50 Greatest Rivalries in NBA History
There have been a lot of phenomenal rivalries in the NBA.
While the image of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird battling on the court pops into most people's minds when thinking about the best of all time, there has been a fair amount of contentious culture throughout the league.
With both individual and team rivalries continuing to blossom to this day, it's going to be interesting to see if anything in the current day will live up to the most historic battles in basketball.
50. Players vs. Rap Game
We’ve seen time and time again that when players decide to try their vocals in the booth, it’s an experiment that should’ve been abandoned before it began.
Allen Iverson was a fantastic point guard in his prime, but his hip-hop career never really got off the ground the same way that he could on the court.
49. Gilbert Arenas vs. Javaris Crittenton
Arenas and Crittenton reportedly drew guns on each other on Christmas Eve over an argument regarding a gambling debt between the two.
Arenas later denied the fact that he pulled the gun on Crittenton, but even Billy Hunter, executive director of the NBA Players Association called it “unprecedented in the history of sports."
48. Spurs vs. Mavericks
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Although this rivalry is rather new, it’s extremely fierce as these two Texas teams battle it out for supremacy.
They say that everything is bigger in Texas, and after the Mavericks brought home their first franchise title in 2011, it’s possible that the Spurs are seeking to get back on top of the slag heap.
47. Kevin Garnett vs. Zaza Pachulia
Zaza Pachulia wasn’t afraid to back down from Kevin Garnett at any point when playing defense, so Garnett sought to send him a message.
Pachulia ran directly into a stable Garnett and got a face full of KG’s chest, and it’s likely that Pachulia will think twice about challenging Garnett when he’s upset about something.
46. LeBron James vs. DeShawn Stevenson
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This beef started long before the Mavericks beat the Heat for the title, as these two really went at it during LeBron’s days with Cleveland.
When people were putting LeBron and DeShawn in the same sentence, James likened it to a comparison of Soulja Boy and Jay-Z, hinting that there really was no comparison between the two.
45. Stan Van Gundy vs. David Stern
Stan Van has made it no secret that he doesn’t really like David Stern, as he’s hinted that Stern doesn’t tolerate other people’s opinion or free speech.
Van Gundy compared Stern to various despots from around the world, and Stern didn’t exactly appreciate the comparison.
44. Mark Cuban vs. David Stern
Cuban has expressed no hesitancy doing everything that Stern doesn’t like. From criticizing officials publicly to running onto the court to yell at the referees, Cuban has shown no fear of Stern’s wrath.
Despite paying well over $1 million in accrued fines, when the commissioner was forced to hand over the Larry O’Brien Trophy to Cuban at the end of the 2010-11 campaign, there was likely no sweeter feeling for Cuban than that moment.
43. Kermit Washington vs. Rudy Tomjanovich
Rudy Tomjanovich’s face met Kermit Washington’s fist with emphasis when this on-court fight went down.
Washington literally ended Tomjanovich’s career with the blow, and Washington has since struggled with poor public image as a result.
42. Charles Barkley vs. Kevin Mchale
This rivalry is one that doesn’t get played up often, but these guys really duked it out when they went head to head against each other.
McHale edged Barkley 15-14 over 29 meetings. Barkley averaged 23.9 points per game and 10.1 rebounds in that span while McHale posted averages of 20.8 points and 7.3 rebounds.
41. Kobe Bryant vs. Ruben Patterson
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If you’re going to nickname yourself the self-proclaimed “Kobe Stopper," you better be able to actually play defense.
Bryant went on to absolutely torch Patterson after he made that asinine comment following his departure from the Lakers after the 1999 season.
Patterson most recently played in Lebanon during the 2009 season, and Bryant is still flourishing as the franchise face of the Lakers.
40. Dennis Rodman vs. Frank Brickowski
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This is a rivalry that doesn’t receive a lot of attention in the public sphere, but these guys really went after one another when on the court against each other.
Brickowski played insanely physical defense against Rodman, leading to several technicals and flagrant fouls in the aftermath.
39. Michael Jordan vs. Patrick Ewing
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Like so many great ones that have been in the NBA, this one dates back to their time in college against one another.
Professionally, Jordan’s Bulls won every single postseason matchup with the Knicks when Jordan was on the court, including four championship rings.
38. Kobe Bryant vs. Raja Bell
Raja Bell might not be able to contain Kobe with ordinary defense regularly, but he certainly tried when he violently clotheslined Bryant to send a message.
The two players really didn’t enjoy one another, as Bell publicly said that Bryant as a “pompous, arrogant individual” who is held to a different sent of standards, and Kobe reacted by saying “I don’t know this guy. I might have said one word to this guy. I don’t know this kid. I don’t need to know this kid.”
37. Ron Artest vs. the Palace at Auburn Hills
This all got underway when Artest and Ben Wallace got into a tussle around the rim and neither one wanted to let the heat cool between them.
As the fight was broken up, a fan threw a drink from the stands that hit Artest, who preceded to go berserk over the incident and dove into the crowd to begin taking swings at the fans.
36. Shaquille O'Neal vs. Free-Throw Line
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This is one foe that one of the greatest big men of all time never got the best of during his playing days.
A career 52.8 percent shooter from the foul line, O’Neal’s single-season best mark came in the 2002-03 season with the Lakers when he registered a meager 62.2 percent clip.
35. Rasheed Wallace vs. Referees
Dennis Rodman racked up a fair amount of technicals during his playing days, but he’s a far cry from what ‘Sheed has given the referees over recent seasons.
Wallace actually racked up an incredible 41 technical fouls in a single season, a record that likely won’t be challenged at any point soon.
34. Nike vs. Adidas
33. Latrell Sprewell vs. PJ Carlesimo
Sprewell’s solid career has been largely ignored because of off-court incidents, and his choking of former coach PJ Carlesimo is the most notable one of them all.
In 1997, Sprewell attacked Carlesimo during a practice by putting him in a chokehold and was handed a 68-game suspension as a result.
32. Rajon Rondo vs. Chris Paul
These two guys aren’t just very talented point guards, but they legitimately have a bitter distaste for one another.
In early 2009, Paul suggested that Rondo was only having success because he was playing alongside the Big Three, and ever since the two have noticeably thrown trash talk in the other’s direction.
31. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Bill Russell
Both players collected multiple MVP titles and several NBA championship rings, but the two battled for ultimate fame as for who was top man in the middle.
Russell’s final season in the league came one year prior to Abdul-Jabbar’s arrival, but nobody has been able to put a definitive stamp on which player deserves ranking over the other.
30. Suns vs. Spurs
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The two teams met during the postseason four times during the 1990s and another five times in the 2000s.
Tim Duncan and Steve Nash leading the way for their respective clubs and fueled the competition.
29. Seattle vs. Oklahoma City
When the Sonics were purchased by Clay Bennett, he immediately moved the team to Oklahoma City and robbed Seattle of their NBA franchise.
Seattle has been campaigning for a return of their team ever since, as the $45 million settlement to the city to pay off expenses at the KeyArena simply wasn’t enough to replace the Sonics.
28. Dennis Rodman vs. Karl Malone
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The best part about this particular rivalry is that as fierce as the two played one another on the court, they took their attack to the wrestling ring as well.
Rodman refused to let Malone abuse him in the low post where he liked to make his living, and neither was ready to back down from the other.
27. Lakers vs. Kings
This was a very heated competition when Shaq was still patrolling the paint in Hollywood, and he told Sacramento fans that nothing they brought into the building would throw him off his game.
In a battle of Northern vs. Southern California, the Kings and Lakers really hated one another in the early part of the millennium when Sacramento was still relevant in the playoff landscape.
26. Chris Paul vs. Deron Williams
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Which player is the greater point guard?
Williams was selected one spot ahead of Paul in the 2005 class, and less than 100 assists thus far in their professional careers separate the two perennial All-Stars.
As long as each remains relatively healthy, it will be a battle that rages into the next decade of basketball.
25. LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant
While this rivalry has been admittedly more media-induced than some of the others on this list, it remains a battle for greatness between the league’s two best players.
As long as James fails to harbor a ring around his finger, it’s going to be tough to overtake Kobe’s legacy as Bryant already has five in his collection.
Ironically, James is at a point in his career similar to Bryant when the Lakers star was embattled in controversy and had to re-invent his image.
24. Jerry West vs. John Havlicek
Two stars of the Lakers vs. Celtics rivalry, West and Havlicek really knew how to battle it out on the court against one another.
Both elite players and legitimate stars for their club, it’s tough to find two players that played the game the way that they did.
23. Players vs. Owners
This is a rivalry that has loomed large since the previous lockout during the 1998-99 season.
With neither side looking willing to compromise from their demands, many are speculating that the current labor disagreement could extend into the regular season and cause some games to be canceled.
22. Reggie Miller vs. Spike Lee
There probably won’t be another player-fan rivalry that will ever be as good as the one that burned brightly between Miller and Lee.
Miller taunted Lee with his classic choking image on the court, and Lee regularly taunted Reggie from the sidelines by shouting at him every time the two teams squared off.
21. New York Knicks Fans vs. Isiah Thomas
This one should be rather obvious, and it’s worth noting considering all of the awful moves made by Thomas in the front office that set the New York franchise back for several seasons.
The 2010-11 campaign marked the first time since 1999 that the Knicks did not pay a luxury tax, so that should give fans an idea of exactly how long it took to undo what Thomas shouldn’t have done in the first place.
20. Michael Jordan vs. Bryon Russell
Did Jordan push off to free himself up for the shot over Russell? If you ask the former Utah Jazz player, that’s exactly what happened.
Years later, Russell has refused to give up the competition between the two and even said that he could beat Jordan in a game of one-on-one in a special appearance on Pardon the Interruption.
19. Bad Boy Pistons vs. NBA
The Pistons really knew how to anger opposing teams during their prime, and the rest of the NBA couldn’t stand to play against them.
Whether it was their violent style of play or careless mentality about what the opposition thought of them, this Detroit club legitimately struck fear into the rest of the league.
18. LeBron James vs. Cleveland
LeBron James might still call Akron his home, but the city of Cleveland (and most of Ohio) doesn’t want to see him anywhere in the vicinity after he signed with the Heat.
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert released a letter that really derided James after his decision to sign in Miami fueled this feud, and fans were seen burning his jersey and have no emotional attachment to their former superstar.
17. Detroit Pistons vs. Boston Celtics
These Bad Boys of Motown and legendary lineup of Beantown ballers really didn’t like one another.
In addition to Bill Laimbeer and Robert Parish getting entangled in the low post with regularity, the Larry Bird vs. Isiah Thomas battle was one that left fans clamoring for more every time.
16. Chicago Bulls vs. New York Knicks
With the Knicks and Bulls having met every year of Chicago’s first three-peat, New York was beginning to tire of coming up a little bit short.
The classic competitions were highlighted by a myriad of highlights, with potentially the most memorable being when John Starks threw home an incredible slam dunk over both Michael Jordan and Horace Grant.
15. Chicago Bulls vs. Detroit Pistons
These two teams refused to back down from one another, and the peak of the feud was when MJ and Isiah Thomas battled against one another.
The squads met in three straight Eastern Conference championships, and it was crystal clear that neither team had an ounce of love for the other.
14. Los Angeles Lakers vs. New York Knicks
Another fantastic rivalry from the 1970s, these two clubs furiously battled one another and harbored legitimate hate for one another.
I could watch the battle between Jerry West and Willis Reed on a daily basis and it would be a lot better than any current rivalry that the NBA has to offer.
13. Indiana Pacers vs. New York Knicks
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In the 1990s, these two teams were regularly matched up against one another in the postseason, and Reggie Miller was the center of the show.
Nicknamed the “Knick Killer," Miller delivered one clutch game after the other and really got underneath the skin of the New York club.
12. David Robinson vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
This one really got fiery when the Rockets knocked off the Spurs in the 1995 postseason after “The Dream” and his team knocked off San Antonio in an upset.
Robinson vs. Olajuwon was another classic instance of two of the best centers of all time battling against one another for ultimate supremacy at the position.
11. Larry Bird vs. Julius Erving
As if the picture doesn’t dictate the bitter hatred between the two, a little background should certainly do the trick.
These two guys really hated each other as the Sixers and Celtics duked it out regularly on the court when they were in their prime, and in a 1984 contest decided to fight it out on the court when each had enough of the other.
10. Dominique Wilkins vs. Michael Jordan
The two put on an absolute spectacle during the Slam Dunk Contest, and their remarkable athleticism is something that you rarely see in the current landscape of the league.
What made this rivalry so real is that neither player sought to back down and cede his spot as king of the dunk, and that ultimately led to quite the show anytime the two squared off against one another.
9. Isiah Thomas vs. Michael Jordan
These two players really hated one another on the court after the Pistons and Bulls engaged in a series of heated battles filled with physicality.
It’s been rumored that Jordan also told Dream Team management that he wouldn’t play for the squad if Thomas was brought on board, but I think it’s safe to say that the executives made the right decision with that one.
8. New York Knicks vs. Miami Heat
In a rivalry that was highlighted by the battles between Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning, the Knicks and Heat were two teams that really hated each other in the '90s.
They played in four straight postseason series from 1997 to 2000 and every one of them was as closely contested as could be.
7. Larry Bird vs. Isiah Thomas
The rivalry between the two teams in the late '80s was phenomenal, but the personal battle between Bird and Thomas was even better.
Thomas once insinuated that Bird wouldn’t be as revered if he weren’t white, and the flames were further fanned when Dennis Rodman agreed with Thomas’ sentiment.
When the Pacers hired Bird, he fired Thomas as head coach of the team.
6. Patrick Ewing vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
Two of the best centers of their era, both Ewing and Olajuwon serve as models for how current big men should structure their game.
The rivalry extends back to their collegiate days when Olajuwon was in Houston and Ewing in Georgetown, and the two never backed down from one another throughout their professional careers.
5. Red Auerbach vs. Phil Jackson
The debate rages as to which legendary sideline patrol man is actually the best coach of all time, and it’s unlikely that there will be a consensus at any point soon.
Auerbach won nine championships during his time as coach, while Jackson has registered an impressive 11 on his own.
4. Shaquille O'Neal vs. Kobe Bryant
Despite the two players securing a three-peat together with the Lakers, these two mega personalities just couldn’t find room to coexist on the same team for the long haul.
After Bryant had enough of O’Neal taking shots at him through the press. Bryant said that Shaq came into training camp “fat and out of shape,” and it all went rapidly downhill from there.
3. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics
The most storied team rivalry that the league has to offer, the Lakers and Celtics have battled against one another since the 1950s.
The two remain at the forefront of the most competitive clubs in the league currently and it’s hard to see a crowd that gets more excited in either city when the opposition rolls in.
2. Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird
The NBA would be a better place if it had more rivalries like the one that burned between Johnson and Bird.
Dating back to their collegiate tenure, these two historic basketball greats truly made the game a better one to watch when they squared off against one another.
1. Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain
The two were actually close at one point, but there are no friends on the court.
According to Robert Cherry in his 2004 Wilt Chamberlain biography, Larger Than Life, their relationship fell apart after the 1969 NBA Finals when Russell called Chamberlain a quitter, and the two didn’t speak for more than 20 years after that.