The NBA rivalry died because it was antiquated. Now it's returned, but we're not entirely sure how it happened.
In the olden days—which, depending on your age, can mean anywhere from 1956 to around 1996—a myriad of factors conspired to make rivalries almost a given. There were fewer teams. Teams played each other more often, and with deeper teams, more guys who mattered had a stake in it. Longer college careers gave players an early education in bloodthirsty rivalry, which often carried over directly into a player's pro career. Salaries were lower, and for awhile, free agency was non-existent, making it more likely that teams would stick together and develop a sense of common cause.
Then came the familiar litany of factors: individual salaries ballooned; players started looking for the highest bidder; everybody wanted to be The Man rather than stick around and build something; players skipped out on most or all of college; the AAU system fostered a camaraderie between players that trumped their loyalty to team or fans. Not to mention, more teams meant fewer meetings, less investment and familiarity and a greater sense of distance between opposing sides.
That's when the phantom rivalry took hold, the one that said, more or less, jerseys hating each other is enough to make the present matter.
The Knicks decided they had a rivalry with every major team, provided they could milk it for promotional value. Same with the Celtics, when they were decent. History and tradition can be strong, but with no tie to the past other than what they've been told to think, and their time on the team anything but a long-term given, players weren't the ones living out these rivalries. They were for the fans, or the few vets who had stuck around long enough to think like fans.
Over the last few years, though, a funny thing has happened: We've gotten a number of rivalries that, spontaneously, have popped up to reclaim this time-honored part of the game.
Some of them are revivals, like Lakers-Celtics from a few years ago. But mostly, it's a reflection of the current quality and intensity of play in the league, as well as the cohesion of the best teams. The more a team sticks together, the faster it learns to hate, and the easier it is for someone to hate it. Say what you will about the super-teams stacking talent, they make the league into a place where emotions run hotter, games matter more and the backstory is easier to remember.
Case in point: This weekend's Lakers-Heat matchup. Previously, LeBron James was a one-game rivalry generator, usually in the most rote way possible. Teams, vet-laden groups who prided themselves on their lack of ego, would go up against James and look to cut him down to size. First it was the Pistons, then the Celtics.
Just as ineffectual were the Kobe-LeBron comparisons that fueled some impressive shootouts, but did little to establish real beef between the two teams. It wasn't about them; it was about two guys and how the world saw them.
Now, though, the Lakers are a graying powerhouse looking for one last ring, and the Heat are overlords ready to assume the mantle of the league's running dynasty. LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Kobe are the centerpieces—with particular awkward tension underscoring Wade and Kobe after last weekend's All-Star Game fiasco—but it's also about the drama between these two squads. They are in each other's way. Something has to give. Kobe may claim to have never had a rival in his career, but that kind of mind games only shows how much he cares.
The same goes for the Heat and Bulls, fighting to take control of the East: Both teams as dangerous on defense as on offense. It doesn't take much to kindle this kind of rivalry; just a league in flux and competitive players who aren't exactly inclined to pal around during games.
The Battle for Los Angeles is a perfect example of this. The upstart Clippers are led by Chris Paul, and if you can imagine Paul and Kobe exchanging pleasantries at half court, you don't know much about these two players.
The Heat and Thunder have a similar rivalry going, but with LeBron and Durant fighting it out for MVP in the middle of it.
The Thunder are particularly good at cultivating rivalries, perhaps because they epitomize the close-knit team that's likely together for the long haul. Besides Miami, they have one with the Memphis Grizzlies forged in the playoffs and a divisional war with the Portland Trail Blazers stemming from several nail-biting contests that left each team with a bitter palate. Close games, even in the playoffs, mean nothing in themselves. But if a team is inclined to take them personally and feed off of one another, that's where rivalries are formed these days.
In a way, it's a golden age for rivalries since the bar is so low for provoking them—and players so eager to dive in. Nothing will ever match the Lakers and Celtics battles of the '80s or a slugfest like the Heat-Knicks games of the '90s that were probably better at the time than they ever will be on replay. And yet the strength and immediacy of the current crop of rivalries is refreshing.
When information and ideas travel around the globe at unfathomably high speeds, why should rivalries take time to grow? As long as the players stick around to see them through, they can start with a single series.