Back in the late 70s early 80s the NBA was a league in turmoil. Corporate sponsorship was waning, drugs and other issues were huge concerns and even the NBA Finals were aired on tape delay. Along came a charismatic, always smiling showman out of Michigan State named Earvin Johnson and an unassuming, deadly sharpshooter out of Indiana State named Larry Bird. The one-on-one rivalry between the two superstars, famously nick-named “Magic” and “The Hick from French Lick” respectively, almost immediately saved the league. One was flashy while one was not. One was brash, while the other was quietly confident. One was an orchestrator while the other was an unstoppable shooter. The theater that these two all-time greats created for a 6-7 year stretch was something that has rarely been seen in all of sports and we may be on the verge of witnessing another such rivalry.
We’ve seen Ali and Frazier in boxing, the Great One and Super Mario in the NHL and Federer/Nadal in tennis but Magic and Bird takes the cake. What makes theirs the best one-on-one rivalry ever, in my opinion, is twofold.
1- They were in opposite conferences which allowed them to meet multiple times in the NBA finals and battle for all the marbles.
2- In the NBA, star players are on the court for the majority of the game and play on both the offensive and defensive end.
These 2 principles are in place right now as another epic competition brews- LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Lebron James, now 29-years-old is a 4-time league MVP, a 2-time NBA Champion and a 2-time finals MVP. Kevin Durant, at a very young 25, has already led the league in scoring 4 times, has been on the all-NBA 1st team 4 times and lead his team to the finals at just 23. While LeBron has been the consensus best player in the world for about 5 years now, what KD has done this season has significantly closed the gap, so much so, that most agree that he is the front runner to take that MVP trophy away from The Chosen One.
Whether or not the Slim Reaper is able to rip that award from the grasp of LeBron’s fingers is yet to be seen (with 26-28 games still left in the season) but it has become abundantly clear that The King now has an equal in the league and with both of them still so young, the possibility of continual clashes is very high. They have already met in the NBA finals when the Heat beat the Thunder in 5 in 2012 so that part of it has already stared. Earlier this season, KD, who now wants to be called “The Servant” went into Miami and blitzed the defending champs for a 17 point win. This past Thursday, Lebron and company exacted their revenge by blasting OKC by 22 on their home floor. Overall, the Heat are now 14-4 against the Thunder since ‘Bron’s arrival in South Beach but with the core of OKC quite a bit younger than the Heat who are one of the oldest teams in the league, it’s not a stretch to predict that the tide could soon turn.
Both of these great players are friends. They have been known to work out together in the off season and up until now they have had a very cordial, mutual respect for each other on the court. If Durant is able to win that MVP trophy though, that could all change. LeBron feels like he is still the best player in the world and he is not at all ready to relinquish that title. He was recently quoted as saying that Durant won’t have pressure to win “until I retire” which is a definite right hook to the body. KD has responded saying that he’s not worried about James and just wants to win, but we all know better. Last year, he made it a point to say that he was tired of finishing second. Second in MVP voting, runner-up in the finals, consensus second best player in the league. He wants to be on top. Badly. And that insatiable hunger to succeed and overcome is what will take this conflict to the next level.
Both teams will have challenges in their respective conference playoffs to get to the finals. The Heat will have to get past an Indiana Pacers team they have beaten in each of the past two seasons and poses specific problems with their size. The Thunder will have to wade through a ridiculously difficult West where they will have to beat at least 2 of the San Antonio Spurs, the L.A. Clippers, the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors. That being said, the odds are that these two teams are headed for a finals rematch and once that happens this rivalry will start to reach that Magic/Bird level. Both of these young players have broken the mold. We have never seen anyone with the combination of size, strength, speed and skill of LeBron and we have never seen a player at 6’11 with the shooting guard skill-set of Durant. Their uniqueness is another intriguing aspect of what’s to come. Is it too early to have expectations this lofty for these two stars? Maybe, but the fact that they have both shown the drive, the focus and desire to continually improve their games, I think a Magic/Bird type back-and-forth is extremely doable. When it’s all said and done, I can’t wait to see which one of these future Hall-of-Famers will be wearing the crown and which one will get served.