As a 22-year old, the words “rivalry” and “basketball” haven’t meant much in my years of watching the NBA.
Hell, the biggest rivalry in the NBA during the post-Jordan era has been Kobe Bryant versus Shaquille O’Neal and as entertaining as that has been, they were teammates, so things weren’t the same.
People love to credit the culture with the lack of rivalries we have in 2012 and some notions are true. There isn’t any Michael Jordan versus the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons anymore. The closest to that was Lebron James versus the Boston Celtics, but that ended when Lebron joined forces with the Miami Heat. The Lakers-Celtics rivalry that thrived in the 80s was given new life once the Big 3 joined together in Boston, but that’s on it’s last legs as both the Los Angeles Lakers and Celtics are struggling to compete in their respective conferences.
Then you have Kevin Durant and Lebron working out and people discredit that against their rivalry, but in fact, it’s the best head-to-head this league has seen for almost twenty years.
Prior to KD v. Bron, only two huge rivalries come to mind [if you can think of any feel free to list them]:
Bill Russell versus Wilt Chamberlain was the premier rivalry in the 50s and 60s. While Wilt Chamberlain put up stats that you would struggle to do in NBA 2K13 (100 points, 55 rebounds, or averaging 50/25 an entire season), Bill Russell won when it mattered the most: in the NBA Finals. They combined for 13 total NBA championships and some of the greatest individual head-to-head match-ups in the history of the league.
Then in the 80s during the prime of the NBA, the world got to witness what may be the best player-player rivalry in league history: Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird. From the time Magic entered the draft in ’79, Bird+Magic combined for a total of 10 finals appearances, 8 championships, 5 Finals MVPs, 6 league MVPs, 3 All-Star MVPs and 3 face-to-faces in the NBA Finals.
After those two retired due to injuries and other problems, the rivalry was mostly Michael Jordan versus the world as he earned 6 NBA championships, 5 MVPs and a Defensive Player of the Year award during his prime stretch in the 90s.
Other leagues don’t get the pleasure of having their top players battle one-on-one, granted there are 8 other players on the court, but this is as good as it gets. The NFL has shared one of the greatest rivalries in the history of sports in the last decade: Tom Brady v. Peyton Manning. Two of the greatest quarterbacks ever, in the same conference, have had multiple victories against one another in the regular season and have faced off multiple times in the playoffs stopping the other on their quest to the Super Bowl. But unlike the NBA, it isn’t Peyton versus Brady. Brady got the upper-hand due to his team’s all-around play while Peyton was carrying all of the load most of the years.
There was the often-forced Lebron versus Kobe “rivalry” that got pushed by fans during the 2000s, but it never panned out with a championship appearance. People pegged Carmelo Anthony as Lebron’s rivalry since they were both drafted top-5 in the 2003 draft, but Lebron has highly separated himself from Melo. And the Dwayne Wade versus Lebron narrative died when the two joined forces in Miami.
But this is different and it doesn’t get any better than this. Instead we get the best player we’ve seen, possibly, since Jordan, in Lebron versus the up-and-comer Kevin Durant. And at the end of every season, there is a high chance that these two players will be representing their conferences in the Finals sans a major injury.
With Lebron viewed as the best player in the NBA by many, Durant is respectively number two, and last year in the NBA Finals we got to see them go head to head to decide the champion.
And as good as Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Kobe Bryant and others have been during the 2012-13 season, the MVP will come down between these two and it will likely be like this for the next 5-6 years.
Every once in a while there will come a player who pulls of a Derrick Rose-esque performance and steal the shine from Bron and KD, but the odds aren’t likely. There is still some argument that the 2010-11 award was only won by Rose due to voters fatigue for the then, back-to-back MVP.
And the Christmas showdown between Miami and Oklahoma City reaffirmed what everyone knew: these are, easily, the two best players in the league and no one else is close.
But Bron has entered the prime of his career averaging 26.5 points, 7.1 assists, 8.6 rebounds while shooting a career-high from the field (54%) and behind the arc (41%). His Miami Heat are currently first in the Eastern Conference.
And on the other side of the nation, Durant is having a phenomenal year also. He has career highs in assists (4.1), steals (1.4), blocks (1.2), free-throw percentage (.903), three-point percentage (42%) and field-goal percentage (5.17). Most of this is probably credited to the James Harden trade, which forced Durant to have to step up in ever part of his game.
Personally, I have Lebron as the MVP right now if the season ended right now. You can argue that Durant has had more help this year though Lebron plays with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, whom are both top 20 NBA players.
The Heat acquired Ray Allen to be their sixth man, but OKC’s sixth man in Kevin Martin has been a tad bit better offensively than Ray this season.
It’s gotten to the point to where we begin to take the things Lebron does for granted. I can’t count how many times he has been 1 rebound or assist shy of a triple double, but when it happens the common response is “oh, this is a normal night for Lebron”. If any other player put up some of the numbers he did, it’d be raved about, yet this is just normal for Lebron.
If he keeps up his stats as of today, he’d be the only player in NBA history to average 25/8/7 while shooting 40%+ from three and 50%+ from the field.
But this is nowhere near a slight at Kevin Durant. His numbers are unfair for a 6’10 forward. And his game is growing night in and night out, but sometimes it isn’t what you aren’t doing; it’s what someone else is doing.
This rivalry is just at the beginning, but so far, this tandem has a combined 3 MVPs (LBJ), 1 championship (LBJ), 1 finals MVP (LBJ), 3 Finals appearances, 4 scoring titles (KD: 3 straight, LBJ: 1) and this is only the beginning of what could be years of entertainment from the two best players in the NBA.
MVP Rankings (as of January 3rd): [Last 5 games]
1) Lebron James, MIA: 31.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg. 8.0 apg
2) Kevin Durant, OKC: 31.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.4 apg
3) Chris Paul, LAC: 17.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 7.6 apg
4) Carmelo Anthony, NYK: 32.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.6 apg
5) Steph Curry, GSW: 21.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 7.4 apg
Notables: Kobe Bryant (LAL), Tim Duncan (SAS), Tony Parker (SAS), Josh Smith (ATL), Zach Randolph (MEM), James Harden (HOU)