The Top Seven Fiercest Player Rivalries in NBA History

By Andrew D

July 30, 2022

Image Courtesy of Alamy

There are professional rivalries and rivalries borne of competition for places and trophies. There are team rivalries borne of geographical factors and long-standing inter-state or city histories. Then there are rivalries borne of players who, for one reason or another, cannot stand each other. In some of the examples here, the precise origins of the agitations are clearer than in others. 

Some of these clashes are just evidence of players at the top of their games coming together and battling it out time and again. And others among them have some more. Shall we say “incendiary” factors that extended beyond the boundaries of the basketball court?


They are not scientifically accurate nor remotely objective. These are the rivalries that have excited us the most during countless thousands of hours watching NBA games. If they happen to have been before our time, then, rest assured, we have spent a lot of time watching classic games too. These are rivalries that have captured the imaginations and passions of fans from all sides. In some cases, they have attracted new ones too.

We tried to cajole them into a top 7 but you’re going to have to decide for yourselves which are the most antagonistic of all because we’re sick of bickering about it here in The Jump Hub office.


Anyone who watched the incredible TV series “The Last Dance” will have noticed that their first altercations between Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas occurred during the 1985 All-Star Game. Isiah Thomas tried to boycott the rookie Jordan and there was bad blood between them from that point onwards.

From 1988 to 1990 the Chicago Bulls lost 3 back-to-back NBA Playoff series against the so-called “Bad Boys” of the Detroit Pistons.

But the rivalry between the two went way beyond the games between the Bulls and the Pistons by this time.

In 1991, following those 3 defeats, in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, the Chicago Bulls finally got the better of the Detroit Pistons. Led by Isiah Thomas, the Pistons’ players even left the bench before the final buzzer and refused to congratulate the soon-to-be NBA champions.

Michael Jordan had the last word when Isiah Thomas was left out of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, reputedly because Jordan refused to play with him. Touché.


The rivalry between Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan seems to date back to the first round of the NBA Playoffs in 1999.

Garnett reputedly said to Duncan – “Happy Mother’s Day, Motherf***er”. It seems this was a deliberate attempt to rile Duncan, whose mother passed away when he was only 14.

The tactic understandably worked and the pair were deadly rivals thereafter. 

Playing in the same position brought them into direct contact many times but it is perhaps Duncan who claimed the last laughs. His record of 33-19 over Garnett, including 2 NBA Playoff victories, might make Garnett wonder if he shouldn’t have kept his mouth shut after all…


For an in-depth look at one of the most important rivalries in the history of the NBA, check out our article – ‘Ripping rivalries. Magic Johnson vs Larry Bird’ 

The rivalry between these 2 marked an era in NBA history.

The two first met on court in the 1979 NCAA Finals. Johnson’s Michican team bested the, at that point unbeaten, Indian State to take the title. A legendary rivalry was born.

Larry Bird finished the contest with 16 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 4 steals. Magic finished the game with 23 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals. The 76ers beat the Celtics 123-105 after being in control for the whole 48 minutes. Magic Johnson was the unanimous winner of their first-ever head-to-head matchup as pros.

In the following years, Bird and Magic won 8 NBA titles and 6 MVPs between them, meeting 3 times in the NBA Finals. 

Almost every NBA championship of the 1980s was disputed between Magic Johnson’s Lakers, Larry Bird’s Celtics, or both. They represent the rivalry of those 2 great franchises and a turnaround in the fortunes of the NBA itself. It is not over-stating things to say that the NBA wold not be enjoying the incredible success that it is today without Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and their super-competitive battles.


Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain met each other on a basketball court 143 times. That is more than any other rivals in the history of the game.

Celtics’ legend Bill Russell has this tied up on paper. With a winning record of 86-57 over Chamberlain and more NBA titles than any man who ever lived with 11. 

Chamberlain has 2. 

However, rivalries are not just about numbers. The matchups between these 2 titans of the early days of the NBA were so intense and dramatic that they are still talked about today! 

The 7-foot-1 (2.16m) 275-pound (125kg) Chamberlain and the 6-10 (1.86m), 215-pound (97.5kg) Russell battled it out inside the paint. Chamberlain was an unstoppable scoring machine and Russell made his living on the defensive side of the ball. They collected so many rebounds between them it’s a wonder anyone else ever got one. 

From a media standpoint, the pair were pure gold. 

Streets ahead of the competition, they captivated any and all fans who watched their clashes and brought much-needed attention to the sport. 

Chamberlain recorded some unbelievable personal records that still stand to this day. He retired with averages of 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds per game. His 100-point game remains the greatest scoring performance of all time and may do so for eternity. Kobe Bryant gave it a good go and came up 19 points short.


Of all the rivalries here, perhaps the pettiest and most childish belongs to Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard.

What started as a silly feud over who the real “Superman” of the NBA was, it’s turned into so much more over the years as the two have blasted one another whenever possible, although Shaq has certainly taken more shots.

It all began with an embarrassing quarrel over Superman of all things. 

When Shaq was a rookie with Orlando Magic in 1992, the arena screens would flash up the Superman logo every time he dunked the ball. This was rather a frequent occurrence and one that Shaq clearly enjoyed. There seems to be no particular reason for this other than his name begins with “S” and Shaq does have a Superman tattoo. 

12 YEARS LATER, Dwight Howard found himself playing for Orlando as Shaq had done. O’Neal had left for the Los Angeles Lakers 8 years before. In fact, he had already left them and moved to Miami by the time Howard signed for Orlando as a rookie. Howard also liked to use the nickname “Superman” and dared to take part in a slam dunk contest wearing a red cape. The blue touch paper was lit and the pair have been at it ever since. 

As the years went on, the pair continued to take digs at each other in any way they could. From comedy shows and television commentaries to rap albums. It seems that Shaq is the one who holds the most bitterness. If only all life’s problems were so trifling…


It seems extraordinary to contemplate that teammates who were part of an incredible ‘three-peat’ of NBA Championships with the Los Angeles Lakers (2000, 2001, 2002) could ever turn into bitter rivals, but here we have it. The pair played on the same team for 8 years but still manage to end up here. Does it say something about Shaq that he appears on this list again? We toyed with putting him on here 3 TIMES but decided against it. Maybe he was such an influential, elite player that he attracted intense competition? Maybe he is petulant, jealous, and difficult to get along with? Who knows? Suffice it to say that Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal started as friends but did not end up that way.  

The stories go that O’Neal was jealous of Bryant’s superior jersey sales and frustrated by his “selfish” style of play.

In 2000/01, Bryant requested a new playing strategy for the team when it became apparent that O’Neal was not fit coming back to training camp after the break between seasons. There is no secret in how competitive and perfection-driven Kobe Bryant was. Especially regarding his own levels and commitment, so it must have been torture for him to witness a teammate giving less than his all for the team. 


The pair took constant jibes and digs at each other via the media. Things imploded once and for all when the Lakers lost to the Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals. Phil Jackson was let go. Shaquille was moved on to join the Miami Heat. Kobe Bryant signed a long-term extension with the Lakers. 

Shaq and the Miami Heat defeat Bryant’s Lakers twice during that regular season and O’Neal cements his position that he doesn’t need Bryant by helping the Miami Heat to win the NBA championship the next season.

A lot of back-and-forths ensue. Some of it is good-natured. Some less so. The pair eventually make their peace in a 2018 television interview. 2 years later Kobe is killed unexpectedly in a tragic helicopter crash that takes the lives of 9 people including Bryant’s daughter Gianna.


Here we had two power forwards that refused to back down and be cowed by the other. When the Chicago Bulls met the Utah Jazz in back-to-back seasons, the rivalry and intensity between these two was only heightened. Malone liked to dominate the low post and Rodman simply wasn’t having any of it. The differences in their styles of play made them a joy to watch every time they came face to face. Although we have no specific reports of antagonism between the pair off the court, they were competitive enough to even take their beef into a wrestling ring at one point! Highly entertaining stuff.


So, there you have it. Our collective top seven greatest NBA rivalries.
There are some that should have made the list and didn’t There are some that shouldn’t have and did. What can you do?

There’s no scientific way to make a list like this and perhaps that’s for the best. 

You can’t measure ‘rivalry’ in units. It’s an organic, emotional thing that is hard to express. Some rivalries are just the product of 2 elite athletes doing their job and trying to outplay their opponent. Some are more guttural and anger-based. Whatever the reason behind it, anyone who witnesses a true rivalry between 2 great players knows instinctively when they have done so. 

Thanks for reading. 

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