There’s a moment between Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan that marks a transition in the NBA. It’s described in the book When the Game Was Ours, written by Johnson and Bird with Jackie MacMullan. Johnson, Bird and Jordan are going back and forth discussing which NBA team is the greatest of all time, but in doing so, Bird comes to the realization that the league now belongs to Jordan and all he and Magic have are the great memories of the rivalry they had between them.
“I feel sorry for you,” Magic told Jordan. “You will never have what Larry and I had. We went two weeks without sleep knowing, if we made one mistake, the other guy was going to take it and use it to beat us. Who do you measure yourself against?”
At the time when Magic said this to His Airness, Jordan had just won back-to-back championships and MVP awards, he was the future of the NBA and all Magic and Bird could do was concede that their time had passed. While Jordan didn’t have a single individual to rival against and help catapult his game–he didn’t need one. The entire NBA playing field was his measuring stick. Once he figured out how to channel his competitiveness and insatiable desire to win to his teammates, it made the 90’s Chicago Bulls unstoppable.
Fast-forward a couple decades and the search for rivalries in today’s NBA yields slim results. There aren’t any more natural rivalries being formed. At least not to the level of say Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, and most definitely not like Bird and Magic.