The story of rivalries has been told since the dawn of time. As we thrive off the competition, the idea of seeing head-to-head battles awakens the storyteller in all of us.
Rivalries can be created from anywhere. Some are geographic (England and France will hate each other until the end of time), some have built a level of personal history, and some have to do with the right time, place and circumstance.
The NBA has been filled with rivalries created by two forces arriving at the right time and place. Like forces of matter, Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell collided as the birth of the NBA. Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird showed up decades later and saved the NBA. Now, Stephen Curry vs. LeBron James is defining the NBA. As the two meet in the Western Conference Semifinals Tuesday night for the fifth time in the playoffs (the first time not in the NBA Finals), we’ll see the next battle in a rivalry that has carved its legacy into the modern era of basketball.
While Wilt vs. Russell and Magic vs. Bird share a rivalry because of their similarities, the beauty in James vs. Curry is defined by how different they are.
James was ‘The Chosen One.’ The first overall pick of the 2003 NBA Draft, he was considered one of the best prospects in high school basketball history. Chiseled by the gods to play basketball, LeBron looks more titan than man. He’s been compared to Michael Jordan since he was 15 years old. Throughout that time, James had the expectations of the world on his shoulders, and every step of the way backed up the hype to cement himself as one of the best. With a blend of physicality and basketball genius never seen before in the league’s history.
Each era is defined by a particular player, and James made the wing the key position in the NBA today. If a team doesn’t have a wing who can score from anywhere, play physically and create shots for others, then they better find a player who can guard that kind of player. Every team for decades has built rosters with ways to beat James, most of which have fallen short.
It has been hard to pinpoint an exact rival for James. With 20 years of basketball experience, his career has passed through so many different eras of the sport. But while other players play in a similar position or have given him tests, no one has pushed James to his absolute limits like Curry and the Warriors. James had the defining moment of his NBA career against Curry. He is the biggest rival of his career.
Then there’s Curry, the unassuming, skinny, ‘Baby-Faced Assassin’ of the NBA. Curry didn’t have the accolades (besides being the son of former NBA player Dell Curry) and grinded his way into a lottery pick and NBA career. Curry was a three-star recruit, went to Davidson, but had one thing going for him as he reached the NBA peak — he had a jump shot more perfect than the Mona Lisa.
Now the NBA leader in all-time 3-point field goals, Curry redefined modern basketball with an ability to shoot anytime, anywhere, and at any moment. When the NBA first introduced the 3-point line, most offenses weren’t sure how to incorporate it into their game. With Curry leading the way, the league has changed what seemed imaginable with pace, space and lethal shooting. From any seemingly-impossible angle, Curry has managed to make a good shot out of it.
For Curry, the brilliance of his game is how replicable it seems to the average eye. Players have been called the next Steph, only to fall short of those expectations for several reasons. With his background as a lower recruit, Curry learned to play off-ball unlike most star players coming into the league. While some players have come close to his ability to shoot, it’s never quite been the same as Curry has. Curry is the greatest unicorn in NBA history, and so far, his shot has never been matched.
Of course, everyone knows how the first four matchups in the NBA Finals are. Curry and the upstart Golden State Warriors, confident after a 67-win season led by Curry’s first of back-to-back MVP seasons, dispatched the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games.
At the time, James was on the path of cementing himself among the greatest players in history. With five straight finals appearances, the loss put him at 2-4 in championship series for his career. People were beginning to talk about how Curry had taken the throne as the best player in basketball.
Next year, James took that personally. Carrying himself with a disregard for mere mortals, the ‘King’ came back down 3-1 in 2016 to win his third NBA title (first in Cleveland). It was one of the most incredible series in NBA history, with James averaging 30/11/9.
It wasn’t just that LeBron won the series. He led a Cavaliers team over the 73-9 Golden State Warriors, led by Steph and his unanimous 2016 MVP award back from the brink. Golden State did not have two straight losses all year but lost three straight, with Curry having a lackluster game seven to make matters worse. With the personal series now 1-1, the rivalry was on.
After the 2016 collapse, the Warriors took advantage of the NBA’s salary cap boom to add Kevin Durant, himself a top-20 player in the history of the game, to win the next two championships with relative ease. The narratives changed, with James seemingly having no chance to defeat one of the best-assembled teams in league history.
The rivalry seemed dormant, with James moving to the Lakers and winning a championship in the bubble with Curry injured. It was James’ fourth ring. Curry responded with his fourth ring, with a retooled Warriors team winning his fourth ring in 2022. At the time, James was stuck in Russell Westbrook hell. His Lakers team wasn’t close to competitive. The NBA world was ready to move on to younger, fresher rivals, even if those players weren’t ready for the expectations left by Curry and James.
That’s what makes 2023 feel so special. LeBron vs. Curry was supposed to be dead. The story was written, and both sides delivered their punches which ended in a draw (four rings each, Steph has the 15-7 advantage in playoff record, 25-18 overall).
Instead, it’s one final time for two top-10 players in league history to go head-to-head. At this point, the two players aren’t battling for legacy. James will always be considered one of the best ever, with Curry shortly behind him. The only difference between the rivalry then and the rivalry now is the attitude they share toward each other. Much like Magic and Bird later in their careers, the previous animosity between ‘The Chef’ and ‘The King’ is now a mutual form of respect.
This time, the NBA community can enjoy the matchup one last time. Like Manning vs. Brady in 2015, Federer vs. Nadal at Wimbledon and the French Open in 2019, it’s two of the great competitors that defined an era of basketball and will be the heroes for the next.
Eventually, the league will move on. James and Curry will have to retire one day, but for one more time, at least, we get to see them battle with one more shot at bragging rights and a chance to win a fifth NBA title.