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In today's NBA, it's a tall task trying to find good villains

POSTED: Oct 20, 2015 8:08 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


The Bulls' Joakim Noah's on-court antics make him a worthy target for 'villain' status.

For all of the swell storylines carrying the NBA and its fans toward an intriguing 2015-16 season, the league is faced with one glaring and growing weakness: the absence of good villains.

Sports benefits from drama, drama needs conflict and the most intense and memorable conflicts -- real or recreational -- invariably feature a villain or villains. Whether it's in Hollywood or in Shakespeare, wherever there happens to be an audience, there are folks who love to hate the bad guy.

Adversaries? They're fine but a little too respectful.


Awfully specific and too egalitarian, frankly, when the business model is built on 30 markets rooting with equal zeal for 30 teams. Villains kick the emotional factor in sports to another level, offering lightning-rod players or teams against whom fans across diverse markets can pull.

It's that old enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend, if only for a night, when dominant and dislikable franchises such as the New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys and, for four deliciously despicable seasons (2011-14) in the NBA, the Miami Heat dot the nation's sports landscape. There's something shared, something unifying, when your favorite team gets a crack at knocking off the bad guys one night, followed by your buddy's favorite team two nights later.

Keep in mind, this is all relatively innocent vitriol. Or as Bill Simmons wrote six years ago, a special category of "sports hate." "If you're not familiar with the term, 'sports hate' is an underrated part of fandom," Simmons wrote for "Everyone has guys they don't like, and more importantly, guys they enjoy not liking. The reasons are unique to us. There doesn't have to be anything rational about it. Sports hate can be triggered by one incident, one slight, one game gone wrong, anything."

In Simmons' case, his primary target was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- for his expressions, for his goggles, for his way with the referees, for the "monotony of his sky hook" and of course, mostly for his tenure and success with the Lakers that no Boston Celtics fan (such as Simmons) could abide. Simmons did note, in sharing his reaction when Abdul-Jabbar was diagnosed with leukemia, the difference between real hate and sports hate.

But in an NBA otherwise brimming with vim and vigor, it's hard to find targets worthy even of sports hate. Villains? Your guess is as good as ours, if we're going to use the notorious "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s and early '90s as a baseline. Those teams had at least four of the NBA's all-time villains -- Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, Dennis Rodman, Isiah Thomas -- compared to any current curs, heals or heavies.

OK, so this isn't pro wrestling. The score, the athletic competition and the highlight plays still trump booing and hissing as reasons to attend or tune into NBA games. But it's worth taking an inventory of villains -- lame or legit, has-beens and wannabes -- as 2015-16 begins in all its wonderfulness and purported badness. Add your candidates via comments for any we miss here:

LeBron James: Gotta start here, because of the heights he achieved as the NBA's resident Snidely Whiplash back in July 2010 with his overwrought, televised decision to leave Cleveland and sign with Miami. James earned that black hat and, actually, he and the Heat wore it pretty well as they lost, won, won and lost in four trips to The Finals. But James assuaged a lot of those hard feelings nationally when he returned to Cleveland -- and certainly among Cavaliers fans -- and his on-court excellence has made him more popular than ever.

Golden State Warriors: It's a common place to find a villain, perched atop the pile of teams as NBA champion. But the Warriors don't stir up the blood, at least not yet. Their best player, Stephen Curry, has an underdog-puppy quality about him, based on his size, game and past fragility, and none of his teammates has veered into negatives on the likeability scale. And they're coached by Opie Taylor (Steve Kerr) with a bum back now. If the Warriors prove to be one-and-done champs, it's unlikely they'll inspire much sports hate. They have a budding rivalry with the Los Angeles Clippers, where there is no love shown between the two franchises.

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San Antonio Spurs: Sorry but one cannot be both "boring," as the Spurs allegedly were in winning their first four championships, and hated at the same time. By the time they won the franchise's fifth in 2014, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and the rest were quite loved for their staying power and lauded for the artistry of their play.

Lakers/Celtics/Knicks: Nope, nope and nope. In headier times, these franchises ranked with the Yankees, the Cowboys, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Montreal Canadiens for the stubbornness of their dynastic ways. But these NBA pillar teams have been, and almost assuredly will be again this season, down in or near lotteryland. Take the helmet off Darth Vader and he immediately gets more huggable. Same dynamic here.

Gregg Popovich: You might think, in these slipshod times of ours, that a head coach who still yells at The Great Duncan and who grinds through two bowls of gruff every morning for breakfast would have a vast anti-fan club. But Popovich has pulled back the curtain just often enough to let folks see the centered Renaissance man behind it, and now plays off his image for withering stares and dismissive one-word answers the way Rodney Dangerfield could crack up the room just by tugging at his collar. Pop has become downright avuncular.

Phil Jackson: In his heyday, no question. The smartest-guy-in-the-room smugness, combined with the safety net of having the game's greatest players on his teams, sparked lots of sports hate. But it's hard to work up much bile for team executives -- they're not front-and-center on the stage often enough. And with these Knicks, dealing with his own boss, there's a wee sense that Jackson is getting his come-uppance. Hissing now might feel like piling on.

Derek Fisher: The erstwhile former Lakers guard had a contingent of boo birds, both from the public and from his own union, over his work during the 2010 labor lockout as NBPA president. His recent incident involving Matt Barnes and Barnes' almost ex-wife had some fingers wagging in Fisher's direction again. But the chore of coaching New York, and dealing with a media spotlight that seems too hot for his comfort, undercuts some of the negatives toward Fisher.

Scott Skiles: Hard as nails in his previous coaching stints in Phoenix, Chicago and Milwaukee, with a drill-sergeant's look and an outward lack of humor as he works NBA sidelines. He's back now but it's Orlando, where Skiles' workload is immense and few fans can work up hard feelings toward the Magic.

Stan Van Gundy: So he's a screamer. His friction with Dwight Howard when both were with the Magic made him, when some folks chose sides, a hero rather than a villain. Nothing has happened in Detroit to elevate SVG to insufferable.

George Karl: His candor can chafe, but there's a lot of honesty to it. Besides, Karl is a survivor in more ways than one. Nah.

Byron Scott: OK, so the analytics community isn't a big fan, based on Scott's past disinclinations to embrace the 3-ball. Some believe he might be a placeholder for another head coach who takes over when the Lakers are more ready to win. Nothing villainous to see here.

Jason Kidd: The manner in which Kidd got the Milwaukee job was hate-worthy, though it never rose beyond a 7 on any 1-to-10 scale because a) it was the Bucks and b) he bad-formed low profile Larry Drew. Kidd's off-court incidents during his playing days usually were defused by his placid, soft-spoken demeanor. And now his success in quickly transforming the Bucks into a playoff team has folks hopping on his bandwagon.

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Billy Donovan: Enough with the coaches already. Donovan took his biggest share of NBA hate when he backed out of the Orlando job way back when. Now he's working in Oklahoma City with one beloved superstar and another ferocious talent, for whom a lot of fans root. Let's face it, we might not find a villain among NBA coaches until John Calipari comes back into the league.

Metta World Peace: The former Ron Artest is a former villain, under two different names. But in what might not even be much of a third act -- this comeback to the Lakers -- the only way he'll likely approach his past dislikeable status among NBA fans is if he does something more outrageous than his felonious elbow to James Harden's head. At which point the NBA might snuff his comeback entirely and banish him from booing range.

Rajon Rondo: Celtics and Mavericks faithful have more of a problem with Rondo than most other teams' fans, though he got on nerves in Miami, Cleveland, Indiana and a few other markets while irritating opponents as the fourth guy in Boston's Big Three era. He's in Sacramento now, though, with tons to prove. It'd be real work to muster much enmity until Rondo re-establishes himself.

DeMarcus Cousins: Speaking of Sacramento, the big man is capable of alienating almost anyone. But to his credit, he's been saying the right things and -- when he's not putting out emoji on social media -- focusing on basketball. If things get prickly for him with the Kings this season, it wouldn't be the first time George Karl has inspired, er, creative tension with one of his troops.

Matthew Dellavedova: He was the undisputed villain of the 2015 postseason for his collisions-slash-dust-ups with Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver and Al Horford. But he might not see the court nearly as much this year and the stakes and emotions won't be nearly as high in the regular season.

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Kevin Garnett: The Minnesota homecoming and Father Time almost have made him cuddly.

Kobe Bryant: A villain of epic proportions for much of his career -- for lifting Michael Jordan's style, for his overall brashness, for benefiting from Shaquille O'Neal's cover -- Bryant's injuries and advancing years have many former critics pulling for him now. Whether he welcomes them or not.

Dwyane Wade: Wade annoyed some fans for recruiting his rivals to gang up on the Eastern Conference and the league. But his big brother is gone and it's all Wade can do these days to drag his bones up and down the floor for 60 games. If you want to hate on that, you probably want to hate on the 83-year-old lady with 13 items using the 10-item express checkout.

Carmelo Anthony: So 2010-2014. An easy target back then, from forcing his trade from Denver to his grandiose sense of self (never seemed to realize he wasn't as good as James or Bryant). Had he left as a free agent in July 2014, he'd still be as villainously relevant. But re-upping with the Knicks? For the dough and the lifestyle? His time has passed for this list's purposes.

Derrick Rose: Ditto for the Chicago Bulls point guard. Early, he was so remarkably good that fans in other markets hated on his quick ascendancy (youngest MVP ever). His injuries and will he/won't he recoveries generated frustration more than dislike. Folks still bristle at dumb things he says but -- in losing to injuries 212 of his past 312 regular-season games -- Rose mostly hears uncertain outpourings of support.

Joakim Noah: Now we're talking. The clapping in opponents' faces, his pithy digs at rival cities, the unathletic way he shoots the basketball -- those make Noah a worthy target. He was gimpy last season, however, and he might come off the bench for the Bulls, which could undercut his villainy.

Tyler Hansbrough: He'd need to be a rotation guy, on a contender, to raise much bile. The way he was in Indiana.

Kelly Olynyk: Only in Cleveland. And so last spring.

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Kevin Love leaves the game after injuring his shoulder while battling for the rebound with Kelly Olynyk.

Nikola Pekovic: There's a difference between looking like a villain ("Superman 2") and actually being one, even at the sports hate level. More folk hero than intimidator in Minnesota.

Russell Westbrook: In an odd position, because Westbrook's popularity can swing on how much he helps or impedes his own teammate, Kevin Durant. Usually villains undermine outside entities, but Westbrook's ferocious game has been accused of getting in the way of perfect teamwork and ideal results for the Thunder. If both All-Stars stay healthy, we'll either see this sort itself out or Westbrook will don a no doubt fashionable black hat again.

James Harden: He's quirky, he's got the funky beard, he gets written off (often incorrectly) for seeking out his own scoring opportunities and his defensive results are as modest as his effort at times. His covetous glances at Steph Curry's MVP trophy aren't flattering, either. Harden is one of several Houston candidates here, sharing digs with Dwight Howard (whose villainous reputation has been muted lately) and pesky Patrick Beverley.

Matt Barnes: He qualifies, with bonus points for doubling down on his orneriness so late in the game (he's 35). Both mouthy and chesty, Barnes frequently has been one of those guys other players hate as an opponent but love as a teammate. Memphis management will decide if his pros still outweigh his cons.

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DeAndre Jordan: Villainy ripped straight from the summer headlines? That's what might happen with Jordan, stemming from his change-of-mind in free agency. Of course, in backing out of a Dallas deal to stay in L.A., the Clippers center mostly stuck it to Mark Cuban, who has an anti-hero vibe of his own with NBA fans.

Los Angeles Clippers: Now we're talking. Jordan is the tallest lightning rod for sports hate but there are others. Chris Paul faces criticism for results that haven't matched his reputation, and his emotions on the floor make him a target of boo birds. Blake Griffin is so good and so strong, he can spark Wilt's old nobody-loves-Goliath vibe. Lance Stephenson remains a knucklehead in waiting, as many fans see it, and Paul Pierce already has a legacy of irritating rival crowds and players. Coach Doc Rivers' offseason back-and-forth with Golden State over its path to a championship struck some as sour grapes. And owner Steve Ballmer, in his intense, geeky VIP-seat celebrating, rankles more people than his other-worldly net worth does.

So yes, the Clippers have the potential to be arguably the NBA's most villainous team of 2015-16. Then again, Donald Sterling has left the building, so...

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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