It's Rivalry Day here at the SB Nation family of NBA blogs, so we've been tasked with writing about the Nuggets' biggest rival. But the larger question is: do the Nuggets have a true rival?
When you think of great NBA rivalries, you think historically of Lakers versus Celtics, or perhaps (more recent history) Knicks versus Heat. Perhaps you think regionally, like Spurs versus Mavericks (Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have been going at it in Texas during the regular and post-season for 14 years now), or Lakers versus Suns (have met in the playoffs three times in the last six years), or Celtics versus LeBron James (with James' Cleveland legacy carrying over to his epic playoff series on the Heat against the Celtics).
To me - save Lakers versus Celtics (a rivalry unparalleled in professional sports given that they've competed for 12 NBA Championships and have 33 titles combined between the two storied franchises) - a rival is a long time opponent within your division or conference who your team routinely has to go up against in big games and multiple playoff series. Ideally, a rival is an opponent that sometimes beats your team, and is sometimes beat by your team.
Given those parameters, the Nuggets don't have a true rival but have three possible choices: the Los Angeles Lakers, the Utah Jazz and the San Antonio Spurs. Below is my the breakdown on what makes each of these franchises candidates to be the Nuggets' official "rival" and I'll let my fellow Stiffs decide who it should be with the attached poll.
Rival Option 1: Los Angeles Lakers
A lot of Nuggets fans think that the Lakers are our biggest rival. After all, since joining the NBA in 1976, the Nuggets have competed against the Lakers six times in the post-season (tied for the most for any Nugget opponent with the Spurs), including two Western Conference Finals (1985 and 2009) and a thrilling seven-game, first round series this year. The only problem, of course, is that our Nuggets have never defeated the Lakers in a playoff series and are 52-98 (.347) all-time against the NBA's glamour franchise.
Moreover, a lot of NBA teams believe that the Lakers are "their" rival, including the Spurs (given their epic playoff battles in the 2000s and their combined 11 NBA Finals appearances from 1999 to the present), Suns (the Lakers' division rival plus they've competed in the playoffs three times recently), Kings (the Lakers' in-state rival, had some epic playoff showdowns in the early 2000s), Clippers (the Lakers' in-stadium rival), Trail Blazers (another division rival that's had numerous playoff showdowns versus the Lakers, including two tightly contested conference finals), Mavericks, Thunder, Warriors, Rockets and, of course, the Celtics.
So when every other team in your conference thinks that your rival is their rival, is it really your rival?
Rival Option 2: Utah Jazz
A good argument can be made that the Jazz are the Nuggets' biggest rival. First, they're the only two teams located in the Rocky Mountains. Second, they have played each other 167 times (tied for second most of any Nugget opponent with the Indiana Pacers, which includes ABA games). And third, they've competed in four playoff series - third most for any Nugget opponent behind the Lakers, with two going the distance (in 1984 Utah won 3-2 in the first round and in 1994 Utah won 4-3 in the second round after being up 3-0 and ruining the 8th-seeded Nuggets amazing Cinderella playoff run). They've also had some epic games, like when Rodney Rogers canned three three-pointers in nine seconds against the Jazz in 1994 (which was followed by Jeff Malone hitting a game-winning jumper with 12 seconds left) or when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf lit up the Jazz for 51 points in 1995.
The problem, unfortunately, is that the Nuggets and Jazz have rarely been good at the same time. Of those 167 games played, the Jazz have won 99 of them (almost 60%!). Among those four playoff series (1984, 1985, 1994 and 2010), the Jazz won three and none were past the second round. When Karl Malone and John Stockton were dominating the Western Conference for Utah in the 1990s, the Nuggets were a laughingstock (sans 1994). And during the recent Nuggets run of nine-straight playoff appearances, the Jazz have missed the post-season four times and when they've made the playoffs, they've been - like the Nuggets - among the lower four playoff seeds.
Simply put, to have competed against your "rival" in the playoffs just four times in 35-plus years is pretty weak.
Rival Option 3: San Antonio Spurs
The Nuggets versus Spurs "rivalry" dates back to their ABA days. Both franchises began in 1967 with the Nuggets named the Rockets and the Spurs starting off as the Dallas Chaparrals. They've played 264 games since then (the most versus an opponent for either team, by a long shot) with the Spurs winning 144 of them (54.5%). So historically, the Nuggets have fared better against the Spurs than either the Lakers or the Jazz.
But like the Nuggets "rivalry" with the Jazz, they've played in remarkably few playoff series against the Spurs considering they've been competing in the same division and conference for 45 years (with a four year exception ... from 1976 until 1980 the Spurs were actually an Eastern Conference team). In fact, as ABA Western Division rivals they never once met in the post-season - unless you count a tiebreaker game played in 1971 that the then-Chaparrals won 115-109 - and since joining the NBA together in 1976, the Nuggets and Spurs have met up in the playoffs just six times, with the Spurs winning all but one series (the Nuggets bested San Antonio 3-2 in the opening round of the 1985 playoffs).
Like their relationship with the Jazz, the Nuggets haven't been consistently good when the Spurs have been good, and vice versa. When the Nuggets were winning routinely throughout the mid-1980s, the Spurs had some of their worst years. By the time the Spurs picked up David Robinson to start the 1989-90 season, the Nuggets were in the first of several re-build modes. And when the Nuggets finally got back into the bottom tier of the playoffs consistently starting in 2003, the Spurs were winning multiple championships. Hence why the Spurs have cleaned the Nuggets clock in their playoff series ... with the exception of the Nuggets' 1985 first round victory, they've won just three total games in five playoff series against the Spurs.
It should be noted that current Nuggets head coach George Karl began his career in San Antonio on the ABA version of the Spurs.
So who is the Nuggets' rival? The Lakers, the Jazz or the Spurs?
I'll let my fellow Stiffs decide ...