Rivalries come and go in the NBA; here’s where the Thunder’s stand

Rivalries come and go in the NBA; here’s where the Thunder’s stand

With games against the Rockets and Spurs this week, the Thunder will face a pair of its rivals. But what makes for a rivalry in the NBA, and how do OKCs stack up?

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Feb 27, 2024, 8:00am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Feb 27, 2024, 8:00am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — By the time the NBA played its first season, Oklahoma and Texas had been playing college football games for close to 50 years. 

By 2008-09, when the Thunder moved to Oklahoma City, the OU and Oklahoma State men’s basketball teams already had played each other more than 200 times. 

In college sports, rivalries run deep. 

But for the Thunder — a relatively young franchise in a league that’s “only” 75 years old — nothing is nearly so entrenched. 

“The NBA rivalries tend to be much more in flux compared to a lot of the other sports,” said Joe Cobbs, a professor of sports business at Northern Kentucky University who specializes in sports rivalries. 

Pro basketball fans don’t always love to hate the way their college sports contemporaries do. 

That doesn’t mean the NBA is devoid of rivalries. In sports, few feuds have remained relevant like Lakers-Celtics. Knicks-Heat wasn’t born until the brawling 1990s, but it still packs a modern-day punch. 

And even in its 16-season lifespan, the Thunder has managed to make a few enemies. 

With OKC games this week against the Rockets and Spurs — two franchises that clear the rivalry bar — it seemed like a good time to take stock of Thunder rivalries past, present and future.

It’s an arbitrary glance, based on personal knowledge and unscientific polling of a handful of Thunder fans and insiders. And to be clear, these rankings aren’t intended to reflect any feelings by the current players. They’ll form their own rivalries in time. 

The Enduring Ones

San Antonio Spurs

In many ways, San Antonio feels like the quintessential Thunder rival. 

The franchises are closely connected, mostly because Thunder president and general manager Sam Presti got his start in the Spurs organization. The franchises have similar reputations: First-class, serious-minded and development-focused.

And the teams have played three times in the NBA Playoffs, including twice in the Western Conference Finals. 

If you’re looking for an argument against the Spurs, it’s that both teams fell out of relevance in recent years — the Spurs still are outside the playoff picture — and there’s relatively little vitriol between fan bases. 

But that latter point could be set to change. 

The comparison of rookies Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama has added  fuel to this hoops feud, a commentary conflict that Thunder coach Mark Daigneault called a “basically manufactured rivalry for the good of drumming up interest.”

A rich history and reason to believe in a rivalry renewal? Good enough for us. 

Golden State Warriors

Cobbs is co-founder of the Know Rivalry Project, created to study sports rivalries, and though he concedes some of his NBA data is a few years old, it’s hard to argue with one conclusion the project reached about the Thunder: The Warriors are a hated rival. 

The data at KnowRivalry.com ranked Golden State as the Thunder’s No. 1 rival, and it’s not hard to see why. One factor in rivalries, according to the website, is a “memorable incident—positive or negative—between competitors,” and the Thunder and Warriors got a lifetime’s worth in 2016. 

That’s when Golden State rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, then blew its own 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals, only to sign Kevin Durant away from OKC in the offseason. 

Those wounds haven’t healed, and though Durant has played for two teams since winning a pair of titles with Golden State, some of the Warriors’ core — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — remains the same. You only needed to attend one of the Warriors’ games in OKC this season to see that there still are hard feelings for fans. 

Houston Rockets

Yes, OKC and Houston have played three playoff series, including OKC’s most recent one, a seven-gamer the Rockets won in the 2020 NBA bubble.

The Rockets won two of those series, and the Thunder took a significant loss in the one it won. That was the 2013 first-round meeting in which an aggressive Patrick Beverley fouled Russell Westbrook as the Thunder guard slowed down on the sideline to call timeout. 

It’s perhaps the nature of player movement in the NBA that Thunder fans haven’t forgiven Beverley for that play, but it’s become little more than a footnote in their feelings about the Rockets.

The rivalry still has legs, but not because of Westbrook’s knee. 

It’s more rooted in off-court transactions. 

The Thunder famously traded James Harden to the Rockets in 2012, and Houston fans have been happy to gloat about Harden developing into an MVP there. OKC traded Westbrook to Houston in the early stages of its 2019 rebuild. And in 2021, the Thunder drafted center Alperen Sengun and traded him on draft day to the Rockets. His strong development has given Houston fans more reason to needle OKC. 

Jan 29, 2024; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards (5) reacts after an officials call on a play against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the second half at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards (5) reacts to an official’s call during a game this season against the Thunder at Paycom Center. (Alonzo Adams/USA Today Sports)

The Budding Ones 

Los Angeles Clippers

And speaking of transaction-based rivalries. 

The trade that sent Paul George to L.A. in 2019 brought the Thunder back a franchise player in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a haul of draft picks and swaps that gave OKC a significant say in the Clippers’ long-term future. 

That gives Thunder fans a vested interest in seeing the Clippers fail and creates a rare rivalry: One based less on what’s come before — the Thunder and Clippers have met just once in the playoffs — than on what might happen in the future. 

But with the two teams battling it out atop the Western Conference this season, this one’s worth keeping an eye on as an on-court conflict, too. 

Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota doesn’t have much playoff history against anyone, let alone the Thunder. 

Since the Thunder franchise arrived in Oklahoma City, the Wolves have played three playoff series — none against OKC — and lost them all. 

But Minnesota has reached the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, and it’s spent much of this season fighting off the Thunder at the top of the Western Conference standings. 

That’s created the seeds of a rivalry, and Wolves star Anthony Edwards has fertilized them while failing to endear himself to Thunder fans. 

After a win in OKC last month, Edwards was caught on camera calling the officiating crew “cheating-a— refs,” then said in a sideline interview “The refs did not give us no calls tonight. We had to play through every bump, every grab. I don’t know how we won tonight.”

The NBA fined Edwards $40,000 for those comments. 

After the game, Edwards told reporters, “It’s hard to contain (the Thunder) with the calls that Shai gets. It’s hard to shut them down. You can’t touch him any time of the game.”

Apr 24, 2014; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph (50) handles the ball against Oklahoma City Thunder forward Nick Collison (4) in game three of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Former Thunder center Nick Collison defends ex-Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph (50) during a 2014 playoff game at FedEx Forum in Memphis. (Justin Ford/USA Today Sports)

The Gone (But Not Forgotten)

Memphis Grizzlies 

Memphis’ young team surged last season, but a series of injuries — including one to star Ja Morant that followed a 25-game season-opening suspension — has derailed the Grizzlies’ ascent. 

Maybe with a fresh start next season, the Grizzlies can renew a rivalry with the Thunder. For now, it’s dormant. But for a time, it was a ranger.

With polarizing players on both sides — the Thunder’s Westbrook, the Grizzlies’ Zach Randolph and Tony Allen — the two teams played three heated playoff series, including a first-rounder in 2014 that went seven games before OKC advanced. That one included an infamous Randolph suspension for hitting OKC’s Steven Adams in the face. 

Portland Trail Blazers 

A rivalry based mostly on the regular season — and on-court animosity between point guards Westbrook and Damian Lillard — this one hit new heights in 2021. 

That’s when Lillard knocked OKC out of the playoffs with a deep buzzer-beater in Game 6 of a first-round series, then gave the Thunder a prophetic wave goodbye. Lillard couldn’t have known then that he’d ushered in the end of the first iteration of the playoff-contending Thunder — Westbrook and George were traded that summer — but the image of the wave has lingered. 

The ‘Wait, Why Not?’

Dallas Mavericks

You want playoff history? The Thunder and Mavs have played three postseason series. 

Controversial moments? How about Mavericks governor Mark Cuban denying Westbrook’s superstar status and Durant responding by calling Cuban “a idiot?” 

Proximity? No team in the NBA is closer to OKC than Dallas. 

There’s even a present-day reason for a rivalry given that the Thunder and Mavs are led by MVP candidates — Gilgeous-Alexander and Luka Doncic — from the same draft. 

But other than online sniping about the SGA-vs.-Luka debate, the OKC-Dallas rivalry doesn’t feel like it has much there. Maybe a playoff series between the current iterations of the teams would spice things up.

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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