Mourning the Death of a Rivalry

Chris Chambers

The once-heated rivalry between the HEAT and Knicks is no longer, but is LeBron James right when he says there are none anymore in the NBA?

The Miami Heat will host the New York Knicks on Thursday and no one cares, a depressing condemnation of today's NBA.

There are subplots to the game worth following, one of which is whether LeBron James will accessorize a potentially-garish face mask along with his uniform. Y'know, for health reasons. (Although limited edition replicas will be available in the AmericanAirlines Arena for $19.95)

Also, the Knicks smoldering tire fire of a season will continue on Thursday, which presents another opportunity for this team, light-years away from October delusions of championship glory, to further pollute the NBA airwaves with their unique brand of...oh, let's call it "basketball."

The Heat-Knicks was once the chipped jewel of the NBA's regular-season crown, an opportunity for fans to feel the intensity of the playoffs in mid-January or March. Viewers burned with anticipation as these two teams that truly and wonderfully hated each other were always on the cusp of a heated brawl.


And it was glorious.

Teams must battle for something - whether in the quarterfinals, semifinals or at any point in the postseason - and it must be bloody and hard-fought.


But that fire is long gone, officially extinguished by none other than James himself, when he recently proclaimed, "There is no real rivalry in the NBA these days."

At last, the true reason for David Stern's recent retirement.

Sure the league keeps making billions, putting together a product that some would claim is better than ever. But at what the point did the players decide it was no longer important to keep that midseason flame raging?

And, if James is right, how could the fires of historically-great rivalries simply die out?

Part of the problem is how the term "rivalry" is defined, both by the rivals participating in the event and by the spectators that watch it. James gave his interpretation, prior to battling the Indiana Pacers, a team this is considered to be Miami's primary, uh, rival for the Eastern Conference championship:

"What's a rivalry? A rivalry is Celtics and Lakers. They met like four out of five years...Bulls-Pistons. Those are rivalries, man. We've played these guys two straight years in the playoffs, and guys automatically make it a rivalry. It's not a rivalry. You don't see the competition enough or play the competition a lot. It's two really, really good teams that [are] striving to win a championship, but rivalries...there are no more rivalries. There isn't. It's the truth. No rivalries."

It seems a bit disingenuous on James' part, almost as if he's trying to convince himself, a point that will be addressed later.

Breaking down his definition, a rivalry requires longevity as well as a mutual goal worth fighting against one another to achieve. The goal - a championship - is inherent, one that should be shared by every team in the NBA (looking at you, Philadelphia...).

So, if the Heat and Pacers meet in the Eastern Conference finals, as is largely expected, will it then be considered a rivalry? At one point do you, as James said, "see the competition enough?"

The examples he provided are telling. In referring to the Celtics and Lakers, two historic franchises with a combined 33 championships, he lists a "rivalry" considered to be among the greatest in all of sports. They have battled one another since the 1950's, when the league was limited to only eight teams. A natural animosity was bound to develop organically, when there were so few opponents and even fewer actual contenders for a title.

The two squads continued that conflict into the 1980's (likely the era that James was referring to) and renewed it as recently as 2010. However, as both teams find themselves rebuilding and possibly out of the playoffs for years to come, can it still be considered a rivalry?

But James also brought up the Bulls-Pistons, a less-historic clash of foes. Its heyday extends for only four seasons, from 1987-1991, and marks the ascendancy of Detroit's "Bad Boys" before the Jordan-led Chicago teams began their years of dominance. Yet he includes them along with the decades of Celtics-Lakers hostility.

Therein lies the main objection to LeBron's claim. It isn't longevity that connotes a rivalry so much as that clash over a shared objective. Teams must battle for something - whether in the quarterfinals, semifinals or at any point in the postseason - and it must be bloody and hard-fought. That was what defined the Bulls-Pistons, Celtics-Lakers and, to a lesser extent, the Heat-Knicks rivalry of the late 1990's.

According to James, that's what is missing from today's NBA. But that can also be debated, by simply looking at Miami's next and previous opponent.

Thursday's matchup against New York lacks intrigue. The Knicks are a chaotic mess, battling incompetency and one another, all in the hopes of gaining entry into the playoffs where they face immediate elimination. Some of the parts of a rivalry are there, mainly the history, as well as Tyson Chandler (who's Dallas Mavericks beat LeBron's Heat in the 2011 Finals) and Tim Hardaway, Jr. The rookie poses a unique link between the two teams, as his father was a member of those Miami teams that frequently clashed with the Knicks during the years of their rivalry.

Conversely, on Sunday the Heat took on a demolished Bulls team, missing starters due to injuries and having traded away one of their longest-tenured players earlier this season. Yet, there were moments early in that game - a defensive slugfest that eventually led to a Heat blowout - where it felt like a rivalry. And, according to ESPN's Israel Gutierrez, it has all the elements in place. Tension, mutual dislike, playoff battles...the ingredients are clearly there.

But that era is gone, or so James would have you believe. Or could it be that, in an era of shared marketing opportunities and off-season media events, a rivalry isn't economically and socially advisable? Pundits have long decried the over-friendliness of today's league and perhaps that is what James is unknowingly hinting at.

Still, while LeBron claims there are no rivalries, he likely won't be attending any charity games with Joakim Noah, Kevin Garnett or David West, no matter how much he convinces himself that the NBA is all hunky-dory.

Heat President Pat Riley, who perhaps laid the foundation for the Heat-Knicks rivalry when he resigned from New York - while already in Miami and by fax - established some rules for his players that certainly kept those combative fires burning. One was the "no easy layups" rule, where players would rather foul an opponent (often very hard) than give up an uncontested shot.

A second rule was that if an opponent was on the ground, no Heat player was allowed to help him up without facing some sort of disciplinary action.

It's a code of conduct that seems unethical, especially by today's standards of the hug-it-out NBA.

Yet, if you look closely, it's one that's followed when Miami takes on Chicago, Brooklyn (filled with former Celtics foes) and Indiana. Maybe one day, if New York ever re-establishes relevance, it will be followed against them, too.

And basketball fans will care when these two teams play again...as rivals.

Let us know what you think about rivalries in today's NBA by leaving a comment below. And be sure to check in before and after Thursday's game to see the latest updates.

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