The NBA’s Important Rivalries for the 2020-21 Season

min read
Andrew Doughty Jun 15, 2021, 1:21 PM
LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers drives to the basket on Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers during a 112-103 Lakers win at Staples Center on March 08, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

In their sixth game in franchise history, the Buffalo Braves lost to the Los Angeles Lakers on Oct. 30, 1970. The Braves made the nearly 3,000-mile trek to Los Angeles as part of a four-game, three-city West Coast road trip. It was the first of 32 matchups over the next nine years in a series that saw both teams rack up frequent flyer miles. 

When the Braves moved to San Diego (and adopted the Clippers moniker) in 1978, the Lakers’ bus trip was barely 100 miles to visit their new in-state foe. For the Lakers, it was the first of 17 trips to San Diego and the first of 34 total meetings, the other 17 of which were played at The Forum in Inglewood. The travel distance shrunk again when the Clippers moved to Los Angeles in 1984 and played home games at Los Angeles Sports Arena, just seven miles from The Forum. The teams shared a city, albeit in name online, and remained seven miles apart until moving into the newly built Staples Center in 1999. 

Three thousand miles.

One hundred miles

Seven miles.

Thirty-eight feet. 

When the Lakers “visit” the Clippers, they travel 38 feet from the home bench to the away bench at Staples Center. And when the Clippers “visit” the Lakers, they travel 38 feet from the home bench to the away bench at Staples Center. For the better part of the first two decades sharing a home arena, almost no one outside Los Angeles noticed or, more importantly, cared about the proximity between the two benches because rarely were both teams relevant enough for anyone to care when they played. Since 1999, both teams have won 40 games in the same season only five times, and both teams have reached the playoffs in the same season only four times.

Entering the 2020-21 season, both the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers are relevant. Coming off a season in which they combined for 101 wins, which, despite playing 20 combined fewer games, tied the 2012-13 Clippers and Lakers for the most combined wins. They both reached the conference semifinals for the first time since 2011-12 and just the third time since the Buffalo Braves were founded 50 years ago. And after securing the Western Conference’s top two seeds in the 2020 playoffs, they were on a collision course to meet in the playoffs for the first time. That didn’t happen after the Clippers fell to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals, but their first-ever playoff meeting is looming.

The Lakers and Clippers have the best NBA Championship odds in online sports betting of any Western Conference teams, ranking first and fourth overall, respectively, among all NBA teams. And the intra-arena rivalry is the most important team or player rivalry in the NBA this season.

Other important rivalries for the 2020-21 NBA season:

Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors and Team LeBron defends Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks and Team Giannis during the NBA All-Star game as part of the 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend at Spectrum Center on February 17, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

When two players aren’t in the same conference and don’t meet in the NBA Finals, they rarely meet. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant rarely meet. 

Since Giannis entered the league in 2013, he’s played against Durant only 10 times. He’s faced 210 other players more times than Durant, while Durant has faced 349 other players more times than Giannis. And while they’ve recorded similar stats in the 10 meetings, Durant is dominating the win-loss column, going 8-2 against the Bucks while playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors.

Giannis and Durant have never been rivals, nor have the Bucks and Thunder, or Bucks and Warriors. With Durant in the Eastern Conference for the first time in his career, this is the start of a potentially epic rivalry between the superstars.

Mavericks-Rockets

Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks controls the ball defended by Austin Rivers #25 of the Houston Rockets in the second half at Toyota Center on November 24, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

The Dallas Mavericks won 67 total games from 2016-18. The Rockets won 65 regular-season games and another 17 playoff games in 2017-18 alone. Two years later, after more than five years of dominance by the Rockets, this rivalry is moving in the other direction, which makes it highly important.

The Rockets are buried in NBA Finals odds after trading Russell Westbrook to the Washington Wizards and might plummet further if a disgruntled James Harden is moved before or during a season in which the Mavericks might re-establish themselves as the premier team in the state of Texas. Since the Mavericks pulled within two games of their northern neighbor in 2013 in the all-time series (80-78), the Rockets have won 18 of the last 24 meetings, including last year’s double-overtime beauty in the Bubble.

Luka Dončić and the Mavericks have an opportunity to flip this rivalry, regain control of the Southwest Division, and shoot up NBA odds throughout the season.

Donovan Mitchell vs. Jamal Murray

Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz shoots the basketball against Jamal Murray #27 of the Denver Nuggets during game two in the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 19, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)

Jamal Murray had his coming-out party in Orlando, leading the Nuggets to their second Western Conference Finals in the last 35 years. The playoff run started with a seven-game series win over the Utah Jazz, where he and Donovan Mitchell brought a largely overlooked Northwest Division rivalry into the national picture and set the stage for this season and beyond.

With the Trail Blazers repeatedly underachieving, Oklahoma City Thunder embarking on a massive rebuild, and the Minnesota Timberwolves doing nothing, these two young stars will headline what could be the closest division race in the NBA.

76ers vs. Celtics vs. Nets

Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics shoots over Shake Milton #18 of the Philadelphia 76ers during the second half in Game Four of the first round of the playoffs at The Field House at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 23, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)

In the deepest division in the NBA, all eyes are on the three Atlantic Division teams who finished five, 10.5, and 15 games behind the expectation-shattering Toronto Raptors. 

Please allow the boundaries of the traditional two-team rivalry to be stretched because with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving leading a title-contending Brooklyn Nets’ team, Jayson Tatum and Co. back in Boston, and the 76ers in position to contend for the elusive division title, there are three potential 45-win teams in one division.

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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor, a college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88.

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Andrew Doughty

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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL and college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else.

Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL and college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else.