Modern-Day NBA Rivalries

How have rivalries changed since the 80s and 90s, and what rivalries could we be seeing in the future?



Some of the rivals game being displayed are the Sixers and Nuggets, the Nets and Knicks, and of course, the Lakers and the Celtics.

Jacob Prue, Staff Writer

A couple of weeks ago, the NBA has scheduled rivals week for some of the best rivalries that the NBA has to show. However, I would say that the word rivalries has completely changed in the NBA. Unfortunately, it is going on a downward trend.

I mean sure the fans might not like each other, and most of the teams are closely located to each other, but I wouldn’t say the players hate each other as much. Back in the 80s and 90’s you would often see players start shoving each other or talking trash about each other, but in today’s NBA, there is minimal trash talk and absolutely no pushing or shoving. There has been a huge difference in today’s biggest rivals, and it is easy to see why.

AAU team that has all of their members make the NBA, including two all-NBA players, Trae Young, and Jayson Tatum. (ClutchPoints)

There are many reasons why I feel like NBA rivalries have changed. The first is all of the AAU circuits that are now in place for high schoolers. In 2021, out of all of the American NBA players under 28, 77.1% of the players have played in circuits, with many stars such as Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young, Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, and Devin Booker. Most of these players have met each other throughout these tournaments and have gotten to know each other very well.

Kevin Durant back-stabs Russell Westbrook and the Thunder as he signs with the Golden State Warriors in 2017. (Golden State of Mind)

Another reason for the change of NBA rivalries is the pace of players moving on from teams. Many reasons have led to this new paced market in the NBA, such as shorter contracts being given, and a rising salary cap in 2016. But in my opinion, the biggest reason for the increased pace of players moving on from teams is superstars coming together to win an NBA championship, such as the 2017 Golden State Warriors, the 2020 Brooklynn Nets, and the 2020 Los Angeles Clippers.

The final and most important reason I feel like NBA Rivalries has changed is how the refs have called games lately. You can see this when watching games where refs have been giving loads of technical fouls for very minute actions, such as Luka Doncic getting one for yelling at his teammate, and Ja Morant receiving one for having a non-hostile exchange with a fan. This could easily affect what players might say to each other during games, especially during rivalry games.

So what does this mean for the NBA? Will we see rivalries like the Celtics and Lakers, the Bulls and Pistons, or the Suns and Spurs again? Well, there might be hope when it comes to two teams.

Chris Paul receives a flagrant foul after kicking Jose Alvarado in the groin during a jump shot. (The Comeback)

The two teams that I am talking about are the New Orleans Pelicans and Pheonix Suns. In the playoffs last year, the Suns beat the Pelicans in a chippy four to two series win. During the series, Suns point guard Chris Paul, and Pelicans undrafted rookie Jose Alvardo got into a scrap after Chris Paul kicked his leg out on a jumper, hitting Alvarado in the groin. Paul received a Flagrant Foul afterward. Besides this incident, no one thought much of it until they met in the regular season the next year.

December 9th, 2022, Zion Williamson throws down a dunk, sealing a 128-117 win over Phoenix (Matthew Hilton)

On December 9th, 2022, the Pelicans were about to beat Pheonix by multiple possessions. With a couple of seconds left on the clock, all-star starter Zion Williamson threw down a monstrous 360 dunk to seal the game for New Orleans 128-117. After this dunk, a huge fight broke out between the teams, as it took a while to separate them apart. Once the fight ended, we were able to finally get the reasoning behind the fight.

Zion stated in a post-game conference that even though he acted out of character but also stated that Phoenix sent them home last year and some of the actions from the last time they played made him feel justified in his actions. Phoenix argued by saying that the game was already over, so there was no need for him to score points, especially in the fashion he did. But the Pelicans fanbase said that if the game was over, then why did Chris Paul take another shot when he could have just held onto it and let the time wind down before Zion did what he did? All of this has led to the fanbases and players arguing in what could be a fantastic rivalry to watch between two young hungry teams.

Now I understand some people don’t like these types of rivalries because they might not be considered good sportsmanship, but these rivalries are vital for the NBA to succeed. People having these games to look forward to is healthy for a league to have. I do hope to see rivalries like the new one brewing up between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Pheonix Suns back in the NBA, so that way, we can have a proper rivalry week for us to watch.