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.
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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 – 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 – 22 of them in an incredible third quarter performance – 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.