Over an eight-season span in the 1960s, the Celtics and Lakers met six times in the NBA Finals, spawning what would become the best rivalry in the game.
Lately, though, that rivalry has lost its luster.
The presence of Paul Pierce, Kobe Bryant, and each player's super-sized ego helped rekindle the feud in the last decade. But Pierce went to Brooklyn in the offseason, and Bryant is playing ineffectually on Frankenstein legs. As of Thursday, both teams were under .500.
The same can be said of other once-exciting rivalries. Knicks-Nets, though it has a new wrinkle with the Nets' move to Brooklyn, is currently a match-up of bloated payrolls and terrible teams. Pistons-Bulls is nothing without Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas. And Pacers-Knicks sans Reggie Miller means there is no one to counter Spike Lee's insufferable court-side presence.
With those rivalries gone the way of short shorts and high socks, there is no longer a truly epic rivalry between any two teams in the game. Desperate writers and fans have tried to create their own. Thus we had the short-lived Thunder-Heat, and now, with the emergence of Indiana as a dominant force in the Eastern Conference, Pacers-Heat.
Yet a rivalry is more than just a tete-a-tete between two really good teams. There has to be a compelling storyline, maybe some bad blood, and a feud stretching back years. The Heat and Thunder met once in the Finals; the Heat and Pacers met in the Conference Finals last year for the first time ever.
Just ask LeBron James what he thinks of his team's supposed rivalry with the Pacers:
"We've played these guys two straight years in the playoffs, and guys automatically make it a rivalry. It's not a rivalry."
James then took his opinion a step further and said rivalries no longer exist in the NBA.
"There is no real rivalry in the NBA these days," James said. "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. [Miami Herald]
He's right — and that's a problem for the NBA.
To be sure, it's not necessarily a problem for the league's bottom line. Viewership is soaring, especially in international markets, which in turn means the league is poised for enormous revenue growth. But that doesn't mean the NBA is more interesting, only that it is finding more fans who are interested in watching.
Meanwhile, rivalries are alive and well in other major sports. Yankees-Red Sox, Cowboys-Redskins, Bruins-Canadiens — or Bruins and most anyone for that matter. College football even has an entire "rivalry weekend."
Compare that to the NBA, where we have LeBron's Team vs. Whoever Else is Good at the Moment.
That problem could get worse in the near future. LeBron can be a free agent after this year, while the Pacers' Roy Hibbert and David West can jump ship the year after. A shakeup would kill any budding sense of rivalry the teams may build over the coming months.
Heck, even commissioner David Stern is retiring, depriving the game of its great David Stern vs. The World angle.
Rivalries make sports much more fun. Maybe the Celtics and Lakers will work some voodoo to become amazing again, or Michael Jordan will come out of retirement once more and play for Detroit. Until then, the NBA will still feel like it's missing something, despite all the exciting young players taking over the game.