Rivalry, whether friendly or not, is integral to every sport. Duke vs. UNC. Packers vs. Bears. Frazier vs. Ali.
The 2010s have brought on a new era of NBA basketball. And with a new NBA come new rivalries.
Essentially gone are the days of low-post elbow throwing and using the three-pointer as a last ditch effort. Assists and 30-foot shots are the order of the day for the best teams in the league. Feeding the post is an afterthought.
“Hero Ball” hasn’t completely disappeared, though. We see people like James Harden and Anthony Davis come up with 50-point performances seemingly at will. But as we saw with Allen Iverson during his time with the 76ers and LeBron James during his first finals run with the Cavaliers, that kind of play can’t hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
So in the spirit of recognizing that we are living in a new era, here are the NBA’s most prominent rivalries as they stand today.
5. Joel Embiid’s Twitter account vs. Everyone
It’s no doubt that every era of NBA basketball has had its fair share of huge personalities. With the advent of social media, fans are treated to the intricacies of player personalities in a way they’ve never been.
Joel Embiid embodies this in a way few other pro athletes could ever hope to. The 23-year-old uses his social media presence to hit on celebrities, grow his personal brand and, of course, get under other players’ skin.
He has tweeted asking Ben Simmons to dunk on Lonzo Ball so hard that his dad (LaVar Ball) will run on the court to save him. During the preseason, he started beef with Hassan Whiteside, saying that they had to take him off the floor so he wouldn’t foul out trying to guard him. After a win against the Timberwolves, he effectively destroyed Karl-Anthony Towns in the comment section of his Instagram post.
Embiid has a backlog of tweets asking Rihanna out on dates. He manufactured a fake retweet of President Donald Trump voting for himself to be included on the All-Star roster. TJ McConnell, his own teammate, said he’ll never play PlayStation with Embiid again, due to his trash talk. McConnell said it was so brutal that he wanted to throw his controller.
No one is safe from Embiid’s crosshairs in this rivalry. Not even his own teammates.
And these are just some highlights of Embiid’s young, but already prolific, trolling career. If practice does indeed make perfect, then Joel Embiid may end up being the best NBA trash-talker of all time.
4. Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors
Daryl Morey, GM of the Rockets, has made no bones about what their goal for the 2017-2018 NBA season is. He said on a December 21st appearance on ESPN’s The Ryen Russillo Show that the team was, “basically obsessed with [the question] ‘How do we beat the Warriors?'”
The Warriors knocked the Rockets out of the playoffs in 2015 and 2016. That, alone, is enough to give birth to a rivalry. But an explicit statement by one of the most powerful people in the organization that his team’s main goal is to beat one specific team is a thrown gauntlet.
Seeing as Houston won the season series against Golden State 2-1, the plan is coming into fruition. Of course, it doesn’t mean much until the teams meet in the playoffs. But by adding Chris Paul, the Rockets have a fantastic offense that looks built to hang with the vaunted Golden State attack. James Harden seems to be on a mission, as he’s running away with the MVP race. The role-players on the team fit the system perfectly, and the addition of a veteran like Joe Johnson bring an air of confidence to their play.
It’s safe to say that, whatever happens in the playoffs, this rivalry is here to stay. Win or lose, the Rockets will still have the Warriors in their sights while trying to dominate the Western Conference.
3. Zaza Pachulia vs. Everyone’s ankles
It may seem silly to count this as a rivalry, but with the evidence mounting, it has to be discussed.
On May 14, 2017 during Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, Pachulia fell on Kawhi Leonard, causing him to aggravate an existing ankle injury. Leonard would miss the rest of the series as the Warriors swept the Spurs in four games.
During February 24th’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Warriors center executed another questionable fall on top of Russell Westbrook. He claimed his leg was hooked by Nick Young, but it seemed as if the fall was aimed as he landed on the reigning MVP’s legs.
Stephen Curry, Zaza’s own teammate, had to leave Friday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks after accidentally stepping on Pachulia’s foot, causing him to injure his ankle.
Now, that last one obviously wasn’t intentional. Who in their right mind would want to hurt their own teammate? Especially considering Curry is one of the three best players in the league. It seems to fit the narrative that Pachulia puts forth, of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But true accidents aside, one cannot deny that Zaza has a reputation of being one of the dirtiest players in the league.
Reputation and the “Pachulia Rule”
Zaza used his back to slam Nikola Mirotic to the ground during a playoff game during his time with the Bucks. He tried to trip Udonis Haslem while playing for the Atlanta Hawks. Pachulia even got into a heated exchange with his current teammate, David West, after some questionable elbow movement while he was a Maverick. And those are just some of the transgressions in which he’s been implicated during his 14-year NBA career.
It’s hard for someone to truly deem every one of these actions “dirty.” Most of us have never played a minute in the NBA. So how could we speak to his intentions during every questionable play?
For fans of the sport, the old adage of “I know it when I see it,” applies here. Since every conceivable angle of every play is covered, it is easy to make a judgement call from the couch. But watching them over and over, and in slow motion, solidifies whatever opinion one may have already formed. But, again, with this mountain of evidence, it’s a no-brainer to think his intentions are questionable at best.
The NBA has even instituted a rule, dubbed the “Zaza Pachulia Rule,” which allows referees to call a flagrant foul if a closeout during a jump shot is deemed too extreme. This was due to the aforementioned Kawhi Leonard controversy. The Westbrook fall, however, did not fall under that purview. The NBA deemed the fall legitimate, and no action was taken.
This didn’t stop people like Kyrie Irving from calling the play “unacceptable.” His teammates stood behind him, but it seems as if most NBA players and fans agreed that it was unnecessary. And thus, a rivalry between a mediocre center and the rest of the league rages on.
2. Players vs. Officials
The relationship between NBA players and officials has never been as contentious as it is this season. Players are constantly berating the officiating, regardless of whatever fines may incur. Officials are exasperated with the constant barrage of claims that they aren’t doing their job well enough.
Technical fouls have experienced a massive spike during the 2017-2018 season. Draymond Green leads the league with 14, while other hard-nosed players like Dwight Howard and Russell Westbrook aren’t far behind. A surprising stat, however, is that Kevin Durant currently sits at third-most in the NBA with 12 technicals. He’s certainly a competitive, fiery player, but he’s not known for behavior worthy of a technical.
Over the All-Star weekend, there was a summit between NBA referees and players, intended to patch relations between the two parties. Although there is no official transcript of the meeting, it is said that frustrations by both sides were vented.
The “Respect the Game” rules instituted by the NBA about eight years ago were mentioned heavily. In-game communication was also a focal point, as some officials felt as if explaining certain decisions would only make things rougher on them. Fans will never know everything that was discussed, or how heated the exchanges were, but as the season goes on, we will see how effective the meeting was.
Seeing as how players and officiating are the two most important parts of the game, how this rivalry shakes out will have an impact on the sport at every turn.
1. Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
How about a good, old-fashioned team rivalry for the number one spot?
Of course this is the best rivalry in the NBA. These two teams have met in the last three NBA Finals, which is a record. We all know this history behind this historic three year stretch. It’s not news to anyone except the completely uninitiated.
With Cleveland’s struggles and midseason roster shake-up, it seems as if the Eastern Conference might be up for grabs again. While, in the West, the Rockets have their aim firmly on halting the dynasty.
If these two teams meet again in the 2018 NBA Finals, it will be because they both earned it. Not because they coasted through the playoffs like they have the previous three years. That will automatically make it more exciting than last year’s finals. The Cavaliers might have a chance to even up the finals series, which would completely alter how we view this juggernaut Warriors team in the future.
Cleveland cannot seem to get it together against the Warriors in the regular season. In their eight tries since 2015, they have only pulled out one win against Golden State. But that seems irrelevant viewed through the prism of another potential finals matchup.
The Warriors have something to prove, too. Signing Kevin Durant was, and still is, seen as the rich getting richer. Winning two titles in a row, and three of the last four, will hush (but not silence) these sentiments.
NBA pundits spend so much time talking about Cleveland and Golden State because they are the league right now. No matter what fans think, it quite literally cannot be covered enough, because, until further notice, they are the reigning conference champions.
This is the most exciting rivalry in sports right now. And now, with new layers and new challenges, things can only get more exciting from here.
Featured image by Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group
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