Almost every night, there’s an exciting NBA game going on with top-notch athletes taking part. But every once in a while, there’s an even more exciting game going on – a rivalry.
Rivalries are one of the best aspects of the NBA. Games between rival teams are typically more high-stakes with more than just another win in the win-loss column at stake. Rival teams typically play for playoff positioning, bragging rights, and most importantly, franchise legacy.
So, if you’re interested in finding out the biggest NBA rivalries to mark on your calendars, check out the rest of this article. We’ll talk about the best historical and current rivalries in the league.
The Importance of Rivalries in Basketball
Rivalries can come from geography, history, or even trash talk. Some of the best rivalries are between two teams who play each other often and have some bad blood, while others are just fun because they pit some of the NBA’s biggest stars against each other.
What makes an NBA rivalry truly special is when two teams have such a long history together that their meetings even spark emotions years after they last met on the basketball court. These are the games you don’t want to miss out on, and these are the teams that will always bring their best when they play against each other.
Top 10 Biggest NBA Rivalries (Past and Present)
Over the years, the NBA has produced some of the best team rivalries in sport. So, here are the top ten NBA rivalries that you should always keep your eye on:
Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers
The Celtics-Lakers rivalry is one of the biggest NBA rivalries. It is also a long-running one, dating back to the 1950s. The two teams have been battling it out since before most of the current NBA fans were born, but if you’re looking for some context on just how long this rivalry has been going on, here’s a quick history lesson:
- Both franchises were founded in 1946 (Boston) and 1947 (Los Angeles).
- Both teams have won a total of 16 championships, making it a tie between the two franchises.
- Because they belong to different conferences, they only get the chance to meet in the Finals during the postseason, which the Celtics have, so far, dominated with a 9-3 record.
These highlights may seem impressive, but the rich history has so much more to it. The rivalry has three prominent peaks – The Bill Russel Era, The Bird vs. Magic Era (1980-86), and the Kobe-Shaq Lakers vs. The Big 3 Era (2007-13).
The Celtics won most of their championships in the 60s, with Bill Russell winning 11 out of 13 NBA Titles from 1957 – 1969. Seven out of those 11 titles came at the expense of the Lakers. However, the Lakers are the steadier team, as they’ve had at least a winning season or two every decade since the 1940s.
The rivalry peaked when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were in their prime. During this time, both teams played each other in the Finals thrice from 1984-1987, with an intervening year in 1985 when the Celtics faced the Rockets instead. The Celtics won two out of those three titles, while the Celtics won the last in ’87.
The rivalry was reignited in the late 2000s and early 2010s with the Kobe Bryant-led Lakers vs. the Big Three-led Celtics composed of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. The two teams first met in the 2008 Finals, where Boston won in six games thanks to some clutch play by Garnett and Pierce. However, it was a different story in 2010 when LA took the trophy with a Game 7 win. The rivalry has cooled off now that both teams are no longer playing at their peak level, but there’s still some bad blood between them when they face each other on the court today.
Boston Celtics vs. Detroit Pistons
The Celtics vs. Pistons rivalry dates back to the 1950s and reached two separate peaks in 1988, 1989, and 2004 Eastern Conference Finals.
But, if there’s one moment that would paint a picture of this entire rivalry, it’s when Bill Laimbeer violently clotheslined a driving Larry Bird to the ground in 1987. That play is still remembered today and would be a clear indicator that these two teams hated each other.
You could feel the tension between the two teams even before the incident as the two met in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 1985 in a physical 6-game series. So, fans and pundits alike were thrilled every time the two teams clashed.
The last time they met in the playoffs was in 2008 when Boston came out on top with a 4-2 series win. Like the 80s, this Celtics-Pistons matchup was also characterized by a distinctly physical style. The Celtics were led by the “Big Three” of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, while the Pistons were led by the veteran core of Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, and Rip Hamilton.
Chicago Bulls vs. Detroit Pistons
The Chicago Bulls vs. Detroit Pistons rivalry is also one of the most popular in NBA history. The two teams met each other four consecutive times in the Eastern Conference playoffs from 1988 to 1991. It was relatively short, but it featured some of basketball’s greatest players.
The two teams met in the playoffs in the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals, which was won easily by Detroit 4-1 over Chicago. It only got worse from there as they faced each other in the following seasons, with Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boys winning each time except for the last one in 1991. The Piston’s loss in 1991 meant the beginning of the Chicago Dynasty of the 90s!
This intense rivalry gave rise to what is now known as “Bad Boys” Bill Laimbeer (center), Rick Mahorn (power forward), and John Salley (small forward). These guys would get into fights during games which inspired Chuck Daly – head coach at that time – to create the infamous “Jordan Rules.”
Chicago Bulls vs. Utah Jazz
Of course, you can’t mention the Chicago Bulls’ 90s dynasty without at least saying something about the Utah Jazz. It’s considered one of the best NBA rivalries of the 90s. The Bulls met the Jazz in the NBA Finals twice in exciting fashion, winning against the John Stockton and Karl Malone-led teams.
Many people say that the Jazz were an excellent team that could have won the championship if Jordan hadn’t returned from retirement.
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Los Angeles Lakers
The rivalry between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers is one of the oldest in sports. It dates back to when both teams were in different cities but then moved to LA and became division rivals. The two franchises have played each other nine times in playoff series, with the Lakers winning seven of those matchups–including three straight from 2012-2014.
The rivalry got its name because both teams call their home arena Crypto.com Arena (formerly Staples Center). They also share a hallway where they meet before games so fans can get autographs or take pictures with their favorite players before tipoff!
2000s Los Angeles Lakers vs. Kings, Spurs, Pistons
The 2000s were a time of great prosperity for the Los Angeles Lakers. They won five NBA championships during this decade, and the team’s success made them one of the most hated teams during those times. And as you can imagine, some NBA teams were dead set on beating the Lakers.
The Sacramento Kings 2002 was one such rivalry that developed partly because of Shaquille O’Neal’s dominance over Chris Webber but also because both teams were vying for control of California (and even more specifically, Los Angeles).
The Spurs vs. Lakers rivalry is one of the most prominent ones in the early 2000s as they faced each other in fierce battles for Western Conference supremacy from 1999, 2001 – 2004, and again in 2008 and 2013. While the battles were never extremely violent, the level of competition and technical skill on display was enough to make anyone take notice. The Lakers were the clear favorite in these matchups as they were mostly in the middle of their dynasty back then, but the Spurs always gave them a run for their money.
Speaking of giving the Lakers a run for their money, the Pistons also had a similar rivalry with the Lakers. The two teams faced each other in the 2004 NBA Finals, where they went head to head for an epic seven games that the Pistons, the overwhelming underdogs of the series, won.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Phoenix Suns
If there were two teams whose play styles were directly opposite of each other in the 2000s, it’s most definitely the Suns and Spurs. The Suns, led by the fast-paced 2-time MVP Steve Nash, were one of the most exciting teams to watch in the NBA. They were an offensive powerhouse, averaging over 100 points per game for three straight seasons, with Nash averaging double-digit assists.
The Suns won 50+ games in each of Nash’s healthy seasons and made it to the Western Conference Finals in 2005, where they lost to the Spurs in 6 games.
The Spurs, on the other hand, were led by Tim Duncan, a mid-range specialist who liked to make plays from the paint, and some of the best European guards to ever play in the NBA, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Spurs were a defensive-oriented team who had no problem with playing small ball. They won over 50 games in each season from 2002-2007, which included NBA Championships in 2005 and 2007.
New York Knicks vs. Chicago Bulls
The New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls met in the playoffs a total of seven times and culminated in the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, with the Bulls winning every time. The rivalry was fueled by the fact that both teams were balanced, had superstars on their rosters, and were competing for championships in most seasons.
The rivalry also included some of the best individual player rivalries in the NBA: Michael Jordan vs. John Starks and Scottie Pippen vs. Patrick Ewing.
Toronto Raptors vs. Philadelphia 76ers
The 2001 Eastern Conference Finals between the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers was one of the most exciting playoff series in NBA history. The two teams had incredible players at their peaks, including Allen Iverson on the Sixers, and Vince Carter on the Raptors.
The series saw two hungry young basketball superstars going at it with Allen Iverson scoring 50 or more points in two separate occasions just to get the win over the Raptors. On the other hand, Vince Carter showed up as well with 35, 50, and 39 points in three different games. The series ended up going seven games, with Philadelphia winning the series 4–3 over Toronto.
Most recently in 2019, the rivalry has heated up again with a new set of superstars and players. Suiting up for the 76ers is the perennial MVP candidate Joel Embiid while the eventual 2019 NBA champs had Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and a whole new breed of Raptors. The series was a back and forth affair. However, it was Kawhi Leonard’s now-iconic buzzer-beater that would seal the deal for the 76ers in that series.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors
The rivalry between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors is one of the biggest in NBA history. It started in 2015 when LeBron James returned to Cleveland and has only intensified since then.
The rivalry is between two of the best teams in basketball, and arguably all of sports, who have been at each other’s throats for years now. On one side, you have LeBron James and his crew: Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. On the other side is Stephen Curry’s crew: Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala.
The feud between these two factions was so intense that they met each other on the Finals stage for four consecutive seasons from 2015-2018, with Golden State losing only one Finals series to Cleveland in the historic 2016 Finals.
Nevertheless, the competition between Stephen Curry and LeBron James remains one of the most hotly anticipated matchups. Curry represents the new NBA, while LeBron is the epitome of the old-school basketball of the 90s and 2000s.
Wrapping Things Up: 10 Biggest NBA Rivalries
The NBA is a highly competitive league with many great teams and players. It is also a league that has seen its fair share of feuds, rivalries, and controversies over the past several decades.
It’s these exciting rivalries that make the NBA so captivating to watch. The league has seen its share of feuds and rivalries, some of which have lasted for many years, while others were short-lived but just as intense. What we’re sure of is that rivalries will continue to play a role in the NBA for years to come.
We hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, be sure to check out our other basketball FAQ articles here.