Being a passionate sports fans includes at least two vital things.
First, a sports fan must be endlessly loyal to their team even when they have no reason to be, and second, a sports fan must passionately honor the rivalry their team has with their most hated opponent.
While some have simmered over time as others have blossomed, tension on the court has always been a huge part of the NBA. Basketball players have been known to chirp more and boost their physicality when their rivals are in town. Plus, it isn’t like throwing fists or some real hard elbows is unheard of in the NBA.
Here, we’ll go over the Top 5 NBA rivalries and everything that makes them so great and passionate.
Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks
The Bulls and the Knicks met for the first time when Chicago’s franchise joined the NBA in 1966. The teams played each other annually, but the rivalry wasn’t something that came instantaneously. The rivalry began budding in the 80s and 90s when the teams’ competition levels grew and everything took off from there.
The Bulls, led by Michael Jordan, kept the upper hand over the Knicks in their postseason matchups and took six of seven postseason wins over New York. With stars like Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley on the roster, the Knicks thought that they could break through the ’94 playoffs, especially after topping the Bulls, but kept falling short.
The rivalry inspired some pretty physical play on the court and when these two teams came together every bump got harder and every elbow flew higher. A Bulls-Knicks matchup always meant the game would be a little more chippy than usual.
Bulls’ star Michael Jordan mentioned the rivalry in 2005 and stated: ““Once we started winning and got past Detroit, the Knicks became our biggest rivals. They were trying to get where we were. We were trying to maintain what we were.”
The rivalry got a little refresher when the Knicks acquired two former Bulls, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, who signed with the Knicks in 2016.
Even when the gritty games lighten up and the physicality takes a back seat, the Bulls and Knicks will forever be rivals. Even when the team isn’t getting extra competitive on the court, the fans will be preserving this rivalry every time something happens, big or small.
Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers
The Golden State Warriors-Cleveland Cavaliers rivalry is a bit newer, but these two teams are the exact opposite of friendly. LeBron James himself has said that he doesn’t believe this is a rivalry, but nobody believes King James’ word here.
James himself has often joined in on the rivalry fun, famously at a Halloween party he threw. The party featured a decoration that mocked the Warriors’ blown 3-1 series lead in the 2016 NBA Finals and had tombstone cookies featuring the names of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
The Warriors’ Draymond Green was honest and upfront about the growing rivalry. Green stated, in a TNT interview, that: “I don’t have much love for the Cleveland Cavaliers at all, nor do I think they have much love for us. And that’s what makes it fun to play against each other. That’s the true meaning of building a rivalry, which I think this has become a rivalry.”
Even Kevin Durant, in his first season with the Warriors, has found himself entered into the budding rivalry. Durant believes that the rivalry is ‘good for the competition’ and ‘fun.’ He believes that the rivalry is good for the play of both teams since it inspires hard playoff-like games.
While this rivalry is a fairy new one that has been unfolding in the last few seasons, it’s growing fast. These two teams have found a lot of NBA success and the rivalry between them is only natural.
These two teams don’t like each other because they both want to be the best and they keep getting in the way of one another in the NBA Finals. What better way to start a rivalry?
Detroit Pistons and the Chicago Bulls
The Pistons and the Bulls first faced off back in 1966, but the rivalry didn’t take off until the ’80s. The Pistons were the other side of the same rivalry the Bulls were picking with the Knicks and it began for all the same, and competitive, reasons.
This rivalry would go on to be one of the NBA’s most intense rivalries and the teams would face off in four straight postseasons (1988-91). The Pistons-Bulls rivalry was all grit and trash talk when it was in its peak and is considered one of the best rivalries of its era.
Nicknamed the ‘Bad Boys.’ the Pistons, led by Isiah Thomas, defeated the Bulls in three straight playoff matchups before being defeated and swept in 1991. The Bulls bounced back after three years of playoff losses and swept the Pistons in a series so rough, the Pistons left the court before shaking hands with their opponents.
Following the loss, the Pistons’ then-coach Chuck Daly implemented a new set of rules for when they faced the Bulls that would later be nicknamed the “Jordan Rules.” These rules required highly physical play against Jordan and the Bulls. The system promoted some pretty brutal play to fuel the rivalry fire.
Since the peak years of the Pistons-Bulls rivalry, the two teams have been pretty quiet on the rivalry front. Despite the rivalry sleeping, it’ll only take a new series of stars to turn these teams back against each other like the old days.
L.A. Lakers and the Sacramento Kings
The Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings have had a pretty heated rivalry since the early 2000s when they both had some of their most highly-skilled and powerful players in tow.
Between the Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Rick Fox against the Kings’ Chris Webber, Jason Williams and Vlade Divac, these teams were loaded with big talents. The skill of these players would only enhance the rivalry that was growing between these two teams.
One of the most notable interviews during this time was when Shaq gave his honest opinion on the Kings, by calling them the ‘Queens.’ Shaq stated, in an interview, that, “We’re not worried about the Sacramento Queens. Not at all. I’m not gonna be doing this all year, going back and forth with them.”
Not to mention, the Kings’ Doug Christie and the Lakers’ Fox fought in a preseason matchup in 2002. After some shoving and pushing from Fox, Christie ended the battle by punching Fox in the face. The tensions were so high in this game, despite behind an exhibition game, that the fight was almost unavoidable.
These teams, and their players, have accomplished big feats against each other. This feud might seem like it’s taken a back seat to others with both franchises struggling of late, but that doesn’t mean the rivalry is done quite yet.
Boston Celtics and the L.A. Lakers
The Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers are two of the oldest teams in the NBA and all that history has given them the rivalry of a lifetime. Many NBA fans have called the Celtics-Lakers rivalry the best, and longest, the league has ever seen.
The Celtics and the Lakers have met in the NBA Finals 12 times between 1959 and 2010, with the Celtics topping the Lakers with nine championship titles. While the Celtics had dominated the rivalry until 1984, the Lakers made sure they weren’t beaten for long and the 80s brought a new wind of competition.
The presence of Celtics Larry Bird and Laker Magic Johnson created an even more intense rivalry for these two teams in the 1980s. These two NBA greats would create an incredible competitive atmosphere between the two teams because of their own personal rivalry.
In the height of the rivalry, Johnson told reporters, on the topic of the rivalry, “when the new schedule would come out each year, I’d grab it and circle the Boston games. To me, it was The Two and the other 80.”
Bird didn’t let Johnson’s quote go unanswered and referenced the rivalry to media in his own way, saying, “the first thing I would do every morning was look at the box scores to see what Magic did. I didn’t care about anything else.”
The Celtics and the Lakers have two of the richest NBA traditions and it only makes sense that these two teams would rival against each other. Only one of them can be the best and sometimes it might seem like they run their own race against each other, other teams aside.
Even if this rivalry has quieted since Bird and Johnson were making waves, it is still very alive and the new heights are just below the surface and ready to rise.