Throughout the history of the NBA, many great teams have taken center stage and competed in special matchups throughout the regular season and the playoffs. And for a few of those teams, a fierce competitive hatred developed between their respective organizations.
Some of the strongest NBA rivalries peaked around the ‘80s and ‘90s, which were filled with cheap shots, hard fouls and overly aggressive defense. But in the years following, the rivalries simmered. Teams became more friendly with each other and the league lacked that ferocity. But now, certain teams have begun rekindling that fire and a few budding rivalries are taking place.
Back in August, the NBA added an inaugural "Rivals Week" to the 2022-23 calendar, which is a new slate of marquee games featuring matchups between teams with both classic and up-and-coming rivalries. While some of the games may not compare to the ruthless rivalries of the past, they breathe life into the competitive clashes of the present and future.
Here’s everything you need to know about the NBA's first-ever "Rivals Week" and a look back at some of the biggest rivalries in the league – past and present:
When is NBA Rivals Week?
NBA Rivals Week is currently underway and began on Tuesday, Jan. 24. It will take place over the span of five days and will conclude on Saturday, Jan. 28.
How can I watch NBA Rivals Week?
The 11 rivalry games are broadcasted live on national TV on four different networks, including TNT, ESPN, ABC and NBA TV.
What are some of the biggest team rivalries of the past?
As we’ve already said, some of the greatest rivalries throughout NBA history peaked in the
‘80s and ‘90s. Here’s a look at some of the biggest ones:
1. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics
The Lakers and the Celtics are the biggest and most storied rivals in NBA history. They are the two oldest teams in the league and the two most successful teams of all time. Both teams have won 17 championships.
The rivalry reached its peak in the '80s after both teams dominated the playoffs and would frequently make trips to the NBA Finals and solidified the East Coast-West Coast battle. The fierce showdowns featured Celtics legend Larry Bird and Lakers legend Magic Johnson, who formed one of the greatest duels in NBA history.
There was also a strong racial divide between the two cities at the time. Larry Bird was nicknamed the “Great White Hope” and the Lakers' team featured African-American stars like Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy.
2. Detroit Pistons vs. Chicago Bulls
The Pistons-Bulls rivalry was one of the most ferocious rivalries in the late ‘80s. The two midwest teams are only about 280 miles apart.
At the time, Bulls legend Michael Jordan evolved into one of the league's greatest players and the Pistons became one of the toughest playoff contenders and the “Bad Boys" of the Pistons were born.
As the Pistons broke into their championship run and with the Bulls on the heels of a league dynasty, Detroit coach Chuck Daly created what would later be famously called the “Jordan Rules.” It was a plan of utter physicality that featured brutal defensive plays on Jordan and by extension his teammates. This led to one of the biggest rivalries of the late '80s and early '90s.
The Pistons went on to win championships in 1989 and 1990 (and another in 2004) and Jordan and the Bulls won six championships from 1991-93 and 1996-98.
3. New York Knicks vs. Miami Heat
The Knicks have a few long-standing rivalries with the Philadelphia 76ers, Celtics and Bulls. But one that often took center stage was between New York and the Miami Heat. The rivalry peaked in the late ’90s when both the Knicks and Heat met in the playoffs for four years straight with the Knicks winning three of those series and the Heat winning one.
The matchups between these two teams were often full of aggression, intense defense and lots of fouls. It featured a showdown between Knicks legend Patrick Ewing and Heat legend Alonzo Mourning -- with the pair playing 45 times against each other.
The rivalry went to the next level when legendary coach Pat Riley left New York to coach the Heat in 1995, telling the Knicks front office that he was leaving by way of fax. Riley went on to coach the Heat to an NBA Championship in 2006. The Knicks haven’t won a title since 1973.
What are some of the biggest team rivalries today?
While the intense battles between teams have definitely simmered down, there are a few teams in the league that have had many fiery contests. Here’s a look at some budding rivalries of today:
1. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors
The Cavaliers-Warriors rivalry is one that peaked after the two teams met in four consecutive NBA Finals from 2015 to 2018. The Cavaliers-Warriors Finals matchups are the most consecutive championships to feature the same teams in the four major North American sports.
In the four finals matchups, Steph Curry and the Warriors won three (2015, 2017, and 2018) and LeBron James and the Cavaliers won one in 2016, becoming the first team in history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals.
Many fans believe the rivalry fell short with many of the playoff battles being riddled with injuries, which slowed down the Cavaliers along the way.
The rivalry is considered to have ended in 2018 following LeBron James' departure from the Cavaliers to the Los Angeles Lakers.
2. Philadelphia 76ers vs. Brooklyn Nets
The Sixers and the Nets have had a few emotionally-charged matchups recently and have become one of the newest fierce rivalries present day. The star power of both teams has set the stage for many classic contests. The Nets have Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons, who was involved in a blockbuster trade with Philadelphia last year. While the Sixers feature Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris.
The two teams have not only had words for each other on the court but off as well. With Durant and Embiid having words over social media.
3. Memphis Grizzlies vs. Western Conference
Ja Morant and the Grizzlies have arrived on the scene as one of the hottest new teams in the league. And they’ve also set themselves up as one of the more antagonistic teams in the West. Morant was seen saying that the Grizzlies are "fine in the West" with no competition to worry about.
That comment sent alarms through the West with teams like the reigning champs Warriors, Denver Nuggets and the New Orleans Pelicans taking notice.
The new rivalry between the two teams goes back to last year’s Western Conference Semifinals and has now matured into fierce competition between the two Western Conference powerhouses.