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Steph and LeBron: The Rivalry That Wasn’t

Why aren’t we getting more of a clash between the two best players?

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Rivalries are part of the NBA’s creation myth. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell’s clashes were the league’s big bang; “Exhibition Matches Russell and Chamberlain — Seats Sell for Top of $100,” exclaimed The New York Times in 1959. And the battles between Magic and Bird dragged the Association out of the formless twilight limbo of apathy and tape delay. Out of the ocean of their sweat crawled a new generation of stars, headlined by Michael Jordan, David Stern sans mustache, the Dream Team, a 30-team league, and the concept of courtside seats as status symbols.

Despite our collective desires and the economic imperatives of competing sneaker brands, Steph Curry and LeBron James are not rivals. On the surface, this seems weird.

Steph and LeBron should be rivals. Curry’s Warriors are playing James’s Cavaliers for the second year in a row. Curry’s spoon-bending long-range shooting accuracy makes him the emblematic player of the modern NBA: the superstar of this moment. LeBron is the greatest player of his generation, one of the greatest of all time. Between them, they’ve won four of the last five MVP awards and, when this series is over, their teams will have won four of the last five championships. LeBron has played in six straight Finals. One wears Under Armour, the other Nike. Curry is 28; LeBron is 31. Barring injury, fate, or Joe Lacob losing it all to a crippling blackjack addiction, the two could meet in the Finals again for the next few seasons to come.

Instead, Steph and LeBron exist in two different universes out of phase with each other. James, always a magnet for criticism, is weathering a barrage of takes over his crotch’s role in Draymond Green’s suspension. Smash Mouth is involved. Stephen Jackson called James a snitch on cable television, to the marked delight of Rajon Rondo. The King responded on Monday night in Oakland with one of the best playoff performances of his career, a do-everything last stand on the brink of elimination in Game 5 of the NBA Finals: 41 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals, three blocks. Along with a blindingly good Irving (playing with a fierce urgency that screamed “I want Kevin Love to take all the blame”), LeBron kept the Cavs’ Finals hopes alive.

Steph had a comparatively quiet 25 points. Throughout the series, he has seemed mostly concerned with his suddenly parched jumper, amorphous rumors about injuries and postponed surgery, and the internet roasting his sneakers over a low flame for 48 straight hours.

Maybe Steph and Bron’s absence of malice is typical. Looking at the history of the league, the Magic-Bird, Wilt-Russell player binary is the exception. Michael Jordan didn’t have rivals; he had victims. Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson played the same position for good-to-elite teams in the same state and had some great regular-season battles. But they met in the playoffs only once (albeit memorably). Kevin Garnett should have been Tim Duncan’s rival, but he spent the bulk of his prime carrying middling teammates across the frozen moon of Minnesota — exiting seven consecutive postseasons in the first round. More recently, LeBron and Dwyane Wade teamed up right when it seemed like they might become rivals.

When James joined Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami back in 2010, Larry Bird was one of several old-time greats to chide the King for joining forces with his would-be usurpers. “There is no way I would have joined Magic or Michael and play with them,” Bird said at the time. He’s right; true unrestricted free agency wasn’t codified until 1988. For most of his career, Bird would’ve had a difficult time taking his talents anywhere. And, anyway, he didn’t need to; Bird’s various Celtics teams saw him share the court with no fewer than four Hall of Famers. He was talking about a different league than the one LeBron was playing in.

Rivalries grew out of close combat. Russell and Chamberlain had their Bunyan-vs.-Bunyan battles in a nine-team phone booth. In Wilt’s rookie season, 1959–60 — which culminated in the second of Boston’s eight straight titles — Russell’s Celtics played Wilt’s Warriors 19 times, including a six-game playoff series. Magic and Bird played 37 games against each other — 18 in the regular season and 19 in the Finals. When they entered the league, following one of the most storied national championship games of all time, there were only 22 teams. By contrast, LeBron and Steph have gone head-to-head 20 times total over seven seasons.

For rivalries to form, superstars need to meet in the playoffs. League expansion — along with increased player movement due to unrestricted free agency and a more muscular salary cap — are the reasons for the dearth of player rivalries. There are only ever a handful of true superstars in the league at any given time, and putting solid teams around them is harder than ever.

Today, team construction is in the spotlight (shouts to Lacob’s light-years-ahead feng shui skills) and player antagonism has shifted inward. The superstar’s true rivals are his teammates and, to a lesser extent, his coach and general manager. Who was Kobe Bryant’s rival if not Shaq? The Lakers had two or three more years of title contention in them when Bryant and O’Neal’s acrimony finally curdled into a breakup in 2004. Fair or not, former Bulls GM Jerry Krause is often viewed as the man who finally stopped Jordan when he broke up the Bulls in the summer of 1998.

Look around the league; intrateam rivalries are everywhere. The excitement these feuds generate is part of the reason why the free-agency period is arguably more fun than the regular season, and it’s why teams go through coaches like Tinder dates.

The Rockets plummeted from the starry heights of the Western Conference finals to become first-round speed bumps in one ear-popping season, all because James Harden and Dwight Howard hate each other. (Dwight is a veteran of the intrateam rivalry. His feud with Stan Van Gundy blew up a Magic team that had been to the Finals only three years earlier. And the picture of Dwight faux-fighting Kobe Bryant over the mustachioed body of Mike D’Antoni will live forever in teammate rivalry lore.) Jimmy Butler, who signed a five-year, $92 million extension last summer, is in the middle of a cold war with the Bulls front office and may be on the move. We’ve spent Kevin Durant’s and Russell Westbrook’s entire careers picking apart their every interaction; of course they’re rivals. And if New Orleans never manages to win a title, will it be one of the Western Conference’s numerous superstars who kept Anthony Davis from postseason glory, or the Pelicans’ shambolic front office?

LeBron’s Cavaliers, by nature of being the best team in the East, provide the biggest stage for the inward-rivalry dynamic. The Cavs are, by any measure, an elite team. Unfortunately for them, the Warriors are a historic, world-destroying assemblage of talent; the Galactus of basketball squads.

Getty Images
Getty Images

There’s never been a question that a healthy, non-nut-punch-suspension-enduring Warriors would beat the Cavs in the Finals. Not unless the god of basketball decided, on the spur of the moment, to elongate Kevin Love’s arms and crank up his speed sliders while making Kyrie Irving a plus defender who liked to pass a little more. All season, the chatter around Cleveland focused more on their intrateam relationships and less on how they matched up with the Warriors. Any analysis of the two teams quickly becomes an inquest into the efficacy of playing Love and Irving together, leading inevitably to questions about playing Love (two points, three rebounds, four fouls, 1-of-5 from the floor in Game 5) at all. When we think of the people standing in LeBron’s path to a third title, we think of Love and Irving. Even as Game 5 wound down, you could feel Cleveland tighten — not because Steph and Klay were leading a comeback, but because Irving’s isolation instincts had been activated and Love was still on the court. It had nothing to do with the Warriors.

LeBron must know this. Earlier this month, James, who just last summer proclaimed himself “the best player in the world,” backtracked after appearing to throw shade on Steph’s MVP award. “I made the mistake by even answering the question,” James said.

Who does James aim his various enigmatic social media missives at? Who does he glare at on the court? WHO DOES HE GLARE AT IN HIS POSTGAME INTERVIEWS AFTER WINS?!?! Only his true rivals, of course.