In recent seasons, fans have been wowed by the dominant Golden State Warriors, the first unanimous MVP in Steph Curry, a triple-double season from Russell Westbrook, and a top five player in Kevin Durant joining a contender to win a championship.
But the lack of individual or team heroics this season has exposed a real issue: a lack of fierce rivalries between NBA teams. The Cavaliers and Warriors have certainly had their moments, but it’s becoming clear that Golden State is too good to be considered the Cavaliers’ rival. You could say the same thing about the Celtics since they are yet to put up a formidable challenge to LeBron and company.
Here’s three reasons the league is lacking in major matchups.
The league is too friendly
It’s no secret that unlike the old school players, a lot of stars in the league are the best of friends with each other, from the Banana Boat crew of LeBron, D-Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul, to the younger generation of players.
Whether they were drafted in the same class, went to college together, or have just become friends organically, some believe that the love shared between players has led to the demise of rivalries. The issue with this reason is that the previous generation of rivalries falls within this 'new-age' mentality.
Before the Warriors became the team they are today, they found themselves in many fierce battles with the Lob City Clippers. Who can forget the Heat and their many contests with the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics? Or even the pre-2010 Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls (basically just LeBron vs the Bulls).
You’d even have to admit that until last season, the Cavs -Warriors fixture was certainly a formidable rival of two equal teams. A lot of the players listed in the example above are still active today, some are still stars. If the league had been lacking rivalries for the last decade, maybe we could rest on this, but this cannot be the main reason for this issue.
We're just living in the Warriors' era
When the Lakers dynasties of the 80s and early 00s were at their peak, there was no real opponent for them in their own conference. Magic Johnson's Lakers had the problem of the Celtics and Bad Boy Pistons to deal with, whilst the Shaq-Kobe Lakers had no real opponents other than themselves. NBA history is littered with moments when the league is ruled by one team, and the rest of the NBA is simply living in their world.
This seems to be the case with the current Golden State Warriors. Fans might hope that the Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers or Boston Celtics could mount some credible opposition to them in the playoffs, but some still expect Golden State to walk to the championship in a similar fashion to last season.
The issue may simply be that because there is one team that is miles above the rest, no serious rivalries can form, as they would only be competing for second place. Magic’s Lakers had to wait for the NBA Finals to be tested, while the Lakers of the 00s eventually tore themselves apart, probably saving the league another three or four years of their dominance.
Fans may just have to wait a few years for the Warriors dynasty to fall, for whatever reason, and the rest of the league to be in with a shout once again.
A new generation of rivalries beckon
LeBron is in his 15th season. And while he’s looked as dominant as ever, at least on the offensive side, many of his contemporaries are showing the signs of decline that are more suited to players of their age. If we look back at some of LeBron’s best rivals - the Boston Celtics of the late 00s, the Bulls, the Pacers - many of the stars that gave LeBron so much grief have either retired or can’t do it like they used to. Perhaps it’s time to look toward the new generation of stars to form their own enemies.
Could Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid battle it out in the East for years to come? Will the Lakers and Celtics rivalry once again resume its relevancy when led by new players? Will the new group of promising point guards like Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith Jr help improve the existing group of rival guards?
This all remains to be seen, but for the hopeful fan out there, pray that the lack of rivalries is due to a simple changing of the guard. The young players will need time to grow, and turn their teams into contenders. Once that happens, we may yet again see a handful of interesting and genuine head-to-heads that will be the foundation on which new story lines can be built.
Otherwise, the NBA will become too reliant on individual heroics to keep the regular season as interesting as possible, and could damage the thrill of the playoffs that the league is famous for. Fans have just been living for the Finals in each of the last three seasons. That formula is getting old, as it’s crucial that it doesn’t become permanent.
What do you make of the lack of rivalries in the NBA? Comment below!