Ja vs. Warriors, Ben Simmons vs. 76ers and the Best Star-Team Rivalries Right Now

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured Columnist IVOctober 20, 2022

Ja vs. Warriors, Ben Simmons vs. 76ers and the Best Star-Team Rivalries Right Now

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    BROOKLYN, NY - OCTOBER 3: Ben Simmons #10 of the Brooklyn Nets dribbles the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers during a preseason game on October 3, 2022 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Potentially medium-warm take: Rivalries in the NBA that don't have everything—or, sometimes, even anything—to do with actual basketball are good and fun and we should root for more of them.

    Anecdotally, it feels like there is an onrush of "Detrimental coverage, much?" whenever the focus shifts from breaking down the minutiae of the half-court offense being run by "Your Favorite NBA Team" at the 6:47 mark in the third quarter, of a preseason game, in which neither side is playing any of its top-seven players to Russell Westbrook being super relatable and choosing some good ol' prescribed me-time over joining the Los Angeles Lakers huddle.

    The same goes for when fans, media members, podcasters, blogsters, etc. dare to focus on transactions rather than glean autoeroticism from the potential of a third-year 13th man who's shooting a career-high on threes in which defenders are at least 20 feet away over his team's past six quarters.

    This is my roundabout way of urging us—all of us—to adequately appreciate everything about the NBA, or to at least not scoff at how others consume or cover it when said consumption or coverage is actually nowhere near "Detrimental much?"

    That brings us to these Star vs. Team standoffs. Rivalries are always boiled down to Team X vs. Team Y. Singular players villainizing, trolling or just straight up feuding with an entire organization or fanbase is far rarer.

    In a way, this dynamic is also more meaningful, because it's usually rooted in recent developments and showdowns. Team vs. Team rivalries are too often part of a franchise's DNA makeup and are outdated. Why should LeBron James and Jayson Tatum care that the Lakers and Boston Celtics met in the NBA Finals six times during the 1960s and three times during the 1980s?

    The Player X vs. Team/Fanbase Y will be our only focus here. This means we're not considering rivalries that skew Player vs. Player (Kevin Durant vs. Joel Embiid). We will also avoid instances of Player vs. His Own Team (Draymond Green vs. Golden State, Anthony Davis vs. Minutes At Center, etc.).

Ja Morant vs. Golden State Warriors

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    SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 07: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives to the basket and shoots over Stephen Curry #30 and Jonathan Kuminga #00 of the Golden State Warriors during the first half of Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals of the NBA Playoffs at Chase Center on May 07, 2022 in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    To be fair, there may be a rivalry budding between the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors in their entireties. The plucky Grizz put up an enviable fight versus the eventual champs last year in the second round, despite losing Ja Morant to a right knee injury midway through the series. Then, after the Dubs won the title, Klay Thompson trolled Jaren Jackson Jr. for a tweet he sent in March mocking Golden State's "Strength in Numbers" slogan.

    This prompted Ja to tweet about how the Grizz owned a lot of "free real estate" in either Klay's or the entire organization's head. Or maybe both. That, of course, led to a barb from Green about the Boston real estate market being better...or whatever. Morant responded, because obviously. That spurred a back-and-forth between him and Green that included everything from the pair (successfully) manifesting a Golden State-Memphis Christmas Day matchup to Green clowning Morant for imitating Stephen Curry's trademark four-point play celebration while watching Game 5 from the bench.

    Later, during a podcast crossover event with J.J. Redick, Green was complimentary about the Grizzlies' overall rise but called Memphis' trash-talking to the reigning champs "a different level of oblivion" and insisted they're "going to get their reality check." This probably won't phase the Grizzlies, because as Ja noted in an interview with the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Damichael Cole, they "don't run from smoke."

    Flat-out: I don't know what to make of this rivalry. It seems mostly friendly, for literal sport, with an undercurrent of Ascending Power vs. Incumbent Dynasty animosity, cut with some residual irritation toward Andre Iguodala for effectively ghosting on the Grizzlies after the Warriors traded him to Memphis during the 2019 offseason.

    Do we even call this a rivalry? Ja won't. But while it's very Team vs. Team, Ja has been a central figure in responding to and throwing symbolic haymakers at multiple members of the Warriors. Jackson and even Dillon Brooks loom. And I'd bet anything Desmond Bane has said some #stuff to the Dubs during games. But much like Ja is the face of the Grizzlies franchise, he is the voice of this, well, um—ah screw it, let's go ahead and call it a rivalry.

    Frankly, Christmas Day cannot get here quickly enough. Will Ja dunk on Green so hard that he feels the need to apologize to the entire Green family and the next 12 generations of their descendants? Will Steph imitate Ja's goggles? Regardless of what happens, whether the game is a nail-biter or one-sided ass-kicking, we should all turn on Twitter notifications for Ja and Dray after the final buzzer.

Ben Simmons vs. the Philadelphia 76ers

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    PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - MARCH 10:  Ben Simmons #10 of the Brooklyn Nets watches as former teammate Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers takes a shot in the second half at Wells Fargo Center on March 10, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Brooklyn Nets defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 129-100. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
    Elsa/Getty Images

    The Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers are another potential rivalry at the macro level. Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid are no strangers to some mid-game shenanigans, and the Nets at large can't be too happy James Harden forced his way to Philadelphia barely a year after Brooklyn emptied the asset clip to acquire from the Houston Rockets.

    Still, there is no eclipsing the Ben Simmons vs. All of Philadelphia rivalry. His beef with the organization started before he ever left.

    Did you know Simmons passed up a should-be dunk during crunch time in Game 7 of Philly's 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals matchup with the Atlanta Hawks? And did you also know the Sixers went on to lose that game and, thus, the series? Bet you didn't know. Nobody ever talks about it.

    The dunk that wasn't led to some immediately thorny reactions. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers played what amounts to the "How TF should I know?" card when asked whether Simmons could be the point guard of a championship team. If Joel Embiid held anything back in his assessment of the moment, it wasn't much.

    And the rest is (mega-awkward) history. Simmons never played another game for the Sixers. He pushed for a trade, and the Sixers pushed to trade him. It didn't happen. He arrived at training camp. And got booted from practice, which incited a whole host of other comments.

    Simmons' subsequent absence from the Sixers mutated into a Topic Du Jour. And the discourse wasn't great. Pretty much everyone emerged from the ordeal ferrying plenty of blame, and all the while, the comments directed at—speculating about, really—Simmons' mental health was a sobering reminder of how ill-equipped sports media and fans can be to cover real life.

    In the end, Simmons was sent to Brooklyn as part of a package for Daryl Morey favorite James Harden. He didn't suit up for the Nets at all last season but was booed by Sixers fans while on Brooklyn's bench for a Mar. 10 tilt in Philly. And in yet another wrinkle, Simmons reached an offseason settlement with the Sixers organization that allowed him to recoup around $20 million of the salary they withheld during his time away from the team.

    Fast forward to now, and Simmons is back on the court. The Nets are scheduled to play in Philadelphia on Nov. 22. Simmons is apparently stoked for his return to Wells Fargo Center as an opponent. I'm sure that he'll receive the warmest of welcomes from the fans and Embiid, and that there won't be one iota of drama throughout the entire game.

Trae Young vs. New York Knicks

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    NEW YORK, NY - MAY 23: Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young gestures during the second half of Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the New York Knicks on May 23, 2021 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,  by downloading and or using this photograph,  User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Seth Wenig - Pool/Getty Images)
    Seth Wenig - Pool/Getty Images

    Perhaps the Trae Young vs. the New York Knicks and their fans' gag feels a little outdated. This feud began during the first round of the 2021 playoffs. That's almost a decade in NBA-news-cycle years. Both the Knicks and Atlanta Hawks have each turned in categorically underwhelming seasons since then.

    I'm counting it anyway.

    Knicks fans won't soon forget that first-round letdown. This man hit a game-winner in the series opener and then proceeded to yell at and shush the crowd...on New York's home floor. And not only did he eliminate the Knicks in five games, but he bowed to the Madison Square Garden crowd once he did.

    That is peak villain behavior. Trae single-handedly had Knicks fans booing the hell out of the entire Hawks team during warmups before Game 2. They booed him when he made an MSG cameo at WWE Smackdown in September 2021.

    They chanted "F**k Trae Young!" at the end of the Knicks-Hawks Christmas Day showcase...even though he didn't play.

    They booed him during a Mar. 22 return this past season.

    They will boo him this season, when he turns on Nov. 2 and Dec. 7.

    They will boo him for seasons to come.

    They will boo his unborn children's children's children's children's pet android.

    They will boo Trae until the end of time—and maybe even beyond that.

    Especially if this rivalry has another playoff (play-in?) meeting left in the tank.

Luka Doncic vs. Phoenix Suns

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    DALLAS, TX - MAY 6: Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns plays defense on Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks during Game 3 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals on May 6, 2022 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

    This one isn't getting nearly enough attention.

    Luka Doncic just technically spearheaded the Phoenix Suns' playoff demise. His Dallas Mavericks didn't merely erase a 3-2 second-round deficit to reach the Western Conference Finals. They gobsmacked the Suns, in both Games 6 and 7, by a combined 60 points. They made Chris Paul look his age—and like a liability. They blanketed Devin Booker. And in Game 7, on the Suns' home floor, they visibly ripped out their soul, essentially cementing the outcome within minutes of tipoff.

    Oh, and with Dallas already up roughly by a kabillion points, Luka meme'd Booker for eternity:

    NBA on TNT @NBAonTNT

    👀 <a href="https://t.co/jJK3zp684T">pic.twitter.com/jJK3zp684T</a>

    Whether Luka actually broke the Suns beyond repair remains to be seen. That's the point. These two teams are now inextricably linked. Phoenix won a league-best 64 games only to be outclassed by a solo-star operation (and a COVID-19 outbreak).

    If the Suns never get back to anything resembling last year's pinnacle, this will be the series, the game, and the moment on which everyone harps. Well that, and Booker parlaying a foul into a mid-game nap and calling it "The Luka Special." Some will remember the Bismack Biyombo-Marquese Chriss kerfuffle nobody asked for.

    Anyhow, the Suns open the 2022-23 regular season on Oct. 19 at home vs. Luka and the Mavs. There's no way something, anything, doesn't happen. Prepare your metric ton of popcorn accordingly.

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and subscribe to the Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes.