Posted December 11, 2013

LeBron James is right: ‘There is no real rivalry in the NBA these days’

Indiana Pacers, LeBron James, Miami Heat, Rob Mahoney
Despite the rise of Paul George and the Pacers, LeBron James doesn't consider either to be his rival. (Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)

Despite the rise of Paul George and the Pacers, LeBron James doesn’t Indiana to be Miami’s rival. (Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)

The word “rivalry” is a sacred one in sports, used to invoke a specific and powerful bond between two adversaries. It’s also used haphazardly to leech off the appeal of the real; rivalries are so enjoyed and so coveted that we tend to look for them everywhere. Players selected in the same draft class, playoff opponents who grow a bit testy, any similarly skilled players at the same position — all are tabbed as budding rivals. It’s an understandable urge to label them as such, given the rush that comes with that particular dynamic, but in an NBA world where rivalries are increasingly rare (if they still exist at all), the inclination seems a bit silly.

That won’t stop talk of supposed rivalries forming or halt questions as to whether this or that qualifies as one. On Tuesday, Miami’s LeBron James was asked about his team’s relationship with the Pacers — just as Derrick Rose was — and in response he unpacked the entire concept as it relates to today’s NBA (via Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald):

“What is a rivalry these days?” James countered when asked if the Heat and Pacers shared a rivalry. “What’s a rivalry? A rivalry is Celtics and Lakers. They met like four out of five years. … Bulls-Pistons. Those are rivalries, man.

“We’ve played these guys two straight years in the playoffs, and guys automatically make it a rivalry. It’s not a rivalry.”

…“There is no real rivalry in the NBA these days,” James said. “You don’t see the competition enough or play the competition a lot. It’s two really, really good teams that [are] striving to win a championship, but rivalries … there are no more rivalries. There isn’t. It’s the truth. No rivalries.

James seems to be right. While there are no iron-clad criteria for what makes a rivalry, no NBA matchup much measures up to the touchstones of the genre. As James later put it: “Cowboys-Redskins is a rivalry. Ohio State-Michigan is a rivalry. Duke-North Carolina is a rivalry. Bears-Packers is a rivalry.” Even the most heated pairings in the NBA might simply be something else — entertaining still, but less absolute. It’s a wildly entertaining league that doesn’t lack for intensity in its matchups, but the current state of pro basketball competition has taken on its own particular hue.

As James noted, perhaps this is simply a matter of frequency. The most two NBA teams can play each other is 11 times a year between the regular season and playoffs, with the far more likely outcome being 2-3 meetings staggered over the course of six months. It’s hard to build the ill will necessary for true rivalry under those circumstances, no matter if the underlying qualities might be in place to engender one.

It also doesn’t help that basketball players are connected early and more often than they were in the past, linked by a few degrees of separation in the national AAU network throughout their teenage years. These are players who grew up together or grew up idolizing those who came before them, all of which makes the vilification of a certain opponent that much more difficult. It’s hard to develop a bunker mentality when the bad guy is an old friend knocking at the front door.

There has long been some level of respect between NBA peers, but that respect now comes in more amicable form than ever. Would-be antagonists share summer workouts and learn from one another. They have dinners or host each other’s families. There’s room for a more nuanced relationship between players that rivalry may not allow. By form, a rivalry tends to reduce the players involved to flat-toned characters, even more than the lore of the game already does. But how could we make sense of today’s stars in that template when so many are hyper-competitive players with more complicated relationships to their contemporaries?

Without the help of overhanded narrative, there’s not much room in the life of a modern adult — even one as unusual as a professional athlete — for a nemesis. Players want the same things and strive for the same goals. They compete directly, sometimes angrily. Certain opponents are hated or disliked. But rivalry is a delicate thing, requiring a precise brew that seems increasingly unlikely, given the shape of the league’s personal politics.

67 comments
zurowski1979
zurowski1979

I would like to see the NBA move to a NCAA play-down style....Every NBA team makes it in but the top teams have the luck of playing the lower seeded teams first....no more 7 game stuff.....Win or go HOME!

DSM
DSM

I think Knicks vs. Nets and Lakers vs. Clippers have some intensity.

Modisto
Modisto

Says The Man who opted to play along his superstar friends, Aka the PRINCE.

graymer714
graymer714

Playoffs have killed rivalries in all sports. Old-time rivalries were primarily fueled by the fight for division/conference championships which are now mostly irrelevant since most (and in some sports all) good teams make the playoffs.

Blinker
Blinker

The "Queen" speaks again.  I wonder how many actually care of whatever this pointless article is about??????

JahliSuwaghaman
JahliSuwaghaman

LeBron : Tell the Pacers that when they beat you again in Miami next week

giwan1259
giwan1259

Really friendships are in the way?  Magic and Isiah were very close friends but when they played a forearm shiver was the norm. It's soft play, guaranteed dollars, no need to go hard, players far too young all hoping on potential. 


With the one and done the same has happened with college ball though to a lesser extent. Except now no one cares till it's dance time.

Chris8
Chris8

James is so right.  I get so tired of people trying to make the smallest confrontation into a rivalry for the ages.  Sports writers (and lets be honest, a hell of a lot of fans) throw the word around so much it's lost it's meaning.  

Same with "dynasty."  Celtics had a dynasty.  UCLA had a dynasty.  Patriots and Crimson Tied winning 3 championships in 4 years?  Both impressive, but not dynasties.


Rivalries and dynasties are things that have to be built up over time.  But sports media and so many fans are so eager to say they witnessed something impressive that they just slap those words onto anything impressive.

MartyC909
MartyC909

Closest we had was Lakers/Celtics a few years back. But really, outside of that, he is right. Not even in division rivalries are that big right now.

DEJ1948
DEJ1948

Just one more reason that the NBA is no longer very interesting.  There's no competitive balance, the quality of the basketball is at an all-time low, the owners have a salary cap but they still can't get out of their own way and there are no interesting rivalries. Why is that?  It certainly has something to do with the NBA making the decision years ago to promote stars and not teams.  Another component of the questionable legacy of David Stern. I'll tell you one thing.  Adam Silver has his work cut out for him when he takes the reins in January.

@.@
@.@

You can't blame the players, its the league that makes it impossible. Now a days if you even stare at another player for to long you get a tech and 50k fine. Sure maybe you don't need to be mean to make it a rivalry, but it helps, otherwise playing hard won't be good enough for the fans to call it a rivalry. + I don't think a certain player will play his hardest cause he doesn't like one team, and play weak the next day, every players gives it there all. 

riley8
riley8

There are no rivalries because there are no personalities.  There are no story lines.  There is just a bunch of teams.  The talent pool isn't what it once was.  There is just a bunch of thugs collecting paychecks.   Lebron James is supposed to be MJ? Really?  No charisma, no personality, but he does have an ego.  Right Cleveland?

ajoseph
ajoseph

The whole friendship thing has always been a crock. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell had dinner together. It didn't affect the competition on the court. Rivalries only exist when there is competition which means each team has won.

inthepresent
inthepresent

warriors-clips, clips-kings, nets-celts(now), nets-knicks, bulls-knicks, lakers-clips, spurs-mavs, spurs-heat, everybody-heat, and on. 

any player who is something of a student of the game (and there are such players) keep the flame burning. not as it once was, to be sure, but saying there aren't any real rivalries is stupid. 

inthepresent
inthepresent

excellent. the historian has spoken. 

really now?

Joe R2
Joe R2

This is what happens when you JOIN your competition instead of staying in Cleveland and working hard to BEAT them!  Divas like LeBron would rather take the easy way out while old school guys like MJ and Kobe hated their rivals and would rather drop dead than join them...

Joe R2
Joe R2

This is the Queen's way of saying, "Nobody is worthy of being our rivals because we're so good"


But he's kind of right, it's a patty cake league now.  That's why you have guys like Danny Green showing up to the Heat's championship party after they lose the finals...

JeremyLindley
JeremyLindley

As a lifelong Spurs fan I can tell you that the Spurs and maverick fan base hates each other. It is a heated rivalry. Spurs fans hate the Mavericks and Maverick fans hate the Spurs

JimWisdom
JimWisdom

I basically disagree with LeBron; this may be HIS problem. First of all, what contributes to the thought? First, there are just too many teams, period. I grew up with basketball in the 60's and 70's and witnessed the Celtics/Warriors battles. Every team had a star, often a big star. Expansion has diluted the talent too much. Secondly, players stuck with teams during their top game. Rivalries started in college and carried forward into the pros - Bradley and Cazzie Russell, and of course Bird and Magic. Now players don't stay long enough to establish rivalries on this level. Then in the pros you had team and individual match-ups you would pay any money to see - in the 80's it was Celtics, Lakers, Chicago, Detroit. But since 2000 what teams would you have paid any amount to see matched up? Part of the problem is the sports casting world. They keep de-emphasizing the season match ups for post season play. Also, too many players seem to hang together across teams. Too many payers walk over to 'pick up' the opposition; no way you get DeMarcus Cousins to do that. And Bird would have stepped over you and not shed a tear. And where are the mano a mano matchups? Will any of us in Boston ever forget the Bird and Wilkins throw down in the playoffs?

Otherwise, there are some reasonable match-ups from a fans perspective which is why I mildly disagree. Admittedly, you would have to ask the players how they feel. As a fan I could watch Miami/Pacers, Miami/San Antonio, Clippers/Warriors, this year Portland/OKC, and the trio for the crown of Texas all day all night. Chicago would be in the mix but they are suddenly the Patriots counterpart and it hurts to watch them so broken with injuries for two years in a row now. Once the Nets begin to gel better they may be in the mix; but they are a one shot wonder. Too many players seem to hang together across teams. Until players take their pride of self and city onto the floor LeBron may be closer to being right. Pierce had that attitude which is why as a fan I hated to see him leave.

TheBrownMamba
TheBrownMamba

There is no more rivalries since players these days are all buddy-buddies and want to team up to create super teams. The last meaningful rivalry in the NBA was the Lakers-Spurs. Whoever won that  series in the playoffs usually won the championship.

FirstLast
FirstLast

Clippers-Kings is probably the closest thing to a rivalry in NBA.  Those match-ups are pretty fun and there is a lot of ill will between the teams.  Chris Paul tends to foster dislike.

JoeGiant500
JoeGiant500

Warriors - Clippers is a pretty intense rivalry.  Started last year (so, yeah it's new) - but it is WAY intense.  every game.  every play almost starts a fight.

voidPortal
voidPortal

I neg to differ. Spurs/Heat IS a rivalry

NFGregJJ
NFGregJJ

Lets skip Yankees Redsox lol

EricBenghaziPorvaznik
EricBenghaziPorvaznik

While I don't have a problem with someone wanting to earn as much money as they deem necessary, if superstars would remain faithful to one team over the course of their careers (or two or three depending on how long their legs can hold out) then rivalries would be able to (re)develop.


Will it revert to how great they were in the 80s and early 90s? Unlikely, but anything's possible if the above applies.

YupIamhere
YupIamhere

@ModistoEven before that was Wade his rival? The only rival he had was Boston... Did he play with them?

bobdevo
bobdevo

So young, so sure, so much to learn.

raput76
raput76

I will never forget that smooch they used to share before a game...."gimme a kiss!" 

PatrickShannon
PatrickShannon

@Chris8 everyone wants to be the first to call the Dynasty. You are right it's nice to throw it back in their face when it doesn't happen. haha Patriots!

newshamg
newshamg

@DEJ1948 "the quality of the basketball is at an all-time low"


Actually - the quality of basketball is likely at an all time high. Go talk to the stat nerd guys employed by the teams - read their papers - in almost all facets of the game the quality is higher than in the past. You may not like this because it flies in the face of the knee jerk thinking that goes around the public in regard to the NBA.

Bearsclone
Bearsclone

@inthepresent As a Bulls fan the only teams that are even remotely "rivals" right now are Miami and Indiana (although really, the Bulls aren't in that class with all the injuries), and neither of those are long time rivalries. 


You can still have rivalries in basketball but it hasn't worked that way lately.  Teams don't stay competitive long enough, players move around or get hurt.  There'll be rivalries again but there just aren't any right now.

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

So you are pretty much saying that two team from the same conference playing each other or the two teams that have met once in the championship round qualifies as a rivalry.  I think that you just unwittingly seconded Lebron James' point.    Warriors?  Clippers?  Kings?  Nets?  Bulls vs Knicks?  It is no longer 1998.

WCoastPro
WCoastPro

@TheBrownMamba No, not really. . Most free agents are acting alone in their own interests. They want to "team up" to play for contenders. and who is teaming up?  Where are these super teams? I'll give you Miami with the Pat Riley deal to lure James and Bosh. Who else?

eddie767
eddie767

@hagman3926 Why,he told the truth. Maybe you should know the meaning of a word(s) before you use them.

WCoastPro
WCoastPro

@EricBenghaziPorvaznik Bryant, Nowitzki, Duncan, Parker, Ginobili,Wade - 

Superstars sticking around is as common now as before. 

and Paul Pierce nearly did as well.


How many HOFers from 80s and 90s played with one team only? John Stockton, Isiah, McHale, Bird, Magic , Worthy, Dumars not too many.


malgus
malgus

Lebron's not young anymore

mazdaaron
mazdaaron

@PatrickShannon @Chris8 the patriots won a superbowl 3 out of 4 years from 2001 - 2004. The Patriots have consistently been in the top five teams every year. They're not a dynasty?

DEJ1948
DEJ1948

@newshamg @DEJ1948    With respect to this issue, I think I'm going to go out on a limb and side with Charles Barkley.  Also, I'm curious how you define quality?  I'm talking about how well the game is played fundamentally; how a team works together; how good is the defense, the passing?  It's not just treys and posterizing dunks.  If you watch most of the teams in the Eastern Conference and you still think "the quality of basketball is likely at an all-time high" then we'll just have to agree to disagree and move on.  


Sorry, but I'm spoiled by the 1977 Portland Trailblazers.  If you want to see how well the game can be played, that's the gold standard.  There's nothing like it anymore, there hasn't been for years and there's little chance of ever seeing it again.   

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

@WCoastPro @EricBenghaziPorvaznik   You're overall point is right about many changing teams.  But as for other HOF's who played in the 80's and 90's on only one team.  Here are some others.


David Robinson

Reggie Miller

Joe Dumars 

Larry Bird

Magic Johnson

Kevin McHale

Isiah Thomas

James Worthy


All of the above HOF's played in both the 80's and 90's on only one team for their entire careers.


There are others but they didn't play into the 90's, instead retiring in the 80's like Dr. J who retired in 1987


NelsonDavis
NelsonDavis

Apparently, you haven't been watching the Spurs the past decade. This is the only team that plays to the level of those teams during those NBA days.