The NBA has changed dramatically over the years, with the league becoming a bit softer
The NBA has changed quite a bit from its early beginnings. The characters that have been in the spotlight have changed just as frequently as the game has during that period of time.
On November 22, the Oklahoma City Thunder hosted the Golden State Warriors. This was the second time that Kevin Durant had returned to Oklahoma City since joining the Warriors in the summer of 2016. Prior to making the switch for the Gold Coast, Durant was a superstar in Oklahoma City for eight seasons.
For Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder, this game was personal. Westbrook and the other members of the Thunder organization have never forgiven Durant for deciding to leave the team for the Warriors. Part of this is due to the fact that in the 2016 NBA Playoffs, Oklahoma City led the Warriors in a best-of-seven playoff series, three games to one. Unfortunately for the Westbrook and Durant-led Thunder, they could not seal the final victory and ended up losing the series, ending their playoff hopes.
Less than two months after this heartbreaking series loss, Kevin Durant decided to get his kicks on Route 66 when he chose to join the team that had just ended his hopes of winning an NBA Championship. Many people in the Thunder organization felt betrayed by this move, but nobody felt more betrayed than Russell Westbrook. Durant did not inform Westbrook of his departure, leaving Westbrook to be informed of the move through an ESPN App notification. Westbrook and Durant have not spoken since, other than trash-talk thrown back-and-forth.
In his first season with the Warriors, Durant won an NBA Championship and was named the NBA Finals MVP. Westbrook and the Thunder lost to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, making it the Thunder’s earliest exit in the playoffs since 2010.
Durant and Westbrook have enjoyed the chance to be able to get even with each other on the basketball court. Both players do not publicly discuss how they feel towards each other, so instead they let it all out on the court and don’t hold anything back.
On November 22, Westbrook sparked the Thunder with his energy on offense and defense, most of it being directed towards Durant. Westbrook finished the game with 34 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists, while Durant totaled 21 points and three rebounds. The Thunder beat the Warriors by a final score of 108-91.
The storyline from the game was the dust-up between Westbrook and Durant. When Durant tried to drive to the hoop in the third quarter, Westbrook swatted the ball out of bounds. The two began jawing back-and-fourth, which eventually led to them being forehead-forehead while still running their mouths. The two were separated by teammates and officials.
After the game, Westbrook addressed the issue, by saying “I play the same way every night,” Westbrook said. “Whether it’s against Kevin [Durant], whether it’s against … who we play Friday? Detroit. Reggie Jackson. Dennis Smith on Saturday. It don’t matter who it is. On the court, I don’t got no friends. Only friend I have is the basketball, that’s it. And obviously my teammates. But I go out and compete, I go out and play at a high level. Like I’ve been saying since day one, and that’s what I do.”
The excitement and energy of the feud between the two players made me, in a way, feel a little nostalgic about the way the NBA was when I was a kid. That got me thinking for a little bit and then I asked myself ‘Where have all the villains in the NBA gone?’
I grew up watching and idolizing Kevin Garnett. If you don’t know, Garnett was one of the biggest trash-talkers that ever played the game of basketball. He would go after every opponent the same way; with nothing but pure aggression.
One of the more notable stories of Garnett’s villainous acts was when he and the Boston Celtics played against the Chicago Bulls in 2007. Chicago Bulls rookie Joakim Noah grew up idolizing Garnett, as I did. During the game, Noah wanted to tell Garnett how big of a fan he was of Garnett’s. Noah approached Garnett and told him “Man, KG, I had your poster on my wall, I looked up to you, man.” Garnett replied with a firm “F*** you, Noah.” Joakim Noah says that he was crushed and that moment forever changed him.
Garnett wasn’t the only villain in the NBA. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Detroit Pistons were referred to as “The Bad Boy Pistons” and the “Motor City Bad Boys” because of their style of play. The Bad Boy Pistons were villains in every sense of the word. They would not let you score easy baskets. If you had an open lay-up, one of the Piston players would grab you by the neck and slam you against the floor before you could make your jump.
The NBA legends at the time, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Charles Barkley, were not safe from the Pistons’ mean streak, no matter how great the players were.
Detroit’s initial inability to successfully defend “His Airiness” led to Pistons head coach Chuck Daly instituting the “Jordan Rules.” Daly vowed that Jordan himself would never defeat the Pistons again. Essentially the “Jordan Rules” indicated that No. 23 was to be stopped by any means necessary.
Ultimately, it was this mentality to win by any means necessary that allowed the Detroit Pistons to steamroll opponents. The 1988-89 and 1989-90 Detroit Pistons teams are considered by most to be some of the greatest in NBA history. The ‘88-’89 Pistons dominated the regular season, finishing with a 63-19 record.
The Pistons acquired players who matched this mentality through these years as well. The Pistons were led by Isiah Thomas, who played with a no-fear mentality and would be in the center of most on-court altercations. Isiah Thomas was never afraid to throw the first punch.
The physical bruiser of the team was Rick Mahorn, who is considered to be one of the baddest boys of them all. Mahorn was not a very gifted athlete, but what he lacked in athletic skill he made up for in physical tenacity. Mahorn was often suspended for his physical style of play.
One of the most famous bad boys is Bill Laimbeer. Laimbeer represents everything that people hate in sports; a rough and dirty player. Personally, I love Laimbeer. I love the dirty style of basketball and feeling like you are in combat when you step on the hardwood. Nothing beats the feeling of going toe-to-toe with an opposing player and talking some trash to them and then out-performing them during the game.
Prior to the Bad Boy Pistons, the villains in the league were the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. Many people hated the Celtics and Lakers because of how talented the two teams were for such a long period of time. Beginning in 1960, the Celtics and Lakers would meet in the NBA Finals six times in the 1960s, three times in the 1980s, and two times in the late 2000s.
The Celtics and Lakers each faced off as the best two teams in the league, with the best players on each team as well. The Celtics were led for many years by Larry Bird, and the Lakers by Irving ‘Magic’ Johnson.
The rivalry between these two teams goes beyond basketball. Many people felt that during this time period that the Celtics represented white Americans, since most of their players were Caucasian, and the Lakers represented African-Americans, since most of their players were African-American. If you were a fan of the Celtics at the time, you felt that the Lakers were worse than cancer, and vise-versa if you are a Lakers fan. There was true hate among the two fan bases, organizations, and especially the players.
These days, you do not see many rivalries. Sure, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors may have a rivalry, but those teams try to acquire the best available players, such as Kevin Durant, in order to beat each other. The only real feud between the teams is when Draymond Green is involved in an altercation with LeBron James for kicking him in the groin.
As a fan of this rough-and-tough style of basketball, I feel as if the game has completely changed and forgotten about people like me. The rules of the modern-day NBA are designed for friendly competition, while fierce rivalries seem like a thing of the past.
The silver lining of this story is that there is still hope to hate a player or team the way we had in the past. Seeing Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have a war of words makes me hopeful that there will be more rivalries and villains in the NBA’s future.