Competition drives the heartbeat of NBA basketball. With incredible talent at every position on the court, individuals push each other to greater heights than ever, and teams bond over feuds and factions that sharpen during playoff action. From player opposition like LeBron James and Steph Curry to team enmity like Philadelphia and Boston, these are the 22 best rivalries in NBA history!
1. Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
The sheer number of components that made the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird rivalry the best in the history of the NBA takes infinite time to articulate — White vs. Black, Lakers vs. Celtics, flashy vs. blue-collar, and so many more qualifiers. But their similarities propelled the competition into the pantheon of greatness. These players understood basketball at the highest level, appreciated each other's greatness, and helped make the league into what it stands for today.
2. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics
The rivalry between the Lakers and the Celtics remains the best team rivalry ever because of its mythical feel. Kids and grandkids across generations hear stories of these teams meeting up in the NBA Finals yearly during the 1960s and 1980s. When they vied for the title in the late 2000s, the fire stood out in the faces of players like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, who understood the tradition that was on the line.
3. Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell
Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell represent the unstoppable force-immovable object correlation to perfection. Chamberlain was a revelatory individual talent who could only be bested by Russell's team-savvy intelligence and guile. Big Bill typically got the better of Wilt the Stilt, but this rivalry set the tone for every ensuing one in the decades to come.
4. Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Boston and Philadelphia don't like one another all that much as cities outside of basketball, so it makes sense that geographic antagonism would parallel on-court heat. The C's and Sixers have contested 22 playoff series in their rivalry, with the Celtics winning the most recent matchup in 2023 in seven games.
5. LeBron James vs. Steph Curry
LeBron James appeared to have no rival for much of his prime. Still, when the shooting prodigy Steph Curry changed the game and elevated the Warriors into dynastic contenders, the two players formed one of the most surprising juxtapositions in the league. Power met skill in fantastic NBA Finals clashes in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018, with Curry's team winning three out of four with the help of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
6. Kobe Bryant vs. Shaquille O'Neal
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal shouldn't have been rivals, but their egos got the best of them. After combining for three titles with the Lakers, Kobe and Shaq split up after the 2004 season. The dominant O'Neal won a ring before Kobe after the divorce, but Bryant surpassed him with the 2010 win in the Finals.
7. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Detroit Pistons
The Lakers and the Pistons have met in the NBA Finals three times across two different eras, with various players making the matchup exciting. Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas were fantastic against one another in the late 1980s, and the Larry Brown-coached Pistons usurped the superteam Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals.
8. Hakeem Olajuwon vs. David Robinson
Even though it's now clear how much better Hakeem Olajuwon is than David Robinson, there wasn't such a distinction for the first half of the 1990s. Until Hakeem led the Rockets to their two championships, it seemed like the two centers were in a heated deadlock. Their standings in history are undisputed, and they have incredible respect for each other.
9. Miami Heat vs. New York Knicks
The Miami Heat and New York Knicks competed in a rock fight more often than a basketball game in the late 1990s. Physical altercations and the defection of Pat Riley from the Big Apple to South Beach also turned this into one of the vitriolic encounters of the 20th century.
10. Chicago Bulls vs. Detroit Pistons
Michael Jordan needed to wait his turn before winning six titles with the Chicago Bulls, and the Detroit Pistons were more than happy to revoke the young star's inaugural trip to the NBA Finals in several late '80s matchups. Unfortunately, Isiah Thomas and the Pistons were not good sports when the Bulls finally put them out of the playoffs in 1991.
11. San Antonio Spurs vs. Los Angeles Lakers
San Antonio and Los Angeles vied seemingly every year in the early 2000s for Western Conference supremacy. The Spurs' methodical style gave the Lakers fits on more than one occasion, and Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Shaquille O'Neal fit snuggly into the top three positions in the league hierarchy of best players.
12. New York Knicks vs. Los Angeles Lakers
The Knicks and Lakers no longer possess the gravitas they did when matching up in the 1970s, but plenty of grandparents can attest to the talent on the floor during the 1970, 1972, and 1973 NBA Finals. The cross-country distance and reputation of New York and Los Angeles as America's two biggest cities helped fuel the anger.
13. Mark Cuban vs. David Stern
The brash owner of the Dallas Mavericks and the dictator-like commissioner of the NBA during the 1980s through the mid-2010s constantly sparred over the former's volume of complaints about officiating, rule changes, and more. Cuban eventually softened up Stern, even asking him to fine him one final time before Stern retired in 2014.
14. Boston Celtics vs. Miami Heat
The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics became rivals in South Beach during the Big Three era. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh overcame Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce to bring infinite glory to Florida basketball. In recent years, the two franchises have been the powerhouses of the East, meeting in three Eastern Conference Finals.
15. Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas
Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas have been feuding for thirty-plus years now. It started on the court when the Pistons and Bulls matched up in the playoffs, and it became personal when MJ kept Zeke off the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. Both men refuse to admit they are at fault or that they dislike the other.
16. Reggie Miller vs. Spike Lee
Reggie Miller put a spear through the chest of the Knicks on many occasions during the 1990s, but celebrity fan Spike Lee often antagonized Miller into his clutches moments. The Academy Award-winning director spewed trash talk Reggie's way, and the sniper gladly obliged to respond with daggers and taunts.
17. Joakim Noah vs. Cleveland
NBA fans who enjoyed the matchups between the Cavs and the Bulls during the late 2000s and early 2010s will surely remember when Chicago center Joakim Noah roasted the putrid nightlife and dearth of entertainment in the Midwestern locale during the playoff matchup. What's there to do in Cleveland anyway?
18. Nikola Jokic vs. Joel Embiid
Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are the two best centers in the NBA right now, and they look to be for quite some time. Embiid won last year's MVP, but Jokic took home the ultimate prize: the championship. Hopefully, many more battles will occur between the Goliaths, maybe in the NBA Finals!
19. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Sacramento Kings
The Lakers and Kings felt like a big brother keeping their little brother at arm's length for much of the 2000s. Mike Bibby, Chris Webber, and company couldn't quite get over the hump against Kobe and Shaq, but the officiating didn't help the matter.
20. Tim Duncan vs. Kevin Garnett
Some people believed Kevin Garnett could have been better than Tim Duncan if given more talent for most of his career, but hypotheticals aren't more fun than tangibles. What the rivalry did manifest on the court was two mismatched power forwards who redefined what it meant to take over a game at the dawn of the 21st century.
21. Chris Paul vs. Rajon Rondo
Chris Paul became a symbol of point guard perfection during the 2000s and 2010s, but Rajon Rondo wasn't far off for a four or five-year stretch. The two employed dirty tactics and even got into fistfights where Rondo spit in Paul's face. Maybe things went a little too far?
22. Seattle SuperSonics vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City in 2008 to become the Thunder. In the 15 years since then, the animosity between the two iterations of the team has fueled hatred between the basketball fans in the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest. Hopefully, when the Sonics return to Seattle soon, there will be tremendous on-court showdowns between the two franchises.