10 Biggest Rivalries in NBA History

10 Biggest Rivalries in NBA History

Last minute illegal headhunting of coaches? Check. Hipchecking an opponent into a scorers’ table? Check. Taking a brawl right into the stands? Check.

All of those delightful moments are the courtesy of the NBA’s biggest rivalries in the works.

Read on to find out all about the biggest rivalries in NBA history! 

1. The Biggest Rivalries in NBA: Lakers vs. Celtics Edition

Out of a variety of rivalries in NBA history, this is the big kahuna of them all.

These teams have been going at each others’ throats since the 1950s, which warrants a trip down memory lane and a look at the first time these two were in a match-up.

In 1959, the Minneapolis Lakers lost to the Celtics in the Finals, and it started a trend even after the Lakers’ move to Los Angeles.

In the 60s, the Lakers lost six times to the Celtics, regardless of the substantial addition of Wilt Chamberlain during the 1969 Finals.

Fast-forward 15 years, and we get to see a rematch in 1984 with the noted influx of talents, like that of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. While the Celtics won the Finals that year, the LA Lakers finally managed to snag the title the following season.

The back and forth keeps going on leading to a total of 12 Final matches, and 33 championships won (out of a total of 70) in NBA history.

And while the rivalry might have calmed down due to both teams’ decline into mediocracy, there might still be hope left for new talents to come.

2. Moving on to the Bulls vs. Pistons

This one tops our list due to its personal undertones. Alright, who are we kidding? This was so personal, we had to avert our eyes a bit.

It started in Chicago, with Isiah Thomas -allegedly- freezing out Michael Jordon during an All-Star game. 

This planted a seed that sprouted into a full-blown rivalry, with Jordan scoring 59 points on the Pistons, leading their Coach, Chuck Daly, to swear to never let it happen again.

Raging into a war, the Pistons created – what has been later called – the “Jordan Rules”. These rules were a highly physical strain of basketball, mainly aimed at Michael Jordan. 

While this strategy worked out for three years, by 1991 the Bulls batted the Pistons out of their way to claim their first NBA title. 

3. 76ers vs. Celtics

Okay, this one is a bit old. But it’s still gold.

Back in the 60s, the Celtics and Sixers were facing each other almost every playoff in one way or another. 

These two teams representing Philadelphia and Boston clashed on a regular basis, setting the East Finals on fire every season.

With great talents like Wilt Chamberlain facing Bill Russell or even Larry Bird vs Julius Erving, every game was a sight to see.

But after years of Celtics domination, the Sixers finally won in 1967. 

Fast-forward a bit and we see Erving full-on punching Bird in 1984, and a continuous struggle for the East Finals win went on until the rivalry simmered down as the teams’ performance fell.

However, with the current predictions and the roster of pure talent gracing both teams, there might be hope for a renewed rivalry and drama.

4. Bulls vs. Knicks

The long-suffering Knicks had it bad with the Bulls. Facing the Bulls in the playoffs from 1989 to 1996 for the total of 6 times, the Knicks won one series. Ouch.

However, by hiring Pat Riley in 1991, the Knicks started pushing back and went on pushing until things devolved into an all-out brawl.

The memorable occasion started with Jo Jo English and Derek Harper getting into a fight, which led to their teammates joining the party.

Needless to say, things got out of hand leading the fight all the way to the stands. Epic it was. Smart, not so much.

But the rivalry died down by 1996 when they faced-off one last time. Afterward, the Knicks’ performance took a nose-dive, and by 1998, the Bulls dynasty was taking its last breath. 

5. Pacers vs. Knicks

Okay, believe it or not, the Knicks were a great team in the 90s which led them to be the center of rather exciting rivalries.

With the Pacers’ Reggie Miller trash talking in the 1993’s Playoffs and the Knicks’ John Starks mature response of headbutting him…it was on.

Miller was nicknamed the “Knick-Killer” due to his scoring abilities decimating the Knicks. 

With a lot of back-and-forth winning and losing, the end of the sad tale takes us to the Knicks’ free-fall from grace and the subsequent end of their rivalry with the Pacers. 

6. Spurs vs. Lakers

Now we’re moving a bit closer to modern history.

The Spurs sprawling dynasty in the early 200s was only matched by the Lakers and their golden boy, Shaquille O’Neal. 

From 1999 to 2010, the Spurs or the Lakers made it to the NBA Finals. It happened every single year, except in 2006 when the Heat and Mavericks finally got the chance to shine.

While the Spurs are still a contender to this day, the Lakers’ slump is yet to see an end in sight. 

7. Warriors vs. Cavaliers

Alright, now we’re getting somewhere. 

The Warriors and the Cavs’ rivalry is here to stay. Having a lot of similarities with the Lakers-Celtics feud of old, it is still its own different animal.

Because for the first time ever, the Warriors and Cavs met for the 3rd time in a row for the NBA finals.

With many injuries on both sides – Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in the Cavs or Andre Iguodala and Steph Curry with the Warriors – we haven’t seen a full-strength matchup between these two teams. 

However, (who are we kidding) the Warriors have created the perfect team, whether its impeccable strategies or roster, and there is very little chance the Cavs would be able to get over their rivals’ perfection and snag a title in the process.

8. Suns vs. Spurs

These two teams were the exact opposites to one another, which is the winning formula for a good solid rivalry.

The Spurs were known for their methodology; set down the forts for an unbeatable defense. On the other hand, the Suns were all about the surprise offensive strategies.

Things kicked off with Steve Nash’s return to Pheonix in 2004, and the Spurs steamrolling everyone in their way, except the Spurs.

They kept losing to the Spurs until 2007. In the Conference Semi-Finals of that year, Robert Horry shoved Nash into the scorers’ table causing a full-out fight that led to the suspension of multiple Suns players. 

However, the Suns were finally able to get some revenge in the 2010 playoffs, which commemorates the first time Nash was able to win against the Spurs.

The rivalry would have gone on if the Suns were able to make a comeback, however, they haven’t made it to the playoffs since 2010.  

9. Pistons vs. Celtics

With the Celtics wide-range of domination in the early 1980s, no team was able to truly stand in their way. Until the Pistons showed up.

With the tension between Larry Bird and Dennis Rodman clear, the 1987 series was seen as one of the most brutal series in NBA history.

However, after the Pistons’ win against the Celtics during the following season, they weren’t able to maintain their level of performance, which is a great killer of rivalries.  

10. Knicks vs. Heat

While this rivalry ranks pretty low on our list, it was – in one word – ugly.

Interestingly enough, this rivalry started in the off-season. Pat Riley, the Knicks’ Coach, stepped down in 1995 out of the blue, however, it has been revealed that the Miami Heat headhunted him behind the scenes.

The Knicks officially accused the Heat of tampering and got $1 million for their troubles. 

However, the Heat did get a great coach who transformed them into a solid contender, unlike the Knicks who floundered in his absence.

Excited, yet?  

Hope you enjoyed getting to know the history of the NBA’s biggest rivalries!

And, if you want to learn more about other rivalries in sports’ history or keep up with the latest NBA news, make sure to check out our blog