For the past few years, the death of rivalries has been an endlessly recycled talking point. The idea is that NBA players are too friendly and it’s diluted the league’s competitive spirit. It’s also absurd. NBA rivalries are as intense as they’ve ever been and this week at The Step Back, we’re celebrating the rivalries that matter today, and the ones that will shape the league’s next decade.
According to Google Maps, the 2,146 miles from Vivint Smart Home Arena on South Temple in Salt Lake City to Wells Fargo Center on South Broad in Philadelphia is a 31-hour drive, and while the distance is shorter than the 5,366 miles separating Rome from Carthage and necessitates neither elephant mountain crossings nor a thousand ships, the continental proximity is no small event. To make the journey would require a freight train’s worth of pettiness, or ambition. So, in depicting the future rivalry between the Western Conference’s Utah Jazz and the Eastern’s Philadelphia 76ers, let us begin with a true reason for crossing a Rubicon or, in this case, the Mississippi — it’s personal between Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell, and always will be. Whether they want to admit it or not, they are perpetually linked, and their careers are measures of each other and the legacies of their respective teammates.
If rivalries were based merely upon a cartographer’s penmanship, then the natural team to portray as a foil to the Utah Jazz would be the Denver Nuggets. Both teams reside in mountainous retreats, rendering them either reclusive geniuses or dull Bond villains. More importantly, though, Denver also boasts a talented young nucleus, with three of its players recently landing on The Step Back’s 25-under-25 list. But rivalries are born as much in the heart and mind as they are from the soil. So all the quirks triggered by illogical jealousies and worried inadequacies need not look next door for greener pastures, but miles and miles away. After all, no one recalls off the top of his or her head the Roman struggles against the Samnites. Conquering mountain valleys and even whole peninsulas is a local affair that, while a bitter and necessary step in building empires, lacks the same epic ambition that swallows the imagination whole.
In other words, beating Denver for Utah is a means to an end, just as beating Boston or Toronto is for Philadelphia. The real prize lies elsewhere, even as the journey must inevitably venture through these regional spheres that will one day appear Shire-sized from the cliffs of Mount Doom. Both teams’ rosters feature big fish who want to be the big fish in all ponds no matter the size.
On Nov. 12, 2014, Australian-born Ben Simmons signed with the LSU Tigers. On June 6, 2016 he signed a deal with Nike. Seventeen days later Philadelphia drafted him number one overall. A foot injury then cost him an entire season’s worth of games before he finally made his regular season NBA debut against the Washington Wizards on Oct. 18, 2017. He would end his 35 minutes of play with 18 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists.
On Nov. 16, 2014, New England-born Donovan Mitchell signed with the Louisville Cardinals. After two college seasons, Mitchell declared for the NBA draft and in June of 2017 was selected by the Denver Nuggets with the No. 13 overall pick. The Nuggets then traded his draft rights to the Utah Jazz. Weeks later, the rookie signed a contract with Adidas. He would make his NBA debut against the Denver Nuggets on Oct. 18, logging 10 points and 4 assists in 26 minutes of play.
At the start of their first NBA seasons, each player was taking small steps toward history and vanquishing the other’s ascendant mythology. They were, in a sense, becoming tendrils in the other’s narrative, not because they hated or despised one another but because they wanted the same legacy.
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In his first 81 games played, Ben Simmons would notch enough triple-doubles to be ahead of Magic Johnson and behind Oscar Robertson on the all-time list for rookies. Rightly or wrongly, he drew comparisons to LeBron James, and along with a healthier Joel Embiid, he transformed Sam Hinkie’s fringe philosophies into a viable economy. The 76ers entered the playoffs as the No. 3 seed in their conference, and the acumen they displayed against the Miami Heat in the first round had many people wondering if they could make the NBA Finals. They didn’t. Brad Stevens and the young core in Boston proved an impossible Gordian knot. And maybe LeBron James would have been too much as well. But the fact of the matter is Philadelphia found its way into the NBA’s backroom of stars and smokescreens for the first time in a long while as rumors circulated that somehow they just might land LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard in the offseason. They didn’t, but the suggestion that they might suggested a life outside The Process.
Utah, meanwhile, entered the playoffs as the fifth-best team in the Western Conference, and as Donovan Mitchell scored at least 20 points in his first five playoff games, he etched his name alongside players such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lou Hudson in the history books. All of those games came against the Oklahoma City Thunder, where Mitchell looked very much like a more indispensable franchise player than either Russell Westbrook or Paul George. Then he and his team looked very much outmanned and outplayed in a five-game series against the Houston Rockets. But, like with the 76ers, the future whistles like a train, and the roster appears built for more and, for once, the uniforms even look cool.
But why is this particular pairing of teams a potential rivalry more than any other two teams with players coming off outstanding rookie campaigns? Why toss Boston and Denver out with the bathwater, you may ask?
Well, in April of 2018, while already the frontrunner for the season’s Rookie of the Year Award, Simmons responded to a mundane question with a bold answer. When asked what other rookies had caught his attention, he answered, “None.” He then added: “I want to be where the greats are. So, for me, I watch the guys like (Kevin Durant), (LeBron James), (Stephen) Curry, Russell (Westbrook). Guys like that. That’s where I want to be.”
Such an answer is akin to a writer stating he doesn’t read, or a rapper stating he doesn’t listen to his contemporaries, only those voices who have already reached apotheosis. The answer is a way of elevating one’s self and claiming ownership of both the present and future by dismissing one’s contemporaries. Worry about letting Nas and Jay-Z down, but never mention Kendrick. To do so is to promote the competition. Simmons is cocky, but Simmons also understands the politics of NBA Awards. Even if he were to have lost the Rookie of the Year vote (which he didn’t), having said whose game had impressed him the most would have meant if not nominating the competition, then at least gratifying it. Besides, such comments are always fodder for debates on Twitter: Well, you know, Simmons said he was most impressed by Donovan . . . How are you gonna win an award over the guy you’re impressed with?
While Simmons and Mitchell each avoided talking about his continental counterpart for most of the season, such avoidances went by the wayside after Simmons elevated himself into the annals of history. Following Simmons’ comments, Mitchell wore a sweatshirt featuring the dictionary definition for the term “Rookie.” The white font on a black background also suggested a world without gray areas. He followed up this sweatshirt choice with a white on red combination featuring the word “Rookie” followed by a question mark.
When asked about the sweatshirts, Mitchell acted as if the Award didn’t matter to him and that winning was his only concern, but his true opinions (manufactured by Adidas and targeting a Nike spokesperson) were black and white and read all over: Mitchell didn’t think Simmons deserved the award because Mitchell didn’t think Simmons, who sat out his first season in the NBA with a broken foot, was truly a rookie. This elevated (or perhaps deflated) a basketball debate into a matter of Constitutional interpretations. What’s the meaning of the word first? What makes a season? How do you interpret the verb is?
While both highly effective players, Simmons and Mitchell do not play the game in the same manner. Mitchell is fierce where Simmons is often smooth. Mitchell is a scorer where Simmons distributes so willingly he can often be portrayed as a reluctant scorer. The manners in which they play the game crystalize within a contemporary context all the arguments about whether LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan and vice versa, if only the two were likely to face each other more than twice a year for the foreseeable future. The rivalry could well be spent before it begins, except the debate between the two players and their teams doesn’t seem likely to end anytime soon. Players remember if only to pen a Players’ Tribune piece upon retirement every slight muttered and chip stacked. Moreover, the trajectory of the Utah and Philadelphia franchises promises more awards debates in the future for both Mitchell and Simmons, with each one echoing the very first.
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
In the same interview where he voiced his lack of awe at his peers’ accomplishments, Simmons also fleshed out his long term objectives: “Championships. I want to be the Defensive Player of the Year . . . MVP. There’s a lot of accolades I want to get, but I ultimately want to win a ring.” A likely obstacle for achieving such goals, if the two teams ever were to meet beyond the regular season, would be Mitchell’s teammate, Rudy Gobert. After all, even individual awards require a team effort — Russell Westbrook rebounds, but he doesn’t box out.
Rudy Gobert, Utah’s other cornerstone, is a 7-footer who, unless Simmons develops a 3-point shot, promises to be lurking within arm’s reach of every Simmons layup attempt in the foreseeable future, whether that be twice a year in the regular season or by some miracle the NBA Finals. Utah is one of the only current teams beyond Philadelphia who features a throwback to another age at the center position. Gobert is almost two years older than Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, but if the teams were to somehow navigate the pathways to an NBA Finals in the same year, the matchup would harken back to an age of drive-in monster movies. Embiid’s Phantom of the Process mask even suggests, at least to a certain extent, how he grasps the freakishness of his place on the NBA timeline.
In Philadelphia’s playoff loss to Boston last spring, Embiid arguably finished the series with the best individual numbers on either team, but those numbers only amounted to one win. Meanwhile, Rudy Gobert wasn’t exactly the same player in a series loss to Houston as he was in the regular season or in the first round series against Oklahoma City. Neither center is a true plodder, but their presence in the Golden State epoch is something of a typewriter in the newsroom; still elegant and authoritative to behold and yet clumsily unable to access the company’s Slack. The conversation threatens to leave them behind.
For either franchise to reach the Finals, adjustments to the rosters are both likely and necessary. While Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles are viable players alongside Mitchell on the perimeter, Utah is still likely to regret that Rodney Hood ended up being Rodney Hood. And who knows how long Philadelphia will be waiting on the rediscovery of Markelle Fultz or a player in place of those who got away this past offseason.
Predicting the sustainability of an NBA rivalry is difficult. Rosters and careers are not static, so without geography, or at least the artificial geography provided by conference alignment, nothing necessarily binds Utah and Philadelphia to one another. While both teams recently ventured into the second round of the playoffs for the first time in what feels like forever, they could in a few years take steps backward just as easily as they could improve.
Maybe Golden State outlasts Utah’s challenge. Perhaps the Los Angeles Lakers are restored sooner rather than later, or Utah can’t keep pace with the rapid improvement of the 2020 Denver Nuggets. Maybe the Boston Celtics prove a larger obstacle to 76er success than the 26 bones in the human foot. Maybe a coach who looks like Christian Bale in American Psycho and another coach who sounds like Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Trilogy both lack the vision for navigating a championship team within the next five to ten years. Who knew exactly how far Golden State could roam when Mark Jackson still held the reins and Stephen Curry was hobbled with ankle injuries? Other teams, not yet configured, are out there as stumbling blocks. The road to the Finals is never as inevitable as hindsight makes it appear. The author is as likely to be George R.R. Martin as J.R.R. Tolkien.
So the rivalry between Philadelphia and Utah remains a mapmaker’s dream and fails to transfer into a lived geography. Does it matter?
EA Sports’ NBA Live 19 features Joel Embiid on the cover. The Australian version of NBA 2K19 features Ben Simmons on the cover. But the company still gave two of his biggest rivals the same rating they gave him. Simmons, Mitchell, and Boston’s Jayson Tatum all received an 87. Such matters have already proven to be a great concern for Embiid. The players care and so goes the zeitgeist.
Historically, the player who won the most rings won the era, but the career of LeBron James has proven that the protocols for judging one era do not necessarily judge all eras astutely. Besides, Bill Russell holds more rings from a time before history than Jordan does. The metrics are always changing and always mythologizing — no matter how much they chase corporeal understandings. So the Simmons and Mitchell rivalry need not exist on the court so much as through warring shoe company ads and video game ratings. Simmons and Mitchell don’t have to sweat it out in a best of seven or even guard one another in the regular season. They just have to win enough real life games and accolades to secure an edge in the digital.
The 2018 Rookie of the Year vote will be forever on trial, just as The Declaration and Constitution have been every year since their drafting. The date is a decade in the future. Ben Simmons has just received his eleventh Rookie of the Year trophy. So, yes, Philadelphia’s pride is very much alive, as is Utah’s bitter insistence on the rule of law. Someone asks Simmons if he has any rivals. He laughs. And Mitchell shows up to a game that week in a sweatshirt defining the term. Maybe they’ll finally meet in the postseason. Maybe they won’t. Regardless, the stans keep commenting across the Rubicon, which, by the way, is a river without an agreed upon location.