"What is a rivalry these days?" James countered when asked if the Heat and Pacers shared a rivalry. "What’s a rivalry? A rivalry is Celtics and Lakers. They met like four out of five years. … Bulls-Pistons. Those are rivalries, man....We’ve played these guys two straight years in the playoffs, and guys automatically make it a rivalry. It’s not a rivalry...There is no real rivalry in the NBA these days," James said. "You don’t see the competition enough or play the competition a lot. It’s two really, really good teams that [are] striving to win a championship, but rivalries … there are no more rivalries. There isn’t. It’s the truth. No rivalries.- Lebron James, 2013
I grew up in Texas...and no, I don't automatically think I'm better than you*. It is a rite of passage in the state that at an early age your family introduces you to whichever college football team you are going to become a fan of for the rest of your natural life. In Texas, there are generally two choices: the Texas Longhorns or the Texas A&M Aggies, unless you were unfortunate to be born a Baylor Bear, a TCU Horned Toad, or be born in Lubbock (God forbid).
I was fortunate enough to be brought up as a fan of the University of Texas. I miss the days of the old Southwestern Conference. I cringe when I watch Randal Hill dance in the tunnel after scoring what felt like the 40th touchdown of the day against us in the Cotton Bowl. I hate that the team missed out on a guy like Marcus Dupree only to watch him waste away at Oklahoma. I still remember Texas winning the first Big XII championship on a James Brown bootleg against a heavy Nebraska favorite. But most of all, I remember the games either on or just after Thanksgiving against Texas A&M
These were family affairs. Some of my family were not as fortunate as I, being born into Aggie fandom. We would usually gather at my grandmother's house, Aggie and Longhorn fans alike. We would cheer, talk trash, and do touchdown pushups over leftover turkey. One of my favorite family memories is watching Ricky Williams set the NCAA career rushing record in a win against the Aggies in a game the Longhorns had no business being in.
For the last three seasons, however, the rivalry has been upended. Conference realignment has seen A&M move out of the Big XII into the SEC, and that very tradition that has gone on since 1894 has come to an end. With both schools completely butthurt over the entire thing, there is very little chance that they will play each other in the near future. And so, my family Thanksgiving will feel just a little more empty. Sure...there is still the Red River Rivalry with Oklahoma, but it's just not the same. (It does give me the opportunity to tell my favorite rivalry joke: What keeps Texas from falling into the ocean? Oklahoma sucks!)
College sports are made for rivalries. As Woody Wooderson could say, "I love college sports. I get older and they stay the same age." Alumni and fans stay the same, even if the players, coaches, and administration change. So fans of Alabama/Auburn in football and North Carolina/Duke in basketball will continue to hate on and hate each other for the foreseeable future.
The NFL has done well in its history to propagate rivalries, with the longstanding Green Bay/Chicago game standing as a testament. Baseball has Yankees/Red Sox. The NHL has many rivalries that are waaaaaay older than anyone reading this column (Montreal/Toronto, Detroit Chicago, New York/Boston, and Philly/Pittsburgh), and has even tried to foster new ones with its Wednesday night game on NBC Sports Network called "Rivalry Night."
But what has happened to the classic NBA rivalry? Lebron James, in the quote above from two years ago, says there are no rivalries in the NBA anymore. Even this week, when asked about whether the Spurs are his personal rival, he disagreed:
I wouldn’t say it’s a rivalry, I would say it’s a mutual respect," James said on Tuesday. "It’s great competition and they definitely help me grow along the way, and hopefully I push them too….
"I’ve always loved playing against them and playing against Pop (Popovich), that’s someone I admire and respect so much," James said. "Obviously the Big 3 as well…
"The thing I most admire is they work a championship mindset every single day on and off the floor," James added. "Do they win the championship every single year? No, obviously, we see that. But I think good karma comes with how you approach the game and how you approach off the court as well."
Is Lebron right? Are there no more rivalries in the NBA? There are lots of reasons for this to happen. Players are very familiar with each other, from both college and AAU basketball. Players make an awful lot of money, and the league has become a big business as compared to the days in the 70's when guys had to get summer jobs to get by. Free agency has ended some of the long term feuds, with players trading places so very often. As a fan, it is hard to justify hating another team when you barely know any of the players. Finally, with the rule changes, some of the snarl and toughness of the bygone days of the NBA has disappeared and been replaced by a more fluid and athletic product.
But, what makes a rivalry in the NBA??
- The two teams need to meet each other in meaningful games for a number of years, i.e: Celtics/Lakers in the 1960's, the 1980's, and the late 2000's; Bulls/Knicks in the 1990's; Bulls/Pistons in the late 80's; and Spurs/Suns in the early 2000's.
- The teams need to have distinct styles and distinct players for those styles, i.e. Knicks/Bullets in the 70's, Philly/Boston in the 80's,
- The fans need to build a passion against another city, i.e. Celtics/Lakers in the 80's, and Lakers/Kings in the 2000's
- One of the following two things need to happen. Either the players or coaches need to have a healthy amount of respect for the rival team, or something extra curricular needs to happen. Like...
(It's a shame that this had to happen, mostly because it was an awful look for the league, but most of the players involved were suspended for long periods of time, and guys like Ron Artest and Steven Jackson were traded elsewhere for literally nothing, thus ending the Pacers/Pistons rivalry from the early 2000s)
So maybe the days of the team versus team rivalry are fading out. Maybe this is such a personality-driven game that the logos don't matter; what matters is the name on the back. But while it is harder to find rivalries in the NBA, I do think they still exist.
Here is my list.
Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers
This game has everything.
Two first round playoff series-check
Fan bases that can get testy-check
Check, check, and checkaroo.
In my humble opinion, this is the best rivalry in the NBA. Even if I weren't a biased Grizzlies fan...and I will always admit to bias...I would circle this game on the calendar to watch these two teams play. Because you will always see something that you wish you had seen live (see above).
Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder
I WILL BEAT YO' ASS...
Since the 2008-2009 season, the Grizzlies and Thunder have met 41 times, including 19 post season games. The Thunder hold a 2-1 edge in playoff series during that time period, even though the Grizzlies hold a 10-9 edge in playoff games.
Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors
Good Teams. Close geographically. Tight playoff series last season. Guys that just don't like each other.
One Guy almost licks another.....
San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks
Tough playoff series last year, as the Mavericks became the only team to push the Spurs around in the playoffs. You can also tell that Cuban put his team together this season with one purpose only: to beat the Spurs. We shall see.
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Remember that time Pau touched Chris Pauls head???
Yeah...me neither. Seems like it's been years since the Lakers were any good anyway.
Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards
Two Words....PRESEASON FIGHT!!!!!!!!
Tight postseason battle last season, followed by a preseason fight...seems like this one could be headed towards rivalry status.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Portland Trailblazers
Formerly the I-5 rivalry when the Thunder were the Sonics in Seattle, this game has gotten a little chippy in the past, especially with comments from KD and LMA like this from The Oregonian in 2013:
Kevin Durant, the NBA's leading scorer, fired the first blow in the visiting locker room by revealing the Thunder's disdain for the Blazers."We respect this team, they respect us," Durant told reporters after burning the Blazers with 36 points. "But we don't like them and they don't like us. That's point-blank."A few minutes later, down the hall in the home locker room, someone relayed Durant's comments to Blazers' All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. He didn't bat an eye when he added to the simmering rivalry between the Northwest Division foes."We don't care to like them," Aldridge responded. "We're not trying to make friends out there. We're trying to win games."
Shaquille O'Neal vs. Dwight Howard
Shaq just does not like Dwight Howard...
Miami Heat Cleveland Cavilers Lebron James vs. the rest of the league
I could have added any number of teams in a rivalry against the Heat in the past and the Cavs now, but it all comes down to this: Every team in the league gives their best effort against Lebron James. And if you come at the King...you best not miss.
Kobe Bryant vs. Time
As hard as Kobe works, time is still undefeated.
Now that you have read about them...rank them. Let us know what you think is the best rivalry in the NBA. Comment below if we missed anyone.
*I Know I am