve all been waiting for ‘Melo to put together a season like this and his inclusion on this list is largely based on what he’s doing right now. As the name most people drop when they talk about the best scorer in the NBA, even though a few people are likely better than him, ‘Melo has the swag intangibles to convince people that he is the unequivocal best scorer. He has the wife, the trade drama, and the media market to be a megastar even if he plays a little disappointingly.
Also playing to his strengths is the tendency of the fans to burn clutch shots into their memories. ‘Melo has a lot of clutch moments. So many, in fact, that it wouldn’t be outrageous to consider him a “clutch” player. His knack for the moment is where most of his swag comes from. He’s the guy that everyone knows the ball is going to go to and is usually going to capitalize on whatever opportunity is put in front of him. By being a legitimate MVP candidate this year, and specializing in burning memories into our minds at the end of games, ‘Melo earns his spot on this list.
4. RUSSELL WESTBROOK
Russell Westbrook really doesn’t care what you think about him. He doesn’t care what anybody thinks about him. He just plays the damn game the way he wants to play it. That’s swag in its purest form, to me. Of course it’s only swag because of one major qualifier, his dominance in being himself. In order to truly do the things you want to do, the reality is that you’re going to need to be good at doing them. Westbrook is great at what he does and continues to do it in the face of constant criticism. For as much heat as he gets, his IDGAF attitude has still helped lead his team into the Finals, and firmly planted him as an elite point guard even while people argue over whether or not he’s a “true” point guard. Instead, he went out and made the definition of point guard fit around him. That’s swag.