Rivalries make up a big part of what makes sports great. Whether developed from a geographical proximity, competitive series, or a history of bad blood, there’s nothing better for fans than a meaningful game or series against your most bitter foe.
Historically, the Blazers have had a few solid rivalries. The first, and most obvious, was the I-5 rivalry with the Seattle Supersonics. Only four hours to the north, the Sonics won their only championship just two years after Portland. After settling down some, the rivalry seemed poised to kick up a notch in 2007 after Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were taken No. 1 and 2 overall in that year’s draft, but Oden missed his rookie season. The Sonics moved to Oklahoma City after Durant’s first year, and that was put that one to bed.
During a 13-year run from 1987-88 to 1999-00, Portland had six playoff matchups a piece against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers. Going up against Karl Malone and John Stockton while they ran their, shall we say, “physical” defense and pick-and-roll was enough to get fans hyped every time the two teams squared off.
Rivalries are a bit more difficult to sustain these days. There is often so much roster turnover that a franchise can have an entirely new group of guys within a couple years of a major, rivalry-defining moment. Think about Damian Lillard’s series-winning shot against the Rockets three years ago. The Blazers still only feature Lillard, CJ McCollum, Meyers Leonard, and Allen Crabbe from that team, the latter three playing in a combined 93 games. Houston only still has James Harden and Patrick Beverly on their roster.
The closest thing Portland currently has to a rivalry is probably the Los Angeles Clippers. The two teams had a handful of incidents last season, with coaches Terry Stotts and Doc Rivers verbally getting into it in preseason, the infamous “lineup card” incident that left McCollum in street clothes, and a hard-fought playoff series that saw Portland advance after Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were lost to injury.
The issue is that the Clippers are, to be frank, better than the Blazers. You can claim that a team is your rival, but if they see nothing more than another game on the calendar when they come to your town, the term is meaningless. A rivalry has to work both ways. So with all that in mind, who are some possible teams that can form the next great Blazers rivalry?
Los Angeles Clippers
It’s not there yet, but it could be soon. Had Portland been in the mix for the 5-6-7 spot like many predicted before this season, we could have seen some intense head-to-head matchups between these two teams this year. But there is some decent potential for a future rivalry. The aforementioned little bit of bad blood, some projected improvement on Portland’s part, and maybe some continued slippage by the Clippers puts these teams fairly level record-wise.
Another playoff series in the next year or two would take this fully into rivalry territory. It really can’t be understated how hateable this team is, with the constant flopping, whining, and one-notch-below dirty play. Chris Paul has had Lillard’s number throughout most of his career, DeAndre Jordan vs. Jusuf Nurkić would be amazing...there are a lot of reasons this might happen.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are the closest thing we have left to the Sonics. While our pain paled in comparison to Seattle basketball fans, Blazer fans were rightfully upset that the team was ripped from the Emerald City. Despite the location change, these teams were still set for a future rivalry around a decade ago as they both bottomed out at the same time. With Portland drafting the likes of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Oden, and Nic Batum and Oklahoma City adding Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden alongside Durant, fans of both teams saw visions of Western Conference Finals clashes for the foreseeable future before it all fell apart. Still, there’s always the Westbrook vs. Lillard factor.
There are lots of reasons why Denver makes sense; Nurkić hates Mike Malone. Nurkić vs. Jokic, Barton vs. Stotts, the race to make the playoffs. But I think there is a chance this one lasts a while. Portland has the youngest roster in the league and, while Denver is middle-of-the-pack age-wise, Nikola Jokic is 21, Gary Harris is 22, Will Barton is 26, Emmanuel Mudiay is 20, and Jamal Murray is 19. That’s a young core.
Denver is set to have some changes this offseason with leading scorer Danilo Gallinari expected to explore the free-agent market, but the Nuggets have significant cap room to work with this summer. It’s quite possible that, should the playoff race this year come down to a dramatic finish and Nurkić and Jokic prove to be an entertaining battle, next year could be the beginning of a real rivalry.
Included strictly due to the age of their big three, if you believe that Portland’s current big three of Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkić has a long-term future, then you’ve got to consider a future in which Tom Thibodeau’s big three of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach Lavine—all 21 years old—are doing damage to the Western Conference year in, year out.
So many things go into a rivalry that it’s tough to predict how things will shake out. With geographic location no longer relevant, you need equal quality of play (at least to get it started), some bad blood, and sustained memorable moments for fans to latch onto. While Portland has had some memorable rivalries in the past, I’m not sure that they have one now, though I think the greatest likelihood in the near term would be a continuation of the simmering feud with the Clippers.
Rivalries make sports more fun. it’s not just about loving your team; it’s about hating certain other teams. Circling the date that they come town on your calendar and looking forward to it all year long. Hopefully Blazer fans will get some more of that soon.