Everything you hear in the media is true — this NBA season is going to be great, and it’s largely because there are more rivalries going on in the NBA than seemingly at any other time in recent memory. OK, maybe not all of them are rivalries in the truest sense, borne out of decades of consistent battle and deeply ingrained blood-feuding, but there’s just gonna be a whole lotta drama and storylines and reasons to watch Thursday night TNT beyond the fact that two good teams are playing. Most are team-wide, but a couple are just player vs. player, or just one man raging against the machine.
Rankings are based out of both history and contemporary relevance, with an ideal feud being one that’s been around for a while but is only now reaching its fevered pitch. Good teams and players are more likely to appear than bad teams and players, and evenly matched feuds are likely to rank higher than mismatched ones. Unsurprisingly, the cities of New York and Los Angeles feature prominently in many entries.
Let’s call it the “No Love Lost” Rivalry Rankings, based on everyone’s favorite overused cliché to describe mild personal dislike among professional sorts. Honorable mention shoutouts to Denver vs. Philly (some Iguodala tension in Philly, some Bynum distaste in Denver, but ultimately too nascent and geographically disparate), LeBron vs. DeShawn Stevenson (always fun, but dormant for a little too long) and Kanye West vs. Kris Humphries (mostly settled as far as we can tell, though you never know with ‘Ye.) The rest of you minor beefs: We don’t believe you, you need more people and/or petty Twitter callouts. Step your game up.
20. Miami Heat vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
At the bottom of our list, a shoutout to the most passionate feud of the last two years that was always too one-sided to last. There’s still some rawness in Cleveland about the way LeBron left, no doubt, and that’s probably only escalated for many Ohioans since the King was crowned this summer. But the difference now is that the rest of America won’t be rooting with them as many have mellowed their animosity towards LeBron, and won’t be looking for karma to kick him in the ass via a cathartic Cavs upset. Plus, Cleveland seems pretty set with Kyrie Irving now, so it’s almost time for them to move on too. This feud is unlikely to appear again on future NLL listings.
19. Shaquille O’Neal vs. Dwight Howard
Kobe Bryant vs. Ex-Teammates
All the good NBA yapping is done by (or about) people out of the league these days. Shaq’s long-term negging of D-12 reached new heights/depths this offseason when he compared Dwight unfavorably to Robin Lopez (he says he meant Brook, but does it even matter?), and with Superman II now attempting to elbow his way into the Lakers’ pantheon of centers — something Shaq appears weirdly protective of — you can bet the sniping will be recurring during the season. Meanwhile, Kobe extended Smush Parker’s 30 Minutes of Fame a week-plus ago with a hilarious dismissal of his entire NBA career, with Parker returning fire by calling No. 24 a bad teammate and a generally weird dude—a topic also likely to be revisited as Kobe tries to gel with some high-profile new teammates this off-season.
Remarkably, Kobe and Shaq actually seem pretty cool with one another these days. Smaller fish to fry, apparently.
18. Chicago Bulls vs. Boston Celtics
Chicago Bulls vs. Miami Heat
Grouped together and ranked low because neither feud is likely to be all that spicy as long as Chicago catalyst Derrick Rose is on the bench, and who knows how long that will be. Still, the Bulls had some real fireworks against both teams — the Celtics in the 2009 first-round classic, the Heat in the 2011 conference finals and a number of epic regular season games — and there are enough mini-feuds within the lineups (Rose vs. Rondo, Rose vs. LeBron, Noah vs. Garnett, Boozer vs. Bosh vs. Stern’s anti-flopping rules) that the drama is never totally absent. Unfortunately, without D-Rose, both are basically non-starters. Stay tuned.
17. New York Knicks vs. Miami Heat
One of the sexiest feuds in the NBA — and no, no one has ever talked about the Knicks-Heat feud without using the word “sexy” — has been a little sizzle-without-the-steak thus far, with the Heat’s stifling defense almost single-handedly putting an end to Linsanity last year, and the epic Melo vs. LeBron shootouts never quite materializing. Still, the two teams have a playoff series under their belt now, Tyson Chandler has some extended history with Miami going back to his Dallas championship run (as does recent acquisition Jason Kidd), and with Marcus Camby back in the fold, the Knicks now have a player that actually remembers what this feud was like the first time around. The potential for fun is certainly there.
16. Mark Cuban vs. Mikhail Prokhorov
The title of Best Crazy Owner in the NBA was never really in question as long as Cuban was building a championship-caliber roster and Prokhorov was handing out multi-year contracts to Travis Outlaw and Johan Petro. But with Cubes losing out on the D-Will sweepstakes to Prokhorov, and Prokhorov building an $85 million roster around Williams without really breaking a sweat, the race is now officially on.
Also, don’t sleep on the Cuban vs. Deron feud, or the Cuban vs. Jason Kidd feud for that matter. At least one of those is likely to produce a couple more choice quotes from the twice-spurned Mavs owner over the course of the season.
15. Phoenix Suns vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Perhaps the most underrated NBA rivalry of the last decade was essentially put to an end when Robert Sarver shipped the defining Sun of that period, Steve Nash, to the Lake Show themselves, turning the Lakers into title contenders and sending the Suns into a full-on rebuild. Still, the first few games back with Nash in the Forum Blue and Gold — and the division rivals will play four times this year, natch — will certainly be among the season’s most heated, emotional games. Who knows? Maybe Michael Beasley and Kendall Marshall will turn out to be Laker killers.
14. Inside the NBA vs. NBA Countdown
Will Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose be able to make ESPN’s prestige-less show into anything resembling the must-watch TV of Ernie, Kenny, Chuck and that other guy)? Probably not, since they still have to drag the borderline-unintelligible Magic along with them (and Wilbon is no Ernie). Despite their cage-rattling promises, it’s pretty unlikely that they’ll be able to approach Chuck’s level of Not Giving a Fuck candor in their first season. Still, the two are fun on their own, have good chemistry together, and are undoubtedly an upgrade over the insufferable Jon Barry and the superfluous Chris Broussard. It’ll be an interesting experiment, and should result in some fun jabbing in between teams. Shaq and Chuck probably never liked Jalen anyway.
13. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. San Antonio Spurs
Geographic proximity and recent postseason history play a large role in this one. But really, unlike any of the other feuds on this list, this one is mostly between upper managements. The title for Best Run Team in the NBA certainly belongs to one of these two franchises, and of course, Thunder GM Sam Presti actually comes from the San Antonio management school, learning under R.C. Buford, and structuring his team among a similar model of Big Three + well-defined role players = consistency. San Antonio hasn’t feuded all that much since their now long-bygone days of beefing with Dallas and Phoenix, but if they have a natural rival in the league now, it’s probably OKC.
12. James Dolan vs. Knick Fans
Has a fanbase ever chanted for their owner to be fired? If things go badly this season in New York — and/or if things go well this season in Houston — we could see the first occurrence, with Dolan already pushing Knick fans to the brink with his incomprehensible roster shaping this offseason, and his extended flirtation with disgraced Knick exec Isiah Thomas, coming as close as he can to trolling his fanbase without actually being Donald Sterling. Just about everything needs to go right for the Knicks this year to avoid a complete PR meltdown, and when was the last time just about everything went right for the Knicks?
11. Orlando Magic vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Like PHX-LAL, far too one-sided to be considered a classic rivalry, but if there’s more of a must-watch regular season game than Dwight’s first game back in Amway, I’m not sure what it is. It probably won’t quite be LeBron-in-Cleveland bilious, but when you add in the history repeating with the Magic watching their franchise big man leave for greener pastures in L.A., it’ll certainly be a scene. And who knows? Maybe Orlando will overachieve while L.A. struggles out of the gate, giving the game a further layer of drama. Here’s hoping one, if not both, of the Van Gundys are involved with the game-calling.
10. Blake Griffin vs. Kevin Love
Probably one we care about more than either player actually does, but it’s just too easy and too fun to compare breakout players at the same position to completely ignore the Best Power Forward in the Game competition. Love surged ahead last year, but my money’s on Blake this season, and being out 6-8 weeks with Knuckle Pushupitis certainly doesn’t help Kevin’s case any. I’d still expect at least one epic showdown between these guys this go-round. (Yeah, yeah, we see you whimpering in the background, LaMarcus. We’ll talk again after 20 games, promise.)
9. Philadelphia 76ers vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Bynum vs. Howard is quickly becoming a real thing — sure to be the subject of media frenzy when they first play one another, certainly — and the Sixers were already no big fan of D-12 back from his days with the Magic. Add in the two teams’ Finals history, the fact that Kobe has always had a relationship with his home city most generously described as “complicated,” and the fact that Kobe also threw recent Sixer signee Kwame Brown under the bus while putting Smush Parker on blast, and the two teams will have themselves some times this season.
8. Chris Paul vs. Deron Williams
After a few years of playing on uneven fields — Williams’ Jazz had the drop on CP3′s Hornets for a while, then Paul’s Clippers easily outclassed D-Will’s Nets — it appears that the two are back on even footing, both playing for good teams that are younger brothers in their own cities, and back to feuding for the title of Best Point Guard in the Game. Of course, there are new entries at this point that also deserve consideration — Rose, Rondo, Westbrook, etc. — but these two will always be linked, and it’ll be fun to see them squaring off as relative equals again.
7. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics
The sport’s most classic rivalry has taken a back seat in the last few years as the two totemic teams have been stuck struggling within their own division. Still, there’s no Thursday night game quite like Boston vs. L.A. And even if there hasn’t been much seasoning added to it the last few years, as long as Paul Pierce is on the Celtics and Kobe on the Lakers, you can at least be guaranteed that there’ll be legitimate hate on both sides. Plus, it’s not like Dwight ever got along with the C’s particularly well, or that Lakers fans have particularly positive memories of playing against Jason Terry. There will be drama.
6. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
The two co-favorites in the West this year, already facing off in the playoffs two out of the last three years (with the score 1-1), and with Metta World Peace’s love tap to James Harden’s noggin last year escalating the animosity between the two teams exponentially. Oh yeah, and didn’t Dwight and Kendrick Perkins have a thing once upon a time? A rubber match playoff series between these two teams would almost be too much to ask for.
5. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Miami Heat
A little sad that Kobe vs. LeBron has officially ceased to even be an argument for argument’s discussion during the year when we might have our best chance to see the two meet in the Finals. Still, even if it’s not a competition for Best Player in the League, the two are arguably still sparring long-term for Best Player of Their Generation, with Kobe certainly wanting to pad his ring total before LeBron starts grabbing every championship in sight. The Lakers’ old friend Ray Allen is also now on Miami, and Dwight has some postseason history against LeBron, but really, it’s the prospect of finally getting the Kobe vs. LeBron finals that David Alan Grier and Kenan Thompson promised us so long ago that has this one ranking in the top five.
4. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Los Angeles Clippers
Sensing a theme here? Don’t worry, this is the last one, as the Battle for the Staples Center looks to take another step forward this year, with a couple ex-Lakers (Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes) pulling on Clippers unis, and Chris Paul undoubtedly irritated at having his New Kid in Town shine stolen by the likes of Nash and Howard. Plus, there’s always the potential of Blake Griffin assassinating Pau Gasol via dunk again, Pau trying to get under Paul’s skin by patting him on the head again, or Odom and MWP turning the game into some variation of Queens streetball, where people apparently get stabbed by chair legs. Drama!
3. Oklahoma City Thunder vs Miami Heat
The Finals matchup of last year, obviously, and likely the matchup of at least one or two more Finals in years to come. Meanwhile, Durant is the only real threat to LeBron’s league supremacy (though the two are friends off the court for some disturbing reason), Westbrook is a little like Dwyane Wade 2.0, and Perkins … well, he’s nothing like Chris Bosh, but hopefully he’ll club him in the neck or something this year just because. The potential for Heat-Thunder to be the next great recurring Finals matchup in pro sports is there, and though the odds are against it — just like they are with any sort of co-dynasty — it’s doubtful anyone would mind if it came to fruition. Besides Celtics and Lakers fans, that is.
2. New York Knicks vs. Brooklyn Nets
This probably won’t actually be as intense as Lakers-Clippers, mostly because the Nets have all the wrong personalities for a true bad blood feud. (Hating on Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez is not as satisfying as you might imagine.) Also, there’s the chance that neither team is even all that good. Still, when was the last time two New York professional basketball teams played against each other? The city’s never been divided by hoops like that, and the ensuing results will no doubt be fascinating. Will games at Barclays be flooded with Knicks jerseys as Brooklyn tries to get a foothold? Will MSG showdowns be packed with converted Nets fans sick of the No. 12 feud on our list? Even if the games are complete bores, they’ll be essential viewing for dozens of other reasons.
1. Boston Celtics vs. Miami Heat
Maybe just listening to too much Bill Simmons, but I’m convinced. The bad blood between the Celtics and Heat has been building for several seasons, jumped to a new level in last postseason’s seven game series, and then was sent into a whole different stratosphere with Ray Allen’s unexpected defection to South Beach, and all the mouthing and posturing both sides have done since. Throw in Heat-killer Jason Terry on the C’s now, and the games between the two teams might turn into the Yankees-Red Sox of the NBA — loud, blustery and impossibly bloated, but still one of the primary reasons we watch the damn sport in the first place. Set your DVRs now just in case.