Let’s establish this first: the NBA isn’t always given its fair due in regards to tough athletes. In an era where flopping has become such a frequent occurrence that fines have been instituted to eradicate them completely, the NBA’s reputation is slowly gaining traction again. Plays like Chris Bosh flopping like a sack of soggy potatoes after a Carlos Boozer post move, or Manu Ginobili flailing through the paint to draw imaginary fouls are indeed terrible, but could start dwindling now that players’ pockets are being attacked.
On the other hand, toughness spans far beyond physicality. The best NBA players are not only physical, but are mentally solid, whether it’s fighting through injuries or showing up in clutch moments. Metta World Peace is revered as one of the toughest players in NBA history mainly for his physicality, but has exhibited his fair share of mental lapses during his career. A point guard like Rajon Rondo lacks the quintessential size of those deemed tougher than him, but is both exceptionally tough mentally and physically as he returned to Game 3 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals after suffering a horrific dislocated elbow injury. Which one would you want on your team?
It’s difficult to calculate toughness. For every Reggie Miller (a known flopper), there’s a Stephen Jackson (a certified warrior). But in terms of total team impact, would you take the latter over the former? It’s all personal opinion. Most of our assumptions are determined by what we see demonstrated on the hardwood. However, one could argue leadership in the locker room is directly connected to true toughness as well. It’s all about how you interpret toughness.
It’s impossibly difficult to put one over another because they’re all warriors in their own right, but here are the top 20 toughest players in the NBA today.
*** *** ***
20. MIKE MILLER
Many of us don’t remember the non-injured Mike Miller who, as a sophomore at the University of Florida, led his team to the NCAA title game against Michigan State. Or the Mike Miller who was drafted fifth in the 2001 NBA Draft, and won Rookie of the Year while shooting over 40 percent from three-point land. An underrated athlete in his own right, it wasn’t until his prime that the injury bug caught up to his pure talent.
From his back to his thumb to his shoulder and knees, the three-point specialist has had almost every injury in the book, yet has still managed to make an impact on every team he’s played on, despite the setbacks. His true highlight came in Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals when he scored 23 points and clinched the NBA championship for the Miami Heat. His seven-three pointers off the bench was an NBA record for a reserve, and was done so while playing with a bum knee and ailing back. And if that wasn’t enough, Miller played all of those playoffs with a heavy heart. His infant daughter Jaelyn, born with a congenital heart defect, laid in a hospital room fighting her life while Miller tried to get Miami’s first championship in six years. Today, Jaelyn is healthy and doing well.
At age 33 and on his second stint with the Memphis Grizzlies, Miller is a shell of himself. He’s still struggling with his back and has spent all offseason avoiding the possibility of surgery. However, his leadership and toughness of the bench should blend in perfectly with a Memphis team who prides itself on hard-nosed basketball. He may not give you a full 82-game season anymore, but what he lacks in athleticism, he will surely make up in mental toughness and determination.
19. KENDRICK PERKINS
Maybe it’s the constant scowl while on the floor or arguing every correct foul call a referee makes against him, but Kendrick Perkins seems like an extremely angry man. Former and current players such as Charles Oakley and Francisco Garcia have voiced their opinion on Perkins, calling him a “fake tough guy” who puts on a show for fans, and on certain occasions, I’ve shared similar sentiments about the center. However, Perkins reputation as an enforcer who punishes those who enter the paint is legitimate.
Perkins is essential because he knows his role as a basketball player. He’s never been a huge scorer, and instead focuses on rebounding and defensive leadership. After tears to the anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in Game 6 of the 2010 Finals, Perkins returned to NBA action only six months later, losing 31 pounds in the process which has increased his athleticism and made him more of a force beneath the basket. And of course, it’s upped his intimidation factor. Former teammates Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo have both stated that the Celtics would’ve won the 2010 NBA Finals if Perkins was there in the paint to punish Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, as well as preventing the Lakers’ guards from penetrating.
Yes, Perkins has had his fair share of disparaging moments. We all remember him getting baptized by Blake Griffin in the Staples Center and subsequently getting into a pissing match with LeBron James over the tweet the Miami Heat forward sent, which praised the dunk. Like a true tough guy, how did Perkins retaliate to the Griffin dunk? By excessively fouling the Clippers power forward, and warranting a technical foul. Tough guy indeed.
18. STEPHEN CURRY
One of the underrated tough guys in the NBA, Steph Curry has blossomed into a budding superstar thanks to his 2013 season, where he averaged 23 points and seven assists for Golden State, spearheading them into the playoffs. However, there was a time when we weren’t sure if the two-time All-American was ever going to live up to his potential.
With multiple different sprains to his ankles during his first three years, I was convinced Curry’s ankles were made of paper mache. After his ankle woes seemed to fade, he strained a tendon in his right foot and was forced out again. To the average viewer, he’d get hurt, return, show us a flash of his brilliance, get hurt again, and repeat. But that’s the thing, Curry always returned â€“ and he always did so a better player than before. With exception to the 2011-12 season where he only played 26 games, Curry has improved his numbers every year while also bolstering Golden State’s wins by 10-plus each season. And as of late, he’s displayed a fiery side that was often unseen before. During the first round playoff series with the Nuggets, Curry mixed it up with a fan who he claims “said something stupid.” In Game 4, Curry scored 31 points â€“ 22 of them in an incredible third quarter performance â€“ with a bloodshot and swollen eye delivered after Corey Brewer poked him in the eye during a rebound. When asked about the injury during the postgame conference, Curry summed it up briefly: “Playoff basketball.”
17. ZACH RANDOLPH
Since his days at Michigan State, Z-Bo has been a menacing player who’s prided himself on toughness. Known for his underrated offensive repertoire, Randolph made his name by being a relentless offensive rebounder and imposing defender in the paint. During his early years, he was part of the Bad Boys Portland Trail Blazers team that included players such as Rasheed Wallace, Bonzi Wells and Dale Davis. Now, as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, he’s the cornerstone for a squad featuring reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol and shutdown defender Tony Allen. He may not show up on any All-Defensive teams like his teammate counterparts, but you don’t want to see Z-Bo as you’re driving down the lane.
16. SHANE BATTIER
Battier was a difficult inclusion on the list because, for the most part, he’s rarely remembered for his Duke/early-NBA days, and is now depicted as an old-timer who occasionally flops and lives out on the perimeter. However, while he may lack athleticism, he’s one of the most mentally tough players in the NBA now.
Battier is a thinking man’s basketball player. Most of his plays aren’t quantifiable. If he’s not in position to rebound the basketball, he’ll tap it to a teammate. He’s the first one on the ground for a loose ball. He’s typically the first one back on defense to stop a fast break. There are no efficiency ratings that can measure what he brings to a team.
Like Allen, he admits he’s a numbers guy who plays the books to understand every opponent’s advantage. Because of his preparation, he’s always ready to face up against the NBA’s superstars. Kobe has openly admitted that if there was one person that would make him look foolish on the offensive end, it was Battier. And as a member of the Houston Rockets in 2009, he guarded four-time MVP LeBron James, and held him to his first zero-assist game of his career. If Battier is capable of shutting down the two best players on Planet Earth, you’d be hard pressed to find a tougher competitor than Shane.
15. REGGIE EVANS
Not sure what’s below a lunch-pail player, but Evans would certainly be below it. The guy literally makes his living grabbing rebounds, hounding defenders and committing fouls. He’s everything you’d want out of an energetic, offensively-inept reserve: scrappy, tough, fearless, annoying, somewhat dirty. He’s not that athletic, and can barely jump. But he makes it all up in hustle. How important is Evans to the Brooklyn Nets? The Nets’ PPR last season was 13 points better when Evans was on the court.
14. STEVE NASH
In 2010, I saw Nash take an unintentional elbow to the eye, get six stitches and then come back with a completely shut eye to finish with 20 points and nine assists as the Suns swept the Spurs to advance to the Western Conference Finals. A few years prior to that, Robert Horry and the Spurs treated the two-time MVP like a stuffed animal during their 2007 second-round matchup.
Nash had his nose busted during a collision with Tony Parker, and Bruce Bowen had taken a cheap shot at the point guard’s family jewels earlier in the series. And let’s not forget about Robert Horry hip-checking Steve Nash into the scorer’s table like it was a Maple Leafs/Senators game. And Nash got back up every time. (Sidenote: I stand by it to this day, if Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw weren’t suspended for coming off the bench in defense of their battered teammate, the Suns might’ve won a ring that year.) That’s just a few instances of Nash’s greatness, and he’s had dozens of others that deserve consideration. There’s nothing like Canadian toughness.
13. NICK COLLISON
An absolute grinder, Collison is a true NBA throwback. Coming out of Kansas where he absolutely dominated the NCAA for four years, I was unsure if he’d be capable of dominating the professional level the same way. But Collison’s toughness can’t be shown on the stat sheet. He has never averaged 10 points or 10 rebounds in a season, nor played in an All-Star Game. And although he hasn’t duplicated his college success, Collison is heralded as a formidable role player whose basketball IQ and leadership has made him a frequent contributor on a title-contending Oklahoma City team. It should also be noted that Collison has led the league in charges drawn for several years.
12. CARL LANDRY
Landry is another one of those underrated tough guys who makes the most out of every opportunity given. While playing for the Rockets, he was a steady rotation guy who focused on rebounding and second chance buckets while deferring to superstars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming for the scoring. In the meantime, he handled all the dirty work â€“ literally. During a playoff game against the Utah Jazz in 2008, he broke five teeth and lost one after a Carlos Boozer elbow. He ended up getting the game-winning block on Deron Williams in that same game to preserve the win for Houston. The next year, while driving home at 4 p.m., he was shot in the leg by two suspects. He was treated, released and back on the court in a matter of days. I think that’s enough to warrant tough guy consideration.
11. CHUCK HAYES
Chuck Hayes is the quintessential lunch-pail NBA player. At only 6-6, Hayes is listed as a center on the Sacramento Kings roster, which means on a nightly basis he’s going against players five or six inches taller than him. Determined by coaches to have a nose for the ball, Hayes is known for his willingness to commit fouls on his opponents. His welcomed physicality has hindered him slightly â€“ leading to more injuries â€“ but he’s still an important and undervalued addition on this list. He might have the ugliest free throw line forms we’ve ever seen, but that’s the least of his worries. He’s still a surefire tough guy in our book.
10. ANDRE MILLER
No one ever mentions Miller for his toughness or durability, but we all acknowledge him as the player who has perfected the “old man” game. Even Cam’ron clowned the point guard for his basic, fundamental approach on the court. But the guy deserves credit for his resiliency during his 15-year career. During his NBA tenure, he’s only had one season where he didn’t play more than 79 games, and at age 37, he still isn’t backing down from the young’ns looking to take his spot. Back in 2010, a rookie Blake Griffin tried to punk Miller, and the OG wasn’t having it which lead to a one-game suspension. The underlying story? Prior to that suspension, Miller was the NBA’s Iron Man, appearing in 632 consecutive games.
9. PAUL PIERCE
As a Knicks fan, I’ve seen this man hit clutch shot after clutch shot in Madison Square Garden with a smile on his face. The man they call “The Truth” is just that â€“ absolutely ruthless. But his story goes far beyond the hardwood. After surviving a life-threatening stabbing incident at a local Boston bar â€“ in which Pierce was trying to break up the fight instead of instigate it â€“ he underwent lung surgery to repair all the damages caused from the altercation. Remarkably, Pierce still played in all 82 games in the following season.
The rest is history for Pierce, as he’s gone on to a Hall of Fame career with the Boston Celtics and now with the Brooklyn Nets. And while his reputation as a tough guy has dwindled considerably (wheelchair-gate, anyone?), he’s still a durable, mentally-tough player who brings it every chance he gets.
8. TONY ALLEN
There’s not a NBA player who treats defense like a science quite like Tony Allen. Given his scholarship at Oklahoma State by his coach Eddie Sutton for his “hard work,” Allen’s toughness stems beyond his physical nature as a defender and more so with his mental preparation before every game. Aside from being mammoth-strong for his undersized stature, his willingness to study individual and team tendencies makes his job as a physical defender 10 times easier. In an offensive league where points are valued and cherished by fans, Allen is in his ninth year as a shooting guard with a career average of 7.8 points â€“ all because of his defense.
In short, Allen’s game was literally born on the blacktop, learning the game of basketball by jumping from playground to playground in Chicago. He wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American and got no offers after leaving high school, forcing him to go the JUCO route before Sutton called. He still carries that grind-hard and “out-work your opponent” approach with him to this day. Allen isn’t the best on-ball defender, or shotblocker. He doesn’t have the quickest hands. But he’s probably the only defender who excels at all three at their respective position.
And if you really thought his toughness was in question, Allen once finished a street fight by breaking another man’s eye socket (he was arrested for assault), and punched former teammate O.J. Mayo over a card game for talking slick. He also denounces flopping, which he says would’ve gotten him kicked off his squads in Chicago because “that’s not what tough guys do.” Manu Ginobili might question that claim, but we’re certain we want no problems with TA.
7. RUSSELL WESTBROOK
Say what you will about Westbrook taking away shots from Kevin Durant, but as one saw this past postseason, the 6-3 point guard is one of the most valuable players in the NBA. And not only is Westbrook the Thunder’s backbone, but he’s quite possibly their toughest player.
With exception to the game against the Houston Rockets in this year’s playoffs where he tore his right meniscus, Westbrook has never had an injury on the basketball court. Not in college, not in high school, not in middle school. Before then, he had appeared in 394 consecutive NBA regular-season games and 45 playoff games for Oklahoma City, as well as 75 straight games at UCLA. That in itself is a testament to his work ethic and preparation off the court. Even in Game 2 when Westbrook’s injury occurred, he thought it was a “bruise.” For an injury where most would’ve crumbled to the floor and been doubtful to return, he played 29 minutes and finished with 20 points.
One could make a case that Westbrook is arguably the most athletic point guard in the NBA right now. He attacks the rim like a menace, absorbs contact and repeatedly gets to the foul line. He’s like a taller, more athletic Allen Iverson — minus the tattoos and braids — because of the way he attacks the rim with reckless abandon. For a player of his caliber to repeatedly put himself in harm’s way and pick himself off the hardwood every time, that’s an incredible achievement. You can question his decision making all you’d like, but it’s impossible to doubt his toughness.
6. ANDERSON VAREJAO
I’m slightly biased because Varejao is one of my favorite players currently in the NBA, but for good reason. Maybe it’s the hair, I don’t know. But before another injury detailed his season â€“ he hasn’t played over 31 games in a season in the last three years â€“ Varejao was averaging 14 points, 14 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.1 combined steals/blocks, and leading the league in boards. And he’s transformed himself into one of the best defensive players in the NBA.
Early in his career, Varejao’s injuries occurred because he was relying strictly on his hustle to make plays. He’s known for being animated on the court, and having drawing enough charges to make Shane Battier sick. However, his toughness has put him on ice with team executives who questioned if he could stay healthy if he maintained his style of play. Nevertheless, whether the Cavaliers bring the Brazilian center back, there are plenty of teams who would take a player as tough as Varejao.
5. JIMMY BUTLER
You could make a case for almost all Marquette players to be on this list because Buzz Williams just breeds tough-minded basketball player. And now he gets to play for the hard-nosed general himself, Tom Thibodeau. Is there much more to say?
Yes, there is. As an infant, his father abandoned the family. At age 13, Butler was kicked out of his house by his biological mother. He spent the following high school years bouncing from friends’ homes before Michelle Lambert, the woman Butler calls his mom, stepped in. After flourishing at Marquette, Butler has become an integral part in the Bulls rotation. The third-year pro is often assigned to shutting down the opposing team’s best player and Butler has adapted to that role perfectly. He’s unrelenting, durable â€“ tallying 48, 43, 46, 44, 45 minutes per night in his first five starts â€“ and always progressing as a player. Just how underrated is Butler? He’s 39th overall in PPP offensively and 29th overall in PPP defensively.
To put those numbers in perspective, LeBron’s average rank is 65.5 (12th offensively, yet 119th defensively).
4. LeBRON JAMES
Now this choice may irk some readers, but the fact that LeBron isn’t mentioned on more lists when discussing the NBA’s toughest players feels like another contrived attempt to belittle an athlete who has constantly absorbed shots about his character and mental toughness, and has still excelled beyond the yells of the naysayers. I mean, NHL players were out here questioning his toughness like their opinions held any true merit. No one in sports has been overanalyzed and condemned while accomplishing so much quite like James has.
I could make a case that LeBron is the toughest player in the NBA just off what he goes through mentally from critics and fans alike. The inevitable clichÃ©s that arise whenever the LeBron vs. Jordan debate is brought up will never cease because James is going against a generational fable. We’ve seen LeBron take a downright pathetic Cavaliers team to the NBA Finals, and average 38-8-8 in a playoff series. He’s won two consecutive NBA titles, four MVPs and attended nine consecutive All-Star Games. However, it won’t be adequate enough. LeBron could surpass MJ in all the vital categories deemed to make him the greatest, but Jordan will always hold the crown because to the NBA Old School, Jordan “played in a tougher era.” We’re faulting a player for not playing in an era that he probably would’ve dominated if he got the chance.
In all fairness, LeBron is playing against far greater athletic talent than those in previous eras, and LeBron still looks like a man among boys in 2013. At 6-8 and 270 pounds, he’s quite possibly the rarest athletic specimen in major sports. Because of his stature, James takes a pounding without getting the calls that the average NBA player receives (see: Kirk Hinrich foul on LeBron in a Heat/Bulls game in March). Teams have adopted the approach of wrapping up LeBron when he attacks the basket instead of guarding him, even though by rule, these aren’t basketball plays. A similar case can be made for Dwight Howard, who gets molly-whopped every time he attempts a post move in the paint.
I’m not advocating that we bring out the tissues and mope for LeBron. But the fact is being an imposing player doesn’t validate the excessive fouls he receives from his opponents. His ability to throw all that on the back burner and still go produce at such a high level says a lot about his character and mental solitude.
3. RAJON RONDO
Known as the weak link during the Celtics championship run in 2008, Rajon Rondo has become one of the most versatile and exciting players in the NBA not just because of his talent, but his confidence, which vehemently teeters on arrogance. Never one to hold his tongue, the Celtics guard is known for his public spats with opposing players such as Chris Paul and Kris Humphries, as well as his former coach, Doc Rivers.
Whether his trash-talk is warranted or not, Rondo certainly walks the walk. And even if he can’t walk, he still finds a way to produce. In the last couple of years, Rondo has had legendary moments of perseverance that players dream of. After hyperextending and dislocating his elbow during Game 3 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals, he made an improbable return in the fourth quarter, practically playing with one hand for the reminder of the game, and establishing himself as a certifiable Boston folk hero. And who can forget about him tearing his ACL in the second quarter of a game against the Hawks in January, and not only finishing the game but dropping a triple-double? When you have balls like this kid, you can talk all you’d like.
2. JOAKIM NOAH
Just like Jimmy Butler, we could put the whole Bulls roster on this list (I must say, I contemplated placing the homie Nate Robinson in here, but it felt like overkill), but it really goes to show how gritty these Chicago players are. During a season where most of the Bulls crucial starters dealt with injuries, Noah was the glue that held everything all together.
We all know of Derrick Rose‘s delayed return from his ACL tear, but during the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, their star forward Luol Deng was dealing with complications from a spinal tap, and veteran guard Kirk Hinrich was dealing with a nagging foot injury. However, it was Noah, struggling with debilitating plantar fasciitis, who gutted it out with two 25-minute outings that helped lead the Bulls to two wins and ultimately the series.
Noah compared the injury to having needles in your foot, which sounds absolutely terrible. But his ability to ignore the pain, and not only play but contribute to his team’s success is a testament to his coach and his unwavering hustle, which he’s displayed since his days at Florida.
1. KOBE BRYANT
Not really sure if there’s much I need to say about this one. The Mamba has had numerous injuries, many so debilitating to most that they’d be unable to play for months. Yet Kobe just fights through it. He’s the ultimate warrior not because of his physicality, but because of his mental toughness (which he’s made a few commercials on; you should check them out). After rupturing his Achilles tendon in the spring, Kobe has stated that he’ll certainly be ready for the upcoming NBA season. We know about his bouts with his ailing knees, or the pinky finger with no cartilage in it, but as a NBA fan, we brush his injuries away because we’re programmed to expect him to play every week regardless. That’s the type of standard he’s set for himself, week in and week out. And for that, he’s the ultimate tough guy.
Who are the NBA’s toughest players?
Follow Quenton on Twitter at @QGNarcisse.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.