The most notable individual NBA rivalries
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The most notable individual NBA rivalries

Perhaps more so than any other professional sport, individual rivalries in the NBA seem to be more celebrated. And naturally, the emphasis toward one-on-one showmanship and star caliber is a big part of the game.

Here are our rankings of the NBA's all-time best individual rivalries.

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25. Kevin McHale vs. Kurt Rambis

Kevin McHale vs. Kurt Rambis
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It's mildly amusing to play up the white-men-can't-jump theory when it comes to describing the play of Celtics Hall of Famer McHale and underrated, bespectacled Lakers forward Rambis. The truth is, these were two of the hardest-working and dependable players in NBA history. So, it was always fun to watch the two bang each other around in the paint, especially during those Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals matchups during the 1980s. Of course, their most memorable encounter came during Game 4 of the 1984 Finals, when McHale clotheslined Rambis while the latter went in for a layup at The Forum. Rambis crashed to the ground, then got up and went after McHale as the benches cleared, before being stopped by teammate James Worthy. While the move was undeniably dirty, it sparked Boston to rally and win 129-125 in overtime to even a series it would eventually take.

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24. LeBron James vs. Dwyane Wade

LeBron James vs. Dwyane Wade
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Get accustomed to reading about LeBron on this list. When you're one of the NBA's all-time greats, there are plenty of rivals to fend off. In this case, James had to go to Miami and get help from Wade and Chris Bosh to win his first NBA title in 2012 — then again in '13. When James and Wade suited up for opposite sides, it was certainly a marquee individual matchup. According to Land of Basketball, they met 31 times, all during the regular season, with LeBron winning 16 of those contests, and averaging 28.5 and 7.5 assists. Wade, meanwhile, averaged 25.4 when pitted against James, plus 5.9 assists and 2.2 steals.

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23. Hakeem Olajuwon vs. David Robinson

Hakeem Olajuwon vs. David Robinson
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We delve into the some of the best big-men matchups for the first time. Now, two of the classiest competitors at the center position starred in the state of Texas. Olajuwon played all but one of his 18 seasons with the Houston Rockets, while "The Admiral" spent all 14 as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. Both made it look quite easy in the paint. They combined to earn 22 All-Star nods. Hakeem won NBA titles in 1994 and '95, while Robinson did so in 1999 and 2003. In 1994, Olajuwon was the league MVP, while Robinson took home the same honor in '95.

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22. Shaquille O’Neal vs. David Robinson

Shaquille O’Neal vs. David Robinson
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Shaq played against some of the best centers in NBA history — Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, and of course, "The Admiral." Back when it was a big man's game. The rivalry between O'Neal and Robinson didn't always get a lot of attention, but the brash Shaq seemed to rub some of his older contemporaries at the position in the NBA the wrong way. Robinson might have saw Shaq as the threat, but when it came to going head-to-head during one particular matchup on Mar. 6, 1994, he bested the young buck. O'Neal, then with Orlando, put up 32 points and 11 rebounds on his birthday, but Robinson posted 36 with 13 boards during San Antonio's 111-103 victory. Then on the final day of the 1993-94 regular season, Robinson scored a career-high and Spurs-record 71 points against the Los Angeles Clippers to edge O'Neal for the scoring title — 29.8 points per game to 29.3.

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21. Michael Jordan vs. Earvin "Magic" Johnson

Michael Jordan vs. Earvin "Magic" Johnson
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Perhaps it was a changing of the guard (pun intended) from Magic to Jordan, in terms of the NBA's next great superstar. According to Sportskeeda, when Jordan and Magic matched up against the other, his Airness averaged 30.2 points, compared to 19.5 for Johnson, who was not that dominant a scorer. Magic, however, shot 52.2 percent to Jordan's 47.5, and averaged 11.3 assists — almost five more than the Bulls' superstar, in those games. Jordan was considered the better overall defender, even with the height disadvantage, and, of course, his Bulls beat Magic and the Lakers in the 1991 Finals. Perhaps most importantly, this was a rivalry of respect, something that won't always be the case on this list.

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20. Shaquille O'Neal vs. Dwight Howard

Shaquille O'Neal vs. Dwight Howard
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The talk of a rivalry between Shaq and Howard didn't even last a decade. However, many fans and critics assumed this was sort of a passing of the torch, when talking about superstar NBA centers. The truth is, while Howard enjoyed a strong, entertaining and sometimes volatile NBA career (eight-time All-Star, 2020 NBA champion), O'Neal, no doubt, had the better, and more successful, run in the pros. The two played against each other 12 times, each winning six. The numbers in those matchups: O'Neal — 15.7 points per game, 6.4 rebounds per game; Howard — 16.5 ppg, 10.9 rpg.

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19. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Moses Malone

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Moses Malone
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Kareem is an undeniable legend, but he's had his hands full with some of the game's great big man. Though Jabbar's personal accolades (six NBA MVPs, six NBA championships) put him in elite NBA company, Malone (three NBA MVPs, one championship) tended to hold his own when the two went head-to-head during the 1970s and '80s. The long-time Rocket and Sixers center averaged 25.3 points and 9.0 rebounds during his regular-season matchups with Kareem (who put up 22 ppg and 8 rpg in those contests). In the playoffs, both stepped up their games against the other, with Malone averaging 28.1 and 18 boards and Abdul-Jabbar 25 points and 11.4 rebounds. While Kareem won 20 of 34 regular-season games versus Malone, the latter held a 6-1 advantage in the playoffs.

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18. LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant

LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant
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When it comes to respect within a rivalry, it doesn't get much better than Kobe and LeBron. While both where high school superstars, James was a prep phenom, destined to be the next Kobe — and even better, considering the hype surrounding his entry to the NBA. Bryant, in term, served as an indirect mentor to James, as someone who could truly relate to his situation. Obviously, both went on to become two of the best the game has ever seen. However, the respect for each other never really dwindled, and the argument of which was better still seems like an afterthought. For the curious, James and Bryant squared off 22 times, all during the regular season. According to Land of Basketball, LeBron won 16 of those matchups, and averaged 28.2 points, while Kobe poured in 24.6

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17. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Bob Lanier

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Bob Lanier
Wisconsin State Journal

Just how tough was the great Lanier a legend like Kareem to handle? So much so that not even his Hollywood alter-ego Roger Murdock could keep from talking about their rivalry. In fact, when Lanier passed away in 2022, Jabbar issued the following statement: "Bob Lanier will always be one of the big men of basketball. Not just because of the size of his body but because of the size of his heart. Bob and I are forever linked because of the Bucks and because of me complaining about dragging him up and down the court in Airplane!" An eight-time All-Star, Lanier had his number retired by both the Pistons and Bucks, and consistently challenged Kareem. However, the latter found a way to get the best of Lanier. According to Grunge, Jabbar exploited Lanier's penchant for grabbing a smoke at halftime, then forcing him run hard up and down the court in the second half.

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16. Tim Duncan vs. Dirk Nowitzki

Tim Duncan vs. Dirk Nowitzki
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When we talk about a good-natured rivalry that should be celebrated for its overall competitiveness, Duncan and Nowitzki should be near the top of the list. Duncan's brilliant career spanned 19 seasons, and included five NBA championships and two MVPs. Dirk, meanwhile, played 21 seasons, won an MVP and a league title. However, when it came to head-to-head, regular-season competition, it doesn't get much better, even though they weren't the same type of player. According to Sports Reference, in 57 matchups, Nowitzki averaged 20.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists. Duncan, meanwhile, averaged 20.2 points, 11.2 boards and 2.9 assists.

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15. Russell Westbrook vs. Patrick Beverley

Russell Westbrook vs. Patrick Beverley
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The on-court/off-court dynamic between triple-double machine Westbrook and defensive pest Beverley is quite intriguing. The trash talk between the two has risen to legendary heights. The rivalry, or feud, if one will, began in earnest in April 2013, when the two collided, and Westbrook wound up with a season-ending knee injury. Beverley seemed to make a habit of trying to get under the skin of Westbrook, who answered those on-court antics with gestures of his own. There were times, like in October 2018, when an altercation between the two ensued. Over the years, Westbrook has questioned Beverly's defensive prowess, like from 2019: "Pat Bev trick y'all, man, like plays defense. He don't guard nobody, man. It's just running around, doing nothing." Beverley, in return, has claimed comments like that damaged his own reputation around the NBA.

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14. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. James Harden

Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. James Harden
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Giannis has two NBA MVP awards (2019, 2020) — by age 25 — and a league championship to his name with Milwaukee. Harden, meanwhile, was the 2018 MVP, and reportedly not pleased that Antetokounmpo beat him out for the 2019 honor. Harden led the league in scoring at an average of career-best 36.1 points that season, with Giannis third, scoring 27.7 per contest, but also pulling down 10.3 rebounds a game and averaging nearly 6 assists. Still, Harden told ESPN: "I wish I was 7-feet, and could run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all," in taking a rather ridiculous swipe at Giannis. While their on-court matchups have been entertaining, in 2022-23, Antetokounmpo twice topped the 30-point mark, and averaged 13.5 rebounds in three games versus Philadelphia. Harden had games of 31 and 38 points, but was also held to 11 in the other one of those contests.

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13. Patrick Ewing vs. Hakeem Olajuwon

Patrick Ewing vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
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In 1984, Ewing got the best of Olajuwon as Georgetown beat Houston to win the NCAA championship. Their rivalry was essentially born at that moment. Both would end up No. 1 overall NBA picks and become two of the league's most dominant big men of the mid-to-late 1980s and well into the '90s. Ten years after their national title-game encounter, Hakeem and Ewing met with an NBA championship on the line. Ewing averaged 18.9 points and 12.4 rebounds, but shot a dismal 36.3 percent for the Knicks. Meanwhile, Olajuwon put up 26.9 points, on 50-percent shooting, 9.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists to win Finals MVP, as his Rockets outlasted New York to win in seven.

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12. Russell Westbrook vs. Kevin Durant

Russell Westbrook vs. Kevin Durant
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More from Russ. And, this time the rivalry was birthed when his former teammate left Oklahoma City to seriously chase a dream of winning an NBA title with Golden State during the late 2010s. Durant would eventually accomplish that feat in 2017 and '18 with the Warriors, while Westbrook is still waiting on his first title. Westbrook did win the NBA MVP in '17, the same year Durant earned the first of his two Finals MVP honors. When the two stars went head-to-head, the intensity was definitely amplified and tensions even flared at times. According to Land of Basketball, by the end of the 2022-23 campaign in 16 overall contests, Durant averaged 30.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists when matched up against Westbrook, who recorded an average of 26.8 points, 9.3 boards and 8.9 assists in those games.

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11. Shaquille O’Neal vs. Tim Duncan

Shaquille O’Neal vs. Tim Duncan
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More from Shaq and Duncan. During the 2000s, these two were the elite when it came to NBA big men. It's also worth noting just how similar their pro careers were when compared. Both played 19 seasons and each was named an All-Star 15 times. Duncan won five NBA titles and O'Neal four, while each earned Finals MVP honors three times. According to the Land Of BasketballO'Neal won 33 times, and Duncan 29, when the two met head-to-head in the regular season and playoffs. In those matchups, Duncan averaged 23.8 points with 12.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.9 blocks. Shaq, meanwhile, registered 22.1 points, 11.7 boards, 2.0 assists and 2.7 blocks.

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10. Walt Frazier vs. Jerry West

Walt Frazier vs. Jerry West
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From 1970-'73, Frazier's Knicks and West's Los Angeles Lakers met in the NBA Finals three times. New York won two of those meetings (1970 and 1973). The two best players on the court, arguably, were Frazier and West, a pair of smooth scorers who knew how to entertain and wow the crowd. These guys also knew when to show up when the lights shined brightest. During the 17 Finals games the teams played over that span, Frazier averaged 18.9 points. West, however, scored 25 per game. West also averaged 31.3 during that 1970 series. 

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9. LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant

LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant
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Through the 2022-23 season, James and Durant went face-to-face on the court 35 times, including the playoffs. Though Durant might not be mentioned as a candidate for the NBA Mount Rushmore, he's more than held his own against LeBron. James has won 15 of the 21 regular-season games between two, but Durant averaged 28.5 points to LeBron's 28.0 in those contests, and is also 9-5 against him during the playoffs. Of course, James has two more NBA titles and three more MVPs than Durant (a two-time title winner, and the 2014 NBA MVP). Finally, when it comes to bringing out the best of the best, James has averaged 31.9 points and Durant 31.7 in their postseason matchups.

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8. Kevin Garnett vs. Tim Duncan

Kevin Garnett vs. Tim Duncan
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Maybe the best part of the Garnett-Duncan rivalry was that these are two very different personalities. Duncan was reserved, humble and the true professional. Garnett, meanwhile, was an outspoken, trash-talking savant, who had no problem getting under people's skin, like the time Garnett infamously wished Duncan a "Happy Mother's Day M%$&#r F&*@#r" during one of their matchups. Still, during the late 1990s and well into the 2000s, Duncan and Garnett exemplified the versatility of the modern game's power forward. Duncan was a five-time NBA champion and two-time MVP, while Garnett has just one of each. The stars went head-to-head 52 times, with Duncan winning 33 of those, including a 6-2 record in the playoffs. Also, in a testament to just how good they were in those matchups, Garnett averaged 19.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists, while Duncan's line read 19.3 points, 11.9 boards and 3.3 assists.

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7. Larry Bird vs. Isiah Thomas

Larry Bird vs. Isiah Thomas
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Though not the same type of player, Bird and Thomas were the superstar leaders of their respective teams during the 1980s. Bird was 40-23 all-time against Thomas in head-to-head action, but the two split their playoff matchups. In both 1985 and '87, Bird's Celtics eliminated Thomas' Pistons from the playoffs. However, in '88, Detroit ended Boston's run of four straight NBA Finals appearances, and also knocked the Celtics out of the postseason in '89 and '91. Of course, there is no love lost between the stars, notably after Thomas said Bird's play was only celebrated because he was white, and if he were black, would be an average player.

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6. Earvin "Magic" Johnson vs. Isiah Thomas

Earvin "Magic" Johnson vs. Isiah Thomas
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Magic reached the NBA two years ahead of Thomas, but was looking for a superstar rival when it came to the best active point guards in the game during the 1980s. Thomas injected life into the Detroit Pistons' organization from the start, and by the end of the decade, the Lakers and the Pistons were the two best teams in the league. Magic and Thomas also enjoyed a special relationship off the court; that is, reportedly, until the aforementioned comments about Larry Bird allegedly became the reason for their off-court estrangement — right around the time L.A. beat Detroit in seven games of the 1988 NBA Finals. That apparently did nothing to Thomas, who became a full-fledged member of the "Bad Boys," and would go on to sweep the Lakers to win the Pistons' first title the very next season.

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5. LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry

LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry
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Was their 2023 playoff meeting the last time NBA fans will see LeBron and Steph go head-to-head?  Perhaps, and if that's the case, consider this a mini tribute to two of the game's most exciting and clutch players. While they may not be super close off the court, their bond of competitiveness, plus that high level of talent and dominance, has made for a great rivalry. The late 2010s were all about James and Curry when it came to superstars vying for NBA titles. Curry's Golden State Warriors beat James' then-Cleveland Cavaliers to win championships in 2015, '17 and '18. Of course, LeBron finally brought Cleveland its long awaited NBA title, at the expense of Curry and Co., in 2016.

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4. Shaquille O’Neal vs. Kobe Bryant

Shaquille O’Neal vs. Kobe Bryant
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In the end, O'Neal gave an honest and genuine tribute speech at Bryant's 2020 memorial service. One of the great duos in sports history also had a worthy, well-documented rivalry. In fact, when it comes to teammate rivalries, Shaq and Kobe take the cake. Their time together with the Lakers was dramatic, and about which one deserved a bigger role on the team, along with the associated praise. However, their rivalry and egos helped fuel Los Angeles to three straight NBA titles (2000, '01, '02). Bryant won two more titles for the Lakers without Shaq, who also claimed one with Miami. Yet, as O'Neal noted in the aforementioned memorial speech, the two truly respected each other's talent and hunger to win.

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3. Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas

Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas
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Thomas was from Chicago, but Jordan became beloved in the city that he helped bring to NBA stardom with six titles. In many ways, it came at the expense of Thomas and the Detroit Pistons, who eliminated Jordan's Bulls from the playoffs in 1988, '89 and '90 — and, enjoyed every minute of it. However, the sense that Jordan and the Bulls were about to take over the NBA world seemed imminent, and that happened when they swept Detroit in 1991 Eastern Conference finals. Thomas hardly acknowledged the Bulls' triumph, and from then on it was Michael's world, and every other NBA player was living in it. Though Thomas won 36 of the 65 overall games played between the two, Jordan's presence and persona left Zeke in the shadows. Just watch The Last Dance to see how much power and pull Jordan had in his prime, especially when it came to keeping Thomas of the 1992 United State Olympic "Dream Team." It goes without saying, these guys don't like each other — at all.

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2. Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell

Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell
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When it comes to a battle of the big men, it begins and ends with Russell and Wilt. Sure, we've noted some very intriguing and celebrated rivalries among the game's best paint stars, but these legends went at it 94 times during the regular season, and another 49 in the playoffs, according to Sports Reference. From a statistical standpoint, Chamberlain was the better of the two, averaging nearly 30 points during the regular season, and 25.7 during the playoffs in those matchups compared to Russell's 14.2 and 14.9, respectively. That said, including the postseason, Russell went 86-57 against Wilt in head-to-head play. Russell, who it certainly can be argued had better talent around him with the Celtics, won 11 NBA titles and five MVPs. Wilt, on the other hand, has four MVPs to his name, but only the Los Angeles Lakers' 1972 world title.

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1. Earvin "Magic" Johnson vs. Larry Bird

Earvin "Magic" Johnson vs. Larry Bird
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No offense to Bill and Wilt or Michael and Isiah, but this is a no-brainer. When talking rivalries that transcend sports, teams or individuals, the Bird vs. Magic tilt is among the greatest. Two icons, whose on-court rivalry was born at the 1979 NCAA national championship game and defined the NBA in the 1980s — when Bird's Celtics and Magic's Lakers met to decide the league championship three times. Come on, there's even a documentary about their rivalry. There are also several aspects of this individual rivalry to like: the respect each had for the other, how they made the game look easy, and the attention the two brought to the league at a time when it was becoming an afterthought in terms of entertainment purposes. 

A Chicago native, Jeff Mezydlo has professionally written about sports, entertainment and pop culture for nearly 30 years. If he could do it again, he'd attend Degrassi Junior High, Ampipe High and Grand Lakes University.

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