Rivalries are a core element in all sports, and it’s no different with the NBA. Some of these storied rivalries date back half a century almost, with team’s fanbases, and even players developing a hatred for each other over the course of time.
When these teams match up, especially in the postseason, the atmosphere within each franchise’s home stadium compares to that of the Colosseum in Rome during gladiatorial battles. Below are the Top 10 Rivalries in NBA History.
10. Boston Celtics vs. Miami Heat – 2010-2013
As short-lived as this rivalry was, boy was it intense.
It could be argued that this rivalry was only between the Celtics and LeBron himself, carrying over from James’ early days playing for the Cavaliers. In the 2010 Playoffs, James met the Celtics’ big three in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, where LeBron and co. were dispatched in 6 games. Most people attribute this series loss as the tipping point that led James to join up with the Miami Heat in Free Agency later that year.
Skip ahead to Opening Night of the 2010-11 NBA season, and what do you know, LeBron James and his new Miami Head squad would be facing off against the Boston Celtics. In their first matchup, Boston defeated the Heat 88-80, which would be their first of 24 games played against each other (Playoffs included) over the course of their rivalry.
The Heat would prove to be the bane of Boston’s existence, as the two teams would meet in the Eastern Conference twice over the next three years. Miami would go on to beat Boston in both series, on their way to 2 championships and 3 Finals appearances between 2010 and 2013.
Their most memorable matchup would be the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. It went the full 7 game distance, with two games going into overtime. On top of that, who could possibly forget LeBron James’ incredible Game 6 performance? Down 3-2, and away from home at the raucous TD Garden, The King led Miami with a 45 point and 15 rebound masterclass, crushing Boston 98-79. As we all know, Miami would go on to defeat the Thunder in the Finals that year, giving James his first NBA Championship.
9. San Antonio Spurs vs. LeBron James – 2007-
You may be thinking “How can a player and a franchise be rivals?”
Well, it’s entirely possible. First it was in 2007, when LeBron had carried his sad band of teammates to the NBA Finals, their first in franchise history. It was the fairytale story. The kid from Akron, first pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, leading his hometown team to the NBA Finals in his 4th year, against a team that had won 2 titles in the past 4 years. Of course, it was not meant to be. The Spurs demolished the underpowered Cavs in a sweep.
Fast forward to 2013. LeBron is now in Miami, a huge change. But things have stayed virtually the same for the Spurs. The same coach, the same core three of Parker, Ginobilli and Duncan, but they did have something up their sleeve, an X Factor if you will. A 21-year-old from San Diego State, Kawhi Leonard.
LeBron and his stacked team would go up against the familiar faces of San Antonio, and what a series we were treated to. A full 7-game series, with one of the most clutch shots in NBA Finals history from Ray Allen. LeBron would obtain his second ring, and get sweet revenge over the team that destroyed his initial hopes of winning the NBA Finals.
Only a year later, it was time for the deciding series, with both LeBron and the Spurs tied at 1 championship apiece when facing each other. After last year’s Finals, this series was bound to be just as exciting, right? What followed would be almost perfect basketball, with Gregg Popovic at the helm of it all.
They picked apart Miami so bad that LeBron left town, and the win only solidified Tim Duncan’s resume as the greatest Power Forward of all time. And remember that X Factor from last year? Coach Pop would pull him out of his sleeve, and what a stroke of genius it was, as Kawhi Leonard would go on to win the Finals MVP, the 4th youngest ever at 22 years of age.
8. New York Knicks vs. Miami Heat – 1997-2000
No two NBA teams had ever met in the playoffs for four consecutive seasons, with each series going to the maximum possible number of games. That is until these two franchises met in the 1997 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
This rivalry is one of the main reasons people consider the NBA of the 1990’s to be the toughest. These two teams absolutely HATED each other. Every matchup between these two was littered with foul calls, very physical play and a focus on hard-nosed defense. All you need to do is search ‘Knicks vs. Heat fight’ and a plethora of results will show up.
One such fight was between the Miami Heat’s Alonzo Mourning and the New York Knicks Larry Johnson. It was the first round of the 1998 playoffs, Game 4. The score was 90-85 in the Knicks favor, and they had the game wrapped up with 6 seconds or so to go. Tim Hardaway tossed up a 3, which missed badly, and in the scuffle for the long rebound, Mourning and Johnson began to get into it. The game was already over, and these two guys were still at each other’s throats. So bad in fact, that then-Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy rushed the court, seemed to cop a Mourning elbow to the face, and proceeded to latch onto Mourning’s legs in an effort to break up the fight.
The Knicks would end up winning that series, 3 games to 2. They would also win the next two playoff matchups against the Heat in the final game of the series, asserting their dominance as the better team of this 4-year long rivalry. In the end however, these series wins were seemingly pointless, as the Knicks were never able to translate these into championships, making it as far as the NBA Finals in 1999, losing to the Spurs in 5 games.
7. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Sacramento Kings – 2000-2002
Probably one of the most infamous moments in NBA history, up there with the Malice at the Palace. The 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and Kings. Many a documentary has been made over this series. Even more articles have been written about the subject. Was Game 6 of the series rigged or not?
We won’t be diving into that rabbit hole today thankfully. That’s an entirely separate issue. The Game 6 controversy is extremely important to this rivalry however, as it added something never before seen in an NBA rivalry before.
Before any talk of fixing games was rumored though, LA and Sacramento’s rivalry began in the playoffs of the 1999-2000 NBA season. It was Chris Webber’s second season in Sacramento after being acquired from the Washington Wizards, and it was both Shaq and Kobe’s fourth year in the purple and gold. They met in the first round of the playoffs, the Lakers seeded first with a record of 67-15, and the Kings seeded 8th, with a record of 44-38. The Kings weren’t intimidated by the duo, and forced a decisive Game 5 away from home after starting off the series down 2-0. It wasn’t meant to be however, as Shaq dropped 32 and 18 to move onto the next round, and eventually the NBA championship that year.
The next season, the two teams met again, this time in the Western Conference semi-finals. It was a completely different story compared to last year, as the 2001 Lakers were absolutely dominant during their post-season run. Los Angeles destroyed every team in their way, including the Kings, en route to a 16-1 playoff record, their only loss coming in Game 1 against the Iverson-led 76ers in the Finals.
The rivalry between these two franchises reached its peak the following post-season, where both teams had advanced to the Western Conference Finals, the Kings seeded higher than the Lakers surprisingly. The Lakers were looking to complete the three-peat, while the Kings were looking to finally overcome the team that has sent them packing time and time again. To this day, this series is still discussed in basketball circles around the world. It went the full 7-game distance, and only one game was decided by more than 7 points.
Things were looking good for Sacramento. They were up 3-2 in the series, only one win away from going to the NBA Finals. All they had to do was win one game away from home, inside Staples Center. That’s when Game 6 happened. The Kings lost that game 106-102. Shaq and Kobe combined for 72 points and 28 rebounds. The glaring number in the box score however is the free throw disparity. 40 free throws to 25, in favor of the Lakers, some of which were extremely dubious calls in the first place. The Lakers would head back to Sacramento for Game 7, where they would dispatch the Kings 112-106, and proceed to sweep the Nets in the NBA Finals for their third championship in as many years.
6. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors – 2015-
We jump back to the present for this rivalry, which is still ongoing. In the entirety of NBA history, no two teams have met each other in 3 straight Finals series. The Cavaliers and Warriors are on pace to break that historic record, and boy what a series it would be if they did.
It has all the makings of a perfect rivalry, the story surrounding these two teams is straight out of a movie script. One of the most hated players of this era moves back to his hometown, regaining many of the fans he had lost. That team is instantly thrust into the championship picture. On the other side, a team consisting of young up-and-comers that used to be the underdog defy expectations and are the best team in basketball due to a new style of play revolving around shooting a boatload of threes. Some of the success goes to their head, and they get a bit too cocky, especially after winning the championship against the favorites, who were riddled with injuries. The tables had turned, the greatest player in basketball was now the underdog.
Fast forward to the next season, and the defending champion Warriors weren’t slowing down. They proceed to win a record 73 games, showing off more and more with every win, which makes many NBA fans irate. LeBron and co. cruise through the regular season, and inevitably, it’s round two between the Cavs and Warriors. Both teams were almost at peak health, so there were no more excuses.
The Warriors go up 3-1, and things were looking bleak for LeBron. He would have a record of 2-5 in The Finals, and be labeled as a loser, even after 7 Finals appearances. But LeBron must’ve sold his soul, or something to that extent, as the Cavs won 3 straight games, 2 in Oracle Arena, to capture Cleveland’s first NBA Championship, and LeBron’s third.
That’s not where the story ends however. Things get even more surreal. Golden State go out and acquire maybe the best player not on a team from San Francisco or Cleveland, Kevin Durant, and the task in front of LeBron seemed insurmountable. LeBron blasted the front office, stating he needed more bench talent if the Cavs wanted to compete. Cleveland went out and signed many players, including Kyle Korver, Deron Williams, Andrew Bogut and Larry Sanders, going way over the luxury tax in the process.
That’s where the story ends for now. It seems certain that the Cavaliers and Warriors will be facing each other for a third consecutive time in The Finals, and if they do, that series will mean more to both teams than all the past meetings combined.
5. LeBron James vs. Chicago Bulls – 2010-
LeBron makes another appearance on this list. I know, you may be groaning, but it’s hard not to make enemies when you’re one of the most dominant basketball players of all-time.
Some would say this rivalry dates back further than 2010, but to make things easier, I’m placing the beginning of this feud at the point when James joined up with Wade and Bosh in South Beach.
Fact of the day: 100% of Chicago Bulls’ fans absolutely despise LeBron, and their hatred can be narrowed down to two reasons. The first revolves around the constant comparisons between LeBron and Michael Jordan, which is understandable. If I was a Bulls fan myself I’d also hate the player who had a legitimate chance at dethroning the best player in my franchise’s history as the Greatest Of All Time. But we won’t get into that here.
The second reason is the fact that no matter what team LeBron is on, he always manages to dash the championship hopes of Bulls’ fans everywhere.
A LeBron-led squad has faced up against the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs a whopping 4 times in the past 6 seasons, and it’s entirely possible that they face off again in the 2017 playoffs the way things are going.
Anyway, in those 4 series, LeBron has won every time, with a career-record of 16-5. And despite the lopsided W-L ratio, each series has been extremely memorable. From Nate Robinson’s block on LeBron in Game 3 of the 2013 Eastern Semi’s, to back-to-back game winners from Derrick Rose and LeBron James in the 2015 Eastern Semi’s.
Those highlights, plus the extreme hatred each fanbase possess towards each other, make LeBron vs. the entire city of Chicago one of the best rivalries in NBA history.
4. Chicago Bulls vs. New York Knicks – 1984-1996
One of the longest rivalries on this list, and the second appearance of the 1990’s Knicks, the battles these two Eastern Conference teams had were hellacious.
This rivalry didn’t begin with a playoff series, or a triple-overtime thriller. No, it actually began on consecutive draft nights in 1984 and 1985, where the Chicago Bulls took Michael Jordan out of UNC with the third pick, and the New York Knicks selected Patrick Ewing out of Georgetown with the first pick respectively.
These teams met in the playoffs for the first time in the Jordan-Ewing era in 1989. Jordan led the league in scoring for the third time, and Ewing was just entering his prime at 26 years of age. The Knicks had a record of 52-30 and were the second seed, whereas Chicago were the sixth seed, with a record of 47-35. A battle of east coast dominance.
The Bulls would upset Ewing and the Knicks, setting the tone for the next three series they would face off in. Chicago would go up against the Knicks in 1991, ’92 and ’93, defeating them soundly en route to their first three-peat.
The only time the Knicks would get the one-up on the Bulls is when Michael Jordan retired. Following their first three-peat, MJ left to play baseball, and the Knicks managed to grab the second seed, facing the Bulls in the second round of the playoffs. This series went the full 7 games, and included a game 3 brawl in front of David Stern, a game winner from Tony Kukoč, and a controversial call in game 5 to gift the Knicks the victory. New York would go on to face the Rockets in The Finals that year, losing in game 7.
Jordan would return the following year halfway through the season, dropping 55 in The Garden his fifth game back, which is now known as the ‘Double-nickel game’.
New York and Chicago would only be matched up once more in the playoffs during MJ’s return, in the 1996 playoffs. The previous year, Patrick Ewing blew a layup in game 7 against the Pacers in the Eastern semis, something that is etched in Knicks’ fans memories forever. The Knicks were unfortunate enough to face the Bulls in the semis during their 72-10 record-setting year, getting demolished in 5, and burying the rivalry for the time being.
3. Chicago Bulls vs. Detroit Pistons – 1988-1991
One of the fiercest rivalries of the Jordan-era had to make the top 3 on this list.
This rivalry, like many on this list, started in the Playoffs, of 1988 to be exact. Both teams met in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and both teams had history together.
Detroit, or ‘The Bad Boys’ as they were known, were a rising force in the East, assembling a defensive-minded team that was one of the most aggressive in the league, consisting of Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and the infamous Dennis Rodman.
For the Bulls, they had a Sophomore Scottie Pippen, and of course, Michael Jordan, fresh off his first MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards. In a previous meeting between the two squads that year on Easter Sunday, Jordan destroyed the Pistons’ defense, posting 59 points in a 112-110 Bulls’ victory.
This performance angered Pistons’ coach Chuck Daly, who made sure Jordan would never have a performance like that against them again. The plan seemed to work that year, as despite Jordan’s immense talent, Detroit dispatched Chicago in 5 games, and eventually went on lose the NBA Finals to the Lakers in 7.
The two teams matched up again in the playoffs the following year, Chicago being seeded sixth and Detroit first. The Bulls were a dark horse in the East, defeating the Cavs with “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo, and then the Knicks the following round, and took an early 2-1 lead over Detroit.
That’s when Detroit decided to employ “The Jordan Rules”, which consisted of targeting Jordan individually on defense, and to be extremely physical with him every possession. When asked by the media about this strategy, the Pistons were very secretive. But as time went on, even up till today, Detroit players say that “The Jordan Rules” were just a joke they made up to throw the Bulls off their game. According to Pistons forward Rick Mahorn:
“We were just throwing stuff out there. It was just a joke. Chuck throws it out there that we had some secret plan to stop Jordan, and everybody just jumped on it. Everybody was writing stories about this strategy. When we kept reading about it, Isiah told us that we had gotten in their heads, and that's how we had them beat.”
Detroit won the next 3 games, and went on to win their first ever NBA title.
Unlike other rivalries above, this one gets even more personal. While both Detroit and Chicago disliked each other a lot, some say there was legitimate hatred between MJ and Isiah Thomas, who was originally from Chicago himself, and was a basketball legend there.
Thomas felt as though Jordan was “taking the city for himself” and was “gaining unearned attention.” This led to NBA veterans “freezing-out” Jordan in the 1985 All-Star game, led by Thomas, ignoring him on offense on most possessions.
As a result, Isiah Thomas was left off the 1992 Dream Team, with Jordan and Pippen reportedly stating they wouldn’t play if Zeke was on the team.
The Bulls would face the Pistons for the third straight time in the playoffs in 1990 under new coach Phil Jackson, who had implemented the triangle offense and led the Bulls to a 55-27 record, being seeded second behind the 59-23 Pistons.
Chicago pushed Detroit to the limits, but the Pistons prevailed, coming out with the win in Game 7, winning their second NBA Championship the following round.
The rivalry culminated in 1991, where Jordan and the Bulls focused more on teamwork, and improved to 61-21 wins on the season, good for first in the East, while Jordan won another MVP award. Detroit fell to third in the East that season, but the two still met in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Proving all the doubters wrong, the Bulls swept the Pistons, going on to win their first title of six over Magic and the Lakers. In a show of defiance and rudeness, Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Mark Aguirre all left the court before Game 7 ended, not shaking hands with any Bulls. Zeke has stated that it is the one thing he still regrets to this day.
2. Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell – 1959-1969
This rivalry was so fierce, so competitive, so equal, that fans still debate who is the better player out of the two to this day, and that’s why it deserves a spot on this list as the greatest individual rivalry in the sport’s rich history.
These two giants of the game had numerous battles, both in the regular season, the playoffs, and in award races. Some of the stories revolving around these two behemoths are legendary, some so far-fetched you wouldn’t be blamed if you didn’t believe them.
These two men first met in 1959, Wilt’s rookie season and Russell’s fourth professional campaign. By the time everything was said and done in 1969, they had faced each other a whopping 142 times , with Russell winning 82 of those matchups.
During those 10 years, they met each other in the postseason eight times. I’m pretty sure the basketball gods were dictating who was seeded where so that these two could go at it year after year. Even when they played in opposite conferences (Russell in the East with Boston, Wilt with the Warriors and Lakers in the West), they still managed to face each other twice in The Finals, both in 1964 and 1969. Indicated by his 11 championship rings, Russell won both of these, with ease.
If Bill Russell dominated Wilt in terms of team success and championships, Wilt had him beat on the individual end. Sure, Russell won 5 MVP’s to Wilt’s 4, but that can also be accredited to Russell’s amazing team success. I mean, Bill stole the 1961-62 MVP right from underneath Wilt.
The Big Dipper averaged an unbelievable 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists on 54% shooting per game FOR HIS CAREER. Compare that to Russell’s “lowly” 15.1 points, 22.3 boards and 4.3 helpers a game on 44% shooting, Wilt has him beat handily. Wilt was also one of the only players to win MVP in his rookie season.
That’s what made this rivalry so great. Both men were almost polar opposites. Bill Russell was all about winning, not caring about his stats as long as he won it all at the end of the year. Wilt the Stilt on the other hand, was a big stats man. He was infatuated by his own numbers. The story goes that he led the league in assists only because of the criticism he got for not passing the ball and being a ball hog.
No matter what your opinion is on both players, or the era that they played in, you just can’t deny that these two defined their era of basketball with their back-and-forth rivalry.
1. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics – 1959-
C’mon you knew it would be these two franchises, don’t kid yourself.
This is easily the most storied rivalry in NBA history, no doubt about it. These two teams have faced each other a record 12 times in the NBA Finals, and have combined for 33 of the NBA’s 71 championships. Who knows where the NBA would be without these two teams.
It all started back in 1959, when Bill Russell’s Celtics would face off against Elgin Baylor’s Lakers, based in Minneapolis at that time. Boston swept the Lakers that series, kicking off their run of eight straight titles, from 1959, to 1966. In that span, they faced the Lakers in The Finals five times, and then another 2 times in 1968 and ’69, giving them a 7-0 record against the Lakers in the Bill Russell Era.
The next boom period for these two franchises was in the 80’s when both teams drafted Magic Johnson and Larry Bird (Which deserves its own entry on this list, but I decided to include it here.) These two had faced each other in the NCAA Championship game the year before they were drafted, and their rivalry carried on over into the NBA, restarting the storied competition between Boston and LA.
The Celtics and Lakers would meet each other in The Finals three times during the 80’s, with the Celtic trio of Bird, McHale and Parish up against the Lakers duo of Magic and Kareem. The ‘Showtime’ Lakers as they were known in the 80’s gained some sort of redemption for the LA franchise, finally shaking the monkey off their backs and defeating the Celtics in The Finals for the first time in history in 1985, falling short the year prior. They continued this success by dispatching of them again in 1987, the last meeting for over 20 years.
Finally, after a dormant period where the Lakers continued their success in the early 90’s and 2000’s, Boston got it together, forming the big 3 of Pierce, Garnett and Allen, making their way to The Finals once again in 2008 against none other than Kobe’s Lakers.
Paul Pierce and Boston prevailed in 2008, winning their first championship in 24 long years, and their 17th overall. The Lakers were out for revenge after this devastating loss, and destroyed all comers on their way to the 2009 title, and The 2010 Finals, against none other than the Boston Celtics.
Boston were vying for their 18th title, the most in NBA history, and the Lakers were playing catch-up, looking for their 16th ring. In an extremely memorable series, the Lakers fought tooth and nail for the series win in an exhilarating 7 games, gifting Kobe his fifth and final ring.
As of now, the Lakers are in the middle of a rebuild, in the midst of their worst period in franchise history. Meanwhile, Boston are at the top of the East, battling it out with the Bulls in the playoffs, so it seems extremely unlikely we’ll see these two in The Finals in the near future, but you never know.
No matter what the future holds for these two storied franchises though, it’s almost certain we will never see another rivalry that can compete with the likes of the Lakers and Celtics.