Whenever anybody thinks of the NBA and can’t miss games, the same match up comes up, the game between the purple and gold Los Angeles Lakers and the green and white Boston Celtics. This is perhaps the only nationally recognized rivalry in basketball, which is odd considering that the NBA has been around since the 1940s (which is also why everyone was so excited about last year’s finals). However, if you live near a city lucky enough to have one of these professional basketball teams you know that there are plenty of regional rivalries that have as much passion or are revving up to be as intense as the ultimate East Coast-West Coast showdown.
Down in the deep swampy South there is a great rivalry brewing that pits two of the NBA’s younger teams against each other. Yes the Orlando Magic and the Miami Heat seemed to have been created in conflict. Many may not remember, but the Orlando Magic almost never came into existence. The NBA was looking to expand by a total of three teams in the late 1980s with only one team in Florida. That team was going to be located in Miami, but at the last second David Stern decided that the league could use a game in Orlando as well.
Thus, in 1988 the Miami Heat played their inaugural season and a year later the Orlando Magic played theirs. It is a historical match up of South Beach babes versus the Walt Disney World suburbia in the swamp lands known as Florida. The franchises have rarely been competitive, with the Shaq-Penny Hardaway days in Orlando giving way to the Pat Riley Atlantic Division champion days to close the 20th century.
So far the championship scale is in the Heat’s favor, 1-0, but both teams are becoming something special. The Orlando Magic are on top of the division with the league’s best big man Dwight Howard, a poor man’s Magic Johnson in Hedo Turkoglu, and the underscored Rashard Lewis. They look poised for a slew of Eastern Conference runs with Howard and Lewis tied up for five years and Turkoglu for the next two.
The Miami Heat are in fifth place in the Eastern Conference right now with a 39-35 record and do not have nearly the roster the Magic have, but they do have Dwayne Wade. Wade may not as much of a physical impossibility as LeBron James, but at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, he is imposing his will and is leading the league in scoring at 29.9 ppg and has a complete game with 7.5 assists, 5 rebounds, 2.27 steals, and 1.38 blocks a game. In last night’s 101-95 loss to the Magic he kept he Heat close with 42 points.
The team was supposed to be a lottery bound this season, but the “Will of Wade” has made this club of rookies and unwanted vets a real competitor. This timely rivalry should be worth watching as long as Wade and Howard are playing, giving it a David versus Goliath theme every time on the court.
This region is rightfully dominated by the Boston Celtics, but a little microcosm of bad feeling exists between the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets. The Knicks are one of the most recognizable basketball franchises in the world, and, until Jason Kidd worked some magic, the Nets were the forgotten team across a state border. Now, after Isiah Thomas’s disastrous term as team president, the Knicks are driving fans away. Many of those fans ended up loving the Nets. Add in a new Nets owner named Jay-Z and plans to move the team to Brooklyn and you have a regional rivalry worth watching in the New York City Metropolitan area.
Last season this rivalry was a chance to watch two dreadful teams disgrace the game of basketball, but this year the seeds of change have been planted and are already startinfg to bloom. Yes, Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni had fans thinking playoffs earlier in the year. The team has dropped off since and landed firmly in the lottery, but the style of play is once again beautiful and the future may include a player named LeBron James. The Nets have an exciting young point guard named Devin Harris (22.2 ppg and 7 apg), a possible future All Star center in Brooks Lopez (12.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg, and 1.8 blocks in his rookie season), and they have Vince Carter for four more years with an un-tradable contract (4 years, nearly 15 million per season).
Both teams are going to improve dramatically over the next couple of seasons and get to do battle for the title of best team near New York City. I may not want to watch either team in many other games, but I definitively want to see these teams play each other.
This region always seems to involve the Bulls. It was once a matter of whoever could beat the Bulls and Michael Jordan, then (after a very dark period) it was if the young Bulls could make a run at the Detroit Pistons, and, even now while the Cleveland Cavs are the best team in basketball, the best rivalry exists on I-94 between the Chicago Bulls and the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bulls have the probable rookie of the year winner in Derrick Rose and are quickly trying to forget the players’ revolt against Scott Skiles. The team is making a run at the 7th or 8th seed in the playoffs for a first round exit against the Cavs, Celtics, or Magic.
The Bucks, meanwhile have hired Skiles and are trying to make a team loaded with talent turn its losing ways around. They have Andrew Bogut, who will never be a great player, but could be a very good one; Richard Jefferson, whose future as a Buck is unclear; and Charlie Vilanueva, who shows flashes of brilliance as well as periods of complete ineptitude.
This rivalry dates back to the Jordan days and has been a treat for years. The only rationale is the logistics, the 92 miles of expressway that separate the Midwestern cities. While the Cavs games will surely be given national prominence (as they should), this game seems to bring up local latent frustrations from the Bears-Packers games during the NFL season.
The Southwest rivalry lies in the heart of Texas, where three teams are perpetually fighting for chance for the title. The San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, and Dallas Mavericks have been playing for the state title as well as the state title since the inception of Mark Cuban’s ownership of the Mavs.
It seems every single year since the beginning of the 21st century all three of these teams make a serious playoff run. Though the Spurs almost always come out on top thanks to four NBA titles since 1999, each season the Mavericks have a shot and the Rockets look like they may actually get out of the first round.
I like to look at this like a family with three brothers. The Spurs are the oldest brothers whose accomplishments are tormenting the younger two. The Mavericks are the middle brother that has defied conventional wisdom and is a constant threat to the oldest to best him. The Rockets are the youngest brother, constantly getting into the game and almost making a huge impact, but ultimately a few years away from stomping over the older two.
This tri-team rivalry seems to be a battle of the big men, with Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, and Yao Ming sure never to leave the Spurs, Mavs, and Rockets. As long as the big state of Texas dominates the bigs this rivalry should dominate the region, though the battle of the unknowns, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the unappreciated, the New Orleans Hornets, could be pretty interesting to watch in a couple of years.
It is difficult to find a real rivalry out here since the Los Angles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, and Sacramento Kings seem to spend most of their time, historically, looking for a way to shoot themselves in the foot. Looking at the Pacific Division the Lakers-Suns season series seems like an obvious must-see, but the Suns always seem more of a true Southwest franchise and they have been thwarted by the Spurs more often than the Lakers. No, the regional rivalry out west is between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers.
If you look back at the Trail Blazers history you will see a team with Clyde Drexler, Tery Porter, and Jerome Kersey that almost broke through the Lakers, Pistons, and Celtics dominated era. They were outrun by the aging Showtime Lakers and simply could not become the team in the Western Conference to replace them.
Then in the late ‘90s and early 2000s the Trail Blazers were loaded with players like Rasheed Wallace, Arvydas Sabonis, Damon Stoudamire, Kenny Anderson, and Scottie Pippen. Though this team would shortly become the Jail Blazers, they were first the only real challenge to the Shaq-Kobe era Lakers championship teams. A terrible job by the referees in the 2000 Western Conference championship series robbed the team of an assured NBA championship and set things in motion for the unstable personnel to eventually destroy the once promising roster.
Now, the Trail Blazers have again created a superb young roster. They have guard Brandon Roy, power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, a potential defensive stopper in center Greg Oden, the super-athletic Travis Outlaw, and a European sensation in Rudy Fernandez.
This is definitely a one-sided rivalry right now, but this potential is widely recognized throughout the NBA and with the Lakers set for the future with Kobe, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum (if he can ever stay healthy) this is definitely the game to watch now and in the future. Let’s not forget, this is the game the NBA chose to open the season with and the NBA front office is a bunch of scheming marketers who know what games matter and what games do not.