What NBA rivalries could shape basketball’s next five years?

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The ever-changing nature of the NBA means rivalries are fickle. When Philadelphia traded picks with Boston to pick 2017 NBA draft pick Markelle Fultz and the Celtics picked Jayson Tatum for third pick, the closeness and history of the teams had all the makings of a classic. But while Tatum is a consistent All-Star, Fultz soon developed the Shooting Yips and was quickly delivered to the Magic.

Today’s uptick in team switching has created the less-classic rivalries that defined earlier eras, such as Magic Johnson’s Lakers versus Larry Bird’s Celtics and Michael Jordan’s Bulls versus the Bad Boys’ Pistons. But if the stars Do Align, these marquee matchups make for captivating theater.

Here are five rivalries that could shape the next five years.

1) Zion Williamson vs Ja Morant

When Williamson and Morant were taken over by the top two picks in the 2019 NBA draft, it seemed only a matter of time before the duo would compete for NBA dominance. But with Williamson’s injury woes (just 85 games in his first three seasons) and Morant’s uncertain path to the NBA (he wasn’t even one of ESPN’s top 100 high school recruits), it’s remarkable that the two are staying side by side .

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The rivalry between Zion and Ja is unique in many ways. Aside from being picked back-to-back by teams from the same conference and division, New Orleans and Memphis’ schedules for the title shot have finally converged. The duo are separated only by a stretch of Interstate 55, a proximity that suggests it’s meant to be. With the Grizzlies and Pelicans in the top four in the West, the prospect of these two superstars meeting deep in the playoffs later this season is growing more likely by the day.

2) Golden State Warriors vs. Memphis Grizzlies

As close as Ja and Zion are, each star has other players and teams on their minds. For Ja, it’s the reigning champion Golden State. A quick recap: At the 2021 play-in tournament, the young Grizzlies defeated an exhausted Warriors team in overtime to reach the playoffs and send Golden State home. Last season, the day after the Grizzlies beat the Warriors by 29 points in a regular-season game, Jaren Jackson Jr. tweeted “strength in numbers,” a reference that mocked Golden State’s team slogan. The two then met in the Western Conference Semifinals, with Golden State progressing through six games in a highly entertaining streak. After the Warriors defeated Boston to win their fourth NBA title in eight years, Klay Thompson reminded the world how good his team was, while calling Jackson a “freaking bum.”

While the Grizzlies have moved to the top of the standings, the Warriors currently sit in last play-in tournament position with a 23-24 record. A major problem was the lack of playing time shared between the Splash Brothers; Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have only played 27 games together. However, the best shooting duo in history has faced just about every situation, so maybe it doesn’t matter where they finish to make another deep run.

The Suns and Pelicans met in a playoff series last season that could set the pump up for a lively rivalry for years to come. Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

3) New Orleans Pelicans vs. Phoenix Suns

For Zion, it’s the Phoenix Suns, led by point guard Chris Paul. On paper, these two teams should be best friends: drafted fourth by the then-Hornets in the 2005 NBA draft, CP3 led them to the 2008 Western Conference Semifinals after the franchise played their home games in Oklahoma City for two seasons due to the Destruction from Hurricane Katrina. CP3 is also close to current Pelicans head coach Willie Green, having both played under current Suns head coach Monty Williams, with Green later becoming an assistant coach under Williams at Phoenix.

Things got lively when the two first met in last season’s playoffs, with Phoenix eventually prevailing in six heated and engrossing games. Zion was absent all of last season, which means he missed all the fun. As a refresher, in a regular season game in December, Zion threw a 360 windmill dunk with New Orleans nine points up and less than 10 seconds to go. That sparked a brawl in which Paul elbowed Jose Alvarado in the face. The Pelicans won the regular-season series 2-1, setting up a potential classic in April or beyond.

Related: ‘Defense is a Lost Art’: Has the NBA’s Offensive Explosion Gone Too Far?

4) LeBron James vs. Kawhi Leonard (only)

The 2019 offseason was one of the most memorable in NBA history. On one side of Los Angeles, the Lakers eventually traded for Anthony Davis to give LeBron James a legitimate superstar sidekick in his quest for a fourth NBA title. But it was the other LA team that stole the headlines when they pulled off one of the biggest coups of all time. A season of overperformance, in which the Clippers captured the West No. 8 before valiantly losing to the Warriors in six, was enough to convince Kawhi Leonard to do something no NBA Finals MVP has ever done , leaving a reigning champion – the Toronto Raptors – on a free hand, breaking the hearts of all Canadians in the process. While Twitter tracked private jets, Leonard convinced the Clippers’ front office to poach Oklahoma City’s Paul George for a historic haul of draft picks and young assets. The fight for LA that the NBA had been waiting for decades was here Finally At.

But three and a half years later, basketball fans have so far witnessed a historic Clippers playoff meltdown, a Lakers title, a Lakers playoff meltdown, a run of the Clippers Western Conference finals…and more waiting. After all that’s happened, that rivalry hangs by a thread and makes it onto the list because of the small hope that the fifth-seeded Clippers and 13th-seeded Lakers can still cross paths in the playoffs . At this point, NBA fans would accept anything, even if it’s a duel between these Crypto.com Arena roommates in the play-in tournament.

5) Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks

There is no shortage of history between these clubs. They first met in a classic seven-game NBA Finals in 1974, when Dave Cowens and John Havlicek defeated a Milwaukee team led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) and Oscar Robertson, followed by three more playoff victories. Encounters in the 1980s.

But there are signs that the best may be yet to come. Since splitting two postseason series in 2018 and 2019, the Celtics and Bucks have only continued to establish themselves at the top of the Eastern Conference — with Milwaukee finally ending its five-decade championship hoodoo in 2021 and Boston making a long-awaited return in the NBA plans Finals in 2022. With just a half-game separating the two sides for the league’s best record over the weekend — and both star-laden rosters looking poised for years to come — we might just be scratching that Surface by Antetokounmpo and Co. v Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

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