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Steph and LeBron’s Relationship May Be More Cordial Now—but It’s No Less Competitive

From four consecutive Finals showdowns to the NBA play-in tournament in 2021, Steph and LeBron have grown through their head-to-head matchups. As they face each other this time, though, it’s clear their relationship has shifted from early feuds to a mature respect.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

LeBron James was already a four-time All-Star the day he saw Steph Curry play at Davidson. There’s a very 2000s-style video from that outing in which LeBron is behind the wheel of a car and answering questions about Curry’s performance. In it, LeBron mentions that Curry was taught to play by his dad—former NBA player Dell Curry—and that he thinks Steph will eventually become a good professional player, too. At that point, LeBron may have thought that he’d face Curry in the NBA one day. But it would have been impossible to predict the level that both he and Curry would reach—and the fact that they’d go on to face each other in 22 NBA Finals games.

Individually and collectively, Steph and LeBron have made the modern NBA what it is both on and off the court. Curry’s league-altering ascension in the middle of the decade jump-started the 3-point revolution, and LeBron’s reliable greatness has pushed the league forward for close to two decades. Every NBA Finals in the past 10 years has featured at least one of them. Four of those Finals featured both. And between the two players, they’ve earned seven of the 10 possible titles in that span. So it’s fitting that, in the year of our Lord 2021, LeBron is somehow defending another championship, Curry just had arguably his best season ever, and the two are facing off once again—this time in the league’s play-in tournament, with the winner advancing to the playoffs.

“For our paths to continue to cross in our careers is pretty unique and pretty cool,” LeBron said on Sunday night after the Lakers’ last game of the regular season. He added that he thought Curry should be the league’s MVP. “Steph has had, in my opinion, the best season all year.”

There’s been a noticeable shift in the vibes between Steph and LeBron this season. Their comments about each other used to be spicy, but now they’re almost saccharine. And their interactions have been especially wholesome. At the All-Star Game, the two tossed chalk in the air together, then tossed each other a bunch of passes that made it seem like they’d been waiting to play together their entire careers (even though LeBron, as All-Star team captain, could have picked Curry in other years). And they weren’t shy about expressing their admiration for each other online, either.

Like most rivals, it appears LeBron and Steph have gone through the many stages of competitiveness—confrontation, contempt, animosity, and begrudging acceptance—and now seem to have adopted an attitude of mutual recognition and respect. It makes sense: They have both changed the sport and are now on the other side of 30, equipped with more perspective and appreciation for the fact that they bring the best out of each other. It’s almost heartwarming; that is, until the game starts and they both try to win at all costs.

“It’ll be a different scenario, but another chapter in it,” Curry said Sunday after the matchup was set. “At the end of the day, you expect greatness. That’s the part I’ve enjoyed so much about playing in the Finals against him. … Those games that matter, it just brings out another level of intensity and excitement and a sense of urgency about it, because you know how good you have to play to win games like that.”

Curry was once thought to be one of the figureheads of the post-LeBron generation, a group that featured players like Derrick Rose, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden, who were all supposed to signify the end of James’s dominance. But LeBron has lasted so long that Steph is now considered a veteran peer. They have developed an entire ecosystem and narrative around their duels in part because Curry has had the kind of rivalry with LeBron that neither Kobe Bryant nor Durant had. Curry’s rise interrupted LeBron’s reign. He was an unexpected interjection into what LeBron thought would be a storybook ending to his career in Cleveland. The tension that came from that reality was palpable throughout most of the four consecutive Warriors-Cavs Finals from 2015 to 2018, and it eventually spilled out onto the floor and into reporters’ microphones.

In 2015, after Curry won his first MVP award, LeBron talked about Curry in Sports Illustrated without naming him. “I hear the chatter about who is the best player in the league,” James said. “I’m the best player in the world.”

In the Finals that year, the first between the two players, LeBron went out with a desire to remind Curry that it was still his league. They jawed at each other in Game 3 and had to be separated by a referee. And throughout the series, LeBron seemed hell-bent on proving that Curry was stoppable.

After the Warriors won, and Curry continued to ascend as one of the league’s stars, the battle also became a shoe war. By the time Golden State finished off the greatest regular season of all time in 2016 and Curry won his second MVP (in unanimous fashion, something LeBron had never done), there were questions about whether Curry would sell more Under Armour shoes than LeBron sold Nikes. LeBron, at least publicly, praised Curry, and even defended him from former players who criticized his style. But he also seemed to bristle at the fact that Curry won another MVP over him—especially unanimously.

“I think sometimes the word ‘valuable’ or best player of the year, you can have different results,” LeBron said, before adding, “You know, that’s not taking anything from anyone that’s ever won the award.”

The subtext was obvious, and Curry responded: “I’ve gotten really good at ignoring people, that’s been the theme of the last two years.” LeBron would go on to say that he made a mistake by answering the question about MVP because “he knew how it was going to go.” But that didn’t change the impact of LeBron’s comments, nor did it make for a calmer Finals rematch.

Ahead of those 2016 Finals, LeBron downplayed his rivalry with Curry. “You guys make rivals,” James said of the media. “I think it’s great for the sport. It’s great for all sports. I don’t think me and Steph, when you talk about rivalries, you talk about Carolina-Duke, you talk about Ohio State–Michigan. It’s hard to say LeBron and Steph.”

Curry called the pitting of the two of them against each other “annoying.”

“That’s not what I’m playing for, to be the face of the NBA or to be this or that or to take LeBron’s throne or whatever,” Curry said. “You know, I’m trying to chase rings, and that’s all I’m about. So that’s where the conversation stops for me.”

Except that’s not where the conversation stopped for everyone else, because on and off the court, the two continued to act like there was no love lost between them. Things got chippier in that 2016 series, with LeBron blocking Curry several times, sneering at him, trash-talking him, and in a couple of cases, staring him down. It felt personal. By Game 7, Curry dished it right back and got in LeBron’s face. But LeBron got the final word, coming back from down 3-1 in that historic series and wearing an “Ultimate Warrior” T-shirt at the parade that he said was not a Golden State dig. Sure.

If the LeBron-Steph animosity peaked in 2016, then what started the dilution was the addition of Durant to the mix. Once Durant left Oklahoma City to join the Warriors—right after losing to them in the 2016 Western Conference Finals—the focus shifted away from LeBron vs. Steph and toward LeBron vs. Durant. KD’s choice was more polarizing and tantalizing to discuss than whatever was going on between LeBron and Steph, and his talent level and addition to an already otherworldly team made the two Finals Durant played in feel like foregone conclusions. This not only cauterized some of the Steph vs. LeBron talk—though the two did have another dustup in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals—it also led to LeBron switching teams again.

Now, though, Durant is in Brooklyn, the Thunder and Rockets—both longtime foes of the Warriors—are tanking, and LeBron is in L.A. with Anthony Davis. So much in the league has changed that the 3-1 lead Halloween decorations and “Quickie” T-shirts feel like a time capsule of a past life. But the duels between LeBron and Curry are still happening.

The narrative has always been, and still is, too neat. Steph is the one who has played for and won with only one franchise his whole career; LeBron is the league’s preeminent mover and shaker, hopscotching between Cleveland, Miami, and L.A. and turning them all into winners.

Their personas and styles of play are different, but the fact that they keep getting in each other’s way is proof of their similarities. The two have always been chasing the same things: winning and longevity. And the evolution of their relationship, or at least the public aspects of it, seems to show that they see that now too—perhaps more than ever.

“There’s always been a level of respect that’s beyond the game of basketball,” LeBron said Sunday.

After all these years of matchups between Steph and LeBron, the league couldn’t have dreamed up a better blockbuster game to introduce the play-in concept. The NBA is changing, but for now, its two most notable faces are not planning on going away.