B/R NBA Staff: The Biggest Rivalries of Every NBA Decade

Bleacher Report NBA StaffFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2020

B/R NBA Staff: The Biggest Rivalries of Every NBA Decade

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    The most intense and rewarding matchups are often the product of our expectations. Those same expectations only become magnified when previous iterations live up to the hype. In each case, the two seemingly immovable objects repeatedly fight for 48 minutes on the brightest stages to claim superiority over their opponent year after year. 

    And thus is born the rivalry. 

    The rivalry can be built upon a foundation of good-natured contentiousness between players, franchises and cities, or it can foster downright animosity. Whatever the affection or lack thereof, NBA fans stay glued to their televisions and smart devices to see who will prevail and in what fashion. 

    So let's take a stroll through the past 50 years of NBA basketball and beyond as we unearth some of the great rivalries that built the league to the standard we see before us today.


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    Russell vs. Chamberlain

    The early heyday of the NBA saw Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, two legendary titans of the league, go head-to-head throughout much of the 1960s. Chamberlain was the elite talent of the day with career-high averages of 50.4 points (1961-62), 27.2 rebounds (1960-61) and 48.5 minutes (1961-62).

    Russell was a dominant rebounder (peaking at 24.7 per game in 1963-64), but his career-best 18.9 points per game (1961-62) seem pedestrian when compared to Chamberlain's numbers.

    Despite the difference in scoring prowess, Russell's Celtics were the dominating team of that era, winning 11 titles over a 13-year span, often shutting out Chamberlain's Philadelphia/Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers in the process.

    Chamberlain and the 76ers did get the best of Russell and the Celtics in 1966-67 for his lone title during Russell's tenure. He would win his second title in 1971-72 with the Los Angeles Lakers after Russell had retired.


    Lakers vs. Celtics

    The Lakers and Celtics also had their history, predating Chamberlain's arrival for the 1968-69 season. Jerry West and Elgin Baylor's Lakers fell to the Celtics in the Finals in 1962, 1963, 1965, 1966 and 1968. Even with Chamberlain, they continued to lose to Boston in 1969. 

    It was an ugly rivalry for the Lakers, who finally broke through with their title over the New York Knicks in 1972.


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    Lakers vs. Knicks

    The 1970s was the decade of parity. Without one true superteam to headline the period, eight different champions would be crowned, the most diverse group of winners in NBA history. 

    However, the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks might have been the closest things, battling for supremacy in 1970, 1972 and 1973 with the Knicks capturing two of three titles. 

    The first championship run was led by Walt Frazier and Willis Reed and included the famous Game 7 that saw the latter enter from the Madison Square Garden tunnel after suffering a torn thigh muscle earlier in the series.

    In 1972, the Lakers responded, led by Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich and The Logo himself, Jerry West. They were one of the league's most proficient offenses, and the Knicks were one of its best defenses. Los Angeles overwhelmed New York in five games. 

    In 1973, the Knicks returned the favor in five games, led by Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley. The decisive Game 5 would be the final appearance of Chamberlain's career. 

    Also considered: The Seattle Supersonics and Washington Bullets split a pair of back-to-back NBA Finals to close the decade. Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes led the Bullets while Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams led the Sonics. 


    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Nate Thurmond

    Nate Thurmond was one of the most dynamic bigs of the 1970s, earning seven All-Star appearances and five All-Defensive selections throughout his career. He and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar faced off 37 times in the regular season and 16 times in the postseason between 1969 and 1977. 

    While Abdul-Jabbar was quickly rising as one of the greats in the NBA, Thurmond was widely respected as one of its best defenders, earning praise from his opponent and others. 

    "He plays me better than anybody ever has," Abdul-Jabbar told Basketball Digest (h/t NBA.com). "He's tall, has real long arms, and most of all he's agile and strong."

    Nevertheless, Kareem would take 24 of the 37 regular-season matchups and 10 of the 16 postseason clashes. As a member of the San Francisco/Golden State Warriors, Thurmond faced off against Kareem in three consecutive postseasons. Kareem took the first two, while Thurmond and his Warriors took the third in seven games. 

    Kareem averaged 24.4 points and 16.9 rebounds in those 16 playoff games while Thurmond averaged 18.5 points and 12.4 rebounds. 


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    Lakers vs. Celtics, Bird vs. Magic

    The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics have one of the richest rivalries in the NBA, dating back to the 1960s with Jerry West and Bill Russell. That rivalry renewed in the 1980s with both teams dominating their respective conferences. The Lakers went to eight NBA Finals; the Celtics went to five. Three were head-to-head clashes with the Celtics winning the first in 1984 and the Lakers earning the next two (1985 and 1987).

    The heart of that rivalry dates back to the 1979 NCAA Finals that saw Michigan State's Earvin "Magic" Johnson defeat Indiana State's Larry Bird. Soon after, Magic vs. Bird helped make the NBA a national sensation.

    Johnson went on to be the heart of the Lakers' Showtime era of the 1980s, winning five NBA titles. Bird was one of the league's most lethal assassins, leading the Celtics to three titles.

    The stakes were raised in the 1984 Finals when Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis en route to a championship in seven games (in a day and age when flagrant fouls were all but allowed). Johnson and the Lakers would get revenge the next season.

    Also considered: Julius "Dr. J" Erving and Philadelphia 76ers met the Lakers three times in the Finals from 1980 to 1983. Erving and the Sixers lost the first two, getting their championship with a four-game sweep of Johnson and the Lakers in 1983.

    Erving also had several playoff battles against Bird and the Celtics to be the best in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia beat Boston in 1980 and 1982. Boston got the best of the Sixers in 1981 and 1985.



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    Knicks vs. Heat

    The Knicks were the feistiest NBA team in the 1990s. Having faced the Chicago Bulls in five of six postseasons, they were finally on the cusp of becoming next, only to meet a new rival: the Miami Heat. 

    The Bulls and the Knicks were physical, no doubt. But the Knicks and the Heat embarked upon an all-out war.

    It started with head coach Pat Riley.

    After leaving the Knicks following their Finals dismissal in 1994 and Eastern Conference semifinals loss to the Indiana Pacers in 1995, Riley defected to Miami. With him in tow, the two would meet in four consecutive postseasons, partially highlighted by a massive brawl in 1997 that resulted in multiple suspensions.

    In 1999, the Knicks were a lowly eight seed before upsetting the top-seeded Miami Heat on an Allan Houston buzzer-beater that would begin their run to the Finals. But the most memorable matchup may have come in 1998 when bitter rivals Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning got physical, which led to shoving, punches being thrown and the infamous visual of Jeff Van Gundy helplessly clinging to Mourning's legs. 

    Also considered: The Knicks and Heat may have been the more brutal matchup, but the Knicks and Bulls were inarguably the most enduring. They faced off six times, and the Knicks' lone victory came in 1994 when they won Game 7 against a Bulls team led by Scottie Pippen. 


    Jordan vs. Starks

    Can a rivalry be one-sided? In this such case, it was. Jordan expelled the Knicks in each of his five postseason matchups against the team and enjoyed some of his greatest and most notable individual performances in front of the Madison Square Garden faithful. 

    But the Knicks were relentless, and in the backcourt, they were led by the overachieving and undersized John Starks. 

    "You'd get the scouting report and it would basically say, 'Good luck,'" Starks wrote about defending Jordan for the Players' Tribune in 2017.

    Starks never backed down and was one of the best backcourt defenders in the game. His tireless motor forced Jordan to be at his best and pushed the Bulls to deliver some of the most memorable series in their 1990s run. 

    Though Starks only managed to take down the Bulls in 1995 while Jordan was on the road to Birmingham, he did get his fair share of counterpunches at his opponent's expense, highlighted by his vicious dunk over Jordan and Horace Grant in 1993.



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    Los Angeles Lakers vs. San Antonio Spurs

    Between them, the Lakers and Spurs won seven of the 10 NBA titles in the 2000s—four by the Lakers and three by the Spurs. Each featured one of the two defining non-LeBron James players of the decade—Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. For most of the decade, they each had one of the handful of greatest coaches in the history of basketball—the Lakers' Phil Jackson and the Spurs' Gregg Popovich.

    Classic battles? They faced each other five times in the playoffs over those 10 years, twice in the Western Conference Finals and three times in the second round.

    Iconic moments? Derek Fisher's buzzer-beater with less than half a second remaining came in Game 5 of the 2004 semifinals. The Lakers prevailed that year before losing to Detroit in the Finals; the year before, it was the Spurs who beat the Lakers in the second round on the way to the first of their three 2000s titles.

    You can't tell the story of the NBA in the 2000s without the majority of the attention spent on the two teams that dominated it. There were plenty of all-time-great players between the two clubs, along with a clash of styles and clear mutual respect between the two sides. It's everything you could want in a rivalry.


    Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Washington Wizards

    "Mutual respect" was not present in the rivalry between the Cavs and Wizards, who faced off in the first round three years in a row from 2006 to 2008. These were the early years of LeBron James' career, back when he was still answering questions about whether he could win in the playoffs. The Wizards were never on his level, but they engaged in plenty of trash talk regardless.

    The most notable event in their rivalry was DeShawn Stevenson calling James "overrated" during their 2008 matchup. James declined to respond, saying it would be akin to Jay-Z responding to Soulja Boy. Then, Jay-Z recorded a Wizards diss freestyle, which a DJ played at a popular D.C. club that served as a favorite spot for Wizards players. That resulted in the team boycotting the club.

    Stevenson responded by inviting Soulja Boy to sit courtside and perform at halftime of the next home game in the series.

    This was a rivalry ahead of its time. The sheer ridiculousness of it would have thrived in the social media era.

    Also considered: Kobe Bryant and LeBron James were widely considered the two greatest players of the post-Michael Jordan era but never met in the Finals. It almost happened in 2009, but James' Cavaliers lost to the Orlando Magic in the Western Conference Finals.

    Also, the Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics was one of the great rivalries of the NBA's golden era, revived briefly at the end of the 2000s in two Finals matchups—the Celtics' 17th title in 2008 and the Lakers' 16th in 2010.


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    Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

    No two teams in any major American professional sport had ever met in the Finals four consecutive times before the Cavs and Warriors did so from 2015 to 2018.

    Each meeting represented a very different chapter. Golden State took the first meeting in six games over a Cleveland team missing injured stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. The Cavs came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the 73-win Warriors in 2016, and Kevin Durant helped lead Golden State to convincing victories in 2017 and 2018.

    Now in 2020, with James gone from the Cavs, Durant leaving the Warriors and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson missing nearly the entire year with injuries, Cleveland and Golden State are once again first and second...in a battle for the No. 1 overall pick.

    Also considered: Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat.


    LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard

    James' longevity has helped form mini rivalries with a number of the game's best players.

    Durant seemed most likely to take James' throne while a rising member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, but a move to the Warriors—and now rehab from a torn Achilles—put the rivalry on pause. James and Durant have met in the Finals three times, with the latter holding a 2-1 advantage.

    Curry has challenged James as the league's most popular player for years, and he was the face of the Warriors for all four seasons of the annual Cleveland-Golden State Finals meetup. Although their games and body types are completely different, Curry's trophy case (two MVPs, three NBA titles) can stand respectably next to James'.

    Leonard tied James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to win NBA Finals MVPs with two different franchises last season, and he now looks to hold the record outright with a Los Angeles Clippers championship this season. First beginning their rivalry as members of the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs in the 2013 and 2014 Finals, Leonard is perhaps the best player in the league at defending James, as well.

    Also considered: Kevin Durant vs. Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant vs. Dwight Howard and Ray Allen vs. former Boston Celtics teammates.