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Ranking the 25 greatest rivalries in NBA history

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Over the past 75 years, the NBA has produced some of the greatest rivalries in all sports. From the 60s onward, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, LeBron James, Steph Curry, and many of the world’s most recognizable superstars have been involved in the biggest NBA rivalries.

NBA’s Greatest Rivalries

Great rivalries don’t just happen between teams on the court — they happen between tremendous personalities, cause off-court riffs, and takeover everyday conversation. Whether part of the action or not, you were captivated by the drama these NBA rivalries sparked.

25) Jordan vs LeBron

This isn’t the 25th best NBA rivalry – it’s the worst and most boring rivalry in all sports. Never before have two men that never faced off caused so much vitriol. Nothing will make me turn off ESPN or close Twitter faster than the Jordan vs LeBron debate.

LeBron James and Michael Jordan are two of the greatest players of all time, but that doesn’t stop the mouth breathers from coming out and reducing their respective careers to the bare minimum.

I assure you MJ didn’t play against truck drivers and garbage men, just as King James isn’t an all-time choke artist. Don’t let the clowns on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, or even TV tell you otherwise. As you’ll garner from the rest of this list, those two proved their mettle against the stiffest competition the NBA had to offer.


24) Jazz vs Bulls

The Utah Jazz vs Chicago Bulls didn’t have the back and forth of most significant rivalries. Michael Jordan’s Bulls beat the Jazz in back-to-back NBA Finals in ’97 and ’98, 4-2 each time. Beyond the Jazz being stepping stones to the Bulls’ second threepeat and cementing MJ’s place atop the NBA’s pantheon, it also gave us two of the most iconic moments in the history of the NBA.

Jordan battled a mysterious illness, and put up 38 points, in the The Flu Game as Chicago beat Utah by two. This led to the legendary image of him being helped off the court by Scottie Pippen.

And there was Pippen telling Karl Malone, “The Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sunday.” before the Mailman missed two free throws. Oh, the Last Shot was pretty impressive too.

23) Heat vs Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat played the cleanest basketball I’ve ever witnessed. It’s a shame these two teams only met twice in the Finals. The Spurs’ offense was predicated on motion and using movement to confuse defenses. The Heat defense played on a string, switched often, and attacked relentlessly.

LeBron, Gregg Popovich, Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Ray Allen, and Manu Ginobili gave us some of the most high-level basketball ever played and the most incredible shot of all time. A short-lived but dramatic and enticing NBA rivalry.


22) A.I. vs the NBA

Allen Iverson was to David Stern what Stone Cold was to Vince McMahon. The Answer didn’t like to be questioned about his tattoos, wardrobe, hairstyle, demeanor, or practice.

Iverson brought the hip-hop aesthetic to the forefront of the NBA, and they hated it. Even after installing a league-wide dress code to look more ‘professional,’ Iverson would pay the fines before the season and continue being his unapologetic self.

21) Spurs vs Mavericks

When people start trying to put Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid ahead of Dirk Nowitzki in the all-time rankings, just say no. Nowitzki cut his teeth against the best the west had to offer in the 2000s. With no opponent more prominent than the Spurs during their dynasty.

The Dallas Mavericks faced off against San Antonio six times in ten years, with the Spurs winning four times. The 2006 Western Conference Semi-Finals, which the Mavs won 4-3, is the best matchup of the bunch and requires viewing for any NBA junkie.

20) Hakeem vs Great Centers

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, and Shaquille O’Neal. Those are the centers Hakeem Olajuwon bested in the playoffs during his career. If you wanted to be cheeky, you could include other bigs like Charles Barkley, Shawn Kemp, and Malone.

The Dream always brought his A-game against the league’s top centers, and those scalps prove it. One-on-one in the post, nobody could stop Hakeem. He tortured the NBA’s best centers through the ’80s and ’90s and cost Ewing, Shaq, and Robinson some winnable hardware.

19) LeBron vs The East

From 2011 to 2018, LeBron James dominated the East. This is one of the most lopsided NBA rivalries.

The Bulls, Toronto Raptors, and Indiana Pacers all felt like they had an opportunity to dethrone the king. Toronto’s talented team met an especially cruel fate as they were beheaded by King James in three consecutive seasons, including getting swept as the first seed and being dubbed LeBronto.

18) Lakers vs Knicks

The Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks kicked off the ’70s playing each other three times in four years. In a perfect world, this continued to be one of the biggest NBA rivalries.

Unfortunately, New York failed to hold up their end of the bargain.

Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, and Earl Monroe played for the Knicks during these series. The Lakers trotted out Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor.

The 1970 NBA Finals is one of the best series of all time and gets capped off by the Willis Reed game.

17) Spurs vs Suns

The Spurs played spoiler to the Phoenix Suns four times during the 2000s. However, their battles never lacked drama. The faceoffs featured black eyes, broken noses, suspensions, and revolutionary basketball. The Seven Second or Less Suns feel they had a title contending team that was robbed in ’07 due to suspensions to Boris Diaw and Amar’e Stoudemire after a fiery on-court skirmish.

These teams also had a fun run of playoff matchups in the ’90s between the Barkley and Robinson-led teams. Those playoff series didn’t have the same drama, though.

16) Bulls vs Knicks

Poor Patrick Ewing picked the wrong time to be a great center. If he wasn’t getting bested by Hakeem, it was Michael Jordan’s Bulls dashing the Knicks’ championship aspirations.

Even the ’94 playoffs where they beat the Jordan-less Bulls is more remembered for Pippen’s filthy dunk over Ewing than the Knicks winning. Patrick Ewing had some incredible playoff moments in his career. Unfortunately, he’ll be more remembered for the rivalries he lost.

15) Lakers vs Spurs

Another rivalry featuring huge names and high-level basketball. The Spurs dynasty battled the Kobe and Shaq Lakers five times in six years.

Duncan vs Diesel was the center battle to watch over those seasons, with the Lakers going 3-2. Duncan won out regarding longevity, but during Shaq’s prime, there was no question who the better center was. You just have to watch the battles to see it.

During the entire Duncan and Kobe stretch, the teams went an even 4-4.

14) MJ vs Isiah

One of the more bitter NBA player rivalries, the Jordan and Isiah Thomas beef is what happens when two of the world’s pettiest people end up in the same division. In 2022, these two are still playing verbal volleyball after the rivalry was reignited during 2020’s ‘The Last Dance.’

Nobody knows what kicked off the blood feud. It could’ve been Zeke’s college coach, Bobby Knight, saying Jordan was the best player he had ever seen. Or maybe it was Jordan taking over Isiah’s hometown of Chicago. No matter what started it, these two still have not buried the hatchet after nearly 40 years. Their petty jabs off the court don’t come near the brutal battles on it, but we’ll cover that later.

13) Lakers vs Pistons

This was the least bloody of the Pistons, Bulls, Lakers, and Celtics matchups. Thomas and Magic Johnson were legitimate friends who were more likely to be seen kissing than fighting.

That doesn’t mean the games were free of drama — Isiah Thomas’ miraculous 25-point third quarter on a sprained ankle and Bill Lambieer’s ‘Phantom Foul’ added spice to these already exceptional matchups. After playing the role of bridesmaid and experiencing never-ending heartbreak, the Pistons finally broke through as NBA champions against the Lakers in ’89.

The rivalry was relaunched in 2004 when the starless Detroit Pistons put a dagger in the heart of the Kobe and Shaq Lakers.

12) Bird vs Dr. J

It’s about to get violent. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson started to takeover NBA headlines before Julius Erving was ready to leave the front page. The Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics fought it out four times over six years in the playoffs. Those series were star-studded and legendary.

After Bird torched Dr. J and the Sixers for 42 points, the floor erupted into a bloody, bench-clearing brawl that saw Bird choke Erving before the Dr responded by feeding the Legend a two-piece while he was held back by Moses Malone and Charles Barkley.

I don’t think we appreciate how crazy it is these two fought. It would be like LeBron and Kevin Durant fighting shortly after KD won his MVP. We don’t get fights like this anymore, now, it’s a competition to see who can get held back the hardest.

11) Rockets vs Jazz

The rivalry that time forgot. The Dream owned the post in the early 90s, and the Mailman was one of his many casualties. The Rockets beat the Jazz both years that they went on to win their championships. However, Malone and company returned the favor besting Houston in ’97 and ’98 as they went on to be defeated by the giant slayer himself, Michael Jordan.

This rivalry between Stripclub Country and Mormon County has continued into the 2000s. They’ve faced off four additional times, featuring big names such as Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, Deron Williams, Donovan Mitchell, and James Harden.

10) Knicks vs Heat

One of the biggest NBA rivalries of the 90s, the New York Knicks and Miami Heat were sure to bring the fire, even if the basketball wasn’t always aesthetically pleasing. After legendary head coach Pat Riley broke up with the Knicks via fax following a heartbreaking playoff departure at the hands of the Pacers (more on this later), he immediately bolted to become head coach, president, and part owner of the Miami Heat.

That alone would be enough to cause hard feelings — meeting four consecutive years between ’97 and 2000 was like pouring gasoline on a fire. Every playoff battle went the maximum number of games, most saw bench clearing brawls, and one had a series-winning buzzer-beater. The basketball wasn’t great, but the drama was spectacular.

9) LeBron vs Celtics

There’s no love lost between LeBron James and the Boston Celtics. The rivalry started with LeBron still on the Cleveland Cavaliers facing off against Boston and their Big Three. Kevin Garnett has gone on to say James was scared of the Cs and had to form his own super team just to beat them. This is highly hypocritical of a guy who left the Minnesota Timberwolves, went to Boston, and created his own superteam.

King James got the last laugh, dropping 45 points on the Celtics floor in game six, prompting the great Boston sports fans to leave the arena early.

8) Knicks vs Pacers

Perhaps the flashiest of the biggest NBA rivalries. It felt like Spike Lee and Reggie Miller were facing off as much as the Pacers and Knicks. The bad blood kicked off with John Starks headbutting Miller in the ’93 playoffs (and an Oscar-worthy performance by the Knick Killer) and crescendoed from there.

In ’94, we got to see Miller give the choke sign to legendary New York director Spike Lee while trash-talking the whole time. But it was the 1995 playoffs that were really juicy. Game one saw Reggie Miller score eight points in nine seconds(!) to give Indiana the win. Game seven came right down the wire, with Patrick Ewing missing a game-winning buzzer-beater. More heartbreak for the Knicks.

7) Celtics vs Pistons

Before the Bad Boy Pistons would ever get the chance to play for a title, they’d have to beat the Boston Celtics. Before finally beating the C’s in ’88, Detroit had lost out to them twice.

Game five in ’87 was fierce. The Bad Boys could’ve put Boston on the ropes. But, instead, Isiah Thomas threw the inbound pass straight to Larry Bird. Dennis Johnson received the assist following the steal by Bird and laid it in to win as time expired.

These wars also led to Dennis Rodman saying Larry Bird only won his MVPs cause he’s white and Thomas doubling down by saying, “If Bird was black, he’d be just another good player.” Bill Lambieer and Larry Bird won’t talk to this day either. It was a real feud between these legendary teams.

6) Kobe vs Shaq

Any beef with one of the contestants asking the other how his ass tastes was destined to make it on here. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal reached the highest highs as teammates before stooping to the lowest of lows as enemies.

The rivalry started as they won titles, with Kobe questioning Shaq’s work ethic. Each player would ask to be traded if the other remained on the team.

Things bounced between ugly and hilarious as they went their separate ways following the ’04 Finals loss to the Pistons. Bryant won the war in L.A. and O’Neal was shipped out to Miami. Superman appeared to end up in a more fortunate situation after winning a title with the Heat. But the Black Mamba surpassed the jovial big man, later on, winning two more with the Lakers. They appeared to bury the hatchet shortly after Kobe’s retirement.

5) Warriors vs Cavaliers

These teams played in four consecutive NBA Finals, with the Golden State Warriors going three and one. That doesn’t do a good job of explaining why this is one of the biggest NBA rivalries. Their playoff battles altered the course of NBA history.

The drama of the 2016 Finals would seem ridiculous in a movie, as LeBron’s Cavs battled back from a 3-1 deficit to upset the winningest basketball team of all time. This led to the Warriors adding Kevin Durant and kind of ruining the NBA for a couple of seasons.

4) Bulls vs Pistons

The battles that forged a legend. Michael Jordan and the Bulls fell to the Pistons in three consecutive playoff series. Many questioned whether Jordan had met a mountain he could not climb. The Bad Boys implemented the Jordan Rules, which amounted to roughing up Jordan anytime he came off a screen, beat his man, or went to the cup.

Jordan responded by beefing up and adapting his playing style to thrive in a more physical game. Eventually, he climbed the mountain, and the Pistons staged a walk-off cause they were poor losers. The Bulls won the title that season and eventually won five more, cementing their place in the pantheon.

3) Magic vs Bird

I can’t say anything dozens of books and documentaries haven’t beautifully laid out already. It’s the greatest NBA player rivalry, and they did it while holding a great deal of respect for one another. They saved basketball in the ’80s and were a microcosm of the Lakers and Celtics matchups, the best NBA rivalry.

Between the two of them, they have eight NBA titles, six league MVPs, and five Finals MVPs. They faced off in the 1984 finals, considered by many to be the greatest Finals ever played. They would match up two more times in the 80s, but like most sequels, they did not reach the heights of their first battle.

2) Russell vs Wilt

This isn’t so much of a matchup of players as it is theories. There’s almost nothing you can find that Bill Russell did better than Wilt Chamberlain, except win. Chamberlain racked up league record after league record but could not beat the great Bill Russell when it mattered the most. The reason is hidden in the intangibles we’ll never fully understand. Despite all his talents, Chamberlain couldn’t elevate his teams the way Bill Russell could.

We often overlook this when ranking players and voting for All-Stars or MVPs. Often, a player’s best qualities aren’t something that shows up on the stat sheet. Nothing proved this more than the legendary contests between these two giants.

1) Lakers vs Celtics

Lakers vs Celtics is the greatest basketball rivalry ever. Possibly the most historic rivalry in all of the sports.

The Biggest NBA rivalry featured legendary showdowns in nearly every decade. These battles featured Bill Russell vs Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson vs Larry Bird, and Kobe Bryant vs. The Celtics Big Three. Generation after generation, these titans would square off for must-see TV. The sport might not exist if it wasn’t for these rating juggernauts running the ’80s.

The 1969 Finals had a loaded all-star cast, starring Jerry West, Wilt, and Elgin Baylor battling for the Lakers against Russell, John Havlicek, and Sam Jones for Boston. It’s widely considered one of the greatest Finals ever played. Even Kobe’s championship battles against the Celtics lived up to the hype. When these two titans face off, they deliver.

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