Kobe Bryant vs. Dwyane Wade and the Top Player Rivalries in the NBA
This is what the NBA is built on.
From Russell versus Wilt to Magic versus Bird to Kobe versus LeBron, rivalries are the foundation of the league.
They’re how David Stern markets his product and, fortuitously for the commissioner, no league produces rivalries like the NBA.
Perhaps it’s the rules of the game—everyone shoots and everyone defends—that promote such matchups, or perhaps it’s the propensity to rely on individual stars. Or more likely still, it’s that we can see the emotion on those stars' angry faces and in that way we relate to their struggles.
Of the four major sports, it is the basketballers of whom we speak most personally. As such, those are the rivalries we tend to remember.
Here are the best of the league’s current crop, with no name appearing more than three times so as not to make our list too incestuous.
15. Ron Artest vs. Trevor Ariza
There is something about the pure, unadulterated Darwinism of this matchup that is perhaps without equal in any other corner of the NBA.
Ron Artest and Trevor Ariza literally switched places—Ariza landing a more substantial role on a lesser team, Artest taking Ariza’s spot on a championship one—leaving both with some sizable shoes to fill.
Artest is still struggling to mesh as seamlessly with the Lakers starters as did Ariza, but with Ariza now in New Orleans, there is less to tangibly compare on the other end.
For what their now two-year-old swap has meant to each involved, this is still one of the more notable rivalries in the league.
14. Joakim Noah vs. Kevin Garnett
Let’s let Joakim Noah take this one.
Courtesy of ESPN Radio in Chicago, here is JN musing on “dirty player” Garnett during the 2010 playoffs:
“He’s a very mean guy. Where’s the love? None at all. Ugly, too … and he was very mean to me my rookie year. And he’s only mean to the young guys and the [European players], for some reason. I don’t know why, but that’s who he doesn’t like. He’s not nice. I talk a lot of trash out there, but c’mon, be a little sensitive. Let’s be sweet.”
Basketball gods willing, this will be the cast of your Eastern Conference Finals.
13. Rajon Rondo vs. Chris Paul
This stands to rise substantially should Chris Paul end up in the East. As it stands right now, these two only get to hate on each other twice a year.
We first became aware of something simmering below the surface with these two in a regular-season matchup a year-and-a-half ago, after which Paul had to be restrained first from the Celtics bench, and later from the Celtics locker room.
Rondo, not exactly renowned for his humility, had taunted Paul’s lack of team success:
“I have a ring, and you’re never gonna win one.”
One of the premiere competitors in the league, Paul is still waiting on the opportunity to prove Rondo wrong.
12. LeBron James vs. Ron Artest
I think LeBron’s success against Ron is as good an indicator as any of his progression as a player.
I watched this battle from Day 1 (when LeBron admitted he was intimidated by Artest), to the day I felt the matchup turned (when LeBron, frustrated by the physical play, smacked Artest’s wrist so hard he knocked the then-Pacer out for two weeks).
As LeBron James grew into his body, he grew into this matchup. And today, there is no greater measure of Ron’s worth than his performance against LBJ.
11. Carmelo Anthony vs. LeBron James
This one goes back a long way.
And with Carmelo in New York, it has the potential for some serious growth.
Soon to be playoff adversaries, LeBron and Carmelo were set to become the NBA’s next Magic and Bird…until LeBron’s game went supernova while Carmelo began to stagnate in Denver.
But Melo is back and though it’s now evident that he won’t be able to one up James statistically, he has a knack for putting the ball in the hoop when in matters.
If New York continues to improve, this could become the most significant rivalry of the generation.
10. Derrick Rose vs. Russell Westbrook
A step up on LeBron and Carmelo for the time being on account of two things:
1. The ferocity with which these two attack each other.
2. LeBron James is a better player than Carmelo Anthony. I’m honestly not sure who emerges as superior between these two.
9. Derrick Rose vs. Rajon Rondo
A playoff-tested rivalry that features the two top point guards in the East, the two fastest players in the Eastern Conference and two guys whose alternatively dichotomous interpretation of the point guard position makes for incredible television.
They’ve already met in one of the best playoff series of all-time.
If Chicago can beat the Heat, they could meet again on a far grander stage.
8. Pau Gasol vs. Kevin Garnett
In a lot of ways, Kevin Garnett made Pau Gasol.
Garnett, debatable though his toughness may be, served as the bad boy Pistons to Pau Gasol’s struggling, pre-deification Jordan.
In this way, Gasol was forged in the fire of Garnett.
They have split the two NBA Finals between them. The rubber match could happen this year.
Editor’s note: Don’t forget, this one started early too. (Video courtesy of the best color guy in the history of the internet.)
7. Dwight Howard vs. Kendrick Perkins
We’re at a crossroads right now between Perk and D12, but this was the preeminent big man rivalry in the league for the last three years.
One of the only bigs in the league fully capable of keeping Dwight Howard away from the basket on his own, Perkins was the centerpiece of a defensive strategy that held the Magic center to 13.1 points a game in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.
Howard also acknowledges that Perkins handles him as well anyone in the league, but with the ex-Bostonian now in Oklahoma City, Dwight may not see him as often.
6. Shaquille O’Neal vs. Dwight Howard
This guy, however, Dwight will be seeing soon. Set to meet as early as the second round of the playoffs, there is nowhere that Howard can go to escape the shadow of Shaquille O’Neal.
They’ve fought over status, success and nicknames, and this year they’ll be battling in the second round of the playoffs.
One note: It is in these matchups that you realize how big Shaq really is. Dwight Howard is tall, thick and substantially smaller than Shaquille O’Neal.
5. Chris Paul vs. Deron Williams
Like Perkins versus Howard, this rivalry is at a crossroads right now. Truth be told, it was plateauing regardless.
They hold firm at the five spot, both on account of their historical relevance (out of the same draft, both could be all-time level point guards), and on the chance that things could be reignited within a year’s time.
4. Kobe Bryant vs. Ray Allen
On any rivalry list, there are added points for true disdain, and such disdain is exactly what Ray Allen seems to have for Kobe Bryant.
This one started in Seattle and has been given the opportunity to blossom on the league’s biggest stage.
Both of these guys approach each game against the other as an opportunity to validate their respective styles, and their battle is the most intriguing under-the-radar subplot of the ongoing Celtics-Lakers rivalry.
3. Tim Duncan vs. Kevin Garnett
Once the NBA’s premiere rivalry, this one is moving up the list again on the prospect that it has one last act.
Basketball philosophers have spent the past decade wondering whether Duncan and Garnett could serve the other’s function if their fates had been reversed.
One flashy and statistically dominant, the other bland and consistently winning, Duncan and Garnett are forever linked for peaking at the same time.
Two of the top power forwards in the history of basketball and the most defensively advanced bigs of their generation, Garnett and Duncan will look to advance their respective arguments in this year’s championship round.
2. Kobe Bryant vs. Dwayne Wade
The league’s preeminent shooting guards and two who have never failed to disappoint when they’ve met individually.
Check out this article from the LA Times on Kobe-Wade memories.
Even when Wade was dragging around the moribund Heat of the past few years, he was always up for this game.
Even when Kobe was stuck taking passes from Smush Parker, he would always produce against the Heat.
The two of them have given us some of the more epic regular season battles of the last two years and now, with the Miami cupboard restocked (in gold), they figure to write the next chapter of their rivalry on a stage more substantial.
1. Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James
The gold standard of the aforementioned gold cupboard. Whether real or manufactured, these two continue to do battle in the court of public opinion for the right to be called top dog in the league.
Their head-to-head matchups are never exactly that, but they each represent the centerpiece of a team— the one around whom offense revolves.
LeBron has won nine of their 14 meetings, but this rivalry is analyzed in a manner different than any other in the league—we're talking cross-league analyzation (e.g. when Kobe dazzles at Madison Square Garden, LeBron is left to compete against that performance). It’s the only rivalry in the NBA more about two players performing individually than against each other.
And in that regard, both have an insurmountable trump card:
- LeBron has unfurled unparalleled statistical output.
- Kobe has won five championships to LeBron’s zero.
There’s a strong probability they’ll meet in the playoffs for the first time this year.
But then, as always, they’ll playing for more than an individual matchup.
More than the title even.
They’re playing to go down as the best player of a generation.