Last Sunday, the Washington Post Sunday Express featured a cover story questioning if the Washington Wizards had any true rival, rolling out the Redskins-Cowboys and Capitals-Penguins rivalries as examples of what the Wizards may be lacking. The article was based on an informal survey of game-going Wizards fans conducted by the author prior to the November 19 game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Verizon Center. The most popular answer to the survey turned out to be the Cleveland Cavaliers, followed by the Miami Heat.
My answer, quoted in the article next to Trevor Ariza's opinion that all teams are our rivals, was nobody. That answer finished third. Sorry, Trevor, I like your thought but if you played for a team with a real rival, I don't think you would have given the same politically correct, non-bulletin board material answer. A rivalry in sports is based upon a genuine dislike of another team where each team beats the other with somewhat regularity in important situations. I don't think there is a team in the NBA that the Wizards beat regularly enough and dislike enough to legitimately claim rival status.
I believe true NBA rivalries are made in the post-season, not the regular season so that's why I answered the question as nobody. We haven't, after all, made the playoffs since 2008. Sure, the division title is important, especially when you haven't won one since 1979 like the Bullets/Wizards, but true rivalries come from repeated hard fought playoff encounters. The NBA realignment of 2004 killed most of the Wizards old time traditional division rivalries with the New York Knicks (based on history) and the Philadelphia 76ers (based on geography) anyway. Having the closest legitimate NBA franchise in your own division in Atlanta makes it difficult to maintain any sort of geographic rivalry.
When I think of some recent NBA rivalries, I think Celtics-Lakers, Pistons-Bulls, Bulls-Knicks, Knicks-Pacers and, this year, Pacers-Heat. There are more and my attention is naturally more often on the Eastern Conference, but all of those rivalries featured decidedly nasty playoff battles between the two teams. I'm already looking forward to an Indiana-Miami Eastern Conference Finals as the marquee series in this year's playoffs after the same matchup last year and the second round series two years ago. There's a genuine dislike between those two teams and I can't wait to see how the series ends this year, especially if Indiana can secure home court. And yes, I am conceding that no other team is getting to this series; it's a two horse race in the east this year, barring some catastrophic injuries to one team or the other.
I can understand the Cleveland Cavaliers as the top answer from Wizards fans and the Miami Heat finishing second. The three playoff series against the Cavs in three consecutive years was a rivalry despite LeBron James' arrogant claim that it wasn't. The Wizards beat the Cavs enough over those years and the boos were louder enough with genuine dislike to get under LeBron and his teammates' skins when they stepped into Verizon Center. And in the playoff years of 2005-2008 we tried to fight the Heat for the division crown and got swept out of the 2005 playoffs in the second round by that team.
I still to this day dislike those two teams more than any other in the NBA for knocking us out of the playoffs the way they did. Miami humiliating us in 2005 and Cleveland whining, complaining and ultimately beating us three years in a row from 2006-2008. I'd love for the Wizards to get another rivalry going. Hopefully this year can be the start of something in the first and maybe second round of the playoffs. Of course, we have to qualify first.