The Most Notable NBA Feuds This Past Decade
In honor of Sports Illustrated’s All-Decade Week, let’s pause at merely highlighting the best basketball of the last 10 years, and instead appreciate some of the messiest. It’s time to talk feuds! What were some of the most memorable tete-a-tetes of the last 10 years? Which beefs will never end? Who is using social media to humiliate their opponents? Let’s answer all of those questions and more.
LeBron James vs. Dan Gilbert
The decade started off hot, thanks to LeBron James and The Decision, which briefly broke seemingly most people’s brains. Before player empowerment was in vogue, people absolutely lost their s--t at LeBron’s decision to join the Heat, and how he did so using a televised special on ESPN. (Which, in retrospect, was pretty crazy!.) A majority of the media turned on Bron. David Stern found the whole spectacle a little regrettable. But no one threw a bigger tantrum than Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who responded to James’s free-agent choice with an immediately infamous letter typed in Comic Sans that both belittled James and hilariously claimed the Cavs would win a ring before LeBron ever could.
The racial undertones of Gilbert’s letter were hard to ignore. The letter was both wildly insulting and incredibly stupid—and it remained online until basically the week of LeBron’s return to Cleveland in 2014. James and Gilbert never really quite buried the hatchet, either. Bron held Gilbert’s feet to the fire in Cleveland, only signing one-year deals during his second stint with the Cavs. He also rather conspicuously thanked everyone except Gilbert when speaking at the Cavs’ championship parade in 2016. James and Gilbert don’t really have anything to do with one another at this point, and both are probably happy about that.
Ray Allen vs. the Celtics
A weirdly enduring beef of the 2010s has been Ray Allen and his former Celtics teammates refusing to be adults about some very normal circumstances. After Allen signed with the Heat in 2012, he’s basically received the stink eye from Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo ever since. The faction who stayed with the Celtics claim Allen never gave them a heads up before leaving for a bitter rival. Allen says he was simply conducting business, leaving a team that had dangled him in trades the season prior.
This beef is the beef that just wouldn’t stop. Allen and Pierce seemingly reconciled during a trip to China in the last couple years, though the release of Allen’s memoir—which brought the tension back to the surface—after that brief ray of hope didn’t help matters. Garnett and Rondo are seemingly still giving Allen the silent treatment, even though players in the NBA switch teams quite literally all the time. Rondo even bragged about throwing a little reunion for the 2008 Celtics championship team and not inviting Allen, which doesn’t sound immature at all. This feud is very child-like, has no end in sight, and I can’t get enough of it.
Nick Young vs. D’Angelo Russell
What this “feud” lacks in star power, it makes up for in how bizarre it was. Then-Lakers rookie D’Angelo Russell surreptitiously filmed his teammate Nick Young admitting to an affair, and that video was somehow leaked to the public after Russell shared it with some people on Snapchat. (I think that’s how it went? I’m not going to look up the exact specifics. I’m too old to be doing that.) Russell quickly became a pariah even though Young was, you know, cheating on his very famous girlfriend. (Or was it fiancé? Again, I’m too old to be googling Nick Young’s relationship history. But I think they were engaged.)
Russell was eventually traded from the Lakers after one more season with the team. Not because of the Young incident, but it definitely didn’t help the organization’s perception of him. Young also left after one more season in L.A., winning a title with the Warriors in 2018. Good things happened for both players after the incident. The pop star whom Young was dating, who let’s say was, uh, controversial, has since mostly faded from the public eye.
Kobe Bryant vs. Dwight Howard
Arguably the spiciest meatball on this list, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard not-so-secretly didn’t like each other as teammates, then Howard left the Lakers after one disastrous season in L.A., which ultimately resulted in Kobe calling Dwight soft during a subsequent matchup between the two. Bryant was definitely painted as the good guy during Howard’s tumultuous first stint with the Lakers. Kobe was the adult in the room doing everything he could to make sure the Lakers lived up to the hype, while Dwight was the guy making fart jokes and half-heartedly running pick and rolls.
Looking back, I feel bad for Dwight. Playing with Kobe and dealing with his weird leadership style probably sucks. We’ve now seen how Bryant deals with seventh-grade youth basketballers, we can only imagine how much more insufferable he was when he was the face of the Lakers. I don’t blame Dwight for not fully buying in and wanting to get the hell out after only one season. There’s definitely no way Kobe has ever regained any respect for Howard. Dwight is now somehow back on the Lakers, in a weird way that actually makes a little sense.
Joel Embiid vs. A Lot of People
Let’s just take a moment to recognize Joel Embiid, perhaps the last great rabblerouser in the NBA. Embiid not only talks a lot of s--t, he backs it up on the floor and is very adept with Instagram captions. He’s an irritant made for the 21st century, and unlike say, Enes Kanter, he’s actually one of the best players in basketball. Some of Embiid’s targets during his young career include Andre Drummond, Hassan Whiteside, and Russell Westbrook. Embiid has gone after all of them publicly, and has almost uncomfortably dominated Drummond and Whiteside on the floor in addition to their verbal spats. Russ is a different cat, though. Hopefully Westbrook and Embiid continue feuding into the next decade, there’s still some meat on that bone.
Kevin Durant vs. Russell Westbrook
Speaking of Russ, he’s one half of probably the hallmark feud of the 2010s, Westbrook vs. Kevin Durant. The former Thunder greats were never the cleanest fit on the court during their time as teammates in Oklahoma City, but they overcame the awkwardness to form a devastating combination, and history should show their partnership was held back by injuries and bad luck more than anything else. Were KD and Russ ever really great friends? It’s hard to say, but their rivalry became official on July 4, 2016, when Durant announced he was signing with the Warriors. Russ responded with a stealth diss on Instagram, essentially calling KD a cupcake. (Thanks for that detail, Lee Jenkins!)
The feud may have been one-sided on the floor—the Warriors owned the Thunder during Durant’s tenure in Golden State—but some combination of defiance and bitterness basically willed Russ to an MVP the season after Durant left (blah blah, James Harden, the voters, I know.) KD and Westbrook basically went a year without talking to each other after Durant left for the Warriors. They’ve since been All-Star teammates multiple times and have at least played nice for the public. It’s a little unclear to me how they both feel about each other now. I would guess they’ll never be buds, but both have bigger fish to fry heading into the next stage of their careers.
Labor vs. Management
Hey! Don’t forget—there was a lockout during this decade! In 2011, the NBA season started late as owners sought a significantly more favorable CBA. I don’t know that you can draw a line from the 2011 lockout to the current state of affairs in the NBA, but it is interesting to think about how the decade basically started with owners making a power play, and how the NBA’s stars have tried to wrestle it back ever since. As we head into the 2020s, perhaps no league shift is more consequential than superstars realizing their own power. Sure, the Anthony Davises of the world have always requested trades, but players seem more savvy than ever when it comes to controlling their own future.
And do players really care about teams anymore? LeBron James is currently with his third franchise. So is Kawhi Leonard. As is Paul George. Same for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. (The first two have won Finals MVP for two different teams.) The best players, more than ever, and engineering their own teams and maximizing their flexibility, and doing so with less regard for the idea that there’s “honor” in spending your entire career with one franchise. (A thought that’s probably less romantic and more problematic if you really want to unpack it.) The NBA has shown in CBAs past that it quickly tries to course correct in the face of seismic league shifts, often to the result of unintended consequences. Will the NBA respond to the latest wave of player movement through collective bargaining, and what new set of issues could that create? That could take a whole ‘nother decade to play out.