From challenges between the greatest players in NBA history, to disagreements that still stand to this day.
Here are the 10 rivalries that marked the history of the league and gifted us with flashes of heavenly basketball. Legendary challenges that started on the court and, on many occasions, went on outside of it.
1. Michael Jordan vs Isiah Thomas
The rivalry between Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas goes way beyond the games between the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons. As the TV series “The Last Dance” also recounted, the first rifts occurred during the 1985 All-Star Game: on that occasion Thomas tried to boycott the rookie Jordan.
The rivalry definitively broke out between the ’80s and the ’90s. From 1988 to 1990 the Bulls lost 3 consecutive Playoff series to the “Bad Boys” (the nickname that identified the Pistons).
In the following 1991 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls finally got the better of them: the Pistons, led by Isiah Thomas, even left the bench before the final buzzer, refusing to congratulate the soon-to-be NBA champions.
Moreover, it seems like Thomas was ruled out of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team because Jordan didn’t want anything to do with him.
2. Kevin Garnett – Tim Duncan
The rivalry between Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan puts two completely different personalities against each other. On one hand, the calm of San Antonio’s number 21, on the other hand, KG’s ferociousness.
It all dates back to 1999: in the first round of the Playoffs, Garnett wished Duncan a “Happy Mother’s Day, Motherf***er”. It’s worth noting that Duncan’s mother passed away when he was only 14.
The rivalry was accentuated by the fact that the two played in the same position: the score in this case is in favor of Duncan, who has a winning 33-19 record on Garnett and beat the Timberwolves twice in the Playoffs.
3. Shaquille O’Neal – Dwight Howard
The battle of the “Supermen”: their rivalry started at the dawn of Shaq’s career, which coincided with Howard’s prime.
The disagreements between the two continued even after the retirement of the former number 34 of the Los Angeles Lakers. O’Neal strongly criticized Howard’s choice to sign for the Lakers; moreover, the criticism was also focused on the game.
As an analyst, Shaq harshly criticized Howard’s post game, asserting that he wasn’t dominant enough considering his size and power.
4. Walter Frazier – Earl Monroe
Earl “The Pearl” Monroe‘s ability to improvise is one of the best stories in NBA history. He became a legend right away under the banner of the Baltimore Bullets, a masterpiece in the flesh. As Denzel Washington explained in “He got game”, he was Black Jesus.
Walter Frazier was Clyde, extroverted like no one else, less offensive talent but an almost unmatched basketball sensibility. Two superstars who were the best basketball had to offer in the guard position between the end of the ’60s and the ’70s.
When news that the Knicks had signed Monroe came out, everyone doubted that those two could make things work. Many people started saying that the Knicks would have needed 2 balls to make both happy.
However, Red Holzman performed a miracle: the once rivals became great friends on and off the court and they even gave the Knicks a championship in 1973 with a team for the ages.
5. Michael Jordan – Joe Dumars
This one was a true rivalry: every time the Bulls took on the Pistons, Jordan had to go toe-to-toe with Joe Dumars, a really tough match-up for him. We’re at the end of the ’80s and Michael gets more and more frustrated because, in the Playoffs, things seems to never go his way.
Detroit’s defense is really tough to beat and, most importantly, they have their own “Jordan Rules”, which allowed them to send the Bulls home three times in a row between 1988 and 1990.
6. LeBron James – Kevin Durant
Most certainly the two best players of the last decade. Kevin Durant, height and unreal quickness, alongside a scoring ability second to none; LeBron James, a superathlete with the highest basketball IQ in the modern era and, on figures, one of the greatest of all time.
They met 3 times in the Finals. LeBron took the first one, securing his first NBA championship (Miami Heat vs OKC Thunder). However, after joining the Warriors, KD was able to turn the situation around and make it 2-1.
All three times, one of them was named Finals MVP. In 2013, Durant was described as:
The best player not named LeBron James.
Durant never really accepted the idea of being number 2 though.
7. Russell Westbrook – Patrick Beverley
Two of the most intense players in the game today. It all dates back to 2013: Beverley threw himself at Westbrook to steal the ball from him, even though Russ had already called a timeout.
Westbrook hurt his knee while landing, an injury that prematurely ended his Playoff run. Something similar happened again in 2014, luckily with no physical consequences this time. Obviously, the two never really got along too well.
Every time they play against each other, they keep going at it. During a November 2019 Rockets-Clippers showdown, Westbrook sneered at Beverley, waiving at him as he was leaving the court after fouling out.
The following month, however, it was Westbrook’s turn who, after a reaction to Beverley’s ejection, picked up a technical foul.
8. Kobe Bryant – Shaquille O’Neal
From bros to foes. The Kobe-Shaq duo is undoubtedly one of the most controversial of all time: they won the Three Peat with the Lakers (2000, 2001, 2002) but their cohabitation wasn’t always easy.
They started off as great friends, but differences came up pretty soon and, more often than not, in an explosive way. Their relationship imploded once and for all after the loss to the Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals: Shaq left Los Angeles to join the Miami Heat.
Their first showdown took place on Christmas Day 2004. The Heat were a better team and, as such, won that game. Moreover, Shaq proved that he could win without Kobe, securing another NBA championship under the Heat banner.
When Kobe won his fifth championship in 2010 though, he was asked if it meant anything special compared to the previous ones. Number 24’s answer was:
I just passed Shaq
However, in 2018, they had a face-to-face interview on TNT where they buried the hatchet once and for all.
9. Larry Bird – Magic Johnson
The rivalry that marked an era in NBA history. During the ’80s, the NBA championship was almost always disputed between Magic Johnson’s Lakers and Larry Bird’s Celtics.
The two first met in the 1979 NCAA Finals. In the following years, Bird and Magic won 8 NBA titles and 6 MVPs combined, facing off 3 times in the Finals.
They are the faces of the historic rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics.
The media always portrayed them as rivals because they represented two opposite stereotypes of the American society, but the truth is they both always respected each other and got along on and off the court. They both made the Dream Team in 1992.
10. Bill Russell – Wilt Chamberlain
Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain faced off 143 times on the court, more than any other rivals in the history of the game.
On paper, Bill Russell wins this one: the Celtics legend has a winning record of 86-57 over his rival. Moreover, he’s the winningest player in NBA history with 11 titles to Chamberlain’s 2. On the other hand, Chamberlain recorded some dazzling personal records that still stand to this day, like the famous 100-point game, the greatest scoring performance of all time.
Their rivalry was the first one to have a huge impact from a media standpoint and is unanimously considered the greatest rivalry between two centers the game has ever seen.