They were two young stars with unique and special abilities on the basketball court. They had recently played in a high-attention scholastic contest against each other. They were both selected in the same draft.
But while the relationship between Bird and Johnson is dramatized in a new Broadway play, Anthony and James meet for the 15th time in their careers Sunday, and do so without much fanfare.
James and Anthony first met in a USA developmental camp in 2001. Much like how Johnson raved about Bird after they played together on a college All-Star team playing in an international tournament, James couldn’t stop talking about Anthony.
The two squared off in a high school showcase game the following year that pitted the player regarded as the best senior in the country (Anthony) against the one that was the best junior in the country (James), a game Anthony’s team would win.
After Anthony spent a year at Syracuse and James finished his high school career, both were selected in the 2003 NBA draft, James first overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Anthony third overall to the Denver Nuggets.
The rivalry was supposed to take off from there. Both were top draft picks and successful scorers. They both played small forward and could match up against each other.
The similarities continue throughout their careers as both played together on the previous gold medal-winning Olympic team and inspired much dislike from fans after the ways both players went about changing teams.
The rivalry, however, always felt forced—unnatural.
The first game against each other would be a perfect indication of how the rivalry would develop over the years.
The hype for the first NBA game against each other was high, but it was for a meaningless game in early November in which both players failed to really make an impact.
Anthony played 39 minutes but only scored 14 points on 6-for-17 shooting. James played 41 minutes and did have 11 rebounds and seven assists, but he only scored seven points and shot a measly 27 percent from the field.
The Nuggets won that game, 93-89.
The Magic and Bird rivalry started off so strong because they were thrust into an already existing rivalry that was larger than themselves.
The Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers rivalry was an already established rivalry. They were the most successful franchises in NBA history that had some memorable battles for the NBA championship, as well as individual player subplots. There was a rivalry before Magic and Bird and it continued after them.
Denver and Cleveland were only linked together because of James and Anthony. They haven’t met with much on the line, and with both superstars moving on to new teams, there’s not much too exciting about the matchup now.
Johnson and Bird motivated each other because they both knew they would have to go through the other to win the championship, something both had the most burning desire to do multiple times. With Anthony and James, winning just hasn’t been part of the equation.
Neither player has a ring, and while LeBron has lost in the NBA Finals twice, Anthony hasn’t been nearly as “successful” in the playoffs as James has. Anthony has played in the playoffs every year since his rookie season, but has only made it out of the first round once (in the 2008-09 season, the Nuggets made it to the Western Conference Finals before losing to the Lakers, 4-2).
With James on the Miami Heat and Anthony on the New York Knicks, both are now in the Eastern Conference, and the possibility of them playing each other in the playoffs increases, including this year where a first-round matchup seems like a strong possibility.
If the two can play each other with greater stakes, the rivalry may intensify, but until then the matchup will be second-rate.
While Anthony’s teams haven’t matched the success of James’ teams, Anthony also hasn’t achieved the individual honors that LeBron has.
Over his career, James has averaged more points, rebounds, assists and blocks per game and also has a better shooting percentage than Anthony. James has been on the All-Defensive First Team three times while Anthony is criticized for not taking his defensive responsibilities seriously. James won the Rookie of the Year Award the first year both players were in the NBA and has been an All-Star three more times.
James has outscored Anthony 10 of the 14 times the two have met. He is a two-time league MVP (with a good chance to win the award again this year) while Anthony has never won the award. In fact, Anthony has finished in the top 10 in MVP voting only once in his career (sixth in 2010).
Finally, do these players even buy into the idea that they are rivals?
The NBA, for better or worse, has become quite the “buddy-buddy” league, where players have known each other for long periods of time and are good friends. With the recent phenomenon of creating “super teams,” where the best players team up with other elite players in an effort to win a championship together, the superstars in the league today have been criticized for not having the competitive drive to want to beat each other.
If James and Anthony don’t consider themselves rivals, then how can the public see it that way?
James and Anthony are obviously two talented basketball players. They bring a lot of star power to the game and are certainly entertaining to watch play on the same court together.
But the rivalry that was marketed by the NBA when they first entered the league never really grew further than that.