NBA's Best Rivalries of 2013-14 Season
Remember those things? The bitter battles that basketball fans with decades invested in the sport say no longer exist, the supposed casualties of a professional sports world more friendly, more accessible and certainly more profitable than generations past.
Well, they're absolutely still around. Plenty of them, in fact.
But which ones are the best? Which hardwood feuds have been the most enjoyable to watch throughout the course of this campaign?
Could it be the hard-fought wars for Eastern Conference supremacy between the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat? Or what about those blood-boiling clashes out in the Pacific Division between the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers? Or J.R. Smith's nightly crusades against common sense?
From a hotly contested wardrobe campaign down to the greatest on-court encounters this year has provided, let's look at the best rivalries of the 2013-14 NBA season.
Players vs. Sleeves
I'm not sure what type of reaction the NBA was hoping to get from its increased use of short-sleeved jerseys, but I'm fairly confident this wasn't it.
The look, while a big hit in terms of merchandising, has drawn some stern opposition. Chief among those critics is Miami Heat megastar and four-time MVP LeBron James.
"I'm not a big fan of the jerseys," James said, via Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com. "Every time I shoot it feels like it's just pulling right up underneath my arm. ... It's definitely not a good thing."
James isn't the only player less than thrilled with the wardrobe change. But in this larger-than-life league, the two-time champion carries the proverbial biggest stick.
He couldn't have sent his message any clearer, and it's apparently been received.
"Ultimately, if the players don't like them, we'll move on to something else," commissioner Adam Silver told B/R's Howard Beck. "... If it becomes a serious issue, as to whether players should be wearing sleeves, we'll likely move onto other things."
As someone who's logged some excruciatingly long minutes alongside oversized, sleeveless, perspiring fans at NBA arenas, I can easily see why it would be nice to keep these in circulation. But as someone who's battled a soaked, sleeved shirt on the court, I can also see why players aren't big fans.
The sleeved jerseys have been a bigger storyline this season than the NBA could have wanted. I have a hunch that won't be the case for the 2014-15 campaign.
Perception vs. Reality
There's an illusion of omniscience for today's sports fans. We like to think that we know everything.
But the 2013-14 NBA season stands as a staunch reminder that what we think we know and reality are two different things.
Take the Phoenix Suns, for instance.
Over the offseason, they cut ties with veteran contributors like Jared Dudley, Luis Scola, Jermaine O'Neal and Michael Beasley, then shipped out Marcin Gortat right before the season. Taking those players' places were some young guns (Eric Bledsoe, Alex Len, Miles Plumlee and Archie Goodwin) and a few NBA retreads (Gerald Green and Ish Smith). They also handed over the keys of their franchise to first-year coach Jeff Hornacek and first-time general manager Ryan McDonough.
With a potentially historically strong draft class waiting on the horizon, the Suns seemed to be thinking of the future at precisely the right time.
Well, if the Suns are in fact tanking, they're awful at it. Phoenix is 46-31 and would be dancing if the playoffs started today.
And this phenomenon has been seen outside the desert, as well.
The Toronto Raptors seemed to be hitting the reset button by trading away swingman Rudy Gay in early December, but they've since bullied their way to the Eastern Conference's No. 3 seed. Even the overstocked 2014 draft class has seemed to lose some of its luster over the course of the season.
Perception has a way of becoming reality in the sports world. This season has exposed the flaws in that logic.
Steve Clifford vs. Conventional Wisdom
They weren't written on the wall so much as they were etched in stone. The Charlotte Bobcats can't win. Al Jefferson doesn't defend.
First-year Bobcats coach Steve Clifford had to have seen them, but he never paid them any attention.
The Bobcats are winning (!), and they're doing it defensively (!!).
Charlotte has seven games left on its schedule—and already 11 more wins (39) than it had in the last two seasons combined (28). Saturday's 96-94 overtime win over the Cleveland Cavaliers clinched the Bobcats' second postseason berth in their 10-year existence.
"Words can't describe it," guard Kemba Walker said, via The Associated Press. "... We were on the worst team my first two years, so to go from there to here, it's like night and day."
Conventional wisdom has a hard time deciphering the turnaround, as well.
The Bobcats put an offensive spin on their offseason plans. Jefferson and stretch forward Anthony Tolliver inked free-agent deals with the franchise. Cody Zeller, who had trouble with the physicality of the college game, landed as the No. 4 pick of the 2013 draft.
After finishing each of the last two seasons dead last in defensive efficiency, the Bobcats now own the NBA's sixth-best mark (101.4 points allowed per 100 possessions).
They're shocking the basketball world and even surprising themselves.
"I don't know if any of us on our staff understood how good we could be," Clifford told Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. "... We knew Al would help. I certainly don't think anyone realized that he would play at this level."
This team is doing a lot things that no one realized could happen. Words cannot describe how far this group has come, nor could they explain what might happen next.
Patrick Beverley vs. Russell Westbrook
The picture doesn't lie. Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley is a pest.
He makes opposing floor generals uncomfortable and eliminates the concept of personal space. You could almost switch out Russell Westbrook's name for any NBA point guard—he's that type of nuisance at the defensive end.
"What's the secret to Beverley's success and impact on defense? The easy answer is he's really annoying. I say that with the utmost respect for his game," CBS Sports' Zach Harper wrote.
Westbrook knows all too well about Beverley's annoyance. The Rockets point guard, remember, was the one who crashed into Westbrook as the Thunder point guard was pulling up to call a timeout in the playoffs last season. Westbrook suffered a torn meniscus and eventually underwent three surgical procedures on his right knee over an eight-month span.
This rivalry would get an even higher ranking if not for the fact that we're nearly 12 months removed from its initial point of contact.
But time has not healed all wounds, and that's not just a reference to Westbrook's health.
Bad blood was back on display when the two locked horns on March 11. Beverley again tried to pounce as Westbrook eased up for a timeout, and a brief scuffle ensued. The two tangled in a loose-ball scramble later in the contest.
With each of these teams holding a top-four playoff seed in the West, this is a rivalry that could be renewed come playoff time.
Kobe Bryant vs. Los Angeles Lakers Front Office
On one hand, it's hard to call this a rivalry.
After all, the Los Angeles Lakers rewarded Kobe Bryant with a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension before the five-time champion had even returned from the torn Achilles that derailed his 2012-13 campaign.
On the other, Bryant took direct aim during a diatribe against the same front office in what could only be called "fighting words."
"You’ve got to start with Jim and Jeanie, and how all that relationship plays out,” Bryant said, referring to siblings Jim and Jeanie Buss, while explaining how to repair his free-falling franchise, via Jill Painter of the Los Angeles Daily News. "It starts there and having a clear direction and clear authority."
Bryant, sidelined for all but six games this season by both his Achilles rehab and, later, a left knee fracture, unleashed a Festivus-style airing of grievances.
"We can’t be satisfied that we’re 100 games under .500,” Bryant said. “That’s not what we stand for. That’s not what we play for."
Of course, there is no quick-fix solution available to the Lakers. This season's 25-52 record highlights how much work needs to be done, and that might not be accomplished in a single summer.
Barring a LeBron James sighting on the free-agent market, B/R's Kevin Ding reports, "The Lakers plan to piece a roster together again next season around Kobe Bryant and save their cap space for 2015 free agents."
In other words, there might be more cutting criticisms ahead.
J.R. Smith vs. the World
J.R. Smith began the 2013-14 campaign with a five-game suspension for violating the NBA's anti-drug program and never really recovered.
He was hit with a $25,000 fine in November for his part in a Twitter beef with Detroit Pistons point guard Brandon Jennings. His pocket became another $50,000 lighter after being fined for twice attempting to untie an opponent's shoelaces at the foul line.
The first was more of a face-palm moment, one you felt compelled to write off as J.R. just being J.R. But the second was nothing short of incomprehensible.
It came after direct warnings from both the league and New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson to not attempt the move again. NBA president of basketball operations Rod Thorn was even in attendance during the second game where Smith tried the grade-school maneuver.
"I don't know what (the recourse) is going to be at this point, but it's got to stop," Woodson said during an appearance on 98.7 ESPN Radio, via Peter Botte of New York Daily News. "It's unprofessional. That's the only word I can use. Or two words. You just can't do that. You just cannot do it."
Smith took to Instagram to express the betrayal he felt when the Knicks waived his younger brother, Chris, who already had his salary guaranteed for the entire season. Yes, the same Chris Smith who was later waived by the D-League's Erie Bayhawks, and the same one an opposing general manager said was "maybe the worst player in the history of the [NBA] summer league," via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.
J.R. Smith has always come with some baggage, but sometimes he's been able to ease some of the off-court concerns with his on-court production. That hasn't happened this season. He's converted just 40.9 percent of his field-goal attempts and seen his player efficiency rating (13.4) drop below the league average (15.0).
This is probably less of a rivalry and more of a one-sided beating, actually.
Chicago Bulls vs. Tanking
For all their grit and determination, the Chicago Bulls seemed to have reached a breaking point earlier this season.
Derrick Rose, who missed all of the 2012-13 campaign rehabbing from a torn ACL in his left knee, was shut down just 10 games into his return by a torn meniscus in his right knee. Jimmy Butler sat out 11 games with turf toe. An Achilles injury kept Luol Deng off the floor.
The Bulls appeared to be going nowhere fast—perhaps even moving in the wrong direction.
"Derrick is worried that the Bulls are going to lose what they have,” a league source told Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News. “He doesn’t want to go through rebuilding.”
It didn't seem as if the hobbled star would have a choice. Not after the Bulls swapped out Deng for salary-cap relief and future draft considerations in early January.
With Rose out and Deng gone, the Bulls had reasons to embrace the loss column. Landing a top pick in such a highly regarded draft could have meant finding Rose the superstar running mate this franchise had not yet provided.
If the front office was ever interested in collecting draft lottery ping pong balls, that sentiment never hit the locker room.
And, just like that, that was it.
The Bulls were 12-18 on December 31. They've gone 33-14 since and almost guaranteed themselves a top-four seed in the East.
Maybe the Bulls had a reason to tank. But they never had the desire to do it.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Father Time
As soon as the crack of baseball bats starts slicing through the air of spring training facilities in Arizona and Florida, NBA fans can feel them coming: apologetic stories about how we all counted out the San Antonio Spurs too soon.
Gregg Popovich's ageless roster has left hoop heads with no other choice but to cast them in the lot (or place them at the top, even) of full-fledged championship contenders. Streaking to 19 consecutive wins, which the Spurs did from late February through early April, tends to have that effect.
At some point, Father Time will in fact keep his unblemished record intact. As for when that will come, no one seems to know.
We just know that it isn't here now.
"The Spurs are the only ones heading into the playoffs that actually look the part of a true champion on a nightly basis," NBA.com's Sekou Smith wrote.
Their credentials are past the point of questioning. They're the NBA's only team with top-four marks in offensive (108.5, fourth) and defensive (99.6, third) efficiency. If not for a miracle shot from Ray Allen, they'd also have the title of defending champions.
Instead, they'll have to settle for a resume featuring 15 consecutive 50-win seasons and four NBA titles since 1999. Not bad for a team that seemed willing to close its own window three years ago.
Golden State Warriors vs. Los Angeles Clippers
The Golden State Warriros and Los Angeles Clippers aren't rivals. That's the story each side is selling, at least—although they might concede it's simply a matter of semantics.
"Call it what you want," Antonio Gonzalez of The Associated Press wrote. "On the court, there's no denying the players don't like each other."
If you had to pick a potential series capable of spurring some on-court fisticuffs, this is a no-brainer selection.
The on-court clashes have gotten pretty close to producing some physical battles already.
Things were testy before the teams even kicked off their regular-season series. The Clippers held separate chapel services from the Warriors before the team's first matchup.
That game featured a shoving match between centers Andrew Bogut and DeAndre Jordan, along with two technical fouls. Judging by their Christmas night contest, that first game constituted playing nice. The December 25th meeting featured two ejections, two flagrant fouls and three technical fouls.
The final two matchups were incident-free, although the margins of victory (the Warriors picked up a 19-point win on January 30, the Clippers won by 13 on March 12) may have played a large part in keeping everything calm.
The star power is strong on both sides of the equation, and each franchise is attempting to erase decades of futility by snagging a place among the NBA elites.
Oh, by the way, they're also likely on a collision course for a first-round playoff meeting.
"This is a good thing for anybody who likes intense, angry, rivalry basketball—because these two teams aren’t fond of each other, have gotten into more than a few scraps recently, and match up surprisingly evenly," Bay Area News Group's Tim Kawakami wrote.
How could a rivalry possibly get any better than that? Well, add in the best player on the planet and true championship connotations, and you'll get there.
Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat
The lead this rivalry has over the rest of the NBA's isn't what it used to be.
The Miami Heat have looked uncharacteristically vulnerable of late (10-9 in their last 19 games). The Indiana Pacers have almost revoked their own elite membership (20-18 in their last 38).
There's a very real chance this widely assumed set-in-stone Eastern Conference Finals meeting won't actually take place.
But hoop heads should be hoping it does, because today's rivalries don't get any better than this.
Chris Bosh's description of the teams' last tango conjures up images of the blood-splattering battles many feel no longer exist in the NBA.
"Our guys are getting punched in the face, man," Bosh said following Indiana's 84-83 win on March 26, via Jason Lieser of The Palm Beach Post. "We’re getting punched in the face and clotheslined out there."
Any chance Commissioner Silver might put their next meeting inside of a steel cage?
Physicality aside, this rivalry has a little bit of everything. Blue-collar grinders vs. manufactured superteam. Size vs. speed. Immovable object vs. unstoppable force.
The individual pairings are just as compelling.
Paul George vs. LeBron James is the headliner, but there's bad blood now (and loads of talent) in the Lance Stephenson vs. Dwyane Wade matchup. You won't find a tougher tilt than David West going toe-to-toe with Udonis Haslem, nor a more compelling competition than Roy Hibbert holding court with Greg Oden (assuming the latter is healthy enough to give it a go).
Rivalries lose a lot of steam if something of significance isn't up for grabs. Assuming these teams will meet again, a trip to the NBA Finals will be at stake.
It doesn't get much more significant than that.