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What makes a rivalry in the NBA?

By Scott Tibbs, January 9, 2014

There was an interesting discussion on ESPN's NBA Lockdown podcast about a week ago regarding the best rivalries in the NBA. This is interesting because it follows up on LeBron James' comments that there are no real rivalries in the NBA right now. Is James right? If not, what are the rivalries right now?

First, we need to establish the standards for what a rivalry is. In my opinion, that should start with matchups in the NBA Playoffs. This means that it's difficult for teams from opposite conferences to be rivals, because it's relatively rare to have the same teams come out of each conference. In the 1980's, the L.A. Celtics and Boston Lakers were certainly rivals. Normally, rivals are within a conference, where playoff matchups happen more frequently.

(NBA Playoff brackets: 2013 - 2012 - 2011 - 2010 - 2009.)

This is why it is premature to label teams "rivals" based on a chippy regular-season game when the teams have met in the playoffs. The rough play in a recent Warriors-Clippers matchup shows the potential for a rivalry should the two meet in the playoffs, but they are not rivals yet.

The teams also need to be on the same level. Miami and Boston met three consecutive years between 2010 and 2012 (including an Eastern Conference Finals that went to seven games) but Boston has fallen off after trading two stars in a rebuilding effort. They are not a serious threat to Miami in the playoffs.

So what are the rivalries right now? One of them has to be the Heat and Pacers. The two teams have met each of the last two seasons in the NBA Playoffs and (barring a serious injury or a playoff upset) they will almost certainly meet again this year. Miami even took a chance on former Indianapolis high school star Greg Oden because Pacers center Roy Hibbert caused so many problems for the Heat last year.

The LA Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies have met the last two years, taking turns knocking each other out. This also has an interesting power forward matchup. While neither team is likely to win an NBA title this year, having them meet a third time will certainly make for an interesting series.

This year's playoffs might bring more rivalries to the forefront, if we see some repeat matchups. It may not be the heyday of rivalries like we saw in the 1980's and 1990's (Especially the Knicks-Heat and Knicks-Pacers rivalries) but there are certainly some interesting series to look forward to watching this year.