With the NBA offseason in full blast, SB Nation's network of basketball bloggers is teaming up to keep things spicy with some semi-regular network-wide discussion of appropriate topics. Today's topic: The League's Top Rivalries.
There's no easy way around it - when it comes to talk of rivalries, the Los Angeles Lakers will be involved in a lot of conversations. Just take a quick tour around the usual suspects and you will find, as expected, that the Lakers are the chief rival for a bunch of different folks. But true rivalry must be defined by one important quality that is lacking in the many dynamics that exist between the Lakers and Team X: respect.
And when a franchise as successful as the Lakers is involved, respect is hard to come by. That's why, of all the teams who might consider the Lakers their chief rival, only one team has the resume to back up the feeling. By many metrics, the Lakers are the most successful team in the history of the league. Most total wins, highest winning percentage, most playoff appearances, most times winning their conference and division. It is a nearly endless list. But it is a list that is missing one key component: most championships.
No Laker fan needs to be told this to remember it. There is another team as successful as the Lakers, more successful in fact, in the only metric that truly matters. They are the Boston Celtics, and even though some will write off Boston's dominance as a remnant of their distant past, there is no doubt they are the Lakers' chief rival, because nobody else is even in the competition. Boston has 17 titles. The Lakers have 16. After that comes Chicago with six (all from a once in a lifetime player who isn't coming back). It can honestly be said that no team is likely ever to surpass either LA or Boston in total championships, and so the two teams remain destined to fight each other into the sunset for the title of league's most victorious franchise.
That fight alone would be enough to sustain the most epic of rivalries, but it does not sum up everything that is Lakers-Celtics. Instead, this rivalry is rife with actual, head-to-head results. Early on, the Celtics might have thought of Los Angeles in the same fashion that we deign to treat our lesser rivals. After all, rivalry is borne more out of defeat than out of victory, and so it must be a two way street, with both teams tasting sweet success and painful defeat in order for that rivalry to be mutual, in order to be "true". As Boston rattled off 7 straight NBA Finals victories against the Jerry West led Lakers, the Lakers-Celtics rivalry was anything but true.
But then the 80s came, and the league's greatest individual rivalry (Bird vs. Magic) was dropped right square in the middle of an already powerful Lakers-Celtics dynamic. That's when the "true" nature of the rivalry became real. The Celtics beat the Lakers once more in 1984, and there was fear in Los Angeles that the curse of Boston might never be broken. Lakers fans didn't have to wait long for that fear to be removed. In 1985, the Lakers defeated the Celtics in six games, winning two of three in Boston (including the game six clincher) to remove the curse for good. Since that time, the Lakers have beaten Boston 3 out of 4 times in the NBA Finals, and have won 8 championships to Boston's two. Where there once was a sizable gap between the league's two best teams, historically, there is now a gap that grows ever narrower, and a mixture of good and bad results that must be the breeding ground for a true rival.
There are other teams with whom the Lakers have waged perennial battle. There are other teams (and fanbases) that hate the Lakers with the proper amount of passion. But there is only one team that can truly be mentioned as the Lakers' rival. The Lakers and Celtics simply operate on a different plane, historically, than the rest of the league. That's why the Lakers' chief rival is an easy decision.