by Matt Lawyue

Trying to choose the best NBA rivalry over the last decade is like choosing between Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in a cage match, in the middle of Disney World with Miley Cyrus emceeing. Has the NBA gone soft, therefore eliminating heated, legitimate rivalries? Yes. Is the best NBA rivalry this decade the Lakers vs. Spurs? I guess so.

A legitimate rivalry is between two teams who absolutely despise each other, with the single goal of beating the opposing team so badly and so often, not even a warehouse of Patrick Ewing ice bags could heal the pain. What pushes a rivalry to the next level is when these teams meet on the biggest stage, the playoffs.

Let’s consider history. Those Lakers vs. Celtics matchups are the best rivalry the NBA has to offer, so far, and the two key characters actually liked each other. Yes, Magic and Bird battled on the court in the biggest games, year after year, but there was complete mutual respect for each other. Then along came MJ, the Bad Boy Pistons and a physically brutal style of play that carried us to the new millennium. This era took trash-talking, on and off the court, to new heights and revamped what an NBA rivalry was. Harder fouls, harder defense, harder smack talk. But once these old timers hung up their kicks, the L and the definition of a rivalry evolved again.

It’s not that the players are less competitive or less theatrical than they were ten, twenty years ago. The shift from defense to offense is at the forefront of the evolution, accompanied by “NBA Cares” and a squeaky-clean, corporate image (is there a more disgusting oxymoron than that?) the L is trying to portray now that it’s a global brand. Rules have changed to produce a more offensive-minded game (i.e. dismissal of hand checking) and teams/coaches have followed suit (I.e. seven seconds or less, drafting of sharp-shooting European big men).

The shift has weakened the physicality, while fines for speaking your mind have gone up. Even with the explosion of the Internet and social media tools like Twitter, you’d think there would be more trash-talking or subtle online jabs that could spark the dampest of matches. Could you imagine what Charles Oakley would have done if he tweeted back in the day? But if the L fines you for even positively tweeting, what are we left with? I’ll tell you- Miley Cyrus emceeing a cage match between Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in the middle of Disney World.

This is just another evolution of the rivalry, whether we like it or not. Teams are still outrageously competitive, but with far less of a chip on their shoulder than in the 80’s and 90’s. During this past decade we saw great playoff matchups and some intense basketball: Lakers vs. Kings (2000-2002); Spurs vs. Mavs (’01, ’03, ’06, ’09); Spurs vs. Suns (’00, ’03, ’05, ’07, ’08); Mavs vs. Suns (’05, ’06); Cavs vs. Wizards (’06, ’07, ’08); Lakers vs. Suns (’06, ’07). So why is the Lakers vs. Spurs the best rivalry this decade?

First, consider the statistics:
7 Championships between them- Lakers 4 (’00, ’01, ’02) Spurs 3 (’03, ’05, ’07)
5 Playoff Matchups- 2 in the Western Conference Finals (’01, ’08); 3 in the Western Conference Semifinals (’02, ’03, ’04)
4 MVP’s between them- Shaquille O’Neal (’00), Tim Duncan (’02, ’03), Kobe Bryant (’08)

Anywhere you looked this decade, particularly in the playoffs, it was Lakers vs. Spurs, Duncan vs. Shaq/Kobe and Popovich vs. Jackson. In 2000 and 2001, the Lakers handled their business against the Spurs in the Conference Finals and Semifinals, beating them 4-0 and 4-1. The following year, the Spurs finally put an end to the Lakers dynasty and defeated the Lakers in 6 to advance to the Western Conference Finals.

It all led to 2004, and one of the most memorable playoff moments between the two heavyweight titans of this decade.

Lakers vs. Spurs 2004

Whether or not this was the sexy pick for rivalry of the decade, it was relatively mute compared to anything that happened in the 80’s and 90’s. But if last season’s playoffs were any indication of the potential matchups we might see down the road, the next ten years is looking pretty so far. Or maybe we’re just waiting for the Kobe and LeBron stars to align for a real rivalry to sweep us off our feet.