J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives, called West Side/East Side. Today's edition looks at rivalries in the NBA.
When NBA rivalries died they didn't get the glorious, messianic treatment like the heroic John Basilone in HBO's "The Pacific" series. No, they were unceremoniously dropped in a box and shipped to a hotel, like a certain "Boardwalk Empire" character.
No front-page obituary. All you needed to learn about the death of NBA rivalries could be deduced from a couple of listings in agate type on the transactions page last summer:
If two principal players from two of the better rivalries in the new millennium could join forces with the enemy that easily, why even bother to have a rival in the first place? Free agency and the U.S. national team are the two primary culprits. In the 20 years since the Dream Team the best players have spent every other summer together. Some of them like it so much they sign up to spend entire portions of their careers together.
Yes, rivalries are dead. Lay some flowers across the grave. The good news is that the talent level in the NBA is so deep right now the league doesn't need them. For a while there in the 1990s (especially during the year and a half Michael Jordan sat out) rivalries were all the league had. Knicks-Bulls, Knicks-Pacers, Pacers-Bulls and, best of all, Knicks-Heat. Knicks-Heat was the one, you might recall, that prompted Miami's Tim Hardaway to say of his New York counterparts, "I hate them with all the hate you can hate with. Can you hate more than that? If you can, I hate them more than that."
That quote remains the standard for basketball animosity. But the level of ball itself back then was substandard. It was the nadir of scoring in the shot clock era. For example, the Heat scored an average of 87 points per game in the 1997 conference semifinals ... and that was good enough to beat the Knicks in the series. The defining images of those series were Jeff Van Gundy clinging to Alonzo Mourning's leg and P.J. Brown suplexing Charlie Ward. The only actual play that sticks out is Allan Houston's series-winning jumper in 1999 ... and even that wasn't pretty, bouncing and bouncing before it dropped in.
From a basketball perspective it was much more enjoyable to watch Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook work their way past the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs and then engage with the Heat in the NBA Finals. We saw Durant establish himself as one of the game's clutch playoff performers and watched Westbrook go for 43 points against one of the league's best defensive teams. Even OKC's first-round sweep and the five-game series in the conference semis and the Finals were competitive.
But what happened after the Thunder beat the Lakers? Kobe Bryant had an extended conversation in the hallway with Derek Fisher, his former teammate. And what happened after the Heat beat the Thunder? Durant teamed with LeBron James to win the gold medal for the U.S., and later the two held training sessions together.
True rivalries come before family, friendship and even country. Michael Jordan loathed Isiah Thomas so much he didn't want him on the Olympic team, keeping the greatest team ever assembled from actually being better.
While I think more of Steve Nash as a human being for choosing the Lakers so he could remain closer to his kids, I think less of the Suns-Lakers rivalry because he did so.
Can you imagine a player going from the Celtics to the Lakers in the 1980s, let alone the Celtics facilitating it through a sign-and-trade? Unfathomable.
In some ways it makes for a healthier society. Is there enough hate going around that we don't need guys in jerseys to pile on? We learned after the 2011 Finals that the cities of Miami and Dallas don't really hate each other. If they did, there's no way the Mavericks would have felt comfortable partying at LIV in Miami all night after they won the championship.
The league is healthier, too. Higher scoring, more stars, more quality teams.
Yeah, the nostalgic part of me misses the real rivalries. I'll take better ball any day, though.