10 Best Historical Rivalries in the NBA
The other major North American sports seem to have the NBA over the barrel when it comes to historical achievements.
The modern version of Major League Baseball started in 1903, while the NFL and and the NHL both began play in the early part of the 20th century. Meanwhile, the NBA's first season wasn't until 1949-50.
However, the game's history has been defined by some of the greatest rivalries in professional sports. Team, player and coaching matchups have weaved the sport's rich tapestry, and in this piece we look at 10 of the best rivalries in NBA history.
10. New York Knicks vs. Baltimore Bullets
As the NBA was growing in stature in the 1960s, the league basically belonged to the Boston Celtics. But as the Celtics dynasty asserted itself, the New York Knicks and Baltimore Bullets were growing as well.
By the time the two teams met in the 1969 NBA playoffs, it was clear that these two teams were on their way to becoming major NBA powers. The Knicks had Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley and a smooth point guard in Walt "Clyde"Frazier.
The Bullets had strength on the front line in Elvin Hayes and powerful Wes Unseld and a tremendous ball-handling guard in Earl "The Pearl" Monroe.
The Knicks would win the first playoff series by a 4-0 margin, and they would also win in 1970, but this time it was a much closer 4-3 series, with the Knicks surviving a tough seventh game at Madison Square Garden. They would go on to win their first NBA title over the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Bullets turned things around in 1971, taking the series in seven brutal games. The home team won the first six games, but Baltimore ended that by winning the seventh game in New York. The Bullets made it to the NBA Finals, but they were swept by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks that year.
Those three series all featured duels between Frazier and Monroe, and there was hardly any difference between them in overall effectiveness.
But in 1972, Monroe ended up getting traded to the Knicks, and he and Frazier formed a great one-two punch. The Knicks and Bullets would meet in three more playoff series from '72-74, and the Knicks would win all of them.
New York and Baltimore became a spring NBA rite of passion, and it became must-see theater for all NBA fans.
9. Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers
The rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers got started when the Syracuse Nationals left upstate New York in 1964 and moved to Philadelphia and became the 76ers.
The rivalry got started with a bang in the 1965 playoffs when the two teams met in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The two teams battled for seven games, and the Celtics had a 110-109 lead in the seventh game but turned the ball over in the final seconds. However, when the Sixers tried to inbound the ball for a winning shot, John Havlicek deflected the ball to teammate Sam Jones, and the Celtics held on for the victory. They would go on to win the NBA title. That series would always be remembered as the one where "Havlicek stole the ball."
The two teams would meet in the postseason for the next four years, and the Celtics would win each of those series with the exception of 1967. That year, the 76ers were led by Wilt Chamberlain and had a remarkably powerful team that took first place in the Eastern Division with a 68-13 record. They beat the Celtics in five games and later earned the NBA championship when they beat the San Francisco Warriors in the NBA Finals.
The rivalry would go on hiatus until 1977, when the two teams would rekindle their hostilities. They would meet five times in nine years, and this time the 76ers would win three of the five matchups.
8. Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas
Chicagoan Isiah Thomas was the leader of the Detroit Pistons and had little use for Chicago Bulls rookie Michael Jordan.
Jordan was at the beginning of a career that would see him become perhaps the greatest NBA player of all time, and his overwhelming ability was obvious during his rookie season. When he went to the All-Star Game in 1985 as a rookie, he wanted to put his basketball skills on display.
Thomas was not interested in helping Jordan enhance his reputation, and he engineered a plan to freeze Jordan out at the All-Star Game. Jordan's opportunities in the game were limited. Eventually, word of Thomas' conspiracy got out, and it lit a fuse in a bitter rivalry with Thomas that would never abate, even after their careers ended.
Jordan got his revenge when Thomas was kept off of the 1992 U.S. Olympic "Dream Team."
Thomas was a sensational guard and a Hall of Famer, but his career could never compare to Jordan's. The rivalry would manifest itself every time the Pistons and Bulls would meet, and it would become especially intense in the playoffs.
In many cases, personal rivalries eventually give way to great friendships, but not in the case of Thomas and Jordan.
7. Detroit Pistons vs. Chicago Bulls
The Detroit Pistons and the Chicago Bulls had a rivalry for Eastern Conference superiority in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In the early years of the rivalry, the "Bad Boys" from Detroit had their way with the imposition of the "Jordan Rules." Those rules were Detroit's philosophy designed by head coach Chuck Daly to make the other Bulls besides Michael Jordan take the most important shots of the game.
Jordan, of course, was simply too explosive and dangerous. The Pistons tried to put a body on him and foul him every chance they got.
The game plan worked, as the Pistons beat the Bulls in five games in 1988 and in six games in '89. In 1990, the Bulls pushed the Pistons to seven games, but Detroit still came out on top.
However, the Bulls finally got the upper hand in 1991. Not only did they beat the Pistons, they swept them in four games. Moments before the fourth game ended, Thomas and several of his teammates walked off the court and refused to shake hands and congratulate the Bulls.
Chicago would go on to win their first championship by beating the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
6. Larry Bird vs. Julius Erving
Just as Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain had keyed the Boston-Philadelphia rivalry in the 1960s, Larry Bird and Julius Erving did the same for their respective teams in the 1980s.
When Bird joined the Celtics following his stellar college career at Indiana State in 1979, he immediately brought respectability back to the franchise. General manager Red Auerbach saw that Bird had all the skills needed to lead the Celtics back to championship form.
Erving joined the 76ers after the NBA and ABA merged prior to the 1976-77 season, and he brought an amazing set of skills to the 76ers which helped them rise in the East as well.
Bird and Dr. J crossed paths many times, and while there was anger and passion in their rivalry, there was also deep mutual respect.
Their battles were a virtual stalemate. The Bird-led Celtics and the Erving-led Sixers would split four playoff series, and the playoff games were also tied at 12-12. During the regular season, Bird's Celtics had a slight 23-21 advantage.
Stylistically, Bird was a clever passer and a brilliant outside shooter, while Erving played above the rim and dominated with his creativity. Nevertheless, both men were near-equals who enjoyed brilliant careers.
5. Phil Jackson vs. Pat Riley
Phil Jackson and Pat Riley's careers have mirrored each other for years. Both were players who came into the league in the 1967-68 season, and both became championship-level head coaches. Now, both are executives who are charged with building their teams into contenders.
Neither Jackson nor Riley were star players, but both were contributors on championship-caliber teams. Riley became head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1981 and led that team to four NBA titles; he later earned one more title with the Miami Heat in 2006.
Jackson won six NBA titles as head coach of the Chicago Bulls, and then won five more as leader of the Lakers. His 11 championships as head coach allowed him to surpass Red Auerbach, who won nine titles as head coach of the Boston Celtics, for most titles as a head coach.
While Riley and Jackson have been two of the league's leading figures for years and Jackson talks about the respect he has for Riley (above), each man has spurred the other in an effort to gain an edge.
4. Chicago Bulls vs. New York Knicks
The Chicago Bulls had many rivals during the Michael Jordan era, and they regularly punished opponents who got in their way as they climbed the playoff ladder.
The New York Knicks were one of those teams. The Bulls and the Knicks met six times in the postseason between 1989 and 1995, and the Bulls were victorious in five of those series.
Jordan's skill and emotional drive was often the difference in these series, as he often found the edge in the final moments to hold off the tough and physical Knicks. But while the Knicks regularly came out on the short end, they never backed down or conceded that the Bulls were the better team.
The Knicks' only victory in the series came in the 1994 playoffs, one of the two seasons that Jordan left the Bulls in his attempt to play baseball. The Knicks won that series in seven games and made it to the NBA Finals but were beaten by the Houston Rockets.
Jordan often was at his best in Madison Square Garden, and he scored 55 points in a 1995 game shortly after coming back from his baseball sojourn.
3. Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain
Bill Russell is the greatest winner in NBA history, having led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships during a playing career that lasted from 1956 through 1969.
Wilt Chamberlain was the game's most prolific scorer and a dominating physical specimen who could overpower nearly anyone who attempted to compete with him. His teams won two championships in a career that lasted from 1959 through 1973.
Their greatest battles were often against each other, and Russell's Celtics often got the best of Chamberlain's teams—the Philadelphia Warriors, the San Francisco Warriors, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Russell averaged 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds per game throughout his career, but Chamberlain countered with 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds per game. Chamberlain's prolific scoring worked against him in the public eye, as critics could not understand how such a powerful player could fail to get the best of Russell and his Celtics in the majority of their playoff confrontations.
The reason was simple. Russell had a much better supporting cast in Boston than Chamberlain had with his teams. The Celtics and Russell played team basketball to near perfection, while Chamberlain was regularly asked to carry the load for his teams.
Despite the perception that the two men didn't like each other, nothing could have been further from the truth. Russell and Chamberlain were the best of friends off the court, and the mutual respect between the two was just as important to the two stars as their legendary battles on the floor.
2. Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird
Unlike the Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain rivalry, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were not friends, at least not at the beginning of their rivalry.
While the gregarious Johnson from Michigan State had nothing against Bird, the Indiana State star rarely trusted anyone from outside his inner circle, and Johnson certainly did not qualify.
Their first epic confrontation came in the 1979 NCAA championship game, and Johnson's Spartans got the best of Bird's overmatched Sycamores.
That dramatic opening act served as a prelude for a series of battles between Johnson's "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers and Bird's Boston Celtics. The first of their NBA championship battles came in 1984, when Bird and the Celtics secured a seven-game triumph.
The Lakers won the title the following year, beating the Celtics in six games and winning the championship in Boston. The victory was sweet for Los Angeles since the franchise had been dominated by the Celtics in so many playoff series.
The Celtics would win the 1986 NBA title over the Houston Rockets, and then faced the Lakers again in '87. This would be the last of the Bird-Magic playoff confrontations, and the Lakers would emerge victorious in six games.
During their long and heated rivalry, the two men became close friends in 1985, as they got to know each other while filming a sneaker commercial. They never backed down from each other on the court, and each man's spectacular legacy is intertwined with the other.
1. Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers
The Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers have met in the NBA Finals 12 times, and many of the battles have been classics.
No two teams have ever met more often to decide their league championship in any professional sport.
In addition to Bill Russell and Larry Bird, the Celtics have featured stars like John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Bob Cousy, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Paul Pierce.
Wilt Chamberlain and Magic Johnson have been joined by brilliant names like Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott and Kobe Bryant.
The Celtics won the first eight times the two teams met for the title, but the Lakers have won three of the last four championship matchups.
The first meeting took place in 1959, when the Lakers were still located in Minneapolis. The Celtics swept that series and the Lakers would relocate to Los Angeles in 1960. They would push the Celtics to seven games in four of the series through 1984, but they could never come through in the final game.
That changed in 1985 when the Lakers won in six games, and they repeated that championship two years later.
The two teams have renewed their rivalry in recent years, with the Celtics winning the title in 2008 while the Lakers got revenge in 2010.
While both teams are currently struggling, the epic Boston-Los Angeles championship confrontation has been one of the NBA's signature moments and its greatest rivalry.