Ranking the Most Intense Friendly Rivalries in NBA History – Do LeBron James-Kevin Durant Rank Higher Than Michael Jordan-Charles Barkley?
Many NBA superstars are very close friends with other stars in the league. However, a lot of fans are not happy when opponents are friendly on the court. Recently, when Kevin Durant and LeBron James faced off, the two were seen sharing a friendly moment. As this received some criticism on social media, Durant responded with the claim that friends compete harder against each other than other opponents. James agreed with the notion by sharing an image of Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley as an example of close friends who were still fierce rivals.
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Interestingly, contrary to popular opinion, the concept of frenemies is not a new concept in the NBA. Yes, the league was far more physical earlier, and not every player was friendly. However, a lot of superstars still had a good relationship even if they did not always display it on the hardwood. This got us thinking about some of the biggest friendly rivalries ever.
#4 LeBron James and Kevin Durant
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LeBron James and Kevin Durant are good friends. Even though they are not very close and spend a great deal of time off the court, they are still friends who respect each other. They have appeared on multiple shows together over the years. The two stars shared a close bond when they played together for Team USA as well. The two have almost always come to the defense of each other on social media platforms and always speak highly of each other. This explains their friendship even if they don’t hang out a lot.
So, whenever they clash, they greet and embrace each other. However, that does not mean that the two stars do not compete hard. Like KD suggested, the two friends go extra hard whenever they face off. Especially in the Finals. Notably, LeBron and Durant have battled in the Finals three times so far in their careers.
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The two first played against each other in the Finals when the OKC Thunder and the Miami Heat faced off in 2012. James and the Heat were coming off a Finals loss against the Dallas Mavericks the previous year. LeBron was still looking for his first ring. Similarly, Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and the Thunder were looking for their first title as well.
Despite the Heat’s star power and experience, many thought the young core of Thunder had a chance. KD and the Thunder won the first game as well. However, the Heat came back strong and won four straight to clinch the championship.
After two more trips to the Finals, winning one more ring, James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers. He immediately led the team to the Finals. But lost to the Golden State Warriors. In the next season, the two teams clashed once again. This time, James and the Cavs had their revenge and won the title. After the loss, the Dubs acquired Durant to further strengthen the team.
Interestingly, the Warriors defeated KD and the Thunder in the Conference Finals that year. Despite this, the forward was keen to join the Warriors. This added fuel to the already fierce rivalry of the Cavs and the Dubs. After Durant’s arrival, the Warriors were almost unstoppable. Ultimately, Durant and the Warriors defeated LeBron and the Cavaliers in the next two Finals. The second one was a clean sweep. KD did not hold back against his friend and clinched the Finals MVP award on both occasions.
#3 Magic Johnson and Julius Erving
Magic Johnson and Julius Erving were very close friends during their time in the NBA and they are still close. When the friendship between the two started, Erving was more of a mentor to a young Johnson. The Philadelphia 76ers legend was already a superstar and Magic grew up watching him. Before entering the league, Johnson reached out to Erving for advice. Dr. J was kind enough to fly Magic to Philadelphia to stay in his house and mentor him. With the 11x NBA All-Star’s advice, Johnson decided to make the jump to the league.
Even though Johnson played for the Los Angeles Lakers, the two still continued their friendship. However, things took an interesting turn when the 76ers and the Lakers reached the 1980 Finals in Magic’s rookie season. After losing the Finals a few seasons back, Erving was desperate to win his first NBA title. However, Magic was ready to go hard against his friend and mentor at the ultimate stage.
Johnson did not just help the Lakers clinch the title, he led them and became the only rookie to win the Finals MVP award. Talking about the matchup and his relationship with Erving, “I love that man but he was in between me and that NBA championship. I wasn’t going to let him beat me and you know that series, I’m still the only player in NBA history to be named Finals MVP as a rookie.“, Magic said during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
One year later, the two clashed again in the Finals. Once again, Magic and the Lakers clinched the title. The two friends faced off for the third and final time in 1983. This time, the 2x ABA champion and the Sixers swept the Lakers for the title.
Despite their rivalry at the top of the league, the two remained friends off the court and they continued their relationship after their retirement as well.
#2 Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley
Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley are ranked higher not just because of their incredibly close friendship, but also because of their rivalry. Jordan and Barkley were two of the biggest stars at the time and consistently competed for accolades. Notably, Barkley clinched the 1993 NBA MVP award over a prime Jordan. Despite this, the two maintained their friendship on and off the court.
Both stars had common interests like golf, gambling, etc. This allowed them to spend a lot of their leisure time together. And even during Finals battles. However, they were still competing. Be it on the golf course or casinos or the hardwood, the two wanted to win. So, whenever the two faced off in the playoffs, the anticipation was through the roof.
Jordan and Barkley clashed in the postseason thrice and MJ came out victorious on all three occasions with a record of 12-4. The two first played against each other for two straight seasons in 1990 and 1991. On both occasions, Jordan and the Chicago Bulls defeated Chuck and the 76ers 4-1 in the second round. MJ averaged 43 points the first time and 33 in the second. In 1991, the Bulls went on to win their first-ever title as well.
One year later, Barkley joined the Phoenix Suns and led them to the Finals in 1993. Once again setting up a Final battle with his friend MJ . As the Bulls took a 2-1 lead, MJ allegedly used his friendship card to his advantage. Even though the two were clashing in the Finals, they went golfing during the series. This was when MJ reportedly gifted Barkley a diamond earring worth $20,000. The 5x NBA MVP allegedly did this so that Barkley would not get in his way.
Ultimately, MJ erupted for 55 points in the crucial game-4 which helped him clinch his third straight championship. Also, Barkley never again had a shot at the title and retired without a ring. Furthermore, the two Hall of Famers do not speak with each other anymore after Barkley criticized MJ for his poor ownership of the Charlotte Hornets a few years back.
#1 Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain
Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain? It is one of the biggest debates in NBA history. They were two of the best centers to ever play the game of basketball. While Chamberlain wins in terms of individual numbers and accolades, Russell can’t be beaten when it comes to the number of titles. Interestingly, the two are arguably the league’s first-ever frenemies. Despite their intense rivalry, they shared a very close bond.
However, some claim that Russell allegedly faked his friendship to win games against Chamberlain.
According to a report from Bleacher Report, Jack Kiser said, “Russell pulled the con job of the century on Chamberlain. He welcomed Wilt to the league. He played father-figure. He told him, man, you’re going to better all my records, but you have things to learn and I’m going to teach you because I admire you. He made friends with him.”
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Kiser added, “He got Wilt to the point where Wilt worried about making him look bad. Wilt hated to lose, but he liked Bill so much that he didn’t like losing to him. Wilt could destroy Russell when he was inspired. But he held back enough to get beat.”
Russell and Wilt clashed in the playoffs 49 times. While Russell has 29 wins, Chamberlain has 20. Despite this, the two late Hall of Famers clashed in the Finals only on two occasions and the stars shared their wins with one each.
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However, Russell has the upper hand with 8 wins and 4 losses. In 1964, Russell and the Boston Celtics defeated Wilt and the Warriors 4-1 to clinch their sixth straight title. A few years later, Wilt had his revenge in 1969 as he led the Lakers to the title against Russell and the Celtics.
Editorial Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of EssentiallySports.