There was a lot of talk heading into the 2019-20 NBA season that, thanks to parity, there would be a newfound interest in the sport.
After half a decade of the Golden State Warriors storming / sleepwalking their way to the NBA Finals, this year is supposed to be different. Multiple all-star players changed teams and the balance of power has evened out.
Realistically, there are about eight franchises that have legit title aspirations.
Less certainty over which teams will be left standing in the NBA Finals certainly sounds attractive. Yet, there is something else that is responsible for the uptick of excitement revolving around this season: The lack of predetermined victors has opened the door for the return of rivalries.
In previous eras, we’ve seen such classics as the Boston Celtics vs Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks vs Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls vs Detroit Pistons.
Lately, that hasn’t exactly been the case. Through LeBron James’ dominance of the Eastern Conference and the juggernaut the Warriors assembled—and major roster turnover—it’s hard to say that any real rivalries have been built that were on actual equal footing. (See TBW’s fantastic “Heatles’s Fallen Foes” series by Adam Spinella on the teams that tried and failed there.)
That changes now, so here’s a look at a fresh batch of team rivalries that have been revived or renewed.
Los Angeles Lakers vs Los Angeles Clippers
These two teams have long operated in different RT planes, though they’ve shared the same arena for many years. Ever since the Minneapolis Lakers move to Hollywood, LA has been a Lakers town.
However, in no short time, the Clippers have morphed their roster into arguably the league’s best team.
They aren’t afraid to stick their chests out, either; The “L.A. Our Way” slogan shows they aren’t shy about the talent they have collected.
For the Lakers, they got LeBron James to sign on a year ago despite not making the playoffs for multiple seasons. Then they brought in Anthony Davis to create one of the most formidable duos the league has ever seen.
Los Angeles will be the Mecca of the game this season and, for the first time in years, both are among the NBA’s elite. Kawhi Leonard led his team to an opening night victory over the Lakers without Paul George already, as their defensive prowess proved too potent.
With this being the first season that the Lakers will even (fully) acknowledge the Clippers threat—they somehow managed to remain casually dismissive during the “Lob City” years—it may seem that they would have the upper hand. However, when looking at how these two rosters are constructed, it is hard to ignore the depth that Doc Rivers has. One team is counting on two stars to carry the load while the other has a certified supporting cast to complement their new additions.
It’s not that the Lakers don’t have some decent role players—Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee, Alex Caruso, etc.—it’s just that it feels more thrown together, and the incumbents certainly couldn’t help carry the team last year. On the other hand, the Clippers’ supporting cast either were doing just that in 2018-19 or have been a part of similar roles elsewhere.
The battle for Staples Center will be four very exciting games, especially if the Lakers gel quicker than expected. If we’re lucky enough, maybe this thing goes another four to seven more in the postseason, too.
New York Knicks vs Brooklyn Nets
New York’s five boroughs have always had a distinct personality and characteristics, but the one they shared was a love for New York Knicks basketball. The style of play and the grittiness of those on the rosters reflected what it meant to be a New Yorker.
Then, the sadsack New Jersey Nets uprooted from across the Hudson River and landed smack in Brooklyn. They did everything imaginable to be looked at as the cool kids, though it ultimately was their on-court play that began to win over some fans.
Meanwhile, the Knicks have been struggling to find consistent success since 1999.
20 years later, the Nets are sitting pretty after signing two all-stars (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant) and are coming off a playoff appearance. New York chased after the same two superstars, though they weren’t able to pull it off, just like they weren’t able to tank their way to the number one overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
With Durant sidelined for the entire season, these two teams may find themselves battling for divisional standing, one of the few final playoff spots as well as bragging rights. Well, that’s if the Knicks manage to not be terrible.
Either way, this series not only adds to the historical win-loss record, but it also stands for pride.
The Nets have built themselves into a well-oiled franchise. It wasn’t that long ago that they were the laughingstock of the league for the awful deal they made with the Boston Celtics. Their ability to find and develop young players and castoffs ended up bringing them success. It’s that makeup that gives them an edge over the dysfunctional Knicks now and for the foreseeable future.
Philadelphia 76ers vs Boston Celtics
It seems as if these two teams have been battling one another since the NBA first formed. Lately, they have crossed paths as two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
One of the biggest battles in recent matchups has come between big men Al Horford and Joel Embiid. The defensive abilities of the former Boston Celtics center allowed him to be one of the few players capable of defending the Philadelphia 76ers talented all-star.
Now their ties run even deeper after the offseason. Horford left Boston and teamed up with Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia. Tobias Harris is back, and the team replaces Jimmy Butler with Miami Heat wing Josh Richardson.
The Celtics made some changes of their own, signing Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter, though their core group remains intact, highlighted by their youthful wing combination of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
New additions aside, this is a rivalry that is inherited by all players once they put on one of these uniforms. These two teams have a history of on-court incidents that even features Julius Erving and Larry Bird taking swings at each other.
With Kawhi Leonard switching to the West, these two teams are now both looking to supplant the Toronto Raptors. That means they will continue to face off in high-intensity environments, and there’s no better way to build a true rivalry than meeting time-after-time in the postseason.
The Celtics are trying to bring together a new group for the third consecutive season. They could end up being great, but it’s going to take them a while to come together. The Sixers have the edge for now, as Embiid and Simmons are just scratching the surface of their potential and, for the first time in a few seasons, the pieces around them are set.
They look the part of the league’s best defense and are the last remaining undefeated team in the East.
Denver Nuggets vs Portland Trail Blazers
Last season, the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers provided us with one of the most entertaining playoff series in recent memory. They went the full seven games, which was capped off by an unforgettable performance by CJ McCollum.
With the West back up for grabs, these were the two teams that finished right behind the Golden State Warriors in the 2018-19 season.
Both have adapted modern basketball and look to get out in the open court, using a lot of player movement and ball screens to create good looks. The crux of their difference comes down to diverging approaches in roster building.
Portland has stuck with the McCollum and Damian Lillard backcourt pairing, hoping that their chemistry and shooting—much like what we’ve seen in Golden State—would be enough to lead them to the NBA Finals. Yet, getting swept in the conference finals is as close as they have gotten to that goal as they enter their seventh season together.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets have commandeered the Warriors’ strength in numbers mantra, as they can go 12-deep on their roster. It all starts with Nikola Jokic: He’s the hub of their offense, and his ability to switch between scorer and facilitator is the key to their success.
Both teams hope to replicate their success, and we could be on our way to seeing another stellar seven-game bout. However, they are also members of the Northwest division, meaning they will meet at least three times during the regular season.
That familiarity breeds contempt, as these teams have proven.
The Trail Blazers have more playoff experience and have routinely battled against the best of the best when it mattered most. They also have one of the most clutch players in the NBA today (Lillard). Portland should be the team with the advantage in this matchup. Yet, it feels like it is time for Denver to finally break through.
Last year’s group nearly overtook a fully-loaded Warriors team for first place. Jokic is a potential MVP candidate and the Nuggets are legitimate title contenders this year. But the Nuggets are also off to a slow start amid sky-high expectations.
The door is wide open for Portland if they want to kick it down.