The Portland Trail Blazers have been the lone NBA team representing the Northwest section of the United States since the Seattle Supersonics were sold to owner Clay Bennett, relocated to Oklahoma City and renamed the Thunder prior to the 2009-10 season.
When Sonics fans lost their beloved franchise, Blazers supporters also suffered the loss of their most natural rivals -- at least in a geographical sense. With Seattle just 174 miles north of Portland, the "I-5 Rivalry," as it came to be known, gave fans of both franchises an opportunity to vie for Pacific Northwest dominance as the teams met four times each year during the regular season.
Now that the Sonics organization has been dormant for five years, which team has become the arch-nemesis of Rip City supporters?
A natural starting point for a rivalry is often within a team's division. The NBA put the Thunder -- along with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets -- in the Northwest Division with the Blazers. Though each team meets the others four times a year, it's hard to envision any of these organizations as true rivals for Portland fans, at least in terms of geographical proximity; the Blazers don't even share a timezone with any of their division-mates.
Star Thunder forward Kevin Durant told Anthony Slater of NewsOK.com last season that his team doesn't have a rivalry with another, mostly due to frequent player and coach movement. Teammate Russell Westbrook, point guard, said Oklahoma City had a rivalry "with every team" in the same story.
The 'Wolves would be a formidable team for Blazers fans to aim their ire toward, considering the Kevin Love-Portland connection, but Love is all but out of Minnesota by now. Do names like Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin and Ricky Rubio raise any emotions in Blazers fans? Maybe, but probably not enough to call them "rivals." Former Portland guard Mo Williams recently inked a one-year deal with the 'Wolves, but he seems well-liked by most Blazers supporters and may even draw an applause from the crowd when his team visits the Moda Center next year.
The Jazz could eventually be one of Portland's main foes down the road, but they'll likely remain in the division cellar for another few years and don't really have the talent to get Blazers fans fired up.
Like Utah, the Nuggets weren't particularly competitive last year. If point guard Ty Lawson remains healthy, he'll form a formidable backcourt with newly acquired wing Arron Afflalo. Denver also started former-Blazer J.J. Hickson at power forward most of last season, who was a polarizing figure in his time with Portland and was allowed to walk in free agency last summer by GM Neil Olshey. If the Nuggets improve on their 36-46 outing from a year ago, they'll pique the interest of many Blazers fans, but they're not quite there yet.
If Portland doesn't have a true rival within the Northwest Division, are there any teams that could be considered one due to geographic proximity? The Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors are the closest teams to the Blazers, both playing home games within 630 miles of the Moda Center. Though the Kings will have to improve drastically to get the attention of Portland fans, the Warriors are on their way to becoming Blazers rivals -- remember the fight last November between the two teams in Oracle Arena that spurred a massive Portland comeback?
Among the Thunder, Timberwolves, Jazz, Nuggets, Kings and Warriors, Golden State appears to have the inside track to becoming Portland's biggest rival, but that's due to recent tumultuous history. In a poll from a couple seasons ago on Goldenstateofmind.com -- SBNation's Warriors affiliate -- the Blazers weren't even an option for fans to vote on as their team's biggest rival. If there are more closely contested, physical games between Golden State and Portland next year, the rivalry certainly has the seeds planted to become serious -- both teams are also on similar upward trajectories and feature star point guards in Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry -- but it's not there yet, either.
You might be asking, "What about the Lakers?" Many Blazers are passionate about their dislike of Los Angeles' most storied NBA franchise, but shouldn't there be some mutuality within a rivalry? Do Lakers fans really have the same vitriol for Portland as Blazers fans do for L.A.?
Like the New York Yankees in the MLB and the New England Patriots in the NFL, most opposing fanbases get amped for games with the Lakers. As much as you might dislike Los Angeles, most of its fans probably consider games against Portland just one among 81 others. Besides, the Lakers have a natural cross-town rivalry with the Los Angeles Clippers, a team they share a city and arena with.
Blazers fans should look no further than the Houston Rockets to find their biggest rivals. The teams have recent history against each other -- the Rockets booted Portland from the first round of the 2009 playoffs while the Blazers famously eliminated Houston from the postseason in six games this past May -- and squared off four times in the 2013-14 regular season, which is as often as a divisional opponent.
Rockets guard James Harden, who had a tense exchange with a reporter last postseason in Houston after a first round, Game 2 loss to the Blazers, is well-known by many Portland fans for what they deem "flopping" and for his apathy on the defensive end of the floor. Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley didn't gain any fans in Portland with his aggressive defensive tactics in the series, and center Dwight Howard isn't exactly a fan-favorite in Rip City, either.
Both the Rockets and Blazers again appear to be somewhere in the mid-to-top tiers of the Western Conference heading into the 2014-15 NBA season, and will have several opportunities to square off as they'll likely be battling for playoff seeding again next spring.
Lacking a true geographic or division rival, Portland fans need to think a little outside-of-the-box when looking for a team they can love to hate. Considering the recent history between the two teams and the clash of styles both on and off the court, the Rockets-Blazers rivalry seems to hold the most water currently.
What do you think? Feel free to vote in the poll and state your case in the comments section below!
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter