Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo weren’t the first NBA players to trade punches on the court. The league has a long history of player beefs coming to physical confrontation. Some of the best NBA player rivalries have started for a good reason, or even a perceived slight. No matter what era you’re talking about, you’re going to find players in the NBA that don’t like each other, either on or off the court and for various reasons. It doesn’t even matter if they’re teammates.
Here is a look at some of the best NBA player rivalries. The petty beefs that make this league the sports soap opera we can’t live without.
What are some of the best NBA player rivalries ever?
Russell Westbrook vs. Kevin Durant
This leads the way for the best rivalry in the NBA right now. It started with Durant leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State, where he has since won two titles and two Finals MVPs. Westbrook stayed in Oklahoma City, where he won the MVP award two seasons ago and has averaged a triple-double two years running.
But it is always an occasion when the two meet, especially in Oklahoma City. Westbrook wore an outfit that said “official photographer”, poking fun of Durant’s hobby of photography (he said it wasn’t a dig, but, come on).
Durant gets booed every time he returns to Oklahoma City. The two have gone head-to-head and yelled at each other for entire games. It is about as good as it gets. As far as the head-to-head battle goes, the Warriors have won seven of nine against the Thunder since Durant left. When you’re betting on NBA odds this season, you’ll see and hear more from these two.
Joel Embiid vs. Hassan Whiteside
This beef started as many do nowadays, on social media. And strangely, it started over a preseason game. Embiid said that Whiteside couldn’t guard him, and Whiteside responded (neither had a good game, to be honest).
Embiid talked about Whiteside’s foul trouble and poor plus/minus, while Whiteside poked fun at Embiid’s injury history. In Philadelphia’s playoff win over Miami last season, Embiid did miss the first two games through injury.
But then he came back to dominate Whiteside in the postseason. Miami president Pat Riley said Whiteside wasn’t ready for the playoffs, and Embiid piled on by commenting from his Instagram account,“I’ll let you finish but I missed a month so no excuses just Trust it.”
Hopefully, the two will be healthy when the Heat head to Philadelphia on November 12th. But for comedy’s sake (because both are great on social media, especially Embiid), this is currently one of the best NBA player rivalries.
Jimmy Butler vs. Karl-Anthony Towns
It seems like Butler has issues with the Minnesota organization, but specifically, Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Still, it feels like Towns is the main object of Butler’s ire. Butler stormed into a Timberwolves’ practice recently, took the third string unit and proceeded to scream at everyone in the building, including Towns, who booted the ball away when Butler was guarding him.
Jimmy seems to respect Towns’ ability, saying that he is the most talented player on the team in an interview with Rachel Nichols.
Butler says Towns should work harder and he’s all but called Minnesota’s franchise centre soft. Somehow, Butler is still in Minnesota after asking for a trade. The Minnesota locker room should be a very interesting place as long as Butler is there.
Hakeem Olajuwon vs. David Robinson
Both of these big men are very nice guys. They don’t even seem to have that much animosity towards each other. But there was one moment in time when Olajuwon held Robinson personally responsible for a grave injustice.
It was the 1995 playoffs and Olajuwon and his Houston Rockets were making a run. They faced Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals and Robinson was awarded the MVP trophy at the start of the series. Olajuwon won the award the year prior and was coming off another amazing campaign. Robinson was handed the honour because he led the league in scoring that season and the Spurs had a better record.
The San Antonio pivot made a living as a perennial fixture on the All-NBA Defensive Team and he said that Olajuwon couldn’t score 40 points every game. Well, he was right…..to an extent.
Olajuwon was offended and proceeded to beat Robinson like a like a rented maul. He dominated Robinson, averaging 35.3 points (scoring 40 or more points three times), 12.5 rebounds and 4.2 blocks. Robinson responded with 23.8 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. Olajuwon definitely seemed to take this personally. It might have been the single-worst one-on-one NBA beatdown of all-time.
Shaquille O’Neal vs. Kobe Bryant
How many rings could they have won, had they simply got along, or were even been civil to each other?
Shaquille O’Neal signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996, the same year Kobe Bryant was drafted by Charlotte and then traded to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. The dynamic duo spent eight seasons together, often battling over who was the alpha on the team. They managed to win three straight championships from 1999 to 2002, but it always threatened to boil over at any minute, and a few times, it did.
O’Neal (as did many others) thought Bryant was selfish and didn’t defer to O’Neal, who was arguably the most dominant player in the NBA at the time. They have gone back and forth in the media, and O’Neal was recorded rapping a, let’s say, disrespectful song about Bryant in 2008. However, they have since reconciled…..for now. For entertainment value, this is probably one of the best NBA player rivalries out there.
Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas
You would think this had only to do with the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons rivalry in the late 80s and early 90s. The Pistons were extremely physical with Jordan, and it led to some heated games. However, Thomas – a Chicago native – was annoyed at how much love Jordan was getting in the Windy City.
Thomas spearheaded a movement to freeze Jordan out at the 1985 All-Star Game. Zeke also led a Detroit walkout in the closing moments of the Bulls sweep of the Pistons in the 1991 NBA playoffs.
Jordan waited his turn and told USA Basketball he would only play on the Dream Team at the 1992 summer Olympics if the committee did not invite Thomas. Don’t expect to see these NBA legends hanging out, even to this day. This might be the most bitter of the best NBA player rivalries.
Ray Allen vs. Kobe Bryant
One of the more underrated of the best NBA player rivalries involved Bryant and Ray Allen, and it started when Allen was in Seattle. Allen said that Bryant would be very selfish (there’s that word again) once O’Neal went to Miami in 2004. Bryant didn’t respond in the media, but he definitely made it a point to go extra hard against Allen when the two met on the court.
The rivalry intensified when Allen went to Boston in 2007, and they met twice in the Finals with Allen and the Celtics winning in 2008. Bryant and the Lakers responded in 2010. Allen and Bryant, who were both drafted in 1996, have since said respectful things about the other in retirement. However, they likely don’t hang out much.
Shaquille O’Neal vs. Dwight Howard
This might win the award for the most petty of all the best NBA player rivalries. O’Neal has never liked that Howard was called “Superman” after donning a cape during the 2008 Slam Dunk Contest. O’Neal has the Superman logo on his arm, and essentially said that there could only be one Superman.
To be fair to Howard, he has better numbers against Shaq in their 12 head-to-head meetings with 16.5 points and 10.9 rebounds, to 15.7 points and 6.4 rebounds for O’Neal. Shaq has obviously had the better career, and he has had the better roasts in a battle that still going on today.
Dennis Rodman vs. Karl Malone
Rodman had a habit of getting under the skin of his opponents, and Malone was definitely no exception. The two met in the 1997 and 1998 Finals, with Rodman’s Bulls winning both times. But Rodman and Malone were tangled up together many times while battling for rebounds.
The rivalry even spilled over to professional wrestling. Rodman teamed up with Hulk Hogan to defeat Malone and Diamond Dallas Page in one of the most hilarious events of all time. They made a wrestling match (and a poor one, at that) about this? For sure, this is one of the best NBA player rivalries.
Ray Allen vs. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo
As was mentioned before, Allen joined the Celtics in 2007 and formed a “Big Three” with Garnett and Pierce. The Celtics then drafted Rondo, a young and stubborn point guard. The team went on to win the 2008 title, but Allen left the Celtics in 2012 to go to Miami, who were Boston’s biggest rivals at the time. The rest of the Celtics didn’t like that one bit. They basically cut off all communication with Allen, who was also known for being quirky, at best.
On Garnett’s “Area 21” segment, Pierce stated that it wasn’t that Allen left, but instead, how he left, by not calling the rest of his teammates. Rondo then organized a trip for the 2008 title-winning team, and didn’t invite Allen. To his credit, Allen didn’t say anything bad about the Celtics when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Pierce has also said that the two reconciled in 2017. At the very least, they’re civil. They’re probably not vacationing together, though.