Pistons-Bulls. Lakers-Celtics. Magic-Bird. Russell-Wilt. A giant chunk of NBA history is written in rivalries and it’s no great mystery why: a true rivalry is the game becoming more than the game. When the game gets personal, it forges heroes and villains, champions and outcasts. It pushes players to their limits. It tells us a story.
But to hear some people tell it, rivalry is all but dead in the modern NBA. Ray Allen is playing for the Heat. Steve Nash is playing for the Lakers. Kobe says he’s never had a real rival. And Kevin Durant and LeBron James got together to work on conditioning like they hadn’t just squared off in the modern Circus Maximus of the NBA Finals. Where’s the loyalty? Where’s the blood? Where are the severed limbs? Has the whole league gone soft?
Maybe, but maybe not. Below the placid surface of professional basketball is a roiling mess of ever-shifting dynamics — including our complex relationships to history, psychological, economic, technological and sociological factors, flexible narrative structures and more — that subtly shade and alter that surface.
Maybe rivalry isn’t dead. Maybe it’s just evolving into something we can’t quite recognize yet.
THE STUFF OF LEGENDS
The roots of rivalry stretch back at least to Cain and Abel, and probably further. In the popular imagination of the basketball fan, though, rivalry in the NBA begins with Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. “Before them,” says hoops historian Curtis Harris, a contributor to both Hardwood Paroxysm and Ball Don’t Lie, “you had the fixation on team rivalries. For example, the Minneapolis Lakers vs. Rochester Royals was the big one in the earliest years of the NBA.” The league was ascendant in the early ‘60s and Russell-Chamberlain made for good publicity. Plus, Harris adds, “Chamberlain never stayed with one team too long, but always seemed to butt into Russell’s Celtics in the postseason.”
They also played the same position in different ways: Russell’s defensive prowess locking horns with Chamberlain’s overwhelming offense. Basketball, of all the major American sports, is uniquely structured to encourage an emphasis on individuals (no hats, no masks, and fewer players per team) and their relationships. We talk of pitchers’ duels, yet opposing pitchers never play the same position at the same time. Quarterbacks square off against the defense, not the other quarterback. Hockey and soccer break separate players into attackers and defenders. But Russell and Chamberlain faced each other up and down the floor every time they played.
Russell vs. Chamberlain also fed into a narrative we recognize from myth and legend: a hero must overcome an obstacle (in this case, a rival) to achieve true greatness. Consider Odysseus, the twelve labors of Hercules, D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers. When Chamberlain’s Sixers finally defeated Russell’s Celtics in 1967 and went on to win the championship, it confirmed a story whose shape we already knew.
More recently, there was perhaps no greater catalyst for Michael Jordan and the Bulls’ rise to preeminence than Isiah Thomas and the hated Detroit Pistons, whom Chicago faced in the playoffs four straight seasons from 1988 to 1991. The Pistons’ bruising, physical play hounded Jordan’s Bulls until they broke through in 1991, winning a championship that came to represent Jordan’s newfound understanding of how to make his teammates better. It threw fuel on the fire of the rivalry-as-path-to-greatness archetype.
At the end, with Chicago on the verge of blanking Detroit, the bad blood was so intense that Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Mark Aguirre walked off the court with 7.9 seconds left, refusing to acknowledge the Bulls or shake their hands. The Bad Boys ended their string of Finals runs the way they came in, with knives out, and there was fallout that stretched into next year’s Barcelona Olympics.
The story of the Dream Team is almost hagiography: the NBA’s finest leading the United States back to the promised land of Olympic gold. But one of the league’s best is conspicuously absent from the roster, and it’s no coincidence that he was a member of that Pistons team. As Jack McCallum writes in his recent book, Dream Team, the key to the USA Men’s Basketball team in 1992 was Michael Jordan and when committee member Rod Thorn called him to propose joining, Jordan was clear: “Rod, I don’t want to play if Isiah Thomas is on the team.” And that’s how it went. If the rivalry between their teams made for gripping basketball, it also meant the Dream Team was not quite the complete roster of available basketball greats.
This is both the danger and the promise of narrative. The stories we make out of wins and losses help us make sense of the riot of lived life, but the same process that puts certain things in focus leaves others blurry or out of the frame entirely. When we conceive of basketball as a war, it’s easy for the propaganda to elide the casualties.
THE TECTONICS OF RIVALRY
Even without Thomas, the Dream Team had its share of tension, as when an intrasquad scrimmage in Monte Carlo became a battle between Magic and Jordan for the unspoken title of leader of the NBA. But the teams from the 1992 and 1996 Olympics also set the template for NBA players cooperating in international play at a time when a number of other factors began to change the way players related to each other.
The rise of the AAU systeml shifted the emphasis of youth basketball towards a more informal and interconnected web of support that revolved around smaller networks of friends. An increase in the number of high school players going directly to the draft (and later, a proliferation of one-and-done players after 2005) reinforced this looser structure. Coupled with the max salaries and contract lengths that came with the restructured CBA that shortened the 1998-99 season, these changes shifted the landscape of player relationships under the league’s feet. No longer were players steeped in college rivalries or signing 25-year contracts or tying up almost half their team’s salary.
For players at either extreme of on-court intensity, these things probably didn’t make a big difference. Kevin Garnett was always going to be the guy banging his head into the basket stanchion before games; Tim Duncan was always going to be cool to the touch. “A guy like Kobe,” says David Thorpe, the founder and executive director of the Pro Training Center in Florida, “who to me is the best competitor in the league — not the best player now, but the best competitor — is working constantly to beat you. It has nothing to do with who you are.”
But for those somewhere in the middle—and maybe for Kevin Durant and LeBron James—it might have changed their outlook.
“The way basketball is now with guys playing together in AAU, they come into the league with these friendships,” Thorpe says, and he should know, having worked with an arm’s length list of NBA players. He is — to put it mildly — incredulous at the uproar over James and Durant training together. “It’s a bunch of hooey,” he says. “It’s ridiculous to think that players can’t compete because they’re friends. These guys have just come out of playing in the Olympics and winning there and you want them not to talk to each other?”
It’s also easier for them to stay friends: thanks to cell phones and Twitter, cities like Boston and Los Angeles aren’t as far apart as they once were. The friendships James formed with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Beijing in 2008 were instrumental in the creation of last season’s NBA champions. Meanwhile the cap on player salaries made it financially feasible to assemble superteams and also removed one kind of economic incentive to player competition. In a world in which you can have a couple max players on one team, the very best players aren’t competing for a team’s money.
FAMILIARITY BREEDS COMPETITION
But despite our collective yearning for drama, it’s not even clear we should expect Durant and James to be rivals in the first place. Gavin Kilduff, an assistant professor of Management and Organizations at NYU’s Stern School of Business, has done a lot of research into competition with specific attention on rivalry. In a paper written with Hillary Elfenbein and Barry Staw, he examined rivalries between basketball programs in the NCAA and found that the outward similarities of schools based on geography, student population, etc. are less important to fostering rivalry than how close their historical record is to being even. They conclude that “[p]erceptions of rivalry are determined more by the relationship between competitors than by their individual characteristics.”
Thus, we can look at James and Durant and think they should be rivals for a number of reasons: they play the same position; they came in #1 and #2 in this season’s #NBARank project; they’re viewed as the leaders of their respective teams. But there’s just not enough history between them to count them as each other’s primary rival.
“They’ve only really competed one time,” says Kilduff by phone, “and it also wasn’t that evenly matched. If it had been an intense, seven-game series I think that more rivalry might have come out of that.”
Their similarities might be an antecedent to rivalry, but right now, we’re jumping the gun. “If you see LeBron win three of the next four championships—maybe three in a row,” says Thorpe, “Durant might not want to work out with him anymore.”
Kilduff’s paper also points down another interesting path: rivalry between two schools led to increased performance on effort-based tasks, but not necessarily in areas that require precision or accuracy. In effect, rivalry made a positive difference in defensive stats like blocks, which occurred at an almost 5% greater rate in rivalry games. So it’s conceivable that rivalry can make a noticeable statistical difference in performance along one axis. But does that positively correlate with a better overall kind of basketball?
Such judgments are of course subjective, but the game itself is constantly changing, from allowing zones to outlawing hand-checking on the perimeter to future changes such as permitting contact with the ball above the cylinder. All these tweaks seek a sweet spot that to produce the most compelling and beautiful games possible. It’s not yet entirely clear how much rivalry factors in or is affected by such changes.
THE SHAPE OF RIVALRIES TO COME
A number of elements might be serving as impediments to the kind of rivalries we’ve seen in the past. But is it possible that there are things about Durant and James that make this a new kind of rivalry?
The fierce intensity of players like Jordan or Bryant is what we associate with the best rivalries, and yet Bryant himself said, “I get up for everybody just the same, to be honest. It’s hard for me to turn my meter up any higher than it normally is.”
Few would argue, but this approach seems impossible to separate from his inability to form friendships with other players. This is, after all, the guy who called Derek Fisher his closest friend on the Lakers even though he’d never once invited Fisher to his house. Maybe James reading The Hunger Games during the playoffs last year was an indication that he’s realized what he needs is not to turn his meter up, but dial it back.
In their paper, Kilduff et al. refer to the Yerkes-Dodson law, which in a sports context means that getting amped up for something can eventually have diminishing returns: focus becomes narrow, problem-solving suffers. Whether it’s based in personality or influenced by external factors, it could be that what Durant and James are developing is less a death-to-your-enemies rivalry and something more akin to a sibling rivalry, where their closeness actually facilitates the intensity of their competition. That’s not a bad thing. What TV drama—from Dallas to Veronica Mars—would be complete without brothers and sisters conspiring to outdo or undo each other?
So maybe in this new kind of story we need to rethink the characters because there’s a distinction between being a competitor and being an athlete. “If a guy goes out there and doesn’t give everything he’s got to win,” Thorpe tells me, “it isn’t because he’s not a competitor—it’s because he’s not an athlete.” To me this points to how we who are not athletically gifted have a tendency to overemphasize the mental aspect of winning without recognizing that it’s inextricably tied to the physical part of it.
Athletes do this too when they emphasize abstract ideas like heart or experience or will. Being competitive means wanting to win. But being an athlete means working tirelessly to better yourself, to take whatever natural gifts you might have and push them to the breaking point. There is no elite NBA player who does not also have an elite work ethic. Whether you want to appeal to game theory or social facilitation theory or the simple idea of iron sharpening iron, Durant and James working out together will make for better basketball.
THE JOURNEY, NOT THE DESTINATION
There’s something else, and I don’t have a psychological study or an expert to back this up, just personal experience. Having natural talent—like James and Durant—initially means putting in a little and getting a lot out: accolades, admiration, positive reinforcement. But that either becomes boring or you reach a level where your talent isn’t enough on its own. And this doesn’t just happen once: it can happen again and again.
There’s nothing wrong with this cycle—many people are on it for their whole lives and do very well. But the constant within the cycle is not the challenge, not the rivals, but the work itself. If you make it about the work, then the rewards never fall short. That’s what makes these offseason workouts good news, not bad. It’s evidence of their attention to the craft.
Kilduff began his paper with quotes from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird about their rivalry, how Magic would circle the games against the Celtics, how Bird would check the box scores every morning to see what Magic did. But when Johnson came to Bird’s hometown to shoot a Converse commercial, a friendship blossomed. Now ask yourself if that friendship got in the way of them going at each other hard in the Finals in 1987, the series that featured Magic’s famous hook shot to give the Lakers a 3-1 lead on their way to the title.
We like rivalries because they make for good stories, so maybe the difficulty with Durant and James comes from not knowing what story we’re looking at. It might be the rise of a new, collaborative kind of competition that emphasizes the process as much as the product. Or maybe it’s the story of friends pushing each other to get better until a breaking point drives them apart, a sort of Magic-Bird in reverse.
“The Water Song” by Clem Snide ends with a stingingly precise kind of indictment: “You say it doesn’t matter / ‘cause you know from all those books you never read / You knew how they would end.”
Talking about their work the previous offseason, James said, “At the time, I envisioned us getting to (the Finals) against each other.” When they met in the postseason, it was just the first chapter of what promises to be a rewarding story. Let’s not try and guess the ending.
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