NBA Rivalries: Perhaps more than any other major sport, the NBA tends to value personal rivalries. Naturally, the game puts a lot of emphasis on star power and one-on-one spectacle.
The Greatest NBA Rivalries Between Players
Here are our picks for the top individual NBA rivalries in history.
1. Earvin “Magic” Johnson vs. Larry Bird
I don’t mean to offend Bill and Wilt or Michael and Isiah, but this should be obvious. The rivalry between Bird and Magic is one of the greatest when it comes to NBA rivalries that cut over sports, teams, or even people. When Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers faced off to decide the league title three times in the 1980s, the NBA was defined by these two legends, whose on-court rivalry was established during the 1979 NCAA national championship game. Come on, their rivalry is the subject of a documentary. The respect each had for the other, the way they made the game appear simple, and the attention the two provided to the league at a time when it was starting to lose importance as a source of entertainment are additional positive features of this particular rivalry.
2. Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell
The starting and ending points of a war of the big guys are Russell and Wilt. Sports Reference reports that these superstars squared off 94 times during the regular season and an additional 49 times during the postseason, despite having some very compelling and well-known NBA rivalries. In those games, Chamberlain outperformed Russell statistically; he averaged almost 30 points during the regular season and 25.7 points during the postseason, compared to Russell’s 14.2 and 14.9 points, respectively.
Having said that, Russell defeated Wilt 86–57 overall, 86–57 in the postseason. Russell earned 11 NBA titles and five MVP awards while playing for the Celtics, where there is no doubt that he had more talent surrounding him. While Wilt has won four MVP awards, the lone world championship he has won is with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1972.
3. Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas
Thomas was a Chicagoan, but Jordan rose to fame in the city that he helped become a native NBA powerhouse with six championships. In many respects, it was at the cost of Thomas and the Detroit Pistons, who in 1988, ’89, and ’90 removed Jordan’s Bulls from the playoffs while really enjoying themselves. However, there was a sense that Michael Jordan and the Bulls would soon rule the NBA, and that is exactly what transpired when they defeated Detroit in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. From that point on, Thomas scarcely recognised the Bulls’ victory, and every other NBA player began to live in Michael’s universe.
Despite the fact that Thomas prevailed in 36 of the 65 games played total between the two, Zeke was overshadowed by Jordan’s stature and personality. You only need to watch The Last Dance to understand how much influence and clout Jordan had in his heyday, particularly when it came to keeping Thomas on the 1992 United States Olympic “Dream Team.” These guys obviously don’t get along with each other at all.
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4. Shaquille O’Neal vs. Kobe Bryant
In the end, O’Neal’s tribute speech at Bryant’s 2020 funeral was sincere and sincere. A legitimate and well-researched rivalry also existed between one of the greatest teams in sports history. In reality, Shaq and Kobe have the best rivalry among teammates. Their time spent together with the Lakers was dramatic, as they argued about who should receive more credit and a greater position on the squad. However, their animosity and egos propelled Los Angeles to three consecutive NBA championships (2000, 2001, 2002). Without Shaq, who also won a title with Miami, Bryant added two more championships for the Lakers. The two did, however, really admire one other’s ability and desire for victory, as O’Neal pointed out in the aforementioned memorial address.
5. LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry
Was LeBron and Steph’s playoff matchup in 2023 the final time NBA fans would see them face off? Maybe, and if so, take this as a little tribute to two of the game’s most thrilling and crucial players. Although they may not be particularly close off the court, their shared sense of competition, along with their respective teams’ superior talent and domination, has led to a tremendous rivalry. When it came to NBA champions in the late 2010s, James and Curry were the only talents competing. In 2015, ’17, and ’18, Curry’s Golden State Warriors defeated James’ former Cleveland Cavaliers to win the championships. Of course, LeBron ultimately gave Cleveland its long-awaited NBA championship in 2016, defeating Curry and company in the process.
6. Earvin “Magic” Johnson vs. Isiah Thomas
When it came to the top active point guards in the 1980s, Magic was seeking a superstar competitor. Thomas entered the NBA two years before Magic did. By the conclusion of the decade, the Lakers and the Pistons were the two best teams in the league because of Thomas’ immediate revitalization of the Detroit Pistons organisation. Off the court, Magic and Thomas apparently had a particular bond that lasted until the aforementioned remarks regarding Larry Bird, which are said to be what sparked their purported breakup around the time L.A. defeated Detroit in the 1988 NBA Finals in seven games.
Thomas, a full-fledged member of the “Bad Boys,” was unaffected by this, as he went on to sweep the Lakers and win the Pistons’ first championship the very next season.
7. Larry Bird vs. Isiah Thomas
Bird and Thomas were the superstar captains of their respective teams in the 1980s, despite not being the same kind of players. Though they split their postseason games, Bird was 40-23 all-time versus Thomas in head-to-head competition. Bird’s Celtics eliminated Thomas’ Pistons from the playoffs in both 1985 and 1987. However, Detroit halted Boston’s streak of four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals in ’88, and they also eliminated the Celtics from the postseason in ’89 and ’91. Of course, there is no love lost between the celebrities, especially when Thomas claimed that Bird’s skill was only praised because he was white and that he would have been an ordinary player if he were black.
8. Kevin Garnett vs.Tim Duncan
The fact that Garnett and Duncan are two completely different people is maybe the finest aspect of their competition. Duncan was the consummate professional—quiet, modest, and restrained. In contrast, Garnett was a flamboyant, trash-talking virtuoso who had no issue getting under people’s skin, as seen by the moment when he memorably wished Duncan a “Happy Mother’s Day M%$&#r F&*@#r” during one of their games. Nevertheless, Duncan and Garnett showed the adaptability of the contemporary game’s power forward in the late 1990s and well into the early 2000s. Garnett only has one of each whereas Duncan has won the NBA championship five times and twice as MVP. 52 times between the two stars, Duncan prevailed 33 times, including a 6-2 record in the playoffs.
Garnett averaged 19.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 4.0 assists while Duncan’s stats were 19.3 points, 11.9 boards, and 3.3 assists, showing just how dominant they were in those contests.
9. LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant
James and Durant faced off against one another 35 times on the court during the 2022–23 season, including the playoffs. Durant has more than held his own against LeBron, despite the fact that he may not be recognised as a contender for the NBA Mount Rushmore. Although LeBron has prevailed in 15 of the pair’s 21 regular-season meetings, Durant averaged 28.5 points to LeBron’s 28.0 in those games and is 9-5 versus him in the postseason. Of course, James has two more NBA championships and three more MVP awards than 2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant. In their playoff meetings, James and Durant have combined for an average of 31.9 points and 31.7 points, respectively, bringing out the best of the greatest.
10. Walt Frazier vs. Jerry West
Three NBA Finals games were played between Frazier’s New York Knicks and West’s Los Angeles Lakers from 1970 to 1973. Two of the meetings (1970 and 1973) were won by New York. Frazier and West, a pair of slick scorers who understood how to impress the audience, were undoubtedly the two finest players on the court. These men were likewise adept at showing up when the lighting was at its best. Frazier averaged 18.9 points per game in the 17 Finals contests the clubs engaged in during that time. But West averaged 25 points each game. While playing in that 1970 series, West also averaged 31.3.
11. Shaquille O’Neal vs. Tim Duncan
More from Duncan and Shaq. When it comes to NBA big men in the 2000s, these two were at the top. Noting how comparable their professional lives were when compared is also important. Each player played 19 seasons and received 15 All-Star selections. O’Neal and Duncan both won four NBA championships and three MVP awards for the Finals. When the two faced off against one other in the regular season and playoffs, O’Neal prevailed 33 times, while Duncan did so 29 times, according to the Land Of Basketball. Duncan averaged 23.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.9 blocks in those games. While this was happening, Shaq amassed 22.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 2.7 blocks.
12. Russell Westbrook vs. Kevin Durant
From Russ: more. When his former teammate left Oklahoma City to pursue his ambition of winning an NBA championship with Golden State in the late 2010s, the rivalry was rekindled. It is one of the Greatest NBA Rivalries. While Westbrook is still looking for his first championship, Durant ultimately achieved that accomplishment in 2017 and 2018 with the Warriors. In 2017, the same year that Durant won the first of his two MVP awards for the Finals, Westbrook did win the NBA MVP award. The intensity was unquestionably increased and emotions occasionally erupted when the two stars faced off.
13. Patrick Ewing vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
Olajuwon was defeated by Ewing in 1984 as Georgetown defeated Houston to claim the NCAA title. At that point, their rivalry effectively began. Both would go on to be the No. 1 overall NBA choices, emerging as two of the most dominant big men in the game from the middle through the end of the 1980s and well into the 1990s. Ten years after their match in the NCAA championship game, Hakeem and Ewing reconnected with the NBA title on the line. Ewing led the Knicks with an awful 36.3 per cent shooting percentage while averaging 18.9 points and 12.4 rebounds. Olajuwon, meanwhile, led his Rockets to a seven-game victory against New York by scoring 26.9 points on a 50 per cent shooting effort, adding 9.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists en route to becoming Finals MVP.
14. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. James Harden
By the age of 25, Giannis had won the NBA MVP award twice (in 2019 and 2020) and led Milwaukee to a league title. While everything is going on, Harden, the 2018 MVP, is apparently not happy that Antetokounmpo won the 2019 award. In that season, Giannis finished third in the league in scoring with 27.7 points per game while Harden finished first with an average of 36.1 points, a career-high. Giannis also averaged almost 6 assists per game and 10.3 rebounds per game. Harden said, “I wish I was 7 feet, and I could just run and dunk,” in an interview with ESPN. The fairly absurd jab at Giannis was, “That requires no talent at all.
While their on-court NBA rivalries have been fun to watch, Antetokounmpo twice scored more than 30 points and had 13.5 rebounds per game against Philadelphia in 2022–23. Harden scored 31 and 38 points in two of the games, but only 11 in the other.
15. Russell Westbrook vs. Patrick Beverley
It’s interesting to see how triple-double machine Westbrook and defensive pest Beverley interact both on and off the floor. The two engage in epic levels of trash-talking. The two collided in April 2013, leading to Westbrook’s season-ending knee injury, and the rivalry—or hatred, if you will—began in earnest. Westbrook responded to Beverley’s on-court antics with gestures of his own, appearing to make it a habit of attempting to get under his skin. There were instances when the two got into a fight, notably in October 2018.
Beverly’s defensive skills have been questioned by Westbrook throughout the years, like in this quote from 2019: “Pat Bev trick y’all, a man like plays defence.” He doesn’t watch over anyone, guy. It is only moving around and doing nothing. In response, Beverley asserted that remarks of that nature affected his own reputation within the NBA.
So these are the greatest NBA rivalries between players. Let us know your reviews in the comment section below.