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NBA Beef in the Age of Friendship

Dorothy, we’re not in the ’90s anymore. Sure, you’ll see a shoving match from time to time, but for the most part, NBA games are played between players who actually, for the most part, like each other. How AAU, rule changes, and free-agent player movement lowered the temperature on NBA rivalries.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

As NBA dust-ups go, the exchanges between the Nuggets and Lakers this season have been closer to silly than serious. They’ve also been entertaining, and not just for fans who like watching Luke Walton curse out Jamal Murray on live TV.

A few days after their final meeting of the season—an otherwise muted matchup where the testiest interaction saw Isaiah Thomas passive-aggressively check the ball to Murray in the final moments—Julius Randle was sitting alone at the far side of the Lakers training facility in El Segundo following a truncated practice. Earlier in the year, when Murray dribbled circles around Lonzo Ball toward the end of a Nuggets win in Denver, Randle came running to his rescue and got a personal foul in the process.

I expected Randle to have some harsh words for the Nuggets and shake his fist in Denver’s direction. (The best-case scenario in my head had him spitting on the floor or maybe tossing a chair.) It didn’t quite go that way. Randle insisted the competition brought out the best in everyone and called it “great.” He said the Nuggets are “a young, talented team” and the Lakers are “a young, talented team” and “hopefully, we’ll be playing each other for many years after this.”

“It’s fun, man, honestly,” he said.

It was fun, from Murray supposedly licking his fingers after cooking poor Brook Lopez, to Thomas stalking Murray back to the Nuggets bench, to Walton calling Murray “disrespectful” for perceived infractions. Even Ball, who’s pretty quiet with the media and tends to keep his resting heart rate in postgame interviews just barely above flat-lining, got spicy with the Nuggets. He labeled Murray’s antics “circus stuff” and “a punk move.” He also said “I don’t really worry about Jamal Murray” and followed that up by declaring, “like I said, ain’t nobody worried about him.” Which was great, because he had just spent all that time talking about him.

None of which bothered Murray, who told the media it was a bummer that the super-sensitive Lakers were getting all up in their feelings. “Whoever takes it to heart and takes their losses salty,” Murray said, “I can’t do anything about that.”

As amusing as all that was, Will Barton might have been right. In the end, the season-long slap fight didn’t amount to much beyond a good time. “It ain’t real,” Barton said. “That’s some suburban beef, man. Come on. Somebody mad about somebody getting hot and talking a little bit? That happens every day in the NBA.”

It was a good point. The Lakers-Nuggets tiffs represented what passes for a rivalry these days. A little jawing. Some of that hold-me-back business. And that’s pretty much it. Those kinds of spats are interchangeable and ephemeral. It’s a far cry from the Lakers-Celtics rivalries of the ’80s—or even the 2000s.

“That was always one of those games you don’t get much sleep for the night before,” Walton said about playing the Celtics when he was in uniform for the Lakers and not in a suit on the sidelines. “Especially in the few years that both of us were at the top of the league.” Walton noted that his Lakers teams also had a rivalry with the Suns (who beat the Lakers in back-to-back playoff series). These days, those traditional, recurring clashes between two teams with a history of bad blood don’t seem quite as prevalent as they maybe once did. “I think it’s gone down a lot,” he said.

Perhaps that’s because the best dramas need characters at cross purposes. For a league built on stars and story lines, the current narratives are surprisingly short on proper villains willing to play their part. It doesn’t feel like any of today’s teams are in danger of one day getting the 30 for 30: Bad Boys treatment. The closest we’ve recently come to any organization adopting the heel role was probably the Lob City Clippers. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul seemed to delight in pissing off everyone from players to coaches to referees (and sometimes each other). In their absence, Austin Rivers has been left to play the heavy all by himself—which is still enjoyable, but not nearly as much as it was when the entire team wore black hats.

The Charles Barkley generation would have you believe that the players are too chummy these days—even though, as LeBron James once pointed out, Barkley and Michael Jordan were “laughing and joking” with each other during the 1993 NBA Finals. Even so, Kevin McHale, now an analyst for TNT, told me there was “none of that buddy-buddy” stuff back when he played for the Celtics and that no one was interested in being friendly or familiar with other teams. He’s hardly alone in sentimentalizing the old, tough-guy NBA. A current league executive who played in the ’90s and aughts said that he never helped an opposing player get up off the floor unless he was planning to push him down again. “You tend to fantasize and romanticize a lot of things about how it was,” McHale’s fellow TNT analyst and fellow ex-player Greg Anthony countered, “until you go back and watch some of those games. And then you realize it wasn’t quite what you thought it was.” To Anthony, today’s game is better and more competitive than it’s ever been despite some of his peers clinging to the belief that “things were always tougher and harder and grittier” during their day.

The shift away from ’90s-era physicality and toward the current pace-and-space approach has transformed the game from a periodic mosh pit to something approaching a beautiful ballet. Beyond that, it doesn’t bother me when players shake hands or hug before games, and I don’t care whether they grab something to eat afterward. (Steve Kerr once told a story on The Bill Simmons Podcast about having dinner with Gregg Popovich and some Spurs after taking the Warriors job. Kerr thought it might be weird; it wasn’t.) I have, however, periodically wondered whether the seeming ebb of overt animosity and the flow of surface collegiality has sapped some of what makes sports enjoyable and vicarious. Rooting for something/someone can be great fun, but it’s even better when it comes paired with something/someone to root against. (If the Eagles had beaten the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Super Bowl, that would have been just fine by me; beating the dastardly Patriots was the Italian-chef-fingers-kiss of sports moments in my lifetime.)

But it’s possible Barton was right. As beefs go, perhaps the suburban variety is the best we can hope for now—and maybe that’s not such a bad thing in the end.

There have been some delightfully weird moments this season under the ostensible guise of competition. Russell Westbrook told Joel Embiid to go home after a killer triple-OT win over the Sixers in Philly back in December, after which Embiid deadpanned that he lived there and was already home. Embiid also got into it with Andre Drummond—after starting with “no disrespect, but …” he proceeded to disrespect Drummond’s shooting and defense—and made a big show of pointing him to the exits after beating the Pistons. And along the way, Embiid took the opportunity to flambé Lonzo and LaVar (note the location on that particular Instagram post; where does Embiid find the time?).

In drama unrelated to Embiid, Isaiah Thomas crushed Cleveland both when he played for the Cavs and when he didn’t. Those moments had to be a lot less amusing for the Cavs than LeBron’s ongoing feud with Enes Kanter. After James said the Knicks should have drafted Dennis Smith Jr., Kanter defended Frankie Smokes, which led to a hilarious hold-me-back exchange between the two.

LeBron clarified that he “wasn’t throwing shade at Frank,” but he added that Kanter “always got something to say” and “I don’t know what’s wrong with him.” (Judging by this picture, nothing. Or maybe everything.)

More recently, Jared Dudley and Marquese Chriss were fined for picking on Ricky Rubio and shoving him and his handsome hair to the ground. And as retro rivalries go, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen are evidently still at it all these years later.

But my favorite moment on this season’s suburban-beef front featured Chris Paul leading his new team through a (not-so) secret Staples Center hallway to scrap with his old team. In that way, Paul’s return to Los Angeles as a member of the Rockets was better than anyone could have hoped, even if the Brawl in the Hall was minus an actual brawl (and thank God for that). As my Ringer colleague Jonathan Tjarks quipped in our group post, the best blow anyone landed during the whole affair was Paul saying that the Clippers should play through their go-to guy, Lou Williams. Had a boxing ref been present, he would have declared a technical knockout and dispatched a doctor to check on the wounds to Blake Griffin’s pride. It is perhaps the best reason to root for the Clippers to seize the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot; a first-round reunion between Paul and his old organization would provide an entire butcher shop’s worth of beef.

Along with a midrange game and great defense, Paul’s willingness to embrace his inner antihero has always been one of his great gifts—whether he’s poking fun at his sometimes overbearing personality in a Madden commercial with James Harden or volunteering to pay Gerald Green’s fine after Green was ejected for shoving Gorgui Dieng, who had previously shoved Paul. CP3 is one of a handful of NBA players with a deep understanding of how he’s perceived and a simultaneous lack of fucks to give about it. That rare combination frees him up to play the foil.

The same has been true with DeMarcus Cousins at times. It’s been a long while since an NBA argument boiled over into something more serious than a shoving match, but we got close back in December after Boogie and Kevin Durant were tossed from a game in New Orleans. That led to Cousins trying to track down KD in the hallway at Smoothie King Center, which gave us one of the great photos of the season.

When Durant was asked about the incident, he said it was “a heated matchup” and “a heated conversation” but admitted that it was never going beyond that since there were plenty of people around to “prevent us from doing anything stupid.”

“I’m not going to fight nobody, I’m not trying to get injured, I don’t want to get suspended,” Durant said. “I love to play. I love making money for my family. … Nobody on the floor is going to fight. Nobody in the NBA is going to throw no punches. We’re just talking.”

That is unquestionably for the best. There is a massive difference between wanting consistent rivalries between players and teams—after Durant jumped to the Warriors, Kerr discussed the notion of them serving as the NBA’s “supervillains”—and those conflicts escalating into anything physical. As the league learned long ago, it’s better for everyone when the coaches don’t wrap themselves around someone’s ankle during a fracas and the players don’t get into it with each other—or fans. No one wants another Malice at the Palace. “Especially in today’s world with social media,” Anthony said. “Our league is pretty healthy. Our stars are high-character guys that kind of transcend race. You want to build upon that and focus on the beauty of the game, athletic ability, while still having the opportunity to tap into the individuality and personality.”

The sweet spot is figuring out the WWE-style promos without anything approaching another regrettable royal rumble. On that point, guys like McHale think the league has gone too far in trying to legislate not just how physical players can be with each other—it’s no surprise that McHale thinks contact at the rim isn’t a big deal; “What are you supposed to do, let a guy dunk on you?”—but also how much yapping they engage in. While he was coaching in Houston, McHale didn’t just watch Patrick Beverley bark at other players—he encouraged it.

“If you really get into it with someone—‘Hey, I’m gonna kick your ass …’—and then they give a technical. Really? I kinda figured someone wanted to kick my ass,” McHale said. To his mind, that’s all part of the product, something to embrace rather than reject. “People flew to Zaire to see Muhammad Ali fight George Foreman because they knew it was going to be a hell of a brawl, and it was going to be entertaining. There’s nothing wrong with competition.”

But as Walton said, between free-agency movement where players pick a destination together and old relationships that go back to the AAU days, “everyone knows everyone.” “Before,” Walton said, “you played with your local teams and that was it. Now, by the time they get to the NBA, they’ve all been playing with each other for 10 straight years or however long it’s been. So they’re all friends. That’s made [rivalries] go down a little bit.”

And yet the argument could be made that the league is as healthy and fascinating as it’s ever been. There is an obvious counterpoint to any take that begins with some earnest variation of “back in my day”: There’s something to be said for competition within the confines of professionalism. To paraphrase Durant, why use your hands to throw punches when you need them to cash checks? Perhaps that’s part of why business is so good for the NBA these days—because the players treat it like one.

Consider Brandon Ingram. The 20-year-old Lakers forward has missed the past nine games with a strained groin. That injury occurred late in the fourth quarter against the Heat in Miami, courtesy of a hard foul by Justise Winslow.

It’s not hard to imagine a previous NBA generation getting angry about that kind of play and vowing retaliation the next time the two teams met. As the schedule-making luck had it, the Lakers hosted the Heat last week. Ingram didn’t play, but the next day at practice, he was asked whether he was mad about Winslow being on the court while he wasn’t.

“I told a couple of guys to go after him,” Ingram said. He laughed immediately, and so did the local reporters who knew he was kidding before he had even finished his sentence. “Nah, I did see him [Friday] night and he played really well [Friday] night. I wish we could have got that win. And revenge.”

Ingram is soft-spoken and laid-back, and it probably didn’t hurt that he and Winslow are both in the Duke family. But to hear Randle explain it, it’s not strange to him or his teammates that the Lakers wanted to beat Winslow and the Heat—or Murray and the Nuggets—in the game while not holding a grudge after it. (Of course, taking that kind of approach is probably easier for a young team trying to navigate its way through the regular season compared to a veteran bunch that’s focused on the playoffs. Hard to imagine the Thunder and Westbrook letting something similar slide.) Randle said it’s pretty routine now for guys who grew up playing against each other in AAU to “have that dog in us and compete” while simultaneously thinking of them as “my dudes off the court, for sure.”

In a weird way, some of the NBA’s younger players might be some of the most mature. Earlier in the year, before the Lakers and Kings played their first game of the season, I asked Sacramento rookie De’Aaron Fox whether he was looking forward to facing Lonzo Ball again. Fox and Ball had an epic meeting in the 2017 NCAA tournament when they were big-time one-and-done prospects at Kentucky and UCLA, respectively. Fox was excited for the rematch, but not for the reasons I expected. He’s known Ball for a long time and they keep in touch. As far as Fox was concerned, “the media takes everything out of proportion” when it comes to relationships among supposed rivals.

“It’s not personal,” he told me. “It’s the NBA.”

If it wasn’t before, it is now.