One of the best things about any sport is a good storyline. When there is an intriguing story to go along with the game, it can catch the eye of any audience member. The NBA is an excellent example of that. Every generation of NBA talent brings along a new desire to compete, which means new rivalries. The rivalries are there, from historic Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers' matchups to recent Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors' battles. However, as veterans like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul get older, newer NBA players develop their rivalries.
What makes a successful NBA rivalry
Plenty of teams compete against one another year in and year out but never create a "rivalry." That is because, for that type of atmosphere, two crucial factors have to be present. First, the two teams must have a history in high-stakes games. That could mean fighting for the division, conference, or NBA title. Next, each team must have star power. Without notable names, the matchup will not get as much attention from a large audience. Also, without star power, the chances of that matchup repeating in future years are less likely. The more the two teams run into each other in the playoffs, the more the story builds.
Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks
Facing off in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs, these teams were two of the biggest overachievers this past season. The New York Knicks bumped their winning percentage from .318 in 2020 to .569 in 2021. Contrarily, the Atlanta Hawks improved their winning percentage from .299 to .569 between the two seasons. Bursting onto the scene made them exciting to watch in the regular season since fans did not know what to expect. So when they lined up in the playoffs, it seemed like a perfect fit. Audience members wanted to see whose growth in 2021 was legit.
Atlanta ended up winning the series in five games, but those five games built a strong foundation for years to come. After starting the series by getting spit on by fans and called out by New York City's mayor, Trae Young took a bow after delivering the finishing touches in Game 5. These teams wanted to gain respect for themselves and their cities. That type of energy in the NBA is what builds intense rivalries.
This meaningful series was only the start of this rivalry. The Hawks have most of their key players signed through 2022, including their leader, Trae Young. The Knicks will try to build around their star, Julius Randle, who will be back next year, along with youngsters RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley. The key for the Knicks will be building off this year's excitement to draw in free agents in the 2021 offseason. Regardless, the two captains of each team will be at the helm for their respective squads next season. So do not expect either team to shy away in their subsequent encounter.
Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks
The Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks have matched up in the first round of the NBA playoffs the past two seasons, and it has produced some memorable moments. Both of these teams started experiencing success around the same time. The Clippers, acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, instantly became a Western Conference powerhouse during the 2019 offseason. As for the Mavericks, they can primarily credit the additions of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis for their climb in the ranks. Before the 2020 bubble, these two franchises had never faced off in the playoffs. However, they got acquainted quickly.
In their first playoff series, these two Western Conference contenders showed their competitiveness. With Luka being the main star on the Dallas roster, the Clippers attempted to bother him the most. Marcus Morris and Patrick Beverley each took jabs at the young point guard during the games. Despite averaging a 31-point triple-double in the series, and a game-winning shot in Game 4, the Clippers would win in six games. This series set the tone for 2021.
Tensions build before playoffs
Sitting towards the top of the 2021 Western Conference standings, the Clippers decided to rest their starters to close the season. This choice could have been simply for rest, but another guess is that the Clippers saw a more favorable matchup in the Mavericks on that side of the bracket. Dallas came out hot, winning the first two games, and Doncic let Patrick Beverley hear it. Ultimately, the Clippers would close out this series as well, this time in seven games.
With two physical playoff series under their belts, excitement has been building between these squads. Dallas has Luka signed through 2022 and Kristaps through 2024. However, there are some frustrations with Kristaps, leading to rumors about his value in a trade this offseason. Regardless, in a Porzingis trade, Dallas would likely get solid pieces to put around their star point guard. As for the Clippers, they showed they have depth during these past playoffs. The Clippers shocked the league when they made it to the Western Conference Finals without Kawhi. This showing is an affirming feeling for them heading into this offseason, as Leonard could become a free agent if he declines his player option. However, Paul George signed an extension, and most core players are returning next season. Expect future showdowns.
Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers
Some NBA fans may think that this should not be considered one of the new rivalries. The Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers have a history of notable matchups. However, these two franchises went a decade without playing a meaningful game against each other. Additionally, these Western Conference competitors spent most of that decade sitting out of playoffs. With all that time passing, new coaches, players, and front office staff have stepped in. This year, the Suns and Lakers matched up, and they started a storyline of their own.
At the center of the trash-talking was Jae Crowder of the Suns. When the Suns officially bounced the Lakers from the playoffs, Crowder did some trolling on Instagram. Despite being on the 2018 Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron, there were no punches pulled. Crowder was not the only one going at it with a Lakers player. Devin Booker had words for Lakers guard Dennis Schroder throughout the series. During Game Three, the refs ejected Booker for a hard foul on Schroder.
Looking ahead for this rivalry
Although the Suns defeated the Lakers in six games, the makings of a rivalry were there. These two teams will look to make another postseason showing in 2022. Chances are they will be able to. The Lakers have their star duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis locked in at least until 2023.
Along with that duo, the Lakers are potentially looking to pursue Chris Paul of the Suns this offseason. Paul has a player option that he has to consider. If he were to stay with the Suns or end up on the Lakers, it would only add to the story for these two teams. Outside of Paul, the Suns have most of their key players returning next season. It would not be surprising if these west coast NBA teams re-established themselves as more entertaining rivalries.
Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers
The Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers do not have the public animosity that typical NBA rivalries have. However, they do have a recent playoff history. They have created some great highlights during their 2019 and 2021 postseason matchups. One of the moments that has been most memorable was the game that went into four overtimes. Of the two showdowns, each team has won one series. The winner of the 2021 series came somewhat as a surprise as the Nuggets advanced without Jamal Murray.
Heading into next year, the Nuggets will look to get healthy. Besides the pending situation with Will Barton, the Nuggets have their top scorers returning. Also, Denver will get to have a complete run with their late-season addition, Aaron Gordon. As for the Blazers, they have various key performers returning, but trade rumors have been present. The start of next season will tell whether those rumors stayed rumors or not.
As of this moment, both teams are in a position to return to the postseason in 2022. Of the last three years, two of them have led to these teams ending each other's seasons. There is a chance that some new faces will join the story, but the history is still there.
Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets
Of all the rivalries mentioned throughout the NBA, this pairing has the most star power. Also, it has an excellent seven-game series in the books. This year, the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets squared off in the Eastern Semifinal, and it did not disappoint.
This series included former Texas Longhorns going at it and two past MVPs visibly showing their continued dislike for each other. The teams competed until the final bell, even pushing Game Seven to overtime. With a series of this caliber, it was hard to imagine that the Bucks would have to win two more series before hoisting the trophy. However, it will likely not be the last time they face off like this.
The Nets have their big three of James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Durant returning next season. They all have player options the year after that. With an offseason to get healthy and spend more time playing together, they should come back better in the 2021-2022 season. As for the Bucks, they are fresh off an NBA championship. They have Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday locked in at least through the summer of 2023. Considering all this, these two teams just began what could be a historical rivalry.