The NBA has always been defined by its rivalries — Celtics-Lakers, Magic-Bird, Russell-Chamberlain, Erving-Gravity, Jordan-Jordan, Shaq-Duncan, Duncan-Garnett. No other sport seems to put two marquee players directly against each other every single play.
It seems every year one team always seems to run into the other. LeBron James has been eliminated by Paul Pierce and the Celtics in two of the last three seasons. Michael Jordan had to struggle with the Pistons before getting past them and into the Finals. Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets had two epic battles with Charles Barkley and the Suns on their way to two titles — and Barkley never got another good shot at an NBA Championship after that.
And so on and so forth throughout the history of the NBA.
Teams and players are often remembered and measured by who they had to go through. And many of the big stars of each era had to go through each other to get to the top.
While Kobe Bryant has reached the pinnacle five times (and two additional NBA Finals), he never had to face Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in the Playoffs. Dirk Nowitzki, with only one NBA Finals appearance (and one to forget at that), has never had to go through the Lakers dynasty in his career. For whatever reason, their teams were always on opposite sides of the brackets. Yet, these two teams have helped define the Western Conference for the last decade.
As entertaining as Mavericks-Suns and Mavericks-Spurs or Lakers-Spurs and Lakers-Trail Blazers and Lakers-Kings were over the last decade, we never got to see the run and gun Don Nelson-led teams with Steve Nash running alongside Dirk Nowitzki take on the Shaquille O’Neal-led young Kobe Bryant Lakers squad. They never got to see the Bryant ball-dominating squad of the mid-2000s when the Mavericks were at their peak.
Los Angeles was not at its peak when Dallas was, but the two teams have been models of consistency since the new millennium started. The Lakers have a combined .635 win percentage the last 10 years and the Mavericks have a .691 win percentage in that time. Pretty strong models for consistency. Los Angeles has missed only one postseason in that time.
However, it still amazes that these did not happen to meet in the postseason just once.
When the Mavericks, a franchise with a not-so-storied history before Mark Cuban took ownership, began their ascendancy the Lakers were their measuring stick. Dallas failed to win in Los Angeles from 1990-2003. The Lakers are 95-30 (.760) against the Mavericks all time and 20-13 (.606) the last 10 years. Dallas has obviously become much more competitive, but the Lakers have always been the great hurdle the Mavericks have had to overcome.
Yet, Los Angeles and Dallas have not had the chance to go against each other on the NBA’s biggest stage. Not since the 1988 Western Conference Finals, at least.
What could have been a great rivalry between two of the greatest offensive weapons of their time became a sidenote in NBA history, Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times writes:
“The Lakers and Mavericks have played each other 88 times in comparatively meaningless games since the Lakers won the 1988 Western Conference finals in seven games, Magic Johnson wrasslin’ up 24 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds to give the Lakers the West for the seventh time in the ’80s. They’ve since played Portland in the playoffs eight times, San Antonio and Phoenix seven times, Houston six and Utah five times. Forget Big D. This rivalry is a big zero.”
Not having Dirk Nowitzki play directly against Kobe Bryant for this two-week period is like never getting to see the offensive brilliance of Dominique Wilkins go up against Michael Jordan. Maybe not that entertaining since Nowitzki and Bryant don’t go directly against each other. But you see the comparison.
For the first time in their careers, the NBA will see Nowitzki and Bryant go up against each other in what could be a scoring free-for-all for these two surefire Hall of Famers.
Photo via DayLife.com.