B/R Staff Roundtable: 9 of the NBA's Most Intense Rivalries of All Time

Bleacher Report NBA StaffFeatured ColumnistMay 6, 2020

B/R Staff Roundtable: 9 of the NBA's Most Intense Rivalries of All Time

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    It's rivalry week here at Bleacher Report, and the NBA staff is kicking the wayback machine into high gear.

    After digging through 60 years of league archives, our writers have spotlighted nine legendary rivalries, spanning from Wilt Chamberlain to LeBron James. Most stemmed from the competition of at least one being in the other's way, and while not all of these were ugly, every battle captivated the basketball world. And, yes, sometimes they got personal.

    Hit the B/R app to share your thoughts on the all-time greatest rivalries in NBA history.

Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas

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    Certain rivalries transcend the hardwood. This is one of them.

    Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas haven't been on-court competitors in decades, and yet the bad blood between them continues to this day. ESPN's The Last Dance has made that much clear, serving at once as a look back at some of their most heated moments and a chance for an elder MJ to reinforce his dislike for Isiah.

    In recent weeks, everyone has zeroed in on Thomas and the Pistons' decision to walk off the floor before the end of regulation when it was clear the Bulls would be sweeping them from the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. Thomas has since apologized for the untimely exit, but Jordan dismissed the gesture before he could even hear it.

    That incident, though, is not the origin of this long-simmering beef. It all really began at the 1985 All-Star Game. With a 21-year-old Jordan quickly becoming one of the league's most popular faces, Thomas allegedly led a freezeout that limited the then-rookie's opportunities. Jordan then proceeded to go off for 49 points in his first game out of the break, which just so happened to come against the Pistons.

    From there, in addition to the 1991 conference finals, we have the Bulls losing three consecutive playoff series to the Pistons between 1988 and 1990. And then, of course, we have Thomas' apparent snub from the 1992 Dream Team, an absence for which Jordan is blamed—though The Last Dance has emphasized that Thomas didn't get along with many others on the roster, including Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

    All these years later, at least on camera, this rivalry feels a little one-sided. Jordan seems to have held onto this competitor's spat a little stronger than Thomas. That their beef persists at all, in any form, says everything we need to know: that it's one of the greatest player vs. player feuds in NBA history.

Kevin Garnett vs. Tim Duncan

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    It's only fitting that Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett will be heading to the Hall of Fame together after having one of the fiercest rivalries. It was the ultimate contrast of opposites between the calm, cool demeanor of Duncan and the raw emotion of Garnett.

    The feud supposedly began in a first-round game during the 1999 postseason when Garnett wished Duncan a happy Mother's Day despite his mother dying before the San Antonio Spurs big man's 14th birthday. The matchup was heated every time they stepped on the court, and Garnett was usually the instigator. 

    Both played the same position, leading to battle after battle in which Duncan and the Spurs often came out as victors. Duncan enjoyed a 33-19 record against Garnett, including sending the Minnesota Timberwolves home twice in the playoffs.

    Even though the results were one-sided, their play on the court was pretty even.

    In 44 regular-season games, Garnett averaged 19.5 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.9 blocks to Duncan's 19.0 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.9 blocks per game. They both kicked it up in their eight playoff games against each other. Garnett had 21.4 points, 12 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.8 blocks per game, compared to Duncan's 20.6 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.5 blocks per contest. 

    Two of the best at the same position colliding at their athletic peak is rare. But when it happens, it can easily lead to fireworks as it did in the Duncan-Garnett rivalry. 

Shaquille O'Neal-Dwight Howard

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    The rivalry between Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard started during the tail end of Shaq's playing career when he took exception to Howard co-opting his Superman nickname and persona as he became a perennial All-Star for the franchise with which O'Neal began his career: the Orlando Magic. 

    But it continued after Shaq retired and joined TNT's Inside the NBA. On the show, he was regularly critical of Howard for not demanding more post touches even though his greatest strength as a scorer during his peak was in the pick-and-roll. 

    Eager for Shaq's approval, especially after following in his footsteps from the Magic to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012, Howard began asking for the ball in the post more, which, in part, led to a decline in play that continued over the rest of his prime years in Los Angeles and Houston. Howard wore out his welcome in several short-lived stints after that as he continued to believe, fueled by O'Neal's criticism, that he was a post scorer.

    He had an unlikely career resurrection this year in a return to the Lakers, and it came about by embracing what he was best at all along: rebounding and finishing around the basket. It's the identity he should have stuck to from the beginning rather than trying to live up to Shaq's impossible standards for him.

LeBron James vs. the East

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    Here is a definitive list of players who have more consecutive Finals appearances than LeBron James: Bill Russell (10), Sam Jones (nine) and Tommy Heinsohn (nine).

    Only the great Boston Celtics teams of the late 1950s and '60s have had a longer hold over their conference. Not even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Stephen Curry have matched James' near-decade-long death-grip on a yearly Finals berth.

    Call the Eastern Conference the JV league if you must, but James dismembered every legitimate challenger in his path for almost 10 seasons. More impressively, he did it on various teams. And he didn't just destroy great teams, but great eras in the histories of those teams.

    He laid waste to many Eastern Conference contenders along the way: the Big Three Celtics, the Derrick Rose Chicago Bulls, the Paul George Indiana Pacers, the LeBronto Raptors, the four-All-Star Atlanta Hawks and the Brad Stevens Celtics. 

    Usually in a rivalry, there is more of a level playing field, if not an equal opportunity to win. James never let anyone have a chance to get through him. His reign was ruthless and unrelenting, to the point at which losing to him was considered somewhat of a successful campaign. 

    And after he walked away on top and joined the Los Angeles Lakers, no Eastern foe will have a chance to change that for the foreseeable future.

LeBron James-Kevin Durant

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    This rivalry has less to do with bad blood than it does basketball brilliance, but I'll take the latter 11 times out of 10.

    Kevin Durant and LeBron James are once-in-a-lifetime mismatches. Durant combines the size and length of a center with a shooting guard's handle and stroke. James is a 6'9", 250-pound Mack Truck with a doctorate-level basketball IQ.

    It's only fitting, then, that the future Hall of Famers bring out the best in one another.

    The former training partners and song collaborators each captured their first NBA championship against the other. In fact, they've locked horns three times in the Finals, with James winning once, Durant winning twice and each securing Finals MVP honors in their victories.

    When Durant celebrated his first title in 2017, his walk-off interview with ESPN's Doris Burke included this verbal salute to James: "He's the only guy that can look me eye-to-eye."

    James effectively made it that way. By the time he had won his fourth MVP in five seasons in 2013, Durant was essentially nicknamed "the best player not named LeBron." Durant then let everyone know he was sick of being No. 2 and promptly went on to average a career-high 32.0 points and snare the next MVP.

    These two have had legendary battles under the brightest lights, and they've pushed each other to all-time greatness. The fact this rivalry could continue adding more chapters is a gift from the basketball gods.

Larry Bird-Magic Johnson

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    In hindsight, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were destined to oppose one another forever. There's no more perfect confluence of events than those that continuously brought them together for high-stakes matchups.

    The duo first met in the 1979 NCAA title game, with Magic's Michigan State squad defeating Bird and Indiana State. As luck would have it, the rivalry naturally continued as each player then joined one of the NBA's two most storied franchises—Bird on the Boston Celtics and Magic teaming up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the Los Angeles Lakers. 

    The odds of becoming one of the greatest players in NBA history are infinitesimal, even for top picks like Bird and Magic. It would have been understandable had one or both not made any long-lasting impact on the league.

    The fact that they both not only stayed on their respective teams (which happened to be historical archrivals) for the duration of the 1980s but also won multiple MVP awards and titles in the process while facing each other in the NBA Finals three times is more than a coincidence. It's fate.

    Though they were divided by media and fans alike along racial, class and rivalry lines, Magic and Bird seemed to maintain a cordial relationship throughout their playing days (not on the court, obviously), and they still appear to be friendly in retirement. Though they were perhaps more jovial than the dramatist in all of us might like, theirs is still the greatest, most impactful rivalry in the history of the sport.

Kobe Bryant vs. Shaquille O'Neal

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    Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal became one of the NBA's most dominant and volatile pairings.

    After helping the Los Angeles Lakers become just the third franchise in 50 years to win three straight Finals, the Black Mamba and Big Diesel reached a breaking point. In his book, Shaq Uncut: My Story, O'Neal said Bryant dismissed him for failing to be a better friend during his court hearings in Colorado. According to the book, O'Neal was furious with Bryant because he criticized him in an interview after the two had reached a press armistice.

    The 2004 Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons would signal the end of their time together in Los Angeles, but their rivalry was far from over.

    Prior to their first matchup on Christmas Day 2004, O'Neal referred to Bryant as a "Corvette" and himself as a "brick wall." After Bryant's Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 Finals, Shaq famously rapped for Bryant to "Tell me how my ass tastes."

    When Bryant earned his fifth title two years later, he was asked what significance it held. With two daughters in his arms, he replied, "I just got one more than Shaq."

    The two would make amends in an exclusive interview for TNT in 2018.

    The turbulence shared between them made them great and forged a relationship built on conflict and brotherhood. O'Neal gave a tearful goodbye a couple of days after Bryant's death in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, symbolizing just how much love lurked beneath their rivalry.

Russell Westbrook vs. Patrick Beverley

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    Current NBA players aren't as inclined to show open disdain for one another. Patrick Beverley and Russell Westbrook are an exception.

    Their beef started in the 2013 playoffs, when Beverley lunged for the ball after a timeout was called by Westbrook. The resulting contact sent Westbrook to the floor, and he suffered a torn right meniscus, ending both his postseason and Oklahoma City's legitimate title hopes.

    Then, in March 2014, Beverley made an eerily similar play, once again lunging for the ball after Westbrook called timeout. Westbrook, naturally, wasn't too happy.

    This rivalry hasn't really slowed since. It is never at the forefront for extended periods of time but instead swells intermittently. Their most recent kerfuffle came this past November, during a Rockets win over the Clippers. Westbrook waved goodbye to Beverley after the latter picked up his sixth foul. (Westbrook also picked up a technical in December for his reaction to Beverley getting ejected in another Clippers-Rockets showdown.)

    "Pat Bev trick y'all, man, like he playing defense," Westbrook said in November, per ESPN's Tim MacMahon, while noting James Harden just scored 47 points. "He don't guard nobody, man. He just running around, doing nothing."

    Name a better, bitterer present-day player rivalry. I'll wait. This Beverley-Westbrook thingamabob has everything: mutual contempt, pettiness, a major high-stakes what-if moment (2013) and, above all, plenty of beef still to come.

Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain

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    Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain is perhaps the most debated rivalry in NBA history, a measure of personal statistics versus team success.

    Starting in 1959, Russell and Chamberlain played each other 143 times (including playoffs) over 10 seasons. Given that the NBA had just eight total teams when the two centers began their rivalry, the two faced off far more often than any superstars in history.

    In those 143 clashes, Russell and his Boston Celtics won the overall series 86-57 over Chamberlain, and Russell's 11 total NBA titles far outdistanced Chamberlain's two.

    While Russell is considered one of the greatest defenders and rebounders in history, his 6'10", 215-pound frame struggled to contain the 7'1", 275-pound Chamberlain.

    Chamberlain has produced some of the most eye-popping games and seasons from a statistical standpoint the league has ever seen, from a record 100-point game to a 50.4 points-per-game scoring average in 1961-62.

    Chamberlain outscored Russell by 15.7 points per game in their 94 regular-season meetings and 10.8 in the playoffs, grabbing more rebounds in their head-to-head matchups as well.

    Russell's final resume includes 11 championships, 12 All-Star appearances and five MVPs, while Chamberlain countered with two titles, 13 All-Star Games, four MVPs and seven scoring titles.

    While Chamberlain was the more dominant individual, Russell was typically surrounded by a better supporting cast and was happy to share the scoring load, producing far better team results.