One of the main criticisms you will hear about the current generation of the NBA is that the players get along too well. Compared to the 1990s, where the play on the court often resembled a wrestling match, the NBA has certainly dialed down the violence in the present day. But that does not mean that there are not some heated rivalries to enjoy in the Association.
These 10 rivalries in particular combine some of the animosity of yesteryear with all of the talent that makes the league a can’t miss attraction.
10. Damian Lillard vs. Paul George
On an individual level, the personal rivalry that is budding between Paul George and Damian Lillard is fascinating. Lillard sent George home in the first round of the playoffs while George was a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, winning that series with a shot from near midcourt before waving goodbye to the Thunder bench. George has since become a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, and the baggage between these two All-Stars has come with him to the West Coast.
Damian Lillard waves goodbye to OKC pic.twitter.com/h0Dhofe5nP— NBC Sports Northwest (@NBCSNorthwest) April 24, 2019
During the seeding game in Orlando between Lillard’s Portland Trail Blazers and George’s Clippers, Lillard missed two key free throws that cost his team the game. George and teammate Patrick Beverley ridiculed Lillard from the sideline, prompting a war of words on social media that featured Lillard calling George a chump who needed to switch teams to win games. Wives and girlfriends have involved themselves in the recent social media beef, making this mini-rivalry one worth keeping an eye on in and out of the bubble.
9. Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors
Over the last few years, the Golden State Warriors have been the gold standard in the NBA. The Houston Rockets, meanwhile, have been close to defeating them in the playoffs on multiple occasions. But the Rockets have fallen short of that goal, thanks to some poorly timed injuries and a Game 7 in which Mike D’Antoni’s team missed an unfathomable 27 straight three-point attempts.
Results aside, it's clear that these two teams do not like each other very much. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has often accused the league of officiating games between the two sides poorly, even asking for an audit of the league’s officiating after the Dubs knocked the Rockets out of the postseason. This year, the Warriors will not be in the playoffs to interfere with the Rockets, but the ghosts of previous failures against Golden State could haunt Houston when it counts this time around.
8. LeBron James vs. Warriors
Even better than the Rockets-Warriors hatred is the rivalry between LeBron James and Golden State. James, arguably the league’s best player and possibly the best to ever wear an NBA uniform, faced the Warriors in four NBA Finals as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Warriors won three of those series, cementing their status as one of the greatest teams in NBA history. But James’ ability to drag his teammates to the title in 2016, and the hostilities in that series, made for a memorable rivalry that is poised to continue to this day.
Fans will remember Draymond Green kicking James in the groin in Game 5 of that 2016 Finals, which resulted in Green’s suspension and the turning of the tide in that series. But Klay Thompson’s insinuation that James was soft also weighed heavily on the King in that series, as James proved he was anything but soft by overcoming a 3-1 deficit to win Cleveland their first title in five decades.
Now a member of the Lakers, James will continue his rivalry with the Warriors next year.
7. Kevin Durant vs. Draymond Green
Though they were on the same team, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green had a rivalry of their own while they were on the Golden State Warriors together last season. Green is a player who enjoys speaking his mind, telling players, coaches and officials exactly what he thinks whenever he is on the court. But he managed to get under Kevin Durant’s skin during an in-game exchange in the 2018-19 season that foreshadowed Durant's departure to Brooklyn.
Durant did leave the team after the 2019 Finals, choosing to join the Brooklyn Nets. And while KD missed the season due to an Achilles injury, the basketball world is waiting with great anticipation to see how Green and Durant will interact with one another when they are facing off next season.
6. Dallas Mavericks vs. Houston Rockets
They say that everything is bigger in Texas, and that applies to the point totals put up by the Dallas Mavericks and Rockets as well. Both of these Texas teams boast dynamic offenses, led by the two best scoring guards in the game today in Luka Doncic and James Harden.
These teams showed exactly what they were capable of when they battled during the early portion of the Orlando seeding round. In an overtime contest, they combined for over 300 total points, with the Rockets winning that contest.
As both of these teams look to break into the upper echelon of the Western Conference, we can all look forward to them entertaining us with Texas-style shootouts on the basketball court.
5. Philadelphia Sixers vs. Brooklyn Nets
The Philadelphia 76ers and the Nets are a part of a greater rivalry involving the cities of Philadelphia and New York. These two towns feature teams that compete in the same division in the NFL, MLB and NBA, with both sides having success over the other in each sport. In basketball, these teams have had some bad blood in the recent past, with some alleged dirty play in last year’s playoffs from Joel Embiid sparking another chapter of controversy between Philly and New York.
Next year, there should finally be some equal footing for these two basketball teams, as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will help the Nets get back to the level where the Sixers have been for several years. With at least four All-Stars set to take part in this rivalry next year — unless the Sixers decide to trade Embiid or Ben Simmons — this rivalry could be higher on our list of great present day rivalries next season.
4. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Milwaukee Bucks
The Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks have some historical ties to one another, with both teams having been home to one of the greatest players of all-time in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Historical links aside, though, the Lakers and Bucks are two of the best teams in the NBA right now and their matchups against one another have given us the treat of seeing James and Giannis Antetokounmpo on the floor as foes.
James and Giannis have been recent captains of All-Star Games against one another, as these two players have been deemed the faces of the NBA. So when they play each other in a competitive setting, there is some real significance behind those meetings.
And with a potential 2020 NBA Finals matchup on the horizon, there is a chance that there could be some real stakes behind their next games.
3. Milwaukee Bucks vs. Toronto Raptors
One rivalry that has decided who will play in the NBA Finals in recent years has been that of the Bucks and the Toronto Raptors. In 2019, the Raptors managed to overcome the top-seeded Bucks to reach the Finals, where they defeated a depleted Golden State Warriors team to bring Canada its first NBA championship. This season, the Bucks and Raps are the favorites to win the Eastern Conference once again and could meet for the crown for a second straight season.
One element of this rivalry that is especially interesting is how the Raptors are uniquely equipped to deal with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Coach Nick Nurse has done a great job of walling off the space that Giannis likes to get into in the paint, and the Raptors have enough big bodies to challenge him at the paint if he manages to breach that initial wall.
If Toronto can use that plan effectively again in the NBA bubble, they might be able to claim a second straight championship.
2. James Harden vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Harden and Antetokounmpo have never played a game against each other in the playoffs, but their dislike for each other has been made clear in the press. That's formed a fun rivalry between players with different styles. Harden came out and said that the Greek Freak's only real skill is being big and being able to get to the basket without using many steps. That led to an All-Star Game confrontation, where Giannis acknowledged that his team’s plan was to simply attack whoever Harden was defending each possession.
While both Harden and Giannis possess incredibly fun styles of play, there is nothing wrong with being wildly entertained when they do decide to take verbal shots at one another.
1. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Los Angeles Clippers
In what could become the best rivalry in this era of the NBA’s history, the Lakers and Clippers are currently the top rivalry in the league today. With both franchises residing in the same city while being at the top of the Western Conference standings, the interest level in seeing these two teams play is unmatched with any other combination of squads in the sport right now.
Each team has two dynamic duos in James and Anthony Davis for the Lakers and Kawhi Leonard and George for the Clippers. And with both teams playing in a major media market in the same arena, they both receive a large share of the spotlight that the league generates.
NBA fans across the world are crossing their fingers to see these two teams play for the Western Conference title, to decide which LA team reigns supreme in the first chapter of this budding rivalry.
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