Ranking the Biggest Feuds in NBA History
There are rivalries, and then there are feuds.
A rivalry carries a sense of animosity purely on the court. A feud involves the game on the court, but spreads well beyond that. Pride, emotion and vitriol take the place of simply wanting to win a game.
There are a million reasons for why a feud can exist.
Players can foolishly become enraged with teammates even though they've had tremendous success together. A coach can become incensed with having to do trivial interviews at inopportune times. General managers can be too successful and create jealousy from their overbearing owners.
Logic is cast to the four winds as the feud takes hold.
Here are 13 feuds in NBA history that remain timeless, yet somehow senseless.
13. Karl Malone vs. Dennis Rodman
Yes, Hulk Hogan is winding up a punch to throw at a hapless Karl Malone being held back by Dennis Rodman.
Yes, this is the most bizarre feud in NBA history.
Dennis Rodman got underneath nearly everyone's skin during his lengthy, Hall of Fame career. By 1998, Rodman's Chicago Bulls were meeting Karl Malone's Utah Jazz for the second straight season in the NBA Finals.
Rodman's annoying tactics on the court raised enough of Malone's ire that the two men agreed to a wrestling match after the finals concluded. Of course, Rodman couldn't wait till then to stir up some good publicity for the match.
In Game 6, after battling for a loose ball midway through the third quarter, Rodman began to repeatedly stumble into and trip Malone. Although called for a flagrant foul for his antics, Rodman still did what he set out to do: annoy the opponent at key moments.
This Game 6 is more famous for Michael Jordan's finals-winning strip of Malone and subsequent dagger jump shot.
But what I'm sure you really want to see how the entirety of Malone and Rodman's wrestling match went.
12. Paul Pierce vs. Quentin Richardson
The cause of the feud between Paul Pierce and Quentin Richardson has never been fully revealed. Its origins remain as mysterious as the dark side of the moon.
The feud was the real deal, though. Their despising dispositions led to physical play on both sides of the ball and words of bravado. In 2008, the two players were ejected from a game for excessive trash-talking.
It takes a lot of trash talk to get yourself ejected from an NBA game. Even after the ejection, Richardson continued yelling violently at Pierce as the two were led to their respective locker rooms via Madison Square Garden's tunnels.
Well, two years later in the playoffs, Pierce and Richardson's antics again revved up. Richardson had moved on from the Knicks to the Miami Heat for this circus. After having fouled Pierce into the out-of-bounds area, Richardson lazily strolled over to deliver some taunting words. Kevin Garnett began to wolf at Richardson to back away. A scuffle of sorts began that ended with Garnett elbowing Richardson in the face.
Richardson was none too impressed with the antics of Garnett and Pierce:
All I will say is people act one way in NBA environments where things can be restrained and you’re going to be penalized, fined and da-da-da-da-da-da. Stuff is going to come to a screeching halt as soon as it happens anyway.
And you know, you put some people in different environments, they want to do the same thing. And those two pretty much know that. They’ve been in different environments and didn’t act the same way. You know, that’s why I call them actresses.
Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports reported that the ultimate source of this mysterious beef may have been a recruiting trip back in the 1990s:
Pierce once hosted Richardson as a recruit at the University of Kansas. Neither player has fully explained what the problem is, but this much is clear: Richardson has always seemed to be more irritated about the situation – and, as a result, has done most of the talking.
Sadly, Richardson is out of the league, and we can no longer enjoy the sassy back-and-forth between him and Pierce.
11. Gregg Popovich vs. Craig Sager
Gregg Popovich has never been a fan of sideline interviews, or the media in general, actually. However, he saves the best of his distaste concerning needless interviews for TNT's Craig Sager.
The ostentatiously dressed Sager gets the best of Pop's nasty disposition because of his colorful suits and because his interviews occur during the game itself. Popovich clearly would rather be devising better strategies and inspiring his players to victory. Instead, he has to put up with Sager's questions.
Icy glares and deadpan stares often accompany Popovich's condescending answers. Another favorite tactic of the former Air Force serviceman is to rhetorically repeat portions of Sager's sometimes lackluster questions.
Sager and Popovich interviews, simply put, are must-see TV. It'll be a sad day when either leaves the NBA because they've brought contentious joy to millions over the past decade.
10. Ernie Grunfeld vs. Washington Wizards Fans
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Ernie Grunfeld has been the general manager of the Washington Wizards since 2003. After a brief stretch of success in 2005 and 2006, the Wizards have limped along mightily.
Insane contract extensions (Gilbert Arenas) and trades (Emeka Okafor/Trevor Ariza) have handcuffed the club's future prospects. By any stretch, Grunfeld should have been fired years ago, but he keeps hanging on.
Much to the consternation of Wizards fans.
Granted, this feud is largely directed from one party to another, but the D.C. basketball scene—what's left of it anyway—has turned vehemently against Grunfeld's tenure. The Fire Ernie Grunfeld blog neatly sums up the depressed anger Washington harbors for its GM.
Grunfeld's abysmal record as GM of the Wizards is updated regularly. His litany of awful decisions are recalled for the world to easily see. Just this week, another lengthy salvo was heard from the fans demanding Grunfeld's firing.
A Twitter search of "Ernie Grunfeld" just taps a vein of hate rarely seen amongst humanity:
Someone punch Ernie Grunfeld in the face for me --- Rudy Gay trade rumors: Wizards reportedly offered Bradley Beal sbn.to/UYLq8R— David Corbett (@JDC5000) January 14, 2013
Bullets/Wizards have had worst GM's in NBA history. Bob Ferry, John Nash, Wes Unseld, Michael Jordan, Ernie Grunfeld— Mr. ManSitChoAzzDown (@AngryBlkManDC) January 14, 2013
Ernie Grunfeld would never make a stupid trade. Oh, right, Okafor and Ariza....— Matt Kremnitzer (@mattkremnitzer) January 14, 2013
The feud goes on, and so do Washington's miserable seasons.
9. LeBron James vs. DeShawn Stevenson
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The Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers engaged in three straight heated postseasons from 2006 to 2008. By the end of this rivalry, LeBron James and DeShawn Stevenson's matchup had devolved into a classic feud.
Stevenson guarded LeBron in an often overly physical manner and gleefully celebrated any positive Wizards moment at James' expense. Stevenson could hardly feel his face at such moments.
However, the silliness of this feud got so out of hand that hip-hop stars Soulja Boy and Jay-Z were drawn into the affair. LeBron compared himself to Jay-Z and Stevenson to one-hit wonder Soulja Boy. To back up LeBron, Jay-Z made a diss track insulting Stevenson and the Wizards.
Media Take Out accurately summed up the ridiculousness of this feud:
First, why is 40 year old Jay Z getting involved in beef between two twenty-something NBA players. Second, why does Jay feel its appropriate to use the wackest beat known to man for that track Third, isn't Jay Z supposed to be an NBA team owner??? It's not only tacky to diss a player - it's bad business
Stevenson had previously invited Soulja Boy to a playoff game to stand by the Wizards' side and fire up the D.C. crowd. It temporarily worked with Washington winning Game 3 at home. Ultimately, though, the Wizards were no match for Cleveland and were defeated in six games.
8. Paul Allen vs. Kevin Pritchard
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Paul Allen is one of the wealthiest men in the world. He made his money as a co-founder of Microsoft and carries with him a tremendously large ego. That ego made itself clearly evident with his relationship with former Portland Trail Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard.
A decade ago, the Portland Trail Blazers were mired in an awful muck of losing. The franchise bottomed out in 2005-06 with just 21 wins. Their return to prominence was in large part thanks to Pritchard. Becoming the official head of Portland's basketball decisions in 2007, Pritchard's personnel moves helped guide Portland to three straight postseasons (2009-2011).
Pritchard garnered tremendous praise, perhaps too much for the controlling owner's liking (via John Canzano of The Oregonian):
Pritchard got too powerful for the liking of those running the team in Portland and at Allen's Vulcan Inc. mothership. He got too much attention. He got too much adoration. Too many people heard "Pritch-Slapped!" and "In KP We Trust" too many times. And even though he had a shaky free-agent summer in 2009, given that Pritchard's deep roster saved the 2009-2010 season from being derailed by injuries, he should not be left to doubt his job security.
As an apparent salvo to Pritchard's regime, Allen fired assistant general manager Tom Penn in May 2010. Then, that summer, Allen fired Pritchard. Even though officially relieved of his duties, Pritchard gamely manned the Blazers' draft-day choices.
Following the ugly mess, Allen gave an unconvincing interview trying to place the fall on Pritchard himself:
Q: Pritchard ended the relationship?
A: He asked to be let go. Multiple times. I heard that you guys had that story.
Q: Multiple times that day or did he ask previously too?
A: In that meeting. He just kept coming back to it. "Let's just part ways."
Sounds more like Allen forced out a GM who was too popular. Allen's Blazers are currently having a surprisingly good season, but are playing well above their heads. Meanwhile, Pritchard has now taken over the Indiana Pacers, who are a playoff lock and set up nicely for the next few years.
7. Reggie Miller vs. Spike Lee
One of the best feuds in NBA history simply because of the hilarity.
Film director and avid Knicks fan Spike Lee was in a celebratory mood during the 1994 playoffs. The New York Knicks had gone up, 2-0, on the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals. However, the Pacers bounced back, winning the next two games in Indiana.
For Game 5 in New York, Lee engaged in a legendary exchange of trash-talking with Indiana's Reggie Miller. In the fourth quarter, Miller scored a preposterous 25 points. As the barrage increased in its fury, Miller directed more and more of his ire in Lee's direction.
After one particular three-pointer, Miller gave Lee the choke sign. And choking appeared to be what the Knicks were doing. The Pacers took Game 5 and now held a 3-2 series lead over the Knicks.
Traveling with the Knicks to Indiana, Lee was thrilled to see the Knicks upend the Pacers. The New York media and fans had lambasted Lee for goading Miller into his 39-point Game 5, and the victory in Game 6 let him off the hook. The Knicks won the series in Game 7, thus totally exonerating Lee.
Their squabbles over the years would continue, but Lee and Miller never quite reached the heights of their Game 5 feud.
6. Dan Gilbert vs. LeBron James
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Dan Gilbert made quite the fool of himself in instigating a feud with LeBron James.
Yes, the Decision was ill-conceived, but it's not like LeBron owed Gilbert his services. The man was a free agent and could take his talents elsewhere. Gilbert, however, was a mighty jilted lover and threw his hat into the ring of feisty feuds.
This shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown "chosen one" sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And "who" we would want them to grow-up to become.
But the good news is that this heartless and callous action can only serve as the antidote to the so-called "curse" on Cleveland, Ohio.
The self-declared former "King" will be taking the "curse" with him down south. And until he does "right" by Cleveland and Ohio, James (and the town where he plays) will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma.
Sleep well, Cleveland.
Tomorrow is a new and much brighter day....
Since Gilbert's promise to win a title before LeBron Jame, the Cavaliers have not won a title and LeBron has. So much for that.
That feud, though, reached terrible depths in December of 2010 when James returned to Cleveland for the first time. Egged on by Gilbert's vitriolic letter from the summer, fans greeted LeBron with deafening boos all night long.
But with the passage of time, Gilbert has eased in his vitriol and admitted the poor way he handled James leaving Cleveland, saying the letter and its title guarantee were "not the most brilliant thing I've ever done in my life.''
Hopefully, this hatchet is buried for good.
5. Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas
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The feud between Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan supposedly began during the 1985 NBA All-Star Game. It was Jordan's rookie season and Thomas' fourth. Nonetheless, it is widely believed that Thomas orchestrated a freeze-out by the other East All-Stars of the wildly popular Jordan. The rookie "only" attempted nine shots, which isn't a total freeze-out.
Since then, Jordan has dampened this moment as a possible start of the feud. During his Hall of Fame induction speech, he had this to say on the freeze-out:
I was just happy to be there, being the young guy surrounded by all these greats, I just wanted to prove myself and I hope that I did prove myself to you guys.
What is likely the real source of this feud is the four straight times that Thomas' Detroit Pistons played Jordan's Bulls in the playoffs. Beginning in 1988, these two clubs butted heads in highly physical confrontations.
Jordan's teammate Scottie Pippen shed light on how the Bulls felt about Detroit's bad boys and their physical play:
Isiah was the general (of the Pistons). He was the guy who would yap at his teammates and say "Kick them on their ass. Do whatever you have to do." ... I despised how he played the game.
When the Bulls finally defeated Detroit in the 1991 postseason, the Pistons walked off the court without shaking hands with the Bulls. Many people at the time and since have considered it a classless move.
The playoff battles and the final affront in 1991 may have been the reason Thomas was subsequently left off the Dream Team in 1992. Jordan didn't want Isiah. Pippen didn't want Isiah. No one, it seemed, wanted Isiah. Former NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik shed some light on Thomas' non-selection:
We were picking a group just after the Pistons had been eliminated by the Bulls. It was very bad timing for Isiah. Everyone had that impression in their mind, the picture of Isiah walking off the court.
Looks like Jordan got the best of Isiah in this feud.
4. Toronto Fans vs. Vince Carter
In 2010, The Good Point consulted James Borbath on why, exactly, Toronto sports fans despise Vince Carter:
“The common belief is Vince Carter quit on the Raptors.” A reference to a 2004 game against Seattle when it was alleged Carter tipped off opponents about plays the Raptors were about to run. “Fans feel angry and cheated about that. Unfortunately that over shadows some of the good things Vince did for this franchise and the city of Toronto. But how he left is how he is remembered, and that is a player that lacked effort and professionalism.”
Given this sentiment, it's unsurprising Toronto fans gave Carter their vitriolic response in his first game back in Canada. Boos...lusty, lusty boos...came all night long for Carter every time he touched the ball.
Sadly for Toronto fans, that was about as delightful as the night would get. Carter's first return to Toronto ended with him scoring 39 points with nine rebounds and four assists. Carter's New Jersey Nets defeated the Raptors, 101-90.
Things really didn't get much better over the years for Toronto whenever Mr. Carter came to town.
In January 2006, Carter nailed a three-pointer to defeat Toronto, 105-104.
In November 2008, Carter hit a three-pointer to tie a game with Toronto. In overtime, Vince then put down a reverse alley-oop dunk to finish off the Raptors. Fans in Ontario were distraught and resorted to copious booing.
Sadly, it's all they can really do to thwart the Half-Man, Half-Amazing Carter.
3. Jerry Krause vs. Michael Jordan
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The Chicago Bulls won six NBA titles with Michael Jordan as their best player and Jerry Krause as their GM. With such success came much jealousy, though. Both men seemed intent on diminishing the role the other played in creating the Bulls' dynasty.
Krause raised Jordan's ire back in the 1990s, when he quipped that organizations win titles. In 2012, Krause was still sticking to his mantra:
Here's a ticklish phrase: "You've won six championships." No, the organization won six NBA championships. I never have considered that I won anything. I say that and get ripped for it, but it's true. Organizations win championships. Organizations lose championships too.
No player ever won six world championships. He was part of a team. Who put you there? Who helped develop you? Who scouted you? Who coached you? You played all nine positions in baseball? You played all five positions in basketball? Wow, you must be pretty good.
Jordan didn't like the insinuation that he owed his title success to a man who never set foot on the basketball court. He didn't like it in the 1990s and he doesn't like it still. During Jordan's Hall of Fame induction speech, he took a deliberate swipe at Krause and his logic:
Jerry's not here. I don't know who'd invite him. I didn't. I hope he understands it goes a long way. He's a very competitive person. I was a very competitive person. He said organizations win championships. I said, "I didn't see organizations playing with the flu in Utah. I didn't see it playing with a bad ankle." Granted, I think organizations put together teams. But at the end of the day, the team's got to go out and play. I think the players win the championship, and the organization has something to do with it, don't get me wrong. But don't try to put the organization above the players.
This festering wound explains why the Bulls dynasty destructed when it did. If anything, it's amazing the Bulls got to six titles considering the way that Jordan and Krause couldn't get along.
2. Shaquille O'Neal vs. Kobe Bryant
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If not the biggest feud, this is certainly the most famous one in NBA history.
Shaq took home all three Finals MVPs. Deservedly so. The Diesel was unstoppable with 36 points, 15 rebounds, 3.5 assists and three blocks per game in the three Finals that the Lakers won. Kobe was masterful, too, but just not on Shaq's mammoth level. Bryant finished with 22 points, six rebounds, five assists and 1.5 steals per game.
What really got Kobe's ire, though, was Shaq's woeful and inadequate training and workout regimen. The Big Aristotle felt it wise to get into shape during the season instead of coming into every campaign in good shape.
Bryant's relentless work ethic clashed with Shaq's oafish ethos. By 2004, Bryant had had enough of the situation and wanted Shaq out of Los Angeles. The Lakers obliged and O'Neal was traded to Miami.
Since then, Shaq has rapped about Kobe tasting his derriere. They've competed in a series of highly anticipated Christmas Day games. Kobe has gleefully celebrated surpassing Shaq's ring total after winning the 2010 title.
But the whole thing is a shame. We were all robbed of a dynamic duo that voluntarily crumbled.
As Bill Simmons noted, these two should have gone the way of Magic and Kareem. Shaq's declining but still-awesome skills complementing the burgeoning success of Kobe. The two egos just couldn't mesh, though.
1. Red Auerbach vs. Ben Kerner
Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, no rivalry in the NBA was hotter or better than the Boston Celtics versus the St. Louis Hawks.
The Celtics trotted out stars like Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey and K.C. Jones. The Hawks countered with Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan, Slater Martin, Ed Macauley and Clyde Lovellette. Every one of those players is in the Hall of Fame, by the way.
Between 1957 and 1961, the clubs battled in four NBA Finals, with two of the series going the full seven games. Boston won three of these titles, St. Louis one. The on-court battles surely were amazing, but the most bloodthirsty aspect of these contests didn't concern any of the players.
Hawks owner Ben Kerner and Celtics coach Red Auerbach absolutely despised each other long before their teams battled in the playoffs for the first time in 1957.
Back in 1950, Kerner's Hawks franchise was located in the Tri-Cities of Iowa and Illinois and called the Blackhawks. That season, Kerner had hired Red Auerbach as his coach. Although just 32, Auerbach had already demonstrated success as a pro coach.
With the Washington Capitals in the old BAA, Auerbach had a .684 win percentage and got his team to the 1947 BAA Finals. In the 1950 season, the first of the NBA's existence, Auerbach achieved a respectable 28-29 record with the Blackhawks.
Kerner, however, was dissatisfied with the team's early postseason exit. He canned Auerbach after the season. Furthermore, Auerbach was displeased that the meddlesome owner hadn't kept his pledge to leave Auerbach in charge of personnel.
Years later, in 1957, Auerbach and Kerner met in the Finals and none of the bad blood had dissipated over time. The two men exchanged verbal jabs over the course of the whole Finals series.
Words turned to action prior to Game 5. In pregame warm-ups at the Hawks' arena, Bob Cousy noted to Auerbach that the baskets didn't seem to be at regulation height. Auerbach brought in the game officials to inspect the basket height.
Seeing the scene unfold, Kerner hopped onto the court and began to berate what he saw as Auerbach's bush-league tactics. We'll let Cousy recall the rest of the scene...
Kerner took Arnold’s questioning the basket as a personal affront. He was screaming obscenities at Arnold, questioning his integrity. Arnold had his back turned to Kerner. As Kerner came closer, Arnold just turned around and leveled him. He really cold-cocked Kerner, put him right down at midcourt with a sold-out crowd waiting for the game to begin.
Yes, the coach of one NBA finalist decked the owner of the other team in front of a sold-out arena. The two enemies continued their feud over the years, but Kerner hitting the floor by the fist of Auerbach was their highwater mark and emblematic of the biggest feud in NBA history.