Rivalries are common in professional sports, and you could even say that they are necessary. NBA rivalries have adorned The Association since its first decades. Whether it was Bill Russell's Boston Celtics against any team Wilt Chamberlain was playing or the Celtics facing the LA Lakers in almost every NBA Finals during the 1960s, rivalries have always been there.
NBA rivalries reached an all-time high level with the Celtics-Lakers duels in the 1980s, and Magic Johnson's and Larry Bird's particular fights.
5 Greatest NBA rivalries of all time
In this article, we will review the five biggest rivalries in the history of the NBA.
When we discuss NBA rivalries, the Boston Celtics vs. LA Lakers will always be at the top of the scale.
NBA rivalries were not built based on NBA Finals matchups only. There are big rivalries on the Western and Eastern Conference, which grew over the years due to several postseason matchups and intense seven-game battles.
On that note, let us take a look at the greatest NBA rivalries between franchises.
Honorable mention NBA rivalry - Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors
LeBron James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, and he guided the team to four consecutive NBA Finals from 2015 to 2018. In the process, they became one-half of one of the biggest NBA rivalries of the NBA Finals.
The Golden State Warriors played in five consecutive NBA Finals from 2015 to 2019, and the first four series were matchups against James and the Cavs. Golden State won the first duel and lost the second one in 2016.
The Cavs won the 2016 championship after being down 3-1 in the series against a Golden State team that won 73 games in the regular season. The Warriors won in 2017 and 2018 after Kevin Durant joined them.
The streak ended after James signed with the LA Lakers in the 2018 offseason. However, this one is one of the biggest NBA rivalries in the modern era.
#5 Chicago Bulls vs. New York Knicks
The Chicago Bulls entered the NBA in 1966, but they were part of the West Divison back then. Despite several postseason appearances during the 1960s and early 1970s, they never met the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals.
The Knicks won their two championships in the early 1970s, but the first playoff matchup of one of the biggest NBA rivalries ever came in 1981, just a year after the Bulls went to the Eastern Conference.
From that point on, they saw each other in the NBA Playoffs seven times.
This became one of the biggest NBA rivalries in history during the Michael Jordan era with the Bulls. As the Bulls had their dynasty in the 1990s, the Knicks were one of the teams who suffered the most.
They played on six occasions between 1989 and 1996, and the Knicks won only once (in 1994, with Jordan playing baseball).
This was one of the greatest NBA rivalries ever.
#4 Chicago Bulls vs. Detroit Pistons
In the 1980s, Michael Jordan came into the NBA and clearly showed he was an elite player. As the Detroit Pistons became one of the teams to beat in the Eastern Conference, guided by Isiah Thomas and coach Chuck Daly, the two franchises clashed.
The Pistons earned the reputation of being the league's 'Bad Boys' for their physically intimidating game, and Jordan was arguably their favorite 'victim.'
They faced each other in four straight postseason series from 1988 to 1991, with the Pistons winning the first three and the Bulls sweeping the Bad Boys in 1991.
Before the Bull's first three-peat from 1991 to 1993, the Bad Boy Pistons ruled the NBA with back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990 and three consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals.
This matchup was further established as one of the biggest NBA rivalries ever thanks to Jordan's and Thomas' own individual rivalry. This one was short compared to some other NBA rivalries, but the intensity was immense.
#3 LA Lakers vs. Philadelphia 76ers
The rivalry between the Lakers and today's Philadelphia 76ers started back in the 1950s when the Lakers were at Minneapolis, and the Sixers were named the Syracuse Nationals.
The two franchises crossed paths in the NBA Finals twice in the 1950s (1950 and 1954), and the Lakers won both matchups.
After the Nationals moved to Philadelphia, they played and won the 1967 NBA Finals, but the LA Lakers were not there. Philly's battle against LA resumed in the 1980s.
With the Showtime Lakers on one side and a great Philadelphia squad with Julius Erving on the other side, both teams continued their amazing rivalry.
The 1980s transformed the Lakers-Sixers duel into one of the greatest NBA rivalries in history.
From 1980 to 1983, they saw each other in three NBA Finals. The Lakers won in 1980 and 1982, while Moses Malone's arrival proved a winning move for Philadelphia after they swept Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and company in the 1983 NBA Finals.
Moreover, another LA Lakers dynasty saw a win over Philadelphia in the NBA Finals in the 21st century.
The Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers beat Allen Iverson's Sixers in the 2001 NBA Finals in another chapter of one of the greatest NBA rivalries ever.
#2 Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers
The Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers/Syracuse Nationals have the biggest intraconference battle in the history of NBA rivalries.
The franchises have met in 21 postseason series, the highest tally in NBA history. When the Sixers were known as the Syracuse Nationals, the two teams played seven times in the NBA playoffs and Boston won four times.
The Celtics and the Sixers have faced each other in 14 postseason battles, and Boston won 10.
Bill Russell's duels with Wilt Chamberlain (when Wilt was playing for Philly) were legendary. During the Celtics' run in the 1960s, beating Philadelphia in the East postseason was usually required for them to continue their way to the title.
Philadelphia ended the Celtics' run of eight straight titles in 1967 when they beat them in the Eastern Finals and took the NBA championship against the San Francisco Warriors.
In the 1980s, with Larry Bird on the Celtics and Julius 'Dr. J' Erving on the Sixers, more chapters of one of the best NBA rivalries ever were written.
From 1977 (when Erving arrived in the Sixers) until 1985, the two teams met in the NBA Playoffs five times (four Eastern Conference Finals).
Philadelphia won three of those clashes (two with Bird on the Celtics).
#1 LA Lakers vs. Boston Celtics
This is the biggest duel among NBA rivalries.
The LA Lakers and Boston Celtics are attached in many ways.
Not only the two franchises are tied at the top of NBA titles with 17 championships, they have also played a record 12 NBA Finals against each other. They form the biggest of all NBA rivalries in the history of The Association.
Discussions about which franchise is bigger will always exists among their fans, but that is part of what NBA rivalries are about.
On the Lakers' side, they have played in far more NBA Finals than Boston (32 to 21), and they have been relevant in every NBA decade, while the Celtics have had some unsuccessful eras.
On the other hand, Boston has controlled the Lakers in their 12 NBA Finals matchup, leading 9-3.
Their first NBA Finals matchup was back in 1959 (when the Lakers were in Minneapolis). Then, they played in six NBA Finals in the 1960s, and the Celtics won every time up to that point.
The Bill Russell-led Celtics controlled the Lakers in the 1960s, at the start of the greatest clash in NBA rivalries' history.
Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West were not enough against the Celtics' dynasty.
The rivalry had many more chapters in the 1980s, during the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson rivalry. They played in three NBA Finals in the 1980s, and the Lakers won twice (1985 and 1987).
21 years after their 1987 battle, both franchises played in the 2008 NBA Finals. The Big-Three Boston Celtics (with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen), defeated Kobe Bryant's LA Lakers in 2008.
However, Bryant had his revenge in a seven-game series in 2010, giving the Lakers their 16th NBA title, Kobe's own fifth ring, and his second consecutive Finals MVP trophy.
Other NBA rivalries might have great chapters, but they will not surpass the Celtics-Lakers fight at the top of every NBA rivalries' ranking.
The top of every NBA rivalries' list is predictable, but LA vs. Boston is just too iconic.