1. Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain
The greatest individual rivalry in sports history. Russell's Celtics met Wilt's Warriors, 76ers or Lakers in eight playoff series in the '60s, either in the East finals or the NBA Finals (1964, 1969). Russell won all but the '67 East and became basketball's greatest champion. Counting the playoffs, they faced each other 142 times. Russell won 85. But in those 142 games, Wilt averaged 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds a game. That is not a misprint. Russell, a defensive demon, averaged 14.5 points and 23.7 rebounds.
2. Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
Bird and Magic squared off in the 1979 NCAA championship game, then defined the NBA renaissance of the '80s. They met in three NBA Finals — Bird's Celtics won in '84, then Magic's Lakers won in '85 and '87. When they weren't beating each other, they beat someone else. Magic won the NBA title in '80, Bird in '81, Magic in '82, Bird in '86, Magic in '88.
3. Jerry West vs. John Havlicek
West's Lakers and Hondo's Celtics met in five NBA Finals: 1963, 1965, 1966, 1968 and 1969. Boston won them all. No players ever have met so often on pro basketball's grandest stage. West was a star in all those years; Havlicek was a star by 1966 and by '68 was starting to assume the mantle of team leader from Russell. The '69 Finals was a West/Hondo battle royale. Havlicek scored 37 points in Game 1; West had 53 points and 10 assists. West had 41 points in Game 2; Havlicek had 43. In Game 7, West had 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists; Hondo had 26 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
4. Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas
For three straight years, Thomas' Bad Boy Pistons knocked Jordan's Bulls out of the Eastern Conference playoffs – semifinals in 1988, finals in '89 and '90. Finally, in '91, Chicago swept Detroit in the East finals, with Jordan averaging 29.8 points a game, and launched a dynasty. Better yet, for rivalry purposes, these two guys didn't get along. Jordan finally has admitted he blackballed Thomas from the 1992 Olympic Dream Team.
5. Hakeem Olajuwon vs. Karl Malone
They rarely matched up defensively, since Olajuwon was a classic center and Malone a pure power forward, but the superstars collided in the paint often during the ‘90s, when Houston and Utah were the West's best teams. Olajuwon's Rockets won in the '94 West finals and '95 first round, en route to NBA championships. Malone's Jazz won in the '97 West finals and '98 first round, only to lose the NBA Finals to the Jordan Bulls. In those 21 playoff games, Olajuwon averaged 27.6 points and 9.7 rebounds, Malone 26.4 and 12.4.