A couple of different and interesting trend lines are converging in the NBA right now. First off, we’re pretty close to Adam Silver as the Commish, which is notable for two reasons: (1) CEO successions usually suck in the modern world, but the NBA is doing this pretty seamlessly and (2) David Stern has run the show since 1984, which is an extremely long time, so his exit is, of course, a story. At the same time, we have some new developments in the LeBron James-Kevin Durant dynamic; James was jealous of how many shots Durant hoisted, Durant brushed it off (“LeBron can do whatever he wants”), and then James promised a big game against the Wizards mid-week — but he was held to 25 points and the Heat lost to a sub-.500 team. What happened next? Oh, nada mas. Kevin Durant went out and dropped 54 in a game against the Warriors last night, pitting two teams who would currently face each other in Round 1 of the Western playoffs.
All these things come together in an interesting way because the argument has been made that the current NBA needs more rivalries, which was a hallmark of the first 10-20 years of Stern’s tenure. Think about it: Pistons-Bulls, Pistons-Knicks, Lakers-Celtics (huge one), Spurs-Lakers, Heat-Knicks, Lakers-Blazers (less so), Jordan-entirety of Western Conference, Bulls-Knicks, Pistons-Heat, Lakers-Kings, Mavericks-Spurs, etc, etc. I’ve missed a few and those weren’t in chronological order, but they were all classic in their own right. On the individual front, you had an apex of Magic-Bird (responsible for 8 Finals in the 1980s) and then a sub-apex of Jordan vs. everyone and Shaq vs. Duncan. In the modern-era NBA, there are a couple of tangible rivalries: Clippers-Warriors is getting pretty ugly, and Heat-Pacers is emergent. The top of the Western Conference is cluttered, and you get the sense that Thunder-Spurs has an element of rivalry to it (but it could be construed as “old” vs. “new” guard, too) as does Thunder-Rockets.
Part of the issue here is twofold. First off, the Heat have appeared in the last three Finals. They’ve lost (to Dallas) and won (vs. OKC and San Antonio). As such, they’ve never played the same team twice in the Finals, and it’s been three stylistically different squads from the same general region of America. If OKC were to get back to the Finals this year and play the Heat, the notion of a “rivalry” might develop more. Second issue is that a more natural rival for the Heat right now might be the Pacers, but there’s no true individual foil for LeBron in that situation, and after Magic-Bird and Shaq-Duncan and all that, our brains want the ultimate player (James) to have a direct foil. Paul George isn’t ready for that stage (or well-known enough among casual fans). LeBron James and Paul Pierce was a fun individual tussle, but now Pierce is older and on a non-contender, so that aspect is different.
This brings us to James and Durant, who appear to be natural foils in terms of productivity, scoring titles, involvement with teammates, all that. And they’ve met once in the Finals, and they’re (relatively) close in age, and it seems like something that could dominate the NBA for 5 or 6 more years, right? Their similarities are amazing! The problem might be … the whole thing might be forced. We have this quote from LeBron, for example, in a 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated:
“I know there is someone, somewhere, trying to take my spot. And I know where he is too. He’s in Oklahoma. He’s my inspiration because I see the direction he’s headed, and it’s the same direction I’m headed. I know his mind-set, and he knows mine. It’s a collision course. We’re driving one another.”
OK, so that’s something.
But then there’s the whole notion that their rivalry is too much rooted in friendship (see the video at the top for an example). Durant addressed this before the playoffs last spring:
“I don’t watch a lot of other basketball away from the gym,” Durant says. “But I do look at LeBron’s box score. I want to see how many points, rebounds and assists he had, and how he shot from the field. If he had 30 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, I can tell you exactly how he did it, what type of shots he made and who he passed to.” Durant and James take flak for their friendship, but it is based on a mutual appreciation of the craft. They aren’t hanging out at the club. They are feverishly one-upping each other from afar. “People see two young black basketball players at the top of their game and think we should clash,” Durant says. “They want the conflict. They want the hate. They forget Bird cried for Magic. A friend was getting on me about this recently, and I said, ‘Calm down. I’m not taking it easy on him. Don’t you know I’m trying to destroy the guy every time I go on the court?’ ”
OK, so that’s something.
Some people, including The Atlantic, believe this could morph into Bird-Magic.
The NBA has come a long way — that Business Insider link at the top about Stern and Silver notes that as recently as 1981 (post-Magic/Bird entering the league), CBS was still showing the NBA Finals on tape delay to make room for stuff like The Waltons. You can argue that it’s come that far (but still lags the NFL, obviously) for a couple of reasons: shrewd business moves, franchise protection, international exposure and expansion, and then, yes — the on-court product driven by rivalries and superstars. The best thing that Adam Silver could hope for in his first couple of years is that Russell Westbrook gets and stays healthy, the Spurs start to fall off a bit, and with the exception of maybe one year where the Pacers get through, we have 2-3 more Thunder-Heat Finals matchups as LeBron quests for five/six (to get up in that Kobe/MJ air) and Durant quests for one. That would propel the NBA even further. The 2012 Finals was only a five-game series, and Game 5 was viewed by over 18 million people. Every game was viewed by north of 15 million people. By contrast, the 2013 Finals — Heat/Spurs — was a much more dramatic series (went the full 7) and only the back two games went north of 20 million. A full-7 of LeBron and Durant could potentially clear 30 million total viewers, which the NBA has never done since the Finals shifted to ESPN/ABC.
In short, it’s time for this to become the norm:
And although it doesn’t involve LeBron (rather, involves Wade), I’ll put this here because it’s a really cool ad: