Hardest-Working Players in NBA History
The path to being great in the NBA does not always begin with hard work. Many players have natural talent they cultivate after gaining a better understanding of where hard work will get them.
But the path to being great in the NBA always ends with hard work.
Over the years, players have carved out careers with a bedrock of work ethic and hard work — super-sizing their talents along the way. Stories about laser focus on improving their craft and the insane lengths they went to chase perfection go hand-in-hand with final stat lines.
These are the hardest-working players in NBA history.
25. Cliff Robinson
NBA career: 18 seasons (1989-2007)
Teams: Portland Trail Blazers (1989-97), Phoenix Suns (1997-2001), Detroit Pistons (2001-03), Golden State Warriors (2003-05), New Jersey Nets (2005-07)
Stats: 1,380 G, 14.2 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.2 APG, 43.8 FG%
NBA titles: None
Bottom line: The word on Cliff Robinson heading into the 1989 NBA draft after a stellar career at UConn was he didn’t work hard enough. And word got around quickly. Robinson plummeted from a top 10 pick to Portland in the second round (36th overall).
Robinson played like a man on fire once in the league. He was named the NBA Sixth Man of the Year in 1993 and an All-Star in 1994.
Robinson’s success was spread out evenly over his career. In 2000, he became the oldest player in NBA history to score 50 points at 33 years old, the same year he made the first of two All-Defensive teams.
24. Earl Boykins
College: Eastern Michigan
NBA career: 12 seasons (1999-2008, 2009-12)
Teams: New Jersey Nets (1999), Cleveland Cavaliers (1999, 2000), Orlando Magic (1999), Los Angeles Clippers (2000-02), Golden State Warriors (2002-03), Denver Nuggets (2003-07), Milwaukee Bucks (2007-08, 2010-11), Charlotte Bobcats (2008), Washington Wizards (2009-10), Houston Rockets (2012)
Stats: 652 G, 8.9 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 3.2 APG, 41.7 FG%
NBA titles: None
Bottom line: The son of a Cleveland police officer who loved to play pickup basketball, Earl Boykins grew up with the simple goal of being able to beat his father one-on-one.
His dad must have been pretty good. Boykins, only 5-foot-5, told the Los Angeles Times in 2000 that "work ethic" was the main reason he was able to make it to the NBA.
That part never let up, as Boykins played in the NBA for 12 seasons. The only season he went missing from the league was when he went overseas to play for Italian pro club Virtus Bologna on a one-year, $3.5 million contract.
23. Kevin Willis
College: Michigan State
NBA career: 21 seasons (1984-2005, 2007)
Teams: Atlanta Hawks (1984-94, 2004-05), Miami Heat (1994-96), Golden State Warriors (1996), Houston Rockets (1996-98, 2001-02), Toronto Raptors (1998-2001), Denver Nuggets (2001), San Antonio Spurs (2002-04), Dallas Mavericks (2007)
Stats: 1,424 G, 12.1 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 0.9 APG, 48.7 FG%
NBA titles: 1 (2003)
Bottom line: In 2007, Kevin Willis became the oldest person in NBA history to play more than one game in a season when he took the floor five times for the Dallas Mavericks at 44 years old.
Willis' dedication to taking meticulous care of his body may have some root in his lucrative career outside of basketball as a fashion mogul for the Willis & Walker clothing line for big-and-tall men. "I wanted to stay swole," Willis joked.
Whatever his motivation, Willis shares the record for most NBA seasons played with Robert Parish, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter, who announced in 2019 he would retire after the 2019-20 season.
22. Otis Thorpe
NBA career: 17 seasons (1984-2001)
Teams: Kansas City/Sacramento Kings (1984-88), Houston Rockets (1988-95), Portland Trail Blazers (1995), Detroit Pistons (1995-97), Vancouver Grizzlies (1997-98), Sacramento Kings (1998), Washington Wizards (1999), Miami Heat (1999-2000), Charlote Hornets (2000-01)
Stats: 1,257 G, 14.0 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 2.2 APG, 54,6 FG%
NBA titles: 1 (1994)
Bottom line: Otis Thorpe combined elite size — 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds — with being the hardest-working player on almost every team he played on.
At the peak of his career, he formed a 1-2 punch with Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon that was almost unstoppable and was part of the team’s 1994 NBA championship team.
Thorpe’s problem, as laid out in a 1997 Sports Illustrated article, was that he wasn’t just one of the hardest-working players in the league. He also was one of the most thin-skinned.
A history of holding grudges over perceived slights from teammates and coaches loomed large over his career and saw him traded on several occasions.
21. Charles Oakley
College: Virginia Union University
NBA career: 18 seasons (1985-2004)
Teams: Chicago Bulls (1985-88, 2001-02), New York Knicks (1988-98), Toronto Raptors (1999-2001), Washington Wizards (2002-03), Houston Rockets (2004)
Stats: 1,282 G, 9.7 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.5 APG, 47.1 FG%
NBA titles: None
Bottom line: Charles Oakley, if you listen to enough stories about him, could very well be conjured up in one’s mind as the Paul Bunyan of NBA lore, showing up to games dressed like the famed lumberjack and ready to get rebounds, fight for loose balls, fight opponents and cut down a couple of trees.
Oakley was an NBA enforcer who protected Michael Jordan in his early years in the NBA, then became a cornerstone on the great Knicks teams of the 1990s.
Oakley won over legions of fans with his lunch-pail, no-nonsense approach to the game.
20. Andre Miller
NBA career: 17 seasons (1999-2016)
Teams: Cleveland Cavaliers (1999-2002), Los Angeles Clippers (2002-03), Denver Nuggets (2003-06, 2011-14), Philadelphia 76ers (2006-09), Portland Trail Blazers (2009-11), Washington Wizards (2014-15), Sacramento Kings (2015), Minnesota Timberwolves (2015-16), San Antonio Spurs (2016)
Stats: 1,304 G, 12.5 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 6.5 APG, 46.1 FG%
NBA titles: None
Bottom line: Andre Miller grabbed the nation’s attention in the 1998 Final Four, when he posted just the fourth triple-double in NCAA tournament history to lead Utah to an upset of defending national champion Arizona in the national semifinals.
Miller became known early on for his business-like approach to the game, willingness to work with younger players and lack of ego when it came to a team concept.
"I had longevity," Miller told Sports on Earth in 2015. "Every player I’ve played with, I’ve helped make them better."
He’s among the NBA’s career leaders in games played, assists, steals and minutes played.
19. Buck Williams
NBA career: 17 seasons (1981-98)
Teams: New Jersey Nets (1981-89), Portland Trail Blazers (1989-96), New York Knicks (1996-98)
Stats: 1,307 G, 12.8 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 1.3 APG, 54.9 FG%
NBA titles: None
Bottom line: Buck Williams toiled away in NBA purgatory with the New Jersey Nets for his first eight seasons before being gifted to the Trail Blazers in a trade for former No. 1 pick Sam Bowie.
With Williams and his old-school toughness in the fold, Portland played in two NBA Finals and he was an All-Defensive team pick three times.
Guards that played against Williams all attested to the same thing — if for some reason you decided to just wander into the lane, you could expect a forearm shiver to the chest from the big man.
18. Steve Nash
College: Santa Clara
NBA career: 19 seasons (1996-2015)
Teams: Phoenix Suns (1996-98, 2004-12), Dallas Mavericks (1998-2004), Los Angeles Lakers (2012-15)
Stats: 1,217 G 14.3, PPG, 3.0 RPG, 8.5 APG, 49.0 FG%
NBA titles: None
Bottom line: ESPN’s Marc Stein once wrote that Steve Nash had "inhuman reserves of work ethic, focus and discipline," as a player, which was a perfect summation of the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player’s career.
Nash burst on the scene in 1993 by leading No. 15 seed Santa Clara to a win over No. 2 seed Arizona in the NCAA tournament.
In the NBA, his teams led the league in offense nine years in a row, a stretch where he led the league in assists five times.
More than any other player in NBA history, you can make a case for overlooking Nash's defensive shortcomings because he was such a maestro with the ball.
17. Ray Allen
NBA career: 18 seasons (1996-2014)
Teams: Milwaukee Bucks (1996-2003), Seattle SuperSonics (2003-07), Boston Celtics (2007-12), Miami Heat (2012-14)
Stats: 1,300 games, 18.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists. 45.2 FG%
NBA titles: 2 (2008, 2013)
Bottom line: Ray Allen was a consensus All-American out of UConn, and he didn’t get one of the sweetest-looking jumpers of all time by just showing up to the gym. He put in the work. His shooting drills, which Heat coach Erik Spoelstra described as "insane" helped make him a 10-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion.
A major contributor for four different teams, Allen’s most famous shot was with 5.6 seconds left in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, nailing a rise-and-fire 3-pointer that sent the game to overtime against the Spurs, and the Heat eventually won in Game 7.
He also banked $182.4 million in career earnings.
16. Shaun Livingston
NBA career: 15 seasons (2004-19)
Teams: Los Angeles Clippers (2004-08), Miami Heat (2008-09), Oklahoma City Thunder (2009), Washington Wizards (2010, 2012), Charlotte Bobcats (2010-11), Milwaukee Bucks (2011-12), Cleveland Cavaliers (2012-13), Brooklyn Nets (2013-14), Golden State Warriors (2014-19)
Stats: 833 G, 6.3 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 3.0 APG, 48.6 FG%
NBA titles: 3 (2015, 2017, 2018)
Bottom line: Shaun Livingston came out of Peoria (Ill.) Central High with the basketball world at his fingertips — a 6-foot-7 point guard picked No. 4 overall in 2004 by the Los Angeles Clippers straight out of high school.
In his third season, Livingston suffered one of the most gruesome injuries in NBA history when he snapped his left leg laterally. Doctors feared they would have to amputate initially but managed to save Livingston’s leg.
He learned to walk again within three months, started playing basketball within 18 months and rebuilt his career as a do-it-all role player.
He won three NBA titles and made over $40 million in his career before retiring in September 2019.
15. Kawhi Leonard
College: San Diego State
NBA career: 9 seasons (2011-present)
Teams: San Antonio Spurs (2011-2018), Toronto Raptors (2018-19), Los Angeles Clippers (2019-present)
Stats: 467 games, 17.7 points, 6.3 rebounds. 3.3 assists, 49.6 FG%
NBA titles: 1 (2014)
Bottom line: Rarely does an elite player come along that shuns the spotlight, but such is the case for Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard turned himself into an All-American and first-round draft pick in two seasons at San Diego State, where a coach once found him shooting baskets in a gym lit only by a lamp from the locker room.
Five seasons into his NBA career, he’d already won two NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards (back-to-back in 2015 and 2016) and was named NBA Finals Most Valuable Player in 2014, when the Spurs shocked the Miami Heat, and again in 2019 when the Raptors upset the Golden State Warriors.
14. A.C. Green
College: Oregon State
NBA career: 16 seasons (1985-2001)
Teams: Los Angeles Lakers (1985-93, 1999-2000), Phoenix Suns (1993-96), Dallas Mavericks (1996-99), Miami Heat (2000-01)
Stats: 1,278 G, 9.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.1 APG, 49.4 FG%
NBA titles: 3 (1987, 1988, 2000)
Bottom line: The hardest-working player during the "Showtime" era for the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s was power forward A.C. Green, who led the team in rebounding on back-to-back NBA championship teams.
Green’s legacy includes the NBA record for consecutive games played with 1,192. As a teammate, Green rubbed some players the wrong way with his devout religious beliefs but endeared himself to them over time with his loyalty.
When Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive in 1991, Johnson told the Los Angeles Times it was Green who was "always being there for me, and I love him for that."
13. Dennis Rodman
College: Southeastern Oklahoma State University
NBA career: 14 seasons (1986-2000)
Teams: Detroit Pistons (1986-93), San Antonio Spurs (1993-95), Chicago Bulls (1995-98), Los Angeles Lakers (1999), Dallas Mavericks (2000)
Stats: 911 G, 7.3 PPG, 13.1 RPG, 1.8 APG, 52.1 FG%
NBA titles: 5 (1989, 1990, 1996, 1997, 1998)
Bottom line: It’s too bad that the overriding impression most people have of Dennis Rodman comes from the flamboyant, late-career Rodman, starting with the three titles he won with the Chicago Bulls from 1995 to 1998. But there was so much more to him than the antics.
Rodman defined hard work in the NBA for the last part of the 1980s, establishing himself as one of the fiercest rebounders the game has ever seen on back-to-back NBA championship teams for the Pistons.
He won NBA Defensive Player of the Year twice while in Detroit and led the league in rebounding an astounding seven consecutive seasons.
12. Larry Bird
College: Indiana State
NBA career: 13 seasons (1979-92)
Teams: Boston Celtics (1979-92)
Stats: 897 G, 24.3 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 6.3 APG, 49.6 FG%
NBA titles: 3 (1981, 1984, 1986)
Bottom line: Larry Bird never thought he’d have a career that lasted two decades like other Boston Celtics stars, so he put everything he had into whatever time he had available.
That included a daily routine of one long-distance run, multiple abdominal/core workouts, sprints and a scrimmage all wrapped around shooting drills that seemed like they would never end.
The genesis of the three-time NBA Most Valuable Player’s insane work ethic? Look no further than an impoverished childhood in French Lick, Indiana, watching his mother worked two jobs to support six children.
Basketball was the way out.
11. Karl Malone
College: Louisiana Tech
NBA career: 19 seasons (1985-2004)
Teams: Utah Jazz (1985-2003), Los Angeles Lakers (2003-04)
Stats: 1.476 G, 25.0 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 3.6 APG, 51.6 FG%
NBA titles: None
Bottom line: Karl Malone’s work ethic was honed and sharpened at an early age as he grew up the youngest of nine children living and working on a farm in rural Louisiana.
He guided in-state Louisiana Tech to the NCAA tournament for the first time, taking them all the way to the Sweet 16 before becoming a first-round NBA draft pick in 1985.
Malone’s hard work didn’t end there. Through an insane weight-lifting and workout regimen, he molded his body and game into a career that included two NBA MVP awards, 13 All-NBA selections and an Olympic gold medal in 1992.
10. Dirk Nowitzki
NBA career: 21 seasons (1998-2019)
Teams: Dallas Mavericks (1998-2019)
Stats: 1,522 G, 20.7 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 2,4 APG, 47.1 FG%
NBA titles: 1 (2011)
Bottom line: One of the NBA’s greatest power forwards of all time and perhaps the greatest European player in history, Dirk Nowitzki fine-tuned his work ethicc at a young age.
Under the tutelage of German basketball hero Holger Geschwinder, Nowitizki was constantly pressed to seek out the best competition he could find. Not just in Germany, but the world. And he always did.
At 16 years old, he made his first pro team, DJK Wurzburg. He would go on to win NBA Most Valuable Player in 2007, deliver the Mavs' lone NBA title in 2011 and be the first player in NBA history to play with the same team for 21 seasons.
9. Ben Wallace
College: Virginia Union University
NBA career: 16 seasons (1996-2012)
Teams: Washington Bullets/Wizards (1996-99), Orlando Magic (1999-2000), Detroit Pistons (2000-06, 2009-12), Chicago Bulls (2006-08), Cleveland Cavaliers (2008-09)
Stats: 1,088 G, 5.7 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 1.3 APG, 47.4 FG%
NBA titles: 1 (2004)
Bottom line: Ben Wallace went from being an undrafted free agent out of NCAA Division II Virginia Union University to winning NBA Defensive Player of the Year a record four times.
Wallace’s unselfish play and razor-sharp focus on defense didn’t make for a pretty style of basketball — just a stunningly effective one.
At the peak of his career, Wallace was the tip of the spear for one of the more surprising NBA championships in NBA history, when he helped lead the Detroit Pistons to a sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Wallace had his No. 3 jersey retired by the Pistons in 2016.
8. Paul George
College: Fresno State
NBA career: 9 seasons (2010-present)
Teams: Indiana Pacers (2010-17), Oklahoma City Thunder (2017-19), Los Angeles Clippers (2019-present)
Stats: 664 G, 19.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 43.3 FG%
NBA titles: None
Bottom line: In the pantheon of gruesome basketball injuries, the lower leg fracture suffered by Paul George during a public scrimmage with Team USA on Aug. 1, 2014, ranks among the worst.
Usually a career-ending (or at least career-altering) injury, George somehow returned better than ever after a tortuous rehab. He played the final eight games of the 2014-15 season and has been an All-Star in every full year he’s played since.
He signed a four-year, $137 million contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2018 and was named All-NBA in 2019.
Now, the Los Angeles native out of Palmdale returns home to begin a new chapter with the Los Angeles Clippers as a 1-2 punch with Kawhi Leonard.
7. John Stockton
NBA career: 19 seasons (1984-2003)
Teams: Utah Jazz (1984-2003)
Stats: 1,504 G, 13.1 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 10.5 APG, 51.5 FG%
NBA titles: None
Bottom line: It’s the rare NBA player who both fans and foes alike agree thrived because of his "fanatical" work ethic, but that was John Stockton.
He led the Utah Jazz to the playoffs all 19 seasons he played and only missed 22 games in his entire career – with 18 of those coming at the start of the 1997-1998 season after MCL surgery.
Stockton and power forward Karl Malone played together more games than any duo in NBA history and led the Jazz to the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998.
Stockton holds NBA career records for assists and steals.
6. Kevin Garnett
NBA career: 21 seasons (1995-2016)
Teams: Minnesota Timberwolves (1995-2007, 2015-16), Boston Celtics (2007-13), Brooklyn Nets (2013-15)
Stats: 1,462 G, 17.8 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 3.7 APG, 49.7 FG%
NBA titles: 1 (2008)
Bottom line: Word began to leak about Kevin Garnett’s legendary work ethic when a couple dozen NBA general managers gathered to watch a private workout before the 1995 NBA draft.
Garnett ran through the perfunctory drills, then the GMs started tossing out requests to see what he was capable of physically. Garnett worked past what any of those in attendance thought was possible.
The Timberwolves made Garnett the first high school player selected in the draft in 20 years, he played an NBA-record 21 seasons, was a 15-time All-Star, 12-time All-Defensive Team pick and nine-time All-NBA pick.
"They say no matter how hard you work, there’s always someone, somewhere working harder than you. Guess what? I’m that someone," Garnett once said.
He also made an NBA-record $326 million in salary.
5. Jerry West
College: West Virginia
NBA career: 14 seasons (1960-74)
Teams: Los Angeles Lakers (1960-74)
Stats: 932 games, 27.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 47.4 FG%
NBA titles: 1 (1972)
Bottom line: Jerry West rose from poverty in rural Cheylan, West Virginia, to become Final Four Most Outstanding Player in 1959 for the University of West Virginia, and one of the NBA’s most iconic players.
West’s legacy isn’t hard to discern — he’s the model for the NBA logo — and he got there with a tenacious work ethic. West relentlessly focused on weaknesses in his game until they became strengths.
He was a 12-time All-NBA pick and five-time NBA All-Defensive pick, an honor the NBA didn’t start giving out until there were five years left in his career.
As an executive, his hard work has helped guide the way to eight NBA titles.
4. Michael Jordan
College: North Carolina
NBA career: 14 seasons (1984-93, 1995-98, 2001-03)
Teams: Chicago Bulls (1984-93, 1995-98), Washington Wizards (2001-03)
Stats: 1,072 G, 30.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 5.3 APG, 49.7 FG%
NBA titles: 6 (1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998)
Bottom line: If you know anything about Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, you know that his competitive streak bordered on insanity. And that wasn’t something that just applied itself to games.
Books have been written detailing how Jordan would show up to every practice as if it were Game 7 of the NBA Finals, trying to win every drill and every scrimmage. Jordan wasn’t just tireless on the floor doing work, but off of it as well doing good deeds.
Upon his induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, the Make-A-Wish Foundation announced Jordan had achieved the role of Chief Wish Ambassador after fulfilling a record 176 wishes for sick and dying children.
3. Moses Malone
NBA career: 19 seasons (1976-95)
Teams: Buffalo Braves (1976), Houston Rockets (1976-82), Philadelphia 76ers (1982-86), Washington Bullets (1986-88), Atlanta Hawks (1988-91), Milwaukee Bucks (1991-93), Philadelphia 76ers (1993-94), San Antonio Spurs (1994-95)
Stats: 1,455 G, 20.3 PPG, 12.3 RPG, 1.3 APG, 49.5 FG%
NBA titles: 1 (1983)
Bottom line: Moses Malone went straight from high school to the ABA, where he played for two years before the league merged with the NBA.
While Malone’s legacy rests in his accomplishments as a three-time NBA Most Valuable Player, 12-time NBA All-Star and eight-time All-NBA pick, his influence on two other Hall of Famers can’t be denied.
Both Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley played with Malone early in their careers, and both credit him for installing a dogged work ethic in them early on.
Malone died in his sleep in 2015 at 60 years old.
2. John Havlicek
College: Ohio State
NBA career: 16 seasons (1962-78)
Teams: Boston Celtics (1962-78)
Stats: 1,270 G, 20.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 4.8 APG, 43.9 FG%
NBA titles: 8 (1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1974, 1976)
Bottom line: Fellow Celtic and Hall of Famer Bill Russell called John Havlicek the "best all-around player I ever saw," and it’s easy to see his point.
"Hondo" was a 13-time All-Star and went 8-0 in the NBA Finals thanks in no small part to his dedication to the game and work ethic, which was often described as being immune to fatigue.
Celtics radio announcer Johnny Most’s "Havlicek stole the ball!" call in the 1965 Eastern Conference finals is one of the most iconic moments in sports radio history.
Havlicek died on April 25, 2019, at 79 years old after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for several years.
1. Kobe Bryant
NBA career: 20 seasons (1996-2016)
Teams: Los Angeles Lakers (1996-2016)
Stats: 1,346 G, 25,0 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 4.7 APG, 44.7 FG%
NBA titles: 5 (2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010)
Bottom line: Possibly the most alienated superstar in NBA history, Kobe Bryant laid claim to having the title of hardest-working as well.
Two decades of sheer domination from the Los Angeles Lakers guard were fueled by mortal-proof, 4 a.m. workouts that served as precursors to the rest of the day’s activities.
Bryant, who won five titles and was a 15-time All-NBA pick, always seemed to draw strength from the knowledge that he was outworking his opponents.
More than one Team USA player told the story of showing up, groggy, to team breakfasts only to be greeted by a smiling, sweat-soaked Bryant.
Related: All-Time Lakers Team