Lakers vs. Celtics: The NBA’s most “storied rivalry” is anything but.

Lakers vs. Celtics: The NBA's most "storied rivalry" is anything but.
The Lakers and Celtics used to be a fierce rivalry. Ben Sudelis wonders about the future of NBA rivalies.

Red Sox-Yankees. Michigan-Ohio State. Bruins-Canadiens. Many historical rivalries in sports just seem to matter. Usually, even if both teams aren’t in top form, there is always the possibility that the lesser of the two can find a way to make an upset possible.

You can read up on the history of these matchups. There are numerous examples including ESPN’s “Best of Enemies” 30 for 30 documentary.

The NBA loves to get nostalgic about the Celtics and Lakers. Yet, it might be more boring to witness than a Bears and Packers game.

The NBA has destroyed rivalries.

Anyone who has watched the NBA for more than the last decade or so can recall a time when teams had real vitriol and hatred toward one another.

The 1980s and ’90s, in particular, were the high-watermark for basketball if you ask anyone of a certain age. Back in the halcyon days of the NBA, the competition was fierce. Teams like the Detroit Pistons, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and New York Knicks defined the tone for the way the sport was played. 

Hard-nosed, aggressive defense. Games that ended up 87-76 were the norm. Players understood that the game was played on both sides of the court and that a shot block or steal was just as dazzling as trying to hit a pull-up three from half-court.

The last decade or so has seen a complete reversal of that. The NBA has become a rec-league of buddies going out and throwing errant 3-point shots. There is no defense played. Games can end with a score of 145-129. 

Players used to fight. Risk their bodies to drive to the basket. Now, they dap each other on the way to the foul line and go out for bottle service after Game 7 of a playoff series together.

Will the NBA ever have a true rivalry again?

Given the current landscape of the league, I find that highly doubtful. Players collaborate to form super-teams. A shoe deal is more important than an NBA Championship to the current star’s bottom line and legacy. Taking Instagram and TikTok videos with opposing players while partying is the norm nowadays.

Could you imagine Bill Laimbeer and Kevin McHale doing shots together at Daisy Buchanan’s back in the 80s after a playoff series? I doubt it.

The new focus is on player/player matchups. Younger NBA fans don’t really care about having a favorite team anymore. Most kids buy a Golden State Curry jersey, even if they live deep in New York City. Most of them couldn’t even name a player on the Knicks, either. Teams no longer dominate the promos for upcoming games. Instead, it’s the two stars battling it out.

This is great for the “stars” of the league. However, I think it’s possible that while lining their pockets with massive amounts of money, these stars might be causing long-term damage to their sport. 

Players come and go. Age, injury, etc., will always dictate the length of their careers. Teams are long-established. If NBA teams want to continue to make money, having players call the shots might undo the very thing that gave them the power, to begin with.

Most sports run on the premise that generations of fans are raised on teams. This can cover 1-5 decades in most cases. When a player can shoot around the league to wherever they want to go, with no allegiance to a team because it’s all about them, a time will come when it is a detriment to the NBA. I believe that time is closing fast.

Twenty years ago, last night’s Celtics/Lakers game would have been called appointment television. Now, it’s nothing more than if LeBron or Jayson Tatum scored 50 points.

I don’t believe that’s sustainable for a sports league, especially when “team sports” are supposed to be about “teams.”


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