Rivalries are often what makes sports great. The Yankees and the Sox, Ali and Frazier, Ohio State and Michigan, and so on. There is something thrilling about the feeling that a certain game means a little bit more — or maybe a lot more — than all the rest. You can throw the records out, as they say.
We love rivalries so much that, as with many sports narratives, we sometimes try to manufacture them. But great rivalries were never the invention of sports media executives. The great ones, the ones that really do transcend the sport, were born naturally. They are the products of years of heated competition, and often genuine animosity.
For some time, it seemed that LeBron James and Kevin Durant were destined to be the NBA’s next great rivalry, in the mold of Bird and Magic or Russell and Wilt. For much of the last decade, they have been the two best players in the league. Between them, they have won five MVP awards since 2009. From 2011 through 2014, they finished first and second in the voting every season.
And yet, the rivalry never quite materialized. At least not in the way that most fans probably wanted it to. They haven’t had any iconic duels, or heated exchanges. They’ve both just kind of gone about their careers, with their paths crossing only occasionally.
Prior to this season, they have only met in the NBA Finals once, in 2012, despite LeBron spending his entire career in the East and Durant spending his in the West. It was in that series that LeBron captured his first title, as his Heat dispensed with the Thunder in five games. LeBron averaged better than 28 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists per game, and was named the MVP of the series. Durant led all scorers with 30.6 points per game and shot 54.8 percent from the floor in a losing effort.
At the time, it would have been a safe bet that the two stars would meet in the Finals many more times in the coming years. Both teams seemed poised to dominate their respective conferences for the foreseeable future.
But in basketball, as in everything, nothing should be taken for granted. Oklahoma City decided to trade James Harden to Houston that summer. While LeBron continued to dominate the East, Durant’s Thunder were not able to conquer the West again.
Even without consistently meeting in the Finals, the two could have developed a rivalry over the course of the regular season. But their meetings have been too one-sided to ever generate much more than fabricated hype.
In their 18 regular season meetings, LeBron’s teams are 14-4 against Durant’s. When the Warriors pounded the Cavs back in January, it was the first time Durant beat LeBron since the Thunder bested the Heat back in January of 2014.
Interestingly, both players have actually posted very similar numbers in their head-to-head regular season meetings:
Despite the fact that Durant has played well in these matchups, his failure to win against LeBron is one of the reasons he’s never been considered better than the NBA’s second-best player. In 2013, he famously complained to Sports Illustrated that he was “tired of being second.” He did win his first MVP that season, but the next year saw the rise of Steph Curry and the Warriors, which effectively closed the window for Durant to lead the Thunder back to the Finals. He tried to beat them, and came close, but couldn’t. So he joined them.
Now LeBron and Durant’s rivalry, or lack thereof, is merely a subplot to the very legitimate rivalry between the Cavs and Warriors. On paper, LeBron and Durant always seemed like natural rivals. In reality, this era of basketball will likely be remembered more for the friction between LeBron and Curry, or LeBron and Draymond Green. Or perhaps just LeBron and the entire Golden State team.
It’s not too late for Durant to change that. While the Warriors have plenty of firepower, they will likely turn to Durant in crunch time. LeBron will most likely be tasked with guarding him.
The rivalry that was teased in 2012 could still come to fruition. We could see the two battle in an epic scoring duel down the stretch of a crucial game, or get in each other’s faces at some point.
And maybe, just maybe, LeBron and Durant will end up squaring off in the Finals a bunch of times before it is all said and done after all.